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Historicizing soft power

How much ‘attractive power’ does India possess? Although as a nation state India is just over 70 years old, as a distinctive civilization it has a much older history. Dating back more than 5,000 years, Indic civilization is one of the most ancient and continuous cultural formations in the world, with wide-ranging influences in areas from religion and philosophy, arts and sciences, language and literature, trade and travel (Thussu, 2013). As the origin of four of the world’s major religions - Hinduism, Buddhism jainism and Sikhism - and as the place where many faiths have coexisted for millennia, India offers a unique and syncretized religious discourse. Buddhism was founded in India and remains the most enduring and powerful idea associated with India today and connects Indian culture with countries across Asia. In addition, both Christianity and Islam have long associations with India. Some of the earliest Christian communities were established in India: St. Thomas is supposed to be buried in Chennai in southern India, and one of the world’s oldest mosques is located in Kerala, where Jewish communities have also lived for millennia.

The dissemination of Hindu and Buddhist ideas across Asia was substantial: it is no coincidence that the official airline of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is named Garuda, the Sanskrit name for the eagle on which the Hindu God Vishnu rides. The Indian contribution to Islamic thought (and via that to European intellectual culture) in mathematics, astronomy and other physical and metaphysical sciences is widely recognized, though India’s cultural influence in historical terms was directed not towards the West but to Asia. The dispersion of ideas associated with Hinduism and Buddhism across east and southeast Asia from the third century bc onwards created a strong cultural and communication dimension to the millennia-old relationship between India and the rest of Asia (Mookerjee, 1947; Sen, 2005). Buddhism was at the heart of this interaction, with the widest dissemination of the ideas emanating from India (Sen, 2003 and 2017). Narratives of the Buddha’s life and teachings are still a cultural referent in much of Asia, while traces of Indic languages, religious rituals, cuisine, dance and other art forms survive in parts of southeast Asia, notably in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia -evident from monumental temple complexes, notably Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia (Sen, 2005;Thussu, 2013).

Buddhism was also a central link between India and China, indicating a very long historical association between the two great civilizational powers of Asia (Xinru, 1988; Sen, 2005; Sen 2003 and 2017). Centres of higher education such as Nalanda, an international Buddhist university based in India between the fifth and twelfth centuries, existed for 500 years before universities were established in Europe (and has been recently revived as part of a pan-Asian project linking China and India, as well as some other Asian nations). The interest in Buddhist thought and texts in China led to great Chinese scholars such as Xuan Zang (602—664) visiting Nalanda to exchange ideas on law, philosophy and politics and translating hundreds of manuscripts from Sanskrit to Mandarin. Indian scholars and religious leaders also visited China on a regular basis and these intellectual exchanges continued for centuries. Over a period of time, the ‘Sinification’ of Buddhism took place, manifested in the mixing of Chinese and Indic beliefs and the development of Chinese Buddhist texts and commentaries (Sen, 2017). Even today Buddhism remains a powerful link between the two civilizations.

In modern times the cultural link between the two nations was symbolized by poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore - the first non-Western writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 - whose visit to China in 1924, in the words of a leading Chinese scholar, led to ‘a wide-ranging Sino-Indian civilizational dialogue, and a very significant landmark in the annals of Sino-Indian cultural intercourse’ (Liming, 2011: 15). On his return to India,Tagore set up the Cheena Bhavana (China House) at his university, Visva-Bharati — the first place in India to teach Chinese language, literature and history (Chung et al., 2011). Tagore remains one of the most respected foreign poets in China even today. Such cultural interactions have a strong soft-power dimension to them and should be considered in any Sino-Indian dialogue. As one commentator has noted, the connections between India and China must be ‘placed within the context of Asian and world history, and the relationship in contemporary times analyzed with reference to global interdependence’ (Sen, 2017: 4).

In Russia too, Indic ideas evoked interest: Gerasim Lebede, who spent 12 years in India between 1785 and 1797, became the father of Indology in Russia. Sanskrit was taught in Moscow University from the 1840s and a Sanskrit Chair was founded in 1855 at St. Petersburg University. The Russian Academy of Sciences also established a Chair of Oriental Linguistic Studies (Chelyshev and Litman, 1985). Adding to this legacy is India’s long and continuing encounter with European modernity and its contribution to a distinctive worldview, epitomized by Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence and tolerance, whose thoughts influenced such leaders as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, prompting scholars to speak of a ‘pax-Gandhiana’ (Parel, 2016).

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