If India were India, She Could Lead the World
by Anindita Niyogi Balslev
The supramental spiritual and social journeys of great sages, dreamers and rebels to connect India to her sacred roots and eternal values.
It is gratifying to address the challenging theme of “Eternal India”. The task of unveiling such a far-reaching concept is daunting. Yet, the attempt to articulate even a fragment of this vast globally significant scenario is rewarding. I will attempt to focus only on certain features that are integral to that “eternal” aspect of Indian civilisation which defies the vicissitudes of history, without losing sight of the India that is as palpable and vulnerable, as we know her to be today. While I was pondering over a title for this paper, the memorable words of the Russian artist, Roerich came to mind: ‘If India were India, she could lead the world.’ These simple yet startlingly powerful words were etched in my memory ever since my childhood in Kolkata.
Eternal India (Sasvata Bharat)
During those days, refugees from East Bengal (Bangladesh) had already thronged to the city in a desperate attempt to survive. The stark presence of the political reality of partition was clearly evident in socio-economic spheres. I vividly recall how many families stretched out their helpful hands to those who were suddenly homeless. Refugees were still arriving from the other side of the newly-drawn border, leaving behind all their belongings, and causing turmoil in our own lives. Kolkata was, indeed, a special place as it was not only a stage where human tragedies were enacted and a battle for a better future was being waged, but it was also the site where in the midst of all that agitation, there echoed relentlessly an inner voice which urged us never to lose sight of “Eternal India” (Sasvata Bharat). The influence of Swami Vivekananda, Tagore and Aurobindo, among others, was acutely alive in the cultural ambience of the city.
“Eternal India” (whatever that phrase was supposed to entail or repudiate) implied that India is not just the name for a geo-politically bounded space; it stood for something much more. Today, when “globalisation” is a buzzword, despite the fact that we really do not quite comprehend the forces that a have led to the process or its eventual impact on all concerned, trying to understand what much more refers to may not be a fruitless enterprise.
Living in a world that is getting increasingly smaller with the advancement of technology, we helplessly perceive a scenario marked by the return of tribalism in various forms, and hear of numerous predictions about the “clash of civilisations”. At such a time, reflections on “Eternal India” might well provide some inspiration for the new millennium that can be of value within as well as outside India.
The Message of Aurobindo
In this connection, it is worth recalling that many great Indians have enthusiastically reminded us of the immense ‘potentialities of India in determining the political, social, cultural and even spiritual future of humanity.’ This as well as other citations are from Sri Aurobindo’s message on The Fifteenth of August 1947. So have others, who although born of a different cultural milieu had a deep insight into Indian culture. Many of them seem to have reiterated similar ideas, reminding us of the great treasures of Indian civilisation. Let me draw attention to the two important senses of the word, “India” that are captured in the line: “If India were India…”. What impresses me deeply is the schism that exists – precisely the reason for choosing these words as the title – between the first and the second usage of the appellation “India”. One cannot but confront a sense of void that requires to be filled as one contemplates on what India (in the first usage) must strive for without losing the sense of her deeper identity, the grip on her ideal (which is signified by the second usage of the word, “India”). The message of “Eternal India” that calls for realisation in today’s India also has a bearing on an international, intercultural context. The sense of a schism which is of rather special significance in this case – quite apart from inducing that India today must endeavour to live up to her own ideal – has also to do with the intimation that it is not enough for India only to try to attain what perhaps some others have already achieved, even if such accomplishments are equally perceived by Indians themselves to be highly desirable. The challenge rests in striving and remaining true to its “eternal” self. India can never be at rest if she succumbs to any other lesser, transient goal at the cost of timeless heritage. Keeping in mind the vicissitudes faced over the centuries, India has to mobilise the forces needed for the protection and well-being of its inhabitants and also guard against her own mission being lost. Or else, she runs the risk of becoming a replica of a civilisational paradigm, which is not her own.
But what is that mission? As Aurobindo said on The Fifteenth of August 1947: ‘India was arising, not to serve her own material interests only, to achieve expansion, greatness, power and prosperity – though these too she must not neglect – and certainly not like others to acquire domination of other peoples, but to live also for God and the world as a helper and leader of the whole human race.’
In other words, the leadership that India can and must provide (as has been emphasised time and again without number by some of the best minds in this sub-continent) is quite distinct. This idea of leadership is most definitely not derived from a civilisational paradigm of a “superpower” that draws its strength from military supremacy, constantly employing intellectual and economic resources in an extravagant manner that serves the cause of violence and creates, at the same time, newer configurations of polarities of exploiters and the exploited, winners and losers on a global scale. According to Aurobindo what India must support rests ‘outwardly on an international unification of the separate existence of the peoples, preserving and securing their national life but drawing them together into an overriding and consummating oneness’, always aiming at ‘uplifting the consciousness to a higher level’ that can ‘begin the solution of the many problems of existence which have perplexed and vexed humanity.’ It is this attitude that is of central importance to what “Eternal India” stands for – born of simplistic, sterile philosophy that does not take into account the reality of competing forces of our mundane world? Is this a viewpoint that fails to take note of the threat of diversity that reigns at every level of human interrelationship, ignoring the practical needs of a nation, of which others speak so eloquently?
It is necessary to understand Tagore’s insight (see essays by Rabindranath Tagore, specially Bharatvarsher Itihas, Prachyao Paschatva in Bengali) concerning the primal spirit that propels the Indian civilisation. He emphasised that the civilisational ideal for India is not simply an empowerment of herself as a nation state understood in mercantile or military terms exclusively – an ideal that has built into it a sense of ceaseless competition with or of being in opposition to other such nation states in a global context. India has always aspired for the greater fulfilment for individuals and civic society, declaring that the universe is a family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam). Her intent has been to unite, not by subjugating “others” but by inventing ways that can draw strength from diversity in countless ways for the benefit of all.
This openness to diversity has expressed itself in a religious context. Let alone making room for religions that are not born of her cultural soil, an inherent aspect of tradition has been to allow diversity to thrive. At one end it leaves room for idolatry, while at the other end, it is indeed iconoclastic. None of these radical expressions nor all the other conceivable forms that fall in between, depicting the demands of human religious consciousness, has ever been discarded as valueless. The genius of India has been that plurality is not experienced as a threat. In both the secular and the religious facets of her cultural life, the objective has never been to aspire to unite by obliterating divergences nor has diversity been seen as a source of separatism and inevitable strife. This insight must be respected both within and outside India today.
It can be said without any hesitation that one formidable trait of Indian culture is its Advaitic character. This has led to the recognition of underlying unity despite diverse characteristics. The philosophy that permeates the cultural milieu is the prevalence of harmony without suppressing variations or deviations. In the face of religious plurality, the Advaitic character has a double impact on the classical Indian understanding of what freedom to worship really implies.
This attitude deserves to be highlighted in the present scenario all around the globe. Paul Tillich’s description of the “the ultimate concern” is pertinent to contemplate and worship in any form or even without the attribution of a form (sãkãra and nirãkãra). The crucial implication of this Tillich’s approach is that it forbids any sectarian and fundamentalistic position that seeks to deny the legitimacy of other paths, or of other approaches than what is one’s own.
This is undeniably the spirit of “Eternal India” that found expression from the time of the Rigveda in the unambiguous declaration that ‘The Real is One, the sages call it by different names (Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti).’ This message was echoed through the centuries time and again and became alive once more in the slogan of the nineteenth century saint, Sri Ramakrishna, who repeatedly asserted: ‘As many views, so many paths (Yata mata, tata path).’ (cp. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. by Swami Nikhilananda)
However, a sceptic may ask whether this unfailing accent on “oneness” legitimises diversity and the tireless search for unravelling the point of union. But, when confronted with differences (that reached a climax in the conceptual understanding of “non-duality” in the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta) it was plainly a form of mysticism without any genuine bearing on everyday life?
The Philosophy of Swami Vivekananda
This mode of interpretation, seeking to underplay and distort the deep thrust of the Indian cultural ethos shaped by the Upanisadic insights, receives a hard blow as one reviews the words and deeds of Swami Vivekananda. He has demonstrated before the world the profound influence and bearing of these ideas and ideals on actual practical life, regardless whether the issues that are to be confronted are of secular or religious significance. The Vedantic idea of non-duality was not, for Swami Vivekananda, merely a metaphysical jargon but undeniably a source of inspiration for bringing about a social revolution as well. He has repeatedly proclaimed that Vedanta calls for an awakening from which no one is to be deprived on the basis of gender, class or race since, ‘Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious self is present in all beings.’ The gross inequalities that exist, dividing humanity into the privileged and deprived groups, appeared to him as a state of affairs where Vedantic teaching is missing in practice. Thus, we see him as an ardent advocate of “Practical Vedanta” actively launching well-planned social programmes that would seek to eradicate all forms of discrimination.
With the return of war over religions, it is well worth remembering Swamiji’s words pronounced in the context of plurality of religions. Swami Vivekananda said: ‘That plan alone is practical, which does not destroy the individuality of any man in religion and at the same time shows him a point of union with all others.’ Has this task been accomplished? As Jonathan Swift lamented, ‘We have enough religions to hate one another but not enough to love each other.’ Why? A collective effort is needed to respond to that question.
In this connection, it may be mentioned that the Indian philosophical tradition, containing both expository and polemical literature, has played an immensely important role in creating a conceptual world where these issues have been elaborately discussed. This is why the educational systems within and outside India must pay proper attention to that conceptual history. Let me add here that both as an Indian and as a student of philosophy, my indebtedness to the Indian philosophical sources is deeper than what I can adequately express. To say this is not by any means to deny all that I owe to the intellectual resources of the West. On the contrary, the latter makes me more keenly aware of what is distinct of the Indian conceptual world, what it has contributed to the world of ideas and wherein lies the greatest strength of Indian culture. It is indeed overwhelming to perceive the extent to which philosophy has pervaded every aspect of our cultural life and with what subtle reverence diverse modes of thinking, about a range of issues that encompass anything from birth to death, being to non-being, have been registered and propagated. Even more, how open discussions and debates have been carried out fearlessly. Records of these conceptual endeavours, taking us back to some of the oldest of all Indo-European documents are simply awe-inspiring. This is so not only because of the widely divergent conclusions reached in a spirit of free thinking but also for demonstrating to curious readers the methods of critical enquiry that have been employed by the forefathers – perhaps of the oldest philosophical tradition known to humanity – as they trodded the path to explore the external and the internal worlds of human experience. I mention this in order to draw attention to the fact that the educational system in India today has not as yet adequately bridged the gap, which was created purposely in a given historical epoch prior to political independence. To divorce young Indians from the knowledge of India’s past achievements is not only to alienate them from their own cultural soil but also to disinherit them from the resources that they could share with others for empowering humanity. Tagore observed in an essay that students score points by citing innumerable data on who invaded, looted and ruled India but do they ever get to know what made it possible, in the midst of all that turmoil, to give rise to such personalities, as Kabir, Nanak Tukaram, etc.? The fact is that it is not only in the case of the study of history but also philosophy that additional effort needs to be made so that the younger generation has access to India’s past and gain the opportunity to learn about India’s vast cultural treasures. No one reflecting sincerely on these issues – even if one is an agnostic or a pragmatist – can help observing as did Nehru, that what India ‘is today and what she was in the long past… something has bound them together and binds them still. India is a geographical and an economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads… her spirit was never conquered… she remains unsubdued and unconquered’ (Nehru, Jawaharlal, The Discovery of India, New York: The John Day Co, 1946).
It is worth noting that Indian conceptual thought is to be respected for its antiquity, and as a fountain of wisdom. The fact is corroborated by Mahatma Gandhi, who stated, ‘What I want to achieve – what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years – is self-realisation, to see God face to face, to attain moksha. I live and move and have my being in pursuit of this goal. All that I do by way of speaking and writing, and all my ventures in the political field, are directed to this same end. But as I have all along believed that what is possible for one is possible for all, my experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open; and I do not think that this fact detracts from their spiritual value.’
It is important to recognise how a society’s consciousness is affected by its philosophical traditions that encompass religious as well as secular aspects of life and how this is indispensable for its own self-understanding. In the case of India, this knowledge is of primary significance not only for envisioning her timeless presence, discerning the modes of possible responses in confrontational situations and assessing the options that are still open in the context of contemporary conflicts and struggle. In order to comprehend what “Eternal India” can contribute not only to contemporary India but to the world where cultural and religious diversity abounds, some of the dominant readings of the present-day global scenario need to be analysed and critically looked at. One such analysis – in the face of cultural diversity – that has recently drawn much attention consists in foreseeing eventual clashes among the civilisations as inevitable. It is necessary to look at Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilisations, New York: Foreign Affairs, 1993. ‘The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault line between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.’
This way of looking at the world is certainly not one that bears the stamp of the cultural soil of what I see as “Eternal India”. Hard as it might be to construe strategies for dealing with diversity on different planes of human transactions, the line of thinking that is being followed by Huntington is neither conducive for pluralism in the international, intercultural context nor can it indicate how human solidarity needs to be construed.
Notwithstanding the fact that it is a challenging task to articulate what constitutes the distinctive identity and eventually the special merit of any given culture-form, there is no doubt that the genius of Indian culture lies in perceiving that diversity and differences are not necessarily sources of strife and conflict; these may well be sources of mutual enrichment and empowerment. Under all circumstances, an imposition of any dominant model worldwide is bound to fail and is a self-defeating endeavour. A cross-cultural conversation is required.
Almost half a century ago, the well-known Western philosopher and pacifist, Bertrand Russell cautioned us by reminding us that ‘Knowledge is power, but it is power for evil just as much for good. It follows that, unless men increase in wisdom as much as in knowledge, increase of knowledge will be increase of sorrow.’ If “Eternal India” has anything to deliver to all humankind, it is that piece of wisdom.
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