India’s Civilisational State Identity Must be Recovered

It has been our national misfortune in academic terms that those thinkers and scholars who have written and spoken of the achievements of Indian civilisations in positive terms are the ones who’ve faced marginalisation or segregation—they have been victims of a well-calculated academic apartheid. Since these interpreters essentially challenged the prevalent or popularised partial narratives of India and its control by a certain section, they were best handled by being muzzled.

Veteran archeologist Dilip K Chakrabarti in his study of the politics of narrating the past, Colonial Indology: Sociopolitics of the Ancient Past, has noted that “during the colonial period, the history of the colonised nations was perceived in such a way as to relegate them in various ways to the static backwaters of human development”. Often, as Thomas McEvilley, in his path-breaking work on inter-civilisational contacts and interactions, The Shape of Ancient Thought, has observed, “denigration of India went along with chauvinistic support for Western Civilisation”.

The intention was to perpetuate the hegemony of perception, interpretation and narration and through it to generate an image of a cloistered India, segregated from the life currents of other world civilisations, or if not fully separated, at least subservient to these. It was an idea that suited these regulators of the narrative.

Unfortunately, that approach continued and seems to continue long after most of the physical scaffoldings of subjection have been dismantled. Among the themes that this resourceful section in India assiduously attempted to deconstruct was that which spoke of India’s wide civilisational reach. Those among Indian scholars, who extensively researched and marvelled at this reach, were often derided and set aside and yet it is their narrative that continues to generate hope and provide a geopolitical direction for the future.

On India’s wide external reach and influence, especially in the Indian Ocean region, the archipelago and beyond, these marginalised scholars discovered what Tagore once lyrically described in his Letters from Java, “…What India offered was not any dry preaching. What she gave roused the inner wealth of man in all its aspects—architecture, sculpture, painting, music and literature. Its traces are to be found in deserts, in mountains, in far away islands—in inaccessible places as well as in soaring ideals…” It is this story of India’s civilisational reach, which needs to be systematically narrated as well as reactivated. As McEvilley noted, “Ancient cultures from the eastern Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean were shaped through a continuous interplay with one another, an interplay only dimly seen, which is the hidden map of ancient history.” This hidden map conceals signposts and clues that may still illuminate the way ahead for India to emerge once more as a defining civilisational state.

Referring to Hindu civilisation’s past “internationalism” and “world sense”, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, one of those near-forgotten civilisational scholars, in his The Beginning of Hindu Culture as World Power (Shanghai, 1916) has argued, while discussing the visits made by Chinese monks to India that “they came to a land through which the current of world-life regularly flowed”. “Hindustan,” pointed out Sarkar, “had never been shunted off from the main track of universal culture.” By the 4th century CE, Sarkar argued, India had already reached her great civilisational state status through “commerce and culture” with her influence or imprint extending “ultimately from Japan on the East to Madagascar on the West” and beyond.

The past six months has generated a renewed espoir of recovering and reshaping India’s civilisational state identity. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach and articulations in various international fora and his approach of an active engagement with the Indian diaspora has further strengthened that faith and aspiration.

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