As India struggles to recover from the shock and the shame of the savage gang-rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, it should turn to Benares, not necessarily the city itself, but what it represents, the rich heritage of Indian thought and culture, created by its philosophers, poets, writers, musicians and artists. It has been called "the spiritual capital of India, the city of lights and learning". Unfortunately, what makes modern India proud is not Benares but Bollywood, that factory of banality which produces the occasional good work. India alone is not thus afflicted. The whole of modern civilisation needs to turn to its enlightened city, that place of illumination provided by the best minds of every nation that ever lived.
If not, we will increasingly bend our head in shame at the eruptions of the dark horror always lurking beneath the surface of society. We saw it in the Indian atrocity and also in the massacre of innocents in a US primary school weeks ago. Never to be left out, in Trinidad and Tobago, a father bit chunks of flesh off the body of his baby daughter, days old; and within five years, our small population produced 2,256 murders and almost 4,000 sexual offences.
As with slavery, world wars, the holocaust, ethnic cleansing, rape as a weapon of war, terrorism, and so much more, we are always reminded of the paradox of the human species: capable of astounding beauty in art, literature, music and ideas as well as the ultimate in ugliness when the dark spirits prevail. "Each human heart is a Kurukshetra, where there is a constant battle between the forces of good and evil."
Without a civilising influence, the beast within surfaces. We should therefore be very wary of our modern environment. Throughout human history, we have had wars and carnage, poverty, disease and ignorance; but brutality and insensitivity seems more pervasive now, more ingrained in human society than previously. Modern man has made tremendous advances in science, technology and the creation of wealth; nations and individuals have progressed materially and socially; but we live now with greater uncertainty and tensions than ever before. There is an inner desperation everywhere, in countries and people, as the fight for survival has become extremely acute in a world driven by the fiercest competition among all nations and individuals for resources and opportunities. The rat race has been globalised, with everyone struggling to keep abreast, stay afloat, not left behind. Standing still now means stagnation. No time for contemplation or reflection. Worst still, we must not only keep up with the Joneses but with the very machines we produce. They drive us now. We are becoming like them, man and machine merging. If there is a future to dissect the entrails of the present, they would find no heart within the beast of modern civilisation.
For our world is characterised by dominant materialism; despoilation of nature and the environment; decline in heroic exemplars and virtuous leadership; persistence of mass poverty and ignorance; education undernourished by marginalisation of the humanities; fanaticism and fundamentalism; harshness, alienation, a corrosive commercialisation of life and much more that makes people beastly and soulless, suffocates beauty and prevents refinement. Critically, most are deprived of the "shaping influence" of nature. Therefore the universal mass of modern humans, billions on the planet, have been nurtured in cultural and spiritual squalor. This is reflected in much of modern entertainment, music and movies, mass produced, to which the majority of modern humanity gravitate, revealing the symbiosis between product and consumer. Sociologists have explored the influence of popular entertainment on the depravity of modern life that shocks the world only when it explodes on to the headlines, reminding us of the beast lurking within.
Values determine behaviour and lifestyle. For the billions who remain trapped by poverty in urban slums and stagnant countrysides, or inching upwards in the middle class, the main focus is survival. What time and energy do such people have left for development of the mind? Even the marvel and miracle of the Internet and information technology cannot help much. For these are mere tools to be used or misused. The key is consciousness. How are we using this fantastic opportunity of cyberspace for creative communication and for knowledge and enlightenment? Are we engaging in the same old habits and ideas, expanding the staleness and entrenching narrowness? Do the young, most adept with the technology, surf for a deeper understanding of themselves, their world and their society? So many travel on the information superhighway at cyberspeed. Where do they go? Do they visit the enlightened planet of cyberspace where the minds of the masters reside? Do they know that place?
If they did, they would come to understand that the only real journey is inwards. Regrettably, most human beings die without having embarked on that voyage. And the past repeats itself every generation. How many young people today are being sensitised enough by their education to become sufficiently disturbed by human behaviour and moved, like Hamlet, to ruminate in sombre soliloquy: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a God! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" If such philosophical enquiry can grow in every nation on earth we may tame the beast within. More of mankind would visit the enlightened city and positively influence life on this planet. We would then have more of Benares and less of Bollywood in India and everywhere else.
• Ralph Maraj is a former