Leveraging India’s Civilisational Ethos
Mayuri Mukherjee

Less than a month after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second swearing-in, the ongoing celebrations for the fifth iteration of the International Yoga Day1 (IYD) offer an excellent opportunity to consider how the grand narrative that he unveiled in 2014 will continue to drive his foreign policy over the next five years. IYD was one of the earliest and among the most significant of Modi’s diplomatic successes from his first term. A concrete policy initiative for which Modi was able to organise global buy-in2, it offered some insight into how his government approached the issue global governance. Importantly, IYD embodied a key principle of Indian foreign policy - a notion of exceptionalism that suggests India’s ancient history and culture, in particular its rich tradition of spirituality, and allows it a unique position for moral leadership in the world3.

As Modi said during the first celebration in 2015, IYD marks “the beginning of a new era that would inspire humanity in its quest for peace and harmony”, and that the practice of yoga could result in a “dramatic reduction in conflicts and misunderstandings between families, communities and between nations” 4. In this context, IYD has not just been about promoting yoga, it is a campaign to take back ownership of one of India’s most significant exports to mankind as India prepares to take on a greater role in the international system; and the government is not squeamish about leveraging all its soft power credentials in the process. Of course, Modi isn’t the first Indian leader to either publicise yoga or seek to leverage soft power to enhance India’s global standing. Both have been part of Indian diplomacy since before independence. And both build on a deep-rooted sense of Indian exceptionalism, which has also animated India’s foreign policy thinking since before independence.

An excellent example of the historical and civilisational foundations on which this thought-process has evolved is offered by historian Kalidas Nag in his essay on ‘Indian Internationalism’. Written in 1922, the essay was presented at the prestigious Peace Congress of Lugano in Switzerland and re-published in the first edition of the journal produced by the Greater India Society which researched ancient Indian’s foreign policy footprint5. Nag’s essay begins in the 14th Century BC with the warring Hittite and Mitanni tribes of Cappadocia (Turkey) invoking the Vedic gods, Mitra, Varuna, and Indra to conclude a peace treaty, and the twin-gods Nasatyas to bless a marriage alliance. Nag presents this event, recorded in the Boghaz Keui inscription, as the earliest evidence of India developing an idea of internationalism that’s focused on peace-making and spiritual unity - at the same time as, “Egypt”, he notes, “was proudly proclaiming her world-conquests through the famous Victory Ode of Thutmosis III, cataloguing with sublime egotism the vanquished nations and countries,” while the Achaeans were “thundering on the ramparts of the Aegian capital Knossos (Crete)” in the Mediterranean, leading to the collapse of the Minoan Kingdom.

Listing how the rise and fall of empires and civilisations has been a constant, throughout human history, Nag points out that early Indians also faced the same problem of “an autochthonous people barring the way of a more virile expanding power”. But while others responded with military might which offered only temporary respite till they too were vanquished by a more powerful force, early Indians realised that the only solution to this constant threat was to recognise “the title of their rivals to exist not merely as enemies but as collaborators in the building of a civilisation”. Hence, even when the sub-continent came under attack from the “barbarians of Central Asia”, who didn’t quite have a “civilisation of their own” like the Greeks and the Persians who came before them had, India maintained “supreme faith in her principle of international unity”, allowing for the assimilation of the Kushans and the Huns.

In another example of how India’s civilisational internationalism differed from that of its peers, Nag fast forwards a few centuries to Emperor Ashoka’s “new world of constructive politics” which, he says, was guided by the “philosophy of conquest by righteousness (dharma-vijaya)” and emerged as a “spiritual oasis”. Nag highlights that “In the same epoch that Rome… was pulverising… Carthage in the Punic wars, Ashoka had been celebrating the spiritual matrimony between countries and continents” by sending “missionaries of humanism” who spread the word of Buddha to modern-day Syria, Egypt, Libya, and the Balkans to the west, and Sri Lanka and Myanmar among others to the East. This, Nag writes, was the first time in history that there had been a “humanisation of politics”, and it was an Indian sovereign who shared the message of “peace and progress” across Asia, Africa, and Europe, binding them with the “ties of true internationalism”.

The Hindu-Buddhist civilisational compact, established by Ashoka, emerges as a keystone in Nag’s vision of India’s internationalism - as he notes, for instance, how Indian mariners found “Hindu-ised”, “culture-colonies” across south-east Asia, initially in Champa (Vietnam) and Cambodge (Cambodia), then in ancient Siam (Thailand), Laos, and across the Malay Archipelago from Borneo to Sumatra, going as far as Java. Together, this produced an extraordinary movement of “Hindu syncretism and cultural synthesis” in the region which Nag refers to as “Magna India” or “Greater India”.

This concept was institutionalised by the aforementioned Greater India Society, a think-tank of sorts, established in 1926 by a group of eminent Calcutta-based Hindu Bengali scholars (Nag included), which undertook a massive history-writing project to shed light on India’s ancient cultural links, particularly with South-East Asia. The Society’s work, depicting how Indian influences shaped art and architecture, religion and language, political and legal systems in the South-East Asia (think of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur Temple in Indonesia), spurred a re-discovery of sorts of India’s ancient heritage6. Crucially, it also added more substance to the idea of Indian exceptionalism that had already been voiced three decades ago.

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) had initiated the conversation around Indian exceptionalism with his famous speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 18937. He promoted the idea that India was a civilisational power whose ancient spiritualism was its greatest strength. He argued that Hindu philosophy held the keys to global peace and unity, and that India had a duty to share this body of wisdom8. His teachings inspired a generation of nationalist thinkers that included the likes of Nag who, in turn, built on their own learnings and discoveries to re-purpose their understanding of Indian exceptionalism - in their case, shaping the anti-colonial discourse (and the related nationalist, pan-Asiatic, and universal-humanist discourses) in the decades leading up to independence9.

After independence, the Greater India discourse in particular ran out of steam with the Society publishing its last significant work in 1954. But the deeper spirit of Indian exceptionalism with a particular focus on Indian spiritualism continued to be part of the ideological framework undergirding India’s engagement with the world. Take, for example, India's decision to use the Ashok Chakra in the national flag instead of the Gandhian charkha. The latter was a key element of pre-independence nationalist iconography, yet one of the main reasons why the former was chosen was because the Ashokan connection reinforced the diplomatic role India envisioned for itself on the eve of independence10. As Jawaharlal Nehru noted in his remarks to the Constituent Assembly, “India’s ambassadors went abroad to far countries… not in the way of an Empire and imperialism but as ambassadors of peace and culture and goodwill.”11

In the first two decades after independence, Nehru continued to leverage this sense of exceptionalism as he steered India’s engagement with the world - but not just for symbolic purposes. At a time when India had limited economic and military resources, he used Indian exceptionalism to portray the country as a peace-maker and a leader of the global South12. Over the next seven decades, his successors interpreted the same idea into different forms to make the case for India as a responsible nuclear power13: Indira Gandhi used it to counter criticism of framing the 1974 test as a ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’; Atal Bihari Vajpayee used it to highlight a new nuclear power’s sense of restraint and responsibility as he oversaw the 1998 test; in 2005, Manmohan Singh won external validation for India’s nuclear discourse, still rooted in the ideal of civilisational exceptionalism, with the Indo-US nuclear deal.

As this essay details, while a sense of exceptionalism has long been and indeed remains a part of Indian strategic thinking, different leaders have leveraged the idea differently at different times in history to achieve different goals. Swami Vivekananda used the idea of Indian exceptionalism to awaken a subjugated nation to its past glories; a generation later, the likes of Nag and his colleagues at the Greater India Society used the same concept to resist colonial oppression even if by partly projecting itself as an enlightened colonial power; after independence, Nehru used the soft power stemming from Indian exceptionalism as a substitute for hard power. His successors at South Block used it to carve India’s place in the global nuclear order.

Now, the question is: How is Modi approaching this concept? What is his raison d’etre in the use of Indian exceptionalism? His first term had some hints - apart from the initiation of IYD, Modi has framed India’s recent leadership in climate change mitigation as a civilisational prerogative. He has also highlighted the importance of India shaping the rules of governance in the critical field of cyber-space. But perhaps his greatest opportunity lies in the re-alignment of global geographies with the emergence of the Indo-Pacific, which has also turned the spotlight on the Bay of Bengal regional grouping – the BIMSTEC. If in the next five years, connectivity with South-East Asia can be drastically improved, then Modi will have re-imagined India’s neighbourhood and created a new avatar of Nag’s Greater India.

  1. "World gears up for International Yoga Day - Rediff.com India News."
  2. "International Day of Yoga, 21 June - the ...." https://www.un.org/en/events/yogaday/.
  3. M. Chatterjee Miller and K. Sullivan De Estrada. (2017). Pragmatism in Indian foreign policy: how ideas constrain Modi. International Affairs 93: 1 27–49; doi: 10.1093/ia/iiw001
  4. "PM leads mass yoga demonstration in New Delhi | Prime Minister of ...." 21 Jun. 2015, https://www.pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/pm-leads-mass-yoga-demonstration-in-new-delhi/.
  5. K. Nag. (1922). Greater India: A Study In Indian Internationalism. Greater Indian Society Bulletin No. 1 https://archive.org/details/greaterindia029157mbp.
  6. E. S. C. Handy. (1930). The Renaissance of East Indian Culture: Its Significance for the Pacific and the World. Pacific Affairs, 3(4), 362-369. doi:10.2307/2750560
  7. "Swami Vivekananda's Speeches at the Parliament of Religions ...." 17 Apr. 2019, https://belurmath.org/swami-vivekananda-speeches-at-the-parliament-of-religions-chicago-1893/
  8. K. Sullivan. (2014). Exceptionalism in Indian Diplomacy: The Origins of India's Moral Leadership Aspirations, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 37:4, 640-655, DOI: 10.1080/00856401.2014.939738
  9. J. Vivekanandan. (2018). Indianisation of indigenisation? Greater India and the politics of cultural diffusionism, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 56:1, 1-21, DOI: 10.1080/14662043.2018.1411232
  10. R. M. Brown. (2009). Spinning without Touching the Wheel: Anticolonialism, Indian Nationalism, and the Deployment of Symbol. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29(2), 230-245. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201X-2009-006.
  11. Government of India, Proceedings of the Constituent Assembly of India, vol. 4, 22 July 1947, New Delhi, parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol4p7.htm
  12. U. Purushothaman. (2010). “Shifting Perceptions of Power: Soft Power and India’s
  13. P. Chacko & A. E. Davis. (2018). Resignifying ‘responsibility’: India, exceptionalism and nuclear non-proliferation, Asian Journal of Political Science, 26:3, 352-370, DOI: 10.1080/02185377.2018.1486218

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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