Connecting Through Culture: An Overview of India’s Soft Power Highlights, Publisher: Wisdom Tree, Pp 280, Rs 995.00
Since time immemorial, India has been known as one of the countries richest in cultural resources. However, it is only recently that emphasis has been placed on promoting India’s soft power. As India emerges as an important player in global politics, Connecting Through Culture: A Snapshot of India’s Soft Power Highlights attempts to answer questions that have been the subject of deliberations within the international community in contemporary times. What are the sources of Indian soft power? How long has the concept of soft power been traced in India? What is India’s global position in terms of soft power capabilities?
In search of these questions, the book attempts to reconnect India’s glorious past, immersed in a rich cultural and civilizational heritage, mostly overshadowed or lost in history, with the contemporary world. As its name suggests, the book offers insight into India’s soft power forces in a myriad of areas, ranging from the traditional knowledge of Ayurveda and Yoga to ancient Indian literature, arts and crafts, dance, music, cinema, textiles, kitchens, among others. . The book, consisting of 23 distinct chapters divided into four sections, is a collection of essays on different dimensions of India’s soft power written by experts in their respective fields.
The main idea expounded by the authors in each essay in Section 1, comprising Chapters 1-6, is that soft power in India is more a “way of life” than a “tool”, embraced by people in across time and space. . Chapter 1 delineates “Indian soft power in material and spirit”, uncovering the contributions of Indian texts, explorers and philosophers to the spread of Indian knowledge and wisdom.
The Bakshali manuscript reflects India’s contribution to the mathematical number “zero”; life cycle references are depicted in the temples of Khajuraho, Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh; Aryabhata’s contribution to mathematics, such as an approximation of pi, the area of triangles, the notion of sines and cosines, and algebraic rules for the summation of series of squares and cubes” (p. 38); and the contribution of Nalanda University and Takshashila University to the spread of Indian language and Buddhism; Guptas and the Cholas in the popularization of Nataraja dance, Ramayana and traditional Indian medicine, especially in Southeast Asia.
Enlisting one of these major contributions, the book highlights “The Spread of Hindu Culture Across Southeast Asia” through the Gupta and Chola periods, which is evident today in rituals and sculptures in Bali and on behalf of the national airlines of Indonesia, Garuda, after the mount of the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver of the Hindu trinity. (p. 6)
Amish Tripathi and Anjana Sharma in Chapter 2 trace the remains of ancient Indian structures and texts in many countries including Southeast Asia. Tracing the cultural connection, the book resonates, In Bali, “the old Javanese Ramayana is considered the Adi-Kakawin….. In Cambodia, the Ramayana was indigenized into Ramakerti…featuring the great kingdoms of the epic, Ayodhya, Mithila, and Lanka, as well as Dasarath, Rama’s father, key queens, Ravana and others…. Thailand goes even further; the Ramayana, called Ramakien, is the national epic of the country…. The Ramayana is the Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia… In neighboring Laos, the national epic is the Phra Lak Phra Ram, the story of two brothers, Lak and Ram (or Lakshman and Rama)…. In Myanmar too, the national epic, Yama Zatdaw, is the regional narrative of the Ramayana. (pp. 6-7)
In chapter 3, Madhu Khanna reveals the profound contribution of the Sanskrit language “not only to literature, but to the understanding of human history and to the science of language” (p. 23). Relying on the important contributions of Sanskrit, the author maintains: “Indeed, the ‘realization’ of Sanskrit by Western scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries was an event of great importance. The identification of the common roots of classical Latin, Greek and Sanskrit has made it possible to understand the evolution of languages. (p. 23) and 6. The authors highlighted the role of great visionaries, including Swami Vivekananda, Guru Gorakhnath, the sage Gheranda, Swami Sivananda, Ramana Maharshi, Paramahansa Yogananda and Swami Niranjanananda, among others, in popularizing the vast body of knowledge on Yoga, spread over different periods. One of the interesting stories in the book is the role of foreign explorers and scholars in spreading Indian civilization and culture. For example, Peter Brook’s adaptation of the Indian epic Mahabharata; role of Indologist William Jones and other Sanskrit scholars such as Peter M. Scharf and Sylvain Lévi in spreading the Sanskrit language around the world and exploring its close affinities with other languages such as Greek and Latin.
Chapters 7-14 explore the components of India’s soft power, reflected in arts and crafts, textiles, dance, music, film and cuisines. The distinctiveness of Indian classical and folk dance forms (from Nataraja dance, Kathakali and Mohiniattam from Kerala, Kuchipudi from Andhra Pradesh, Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu, Kathak from northern and central India , Bihu and Sattriya dance of Assam, Cheraw of Mizoram to Jhoomar of Punjab, Ghoomar of Rajasthan and Dandiya of Gujarat) and musical techniques, forms and practices (tala, raga, prabandha and vadya mentioned in Natyasastra and Sangita Ratnakara Hindustani and Carnatic music as well as folk music such as Bhavageete from Karnataka, Bihugeet from Assam, Bhangda from Punjab, Lavani from Maharashtra and Baul from Bengal) are the main sources of soft power.
Along the same lines, the book draws up many similarities in cooking styles and cuisines, especially between India and Southeast Asian countries. For example, coconut milk forms one of the main ingredients in South Indian dishes such as Aviyal and Appam and many Thai curries. Indian cinema, produced in many regional languages, has won global accolades over the years with films such as Pather Panchali, Do Bigha Zamin and Jana Aranya.
Chapters 19-23 highlight the breadth of Indian philosophers and explorers, such as Gautam Buddha, Vardhman Mahaveer, Kabir, Tulsidas, Guru Nanak, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi in transport and presentation of such a rich heritage in various global platforms. Buddha’s Dharma, Ahimsa and its Buddhist philosophy; Guru Nanak’s philosophy of the Supreme Being, as expressed by Ik Onkar; Swami Vivekananda’s exhibition on Indian philosophy and yoga; Tagore’s concept of nationalism and internationalism; and Gandhi’s concept of Swaraj, continue to express the profound impact of the immensity of the Indian philosophical edifice across countries.
This book is a unique contribution to the field of Indian cultural diplomacy and an excellent repository of soft power. Hence, it will be helpful in understanding contemporary Indian foreign policy rooted in the rich cultural and philosophical foundations of India since ancient times. Students, scholars, and faculty members interested or involved in soft power discourse as well as Indian foreign policy will find the book useful. Policy makers and practitioners can also benefit from better policy formulation and the promotion of Indian soft power on the global stage.