Imperium Indicum, Or How India Didn’t Rule The World

Siddhartha Sarma
Grist Media
(Photo: IANS)

A lot has been said against Doordarshan televising Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Dussehra speech on October 3. The usual critics have questioned this perceived promotion of the Sangh’s ideology. Since every government in the past has permitted its ideologues to use the state-owned channel for broadcasts, there is no reason to oppose it now without being hypocritical. It is the sub-text of his speech, however, that shows how difficult it is for political Hinduism to appropriate Indian history to its ends.

Bhagwat’s speech was mainly a pious rehash of India’s role as guru to a fractured world, that the models followed by the West and the rest were inadequate guides for mankind (as seen, he said, in how the ISIS was created by the venality of the West). This is not a new concept: indeed, the re-moulding of India’s self-image is based on an assumption that Hinduism has the answers to the various crises that face civilizations today. To give him due credit, Bhagwat acknowledged that India has much to learn from the West, but these lessons, predictably, will be along materialistic lines. In cultural, ideological and what passes for spiritual matters, we have, we are told, to only give to other nations.

Now, it is apparent that Bhagwat is more politically astute than the Sangh leadership in the recent past, and he has very little patience for any dabbling in religious matters. We are witnessing a clear iteration of political Hinduism here, an ideology based on re-imagined and revised Indian history.

It is no coincidence that he chose to begin by invoking the spirit of the Chola emperor Rajendra (we assume the First, and not the Third, who presided over the empire’s disintegration). “The Dussehra celebrations this year are special because they mark a thousand years of the reign of Rajendra Chola, who spread Indian culture overseas, particularly in South-east Asia,” he said. Considering that Indian school history textbooks have criminally neglected South Indian history, and empire-builders from the north have been given a larger share of the national consciousness, it is refreshing to hear an eulogic mention of the Cholas.

A part of this, certainly, has to do with the Sangh’s renewed assault on the Tamil regionalist bastion. But it also has to do with political Hinduism’s search for a legitimate international empire.

Appropriation and revision of Indian history is as venerable a Sangh tradition as the Sarsanghchalak’s annual speech. Till recently, it was limited to Hindu figures seen as opponents of Islamic expansion: Shivaji, the Ranas Sangram Singh and Pratap, the Vijaynagar Empire, the Sikhs.

This has lately expanded to more obscure and reimagined ones: Gaidinliu, the 20th century Naga cult leader who the Sangh claims was a Hindu revivalist, and Emperor Hemchandra or Hemu as he is better known, who very briefly ruled from Delhi between the Sur Dynasty and the return of the Mughals in the mid-16th century. Rajendra Chola is now officially part of this second, newer narrative: culture as empire and not just as defensive action in the face of reverses. In short, let’s talk expansion now. The problem here is, historically, cultural influence has not always walked down the aisle with political supremacy, and certainly not Indian culture.

Consider, then, the Cholas. There is much to be learnt from them, because they oversaw India’s only overseas expansion. Between the 9th and the 11th centuries, Chola naval might extended to the Maldives, northern Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Strait of Molucca.

However, this expansion cannot be seen merely through the conventional prism of political control. Most Chola campaigns in South-east Asia involved the capture and control of seaports and harbours, and not of imperial rule further inland. Successful medieval monarchs, regardless of which part of the world you might look at, were more pragmatic than we might give them credit for, and the Cholas were extraordinarily prescient in understanding the nature of the Indian Ocean trade routes, such as the choke-point at Molucca for all China-bound shipping. Controlling the Strait of Molucca, between south-western Malaysia and north-eastern Sumatra was the key to gaining from the sea trade to China.

Bhagwat’s reference to the Cholas was as prologue to what he sees as India’s natural role as guiding light to the world. This conflation of political dominance with cultural influence, impressive as it sounds, is clearly not the case with the Cholas. For Indic civilization had already been internalized in South-East Asia by then.

Here’s an instance: in 1025, the Khmer Empire in today’s Cambodia asked the Cholas for help against the Tambralinga kingdom in Malaysia, and their allies the Srivijaya city-state of today’s Sumatra. These are not merely Indic-sounding names: the Khmers were Shaivites, as were the Cholas, while their enemies were Mahayana Buddhists, although this was an incidental cause to a mainly economic conflict. Southeast Asia had thoroughly internalized Indian culture, language and religious systems for nearly seven hundred years by then. The extent of cultural and diplomatic relationships these kingdoms and empires inherited is impressive by any standard: the Srivijayans had even financed a monastery or two at Nalanda, which was under the Palas.

A lot of India’s overseas influence in these maritime civilizations was because of Tamil seamanship and mercantile influence in the centuries preceding the rise of the Cholas. For their part, Rajendra Chola’s dynasty encouraged the increased sophistication of Tamil merchant guilds like the Ayyavole. One wishes these achievements were mentioned more in our school textbooks.

In short, the Cholas did not market Indian culture to South-East Asia, nor did they bring a form of pax Indica on the back of their impressive blue-water navies. To conflate political expansion with cultural influence is, for one, to ignore South India’s role in the preceding centuries in spreading Indian culture overseas through non-military means.

Equally important, this re-imagined correlation between “soft” and “hard” power is more applicable to Western colonial interventions or, even more accurately, to Islamic expansion. In the colonial period, naval or land-based supremacy went in conjunction with culture, political systems and commerce. Islamic expansion, meanwhile, was predicated on the nature of the religion itself, where political supremacy was – and is – intimately connected with faith and all the cultural values of peninsular Arabia.

India’s cultural legacy, or what little of it remains in South-east Asia, does not work that way. Nor should it. Chola campaigns had only marginal long-term impact even next door, in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese Buddhism became a rallying point and a political force afterwards, or in the Maldives, whose Buddhist traditions would soon be subsumed to Islam. It was only in places where Indic culture was most strongly internalized before the Cholas that Hinduism or Buddhism survived against Islam, such as in Thailand or Cambodia, while Srivijayan Buddhist Sumatra is just a trace of memory.

By attempting to connect Indian culture with the subcontinent’s only successful naval expansion project, of course, Bhagwat was trying to add to the discourse emerging today, trying to add a patina of conquest to the traditional received wisdom of Indian cultural superiority. After all, cultural lessons are great as heritage; they must certainly be better if they are seen to be accompanied by real might, real navies, exciting stories of conquest. The reduction of Indian culture’s presence in the region by seven hundred years seems a trivial trade-off.

So, why be concerned about a nifty bit of historical revisionism? Indian ideologues from the Left and the Right do it all the time, after all. But it is of importance. The idea of culture-as-empire is a heady narcotic, particularly today when Indians seek to define their country’s role in terms and analogies borrowed from other systems and structures. It is no coincidence that political Hinduism’s attempt at homogenizing the multiple strands of Indian culture or religious texts into a single acceptable narrative mirrors the limited horizons of Islamic polity. The difference is, Islamic polity has always been constrained by its religious limitations and predatory instincts. Indic cultural traditions have not.

A lot of talk has been expended on India’s soft power today and Bollywood’s dubious increased reach in the West. Leaving apart the few takers for the exotic and the unusual, or the intrepid seekers of a romantic transcendence in mysterious India, the question of this country’s relevance to the rest of the world needs to be answered by meeting the world on mutually understandable terms, through universal languages like commerce, science and literature.

Seeking Indian cultural glory through empire, or re-imagining Indian history through modern notions is, therefore, a contradictory task. On the one hand, ideologues run the risk of politicizing a way of life that has been resolutely apolitical for most of its history. For another, as seen in the Chola example, we might end up ignoring the far deeper roots of India in the neighbourhood, roots that were spread long before empires contested over them.

Siddhartha Sarma is a journalist, writer and medieval military historian.