The Diaspora and the World

An Issue of Identity

The nature of the Indian identity is significant for those who live in India.* But it is also important for the very large Indian diaspora across the world – estimated to be 20 million or more in number. They see, rightly, no contradiction between being loyal citizens of the country in which they are settled and where they are socially and politically integrated (Britain or the United States or Malaysia or Kenya or wherever), and still retaining a sense of affiliation and companionship with India and Indians. As is frequently the case with emigrants in general, the Indian diaspora is also keen on taking pride – some self-respect and dignity – in the culture and traditions of their original homeland. This frequently takes the form of some kind of ‘national’ or ‘civilizational’ appreciation of being Indian in origin. However, there is often some lack of clarity on the appropriate grounds for dignity: what should the Indian diaspora be proud of?

This is not a hard question to answer, given the breadth and richness of Indian civilization. Nevertheless, this subject has become something of a battleground in recent years. Indeed, the rather combative line of exclusionary thinking that the Hindutva movement has sponsored and championed has made strong inroads into the perceptions of the Indian diaspora. There has been a systematic effort to encourage non-resident Indians of Hindu background to identify themselves, not primarily as ‘Indians’, but particularly as ‘Hindus’ (or, at least, to see themselves as Indians within a Hinduized conception). The campaign has worked effectively over parts of the diaspora, and the Sangh Parivar – including its more aggressive components – receives large remittances from Indians overseas.

As it happens, sectarian and fundamentalist ideas of different religions often do get enthusiastic support from emigrants, who aggressively play up the value of what they identify as their ‘own traditions’ as they find themselves engulfed in a dominant foreign culture abroad. This tendency gave strength to Sikh political militancy in North America and Europe that was very powerful in the 1980s. It also continues to add to the vigour of Islamic fundamentalism in the world today. The Hindutva movement, too, has been busy recruiting its foreign legion with much vigour and considerable success.

Yet many expatriate Indians, irrespective of their religious background, find it hard to see themselves in such divisive terms, and are also worried about the use of brutalities and bloodshed associated with the extremist wing of the Hindutva movement; for example, in the riots in Gujarat in 2002: voices were even raised at the otherwise smooth meeting of ‘Pravasi Bharatiya’ (Indians living abroad), arranged with much fanfare by the government of India in New Delhi in January 2003 (to which 2,000 members of the diaspora came from sixty-three different countries), about the deep shame that many overseas Indians felt about the organized sectarian violence in Gujarat. There is a desire for national or cultural pride, but some uncertainty about what to take pride in.

Tradition and Pride

In this context, it is particularly important to look at the traditions of India in all their spaciousness – not artificially narrowed in sectarian lines. Indeed, within the Hindu tradition itself, there is surely much reason for pride in the reach and open-mindedness of the broad and capacious reading of the Hindu perspective, without a confrontational approach to other faiths. That perspective (as discussed in Essay 3) is radically different from the drastically downsized Hinduism that tends to receive the patronage of the Hindutva movement.

Even though the programme of identifying with a ‘small India’ is vigorously pushed (no Buddha, please, nor Ashoka or Akbar or Kabir or Nanak), there is a ‘large India’ too, available to the diaspora as much as to Indians in India. It is important to appreciate that the historical achievements in India in critical reasoning, public deliberation and analytical scrutiny, as well as in science and mathematics, architecture, medicine, painting and music, are products of Indian society – involving both Hindus and non-Hindus, and including the sceptical as well as the religious. Indians of any background should have reason enough to celebrate their historical or cultural association with (to consider a variety of examples) Nāgārjuna’s penetrating philosophical arguments, Harṣa’s philanthropic leadership, Maitreyī’s or Gārgī’s searching questions, Cārvāka’s reasoned scepticism, Āryabhaṭa’s astronomical and mathematical departures, Kālidāsa’s dazzling poetry, Śūdraka’s subversive drama, Abul Fazl’s astounding scholarship, Shah Jahan’s aesthetic vision, Ramanujan’s mathematics, or Ravi Shankar’s and Ali Akbar Khan’s music, without first having to check the religious background of each.

In that large tradition, there is indeed much to be proud of, including some ideas for which India gets far less credit than it could plausibly expect. Consider, for example, the tradition of public reasoning. Even though the importance of dialogue and discussion has been emphasized in the history of many countries in the world, the fact that the Indian subcontinent has a particularly strong tradition in recognizing and pursuing a dialogic commitment is certainly worth noting, especially in the darkening world – with violence and terrorism – in which we live. It is indeed good to remember that some of the earliest open public deliberations in the world were hosted in India to discuss different points of views, with a particularly large meeting arranged by Ashoka in the third century BCE. It is good to remember also that Akbar championed – even that was four hundred years ago – the necessity of public dialogues and backed up his conviction by arranging actual dialogues between members of different faiths. The importance of such recollections does not lie merely in the celebration of history, but also in understanding the continuing relevance of these early departures in theory and practice.

It is at this time rather common in Western political discussions to assume that tolerance and the use of reason are quintessential – possibly unique – features of ‘Occidental values’: for example, Samuel Huntington has insisted that the ‘West was West long before it was modern’ and that the ‘sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties’ to be found in the West are ‘unique among civilized societies’.1 Given the fair degree of ubiquity that such perceptions have in the modern West, it is perhaps worth noting that issues of individual rights and liberties have figured in discussions elsewhere as well, not least in the context of emphasizing the importance of the individual’s right of decision-making, for example about one’s religion.

There has been support as well as denial of such rights in the history of both Europe and India, and it is hard to see that the Western experience in support of these rights is peculiarly ‘unique among civilized societies’. For example, when Akbar was issuing his legal order that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’,2 and was busy arranging dialogues between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and even atheists, Giordano Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy, in the public space of Campo dei Fiori.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Akbar’s defence of a tolerant pluralist society is his focus on the role of reasoning in choosing this approach. Even in deciding on one’s faith, one should be, Akbar argued, guided by ‘the path of reason’ (rahi aql), rather than led by ‘blind faith’. Reason cannot but be supreme, since even when disputing reason, we would have to give reason for that disputation.3 In the first two essays of this book, I have tried to comment on the long history of reasoning – and arguing – in India, and its connection with accomplishments in such fields as science, mathematics, epistemology, public ethics and in the politics of participation and secularism.

There is, I would argue, much in this tradition that should receive systematic attention from Indians today, including the diaspora, irrespective of whether the leadership comes from Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists or Christians or Sikhs or Parsees or Jains or Jews. Indeed, the importance of fuller knowledge about India’s traditions is hard to overemphasize at the present time. It is not only relevant for the understanding of the ‘large India’, but also important for appreciating the variations and freedoms that a broad Indian identity allows – indeed, celebrates.

Colonial Dominance and Self-respect

One of the reasons for seeking a clearer view of the intellectual accomplishments in India’s past relates to a bias in self-perception that is associated with India’s colonial history. This is not the occasion to try to look at many other features of colonial relations that radically influenced attitudes and perceptions in India, but since I am focusing on something quite specific, I should warn about the slender nature of the programme of investigation here.4

The colonial experience of India not only had the effect of undermining the intellectual self-confidence of Indians, it has also been especially hard on the type of recognition that Indians may standardly have given to the country’s scientific and critical traditions. The comparative judgement that Macaulay made popular in the early nineteenth century (‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’) was seen to apply particularly to Indian analytical work (as will be more fully discussed in Essay 7).5

Even though early colonial administrators in the late eighteenth century – Warren Hastings among them – took a very broad interest in India’s intellectual past, the narrowing of the imperial mind was quite rapid once the empire settled in.6 Coercion and dominance demanded the kind of distancing that could sustain the ‘autocracy set up and sustained in the East by the foremost democracy in the Western world’ (as Ranajit Guha has insightfully described colonial India).7 India’s religions and mystical thoughts did not threaten to undermine that imperial intellectual distance. There was no great difficulty in providing encouragement and assistance to those who gathered and translated ‘the sacred books of the east’ (as Max Müller did, with support from the East India Company, commissioned in 1847, resulting in a 50-volume collection).8 But in the standard fields of pure and practical reason, the propensity to see a gigantic intellectual gap between India and the West – stretching far back into history – was certainly quite strong.*

Let me illustrate. Consider, for example, the originality of Āryabhaṭa’s work, completed in 499 CE, on the diurnal motion of the earth (disputing the earlier understanding of an orbiting sun) and the related proposal that there was a force of gravity which prevented material objects from being thrown away as the earth rotated (described in Essay 1). The most influential colonial historian of British India, James Mill, took these claims to be straightforward fabrication. It was clear to Mill that the Indian ‘pundits had become acquainted with the ideas of European philosophers respecting the system of the universe’, and had then proceeded to claim that ‘those ideas were contained in their own books’.9 Mill’s Indian history, which Macaulay described as ‘on the whole the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon’,10 was tremendously influential in the intellectual world of the British Raj.11

As it happens, however, the scientific ideas in dispute were well reported, not just in Indian books, but also in the accounts of outside observers. In particular, they received careful and detailed description (as did other early Indian works in astronomy and mathematics) from Arab and Iranian mathematicians, who also translated and extensively used (with generous acknowledgement) some of the relevant Sanskrit books. For example, the Iranian mathematician Alberuni commented specifically on this particular work of Āryabhaṭa (which Mill took to be the result of nineteenth-century fabrication) in an Arabic book on India (Ta’rikh al-hind), written in the early eleventh century:

Brahmagupta says in another place of the same book: ‘The followers of Āryabhaṭa maintain that the earth is moving and heaven resting. People have tried to refute them by saying that, if such were the case, stones and trees would fall from the earth.’ But Brahmagupta does not agree with them, and says that that would not necessarily follow from their theory, apparently because he thought that all heavy things are attracted towards the centre of the earth.12

James Mill’s comprehensive denial of Indian intellectual originality evidently sprang from his general belief that Indians had taken only ‘a few of the earliest steps in the progress to civilization’.13 Mill’s conviction that Indian scholars were fabricating things would have received some help from his other general belief: ‘Our ancestors, though rough, were sincere; but under the glosing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy.’14 Mill was quite even-handed in dismissing all other claims of achievement of Indian science and mathematics as well, for example the development and use of the decimal system (Mill offered the enticing view that the Indian decimal notations were ‘really hieroglyphics’).*

Perhaps I should in fairness note the mitigating circumstance that Mill made a conscious decision to write his history of India without learning any Indian language and without ever visiting India. Mill declared these facts with some apparent pride in the Preface to his book – he evidently did not want to be biased by closeness to the subject matter. Alberuni, the Iranian mathematician, who mastered Sanskrit and roamed around in India for a great many years before writing his own history of India, eight hundred years before Mill, would have been a little puzzled by the research methodology of the leading British historian of India of the nineteenth century. Mill’s work set the tone for many of the discussions on colonial policy of the day, including the educational arrangements instituted in British India, in which Macaulay in particular, citing Mill very often, played a big part.

Colonial undermining of self-confidence had the effect of driving many Indians to look for sources of dignity and pride in some special achievements in which there was less powerful opposition – and also less competition – from the imperial West, including India’s alleged excellence in spirituality and the outstanding importance of her specific religious practices.15 By creating their ‘own domain of sovereignty’ (as Partha Chatterjee has described it),16 the Indians – like other people dominated by colonialism – have often sought their self-respect in unusual fields and special interests. This has been associated with an extraordinary neglect of Indian works on reasoning, science, mathematics and other so-called ‘Western spheres of success’. There is certainly a need for some emendation here.

History and Public Reason

There is a need for a somewhat similar corrective regarding Indian traditions in public reasoning and tolerant communication, and more generally in what can be called the precursors of democratic practice (discussed in Essay 1). Imperial leaders in Britain, such as Winston Churchill, were not only sceptical of the ability of Indians to govern themselves, they found little reason to take an interest in the history of ideas on civil administration or participatory governance or public reasoning in India. In contrast, when India became independent in 1947 the political discussions that led to a fully democratic constitution, making India the largest democracy in the twentieth century, not only included references to Western experiences in democracy, but also recalled its own participatory traditions.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, put particular emphasis on the toleration of heterodoxy and pluralism in Indian history.17 The Chair of the Drafting Committee of the Indian constitution, Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a distinguished scholar and political leader from the community of Dalits (formerly, ‘untouchables’), also went in some detail into the history of local democratic governance in India to assess whether it could fruitfully serve as a model for modern Indian democracy. Ambedkar eventually saw little merit in drawing on local democratic experience, since localism, he argued, generated ‘narrow-mindedness and communalism’ (speaking personally, Ambedkar even asserted that ‘these village republics have been the ruination of India’).18 But Ambedkar also pointed to the general relevance of the history of public reasoning in India, and particularly emphasized the expression of heterodox views.19

Despite those early deliberations in independent India, the intellectual agendas related to national politics have tended to move firmly in other directions since then, influenced by, among other factors, the sectarianism of the Hindutva movement and the cultural ignorance of many of the globalizing modernizers. Yet the historical roots of democracy and secularism in India, no less than the reach of its scientific and mathematical heritage, demand serious attention in contemporary India. Indeed, public discussion – in addition to balloting and elections – is part of the very core of democratic arrangements. Just as the tradition of balloting (going back to the practice in Athens in the sixth century BCE) is rightly acclaimed in the history of democracy, there is a similar case for celebrating the development, across the world, of the tradition of open public discussion as an essential aspect of the roots of democracy. If Akbar was well ahead of his time in arranging state-organized inter-faith dialogues (possibly the first in the world), Ashoka must also be regarded as remarkable in his interest and involvement, in the third century BCE, in the rules of discussion and confrontation that should govern arguments between holders of diverse beliefs.

That connection has global relevance too, since Ashoka was critically important for the spread of Buddhism and its social values in the world beyond India. It is interesting to note that attaching special importance to discussions and dialogue moved with other Buddhist principles, wherever Buddhism went.* For example, in early seventh-century Japan, the influential Buddhist Prince Shotoku, who was regent to his mother, Empress Suiko, introduced a relatively liberal constitution or kempo (known as ‘the constitution of seventeen articles’) in 604 CE, which included the insistence (in the spirit of the Magna Carta to be signed six centuries later, in 1215): ‘Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.’ Shotoku also argued: ‘Nor let us be resentful when others differ from us. For all men have hearts, and each heart has its own leanings. Their right is our wrong, and our right is their wrong.’20 Indeed, some commentators have seen, in this seventh-century Buddhism-inspired constitution, Japan’s ‘first step of gradual development toward democracy’.21

Another major Buddhist achievement – not unrelated in fact to the interest in public communication – is that nearly every attempt at early printing in the world, in particular in China, Korea and Japan, was undertaken by Buddhist technologists, with an interest in expanding public communication.* The first ever printed book (or, more exactly, the first printed book that is actually dated) was the Chinese translation of an Indian Sanskrit treatise (Vajracchedikaprajñāpāramitā), the so-called ‘Diamond Sutra’. This was translated into Chinese by Kumārajīva (a half-Indian, half-Turkish Buddhist scholar) in 402 CE and this manuscript was printed in 868.22 The introductory note that went with the volume explicitly explained that it was made for ‘universal free distribution’.23

I should also note here that the achievements that are linked to Buddhism include not just the focus on public reasoning and printing, but also accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, literature, painting, sculpture and even in the practice of public health care – a subject in which Buddhists were particularly involved and which greatly interested Chinese visitors to India such as Faxian in the early fifth century and Yi Jing in the seventh. Also Ashoka, the Buddhist emperor, was a pioneer in creating hospitals for public use in the third century BCE. There is also a statement in one of the Edicts that Ashoka had established hospitals in the Hellenistic kingdoms – a claim that may sound implausible but has been plausibly defended on the basis of available evidence by Thomas McEvilley.24

One of the sad features of a narrowly Hinduized view of India’s past is that the justifiable pride Indians can take in the achievements of non-Hindu as well as Hindu accomplishments in India is drowned in the sectarianism of seeing India as mainly a vehicle for Hindu thought and practice. That, combined with an astonishingly narrow and intolerant view of the Hindu tradition itself, amounts to denying a good deal of Indian history that Indians have reason to remember and to celebrate.

Global Connections

Since the 1980s there has been a gradual opening up of the Indian economy, with a big shift in 1992, under the leadership of Manmohan Singh (the present Prime Minister of India) who was then the Finance Minister in the Congress government led by Narasimha Rao.* That government gave way to others, but the reduction of the autarky of closed economic policies has continued. Significantly, when the BJP-led government came to office in 1998, and was consolidated in 1999, it did take a fairly broad view of India’s global economic connections. The focus may have been geared particularly to some specific sectors, but the overall interest in global trade was strong. The parochialism manifest in the BJP’s cultural agenda did not manage to overwhelm the BJP government’s policies on international trade. The growth rate of the Indian economy was also fairly fast over those years.

However, even though the BJP’s cultural prejudices did not manage to overpower the outward-looking economic programme of the Indian government, the cultural agenda itself – closely linked to its sectarian politics – maintained its parochial priorities. Indeed, the rewriting of India’s past that the Hindutva movement offered is closely linked (as was discussed in Essay 3) with relating India’s civilizational accomplishments to constructive work done single-handedly at home, in splendid isolation.

This segregationist programme runs contrary to the fact that sustained interactions across the borders can be seen throughout India’s long history. It is not so much that there was no deprecation of foreigners in Indian traditionalist thinking. Indeed, quite the contrary. But, as Alberuni, the Iranian historian of India, noted nearly a thousand years ago (in a statement with remarkable anthropological vision), ‘depreciation of foreigners not only prevails among us and the Indians, but is common to all nations towards each other’.25 Despite this scepticism of foreign people, there were interactions with outsiders throughout Indian history.

India’s recent achievements in science and technology (including information technology), or in world literature, or in international business, have all involved a good deal of global interaction. The important point to note in the present context is that these interactions are not unprecedented in Indian history. Indeed, interactions have been part and parcel of the Indian civilization, from very early days. Consider Sanskrit – a splendid language with a rich literature – which has been one of the robust pillars of Indian civilization. Despite its quintessential ‘Indianness’, there is a general understanding that, in an early form, Sanskrit came to India from abroad in the second millennium BCE, with the migration of Indo-Europeans, and then it developed further and flourished magnificently in India. It is also interesting to note that the greatest grammarian in Sanskrit (indeed possibly in any language), namely Pāṇini, who systematized and transformed Sanskrit grammar and phonetics around the fourth century BCE, was of Afghan origin (he describes his village on the banks of the river Kabul). These foreign connections have not diminished the pride of classically minded Indians in that great language, nor in the exceptional achievements of the literature, culture and science that found its expression in Sanskrit.*

Indeed, interactions have enriched as well as spread Sanskrit beyond India’s borders over many centuries.* The seventh-century Chinese scholar Yi Jing learned his Sanskrit in Java (in the city of Shri Vijaya) on his way from China to India. The influence of interactions is well reflected in languages and vocabularies throughout Asia from Thailand and Malaya to Indo-China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and Japan. And this applies to China too, where scholarship in Sanskrit flourished greatly in the first millennium, aside from the influences that came via other countries in the region. It is not often realized that even the word ‘Mandarin’, standing as it does for a central concept in Chinese culture, is derived from a Sanskrit word, Mantrī, which went from India to China via Malaya.

Even though contemporary attacks on intellectual globalization tend to come not only from traditional isolationists but also from modern separatists, we have to recognize that our global civilization is a world heritage – not just a collection of disparate local cultures. The tendency of parts of the communitarian movement to push us in the direction of fragmented isolationism suffers, thus, from a serious epistemic weakness, in addition to whatever normative difficulties it might encounter vis-à-vis ethical universalism.

The need to resist colonial dominance is, of course, important, but it has to be seen as a fight against submissive compliance, rather than as a plea for segregation and localism. The so-called ‘post-colonial critique’ can be significantly constructive when it is dialectically engaged – and thus strongly interactive – rather than defensively withdrawn and barriered. We can find a warning against isolationism in a parable about a well-frog – the ‘kūpamaṇḍuka’ – that persistently recurs in several old Sanskrit texts, such asGanapāṭha, Hitopadeśa, Prasannarāghava and Bhattikāvya. The kūpamaṇḍuka is a frog that lives its whole life within a well, knows nothing else, and is suspicious of everything outside it. It talks to no one, and argues with no one on anything. It merely harbours the deepest suspicion of the outside world. The scientific, cultural and economic history of the world would have been very limited indeed had we lived like well-frogs.

Celebration of Indian civilization can go hand in hand with an affirmation of India’s active role in the global world. The existence of a large diaspora abroad is itself a part of India’s interactive presence. Ideas as well as people have moved across India’s borders over thousands of years, enriching India as well as the rest of the world. Rabindranath Tagore put the rationale well, in a letter to C. F. Andrews: ‘Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin.’*

Indians, including the diaspora, have reason to resist external isolation as well as internal miniaturization. Indeed, the openness of the argumentative tradition militates not only against exclusionary narrowness within the country, but also against the cultivated ignorance of the well-frog. We need not agree to be incarcerated in the dinginess of a much diminished India, no matter how hard the political advocates of smallness try to jostle us. There are serious choices to be made.

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