Since time immemorial, India has been known as one of the richest countries as far as cultural resources are concerned. Notwithstanding, it is only in the recent past that much focus has been given on the promotion of India’s soft power. As India emerges as an important player in global politics, Connecting Through Culture: An Overview of India’s Soft Power Strengths attempts to answer questions that have been a subject of deliberations among the international community in contemporary times. What are the sources of India’s soft power? Since when can one trace the concept of soft power in India? What is India’s global standing in terms of its soft power capabilities?
In search of these questions, the book attempts to reconnect India’s glorious past, immersed in rich cultural and civilisational heritage, mostly eclipsed or lost in history, with the contemporary world. As the name suggests, the book offers an overview of the strengths of India’s soft power in myriad domains, ranging from traditional knowledge of Ayurveda and Yoga to ancient Indian literature, arts and crafts, dance, music, cinema, textiles, cuisines, among others. The book, consisting of 23 distinct chapters divided in four sections, is a collection of essays on different dimensions of India’s soft power authored by experts in their respective domains.
The major idea that is expounded by the authors in each essay under Section 1, comprising Chapters 1-6, is that soft power in India is more a ‘way of life’ rather than ‘a tool’, embraced by people across time and spaces. Chapter 1 delineates ‘Indian Soft Power in Material and Spirit’, unravelling the contributions of Indian texts, explorers and philosophers in the dissemination of Indian knowledge and wisdom.
The Bakshali manuscript reflects India’s contribution of the mathematical number ‘zero’; references of cycle of life is depicted in the Khajuraho temples, in the Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh; Aryabhata’s contribution to mathematics, such as an approximation of pi, the area of triangles, the notion of sine and cosine and algebraic rules for the summation of series of squares and cubes’ (p. 38); and the contribution of Nalanda University and Takshashila University in dissemination of Indian language and Buddhism; Guptas and the Cholas in popularising the Nataraja dance, Ramayana, and traditional Indian medicine, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Enlisting one of such major contribution, the book highlights “The spread of Hindu culture across South East Asia” through the Gupta and Chola periods which is evident today in the rituals and sculptures in Bali and in the name of the national airlines of Indonesia, Garuda, after the mount of the Hindu god Vishnu, the preserver in the Hindu trinity.”(p. 6)
Amish Tripathi and Anjana Sharma in Chapter 2 trace the remnants of ancient Indian structures and texts to many countries, including South East Asia. Tracing the cultural connection, the book resonates, In Bali, ‘the Old Javanese Ramayana is regarded as the Adi-Kakawin….. In Cambodia, the Ramayana has been indigenised to Ramakerti… featuring the great kingdoms of the epic, Ayodhya, Mithila, and Lanka, as well as Dasarath, the father of Rama, the key queens, Ravana and others…. Thailand goes a step further; the Ramayana, called Ramakien, is the national epic of the country…. The Ramayana is the Hikayat Seri Rama in Malaysia….In neighbouring Laos, the national epic is the Phra Lak Phra Ram—a tale of two brothers, Lak and Ram (or Lakshman and Rama)…. In Myanmar, too, the national epic, Yama Zatdaw, is the regional retelling of the Ramayana.”(pp. 6-7)
In Chapter 3, Madhu Khanna, reveals the profound contribution of Sanskrit language ‘not just to literature, but to the understanding of human history and the science of language’ (p. 23). Drawing on the important contributions of Sanskrit, the author maintained, “Indeed, the ‘realisation’ of Sanskrit by Western scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was an event of great importance. The identification of the common roots of classical Latin, Greek and Sanskrit enabled a comprehension of the evolution of languages.”(p. 23) The multifaceted benefits of Yoga and Ayurveda since time immemorial as described in different ancient Indian texts is discussed in Chapter 5 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 popularising the vast body of knowledge on Yoga, spread across different periods. One of th interesting accounts in the book is the role of foreign explorers and scholars in the dissemination of India’s civilisation and culture. For instance, 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 diffusion of Sanskrit language globally and exploring its close affinity with other languages such as Greek and Latin.
Chapters 7-14 explore India’s soft power components, reflected in arts and crafts, textiles, dance, music, cinema and cuisines. The distinctiveness of Indian classical and folk dance forms (from Nataraja dance, Kathakali and Mohiniattam from Kerala, Kuchipudi of Andhra Pradesh, Bharatanatyam from Tamil Nadu, Kathak from North and Central India, Bihu and Sattriya dance of Assam, Cheraw of Mizoram to Jhoomar of Punjab, Ghoomar of Rajasthan, and Dandiya of Gujarat) and music 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 of Karnataka, Bihugeet of Assam, Bhangda of Punjab, Lavani in Maharashtra, and Baul in Bengal) are major sources of soft power.
In the same vein, the book draws many similarities in cooking styles and cuisines, particularly between India and countries in Southeast Asia. For instance, coconut milk constitutes 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 earned global accolades over the years with films such as Pather Panchali, Do Bigha Zamin and Jana Aranya.
Chapters 19-23 underscore the magnitude 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 transporting and presenting such rich heritage in various world platforms. Buddha’s Dharma, Ahimsa and his Buddhist philosophy; Guru Nanak’s philosophy of Supreme Being, as expressed by Ik Onkar; Swami Vivekananda’s exposition of India philosophy and yoga; Tagore’s concept of nationalism and internationalism; and Gandhi’s concept of Swaraj, continue to exude the profound impact of the vastness of Indian philosophical edifice across countries.
This book is a unique contribution in the field of India’s cultural diplomacy and a great repository on soft power. Hence, it will be valuable for understanding contemporary Indian foreign policy embedded in the rich cultural and philosophical underpinnings of India since antiquity. 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 formulation of policies and promotion of Indian soft power at the global stage.