Hu Shih, the Chinese philosopher, had famously said that India had conquered and colonised China for 2,000 years without sending a single soldier across her borders. Indian stories, philosophy and arts had a huge impact over various cultures of the world. Last month, I was a part of the International Ramayana Festival that was held at Mumbai. Artists from Buddhist Cambodia, Catholic Philippines and Muslim Indonesia came together to perform their traditional Ramayana operas or classical dances.
How did India succeed to have a disproportionate influence on ancient and medieval world culture without sending a conquering army to impose the cultural hegemony? The sheer diversity of the Ramayana performance held a clue. What stood out in these performances was the identification of Ayodhya, Lanka etc as places in their respective countries and not with the places Indians are familiar with.
There is nothing surprising about this if we observe how the pre-Hindutva culture had spread across the subcontinent and beyond. Hinduism spread by assimilating and respecting the local cultures and absorbing various local gods into its pantheon. In India, there is hardly any village where some character of Ramayana or Mahabharata were not supposed to have visited. The local myths often defy chronology and history in its pursuit of achieving syncretism.
So Vavar, a Muslim, becomes the companion of Lord Ayyappa born of Shiva and Vishnu in Mohini Avatar. In Kadapa of Andhra Pradesh, Lord Venkateshwara has a Muslim consort called Bibi Nancharamma and Muslims visit the temple on Ugadi day with presents to meet their son-in-law. Every thought, however contradictory, has a place in our society. Temples of Ravan and Duryodhana stand in the same neighbourhood where Ram and Krishna are worshipped.
The spread of Indian culture was neutral to race, gender, geography or language. The Vedic Sapta Sindhu of Punjab, the seven holy rivers, were shifted further south to include the Narmada, Godavari and the Cauvery in the later day texts. It didn’t require conquering armies converting nonbelievers at the tip of the sword or a mighty organisation using huge resources for proselytising. Instead the culture and thought spread through a few story tellers, entertainers and artisans.
It conquered the hearts and places through imagination and triggered cultural revolutions in any place it went. The father of every Indian language got his position by writing his own version of Ramayana or Mahabharata in his language. This willingness to accept diversity and assimilate them seamlessly was its greatest strength. It didn’t matter whether Ayodhya was in Uttar Pradesh or in Thailand. It had no problem whether Ganesha remained a bachelor in the southern parts of India while being happily married with two wives in the western and northern India.
It had no problem with Ganesha’s brother Karthikeya, being elder to him in the north and younger to him in the south. Karthikeya had the freedom to remain a bachelor in the north, while being happily married to his two wives in the south. Anything was fine if the message was delivered. Any message was fine if it helped the people. There was no need for any dogma.
Ideas shape the world. The country with the best idea takes the leadership position of the world. Last century was remarkable with two conflicting ideas fighting it out for supremacy. The capitalist western block led by USA and the socialist block led by USSR were locked in a cold war that lasted almost seven decades. As of now, one can say the capitalist block has won.
It won because it shares many characteristics of pre-Hindutva Indian thought. Capitalism shares the goodness and flaws of Hinduism. On its negative side, it creates a highly unequal society. On its positive side, it respects individuality. The spiritual quest is highly individual in Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Jainism. This contrasts with the congregational spiritual pursuit in Abrahamic religions.
In these circumstances, a financially powerful India should have been in an advantageous position to be the thought leader of the world. The world is moving away from organised religions and centralised authority. Individualism and diversity are the buzzwords. Unfortunately, at this time India is walking backwards, picking up the trash that the world is discarding and calling it our own.
Hindutva has no resemblance with the syncretic nature of Hinduism. It has no universal appeal. It has no power to assimilate, localise, mutate, evolve and grow according to the circumstances. It is uncomfortable with diversity and believes in one language, one culture, one religion and even one leader. Hindutva has the ignorance of medieval Christianity, the violence of Jihadi Islam, the ugliness of Nazi Germany and carries all the trappings of feudal casteism. It is a highly local religion that has virulent nationalism at its core. It has no culture to speak of.
Hindutva’s pursuit of mind-numbing uniformity is the greatest threat that Indian culture has faced in its existence. When it is distasteful for even those who are born in India, how can India be the thought leader of the world?In contrast, traditional Indian school has no problem with multiple Ayodhyas or multi-cultural narratives. It has no problem taking the name of Allah or Christ with Ram. It is at ease with thousands of dialects, local gods, various sub-cultures and even with atheism or agnosticism. It doesn’t confine within Indian political geography. Perhaps, if we revive this, maybe we can conquer the world with none of those fancy fighter planes and atom bombs. [email protected]