This article is the 23rd in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.
BANGKOK (IDN): A recent conference at Thammasat University in Bangkok brought together Indian and Southeast Asian scholars to discuss re-building cultural links along two major rivers in Asia – the Ganges and the Mekong – that in ancient times provided transport links to build great civilizations influenced by Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and promote cultural flows.
The celebration of the New Year April 14 in the region based on astrology and harvesting cycle epitomizes these cultural links.
In a keynote address, Prof Ram Madhav, the National General Secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Director of India Foundation argued that “soft power” which is promoted by big powers these days is an imposition of one’s cultural practices on others without using military means, and is not a suitable option for Asia.
“We must seriously revisit the soft power theory,” he argued, noting that it is a western concept. “The Ganga-Mekong cultural flows (in ancient times) were interplay of cultures,” he said, adding: “The history of India has shown how culture has helped to prosper others.”
That was a recurrent theme throughout the conference which was hosted by Pridi Banomyong International College (PBIC) of Thammasat University. As Prof Nitinant Wisaweisuan, the Dean of PBIC, said in welcoming the invited scholars, “this conference is a realization of the need to provide a cultural platform for more cooperation in the region”.
Pointing out that Indians have been travelling as far as China since at least the 1st century AD marrying princesses and establishing communities influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, Prof Madhav said: “From Cambodia to Bali, Indian influence was not seen as colonizing.” Though Indians saw the region as greater India or further India “traders, monks and travellers did not come across ‘savages’ in the lands they encountered; they came across people living in similar civilized societies like them”.
Prof Madhav argued further that people in these regions saw the Indian infiltration as “offering a framework from India which could be used to develop their own societies … India did not colonize or occupy their lands.”
The six countries that constitute the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) grouping are: India, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. MGC was formally established on November 10, 2001 at a meeting in Vientiane, Laos. Through its ‘Look East’ policy, India is trying to reinvigorate the cultural and religious linkages between India and the other MGC members.
The so-called ‘East-West Corridor’ project and the ‘TransAsian Highway’ are some of the pioneering maneuvers undertaken by the six members to promote transport facilities. But lately India has been talking about these cultural and transport links developing into important trade and defence links in the region.
The highway project India is investing in will ultimately link Delhi via Kolkata, Dhaka, Mandalay, Yangon, Chiang Mai, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. The railways Chinese are investing in are also linking the same cities in Southeast Asia, but not at the moment linking into India.
However, with such transport corridors via rail, road and river, Asia’s future generations are bound to prosper as they did in ancient times. But, reinvigorating cultural links and understanding, government would need to ensure that these transport corridors will transport more tourists and containers rather than military hardware.
“There is no doubt that the Mekong basin was the bridge between India’s and China’s dominions and its economic activities flourished,” noted Dr Supruet Thavornyutikarn of the India Studies Centre at Thammasat University.
“Chinese attempts to reconnect its economic activities with the world – for example, One Belt One Road – are not new, these are to revive those good old days. Similarly linkages between Ganga and Mekong basins are yet to be re-established to realize economic potentials and betterment of respective peoples…. Both basins must overcome the invisible, but mutual obstacles.”
These obstacles, Dr Supruet explained, were implanted – perhaps unintentionally – by European colonizers who separated different nationalities, established diverse political and legal systems making closely linked neighbours estranged. “This estrangement intensified when they needed to gain their own independence. In trying to do so and repulsing colonizers, they started to fear their own neighbours too,” he noted. To realize the potential for MGC cooperation, he argued, such “colonial ghosts” have to be overcome.
Dr Jaran Maluleem, Head of the Indian Studies Program at Thammasat University, noted that with these regional initiatives, India is trying to penetrate the ASEAN markets by enhancing the mutual economic benefits. He pointed out that the highway that goes via Kolkata to Tamu (Manipur) and into Kalemyo in central Myanmar could be an important initiative to open up areas of economic deprivation in Asia. “Development of the north-east region is of paramount importance to India’s ‘Look East’ policy, he argued. “If trade and industry flourish in the entire region, overland trade via Myanmar to many MGC countries will promote India too.”
Many of the Indian scholars pointed out the commonalities in the regional cultures such as in names, language, religion and traditional arts that have been drawn from the Sanskrit language, Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Pali scholar Dr Rana Purushottam Kumar Singh from Nava Nalanda Mahavihare pointed out that Ramayana – one of the two great epics of India – not only moulded the national character in India but also that of many Mekong region countries.
“The ethos of Ramayana originating in the region of Kosala in India and the manner in which it spread across Southeast Asia is a fascinating study,” he pointed out, while presenting a paper dealing with the Ramayana culture in the Ganga-Mekong region.
“River Ganga and River Mekong are the two arteries of Asia through which culture flows in different parts of Asia,” argued Prof S.R Bhat, Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research.
“Ramayana and Mahabharata have been adopted by the societies of Ganga-Mekong valley as their own creations.” He presented a paper which looked at how Myanmar adopted both Hinduism and Buddhism without any confrontation with each complimenting the other.
It has also led to a strong linguistic interface between Pali and the Myanmar language of today. Similar adaptations have taken place in Thailand where the Thai version of Ramayana is recognized as an “excellent literary piece of Asia” and where “all kings of Thailand have declared themselves as reincarnations of Rama” and loved to be called as Rama One, Rama Two, Rama Three, etc. And Cambodia, Prof Bhat noted, is a “centre of a wonderful architectural specimen (that is) the best example of Indo-Cambodian Hindu-Buddhist Art.”
Prof Bhat agreed that these strong cultural bonds have become weak in modern times because of centuries of European colonial rule. Thus, India has to take the initiative to strengthen and revitalize these relationships. “All six nations can write success stories in the field of trade, commerce, diplomacy, cultural relations, etc,” he noted. Thus, to continue strengthening these links, PBIC and Bangkok was chosen to be the hub for developing the MGC projects at the end of the conference.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate