By Julian Lines
In conversation with fellow Indophiles, Buddhist expert, Prof Robert Thurman (Uma Thurman’s father), and Steve Gorn, a bansuri maestro, the author makes a fervent plea to India to lead the world towards peace
In the book, In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce, a journalist who covered India for many years, makes these interesting observations:
- India is poised to become the world’s third largest economy within a generation, outstripping Japan.
- It will surpass China in population by 2032 and will have more English speakers than the United States by 2050.
- 35 million people pay taxes, while three-quarters of the country live a rural agrarian life in India’s 600,000 villages.
- it is still the world’s largest experiment in representative democracy, and a largely successful one, despite some bureaucracies being riddled with “horrifying” corruption.
And as actress and MP, Shabana Azmi, observes, “India lives in many centuries at the same time”.
The theme of this issue of Life Positive allows me to reflect on the past 30+ years of my devotion to India and Indian culture and exchange perspectives with two dear friends who are also full of reverence and steeped in the influence of Bharat.
Robert Thurman is professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, known both for his famous actress daughter, Uma, and being (perhaps lifetimes) someone whom HH the Dalai Lama calls “my friend”. Listed in 1999 as one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential Americans, Bob is a prolific writer and lecturer. Some of his talks are freely available as “podcasts” on the Internet (www.bobthurmanpodcast.com) and give a sense of his warmth, wide-ranging intelligence and delightful sense of humor.
As a Buddhist, Bob has a natural affinity with India because it is the Motherland, the birthplace of the Buddha. India also has a special role as the host and protector of HH the Dalai Lama, who fled Chinese persecution and preserves Tibetan wisdom and culture in Dharamsala. Bob feels very strongly that the appreciation of the wisdom the Dalai Lama offers the world would give a contemporary reinforcement to the truths of India’s sacred texts and teachings, many of which were preserved and taught down the ages in Tibet.
Thurman’s first response to our theme of India: from tamas to rajas, echoed my own: “What about rajas to sattva?” He outlined how critical it was for India to look to its magnificent heritage, when colleges and symposia lasting for years synthesized the highest learning on health and healing as embodied in ayurveda and Tibetan medicine and acupuncture, all of which share so much common knowledge today, based on their ancient dialogues.
We both agreed that it was crucial for India not to follow the example of the West with its insatiable consumption of resources, leading to general environmental degradation and entrenched plutocracy, amplifying the disparities of class in the West and caste in India.
In spite of the practice of “forgiveness and compassion” in Tibetan Buddhism, Thurman has an awareness of the inability of China to “play by the rules” as evident in the border wars with India in the ‘60s, recent claims to Arunchal Pradesh and the Chinese authorities’ current inability to adjust their long under-valued currency to the world market. He characterizes the Chinese financial success as “fake” in that its peasants are worse off than ever, and that an elite is emerging, but not a true middle class, and with horrific environmental impact.
He supports a robust defence for India and shocked me somewhat by supporting the use of a nuclear deterrent. Along with our mutual friend, Claude Arpi, who has researched the history in detail and often writes on Tibetan issues online at Rediff, Bob wants to see India match and surpass China in sophisticated strategic planning and ensure the respect of its borders and the preservation of the water resources flowing off the Tibetan plateau into India. And he understands that at present, this must be done from a position of strength.
“Let’s consider the dharma of India,” begins Prof. Thurman. “Look at the Indian flag. You have the lion pillar capitol of Ashoka with the wheel of dharma on it. In Dharma Rajya, the raja is subservient to the Truth, Dharma Vijaya. It is really the dharma of India to lead the world to peace.
“That true power does not come “from the barrel of a gun”, but rather through the power of the spirit, this is what India understands and can offer the rest of the world, especially in contrast to what we see in the US, Britain and China, where the countries are ruled by a small group of militarists. Russia seems to be backsliding into this militarism and autocracy. But I think this is in reaction to the US foreign policy with its aggressions.
It is the dharma of India to lead the world to peace.
- Robert Thurman
“It is wonderful that India, which historically excelled in mathematics and astronomy, far in advance of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, should now produce so many engineers and contribute so much to the internet, which brings knowledge throughout the world. India can become the virtual ashram of the world. They can create a “zone of peace” in Kashmir and challenge China to make a “zone of peace in Tibet”. Kashmir can be a demilitarized place where Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus can come together for dialogue and be an example to the world.
“We can never forget when the film Gandhi won the Oscar for best picture and a billion people around the world were inspired, even the young people of Tiananmen Square in China, to follow the path of non-violence.
“In foreign policy, instead of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which had been the Cold War policy of the US in the arms race with Russia, India could lead the world with MUD, Mutual Unilateral Disarmament. Historically, Indians did not pursue a militaristic conquest of the world. They did not march out of India. The Indians should stay fortified and negotiate from a position of strength, but this is not a position of aggression, and that is the important point.
“Buddhists believe that the Buddha chose to be incarnated in India because of that country’s great tolerance, even then… So India today can be the real melting pot, the real bastion of pluralism. India can and should lead the world to become more peaceful!”
Steve Gorn is a bansuri (bamboo flute) virtuoso who concretizes both in the US and India. His music was recently used for the film, Born in the Brothels. He had just returned to the States from performances in Delhi, Rishikesh and the 27th Saptak Music Festival in Ahmedabad. There, with sarangi maestro, Ramesh Misra, Steve met many of India’s finest musicians over a number of days and basked in the depth and mastery of their tradition.
As someone who travels to India each year or two, he has seen the trend towards modernization and empowerment manifest both in the wealth and sophistication of the population, along with the terrible air and garbage pollution accompanying the introduction of plastic containers and bags into the waste stream. The boom in real estate has been astonishing to him and it was clear to many of the educated that “the good life” is available and attainable in India.
His main concern was that the Indian affluent grow beyond an indifference to the plight of the poor. It disturbed him to hear from some of the more affluent that the slum-dwellers “chose” to live that way. “The wealthy are pulling away, but I’m afraid that many have no sense of taking care of the future. They are dealing in purely personal terms, getting the car, the house, the entertainment centre and their kids into good schools.”
He was also concerned that the tendency to move beyond appropriate pride in India’s history and cultural legacy could also turn into a kind of narcissism and a wilful ignoring of the facts of history to minimize the contribution of Persian architecture and art to its heritage, for instance.
Coming from the Judeo-Christian culture of the West, we both found the “my God can beat up your God” kind of philosophy which promotes fundamentalism and evangelism, to be childish at best and one of the biggest dangers threatening global civilization at worst. “Fundamentalism in every form brings us all down,” he lamented, and by “us” he meant those of us who love India, America, the Middle East and the planet as a whole.
What was lovely to see in Steve was that he was still glowing from his trip and looking forward to a return. While he appreciated the smooth highways and the on-time flights of modern India, the magnificent 400-year-old fabrics he had seen in Gujarat and the spirituality that permeated the fabric of life, enriched his heart. His hope was that India’s mythic past would steer her progress. His shorthand for this was to say, “They know what their names mean”.
My reflections on my conversations with Bob and Steve came in confluence with a return to India myself. I first flew into Bombay at dawn on Diwali, in 1974, looking at fireworks exploding throughout the town in the early morning fog. I had come on a pilgrimage to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry and the nearby experimental township of Auroville. I was full of reverence and appreciation of Indian culture, which had begun in boarding school where my roommate was fresh from three years in Kanpur where his father had taught aeronautical engineering. We went to hear Ravi Shankar play at Yale in ‘68. The Beatles, TM and gurus were in full flourish as our generation looked East for an antidote for an overly materialistic American culture.
The world community needs India to go for a higher synthesis…
- Julian Lines
My talk at Osmania University in Hyderabad during that first trip showed me that the students in their blue jeans were looking West as I headed for Pondicherry and 32 years later, I feel more steeped in Indian culture than many of the desis I meet in the States.
Last night, as our flight arrived in Delhi, I cringed as the local air mixed with jet exhaust and burning fires tingled into my nostrils. It was one am and we had to sit on the runway waiting for an Air France jet to leave the gate so our flight could pull in – so the first thing we hit is a traffic jam! The ride from the international to the domestic side of the airport measured in new airline startups, the explosion of Indian affluence: “Indi-go, Kingfisher, Air Deccan, SpiceJet and other new planes lined our journey from one side to the other, with our final destination of the newest terminal a shrine to the changes from a few short years ago when Jet Airways first came on the scene. With the hallmarks of timeliness and efficiency, our Air Sahara flight was only late in arriving in Chennai because air traffic out of Bangalore was so congested. Xpressions, the magazine of Air Sahara, seemed to serve as a good indicator of India’s current journey. It was graphically beautiful and featured an article on the health benefits of spinach in facing the twin plagues of modern “progress”: heart disease and diabetes, which are both skyrocketing. There was also an article on hatha yoga, a phenomenon that must stand out as the irony of our generation of East-West exchange since its popularity among Westerners is still so much greater than Indians, as a trip to Rishikesh or Mysore will tell you.
With the Western colonialism legacies of white flour, white sugar and white rice, taking its toll on Indian health, as it had in the West, it was nice to see some reflection on better diet and exercise drawn from traditional Indian culture, augmented by good science. The world community needs India to go for a higher synthesis, bridging the Vedas and modern science. Just as she can leapfrog from copper telephone systems to cellular and WiFi networks, emerging India can leapfrog fossil fuels and nuclear energy to hydrogen and solar-based energy systems for industry and transportation.
As a champion of India, and indeed of common sense, I want to see India on the Security Council at the UN. I rooted for the articulate Shashi Tharoor to be appointed the new Secretary General of the UN to succeed Kofi Annan.
In India: From Midnight to the Millennium, Shashi writes: “The best kind of change is that which comes from within, and Indians are changing, meeting Indian aspirations, and raising Indian standards in all fields.”
There are grounds for hope, but not for certitude. At least it can be said that India’s destiny lies in the hands of the Indians. They might seize it with the vision of a new India of revivified pluralism, an India that accommodates vast diversities and is yet greater than the sum of its contradictions. Or – for India is also capable of this – its fate might be decided by the petty calculations of those who only know how to manipulate the system for short-term gain. Satyameva Jayate, says our national motto: Truth Always Triumphs. But no one knows which truth it will be.
As India emerges on the world scene with a host of brilliant novelists, doctors, economists and engineers, we are especially heartened when education has not snuffed out the life of the spirit. Many of us are especially delighted to have powerful, articulate, intelligent women such as Vandana Shiva and Arundhati Roy on the world stage, arguing for local environmental concerns as well as international human rights. For it seems our ultimate enemy after arising from inertia, are the evils of the “vital” realm: insatiable lust for power and wealth.
As Alan Lithman states in his recent book, Evolutionary Agenda for the Third Millennium, we really need to evolve beyond “homo egoicus”, man bound by his ego, to homo sapiens, and become truly wise.
My hope is that India chooses the higher integrating truths of concern for the wider community, selflessness and wisdom, informed by intuition and spirit, and fulfills her destiny to be the nurturing Mother to the world.
Contact: email@example.com, http://www.bobthurman.com/ , http://stevegorn.com/
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