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Speech of M.J. Akbar, Minister of State at Delhi Dialogue X

July 19, 2018

The first view of any wonder of the world is stunning; the second magnetic; the third, absorbing, as the mind and senses marry scale with detail, and the true magic of art is reflected in the harmony between the edifice and the unknown corner. No visit to Angkor Vat is complete without a trip to the Seam Reap Museum, with its splendid rock edicts, left for posterity by the kings of Cambodia, the clean, beautiful calligraphy doing proper justice to lofty ideas and precepts. The edicts are in Sanskrit.

The magnificence of Angkor Vat is multiplied by a collage of paintings, miniatures that record both the epic gods of faith and the more human aspects of contemporary life. In one interesting depiction, a group of Indian Brahmins are the only ones who do not prostrate before the king: this was their exalted position in India, and this would be their position under Jayavarman II, Yasovarman and their successors. Merchants had always brought trade; the Brahmins brought something more valuable to the great elites of South East Asia, their philosophy, literature, and the vehicle of this knowledge, Sanskrit. By the time of the Angkor dynasty, Brahmins had been present in South East Asia for at least four centuries.

The East Borneo inscriptions, called yupas, are dated 400 AD. They note in Sanskrit verses, that Mulavarman, the lord of kings, had his sacrificial post prepared by the twice-born, who wore the sacred thread. These priests had "come hither" and were gifted cattle and land. A Sanskrit rock inscription from circa 450 AD speaks of an occasion when the Brahmins were presented with 1000 cows. A 5th century Chinese text says that in the kingdom of Dun-sun, "there are more than a thousand Brahmins of India. The people of Dun-sun practice their doctrine and give them their daughters in marriage. Consequently, not many of these Brahmins go away". Indeed, why should they? In 9th century Angkor, Indravarman I had a Brahmin, Sivasoma, in his court who was said to have studied under Sankara. In the 13th century, Jayavarman VIII built a temple for the Sanskrit scholar-priest Jayamangalartha. And these facts have been gleaned from only what has survived; the truth surely has a larger dimension.

The story of Indian Brahmins in South East Asia, and their descendants - they were, uniquely, even allowed to marry into the royal class - is one of the more fascinating nuggets in the treasure house of culture, faith, trade and, perhaps most important, language that created so many exquisite bridges between India and South East Asia. Their great influence lay as much in the narratives they carried, as the language that etched literature, philosophy and faith into elite and then popular belief.

Sanskrit, one of the mother languages of world history, first emerged from an Indo-Iranian dialect in the Swat region north of Taxila, and spread by the turn of the millennium to the north of India. Thereafter, in more rapid strides, it became the lingua franca of high learning. It is estimated that by the 4th century AD it had created what has been called by scholars a "Sanskrit cosmopolis," stretching from Gujarat to Timor. It was, like all functioning thoroughfares, a two-way street. Java, or Yaw-dwipa, is mentioned in the Ramayana.

The philosophy of India was imbued with a vision of peace and harmony; it did not seek invasion, conquest or domination; it became, like liquid, a part of where it reached. It absorbed other ideas and faiths like Buddhism, and shaped a syncretic whole. Sanskrit merged into intellectual systems and structures of South East Asia to create a new dynamic. Rama, Krishna, and the Pandavas became household names in South East Asia more than 1500 years ago. It spoke to intellect, culture and civilisation, taking roots that produced fruit of many varieties. They sprout in marvellously diverse ways: the Ravi in Punjab and the Irriwady in Burma are linked by a common term, Iravati, which means 'having drinking water'. More than 30 Cambodian kings between 514 and 1327, had 'varman', or bastion, in their name. And I must seek advance apologies from those who might disagree, but there is a powerful theory that our beloved idli actually originates in Indonesia. Certainly, Tamil had great influence in the region too. Tamil inscriptions have been found in Sumatra and the Malay peninsula.

The history of peace will always be more creative, substantial and lasting than the history of war. It is relevant to note, incidentally, that there is no record of a naval battle in the Indian Ocean before the arrival of colonialism.

In an important sense, India has always looked east; but because India did not believe in war, this fact tends to be overlooked in conventional history texts. India's preference for the East also makes geo-political sense: to the north lay the Himalayas, a wall that both protected India and kept it within its shadow; and to the west lay desert that offered more ardour than reward. India chose the seas to find complementary worlds.

But before we proceed, a question about Brahmins. How did they go "overseas" when it was considered impure to do so, and a return to caste demanded prayaschit in many forms? My own answer is that Brahmins did not see the East as "abroad" for the civilisation they found was contiguous to their own, fused by an intrinsic harmony. The west comparatively, was "abroad".

The synthesis between culture and faith in the shared space between India and South-East Asia is one of the great outcomes of this inclusive philosophy. In Cambodia, by the time of Jayavarman V, Mahanaya Buddhism had become part of court faith and culture; and there was a form of Brahmin-Buddhism till Buddhism became prevalent by the 13th century. The point is that transition was largely [if not wholly] slow and peaceful. Islam arrived, both from the Arab Gulf and Gujarat, and took its place peacefully beside existing faiths. With time, it become the dominant religion. Culture was resilient enough to adapt to religion, and religion created room for culture. This is an elemental part of our precious inheritance; and this is what we must consciously, vigorously protect from emerging challenges. In 1927, Rabindranath Tagore, travelling through Bali, said, "Wherever I go on the island, I see God." He saw God in the different forms that human beings have worshipped Divinity.

Our shared philosophy is particularly relevant when the divine message is being distorted, and doctrines are being fuelled which spread violence, and seek to destroy social unity through hatred and fear. We must find an answer in our own philosophy, just as our fathers found the answer to colonialism and post-colonial challenges. Mahatma Gandhi reversed the march of European colonialism by mobilising the Indian masses through the indomitable strength of satyagraha. President Soekarno proclaimed the five principles of Pancha Shila in June 1945; they became the basis of the Banding declaration and, in 1961, the Non Aligned Movement. Our experience since 1961 indicates that perhaps theory and practice could be more aligned.

Idealism, my friends, has a twin brother. It is called realism. The two must work in harness for forward movement. But every horizon is lit with idealism; and we are gathered in this Delhi Dialogue to shape the route map through realism. I wish you a happy and fruitful conversation.


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