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Discovering the Indian Self
The Pioneer Edit Desk

Although it might not consciously occur to us, there is a crucial difference in the way India greets the new millennium and the rest of the (western) world celebrates it. For the young nation-states of Europe and America, which emerged only over the last 400 years, the year 2000 is a cataclysmic event for a very important reason it lends them an awareness of continuity, a link with antiquity. Much of the frenzied millennium festivities in the West are, therefore, a heady assertion of being, of having been. But for India, the rites of passage into 2000 are not as epochal. Because we in India are not looking to the turn of this millennium for a sense of history. After all, the Indian civilisation has been there for 5000 years, if not more. Let us not forget that we began at Harappa and Mohenjodaro.

By the time the western nation state crystallised, India had already travelled a long way in its evolution. We had established an urban culture in the subcontinent as far back as 2500-1800 BC when a complete civilisation grew and flowered in the Indus Valley. Our turbulent civilisational journey continued through vast empires and petty kingdoms ruled by short-lived dynasties, through monarchies, oligarchies, chieftainships and republics to the modern nation-state. The road has been uneven there have been only brief moments of consolidation, and long periods of scatter and fragmentation. There have also been recurring ruptures in this continuous history when the civilisation was forced to confront the outside world through border skirmishes and deep invasions, when raiders and conquerors brought with them dislocation and dispossession.

Yes, many milestones in this journey have brought shame too. Down the ages, there has been a hardening of ritualism, a widening of disparity and inequality. Many waves of repression, and religious bigotry have also been unleashed, stifling creative energy. The millennial moment, then, should not become the pretext for lapsing into a self-indulgent nostalgia, for glorifying and romanticising a golden past. It is certainly the opportunity, however, to relive the grand historical sweep of the Indian civilisation, to celebrate its unique resilience and survivability. There must be a reason why India has lived on through the millennia, why it has had a stable and manifest existence through time despite its chronic inability to erect a persistent and coherent political center. The explanation lies in the perfecting of a remarkable social order and in the development of traditions and values that have had a lasting effect on all subsequent periods. Basically, the Indian system has been a loose accommodation between a stable social order and a transient and unstable political order.

Underpinning the stability of the Hindu social organisation has been, paradoxically, its openness to change. It is its flexibility and permeability that helped it to assimilate even the many movements of internal dissent. A whole line of dissenting and reformist movements through history followed Buddha and Mahavira, the great dissenters of Hindu society be it the Bhakti movement in North and South India or the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj during British rule. It was this open-endedness again that helped it to survive hostile collisions with alien systems like that of Islam and Christianity. In fact, these encounters gave birth to unique cultural forms that draw their life and energy from the confrontational tension they embody. It is a function of that same openness that no sharp cleavages can be sighted between the traditional and the modern in India. Models of social change that conceive of modernisation as a rejection of tradition and a transformation on modern lines do not apply to India. Indian reality eludes even those models that deny potency to modern institutions and values and simply assert the durability of tradition. The fact is that modernity and tradition are not polar opposites in present day India. The fact is that older differentiations of caste, religion, language and region have taken on new organisational forms in the modern nation state. Despite a great degree of differentiation and complexity, the traditional Hindu social order has shown great resilience and adaptability making Indian society a unique mix an ancient society coming to terms with the demands of a new age, and achieving a new identity without destroying older identities. At the same time, however, there is danger in overemphasising the apparently seamless continuity in the Indian civilisation. It is necessary to remember that this has not always been easy, and that it has extracted a heavy price. It has also been an incomplete process. Many unresolved tensions still fester in modern India. They threaten to sabotage its integrity, and undermine its attempts to consolidate itself for the first time under a common political centre.

As it deals with the continuing birthpangs of a nation-state, what India lacks most, perhaps, is a sense of its self. Ironically, the civilisation that has continued through millennia lacks pride in its own history, and faith in its future. Hopefully, as we stand at the joining moment between two millenniums today, that lofty vantage point will enable us to look back and retrieve some of the scattered fragments of our lost identity. The truth is that without a sense of the past, we cannot step into the future.



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