Swami Vivekananda, Tagore and Sri Aurobindo showed how international relationships could indeed be given a sound cultural knowledge and spiritual base to strengthen their moral basis
In times of rapid globalisation, open market, technological advancements and climate change, the world is getting more and more complex day-by-day. The situation is accentuated by insecurity, apprehensions, distrust and violence that confront practically every nation. Further, there was never so much competition among nations as it is at present. Indians understand these issues very well in the context of the perpetual state of aggression created by Pakistan against it.
Our country has done astonishingly well in creating global goodwill during the last five years as was evident from the support we got for the genuine and effective response to the Pulwama massacre, which was a massive and unprecedented act in the history of post-independent India. The strategy of renewing and refreshing past relationships has proved its worth beyond doubt. However, this cannot be an occasion to become sluggish. Instead, we must realise that much more needs to be done to sustain the international goodwill we earned and seriously delineate the elements required to further strengthen this bond. There are several areas of cooperation like trade and commerce, investment and production, collaborations in technology, transfer and the like but there are also long-term strategic imperatives that remain unmatched in giving soft-power dividends.
For ages, India has gone through this experience from its Asian neighbours, particularly the Southeast Asian segment. Indeed, we are proud of our past glory and its acceptance beyond sea shores. To cultivate new international relationships even with old friendly nations, one must realise the importance of acquaintance with history, culture and heritage on both sides. These play a significant role in furthering mutual understanding and refreshing cultural and emotional bonds. This familiarity is an essential support to comprehend the current situation and visualise its import in the emerging context. Strategic readiness in current times requires comprehension of ‘the pace of change’ in pragmatic terms. Common wisdom will be to learn from history, draw inspiration from it, know the present, and reshape it for a better future for the generations to come.
India is fortunate to have an unimpeachable and exemplary legacy of mutual relationships with the East Asian region. What has sustained this mutuality for ages? It cannot just be trade and commerce alone; though they remain a very strong cementing factor. We have to only delineate the essence of mutually constructive partnerships both in the past and the present. Initiatives like the ‘Act East’ policy deserve appreciation and strengthening, besides a constant vigil on elements who may be apprehensive about these developments.
Rabindranath Tagore had mentioned in one of his lectures that “it was often alleged that Asia will never progress as it has turned its face backward.” This acquisition has been proved wrong by Japan, China and India. Equally, if not more effectively, the South-East Asia region has proved it wrong. All nations have moved ahead without either disregard for their past or ignoring new knowledge. People of this region are not perpetually lost in the sweet slumber of the glory of the past; oblivious to the need to move ahead in times and with times. Probably realising this, Mahatma Gandhi had indicated that he would keep the windows and doors of his house open for fresh air — of ideas and knowledge — but refused to be blown off his feet by any. It is one thing to be proud of one’s history, culture, tradition of knowledge, growth, scriptures and literature but it is also necessary to examine whether all of this alone is sufficient for the times ahead?
Present international relationships require a very sensitive recall of the past and a realisation that these are the times of “equality of partnerships”, which must be dexterously harmonised and sustained. There are unique features in every culture, region, religion and civilisation. When dealing with Asian countries, one is often tempted to recall how Indian influence has reached far and beyond the sea shores, without any bloodshed and coercion. It was not part of any conquest or converting people to one preferred religion or “salvaging the souls of the savages” but an organised, respectful and mutually beneficial interaction and exchange of ideas and knowledge among equals. Trade and commerce featured prominently and strengthened bonds with the international community. Knowledge exchange brought people together in rather close bonds that went beyond the mundane requirements of human existence.
This makes one understand how scholarship, knowledge and wisdom can be exchanged to benefit both the interacting parties, lead to better and higher comprehension of humanity, happiness and harnessing respectfully the bounties of nature. In knowledge exchange, one can benefit only when both sides are respectful to each other, none is obsessed with being the giver, but are ready to accept knowledge and wisdom from the other side as well. The wisdom of the East does not belong just to one country of the region ie, India. One would be uncomfortable if in any reference to the glorious past of ours and its vast spread beyond the Indian borders, it is presented as everything flowing from “us” and being received by “them.”
Take for example, Indonesia or Thailand. One can say that these nations have far better comprehension of the need to sustain cultural continuity than we Indians. In Thailand, Ram, Ram Lila and Ayodhya enjoy respect at a level as is not — repeat not — being extended by a large number of Indians. The manner in which Indonesians have sustained and refined their culture presents much to be learnt by Indians. The Gita and Yoga could earn respect all around the globe but in India, one cannot include even a couple of shlokas — fully and totally secular — in the school text books.
Who are culturally more advanced? Are we ready to learn from others? Or are we too happy with our dream of becoming a Vishwa Guru again? In recollecting, refreshing and re-envisioning India’s relationship with Asian countries, the first caution is to forget the psyche of being the giver, being the Vishwa Guru. This concept — when devoid of the connected responsibility to set our own house in order — can create negative vibes among other people. We must now accept that knowledge, both secular and temporal, has been created and discovered in all parts of the globe — time, measure and magnitude can differ. Ancient Indians had really toiled hard on the terrain of knowledge quest and earned respect from all over. Are we doing the same now? This aspect should be paramount in present-day considerations.
A strife-torn world today must be looking towards India, conscious of its unique historical standing as a nation that had learnt to live together with every conceivable diversity, like that of ethnicity, language, religion and culture. The West is now facing problems arising out of a necessity to learn to live together with diversities. These have reached their doorsteps because of globalisation, ease of mobility in seeking greener pastures and have also forced migrations in search of security and livelihood. If India was still high on its record of social cohesion and religious amity, on adherence to joint family systems and social security, on basing its democracy on values defined by Gandhi and the spirit of freedom struggle, these nations would have flocked to India to learn more.
Deeply satisfied, they declare India as their guru without the latter itself making a claim. If we were a learning hub and had ancient higher learning institutions like Nalanda, Taxila and Vikramshila among others, the continuity of our gurudom would have been unchallenged. India needs to become a great global learning hub. Swami Vivekananda presented India’s past glory to the world, the values it had adhered to in the past and the concern it had shown towards the welfare of all without any discrimination. Vivekananda received global acclaim and admiration. He knew that this alone was not sufficient. He established the Ramakrishna Mission worldwide. Yes, you have to create institutions that prepare the people and give them true education. Let them comprehend that “education is the perfection already in man.”
Tagore had predicted that “India is destined to be the teacher of the world.” He did not travel the globe to declare that India would be the Vishwa Guru. Instead, he established institutions that had all the ingredients of a gurukula and every feature of a modern-day international knowledge hub. Similarly, this aspect was elaborated by Sri Aurobindo. He predicted that “India will be the moral leader of the world.” He established the Auroville Ashram in Pondicherry. All of these examples must give us an idea of how international relationships can indeed be given a sound cultural knowledge and spiritual base, to strengthen the moral basis of relationships. It was the continuity of this moral tradition that Gandhi included “commerce without morality” and “wealth without work” among the seven social sins that he published in 1925. Incidentally, it also included “knowledge without character.” India needs to relearn, and create knowledge hubs of its own.
(The writer is the Indian Representative on the Executive Board of UNESCO)