BENGALURU: In the melancholy days of foreign rule, when India’s future seemed bleak, an Indian poet, Atul Prasad Sen, wrote a wistful poem, “One day Bharat will take pride of place in the assembly of nations. Her veena and flute will be heard again, and her past will be honoured.”
Now as India assumes leadership of the G-20 gathering of nations, the poet’s wish has been fulfilled.
This not an entirely new phenomenon. After Independence, a poor but proud India sought to bring a new message of peace and compassion to a war-torn world where imperial politics still held sway, where powerful Western nations ruled over three continents and millions of downtrodden people. India’s example of non-violent resistance and non-cooperation inspired the countries under foreign rule to demand freedom and dignity. Her voice was heard and respected.
One of the greatest poets of the millennium, Rabindranath Tagore sought to define India’s identity. It was not easy as the country was then in the midst of philosophical and political turmoil. He presented to the world India’s assimilative genius, her eclectic culture and compassion for the downtrodden. These ideas are captured in his beautiful poem Bharat Tirtha or Indian Pilgrimage. He sings of those races who came to India’s shore, of how alien people came, mingled and stayed, and never returned. He also acknowledged how the West had opened its doors and brought its gifts of knowledge. Tagore believed it was this diverse tapestry of people which made India the seashore of humanity—Ei Bharater maha manaber sagar teerey (This India which is the seashore of
Gurudev stated that India had embraced all people and new ideas which enriched her own existence. This eclecticism which he proudly cherished was part of India’s historical and cultural heritage. He narrates India’s romance with South and East Asia in his poem Sagarika, of how the messages of both Hinduism and Buddhism travelled with merchants and monks, of the temples in Angkor Wat, Borobodur, the Champa monuments in Laos, of India’s cultural links with Iran and Afghanistan.
Indeed, India stands at the crossroads of continents and culture. The Indus Valley civilization was a vast unitary civilization that is said to have spanned the Indus Valley to present day Afghanistan. At the University of Takshashila (7th century BCE), scholars from Iran, Egypt, Greece came to study the Vedas and Upanishads and then spread these philosophic ideas westwards. The Maurya dynasty halted the Greek-Macedonian advance, but accepted aspects of Hellenic culture and art. The Greek Megasthenes lived as representative of Seleucus Nikator in the court of Chandragupta Maurya and wrote in his book Indica a detailed account of the relations of India and Greek kingdoms in ancient times. Megasthenes describes India’s material and intellectual grandeur. Kharoshthi manuscripts in Shahbazgarhi and Mansehra indicate connections with Iran. Antiochus II of Syria, Ptolemy II of Egypt, Magas of Cyrene, Antigonus Gonatus of Macedonia are mentioned in old rock cut edicts.
Ancient India had connections with Rome. Herodotus, in his book Histories, gives information about ancient India’s relations with Roman and Greek rulers. The Roman historian Pliny (1st century CE) wrote of the trade links between India and Italy in his book “Natural History”. Kaveripatnam in Tamil Nadu (then called Pumpuhar) was a centre of Indo-Roman trade. Romans traded in the famed silks of South India, often depleting their own gold reserves. Numerous artefacts, gold coins, remnants of ships bear witness to this maritime connection.
Early medieval India had connections with China, which have been recorded by famous Chinese travellers to India—Fa-Hien, Hieun Tsang and It-sing. Hieun Tsang visited India during the reign of Harsha Vardhan and studied at the University of Nalanda. After Buddhism was established in Japan’s Nara, India was looked upon as the spiritual home.
Even today, thousands of Japanese pilgrims come to worship Lord Buddha at Bodh Gaya.
Paradoxically, it was in the era of foreign rule that knowledge of India’s literary, artistic and philosophical heritage was made known to the world through the dedicated efforts of Western scholars such as Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkins (translator of the Bhagavad Gita into English) Nathaniel Halhed. Eminent German Indologist Augustus Wilhelm von Schlegel stated, “Among Indians from whom perhaps all cultivation of the human race has been derived…have a rich dramatic literature far older than Europe.” German Indologists took a special interest in Sanskrit metaphysical texts. These works and texts had a significant effect in shaping western intellectual traditions. German political thought was influenced by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who delved into the Upanishads. Concepts such as “puroshottam” were translated as “ubermenschen”. Ideas such as supremacy of the will affected political events in Europe after World War I. The renowned Russian Indologist, Bongard Levin states that “India has fascinated Russia from times immemorial” and that “there are many references to Indian traditions, customs and beliefs in ancient Russian literature”.
Both Tsarist Russia and Soviet Russia brought Indology to a grand fruition, when all major works in Sanskrit and Indian languages were translated into Russian.
India was no longer shrouded in myths and legends.
After India attained independence, a daunting task confronted the leaders of free India in economic, social, educational, industrial and defence matters. India had to telescope time in order to enter the modern industrial scene. Development assistance was offered by various nations, but it would be at the price of reducing the nation’s sovereignty. India chose the difficult road to progress—through self-reliance and accepting assistance which was offered with respect and without strings attached. This approach influenced other emergent nations in the path of progress and to forge their destinies in accordance with their own traditions.
Emissaries of Indian civilization went to West, East and Central Asia and had connections with the Greco Roman world. In his poem Indian Pilgrimage, Rabindranath Tagore spoke of how the West was sending its gifts to India. A century later, another genre of Indian emissaries are taking the gifts and skills of its people to the West. They go not as migrants in search of better life, but as talented explorers—doctors, scientists, management experts, journalists, musicians, artists and experts in information technology. They make significant contributions to these societies. Their expertise has brought them global prestige. Indian by birth, they acquire cosmopolitan identities. Decades earlier, Pandit Ravi Shankar brought the musical traditions of India to a curious and admiring West. The celebrated Indian filmmakers Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen brought Indian scenes and stories on the world stage. The economist Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen, media person Farid Zakaria, Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella head prestigious companies. They have won fame, leaping over barriers of race and creed.
It is appropriate that an eclectic India will preside over a comity of nations in G20 and will be aware of the many and divergent challenges faced by these nations. Their global experience and expertise will enable them to guide citizens of the G20 nations.
Achala Moulik is a former Education Secretary, Government of India, and former DG, Archaeological Survey of India. She has written widely on history, international relations, biographies and novels. She was awarded the prestigious Pushkin Medal by the Russian government.