One defining characteristic of Indian civilisation has been its capacity to reach out to the rest of the world and develop multi-dimensional linkages
In terms of civilisational continuity, India is perhaps the only civilisation that has not only had continuity up to the present, but was also one that had focussed both on the infrastructure (material) and the superstructure (spiritual). Indeed, the definers and shapers of Indian civilisation had firmly realised one of the fundamental realité of civilisations, as described by a leading French historian Charles Seignobos, that “civilisation is a matter of roads, ports, and quays”. Fernand Braudel, commenting on Seignobos’s observation, noted that it was a “flippant way of saying that “civilisation was not all ‘culture’.” A highly calibrated balance between the material and the spiritual was thus India’s unique civilisational achievement. It led her to scale heights in both these dimensions.
It is well recorded how the Indus-Saraswati civilisation had developed Lothal as a leading port of the epoch, and when Megasthenes arrived in India, sometime in 302 BCE, note Meenakshi and Sandhya Jain in their multi-volume series on the foreign accounts of Indian civilisation, The India They Saw, India already ran a “lucrative sea-trade with the Persian Gulf-ports of Mesapotamia and the Red Sea ports of Egypt” while “the principal land route was the caravan trail from Taxila to Balkh”. By the time the Romans became the predominant power in the Mediterranean, write Meenakshi and Sandhya, “the region had a roaring sea trade with India’ and ‘so great was the flow of silver and gold from Rome that Pliny protested in the Senate against Rome’s one-way trade with India”.
As the nationalist social philosopher, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, noted in one of his studies which examined the beginning of the ‘Hindu Culture as World Power’, the Hindus were not living in “splendid isolation”, as it was supposed that the Asiatics generally did and that the Hindu’s internationalism was always ‘extra-Indian’. One of the defining characteristics of Indian civilisation has always been its capacity and urge to reach out to the world and to develop multi-dimensional linkages.
Along with the laying of the physical infrastructural linkages, the spread of India’s soft message — India’s unique philosophical contribution to shaping the thought of leading world civilisations was not neglected either — can it be argued, therefore, that it was perhaps a balanced projection of both these dimensions that made Indian civilisation so enduring and so accepted and welcomed across most of the ancient world. Indian religious emissaries travelling to Greece, Egypt Southeast Asia, China, Mongolia, as far as Korea, to spread the message of the Buddha, became a regular feature and helped in laying the contours of an international exchange of thought and influenced the evolution of new religious thought and quests across the world.
In an interesting study, Two Masters One Message (1978), philosopher Roy C Amore, discussed this influence of Indian religious thought on the West by examining Buddhism’s defining influence in shaping early Christian thought. In a concluding hypothesis, Amore argued that “Jesus drew upon Buddhist as well as Jewish concepts and images in presenting his own teaching”, and how, because of the continuing Buddhist presence a number of essential articulations and precepts enunciated by Christ and his followers later were derived from that presence. This influence not only impacted the early Christian thought but also profoundly shaped the pre-Christian faiths and practices, later derided and decimated as ‘pagan.’
Another unique Indian civilisational characteristic was the propensity of passing on civilisational achievements — a habit which has allowed its fundamentals to largely survive, Braudel described this as a “constantly unwinding thread — something that a group of people have conserved and passed on as their most precious heritage from generation to generation, despite the storms and tumults of history”. Indian civilisation had once deftly evolved and charted a number of silk routes, the maritime silk route, the land silk route as well as the silk route of thought. What is needed now is a recovery, reinvention and re-laying of those fundamental civilisational lifelines.