Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, The Source of India’s Cultural Diplomacy

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Suresh Kumar Goel
    Venue: Alagappa University, Tamil Nadu
    Date: April 22, 2019

3. Hitopadesha, 1.3.71:

‘ayam nijah paroveti ganana laghuchetasam
udaracharitanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbhakam’ |

’This is my own and that a stranger’ – is the calculation of the narrow-minded For the magnanimous-hearts however, the entire earth is but a family’

Aham Brahmosmi, Brihadaronyaka Upnishad
Tat Tvam Asi. Chandogya Upnishad


Ekam Satya Vipra Bahudha Vadanti

Sarvesham Svasti Bhavatu, Sarvesham Shanti Bhavatu
Sarvesham Purnam Bhavatu, Sarvesham Mangalam Bhavatu

The Vedas, and the Upanishads which constitute Vedanta or the commentary on Vedas, the source of traditional and ancient Indian wisdom, inspiration and the civilizational system are replete with mahavakyas like these and they explain the foundation of Indian ethos governing not just our individual beliefs but our interactions within and without the ecological systems.

When Upanishads gave the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam to India and to the world; Swami Vivekananda announced the message of "ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti” at the World Conference of Religions in Chicago in 1893, the message of global cultural space or a unity of the world away from discord of political divergences was clearly reflected in the message of peace and unity from India.

Clearly the cultural diplomacy is not new to India, in fact the better term for it would be a civilizational dialogue where faith in the commonality of human sentiments dissipates political and economic divergences.

It may not be out of place to probably analyze the reasons for the almost sudden growth of western interest in soft power and cultural diplomacy. Public records suggest that the theory of clash of civilizations propounded by political scientist Samuel P Huntigton which proposed that cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of the conflict in the post cold war world, became the most lucid (I would describe it as insane) explanation for 9/11, the USA war in Afghanistan and in Iraq later. Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power was used in the aftermath of the growing criticism of the western world since the wars only sharpened the differences between identities rather than their reconciliation into a global society and the concept of soft power was considered as a viable response to the fragmentation of the society to co-opt the softer instrument of state intervention such as economic aid etc. or the non state influences such as Bollywood operating on the margins of state influences.

There will be many students of Physics in the audience and they will know that power equals force divided by area of application of force. Clearly, even soft power implies use of force, even if benign and nudgingly helpful. Nonetheless, it can be a disruption and unpleasant.

The tragedy lies in understanding of what exactly does cultural diplomacy implies or involves. The current debate is reminiscent of the famous story in Panchatantra about four blind men describing the shape of an elephant. Each having explored different part of the Elephant’s body, describes it variously as a banana tree or a python or a hand fan or a wall. The truth lies in integration of all these. In a similar manner, the cultural diplomacy is a combination of all the various elements advocated by prominent "scholars” or leaders. Some have extolled tirelessly the role played by Bollywood and Indian television serials in projecting a deep understanding of cultural penetration into those countries and societies which have either been traditionally in the penumbra of Indian civilizational influences such as Central Asia or Southeast Asia, and others which have almost established a metaphorical synonymity between the Indian youth, its innovative energy and the contemporary glamour or trends in Indian cinema. It may be an entirely different matter that the visions or mesmerizing illusions portrayed in Bollywood are so far divorced from the reality of Indian society that one report in Belgium attributed the rise of the Bollywood to efforts to placate the highly differentiated caste system and economically deprived sections of the Indian people. There are yet others who have questioned the legitimacy of use of soft power either on its own or to supplement the hard power to achieve national interests.

Both the groups tend to ignore the role which can be played by cultural diplomacy (not soft power) to support substantive negotiations, a space for co-opting national interests or the limitation of soft power which may not only create illusions of national popularity but also create sub-national divisive forces acting against the Indian community. Attacks against Indian cinema halls by religiously motivated movements in societies where fanaticism had deep penetration in people’s psyche or the problems faced by Indian community in Fiji or Uganda can only be attributed to the popularity of the Indian masses there as well as their economic success. The soft power of the Indian influences failed in those cases to protect the Indian people.

In contradiction to the soft power, the cultural diplomacy in the spirit of Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam, contextualises WE in the global goods context. Aham Bramosmi Tat Tvam Asi teaches us to think of me as I would think of you, quintessentially the same brahman thus obliterating distinctions which create competition and consequently friction. It advocates harmonious co existence and not contentious contests. Sarvesham Svasti Bhavatu calls for good of everyone.

I would describe therefore Cultural Diplomacy as the civilizational gift of India to the world much like zero or the concept of infinity. Nothing defines zero or infinity more beautifully than the shloka " Purnamidam Purnamada, Purnatpurnam Udachyate, Purnasya Purnamadaya, Putprnameva Vashishyate."

To deal first with the relevance of cultural diplomacy in conduct of international relations.

India with its more than five millennia of civilization is fortunate to have both developed culture of strategizing its civilizational behavior as well as developing the use of culture to overcome the effects of differentiation within the societies and amongst societies. Mahabharata is a bright example of the culture of strategy in which the single minded pursuit for power and territory led to the construction of a society in which every action of every individual needed to be explained on the basis of objectives as set by individuals for themselves. Some individuals were criticized because their objectives were seen to focus on limited selfish gains while others like Pandavas put their objectives in the larger framework of the good of the society. The whole Mahabharata including Geeta is the bright example of defining of the ideal of progress of a group or growth of individuals. Bhagavatgeeta, my source of inspiration is not a book of devotion to God but incisive and clinical description of the role of individuals in the society, bereft of all sentiments or emotions for the good of either the individual or a society.

The strategy of culture on the other hand has been the guiding element of Indian philosophy throughout its early Vedic literature and has been used to advantage through at least three millennia of Indian history as is evident in Greek incursions into India about 2500 years ago, the assimilation of Islamic architecture and ideas not only in the visible forms of Indian culture but also its national conscience, or before that the spread of religions, architectural and cultural influences between India and Southeast Asia. Silk route along which traversed not only goods and people but which became the artery for flow of civilizational ideas including Buddhism between Central Asia, India and China is a bright example of the use of strategy of culture to bring together vastly divergent societies into one vibrantly growing people. With its traditions of inclusiveness and capacity to absorb a variety of identities even co-opting at different times, the Indian culture has distinguished itself into a civilizational distinction which is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and yet is distinctly Indian. Our cultural complexion today is neither Vedic nor Islamic nor Christian. It is not Aryan or this or that. Everything or anything that has ever been brought to India, again the vaguely defined landmass of the sub-continent, has become part of the Indianness without losing its original identity.

It is a result of our own cultural flexibility and inclusiveness that all that is Indian can retain its original identity and submerge at the same time into the vast Indian behemoth. The modern Westiphilian boundaries which divide societies are not part of Indian traditional thinking. Therefore our notion of civilizational dialogue becomes a useful instrument to soften the disruption created by the different identities on the basis that cultural identities alone do not define the civilizational identity. The concept of the cultural diplomacy is that the cultural inclusiveness should become central to the global dialogue so that different identities do not interrupt the international order but interact with each other and aggregate into a common idea to encourage a dialogue in a non-intrusive and non-competitive manner to ensure transformation of the current chaotic order into an actively connected global world in which human interests and the idea of a world as family drive the global forces. It is only then that dialogue will conquer over conflicts and nations will cooperate by adjusting to each other rather than confronting each other. Understanding, accommodation and tolerance for different identities rather than questionings and manoeuvring for separate distinct spaces will become the foundation of such a world.

The idea of organising performances and festivals abroad such as those by ICCR, is not to just project Indian culture but to encourage interaction between the Indian cultural ideas and the local cultures. Similarly, the Indian Cultural Centres abroad are not just the repositories of Indian culture but they are spaces where Indian cultural elements and the creative minds of the host countries will come together in an interaction truly leading to an energetic dialogue between the non-political and non-competitive sections of the societies of India and the host country. In an ideal Cultural Centre, the space would be available for the local people to come, organize lectures, seminars and workshops not just on Indian themes but on themes of their interest. The space would host interactions between Indian and the local creative minds. It would host painting exhibitions from not just India but the local painters.

One of the ideal ways in which such a dialogue can be sustained is not just through performing arts but even more effectively through encouragement to academics and scholars. An Indian Chair in the universities abroad is not just an Indian professor teaching on India related programme to a foreign student community. More importantly, it is the nucleus of India related interactions and research collaboration between the Indian scholars and the foreign academic community.

Conferences are yet another way of promoting a dialogue between different cultures. The subject chosen is one which historically connects India and that country; the scholars chosen are not only from the host country and India but also the neighboring countries of the host to expand the dialogue from the bilateral to the regional. For example, when I was DG ICCR, we found globalization and culture as the most attractive theme for the conference to commemorate the 60th anniversary of ICCR in 2010. We have held conferences on Buddhism and Tagore in Southeast Asia. We have held conferences on Sufism in the USA and Central Asia and the conference on Cultural Liberalism with France.

Joint research programmes are yet another platform to promote common understandings at a much deeper academic and cultural level. An example is the IIC-Asia project directed by eminent scholar Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan.

Some of the triumphs of the Indian Cultural Diplomacy have been the International Jazz Festival which I created in 2011, the Indian Sufi festival in Delhi and the Qawwali festival. The performance of the all women Iranian Sufi group immediately after the fatwa against the Kashmiri all girl group became the most widely covered event by media to challenge the phenomenon of religious fanaticism. The Qawwali performance brought together Qawwali groups from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan with Dervishes from Turkey dancing in the middle. Listening to all these groups singing together Allahu was the unique success of cultural diplomacy. The Swan Lake Revisited produced by Mitul Sen Gupta brought together Kathak, Flamenco, tap dance and classical Jazz with Indian classical music and Tchaikovsky in a unique choreography where the dance forms and music did not remain in the confines of their own spaces but entered into a dialogue with each other to illustrate that different spaces can merge together and maintain their own identity at the same time in the cultural world. Questionings by Rukmin Chatterjee showed the fantastic conversation between the Raudra of Odissi and the growling sounds of the Norwegian black metal. These choreographies indeed managed to overcome the boundaries between the different societies.

The essential idea motivating these festivals is that the cultural dialogue requires not only the language of Indian culture but also the language of the other cultures.

Some of the most notable successes of Indian cultural diplomacy have been in the context of the India-ASEAN summit in 2012. The seminar on civilizational links between India and Southeast Asia at Patna built on the historical connections which could now probably lead to a long term project to not only map these connections in a comprehensive and holistic manner but also trace where these connection could lead in future. The exhibition on archival links between India and Southeast Asia displayed the wealth of documentation which brought together India and Southeast Asia over the last 200 years. The MGC Textile museum at Siem Reap would not be just an Indian exhibition but would again highlight the commonalities which exist between textile traditions from India and Southeast Asian countries. The choreography which built on the similarities of performing art traditions between India and Southeast Asia was a huge hit not only because it truly created a dialogue between Indian and Southeast Asian cultures but also removed the boundaries between the cultures of India in these countries. Comparisons were made immediately with another country which gives prominence to its own culture.

We must not at the same time commit the mistake of rooting Cultural Diplomacy in exclusive traditional forms. Human civilization is not static. With the evolution of human race and rapid technological revolution, new ideas and new structures take shape. Robotics, AI, Cyber are all as much a reality today as they were part of mythological imaginations yesterday. They need to find expression in the cultural dialogue today. Youth is not just participant in today's conversations. He is the initiator and creator of this phenomenon. He like popular culture must also be an integral part of this eternal and constantly transforming Cultural Dialogue. Our ambassadors today are not only foreign service officers. But all those who have come to be the Indian global face as financial and management professionals, scientists, technocrats and creators in various fields. Yoga is the new flavour of the west and Bollywood drives the Indianness globally.

The advantage of cultural diplomacy or the civilizational dialogue is not only that it creates another space where dialogue can be conducted between different nations in a non contentious and non-intrusive manner but that it also creates effective public opinion which has become an increasingly important component of foreign policy making.

In conclusion, it is good to remember that soft power can support the civilizational dialogue and that the civilizational dialogue or cultural diplomacy can create a huge platform for the success of our traditional diplomacy. At the same time, caution needs to be exercised since it does not substitute the hard core negotiations for competitive national interests.