Musings on ‘Indic civilization’ and Indianness

India’s civilisational heritage must be treated as a matter of pride — as one that unites every Indian

Updated - June 13, 2022 12:10 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2022 12:16 am IST

The export of aspects of Indianness

The export of aspects of Indianness | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I have been musing about the nature of Indian nationhood for at least the last four decades, ever since a distinguished foreigner said to me: ‘You Indians have allowed yourself to forget that there is such a thing as Indic civilization. And we are its last outpost.’

The words were spoken to me in 1982, when I headed the United Nations office in Singapore, by the Khmer nationalist politician and one-time Prime Minister, Son Sann, lamenting India’s support for Vietnam in its conquest of Cambodia in 1979. To Son Sann, a venerable figure then already in his late seventies, Cambodia was an ‘Indic civilization’ being overrun by the forces of a Sinic state, and he was bewildered that India, the fount of his country’s heritage, should sympathise with a people as distinctly un-Indian as the Vietnamese. Given that Vietnam’s invasion had put an end to the blood-soaked terror of the rule of the Khmer Rouge, I was more inclined to see the choice politically than in terms of civilisational heritage. But Son Sann’s words stayed with me.

The long reach of culture

They came back to mind during a visit to Angkor Wat, perhaps the greatest Hindu temple ever built anywhere in the world — and in Cambodia, not in India. To walk past those exquisite sculptures recounting tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to have my Cambodian guide tell me about the significance of the symbols protecting the shrine — the naga, the simha, and the garuda, corresponding, he said earnestly, to today’s navy, army, and air force — and to marvel at the epic scale of a Hindu temple as impressive as the finest cathedral or mosque anywhere in the world, was also to marvel at the extraordinary reach of a major strand of our culture beyond our own shores. Hinduism was brought to Cambodia by merchants and travellers more than a millennium ago. It has long since disappeared, supplanted by Buddhism, also an Indian export. But at its peak, Hinduism profoundly influenced the culture, music, dance, and mythology of the Cambodian people. My Cambodian guide at Bayon, a few minutes’ drive from Angkor Wat, spoke with admiration of a sensibility which, in the 16th century, saw Hindus and Buddhists worship side by side in adjoining shrines within the same temple complex. That seems inconceivable today in India, where contestations over places of worship have been reduced to winner-takes-all.

Last outpost standing

Perhaps Son Sann was right, and Cambodia is indeed the last outpost of Indic civilisation in a world increasingly Sinified. But what exactly does that mean? At a time when the north of India was reeling under waves of conquest and cultural stagnation, our forefathers in the South and East were exporting aspects of Indianness to Southeast Asia. It was an anonymous task, carried out not, for the most part, by warriors blazing across the land bearing swords of conquest, but by individuals who had come in peace, to trade, to teach, and to persuade. Their impact was profound. To this day, the kings of Thailand are crowned in the presence of Brahmin priests; the Muslims of Java still bear Sanskritised names, despite their conversion to Islam, a faith whose adherents normally bear names originating in Arabia; Garuda is Indonesia’s national airline, and Ramayana its best-selling brand of clove cigars; even the Philippines has produced a pop-dance ballet about Rama’s quest for his kidnapped queen. Many Southeast Asian countries also mirror the idea of a ‘sacred geography’: the old Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya derived its name from the Indian Ayodhya, and places in Thailand are associated with events in the Ramayana epic, such as a hill where Hanuman was sent to find the Sanjeevani. Since 1782, Thai kings are still named Rama in continuation of the Ramayana tradition; the current monarch, Vajiralongkorn, is styled Rama X. (The Javanese city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia is also a transliteration of Ayodhya).

Ideas that are inadequate

Indeed the pioneering French Indologist, Sylvain Lévi, spoke and wrote of ‘le monde Indien’ or ‘greater India’, a concept echoed in the American Sanskrit scholar, Sheldon Pollock’s ‘the Sanskrit cosmopolis’. Both terms refer to countries whose cultures were Indic in the sense of having been strongly influenced by Sanskrit language and literature. For such scholars, the geographical idea of India (the subcontinent bordered by the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Himalayan mountains) and the geopolitical idea of India (today the Republic of India; at its biggest extent, the British Raj as it was in 1914, or more pragmatically, the British India of 1947) are inadequate—for the civilisational idea of India is much broader.

In a perverse way, it is also narrower, for Indic civilisation was often not as well-entrenched in some parts of today’s Republic of India as it was in countries that were not, for long, part of any Indian polity, such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Java, Bali, or Sumatra. These countries, at least during large parts of the first millennium CE, were ‘culturally as much Indian as Andhra Pradesh or Bangladesh during that very period’, argues the French Indologist, Gérard Fussman. ‘In these countries, non-Sanskritic languages were spoken and local gods were worshipped. But the language of culture and politics was Sanskrit as in India proper, or Pali; the upper strata’s cults were Hindu or Buddhist, as in India proper; artists and architects followed the precepts of Sanskrit technical treatises.’

But contemporary international politics has rendered all this much less significant than the modern indices of strategic thinking, economic interests, and geopolitical affinities. India is far less important to the countries that still bear such ‘Indic’ influence than, say, China, whose significance is contemporary, rather than civilisational.

The idea of India and beyond

Should we care, and what, if anything, does this have to do with the idea of India? Of course, we should care: no great civilisation can afford to be indifferent to the way in which it is perceived by others. But what, today, is Indic civilisation? Some have argued that India is a “civilization-state” rather than a “nation-state”, but they anchor the idea of Indian civilisation solely in the Hindu dharma, with no regard for the multiple non-Hindu influences that have undoubtedly helped shape contemporary Indian civilisation. The Huntington idea that the principal fault lines in the world would be between civilisations rather than ideologies — over identity rather than ideas — appeals to votaries of the Hindutva movement, who see Hindu civilisation as the defining characteristic of the Indian nation. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had stated bluntly: “For me, Hindu Nation and Indian Nation are synonyms.” But this is a highly contestable proposition. Can we afford to anchor ourselves in a purely atavistic view of ourselves, hailing the religious and cultural heritage of our forebears without recognising the extent to which we ourselves have changed?

A hybrid

The examples I have cited are, after all, all from the Hindu tradition. But is not Indian civilisation today an evolved hybrid that draws as much from the influence of Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, and Sikhism, not to mention two centuries of British colonial rule? Can we speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport? When an Indian dons a ‘national dress’ for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India.

When Indian Hindus voted a few years ago, in a cynical and contrived competition on the Internet, to select the ‘new seven wonders’ of the modern world, they voted for the Taj Mahal constructed by a Mughal king, not for Angkor Wat, the most magnificent architectural product of their religion. So, does not Indianness today — composed of elements influenced by various civilisations that have made their homes on Indian soil — subsume the classical Indic civilisation that Son Sann was referring to? It does, and we are all much better for it. Let us treat our civilisational heritage as a matter of pride, and not of parochialism; as a heritage that unites, rather than divides one Indian from another.

Shashi Tharoor is the Member of Parliament (Congress) for Thiruvananthapuram and the Sahitya Akademi award-winning author of 23 books, including a study of nationalism globally and in India, ‘The Battle of Belonging’, 2021

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