You are here

Keynote Address by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director VIF At Seminar “Exploring The Roots On India’s Strategic Culture”

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director VIF
    October 05, 2017

    Prof Charan Wadava, Col Gautam, Friends, I would like to thank the IDSA for inviting me to this seminar. It is nice to be back at the IDSA after some time. It is particularly satisfying that I was involved with the launching of IDSA’s projects five years ago. Since then a number of high quality publications have been brought out by the IDSA on Arthasastra. This has helped raise awareness about this great thinker.

    Tanham was right in one respect – Indian thought is not properly documented. The result? Even Indians do not know about their history properly. If one talks about past greatness about India it is either greeted with pride verging on hyperbole or by scepticism. A recent article by a Canada born Chinese ethnic scholar doing the rounds on the internet – hope it is not fake - marvels at the great achievements of India in ancient times. He lists achievements in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, surgery, metallurgy, architecture, building and construction, town planning etc. This he says are not known to a common person in the west whereas Chinese achievements are well known. He observes that Indians are too enamoured of the Western ideas and thoughts and under-rate their own achievements. Even if the article is fake, the point made is quite right.

    In 1931, philosopher KC Bhattacharya, delivered the Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee Memorial Lecture lamented that Indians were enslaved because their minds were enslaved. What is needed is a “Swaraj in Ideas”. KC Bhattacharya is known for having developed methodology for interpreting Indian ancient scriptures for modern times. Rabindra Nath Tagore also spoke on the need to challenge the prevalent negative tendencies in writing India’s history. In his address to the students and teachers of the Shantiniketan in 1903 titled “The History of Bharatvarasha”, he said , “ By not viewing Bharatvarsha from Bharatvarsha own perspective…we get demeaned ourselves…… what our ancestors did, this we do not know ; therefore we do not know what we ought to aim for”. Similar point has been made by many philosophers, scholars and observers cross ages and more recently.

    Vivekananda captured the imagination of the world and his compatriots in 1893 at the World Parliament of Religions. He boldly put forward the strengths of Indian civilisation, of spiritual essentials of Hinduism, in particular. Not only did the world take note, it also filled the fellow Indians with a sense of pride. He firmly believed in the mission of India. Aurobindo carried on the task spreading the nationalist message based on the essential spirituality of India. This was at a time India was still not free and there was a lot of misery in India.

    Vivekananda was convinced that in essentials all religions have the same universal message for their followers. It is the politics that brings discord. Thus, speaking about one religion is not narrow-mindedness. Far from it. Not tolerating others is.

    Why I mention Vivekananda is because he talks of national rejuvenation based on India’s civilisational strengths and wisdom. If India has to advance to the ranks of major powers in the world, it should not only have the material strength of military and economy, technology but also be able to contribute in the realm of ideas which would be useful in resolving today’s problems. India will need to look into the vast store house of civilisational wisdom. Relevant ideas will have to be taken up, studied, modified if necessary and adapted to today’s circumstances. That is why it is necessary to study Indian civilisation, culture, and history deeply.

    Indians are still discovering their history. Many points of Indian history, particularly the ancient history, are not settled. Since India is complex and diverse, there is diversity in Indian thought as well. Indians take complexity, diversity and contradiction in their stride. These very attributes confuse the western mind. Indians have started discovering their history in the last 150 years. The process of rediscovery will go in for a long time as new evidence is discovered by historians, archaeologists, and others.

    It is clear that from even a cursory study of Indian texts that our forefathers had a sophisticated and nuanced view of the material reality as well as spirituality. They were equally interested in both. These views continue to inform Indian mind even today. The west has also revised its condescending view of India as a backward country wrapped in superstitions. Research is being done in the west to see parallels with the Indian thought. There is interest in Vedanta knowledge. An interesting video I recently saw was how some thinkers in Christianity are studying the philosophy of Vedanta to gain insight into their own religion. In Turkey a PhD thesis was written drawing comparison between Rumi’s thoughts and Vedanta philosophy. Yoga is spreading across the world including in China.

    In India we have been afraid to ask how ancient texts relate to our thinking. We are taken up by western notions of the material world and feel defensive about discovering our roots in our own texts. It is nobody’s case that Indian texts have answers to every question or as some people believe that everything that had to be discovered had already been discovered in the Vedas and Upanishads. Yet, it is also true that we have not critically examined the ancient store house of knowledge. Most of these texts have been raised to the level of worship or adulation while little attention is paid to understand their relevance to contemporary times. A critical examination is necessary. One handicap we face is that of the language. Ancient languages like Sanskrit are no longer spoken. Similarly other dialects and languages in which ancient texts were written are not widely spoken or understood. Therefore, there is a serious handicap in critically examining these texts and conveying them to ordinary persons.

    Indian history should be studied not just for spiritualism. In Indian history there have been hundreds of big and small wars and military campaigns. But they have not been studied systematically. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are epics, dealing, inter alia, with wars. The Mahabharata is a source of insights into human behaviour, good or bad. Military conflicts tell us about peace, about power struggles, leadership, strategy, terrain, logistics, weapons, technology, inter-state relations and societal values. Wars have a tendency to shape the future. A study of historic military campaigns will help us rediscover us. A study of India’s participation in the First and Second world wars is an inquiry into our own self. In the West military history is a highly developed discipline. Some of the Western thinkers were students of war and conflicts. We should develop similar expertise in military history in India.

    Similarly, we need to study the economic history of the country. It is the Westerners who are now telling us that India and china dominated the world in GDP terms for 1800 years. We are still content to quote Madison in support of this thesis. Clearly there is need to delve deeper into this area.

    The interest in Indian history is growing by the day. New finding of the last few decades are challenging the earlier assumption about our history. In particular, new light has been shad on the scope of Harrappan civilization. It is now increasingly recognized that the philosophical foundations of Indian Civilization may have been made during this period.

    Equally important is the need to study regional histories. Different regions of India have rich history need to be synthesized to construct a bigger picture. The history of deacon needs to be studied in greater depth in the light of new discoveries. Hopefully, this will bring about a better understanding of the Indian strategic thinking and culture.

    Scholarly work should also be converted into textbooks for teaching courses in universities. The work should be credible based on evidence. International cooperation would also help. Kautilya must be raised to the level of Sunzu as a thinker.

    India has rich regional traditions of statecraft. KP Jaiswal in his path breaking work of the 1930s dwelt upon the ancient systems of republics in India. The Maurayas, the Guptas, the Sultanates of Delhi and Deccan, the Mughals, Marathas, Rajputs, Sikhs, the mighty West India, South India, Bengal, Orissa, Assam, Manipur etc have rich histories of state craft, external relations policy, governance stretching over millennia. It is necessary to study their methods of governance objectively. Only then will have a true insight into India. Indian culture, trade and influence spread to both east west north and south.

    Many scholars have observed that Indians have a defensive mind-set. This is not entirely untrue. Partly this is because in recent history we were colonised. Partly because we do not know about our own rich past. This has made us defensive. An objective study of ancient India will help use rediscover ourselves and overcome the defensive mind-set which has done us so much harm. This does not mean we become jingoist. It only means we become self-aware which is critical for humans as well states.

    In recent years Kautilya and his treatise Arthashastra has drawn the attention of scholars and policy makers. Kissinger in his latest book World Order describes Bhagvad Gita as the “central work of Hindu thought”. Dwelling at length on Kautilya’s work he observes “Millennia before European thinkers translated their facts on the ground into a theory of balance of power, the Arthashastra set out an analogous if more elaborate system termed the Circle of States”. This is some praise from the arch American realist for Kautilya’s Rajamandala theory of alliances. The problem is that this richness of thought lies largely unexplored. For example, we have no systematic study and understanding of the most dominant mahajanapadas of the time before the consolidation by the Magadha began. Kautilya has continued to influence the Indian strategic

    China is on way to becoming a superpower. One thing the Chinese did was to study the rise and fall of previous civilisation with the objective of understanding the pitfalls a rising nation can face. They are also studying their own history. Confucius, Taoism and Buddhism along with Sunzu and many others are being studied. Confucius study centres have been opened all over the world. Some of the formulations of ancient masters are being incorporated in the foreign policy vocabulary of China. Their effort is always to look at things from a Chinese perspective and develop strategy with Chinese characteristics. This is strategic thinking. We should also look at our past to develop an Indian strategic thought.

    If India remains defensive about itself, it will never succeed in evolving its own brand of strategic thinking. We will always be reactive. While growth in developed countries has plateaued, India has yet to realise its full potential. The West has begun to realise this. That is why they are so interested in India. We have still to realise our potential like Hanuman in Ramayana. But, we need to come up with proper strategies to realise our potential. If understand our past, we will be better equipped to develop and grow. We also have certain faultlines. Studying the past would help in dealing with these.

    The idea that India has no culture of strategic thinking, propounded by the west, is flawed. When needed, India used force to achieve its strategic objectives. It has also experimented with various economic models to achieve economic growth and distributive justice. It has played a role in global affairs punching above its weight. Gandhi also brought in many diverse strategies including Satyagraha, self-rule, ahimsa, economic resistance to British, highlighting the significance of village economy, self-reliance, etc. Many leaders from across the political spectrum put forward uniquely Indian ideas. The problem has been that it has been difficult to build consensus on these ideas. Implementation has been a problem.

    Recent statements by Indian leaders have brought in the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbukam, Sarve Bhavntu Sukhinah. Indian ancient texts have deep understanding of nature and its relationship with humans. The idea of shanti or peace is all pervasive in Indian philosophical texts. Clearly many of these ideas are relevant today. Indian scholars need to provide the needed rigour to develop these ideas further and apply them to contemporary circumstances.

    Most importantly, India must realise that while incorporating positive influences from the world, no single model can be transplanted from outside into the Indian scenario. We need to find our own strategy for growth. The government is conscious of the Indian approach to development the Cabinet resolution of 2015 by which NITI Ayog was set up talks about the need to find own strategy of growth. It says “The new institution has to zero in on what will work in and for India.   It will be a “Bharatiya approach to development.” The resolution quotes Mahatma Gandhi, Tiruvalluvar, Deen Dayal Updhyaya, Sankara Dev and Ambedkar in the text.

    In the last few years, there has been a tremendous interest the world over in rising India. People are curious whether India’s rise will be peaceful. They also want to understand whether India will be able to deal with its internal contradictions. More important, people want to understand what ideas India brings to the high table. It is therefore essential that Indian scholars explain India to the world. In this context, understanding the strategic culture of India becomes important. I would like to quote from the foreword written by Sh Ajit Doval to the VIF publication History of Ancient India Vol- V, “One can never understand a society, civilization or a nation unless its past is understood and interpreted correctly. Both by design and default, India’s past has been mutated, events arbitrarily selected disproportionate to their real historic import and interpreted to substantiate a preconceived hypotheses. When myth masquerades as reality, then reality becomes the casualty.

    The IDSA’s project on Indian Strategic thoughts, launched five years ago has been successful. It was a good beginning. It helped awareness about Kautilya and his thoughts on statecraft. I am happy to learn that phase II of the project is now being launched. That project should now be expanded to include other streams of thought too. Focus on regional literature and languages should be developed. The universities and regional centres of learning should contribute towards this.

    I congratulate the IDSA for their initiative and wish them the very best. I hope that Indian think tanks will take the lead and start developing ideas that have Indian flavour and we usher in the Swaraj in ideas.

    Thank You.