Teaching India and the Dialog of Civilizations
by Rajiv Malhotra
In a world too often ridden with conflict, a dialog between civilizations is imperative. Humanity has reached a point where the tendentious clinging to prejudices, chauvinism, and provincialism places us all in peril. A meaningful globalization can happen only when there is fair and balanced portrayal of the various civilizations’ histories and worldviews; but much of the prevailing narrative of culture and history has its roots in colonial scholarship. For instance, we are often told that modern western philosophy and science go back in an unbroken lineage to the ancient Greeks. This narrative of the continuity of western civilization is remarkably resilient. It downplays the real contributions of non-European civilizations to European thought and technology. For example, the Renaissance is portrayed as a rediscovery by Europe of the science, art and literature of classical Greece and Rome. It was that, of course, but not only that. Fortunately, the European Dark Ages did not affect the rest of the world. Indian, Chinese, Islamic, and Meso-American civilizations had previously undergone their own “Renaissances,” periods of intense creative and scientific endeavor. In the thirteenth century, Europeans ‘discovered’ and entered what was already a well-established Indian Ocean economy, and became beneficiaries of a great deal of science, art, and technology developed in that region. What is not well known to many contemporary westerners is the extent to which both the Islamic and European renaissances were indebted to India.
Unlike other conquered and colonized civilizations of the Old World, whose assets consisted primarily of land, gold, and other natural resources, India’s wealth was built on the export of manufactured goods, created by its workers’ ingenuity and labor. With India, the colonizers had a windfall of extraordinary profits from her exports, taxation of her economic production, and eventually the transfer of her technology and production to the colonizer’s home. Until the eighteenth century, European scholars raved about India, much as the world raves about America today as the land of opportunity. Even as recently as 1750, India’s share of the world’s manufacturing output was 24.5%, while the entire share of the West, including America and Europe, was only 18.2%. By 1913, however, the West’s share was over 80%, while India’s was reduced to under 2%. As Samuel Huntington points out, “the industrialization of the West led to the de-industrialization of the rest of the world.”1 From being the world’s second largest exporting economy (the largest being China), India was reduced to an importer of goods; from being the source of much of the economic capital that funded Britain’s Industrial Revolution, it became one of the biggest debtor nations; from its envied status as a wealthy nation, it became a land synonymous with poverty; and from a nation with a large number of prestigious centers of higher learning that attracted the cream of foreign students from Eurasia, it became the land with the highest number of illiterate persons. This remains a major untold story.
Indic traditions are unique as a continuous repository of humanity’s experiments with civilization. They offer profound and comprehensive inputs to address the human condition, encompassing: philosophy, psychology, ethics, aesthetic theories and practical arts, literature, ecology, a plurality of technologies of the self, and built-in renewal.
While India’s contributions in “spiritual” and aesthetic spheres are somewhat known to the world (albeit still in overly stereotypical and superficial ways), her scientific heritage is even less known. This heritage deserves to be brought to the public attention, not merely to challenge the Eurocentric “history of science and technology”, but to also open the eyes of the world to the promise of its technologies that are eco-friendly and sustainable, labor rather than capital intensive. Hence, they are more readily adaptable as an “alternative model” of technological progress in the poor regions on the world that comprise the vast majority of humanity. India has living communities with the intellectual resources to help implement this sustainable revival. It has the largest corpus of ancient literature on traditional knowledge systems, and many of the best examples of successful revivals are to be found in India. Examples of its practical technologies include: civil engineering and architecture, medicine, textiles, agriculture, water harvesting, and many others. Cross-fertilization with western innovations would lead to major breakthroughs.
From Buddhism to Gandhi to the New Age movement, Indian culture and thought has had an important impact on America. Some of the important westerners who were deeply influenced by Indian thought and wrote extensively about this included: Goethe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Schrödinger, Jung, to name but a few.
Our modern world is now in dire need of a second, global Renaissance. “Renaissance” implies breaking free from the darkness of prejudice and release from enclosure in a limited or dogmatically cultural environment. It is a rediscovery of forgotten knowledge and wisdom that leads to fresh and glorious creativity in a boundless ocean of positive potential. Thus far, rediscovery of supposedly Greek knowledge of physical sciences through the medium of Arabic civilization enabled Europeans to break free from the dogmatic culture of the church and explode into physical conquest of the planet and its elements. What remains to be done is to recognize that even that outer physical knowledge was not entirely the gift of the Greeks, but came from an interconnected Eurasian ecumenical culture, and that there remain sophisticated “inner sciences” that are needed to keep human spiritual and cultural development in pace with physical progress.
One out of every six persons on this planet is from India. Yet India remains a blind spot for America, and this feeds old stereotypes. There is more to India than what is conveyed through TV images, coffee-table discussions or the accounts of traveling foreigners with a limited view. Beneath the smog and dust of popular perception, there is the accumulated achievement of many millennia crying to be uncovered.
One of the core missions of the Infinity Foundation is to raise awareness in the United States regarding the importance of Indian civilization, both in its classical and modern manifestations. It is of tremendous importance that the coverage of India in educational curricula be expanded to reflect India’s significance in the world, and equally, that the accuracy of the portrayal be significantly improved. It is always better to start with the young: the task at hand is improving the teaching materials in schools and colleges.
With this in mind, we decided to support a special section on India in Education About Asia. We did so not only because of the high quality of this publication, but also because it is a journal which is by and for teachers, providing the conceptual frameworks and pedagogical tools to effectively aid students in developing a deeper, more sympathetic, and more accurate understanding of Asian civilizations. It is our sincere hope that the articles in this issue will be of assistance to teachers engaged in educating the next generation of Americans about India. This will, we hope, allow future American leaders to participate in the world in a manner that is mutually beneficial to all involved, and not in a manner resulting in alienation. The Infinity Foundation believes that this should be a central focus of our educational system. We envision that this issue will be successful and are delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to it.
1. Source: Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 86-7.
Rajiv Malhotra, President and Trustee
The Infinity Foundation
Reference materials: http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/indic_mandala_frameset.htm