How relevant is Genghis Khan – Asia’s biggest hero of the last millennium, who rose from the wind-swept Inner Asian steppes to create the world’s largest ever empire in history. Mesmerising accounts of Genghis Khan abound in scores of books available now – highlighting how ruthlessly he had seized swathes of land (12 million square miles) from Korea to Poland by routing empire after empire. It is said that Genghis Khan’s army reduced China’s population by half. His army swept through Eurasia, erased the Khwarazm Empire, and annihilated over 40 million people on the way. They also wiped out three-fourths of modern-day Iran’s population. Their conquest of Baghdad, Syria and Egypt was considered the most catastrophic event in Islamic history. Genghis Khan did not even spare the Slavic and European world. His army hit hard on the ancient centres of Russian civilization; went further to subjugate today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland. By the time Genghis Khan died in 1227, the Mongol Empire was twice the size of the Roman Empire and Muslim Caliphate and four times the size of Alexander the Great's.
But, soon after his death, the great empire broke into four parts. While Kublai Khan (1264–1294) established the Yuan dynasty in China after subjugating the Song dynasty, others formed the Chagatai Khanate, Ilkhanate Khanate and Golden Horde Khanate. The Mongols no longer remained Mongols after Genghis Khan’s death. His heirs later went in different direction and orientations. Those who ruled China turned to Buddhism, while others who founded Khanates in Eurasia adopted Islam of the Sufi variant.
Most historical writings tell epic tales of Genghis Khan’s extreme cruelty. In the European imagination, he is an Asian scourge and a symbol of everything evil. Till date, his name is used to frighten children in Europe. Among Muslims, Genghis is portrayed as a brutal mass slaughterer equivalent to Satan. Recalling Genghis Khan was a taboo during the Soviet era, for he reminded Russians of the humiliation they faced under his yoke.
Strangely, no one appreciated Genghis Khan’s profound grasp of realpolitik. Very few are prepared to accept that he was actually a harbinger of peace and stability and that he had established a Pax Mongolica from Asia to Europe. Indeed, some Russians do acknowledge that the Mongol yoke critically offset the recurrent European invasions of Russia; a reason why some Russians find Mongols even today as a friendly force, compared to the Europeans who continue to threaten Russia’s existence.
Indeed, Genghis Khan was the real globaliser – connected civilizations that ushered in an era of greater exchange and flow of commerce, goods, ideas, philosophy, and technology across vastly myriad cultures along the fabled Silk Road. The Mongols were the first to introduce paper currency and create a high-speed postal and communication network system.
Genghis Khan employed craftsmen and artisans to get gunpowder and compass techniques that revolutionised warfare. The militaries of the world owe Genghis Khan for his virtuosity in introducing professionalism with a centralised command structure. The Mongols brilliantly developed a wide intelligence network, and a highly sophisticated bureaucracy for governance. Equally significant was the new codified international law and a diplomatic code of conduct that sustained Mongol power.
In fact, the Chinese today seem to be shoplifting Mongol ideas; the One Belt One Road initiative is a good example in this regard.
Genghis Khan was certainly not barbaric. He had a sense of civilizational values when he ordered the adoption of the Uyghur script to create a written language for the Mongol Ulus (nation). Uyghur was rich in Sanskrit literature and Buddhist philosophy during his time.
As for his belief, Genghis Khan stuck to the core principle of universalism. He practiced Tengrism or Shamanism that revered Ekh-Tengir or Kukh-Tengir (Great Blue Sky), but he was tolerant of different religions prevalent in his empire such as Nestorian Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and various animistic traditions.
In practice, Genghis Khan was a pragmatist rather than an ideologue. He exempted Buddhist monasteries from taxation because they served his empire, but banned Islamic practices like Halal butchering which he thought did not serve any purpose. He considered Muslims and Jews as "slaves". Unlike other conquerors, Genghis Khan respected women and constantly sought the advice of his mother and wives.
But the irony is that Genghis Khan’s legacy has been kept secret and obscure, still a subject of intrigue and speculation. Most accounts on him are grotesquely misleading and prejudicial. But the most galling aspect of all is China’s proclamation of Genghis Khan as one of its honorary Emperors but of ‘Mongol origin’! To justify their subjugation of Inner Mongolia, the Chinese have glorified Genghis Khan as a unifier rather than an oppressor. The forays of Mongols and their butchery of millions of Chinese are censored for political reasons. Instead, the sly Chinese portray Genghis Khan's legacy for public view in a Mausoleum built in his memory in Inner Mongolia.
One rather intriguing feature is that Mongol emperors and tribes, from Genghis Khan to the last Mongol rulers of Oriyat, Torgud or Kalmyk variants, invariably tended to see their own image through the Indian mirror. Historians trace Mongol interface with India to the second century in the Common Era, during the reign of Kanishka when the Sogdanian (Uzbek) traders were the first to narrate Indian wisdom to the Mongol nomadic tribes wandering in Central Asia.
This leads to yet another perplexing question that is often raised but remains unanswered – why Genghis Khan, who left no territory unconquered, did not invade India? The Mongol leader did not spare the Chinese, Koreans, Persians, Afghans, Arabs, Slavs, Europeans whether Christians, Jews or Muslims, causing so much damage to them even to the verge of their extinction. But there is no rational explanation, specific facts and references as to why the Mongol army kept off India even though they had every opportunity to do so by exploiting the already disunited Sultanates then.
Genghis Khan had reached even neighbouring Afghanistan under the control of Shah Muhammad's son Jalal-ud-din, but he decided to turn back from there. So what deterred him from invading India?
Among some logical explanations cited include the Indian tropical climate – considered unsuitable for Mongol troops and horses (cavalry). But the Indian climatic condition has never been known to have deterred other foreign invaders including Greeks, Turks and Moguls from militarily venturing into India. Genghis Khan’s own descendants, Tamerlane and Babur, were later able to create havoc in India massacring thousands in Delhi alone.
The logistical problem of crossing the perilous and impassable Himalayas for his return may have been another reason. Some give credit to Shams-ud-din Iltutmish for his diplomatic skill in dealing wisely with Genghis Khan’s messengers and thus escaping the Mongol rage.
Yet, one most astonishing and popular myth goes that the Mongols including Genghis Khan innately regarded India as sacrosanct and inviolable. Many strongly believe that Genghis Khan’s ritual of Tengir worship resembled the ancient Indian tantric rituals.
But the most common legend is the one mentioned in the Secret History of the Mongols: that Genghis Khan was stopped by a “Unicorn” who spoke with the voice of his dead father and conveyed to him that invading India would not be blissful and it would go against his fortune. Genghis Khan took it as a blessing and immediately turned back from Afghanistan along with his troops.
The stories also go that his advisors advised him against touching Buddhist monasteries in Turfan and Khotan – considered then as symbols of Indian wisdom. Some Mongol Buddhists also consider Genghis Khan to be a reincarnation of Bodhisattva Vajrapani.
While these could be termed as myths, historical records do prove that those Mongol descendants avowed to the Islamic faith such as Babur did not spare India while those who embraced Buddhism such as Kublai Khan revered India and proclaimed themselves as Chakravartin Khans.
In fact, the Mongols were so inherently rooted in Indic religion that even after their disintegration by the 13th-14th century, they took to Buddhism albeit through the Manchus and Tibetans. By the 16th century, the vernacular Mongolian Buddhism, which had direct roots in Sanskrit, was overshadowed by the Tibetan Lama orthodoxy under the patronage of the Manchu Chin’g Dynasty and lasts until now. In fact, the last theocratic ruler of Mongolia Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, who was dethroned in 1920 in a Communists Revolution, was considered the reincarnation of a Bengali scholar Acharya Taranatha.
It is interesting to see how, in the 21st century, the Mongols are speedily returning to the global stage with their lost Mongol-Buddhist identity. Today, Genghis Khan stirs Mongol nationalism. He enjoys a divine status on both sides of the Mongolia-China border. His birth anniversary is celebrated with fervour both in Inner and Outer Mongolia.
The Chinese are fearful not just of Genghis Khan’s legacy but also of Buddha and the India factor. To mollify Mongols, the Chinese treat Genghis Khan as their hero, but the fear of a new generation of Mongols imbuing ancient links disturbs Chinese minds. In July 2015, Chinese authorities arrested an Indian national in Inner Mongolia for watching a documentary on Genghis Khan – an indication of the Chinese paranoia built around these realities.
The Mongol-Buddhist connect with India also worries Beijing. To rival India, the Chinese are seeking direct contact with Mongol Buddhists. They have already reached out with cash for helping Mongols reconstruct major monasteries lying in ruins since their destruction during the Stalin era. Apart from cultivating members of the Mongol clergy, the Chinese are trying to gain control over the Soviet-era Buddhist outfit, the Asian Buddhist Conference of Peace (ABCP) based in Ulaanbaatar. The moribund ABCP enjoys the UN tag. A plan is also afoot now to take the Chinese-chosen Panchen Lama to Ulaanbaatar this summer. All these are part of China’s calculus to influence the politics of Lamaistic Buddhism in the post 14th Dalai Lama era. Clearly, Beijing sees yet another geopolitical benefit of edging in on India’s cultural influence.
These moves are providentially being noted in India. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Mongolia last year and the grant of USD 1 billion credit line was meant to reaffirm India’s strong commitment to protect and boost Mongol identity. Further steps are needed to help Mongolia financially and with archaeological skills for restoring numerous headless and bullet holes-marred Buddhist statues as also to preserve ancient monasteries that contain priceless hand-printed Sanskrit texts.
What also binds India with Mongolia alongside Buddhism is democracy – born in the early 1990s with Indian incentives. Buddhism, democracy, freedom and nationalism are seemingly intersecting powerfully in the current political and economic context of Mongolia.
India should help Mongolia bust the stereotypical myths and cardboard image of the great Mongol heroes. Instead of demonising Genghis Khan as a barbaric plunderer, his legacy should be preserved as a proud Asian heritage. Opportunity exists to build a fresh Mongol narrative based on previously untapped resources. Such a requirement demands urgency in the context of China’s historical reassertion both in the maritime and Inner Asian domain.
Like other countries, Mongolia is also concerned by China’s rise. Though the Chinese bring lots of money to Mongolia in return for accessing its mineral resources in the Gobi desert, the threat that Mongolia too would eventually be swallowed by China, like what happened to Inner Mongolia, does exist. Therefore, only a powerful resurrection of Genghis Khan could expose many of the historical truths especially to debunk Chinese historical claims in Asia.
More directly for India, Mongolia serves well for maintaining the Asian balance of power. Clearly, India’s cultural presence in the midst of China and Russia is good for the Asian order. Mongolia is also nicely positioned in close proximity to Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, resource-rich Siberia, Russia’s Far East and North Korea. Thus, a benign Indian presence in Mongolia is geopolitically vital.
It would be befitting to dedicate the 60th Anniversary of Indo-Mongolian Diplomatic Relations this year to the great Asian hero Genghis Khan.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.