January 1, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

Goodbye, foul Millennium: millennius horribilis

This past thousand years of the Common Era have not been kind to India. In 1001 CE, the subcontinent was in good shape. Rajaraja Chola was on the throne at Thanjavur in the Kaveri Delta, and his maritime conquests in Southeast Asia were in the future; and the Golden Age of the Guptas was of recent memory in the North.

We produced some of the most sought-after goods in the world -- something like 25% of the world's trade originated in India, including high-quality textiles, 'damascene' specialty metals, gems, jewelry, spices, and so on. Ours was a rich, indeed temptingly rich, nation.

Compare this to today -- the subcontinent is a byword for grinding poverty, and we do, collectively, something like 1.5% of the world's trade. 'Made in India' is not a badge of honour, but often a guarantee of poor quality. The one thing India is world champion in is in producing beauty queens.

What has happened is something fundamental and tragic: the loss of self-confidence in one of the greatest civilisations in the world. As has been acknowledged by pioneering historians such as Arnold Toynbee and Will Durant, the Indic civilisation is very likely the mother of all other civilisations, and it is the only one that has survived to the present with only marginal damage.

And it has always been, throughout its recorded history, a remarkably open and tolerant civilisation: always open to ideas; seldom oppressive; never claiming for itself the role of the centre of the universe as others have been wont to do. Its generosity to those in need has been legendary. For instance, it is the only civilisation that is known to have offered refuge to Jews fleeing oppression by Romans, Christians and others, and to have not once treated the Jewish diaspora with anything other than the greatest of respect.

Yes, India has been, in the words of the BBC's Michael Wood, the Empire of the Spirit.

From the earliest known attempts at city-building (at Mehrgarh, now in Pakistan, circa 6500 BCE) through the various stages of the Indus-Sarasvati Valley Civilisation (even surviving the drying up of the Sarasvati circa 1900 BCE), down through Ashoka the Great and the Guptas and the Cholas and Mughals and Vijayanagar, down to the current time, the subcontinent has always been a fabled place.

Every one from the Romans to the Chinese, the Arabs to the Europeans, came to India to trade with us -- for we had goods that were the envy of the world. The Roman Pliny the Younger complained that imperial coffers were being emptied because of how much they had to pay to India for Black Gold, Malabar pepper!

And in the realm of ideas, too, the Indian subcontinent was the source of some of the greatest concepts in human history: from the invention of the zero, to the philosophical knowledge created by the Buddhists, Jains and Hindus, to the medical knowledge in Ayurveda and the sublimes heights of spiritual practice through yoga and mediation, to the great advances in observational astronomy, India was the source of unparalleled thought. The stories in our epics, in the Katha-sarit-sagara, the Panchatantra, etc. were recycled and retold the world over. Panini's Sanskrit grammar was one of the greatest achievements of the human mind.

Our cultural conquest of Southeast Asia, China and Japan through Sanskrit and Buddhism/Hinduism has left a lasting impact on about half of humanity. The other half, the semitic-influenced half, has lost the memory of how many of our ideas they plagiarised. But their very myths, of the Flood, of the miracles of Jesus, of Balaam and Jesophat, of the virgin birth, are generally recycled Hindu/Buddhist myths.

And then something happened. It was this cursed millennium.

I am reminded of the title of a superb documentary on the life of John Kennedy: Years of thunder, day of drums, the latter referring to the funeral march. Our civilisation has gone through its day of drums in the last thousand years, and it is nothing short of miraculous that it is still standing, a little unsteadily, it is true, bloodied, it is true; but yet, by the grace of God, it survives. The Sanatana Dharma has come through its time of trouble.

One of the interesting things about Indic civilisation, in particular the Hindu civilisation, has been its de-centralised nature. This has been, simultaneously, both its downfall and its strength. For, in the absence of a centralised concept of empire, it has laid itself open to disastrous invasions by more aggressive and more committed foreigners. Because of the centrifugal forces, it was never possible (except during the occasional imperial episodes) for there to be a unified strategic plan on how to defend the nation. The results are plain for all to see.

On the other hand, however, this very de-centralisation has helped Hinduism in particular to survive: for it is an amorphous entity. There are no power centres that can be destroyed. For instance, if someone wants to attack Christianity or Islam there are great centres, like Rome or Jerusalem. These places and the theological authorities there are key to the religion. Hence, of course, the Crusades, and the great fervour with which they were fought.

But this is not true in Hinduism. Even when Benares was captured by Muslims, it did not matter. There is no central authority, no Pope, no Ayatollah. Such authorities as the Shankaracharyas have limited influence over the Hindu populace. The religion lives among the people, and therefore it can be damaged, but it is difficult to uproot despite the many temples destroyed by Muslims (eg Bindu Madhava in Benares) or Christians (eg Kapaleeshwara in Madras) and the many pundits and priests massacred.

The Muslims in particular found this difficult to understand. It appears that the early Muslim invaders believed that Somnath was the centre of Hinduism just as Mecca is to Islam. Therefore they concentrated their attacks on Somnath, believing that by destroying that particular temple, they would indeed be able to destroy Hinduism. There was another reason for their fury: apparently the pre-Islamic goddess Manat had been the deity worshipped at the Ka'aba before Islam took over; the invaders associated "Manat" with "Somnath".

Muslims were indeed able to exterminate Buddhism from the sub-continent by destroying the buddha-viharas, which were indeed identifiable power centres. They massacred the monks and burned the libraries at, for instance, Nalanda; the few monks who escaped with their lives fled to Tibet. But Hinduism survived. As it has survived several hundred years of Christian attacks.

There is an interesting parallel to this centralised-decentralised dichotomy in the world of software. Eric Raymond, one of the champions of the GNU-Linux free software or open source movement, has written a perceptive essay called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. This compares the traditional software development model with the GNU-Linux community's open and malleable, indeed chaotic, creations.

Raymond claims that the "cathedral" mechanism of a closed, regimented and closeted group of wizards building software is inherently inferior to the "bazaar" mechanism of a loose, widespread alliance of individuals collaborating for a greater common good, not for the profit motive. In Raymond's view, the Microsofts of the world will ultimately be overwhelmed by the guerilla tactics of GNU-Linux.

The implication is clear: Microsoft can always attack an identifiable enemy like a Netscape. They can either buy the adversary or beat it to death in the marketplace or the courts. But what do you do with an army of hackers around the world? Whom do you buy? Whom do you beat to death? They cannot be bought. If you manage to buy off a Linus Torvalds or a Richard Stallman, a hundred more will take their place, hydra-like. They cannot be sued, because they have no corporate locus standi. It is like fighting an army of ghosts, of phantoms: fluid, amorphous and maddening. They are shadow warriors, Kurosawa's Kagemusha.

I think this is the same dilemma that has faced the Muslims, Christians and Marxists in their quest to destroy Hinduism. Islam was straightforward: kill or be converted; this works if you are in power. The Christian-imperialist alliance and the Nehruvian Stalinist-Marxist alliance have been more subtle: they have tried to make the civilisation wither away by destroying its roots, by demeaning Sanskrit, burning books on Ayurveda, propagating the Aryan Invasion Mythology, oppressing all aspects of Hinduism and imposing apartheid against it.

Yet Hinduism has survived. Just like the phantom armies of GNU-Linux, there are shadow warriors amongst Hindus. There is a growing community of committed Hindus, a century after Swami Vivekananda declared that if he had just one hundred committed youngsters, he could work miracles. And yet, this is not a movement based on hatred, exclusionism or negativity: it is based on equality, moderation, pragmatism, and enlightened self-interest.

I wrote about this, what I called a neo-liberal manifesto, almost three years ago on rediff in a long column. I stand by what I said then. I believe, in my own personal self-interest, that it is important for India to ensure that all its citizens, regardless of faith, believe in the nation and do not become its enemies. Christians and Muslims and even Marxists have exactly the same rights as Hindus or Buddhists or Sikhs or Jains. But none should have any greater rights, none should be oppressed.

I believe that the joys and sorrows of all Indians have an impact on my life. What affects them affects me too, because we are inter-dependent, a nation. I worry about the backwardness of many areas of the country, because we cannot prosper in little pockets when our fellow-Indians suffer. I realise there are major differences among us, in all sorts of ways, but this cannot stand in the way of our concern for others in India. For instance, I have quite forcefully stated my objections to Hindi, but when Hindi-speaking Indians are butchered in Assam, I protest.

I will also reiterate that this has nothing to do with the mythical "South Asia". If Pakistanis kill each other, it is immaterial to me insofar as it doesn't affect India. The same is true with Sri Lankans too, or Bangladeshis or Nepalis. I have also forcefully stated my stand on the idiocy of a woolly "South Asian" identity. If our neighbors are foolish, too bad for them, but it's their problem. Charity begins at home: let's fix India's problems first before worrying about our generally ungrateful neighbours, the Gujral Doctrine be damned.

And yet I am hopeful for the future. I believe the next thousand years will be the millennius mirabilis, the years of miracles. In Paul Simon's words, "these are the days of miracles and wonder" (Graceland). I think India is coming out of its self-imposed isolation. We are coming out of a thousand years of being told we are inferior. Whereas in point of fact, our traditions are superior. We have forgotten and lost to termites more than most other civilisations ever created.

I say this because slowly but surely self-confidence is returning to India. I see this in the quiet satisfaction about Vishwanathan Anand's fin-de-siecle triumph. I see it in the pride Indians have in the world-beating software types in the diaspora. I see it in the thousands of people taking up yoga and meditation. I see it in the fact that the "Indologists" who have manipulated our history are now on the defensive against well-marshalled evidence of their errors. I see it in the large and intent crowd listening to a speech in Sanskrit by Krishna Sastry of Samskrita Bharati at a conference on the Gita at Trivandrum.

Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and other sages have spoken at length about the Indian renaissance; indeed if this doesn't happen, India will disappear: it will be another colony of alien ideologies. We have seen this elsewhere: a soul-less nation, which has neither history nor sacred places nor racial memories of its own; a nothing. Such a nation is not worth living in.

Instead, in the next thousand years, an energetic India will reinvigorate itself. Shaking off its cyclical slumber and the humiliations of the last millennium, India will once again show the world the light from the East, as the Vedas did, the Bhagavad Gita did, the Buddha did, Jaina Mahavira did, Guru Nanak did.

So begone, and good riddance, abominable millennium!


Rajeev Srinivasan

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