Saturday, June 12, 2010

CHINA: RELIGION RETURNS

We have forgotten but the Chinese have not. Thanks primarily to our history written from a alien perspective designed to propagate the myth of colonial superiority to perpetuate colonial rule, we no longer remember that India once dominated much of the world, not by sword or by force, but by its intellectual, cultural and spiritual prowess. But the Chinese, despite decades of communist rule during which atheism has been aggressively promoted and religion frowned upon, still remember their ancient, living civilisation and the enormous contribution that India has made to it.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping effectively discarded the Marxist model of economic development and replaced it not by a capitalist one copy pasted from the West, but by one unique to that country, one designed to rapidly improve the living standards of its people and close the gap between China and industrialised nations. Although the "China Model" is still under development and the country still considers itself to be a "learning state," the stunning fact is that in almost the blink of a historical eye, it "has created an economic miracle, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty - a record unparalleled in world history."

Three decades after communism was effectively dumped in the economic sphere, China's leaders are rediscovering their religious roots and are quietly facilitating and calliberating their nation's return to it.

On Thursday, The Great Hall of the People, where communist laws and rules on atheism have been framed for five decades, saw a dance drama 'Cosmos' that featured themes like nirvana, karma and rebirth. That this was done in close with the Communist Party at various levels is evident by the fact that China's best names in choreography, dancing, music and stage craft were involved in it. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the show gave an "Oriental cosmic view" about life's dimensions on earth and celestial premiers in heaven. The Beijing Municipality, which organized the event, described it as a human quest "to find answer in the eyes of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism".

In 2008, Chinese archaeologists had unearthed a four storey miniature pagoda, commissioned by India's Emperor Ashoka the Great in second century BC to house the remains of Buddha. The pagoda found in Nanjing is crafted from wood, gilded with silver and inlaid with gold, coloured glass and amber and contains the only known part of Sakyamuni's skull. According to Buddhist records, Ashoka collected all the sariras that had earlier been retrieved from Buddha's cremation and sent them to different parts of the world, China is believed to have received 19 of them. The pagoda was initially displayed in a museum.

It is important for Buddhism as a religion to have these sarira to be shown to its followers. In a significant departure from practice, the government has now allowed the relic to be enshrined in the Qixia Temple in Nanjing on June 12, 2010. Phoenix TV and Nanjing TV will broadcast the entire event live. The archaeologists who discovered it are also being allowed to take part in the enshrining ceremony and hold a news conference to exhibit photographs of the process of discovery and why they believe it belongs to Buddha.

India's contacts with China are older than history. The first recorded one is of around 265 BCE, when Emperor Ashoka sent a monk there to spread Buddhism. According to one account, around in 67 CE, two monks brought Buddhist sutras containing 600,000 Sanskrit words from India, and these were translated into Chinese. Other Indian Tantric and Buddhist masters also subsequently went to China and imparted knowledge. Most of us know that there are four Vedas. According to an age-old legend, there are actually five: the fifth esoteric Veda is with the Chinese. Very few Indian yogis have knowledge of its contents.

Chinese philosopher Hu Shi aptly expressed the abiding truth about the extent of India's influence on that country when he said "India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border." Lin Yutang in his excellent, 1100 page book, "The Wisdom of China and India", echoes the sentiment when he observes that the average reader does not suspect that "India was China's teacher in religion and imaginative literature, and the world's teacher in trigonometry, quadratic equations, grammar, phonetics, Arabian Nights, animal fables, chess, as well as in philosophy, and that she inspired Booccacio, Goethe, Herder, Schopenhauer, Emerson, and probably also old Aesop."

China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had that long history in mind when, in 2003, he told India's visiting Defence Minister George Fernandes: “Friendliness accounts for 99.99 per cent of the 2,200-year-old Sino-Indian exchanges and misunderstanding merely 0.01 per cent. It’s high time we buried that 0.01 per cent and re-established the 99.9 per cent.” More recently, during his annual press conference, Jiabao told PTI's Beijing correspondent to convey to the Indian people that China and India are not competitors but friends and quoted from an Upanishad "written more than 3000 years ago in Sanskrit" to ask God to nourish both India and China and to let peace prevail between them.

The return of religion to communist China is a significant development. It may well be the beginning of a new, deeper revolution with which China will lead the world in the 21st century. Ironically, India, the land that China has always looked up to for cultural leadership and guidance, is undergoing a serious crisis of self-confidence and, in some sections of its deracinated society, even identity. Perhaps that is one reason why it has not yet been energised with the pride and fire needed to get into a leadership position. Perhaps that is one reason why those who are in a position to steer the nation into such a position are content to keep playing second best to the West, happy that they are lording over the masses who continue to suffer shaming poverty and deprivation.

It is time for India to shift its gaze from the West whose story is over to China who is writing the next one. Even if we are not yet ready to cast away yokes that have choked our minds and spirit, it will be better if the Guru becomes the shishya, the student, of one who has for long been his own shishya, so that he can remember and reclaim his respect and his leadership role, and enrich his people and the world once again.