Issue Date: 6/20/2005
Dr.Bal Ram Singh
In the aftermath of the tsunami many a known yet uncommon information came to the fore. We learned of the miraculous survival of some, but approximately 300,000 people perished on the coasts of India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Thailand, among others. We also learned of the escape of all the animals in a national park in Sri Lanka, and also of the escape of a 20,000 year old tribe in India's Andaman and Nicobar islands.
The Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth offered a course on the "East Indian Ocean Region: before and after Tsunami." Many issues related to Tsunami, including its origin, warning system or lack thereof, and relief coordination were discussed in the course.
A very interesting aspect that also appeared in the discussion of the course was the cultural and heritage links among the countries most affected by the tsunami. The most notable being the story of Ramayana being extensively portrayed in both Indonesia and Thailand. Despite Thailand officially being a Buddhist country, it continues to relish in the essential human values of Ramayana through its Khon and Lakhon forms of drama-dance tradition based on Ramakian, the Thai version of Ramayana. The current king of Thailand is known as Rama IV.
In Indonesia, Ramayana and Mahabharata govern much of the social and cultural milieu, despite Indonesia being the largest Muslim country in the world. At a traffic roundabout on one of the busiest arteries of Jakarta city stands a monumental sculpture facing the central bank on one side and the national monument on the other. It depicts Krishna and Arjuna in a chariot drawn by several horses.
The sheer size and magnificence of this famous scene from the Mahabharata has no parallel even in India. Unfortunately, India's rulers have no concept of its magnificent history. Their intellectual bankruptcy has led them to follow a path which defies India's tradition and values. The current composition of Indian government, especially with ex-officio players like the communist comrades of the ruling coalition, shows only disdain to much of India's ancient culture and traditions. These historical and traditional dilapidations are visible no where more than in India's elite bureaucracy, including its diplomatic corp.
In the past couple of years, I personally have had opportunity to meet with some of India's top diplomats posted in the United States and Canada. There is a strong sense of confusion within the diplomatic corps as to how India's image is presented to the outside world.
In April 2002, I met with Lalit Mansingh, the immediate past ambassador of India to the United States, in a very small get-together at Legal Seafoods restaurant in Boston. The meeting was to discuss the involvement of Indian Americans in the electoral process of the USA, and how that can help India. The basic theme was to hear a dozen or so community members on their efforts in getting India's interest pointed out to local and national political leadership of United States. First of all, I found nothing overtly Indian during this dinner meeting, as the food was French and American, the dress of the entire gathering was Western suit and tie, and the language, of course, was English. When I asked a question of the ambassador on what Indianness could be pointed out to the second generation of Indian Americans to get them to enthusiastically support India's cause in this country, there was actually stoic silence, followed by a denial that such an question is even important for generating support for India's cause. The consul general then went on to put up a very articulate point of view on India's behalf for Kashmir, but such a lackluster attitude clearly conveyed a less than emphatic passion India needs on the Kashmir issue.
More recently in April 2005, we had a visit to our campus by A. R. Ghanashyam, Consul/Minister, press, consular, passport and visa, who spoke on 'the life of Indian diplomat representing Indian viewpoint'. There was hardly anything Ghanashyam said that was, in fact, an Indian viewpoint. When asked about the Indian viewpoint, he merely quoted information on IT progress, economic growth, and outsourcing among other things. But, those are simply outside points of views Indians are conforming to, and doing very well at that in recent years. One thing Ghanashyam did mention that is worth pondering. And, that was a movie made by a group of foreigners on traditional health care (Ayurveda) opportunities in Kerala, which is being visited by thousands of international visitors. It seemed that Indian diplomats were not even aware of this development, and had to cope with a huge number of calls after the movie was seen by many people in the United States.
Can India afford to limit itself with the intellectual servitude even though Indians may have become fairly good at that? More important, can the world afford not engaging the Indian viewpoints on peaceful, healthy, and harmonious living with righteous means propounded in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata, or through a lifestyle prescribed in Ayurveda? Will Indian policy makers and diplomats become cognizant of the values of their land which reverberate throughout the world, some overtly like those in Thailand and Indonesia, but much covertly like Yoga and Ayurveda in the West?
Bal Ram Singh, director of the Center for Indic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org