The sober duty of a people, in respect of their civilisational heritage, is to fulfil it.
We are privileged to live at a defining moment in the history of our evolution as a nascent nation that is also an ancient civilisation. Given the excitement in the air, we could be tempted to stay focused entirely on the dynamics of nation-building and ignore our civilisational roots. The cardinal mistake perpetrated by secularists has been to respond to our civilisational identity and heritage with instinctive negativity. This stemmed from a prejudicial understanding of the past, vitiated by a psychology negativity burdened by memories of our colonial past. It is further aggravated by unenlightened eulogies of our civilisational assets, straining credulity and common sense to prove that modern science in its state-of-the-art technology was already in vogue in our dim, distant past. This fanciful celebration of our civilisational past is, if anything, more harmful than the secular prejudice against it.
The sober duty of a people, in respect of their civilisational heritage, is to fulfil it. We have been matchlessly privileged in this respect. Here’s a third-party view on the matter. In his lectures to the ICS candidates, Max Mueller had said: “…If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions to some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant… I should point to India.” Sir Edwin Arnold deemed it appropriate to describe Lord Buddha as The Light of Asia. Since his days, this verdict has only gained greater currency; so much so, if Sir Arnold were to revise his long poem, he might title it The Light of the World.
Consider now that arch-cynic of European philosophy: Arthur Schopenhauer. Commenting on how much Europe has gained by cultivating Sanskrit literature, he writes: “…and those most ancient and widest spread faiths, the Vedic vision and Buddhism, which are the most important religious systems of mankind and, as a matter of fact, are the original native religions of our race…” Due to their influence, he writes, the “fundamental philosophical convictions of learned Europe have in the course of the last 50 years undergone a revolution…”
These instances are cited only to argue the obvious: India had, and still has, a great contribution to make to the world at large. Regrettably, we have been indifferent to the inherent value of this unique treasure and its universal relevance. When we embraced economic and cultural globalisation in the early 1990s, some of us did expect we would engage with the global community in terms also of what has been, from time immemorial, the essence of globality — the universal vision that we have been home to.
The profoundest contribution that Indian spirituality can make to the world community, especially at this precarious juncture of history, is the vision of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”, the idea that we belong, together with all forms of life, to a world family. It is instructive to consider the two contrary strategies in history to attain globality. The characteristic approach of Europe has been world domination. Alexander conquered the world in part also in pursuit of world oneness. The empire was a symbol of unity; but unity structured on power. Such unity results from subjugation. The same was true of the Roman Empire. As Pliny wrote, “The Roman Empire was built entirely for self-defence”! This rhetoric continued right down to World War II when Winston Churchill justified it as the “war to end all wars” and to make the world safe for peace. Today, the Americans continue the same fallacy, acting as the supercop in relation to the rest of the world.
India, or what then was Bharat, evolved in an entirely different way. It was not the way of the sword, but of the soul, of the “param-atma”. Our seers and saints broke through the labyrinth of barriers and differences and intuited the oneness of humankind as the essence of godliness. God, as the source of life in all its manifestations, is alone the sufficient ground for its unity. This unity is the ground for freedom and peace. It has been basic to our spiritual vision that unity, peace and freedom are all spiritual values. No one before or after Lord Buddha has seen it clearer than him that the world, as a material scheme of profits and pleasures, is a sea of suffering. The Vedic seers envisioned peace, peace and nothing but peace, even in this sea of suffering, provided the light of the divine illumines the material world. God alone — experienced as the universal values of love, compassion, truth and justice — is the guarantee for the unity, peace and fulfilment of life.
When the Irish poet Yeats imagined the disarray of the world, he attributed it to the absence of a point of coherence. He saw anarchy overwhelming the world because “the centre cannot hold”. What the world needs most of all is not some breathtaking scientific or economic breakthrough; it is a stable point of coherence. To our spiritual vision, God alone can be that “still point of the turning world”. Lord Buddha imagined existence as a wheel with a fixed centre and moving periphery. The fixed point is today missing from the world’s wheel of modern existence. This leaves us with only two options: (a) anarchy or (b) spiritual renewal through God-centredness.
The grand deception of history is that political systems — all of them caught in this samsara of flux and atrophy — pretend to be the wheel complete in itself. The nation-state is the crux of this deadly confusion. No wonder, the nation-state serves as a sword of division among the members of the human family. Stable world peace is possible, as Immanuel Kant argued in his essay on Perpetual Peace, only when the sovereignty of nation-states is tempered with a world state, which is the closest that Europe has come to the Indian vision of “vasudhaiva kutumbakam”.
Regrettably, our country today, for all the lip-service paid to our religious and cultural heritage, is busy disowning the most glorious aspect of that heritage. We are going the way European nations did in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is a perilous path and its calamitous outcome can never be in doubt. India’s distinctive contributions to the world community will never be technological, militaristic or industrial. It will be spiritual. The spiritual destiny of India needs to be fulfilled for the sake of the world. Swami Dayanand’s vision of Aryavarta, with its pristine Vaidic spiritual ethos, resonated in the dream entertained by Yogi Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi. The alternative is to get bogged down by petty quarrels and jealousies with neighbours and, as a complement to that, strain our nerves and resources in gaining diplomatic brownie points that add up, in the end, to nothing.