To know the old civilization let us try to forget the present for a while and go back 2000 or 3000 years in Egypt and in ancient Knossos in Crete. The ancient civilization took root in these two countries as well as in what is called Iraq or Mesopotamia, and in China and India and Greece. Greece, perhaps, came a little later than the others. So that the civilization of India takes rank in age with its sister-civilizations of Egypt and China and Iraq. And even ancient Greece is a younger sister of these.
What happened to these ancient civilizations? Knossos is no more. Indeed, for nearly 3000 years it has been no more. The people of younger civilization of Greece came and destroyed it. The old civilization of Egypt, after a splendid history lasting for thousands of years, vanished and left no trace behind it, except the great Pyramids and the Sphinx, and the ruins of great temples and mummies and the like. Of course Egypt, the country, is still there and the river Nile flows through it as of old, and men and women live in it as in other countries. But there is no connecting link between these modern people and the old civilization of their country.
Iraq and Persia-- how many empires have flourished there and followed each other into oblivion! Babylonia and Assyria and Chaldea, to mention the oldest only. And the great cities of Babylon and Nineveh. The Old Testament in the Bible is full of the record of these people. Later, in this land of ancient history, other empires flourished, and them ceased to flourish. Here was Baghdad, the magic city of the Arabian Nights. But empires come and empires go, and the biggest and proudest of kings and emperors strut on the world's stage for a brief while only. But civilizations endure. In Iraq and Persia, however, the old civilization went utterly, even as the old civilization of Egypt.
Greece in her ancient days was great indeed, and people read even now of her glory with wonder. We stand awed and wonder-struck before the beauty of her marble statuary, and read the fragments of her old literature that have come down to us with reverence and amazement. It is said, and rightly, that modern Europe is in some ways the child of ancient Greece, so much has Europe been influenced by Greek thought and Greek ways. But the glory that was Greece, where is it now? For ages past, the old civilization has been no more, and other ways have taken its place, the Greece to-day is but a petty country in the south-east of Europe.
Egypt, Knossos, Iraq and Greece--they have all gone. Their old civilizations, even as Babylon and Nineveh, have ceased to exist. What, then, of the two other ancients in the company of old civilizations? What of China and India? As in other countries, they too have had empire after empire. There have been invasions and destructions and loot on a vast scale. Dynasties of kings have ruled for hundreds of years and then been replaced by others. All this has happened in India and China, as elsewhere. But nowhere else, apart from India and China, has there been a real continuity of civilization. In spite of all the changes and battles and invasions, the thread of ancient civilizations has continued to run on in both these countries. It is true that both of them have fallen greatly from their old estate, and that the ancient cultures are covered up with a heap of dust, and sometimes filth, which the long ages have accumulated.But still they endure and the old Indian civilization is the basis of Indian life even to-day. New conditions have arisen in the world now; and the coming of the steamship and the railway and the great factory has changed the face of the world. It may be, it is indeed probable, that they will change as they are already changing, the face of India also.
But it is interesting and rather wonderful to think of this long range and continuity of Indian culture civilization, right from the dawn of history, through long ages, down to us. In a sense, we in India are the heirs of these thousands of years. We are in the direct line, it may be, with the ancients, who came down through the north-western mountain passes into the smiling plains of what was to be known as Brahmavarta and Aryavarta and Bharatavarsha and Hindustan. Can you not see them trekking down the mountain passes into the unknown land below? Think of them, those distant ancestors of ours, marching on and on, and suddenly reaching the banks of noble Ganga flowing majestically down to the sea. How the sight must have filled them with joy!
It is indeed wonderful to think that we are the heirs of all these ages. But let us not become conceited, for if we are the heirs of the ages, we are the heirs of both the good and the bad. And there is a great deal of evil in our present inheritance in India, a great deal that has kept us down in the world, and reduced our noble country to great poverty, and made her a plaything in the hands of few peoples. But have we not decided that this must no longer continue?