During a recent trip to Europe a few of the people I met, when inquiring about India, echoed a common idea, poised midway between an impression and a wish: “India’s influence in the world is on the rise. What will this mean?”
As one who has long promoted India as a civilisational beacon for our tormented and confused world, I was not surprised by that surmise as we can always suspect that we inspire the questions we silently desire. Nevertheless, I felt that this common interrogation reflects a real change that is taking place, both in the country and in the world.
After regaining its independence, India projected itself as a morally responsible power, rejecting the legacy of colonialism, the Cold War and the unfair self-centred hierarchy imposed on the world by the winners of World War II. The personal prestige of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and of Indira Gandhi helped keep India in the limelight, despite generally adverse circumstances and a long series of natural and strategic setbacks. The Non Aligned Movement, even with its major shortcomings, pointed towards a third way between US-driven capitalism and Soviet Communism, socio-economically and politically and India’s timeless spiritual and cultural heritage continued to fascinate and enlighten, partly thanks to modern interpreters in all fields, from Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, from Sri Aurobindo to Pandit Ravi Shankar.
The “New Age” revolution, ushered in by the 1968 Beatnik movement, irrespective of what we think of it, carried an essential Indian DNA, related to the spread of yoga, Buddhism in its many forms, meditation practices, vegetarianism, non-violence and the quest for lifestyles more in harmony with nature. The post-War West straitjacketed in a self-righteous system tailored for economic growth and cultural-economic missionary evangelism, whether secular or Judeo-Christian, was shaken to its core by the eastern winds forecast by intercultural thinkers such as Rene Guenon, Romain Rolland, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Lanza del Vasto and Raimundo Panikkar. Pioneers of contemporary science and technology, be they the godfathers of quantic physics such as Heisenberg and Schrodinger or the trailblazers of life-changing innovations like Buckminster Fuller and Steve Jobs had a debt to the Asian (especially Indian) ways of thinking and concepts of the natural order, expounded in the Upanishads and Sutras and variously illustrated by Tagore, Gandhi and Kumarappa, among others.
The growing environmental crisis, which reminds us of the long prophesied “limits to growth” is one of the main factors behind the renewed interest and respect for the Indic philosophical vision of simple living, abstemious consumption, protection of all life forms and for the priority it gives to inner development (exploration of consciousness) over unprincipled, solipsistic material enrichment and “multiplication of utilities”.
For one, the scientific confirmation that all life forms share many features of human consciousness poses a major problem to societies that depend on the mass slaughter and consumption of animals regarded merely as sources of meat and raw materials. The ecological revolution that is taking place as a result is analogous to the intellectual and emotional awareness which forced most societies at one time or another in the past to give up cannibalism. The concept of Ahimsa is becoming inseparable from any honest quest for justice, peace and harmony that cannot be myopically restricted to “human rights”, to the exclusion of all other sentient dwellers of our universe. However, the only viable alternative to our ecologically destructive and spiritually primitive ways is provided by the ancient systems of environmentally sound food production and use of natural resources that many Indian farmers have practised and kept alive to this day, better than most other civilisations.
Objections to the points just made are numerous, but well known. The major problems and even disasters which bedevil modern India are often cited at home and abroad to argue that this country is in no position to give an example, but rather needs all the help it can get.
However, without denying India’s daunting challenges, we must look at the other parts of the world to understand the overall dynamics. While the West is stuck in the moral and socio-economic morass of its post-modern utopias, China faces the dilemma of building a consumer society, copied on Euro-American models within an authoritarian Marxist state structure inspired by another European romantic utopia. Japan is declining and ageing, while Africa and Central and South East Asia are caught in the power play between the great powers.
There is no need to expatiate on the dramatic situation of the Muslim world that faces a seemingly intractable conflict between modernity and its religious heritage. South America is torn asunder by its traditional feudal-liberal elites in thrall to the United States and its attempts at socialist redistribution of resources, which seem to have hit a wall. In the “Atlantic World” united by NATO and the EU, a deadly combination of politically correct sophistry, individualism and rationalist deconstructionism are wreaking havoc with state structures, traditional institutions and cultural legacies, while undermining social welfare and economic regulatory systems, sacrificed on the altar of “efficiency” and corporate greed. There is no doubt that “might as right” almost unfettered by laws, rules the global financial regime.
A viable alternative to our ecologically destructive ways is provided by the systems of environmentally sound food production that many Indian farmers have kept alive.
Political institutions are fast eroding under the combined pressure of extremist or anti-establishment tendencies on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Trump and Sanders in the US and the various “far” right and left wing parties in Europe exemplify the turmoil, while heightening the fear and uncertainty generated by socio-economic decline, rising inequality and rampant immigration combined with a contagious Islamic militancy in Europe and a climate of endemic violence in the US. Abrahamic religions, rooted in revelation and faith do not find it easy to coexist with other traditions as history demonstrates and as current reactions to massive foreign arrivals evince in the hitherto dominant West. Indian society, on the other hand, has shown time and again its ability to admit, accept and protect religious minorities that are conversely more tolerant and peaceful in the Indic context than in other environments.
In that fraught and confusing context, India can still be seen as one of the world’s largest and culturally strongest countries, by and large practicing an ethos of moderation, good sense and resourceful resilience. The growing creativity of its population in most fields of activity and the achievements of its overseas diaspora, which plays a major role in several important nations on all continents, from the US to Singapore and from the UAE to Britain, will inevitably synergise with India’s participation in a number of influential international groupings, the G-20, the Commonwealth, SAARC, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, AEF, ASEAN+6, BRICS, the SCO and IBSA and their financial organs, the BRICS’ New Development Bank, its inter-state Contingent Reserve Arrangement, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and others in the pipeline. A cluster of convergent factors is gradually taking India to the higher echelons of the emerging global hierarchy.
Much could be said about the paradoxical but real advantages to having a large youthful population eager to improve its living standards by working hard at relatively low wages. Hitherto dominant countries no longer have that option and have to support on welfare large numbers of ageing or disaffected people while relying on migrants to carry out many essential tasks. All world powers in the past, including France, Britain, Germany and the US rose to preponderance when they had relatively poor and uneducated young majorities willing to make sacrifice for their descendents and their countries, which is not the case in many more affluent nations.
There are of course many caveats to India’s potential for success. Although dissent and organised action to improve the lot of the disadvantaged are justified and necessary, they should not turn into sabotage and lead to lawlessness, subversion and sedition, as can easily happen under the influence of foreign actors pursuing their own geopolitical objectives. India must pay attention to the consequences of the reckless promotion of minority rights taking place in western societies. It is gradually tearing apart the social fabric at the behest of certain vested interest groups and lobbies. Aristotle already saw democracy drifting towards either tyrannical plutocracy or demagogical anarchy.
To guard against those excesses, India has crafted over millennia the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma as the foundation for its rajneeti (political science) rooted in the study of ecology and human psychology. The principles of that system, which Indira Gandhi duly appreciated, have been evoked in contemporary language by philosophers and scientists such as the aforesaid Raimundo Panikkar, E.F. Schumacher, Ken Wilber, Rupert Sheldrake, Fritjof Capra and Hunter Lovins. The popularity of Deepak Chopra and many other Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Sufi teachers and healers denotes the craving of American society for eternal values that, as C.S. Lewis wrote, can no more be replaced by newly invented opposite ones than humans can make a new sun in the sky. India has a long experience in the art of mobilising human resources for spiritual goals, which benefit vast numbers of people. Massive and highly organised achievements like the Kumbh Mela demonstrate that public endeavours directed towards enlightenment and harmony tend to be far easier to carry out than bureaucratic or business projects intended only for political ends or economic gain. Yet the technique of uniting people around a non-sectarian, non-materialistic ideal has been mostly lost in the West, which can learn it again from this country.
Wealthy modern nations exhibit the well known symptoms of decline that visit societies when they attain high prosperity and succumb to internal contradictions and disintegration. Ibn Khaldun diagnosed those ills many centuries ago in his Prolegomena. Europe appears powerless and vulnerable to mass migrations similar to the great invasions which brought the Roman Empire to its grave, while the US economy is being rapidly offshored and its assets acquired by Chinese and other foreign interests.
What a poorer India could not achieve in the face of the hegemonic western powers 30 years ago, today’s India has the potential to do: build a new world order while reforming itself in an original autochthonous mould, taking the best from abroad while reviving its ancient persona. It is hoped that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his future successors, through the promotion of traditional knowledge systems and through such programmes as BRICS (Building Responsive, Inclusive and Collective Solutions), the clean energy partnership, Digital India, Skill India, e-governance, e-Kranti, holistic health education and Swachch Bharat can carry out this task with success, in spite of dogged and often surreptitious domestic and foreign opposition.
As Professor B. Ramesh Babu writes in World Affairs (Spring 2016): “there is a need for a philosophy of globalism comprehending the past, present and future of the planet to emerge from ‘a confluence of cultures’ and not promoting a clash of civilizations.”
Rabindranath Tagore in a poem, recently recited in Indian Parliament, called for a similar panacea:
“The last Sun of the century set amidst
The blood red clouds of the West…
Keep watch India.
Let your crown be of humility…
And know that what is huge is not great
And pride is not everlasting”.
Come Carpentier de Gourdon is convenor of the International Board of World Affairs, The Journal of International Issues, and the author of various books — the most recent being Memories Of A Hundred And One Moons: An Indian Odyssey (2015) — and of many published papers about such topics as history of culture and science, geopolitics, exopolitics, philosophy and aspects of Indian civilisation. He has lectured in several universities in India and in other countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas.