INDIA’S “SOFT POWER” IS A TERM making rounds at a rather hasty pace especially in these last six or seven years. It is generally understood and used in the following senses: (1) Spreading India’s millennia-old cultural heritage throughout the world as a means of showcasing and thereby gaining appreciation from other countries (2) Sculpting India’s foreign policy based on this.
Superficially, this is rather sensible but it merits deeper investigation. India is perhaps the only country in the world placed today in a rather unique and unenviable position owing to a tangled web, chiefly threaded by complex historical factors. This is indeed the subject of an in-depth scholarly study but at a high level, the same historical factors reveal a fundamental truth: “soft power,” unless backed by hard power will be eroded faster until nothing is left. Yoga is a classic case. It has become “popular,” which is a code word for saying that its sublimity and its spiritual core have been vandalized to the extent that many “Indian” Yoga “Gurus” no longer mention the name of its pioneering seer, Patanjali, regarded as a Muni in our tradition. Then there is something called “naked Yoga,” and Yoga porn. The other major domain where we can observe the same phenomenon is our classical dance forms. The corruption in this area is quite unbelievable to those in the know.
All this is the direct consequence of having no hard-power backup which could have prevented such malaises by actively erecting deterrents against their corruption.
Consider the case of what can be called Western “soft power” for the sake of convenience.
In our own time, this “soft power” introduced in India is almost wholly American, and comprises mostly of the pleasures of the flesh. Fast food chains serving debris as “food.” A sartorial menu that is completely tasteless, inelegant and has zero room for finesse and workmanship. And what the hell is a “secret” Santa? And then we have that ultimate cultural Patton tank that has steamrolled two generations of the Hindu society: Hollywood. As far as India is concerned, at least over the last three decades, Hollywood has mostly been a force for the worse.
But these are the practical implications and descriptions of American “soft power” also known as American exceptionalism. But those who are rooted in the Sanatana ethos clearly understand it as follows: what is known as American soft power is simply the barbaric triumph of Artha and Kama over Dharma; of the attempted conquest of Rajas and Tamas over Sattva. To such a Sanatana mind, this phenomenon is neither surprising nor alarming. On the contrary, it is the real-life enactment of the rather familiar and timeless stories of the legions of Asuras who acquire fantastic boons, get power-drunk, run amok for centuries, destroy all that is good, virtuous and valuable in the world till they eventually meet their maker in a ghastly fashion. Imagine being Hiranyakashyipu. Imagine getting your intestines ripped out while you are still alive. The same Sanatana mind also intuitively recognizes that this “soft power” is just a reflection of the psyche that created it: the Asuri psyche characterized by constant disturbance and turmoil, which is the source-fount of all intolerance, which it seeks to impose on others as well.
The Sattvic mind on the other hand seeks stability and places a premium on order.
UNFORTUNATELY, OVER THE LAST FIVE HUNDRED YEARS, the situation has been inverted. The aforementioned Western or American “soft power” engine backed up by hard military power has not only caused havoc across the planet but has also left India in state of constant disruption. Like that proverbial man caught in the bottom of a steep well whose walls have been smeared with oil, India been continuously slipping down each time it has succeeded in an impressive upward march.
Thus, we have a situation of extreme vulnerability in which internal and external security is the most central element. To say that this has been severely compromised over the last seven decades is an understatement. In such a scenario, talking about “soft power” is quite worrisome to say the least. This is not to negate the importance of “soft power” but to call for deeper thought and nuance. For the longest time, this “soft power” and variants thereof have been cynically commoditised and robbed of their sublime essence. When I watch and listen to “acclaimed” danseuses and musicians speak how “Krishna and Christ are the same,” and how “Mary and Meera” are equal, it remains an indelible source of anguish and mortification. The form has remained, the spirit has perhaps evaporated. This is not soft power but cultural surrender.
What I am saying is nothing new. Such warnings have routinely rung for more than a century. More so and more urgently after India attained a questionable political independence. Way back in 1957, the brilliant scholar, Sri Saletore correctly prophesized the situation we face today:
Had such warnings been heeded, we wouldn’t have reached the abyss where avowed Hindu-culture antagonists like Wendy Doniger and Diana Eck and Sheldon Pollock would sit in their topless towers of Chicago and Harvard and give out certificates of culture to Hindus themselves.
Culture, especially, one which is inextricably rooted in the spiritual and divine ambience of Sanatana Dharma, is a delicate fulcrum, and the Government has no business to be in it except affording it protection and freedom. Our Kings protected culture not as an administrative function but as its devout practitioners. But in recent history, a double-blow has been dealt to culture in the form of politicians and deracinated Hindu industrialists and businessmen whose “understanding” of our culture is through a multicoloured prism: American-style capitalism, the MBA-style of case-study approach, and the Western model of “philanthropy.” To borrow a familiar idiom of classical Sanskrit literature, these approaches are as real as the rabbit who lives on the moon. The person who thinks he or she is a patron of culture is indulging in the grandest of all self-deceptions. To appreciate the full profundity of this statement, as Hindus, we need to reawaken to say Samudragupta, Chandragupta Vikramaditya II, Bhoja Raja, Sri Krishnadevaraya and some luminaries of the Mysore Wodeyar dynasty.
As long as this profound spirit remained as a subconscious realization throughout the Hindu society, it protected its culture at all levels. No strata of this Hindu society needed to be “taught” this basic lesson of our cultural life. Every Hindu who migrated out of India from the ancient times not only carried this cultural gene but quietly attracted the host country to it. In fact, centuries before Islam violently burst on the world stage, Indian businessmen and travellers by land and sea routes, were also the conveyors of the immortal tradition of Indian storytelling in a vast expanse of geography that covered the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the fabled Silk Route. The businessmen did not travel alone: their extensive retinue included monks, pilgrims, peddlers, actors, acrobats, students, tourists, fortune-seekers, horse-traders, and physicians. This is the true meaning and the real-life operation of what “soft power.”
But what is even more incredible is the longevity of this commercial-cultural phenomenon. Despite centuries of Islamic invasions and European depredations, this transmission of Hindu culture to external lands largely remained unbroken and is once again, another eminent area for scholarly study. But two key factors kept this alive: (1) hard power (2) the cultural rootedness, ingenuity and guts of Hindu businessmen who lived abroad but never lost touch with their Kula Devata – Grama Devata and their spiritual tradition and its lineage of Gurus and Munis and Sadhus.
Beginning with the next episode, we shall narrate the story of one such enduring transmission of Hindu culture to Muscat, an avowedly Islamic land. It is one continuous story sprawled across three splendid centuries of Hindu mercantile dominance, a dominance sustained sometimes amid great difficulty, and an inspirational saga of grit, enterprise, devotion and intrepidity.
Needless, it contains truly extraordinary lessons for the current crop of foreign policy experts, and diplomats who deeply care about Hindu culture.
To be continued
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