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The empire strikes back

Author: Suma Varghese

Publication: The Free Press Journal
Date: December 5, 1997


I know this is a slightly delayed reaction, but I cannot resist making it. I refer to the much-publicised British Golden Jubilee Banquet held in London a few weeks back. It was here that Cherie Blair, the PM's wife, stole all our hearts by turning up in a
sari. But I refer to a more momentous event than that. Namely, Prince Charles speech.

The Prince made some remarkable disclosures. First, he thanked India for "its civilising influence over Britain", then proposed a toast for "real India, the enduring and everlasting India", an India that had preserved its identity through its experience of colonisation, and which must now fight the invasion of satellite television.

This is amazing. India having a civilising influence over Britain? Where does that leave the white man's burden? Imagine, the crown prince of Britain admitting that the civilising had been as much from the invaded country to the invading country as vice versa. What a volte face for a nation that systematically during its 300 years of rule, denigrated every aspect of the 'native' culture, including its philosophy and spirituality, and supplanted it with its own imperial values, attitude and approaches. The prince of a nation that has done more than any other to alienate us from our traditional culture and way of life, today acknowledges the "civilising influence" of such a tradition.

In the same vein, he went on to congratulate us for having withstood the experience of colonialism, a 'colonialism' his own country imposed! Here is an implicit acknowledgement of the less than salubrious impact of colonialism; a concession that their conquest may have damaged us. Considering that his mother did not have the bigness to apologise for the Jallianwallah massacre, this is downright handsome of the son.

And to think he should have the sensitivity and depth to penetrate into "the real India, the enduring India."

There is, in the Prince's speech, a profound shift from the popular perception of the Indo-British relationship. Instead of seeing India as a former imperial colony and a Third World nation, he sees it as a perennial civilisation, one nothing can vanquish, and which can, in rum, not vanquish, but transform its invaders.

We can see this happen in the case of the Prince himself If the British conquered us yesterday with their superior strategy and physical might, today we seem to have conquered them with the force of our philosophy. On the same occasion, the Prince quoted Vedic hymns, revealing his acquaintance with the heart of India's philosophy and spirituality. His fondness for Indian classical music, which derives its aesthetics from the same philosophy, is yet another indication of the Prince's attraction and affinity for our culture.

Nor is he the only one in the Royal household to feel the lure of the East. His late ex-wife, the Princess Diana, was also attracted to the sub-continent -- mostly Pakistan, and had an active interest in spirituality. The Duchess of York, who came  recently to India for a homeopathic cure, is reportedly an admirer of India's holistic therapies.

Our ancient hoary land has wrought its magic once again. It's as the sages and philosophers have always maintained. By constant transformation, India remains her essential self; in turn, this essential self is the instrument of the world's transformation.

Listen to Vivekananda, for instance. "What may be that force which causes this afflicted and suffering people, the Hindu... to survive when other nations perish? The cause can only be their spiritual force."

Says Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose, "By continuous living tradition and a vital power of rejuvenescence, this land has readjusted itself through unnumbered transformations."

Asks Dr S. Radhakrishnan: "By what strange social alchemy has India subdued her conquerors, transforming them to her very self and substance..... ? Why is it that her conquerors have not been able to impose on her their language, their thoughts and
customs, except in superficial ways?"

So what indeed is the secret of India'a enduring vitality? How do we account for its transformatory power? What did Prince Charles mean when referring to the 'real India, the enduring and everlasting India"?

The tragedy is that while the prince of an alien nation could see this aspect of India, most of us in contemporary, urban India are out of touch with it. Caught in the maelstrom of change, it is difficult for us to step back far enough to see the continuity of our culture. At the most, the Prince's words will conjure up some vague images of our Vedic past, but of its real relevance to our present life, we have little or no notion.

Yet that "real" India survives, and even thrives. Indeed, if we continue to exist despite our manifold problems, it is her we have to thank.

The real secret of India's survival is its tolerance, its inclusion. What has kept it from being swallowed whole by its conquerors, or warped beyond recognition, is its limpid
ability to accept the cultures, tradition and above all, the religions of alien rulers. The Muslims came, and we accepted them. Islam began to flourish in all corners, but if it did not become the dominant religion, it is because we did not resist its spread. The same
with British rule and the spread of Christianity. The number of Christians in the country are certainly not enough to threaten Hinduism, and that is because Indian coexisted with them, rather than trying to wipe them out.

There is a profound lesson for all of us in this approach. Indeed, now that personal growth has become such a mainstream activity, it is one of the first principles of transformatory technology.

What we resist, persists; what we accept, can he transformed. Almost all of us will have had occasion to encounter the truth and wisdom of this observation.

Make the mistake of hating someone, and you will forever be yoked to thoughts of that person. You cannot get away from them. Wherever you go, his presence pursues you; no matter what you think, eventually, your mind wanders back to the hated object.
Had you loved him, you would not have been so much possessed by your feelings as you become in hate. The same is true of any vice we attempt to give up. The more we resist it, the greater the urge. The more we hate ourselves for giving in to it, the greater
its power over us. It is only when we accept ourselves implicitly. weakness and all, that it loosens its hold over us. From a larger context, if we were to stop protesting against the
manifold flaws of the country and moved towards accepting it instead, we would be in a position to solve them.

Awareness and acceptance, as anyone interested in personal growth will tell you, are the twin mechanisms of transformation. They will also tell you that they are about the most difficult and challenging aspects to attain. How then, did our country, which
is to say, all of us as a whole, achieve this feat?

Here is where we glimpse the continuity that binds us, and which makes us uniquely Indian. The answer lies in the Vedic heritage, with its belief in the unity of all creation. Believing as we did that all is one and all is holy, we naturally inclined towards interconnection and a sense of reverence towards all that exists. If this has made us respect and serve all forms of life, our traditional pursuit of self-realisation as the purpose of life, has given us respect for all forms of religion, which we see as different paths to the same truth. Little wonder then, that we are tolerant and open-minded, and accepting of diverse viewpoints.

This catholicism is part of our heritage, and whether we are conscious of it, of our personality. Moving consciously towards it, and making it a part of ourselves will give us an untold edge in effective living. It will also ensure, as the Prince solicitously advised us, that we don't lose our essential selves to the satellite revolution.






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