Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Sister Nivedita on Civic Ideal

Of our two great epics it may be said that while the pervading interests of the Mahabharata are heroic and national, those of the Ramayana are mainly personal and civic. It is more than likely, indeed, that Valmiki's poem sprang out of a deliberate wish to glorify the beloved city of Ayodhya, by painting the mythic history of its earliest sovereigns. The city, and everything in it, fills the poet with delight. He spends himself in descriptions of its beauty on great festivals. He loses himself in the thought of its palaces, its arches, and its towers. But it is when he comes to paint Lanka, that we reap the finest fruit of that civic sense which Ayodhya has developed in him. There is nothing, in all Indian literature, of greater significance for the modern Indian mind, than the scene in which Hanuman contends in the darkness with the woman who guards the gates, saying, in muffled tones, "I am the city of Lanka."

We have here what is the fundamental need of the civic spirit, that we should think of our city as a being, a personality, sacred, beautiful, and beloved. This, to Rama and his people, was Ayodhya. This, to Ravana and his, was Lanka. And Valmiki could look with both their eyes, for he, in common with all the men of his great age, was in the habit of relating himself instinctively to his home, his sovereign, and his group. The city as a whole is but a visible symbol of this life behind it. Nor does this mean only of the life at present behind it. It is determined by the sum of the energy of all its creators, past as well as present. There is even, in a sense, an ideal city, in which the labours of all future builders have to be taken into account. Why is Lucknow different from Calcutta, Bombay from Benares, Delhi from Ahmedabad? Looking for the answer to such a question, do we not perceive, finally and conclusively, that the seen is but the sign and symbol of the unseen, that the material is but the masks of the spiritual, that things arc but the precipitate of thought? Why is Paris or Rome so different from Amritsar? The history of ages and continents lies in the answer to that question. The highest visible symbol of human aspiration may perhaps be an altar. The most perfect visible symbol of our unity is undoubtedly a city.