The Buddhist Understanding of Civilization

By Rev. Upali
Buddhistdoor Global | 2013-04-26 |
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Editor's note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 13, September 2009.

Venerable A. P. Buddhadatta in his English to P
?li dictionary gives two P?li words for ‘civilization’: si??h?c?ra, and sabbhat?.[1] Although these words appear as ingenious constructions by Venerable Buddhadatta, they sustain the legacy of a long tradition of philosophy and thinking pattern of South Asian mind. By ‘South Asian Mind’ I refer to the spiritual tradition that has the influence of ethics defined in Sanskrit N?ti??stra, morality as expounded in Buddhist literature, and the intellectual temperament of the thinkers of this region.
Although used to represent the idea of ‘civilization’ the etymological and traditional definitions of these words supplement much more to that. These words are contributions to P?li language by modern scholars. It is interesting that although P?li and Sanskrit are parent languages of many South Asian languages, at present the speakers of the latter are influencing the former. In other words, to cope with modern times P?li and Sanskrit scholars at present invent words attempting not to harm the thinking pattern of past scholars, but, being influenced by the languages they speak. A Sinhala speaker, for example, would be writing Sinhalized P?li or Sanskrit; thus is the case with other languages of the region.

Both the words are synonymous in meaning and concern human behavior. Of the two ‘si??h?c?ra’ [gentle or polite behavior.] seems to me as purely Venerable Buddhadatta’s invention. Venerable Buddhadatta might have considered, it is natural to think, ‘civilization’ as inherently linked to polite human ‘behavior’. As such, it is synonymous to many other terms rendering similar idea as: sad?c?ras?las?lav?dhamm?c?radhammika etc.

Sabbhat?’ is more potent and has more textual support than ‘si??h?c?ra’. The etymology of the term is clearer from its Sanskrit counterpart ‘sabhyat?’ which is directly transliterated into Bengali and Sinhala also to define ‘civilization’. The word ‘sabhyat?’ is formed adding suffix ‘-t?’ to the word ‘sabhya’. Sabhya is derived from the word ‘sabh?’ which has a wider application than its general meaning. Generally it is used to mean a ‘meeting, assembly or congregation’ of some group of people for special purpose. Thus political or any other meeting, in the present use of the term, is a ‘sabh?’. ‘sabhya’ is the adjective formed from ‘sabh?’ to refer to a person who is qualified to attend such an assembly. The suffix ‘-t?’ is added to give an abstract sense to ‘sabhya’. Antonym for sabhya is formed adding negative suffix ‘a’ to ‘sabhya’ as ‘asabhya’ [P?li asabbha]. In the past, Indians had a high esteem for ‘sabh?’. Only educated folks or pa??its as they were known, Brahmins, kings or royal personages and accomplished sages were allowed to attend a ‘sabh?’. An uneducated person who does not have  any formal education or standard way of doing things, was not qualified to attend any sort of intellectual interactions in the society [sabh?] of higher castes. Hence that person is an ‘asabhya’ [in P?li asabbha]. Even a ‘sabhya’ person who behaves indecently can be called an ‘asabbhya’. It is clear from the above account that although ‘sabbhat?’ and ‘si??h?c?ra’ are used to connote or define the sense of ‘civilization’, the P?li lexicographer had an enhanced connotation in mind. Unfortunately, the idea of continental or cultural ‘civilization’ has overpowered the original meaning of ‘sabhyat?’ or ‘sabbhat?’.

It must be noted that the words ‘sabbha’ or ‘sabbhat?’ does not appear at all in P?li Tipi?aka. Perhaps, there was no ground to use these terms to define a ‘civilization’ in its present sense. It has been noted “Both sabbha and sabbhin occur only in the negative form”.[2] We have seen that antonym of ‘sabbha’ is ‘asabbha’. It is always used to refer to repulsive behavior, language or situation. If we take sabbhat? to mean ‘civilization’, as Venerable A.P. Buddhadatta did, and sabbha to mean ‘civilized’,  then the antonyms, asabbhat? and asabbhaought to mean ‘uncivilized situation’ or, to be more accurate, ‘barbarian’. However, asabbhais used in P?li texts not to refer to barbarians, but, human beings, even ordained monks, who deviated from standard human behavior – in thought, speech or action. It is translated as ‘evil’ and ‘improper’ behavior. It is, therefore, an ideal example to show anybody can be called uncivilized depending on his behavioral decadence. Therefore, every civilization has people whose behavior is ‘uncivilized’. They do not necessarily be serious criminals. Even among the people known to be civilized, there are those who always intend to harm others. Hence, any civilization with advanced material, cultural or artistic development may boast of its achievements, but, there are certain conditions, to characterize a person or group of people as permanently ‘civilized’.
The Dhammapada says regular admonition and instruction of wise persons may help to discard the uncivilized or evil behavior [asabbha].[3] This was said referring to a group of monks who were misbehaving. In other instances asabbha is used with speaking harsh and abusive words.[4] Defining ‘asabbh?’ the commentator uses the term ‘akusaladhamm?’, compounded of ‘akusala’ and ‘dhamma’. The terms ‘akusala’ and ‘dhamm?’ covers a wide chapter in Buddhist moral philosophy. Another expression meaning the same is ‘p?pakadhamm?’. These terminologies are used to define all the evil or negative mental forces. akusaladhamma arises from ‘akusalacitta’. akusalacitta is the condition of mind overpowered by evil forces of ‘greed’, ‘hatred’, and ‘delusion’. Abhidhammic explanation covers the terminological and conceptual issues of the term ‘akusaladhamm?’ in all the probabilities. Here my attempt is to show that the use of the antonym of ‘sabbha’ in P?li literature is not simply designating a person, society or situation ‘uncivilized’ or ‘barbarian’. It is not merely referring to a barbarian or savage, but has much more to do with human morality, psychology and its relation to spirituality. Modern society has overcome barbarianism to a great extant, butasabbha people are there in most societies. Therefore, Buddhism encourages overcoming ‘asabbhat?’ along with barbarianism. Those who transformed from evil or asabbha condition, it has been shown in the commentary to the Dhammapada, had attained some spiritual attainments. The least requirements for a person to become sabbha are the five basic precepts of refraining from killing or hurting living beings, stealing or taking others’ property in improper ways, sexual misconduct, falsehood or improper use of words that bring disharmony to society, and alcoholic drinks. These are the basic requirements or constituting factors of a ‘civilization’ or sabbhat? in the Buddhist sense. Accomplishing these one subscribes in the family of a true Aryan.
At this point I emphasize that although there is wide use of the expression ‘Buddhist civilization’ it does not represent the idea of civilization in the way the Buddha expounded. This label is given by Western analysts to combine the idea of Buddhist teachings, culture, history, under one headline. Even in Buddhist civilization there are asabbh?-s people who do not follow the five fundamental principles. However, according to the process of becoming civilized, as I noted above, the term ‘civilization’ ought to imply and emphasize much more than its popular definitions. In the popular definitions the first distinction of civilization is made as opposed to barbarianism; and the second to continental, religious, linguistic, cultural divergences. Therefore, according to the Buddhism, a clash of civilizations where there is the use of weapons and demonstration of beastly brutality is turning to barbarianism [asabbhat?]. A clash of civilization ought to be within individuals: transforming them from barbarianism to humanism, from brutality to harmony, and most importantly from conflict to co-operation.

1. See, ‘civilization’ Buddhadatta, A.P. English-Pali Dictionary, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd., 1989
2. see, ‘asabbha’, P?li-English Dictionary, London: Pali Text Society,
3. Dhammapada Verse 77: Ovadeyyanus?seyya asabbh? ca niv?raye 
? hi so piyo hoti asata? hoti appiyo 
= Let him admonish, let him teach, let him forbid what is improper!--he will be beloved of the good; by the bad he will be hated. [p.23, The Dhammapada, Vol. X Part I of The Sacred Books of the East, Translated from the P
?li by F. Max Müller, Oxford: the Clarendon Press, ]
4. p.221 Milindapañho, Vol. I, [ed.]V. Trenckner, London: Pali Text Society, 1962.

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