India, a resilient civilisation

Why did this civilisation not disappear, like so many others? The answer will have to be as complex as India itself.

Published: 30th April 2019 01:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd May 2019 09:58 PM   |  A+A-

(Express Illustration)

(Express Illustration)


We saw India as a land of paradoxes, which seems to revel in them, the better to reconcile them; as generating a culture obsessed with the infinite and the cosmic; hunting for consciousness everywhere, from the supracosmic to the smallest animal (with us in between, if we will remember); viewing this whole world as sacred, since it is pervaded with consciousness; harmonising the individual and the collective while respecting, even encouraging, differences and multiple paths; we saw principles and practices of environmental conservation rooted in the concept of Nature’s sacredness and simple living; a deep reverence for and pursuit of knowledge in every field, from the most abstrusely philosophical to the most practical, with high traditions of education as a result; a knowledge that was not elitist, and often the product of an interaction between different social layers; we discussed the endlessly discussed notion of Dharma; India’s quest for the meaning of life beyond all dharmas, and therefore for the supreme knowledge (which is also self-knowledge); and how this bewildering multiplicity of dharmas, paths and social groupings, has led to the stereotype of India as a chaotic, unorganised place, while a different kind of order runs below the surface.

Taken together, these master ideas do help us understand India’s journey. A few are shared with other cultures, but not the totality of them. Do they amount to a complete definition of Indian civilisation? But more such key concepts have been at work in India; for instance, a preoccupation with beauty (as the Greek historian Strabo wrote in the first century BCE, “Since Indians esteem beauty, they practise everything that can beautify their appearance” — how times have changed!). Or the twin notion of sacrifice and self-sacrifice, with its perceptible, though dwindling, influence on Indian ethos (think of our countless “unsung heroes”). Indeed, the list is open-ended.

In fact, one might ask, why not ahimsa? Is it not central to India? The answer, expectedly, is, yes and no. There is nothing absolute about ahimsa in classical Indian thought or literature: it is highly valued, but its application varies according to the situation, the ways open for the sustainance of dharma, and one’s svadharma: that of a monk is not that of a warrior. It is true, however, that the manner in which India interacted with neighbouring cultures and civilisations fascinated early Europeans students of India, as it was quite unlike anything they were familiar with elsewhere: India’s culture — including Buddhism, what goes by the name of Hinduism and, to a lesser extent, Jainism — radiated well beyond her borders, but very rarely through a military campaign of conquest. As Hu Shih, a Chinese thinker and ambassador to the U.S. in the 1940s, once put it, “India conquered and dominated China culturally for 2,000 years without ever having to send a single soldier across her border. ... China was overwhelmed, baffled and overjoyed. She begged and borrowed freely from this munificent giver.”

The final riddle: Why did this civilisation not disappear, like so many others? The answer will have to be as complex as the civilisation itself. Geographical, environmental, social and historical factors all played a part. And cultural: it had some in-built resilience and adaptability, precisely because it was non-dogmatic, non-exclusivist (there are no “believers” and “unbelievers” in Indic religions), dependent on no central authority, and apparently “unorganised”. But that alone would not have sufficed, as most of the early Pagan religions, which disappeared under the onslaught of Christianity and Islam, shared those characteristics, while in the case of Hinduism (that of Buddhism being more complicated), strategies of decentralised resistance were adopted across the land, as superbly documented by the historian Meenakshi Jain in her recent book, Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples. In the end, perhaps it has something to do with the depth of the roots that India grew.

How long will these roots live? There is no quantifying such a thing, nor any guarantee that what goes by the name of Indian culture will survive the twenty-first century. Much of India’s intellectual class has been trained to hate it, not realising that their rootless concepts of democracy and secularism will never provide a cement that can hold India together. But the real danger is not there: it is with those who are supposed to embody that culture. For most, it has become a social veneer or a set of “traditions” they believe (wrongly, in general) to be very ancient and blindly insist upon. They are those Sri Aurobindo referred to when, precisely a hundred years ago, he warned: “In the stupendous rush of change which is coming on the human world as a result of the present tornado of upheaval, ancient India’s culture, attacked by European modernism, overpowered in the material field, betrayed by the indifference of her children, may perish for ever along with the soul of the nation that holds it in its keeping.”

Sri Aurobindo also wrote, “The soul of Hinduism languishes in an unfit body. Break the mould that the soul may live.” Time will break the mould; that is its job. Let us see if the soul will have enough energy left to build a new body.

Michel Danino is a French-born Indian author, scholar of ancient India, and visiting professor at IIT Gandhinagar. Email:

This is the twelfth and last part in a series on Master Ideas of Indian Civilisation; earlier articles in this series:


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