Recently, I spent time with my mother in Germany. She lives in a small town near Nuremberg with only some 6000 inhabitants. I was missing India. Reading newspapers and watching news on TV, it seemed as if there was no India. Yet when I met people and mentioned that I live in India, all were curious, positive and keen to know more about the country. I couldn’t help telling how special India is because, as I see it, India and Indians have a lot going for them, more than any other civilization. Parts of the Indian tradition have been hijacked by Westerners without acknowledging the source, be it yoga, transpersonal psychology or several scientific discoveries, apart from such basics as the decimal system. Yet strangely, there is still no official attempt by India to own up and project India’s strong points abroad.
In contrast, China is doing a lot to project a good image by making full use of their main ancient sage, Confucius. Even in that small town near Nuremberg, twelve high school students have signed up for a Chinese language course. It came in the local newspaper. The Confucius institute is financing it. The teacher is a young Chinese.
On the airport, I picked up the International Herald Tribune, and not surprisingly, there was an 8-page Advertising Supplement about China prepared by China Daily. Confucius was all over the supplement: “Confucius lives”, “The way of the Sage”, etc., were some of the articles. Professor Zhang Qun, former head of the Confucius Institute, University of Naples, was quoted, “Western culture started to spread to China long ago, but now it is time for Chinese culture to be promoted to the Western world.” He underwent a wide range of training, including intercultural communications, religion, and even Chinese Opera, tai chi and paper cutting, “because foreigners love these things”, he said. Around 100 million foreigners are learning Chinese, the Chinese education ministry estimates. Though the Confucius Institute started only in 2004, it has now 350 institutes affiliated with universities and 430 ‘classrooms’ affiliated with secondary schools in 103 countries. 260 more universities have applied for Institutes to be set up. 7000 young teachers are recruited every year from Chinese universities, who are sent abroad for two years…
Again, I was missing India. India is the cradle of civilization, it has Sanskrit, the language which, according to NASA, helps develop the brain apart from being a perfect language, it has the deepest philosophy still expressed in a vibrant religion, a huge body of literature, amazing art, dance, music, sculpture, architecture, delicious cuisine and yet Indians are in denial mode and wake up only when foreigners treasure India. They don’t seem to know the value and therefore don’t take pride in their tradition, unlike westerners who take a lot of pride in theirs even if there is little to be proud of.
An example that Rajiv Malhotra gave IIT students in Chennai recently illustrates it. Malhotra was a successful NRI businessman who retired early to set up the Infinity Foundation promoting Indic studies in the US. In 2005, the Crown Princess of Thailand wanted to have a World Sanskrit Conference. She herself was a Sanskrit student, had sent her sons to India to learn Sanskrit, had brought out a Journal on Sanskrit and wanted to start a Sanskrit College. A professor from Delhi University was organizing the conference for her, but to his dismay, the Indian government did not want to sponsor it. He felt it was embarrassing, as many of the eastern countries, including Thailand, look to India as their mother civilization. And here is this mother not taking any interest. So he frantically called up Malhotra, asking him to help save face. His Infinity Foundation agreed to sponsor the event. The program was set, when a few days before the start, the Indian HRD minister suddenly woke up and wanted to inaugurate the conference. A compromise was reached and both, Malhotra and the HRD minister, represented the Indian side. The conference was a success and the Indian Embassy in Bangkok gave a reception. Malhotra asked the young diplomats there about the Indian foreign policy in regard to projecting Indian civilization as an asset, as soft power, as something of value in Asian countries. They were taken by surprise. “Sir, we don’t have any policy like that. We are a secular country”, the diplomats proffered. Malhotra wondered what this has to do with secular. “There is a demand, so you should supply it”, he suggested. “Set up Colleges of Sanskrit, of Indian thought, of dance, etc. It will also help in trade, in technology, in setting up business in these countries.”
There is a demand for Indian thought and culture not only in Asian countries; it is there in Western countries, too, though maybe still unconscious. It would bring fresh air in the fixed thought structures that make westerners believe that there is either a god or no god, that one has the choice only between believing what has been written in a ‘holy book’ and being an atheist.
India has a different approach. Already in 1887, Paul Deussen, professor of philosophy in Germany, had written, that it would be of benefit, if Indian Weltanschauung would spread in the west: “it would make us realize that we are stuck in colossal one-sidedness with our entire philosophical and religious thought and that there is a completely different way of approach than the one that Hegel construed as the only possible and reasonable one.”
There is however a difficulty. Most educated, English speaking Indians, who could project Indian culture abroad, know neither Samskrit nor the strong points of their culture and philosophy. In fact, some of them might rather bite their lip than acknowledge that India is a great civilization. And many of those who know Sanskrit and who know the strong points of Indian culture don’t speak English or are not interested in teaching foreigners. Maybe the solution is to start, like the Chinese, with students. Give students a chance to delve deep into original Indian thought in Sanskrit, bridge the gap between academics and Sanskrit pandits, between universities and gurukuls, and let the students go abroad for a couple of years. They may turn out to be good ambassadors for India and may actually love the idea of being sent abroad. Never mind if they get disillusioned there.
by Maria Wirth