There is a trend, in various parts of the world to form international associations based on common civilisational roots. Recently President Donald Trump has applied, on behalf of the United States, for an observer status in the British Commonwealth, thereby confirming his adhesion to Winston Churchill’s call for a union of English speaking peoples. France, Spain and Portugal spend political and financial capital to bolster and promote their respective linguistic and cultural spheres of influence: respectively Francophonie, Hispanidad and Lusofonia. The Russian federation is behind various organisations intended to keep together the nations that historically were part of the Czar’s empire and of the USSR. China officially emphasises the Confucian and Buddhist heritage it shares with certain neighbouring states, including the Koreas, Japan and Vietnam. The African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League are other institutional frameworks founded on similar principles, while Iran systematically strengthens links with states and communities which share a Persian and Shia legacy in Southern, Central and Western Asia. Turkey too has invested greatly in rebuilding bridges with fellow Turkic-speakers in Eurasia, Siberia, the Near East and Europe.
Given that the British Commonwealth is built on an imperial heritage less than four centuries old, it is worth reflecting that the area known as the Indies or Les Indes in most European languages, partakes of many common geographic, climatic, civilisational, historical and linguistic features that date back thousands of years at least, as illustrated by the transcontinental reach of so-called Indo-European languages, whether the latter sprouted out of common trunk or borrowed words, mythological and spiritual concepts and grammatical structures from one another.
The present Indian government, spurred on by greater national resources and a more assertive sense of identity has taken various actions to build on Jawaharlal Nehru’s and Indira Gandhi’s policies to reconnect India with its ancient sister civilisations with which knowledge, art and ideas were exchanged along innumerable centuries. A recent international seminar convened by the Indian Council for Historical Research, at the initiative of its director Dr Y.S. Rao was dedicated to highlighting new understanding and theories on the nation’s past in the ages prior to the first millennium BCE.
Several papers pointed to the extreme antiquity of the usually called Harappan civilisations along the Saraswati, Yamuna and Sindhu (Indus) rivers and beyond, and its increasingly probable connection with Vedic literature, religion and philosophies. Some scholars brought out old and recent evidence for the expansion of this Vedic-Sanskritic culture to much of Eurasia, long before the continental spread of Buddhism, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees as a fundamental factor to develop India’s relations with several Asian nations by increasing the country’s prestige and attractiveness. He is said to be devising that strategy with the well known scholar Professor Lokesh Chandra, Chairman of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and with input from the India Foundation.
The Asia Project of the India International Centre, renamed the International Research Division, under the guidance of its founder, the illustrious Dr Kapila Vatsyayan is also doing yeomanly service to the cause of Indic renaissance (some will prefer to call it Bharatiya Navajivan as the Perso-Greek name India is etymologically related to the Indus river and may not do justice to the other parts of the subcontinent). Going beyond the Asian sphere of contacts and exchanges, the IRD is focusing on Africa, which shares with India very ancient connections, especially along the coasts of the Indian Ocean, as illustrated by the young Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which harbours the potential of becoming a common market.
There is an opportunity to bring about better coordination between those various, state-led and privately sponsored efforts in order to lend them greater impact, although cultural endeavours should naturally be kept separate from politics. However, international relations bridge those separate concerns. The budding Universities of Nalanda and Sanchi should be structured so to be centres for the planning and execution of projects primarily intended to reconnect India with the vast area that extends from the Indo-Pacific area to the eastern Mediterranean, in the name of noted and pioneering thinkers and cultural ambassadors, who facilitated and expanded the intercommunication between the kingdoms of that region.
The Indianised polities of Malaya, Java and Sumatra implanted the spiritual and intellectual sway of the subcontinental civilisationin to the islands of what became known as Indonesia (insular India) and in Madagascar. In the Philippines, the 16th century Spanish conquerors found indigenous local rajas.
For instance, Padmasambhava was a towering apostle of Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia after Vairocana, but before Naropa, whereas Kanishka, Kumarajiva, Bodhidharma and Xuan Tsang were influential patrons and interpreters of Buddhist Sanskrit gnosis in China. Dipankara Atisa played a major role in the intellectual histories of both Indonesia and Tibet; the legendary Kaundinya played a seminal role in the creation of Khmer kamboja culture, while Bodhisena (Baramon) and Prajna implanted various forms of Buddhism in Japan, which considerably enriched the native culture.
It must be pointed out that such an exercise in civilisational restoration is not a chauvinistic promotion of Indian national pride, but rather a celebration of a hoary common heritage. The first Buddhist teachers in China were probably Parthian at a time when much of the subcontinent was ruled by Scythian, Parthian, Kushan and Hunnic clans; and the powerful ministers of the greatest Abbasid Khalif, Harun Al Rashid were the Barmekides, belonging to a Buddhist family from Balkh, north of the Hindu Kush. In the 14th century, the Mongol scholar Choiji Odser translated many Sanskrit classics into the local language.
Those non-Indian peoples extended the spiritual and intellectual sway of the subcontinental civilisation all the way to the China Sea on one side and to North-Western Europe on the other, just as the Indianised polities of Malaya, Java and Sumatra implanted that heritage in the islands of what became known as Indonesia (insular India) and in Madagascar later settled by the South East Asian Merinas. In the Philippines, the 16th century Spanish conquerors found indigenous local rajas.
The revival of that precious legacy must encompass more than historical memories, artistic traditions and linguistic celebrations. Joint research should be promoted and organised in areas critical to the expansion of knowledge. The powerful and still scarcely explored disciplines of mathematics, psychology, neuro-biology, medicine, pharmacology, cosmology and socio-political organisation cultivated in the ancient Indosphere open areas for scientific inquiry on the basis of the many remaining works in Sanskrit, Prakrits and related languages. Indian and foreign scientists such as the late Ilya Prigogine, Hans Peter Duerr and Michael Talbott, as well as Brian Josephson, Subhash Kak, D.P. Agrawal, N. Afkhami Hamed, Michio Kaku, C.K. Raju, K. Ramasubramaniam, Rupert Sheldrake, Fritjof Capra, Amit Goswami, Ken Wilber, John Kineman, Alex Hankey, Pier Lugi Luisi and many others, working in universities all over the world, have made and are making major contributions to that rediscovery and reinterpretation in their respective fields that deserve to be further investigated and brought into the curriculum of educational institutions within the “Indic commonwealth” and in the world at large.
Finally, it is critical not to neglect the contribution of the Muslim civilisation in this programme. Several of the countries involved share the Islamic faith. The Indic (reciprocated) contribution to the development of their culture, especially in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Malaysia in natural and physical sciences, philosophy, literature (vide the Arabian Nights, Kalila wa Dimnah and the Shahnama) and metaphysics, illustrated by such luminaries as Al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al Ghazali, Suhravardi Halabi, Mevlana Rumi, Hafiz and Mulla Sadra will play a major part in helping the Islamic Ummah move away from the repressive and violent positions struck by minoritarian but influential factions.
South and East Asian “Indic” Islam must come to the aid of tormented and bleeding West Asia. The Aga Khan Foundation is preaching by example in the fields of fine arts, architecture and urban restoration. More than one Muslim sage concluded that the Upanishads enshrine the secret gnosis hinted at by the Holy Prophet.
Come Carpentier de Gourdon is convenor of the International Board of World Affairs, The Journal of International Issues, and the author of various books. He has lectured in several universities in India and in other countries in Europe, Asia and the Americas.