It is the best of times, it is the worst of times, it is the age of wisdom, it is the age of foolishness, it is the epoch of belief, it is the epoch of incredulity, it is the season of Light, it is the season of Darkness, it is the spring of hope, it is the winter of despair, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us, we are all going direct to Heaven, we are all going direct the other way – in short, the period is so far like a past period, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
I could not think of a more befitting start for a tale that concerns the two ancient civilisations of China and India – the two contemporary Asiatic giants who have come to be what they presently are through the innumerable mutations caused by time. Of course I had to modify Dickens’ passage to change its past tense narrative into the present tense for the sake of contextual relevance. Nevertheless, the mood of a conflictual age, marked by its inherent contradictions, is perfectly captured by this classic commencement of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and serves the purpose of a backdrop against which the present reading of the two ancient civilisations is going to unfold.
Here we will indulge ourselves in judging how much of the last vestiges, if any, of two great civilisations of the old world is still left to be experienced and learnt from. It will equally be our concern here to understand how much of the present society, politics and worldviews of the two countries – the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India – is informed by their respective civilizational fountainheads. Do these two modern nation states continue to preserve any connection with their civilizational ethos? Or have Western worldviews and ideologies engulfed the unique identity of each of these countries completely, without leaving a trace of the ideas that had shaped them, and had given them their celebrated standings among the proud nations of the world?
Let us begin at the present moment, and then go back in time to understand the what, why and how of the contemporary avatars of the Chinese and Indian civilisations. This may seem to be an unusual approach for any historical reading, but isn’t it history’s primary goal to interpret the present in terms of the happenings in the past? As long as that basic purpose is fulfilled, the methodology in reading history should stand vindicated. Unsurprisingly enough, we choose Doklam as our point of departure for this comparative historiography.
This recent incident created an almost four-month long logjam over the issue of warlike infrastructure development by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the contentious piece of land, which is also the tri-junction of the boundaries of India, Bhutan and China. Bhutan had opposed the Chinese activities, for obvious apprehensions of military aggression by the belligerent communist regime. This did not go down well with China, which is understandable, given Bhutan’s diminutive presence in terms of both territory and resources.
A skirmish between the formidable Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the modest Bhutanese army built up as early as May this year (and not in June, as the ‘official’ account of the contention has asserted all along), the two armies came dangerously close to a face-off, as is revealed by images captured from Indian unmanned aerial vehicles in a recent book, authored by Nitin A. Gokhale. It is at this point that India entered the fray on behalf of the Bhutanese, her long-standing ally. It is worth mentioning at this point that Bhutan was the first country to recognise a free and independent Bangladesh, in the final days of the Bangladesh liberation war when the Indian Army had effectively cornered the Pakistani military junta in Bangladeshi territory.
That the communist rulers of China have increased the ante along its borders in recent years has a rationale in recent history. The latest devastating spell of economic recession in the US, which saw its worst days around the year 2008, made China see an opportunity to assert itself globally, in both the economic and political domains, in what proved to be times of trouble for the so-called developed nations of the West, and particularly for the American big brother. It was essentially a fish-in-troubled-waters moment for the Asiatic aspirant for global prominence, and it made good use of the moment to steadily and systematically further its military presence in the strategically significant regions of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, causing much resentment in India, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam all stakeholders in the two areas.
In the relatively modern periods of its history, China has been involved in two major wars against Japan: one in the final decade of the nineteenth century; and another prolonged war between 1937 and 1945. Both these wars took place before the communists took over state power in mainland China, and they were results of the imperial ambitions of both countries, mainly over the question of independence of Korea. Therefore it is apparent that the Chinese have been a warlike nation at least in the context of the last two centuries of Asian history; and they gave away their warmongering tendencies even before the communists, who are notorious for their conflictual attitude and intolerance towards anyone but their own lot, came to power in China.
The Chinese brand of communism seems to have mutated into the fabled “necessary dictatorship” that prioritises national interest above anything – even above the lofty Western egalitarian ideas of democracy and equality which pervaded Asia from the nineteenth century onwards. There is good reason to compare the present Chinese autarchy with the Marxist façade known as “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which was believed by Marxists to be a necessary step in the way to establishing the perfect socialist paradise.
The Chinese ingenuity lies in cleverly repackaging hard national interest into theoretical communism so as to absolve China’s aggressive colonialist mission by selling it under a garb of the apparently charitable, lofty ideal of socialism-communism. The shaky grounds on which communism, as a political and social ideology, has been standing the world over, post-fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, forced the communist rulers of China to take recourse to nationalism as the dominant ideology to stay relevant in the domestic public discourse in China. Another indicator of this phenomenon is the increasing interest in traditional culture in China in recent years, as partly chronicled in this article by the present author.
Why should there be cause for India to worry in all this? One of the major methods that the Leftist-Islamist-Anarchist nexus has adopted since a long time now is the territorial disintegration of India, a project that has attracted enthusiastic support from the imperialist nations such as the US and the UK from time to time. This unholy project was ‘officially’ initiated by the British colonialist regime in India since the very beginning of the 20th century as it continuously sought to keep the Indian subcontinent divided by sowing the seeds of multiple fault-lines. This was achieved by the British colonialists, working in tandem with the missionaries of various subscription-seeking Christian denominations, by a multi-pronged approach employing colonial scholarship in Indology, anthropology, the pseudo-scientific “race sciences” and historiography on one hand, and diplomacy as well as the divide et impera strategy applied on the diverse communities of the Subcontinent on the other.
We see the many manifestations of this multi-prong colonialist strategy in appeasing the Muslims of the Subcontinent, simultaneously pitting them politically against the majority Hindus of the region – a strategy that has been taken forward by the ‘Old’ as well as the New Left in India and elsewhere – right from Curzon’s infamous partition of Bengal in 1905. The various political parties of the ‘Old’ left in India have maintained a close friendship with their New Left installations in the Indian media and academia, who faithfully execute the ‘Breaking India’ project through media propaganda as well as school and university curricula.
Several of the ‘Old’ and New Left dispensations have extended their unflinching support to the People’s Republic of China at times of conflict between India and China. This has proved beyond any speck of doubt that their allegiance lie with the international communist project and with the Chinese communist party in the Asian regional context. The Maoist militant terrorism poses a great threat to India’s sovereignty via the Nepalese route where Maoists openly participate in electoral politics and in the various ‘Red’ terror pockets within India. The fabled lore of the Maoist-Naxalite leaders from India reaching China to seek guidance and leadership from Chairman Mao (and consequently getting snubbed by the Chairman for their dependence on external help) has entered the legends of communist betrayal in India.
Ironically, the New Left project appears to be comfortable with the “gangland capitalism” (to borrow British philosopher Roger Scruton’s words) of the People’s Republic of China – the Chinese communist regime that has shown the world an ingenious way of combining profit-driven economy with the totalitarianism inherited from Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideologies. The camaraderie between the New Left and the Chinese imperialist mission in Asia is apparent from the continuous moral support extended by the leftist or left-leaning media establishments of the West to the acts of imperialist aggression of the Chinese communist regime. These leftist media houses are in turn fuelled by the ubiquitous forces of the New Left in the academia. The leftist dispensations from the two pillars of media and academia often come together to collude in justifying the militaristic encroachments of China by intensifying, aggrandising and perpetuating the Chinese communists’ propaganda of a fictional Indian aggression, as is demonstrated by this particular article. This spectre of “Indian Aggression” is the careful creation of the Chinese establishment through its state-controlled media, which is buttressed by the leftist political dispensations in the Indian media, academia and intelligentsia which is openly anti-India in their perspective. These leftist pockets have a wider and deeper psychological effect upon the Indian public, than it may ever have on, for example, the American public because the political left in India is not a banned entity as is the case in the US.
Contrasted with the present state of affairs in Indo-Chinese relationship, the age-old exchanges between these two great civilisations present an altogether different story. That story bespeaks a cordial, mutually respectful connection through land and sea routes; one that fostered learning languages, literatures, philosophies, sciences, techniques, and theologies of a diverse range. It has been so intense and productive that the great teachers of one nation have not hesitated to sit and learn at the feet of the gurus from another. Using Tibet as a junction where these two nations met – in a manner that can probably be best described as “fellowship of civilisations” in contrast with the oft-discussed “clash of civilisations” – and Buddhism as the nodal point of this deferential exchange of ideas, India and China grew side by side through millennia to prosper and ripen with age, much in the same way as two great individuals grow old together in wisdom and prosperity.
They retain the friendship, never losing their individuality; they exchange ideas and wealth, all the time extracting more and more mutual benefits than they could ever achieve in isolation. Of course, there were old links with other nations of the world, some in the neighbourhood and others further across the seas that both India and China had explored and nurtured with great curiosity and care; but the special nature of their bilateral relationship is reflected in the way their great teachers have expounded their teachings, the similar problems that the philosophers of both nations have grappled with – coming to such conclusions which are strikingly similar in language and manner. For proof, let us sample the following passages summarizing the “Problem and Spirit of Chinese Philosophy” by Fung Yu-Lan, one of the finest experts on Chinese philosophy, revered equally by his own countrymen and the foreign scholars of Chinese philosophy:
“This-worldliness and other-worldliness stand in contrast to each other as do realism and idealism. The task of Chinese philosophy is to accomplish a synthesis out of these antitheses. That does not mean they are to be abolished. They are still there, but they have been made into a synthetic whole. How can this be done? This is the problem that Chinese philosophy attempts to solve.
According to Chinese philosophy, the man who accomplishes this synthesis, not only in theory but also in deed, is the sage. He is both this-worldly and other-worldly. The spiritual achievement of the Chinese sage corresponds to the saint’s achievement in Buddhism, and in Western religion. But the Chinese sage is not one who does not concern himself with the business of the world. His character is described as one of ‘sageliness within and kingliness without.’ That is to say, in his inner sageliness, he accomplishes spiritual cultivation; in his kingliness without, he functions in society.”
Anyone with a bare minimum acquaintance with the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā’s text and the action-oriented philosophy expounded within it would find the echoes of Sri Krishna’s wartime counsel to Arjuna in the above passages outlining the crux of Chinese philosophy. Without jumping into the lucrative discourses of whose creed had influenced who, whether China borrowed from Indic thoughts or otherwise, or from where and in which direction the philosophical reflections flowed, we (and especially the Chinese and the Indian) can always marvel at the convergence of these two lines of thinking.
The Tao (or the Way/basic set of principles) of “sageliness within and kingliness without” as described by Chinese philosophers is comprehensively explained in the Gītā, which presents a more direct and simplified version of the philosophy of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are in turn present a most condensed exposition of the knowledge contained in the Vedas, which is why the Upanishadic texts, along with the Gītā and Rishi Bādarāyana’s Brahma Sūtra, are collectively known as Vedānta. The Vedas are a set of esoteric texts, whose esotericism is due to the relative obscurity of the Vedic language; as much as due to the idea of adhikāra (roughly, prerogative) which could only be earned by rigorous learning of a plethora of peripheral texts as well as the observance of sādhana (or spiritual discipline). Sannyāsa, or the complete renunciation of the worldly attachments, has been the highest ideal of the Vedic society – as exemplified by its placement as the final āśrama or stage of the human life, and the reverence that sādhu-s and sannyāsī-s continue to enjoy in the Hindu society.
The sanctity of this loftiest of Vedic ideals was compromised in a few centuries following Lord Buddha’s death, when every Tom, Dick and Harry started to take up sannyāsa – monkhood – without accounting for their spiritual merit; when people started using the Buddhist monastery as a sort of haven to shield their own incompetence – and in many instances, their crimes. This kind of degeneration and misinterpretation of the high ideal of sannyāsa has been effectively slammed by Sri Krishna in the Gītā. It is in the Gītā that Sri Krishna teaches Arjuna, without mincing words, the true meaning of renunciation of attachment. When Arjuna confesses his inability to fight his own kinsmen and his venerated Guru, and seeks justifications for his weakness in such high ideals as renunciation from the attachment of wealth, power and all sorts of worldly affairs, Sri Krishna instructs him: “Don’t withdraw into solitude! Renunciation is not enough! You must act, yet action must not dominate you. In the heart of action, you must remain free from all attachment…Act, as you must act; I myself am never without action.”
These ethical precepts concerning such urgent occasions and issues as life and death, as well as war and peace, resonate highly with the central problem in Chinese philosophy as reflected upon by teachers from Confucius to Lao-tzu, and even by the Chinese Buddhists to a great extent. It is within this framework of convergent ethical-moral-metaphysical-practical ideas that the recent resurgence of public interest in traditional culture – and especially in traditional philosophy – in China and India should be closely read.
The reading may lead us to an environment of cooperation in the traditionally shared areas of interest by our two great civilisations, instead of the present atmosphere of terror and hostility created by the aggressive militarism that China has been displaying all around its borders – especially its borders with India – in the recent decades. The apparent anti-India attitude of China lies in the fact that the political, social and economic policies currently driving China are anti-Chinese to the core, philosophically speaking. The variety of philosophies surrounding Marxism, the ideals of socialist egalitarianism, and the resultant supremacism, anarchism and nihilism they together foster are the exact antitheses of the all-round refinement of the human spirit as preached by the great Chinese gurus.
This is a fact that can be testified by the lived experience of the Chinese people in the 20th century, such as an estimated 65 million human lives getting sacrificed in the communist project from the early 1950s to this day in China.
Moving away from barbarism to civilisation, from conflict to peace, from injustice to dharma, from helplessness to sageliness (as well as kingliness), and from darkness of ignorance to the shining light of wisdom has been the principal goal of both Chinese and Indian philosophers. It is high time that those noble traditional ideals are revived in the two nations, for it is essential to turn the table in this discourse, to change the apparent inevitability from a possible extinction of life to a desired proliferation of life in the region.