On Republic Day, it is worth asking, what was the greatest era in Indian history? An insightful but rare view came from William Dalrymple at a recent event to promote his latest book ‘The Anarchy’. He said the Golden Age was between the fourth and twelfth centuries AD.
In this period India’s cultural impact spread, entirely through peaceful means, from Afghanistan to Japan via China and South East Asia. Some of the greatest temples and monuments arose from that cultural impact, from the giant Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan to the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia, from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the Buddhist caves in Dun Huang.
Odisha was a major take-off point for seafarers to Indonesia, taking Hinduism and Buddhism with them. By the 4th century AD, Hindu kingdoms were flourishing in Java and Bali. Indonesia has 21 Jagannath temples recalling its Odisha connection.
Powerful Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms arose in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. The two religions spread peacefully through traders and priests, although many Hindu kingdoms later became militarily powerful. The Ramayana became the national dance of Indonesia, and remains so despite the country getting a Muslim majority. Jakarta’s National Museum is chock-full of Hindu artefacts but has very few Muslim ones.
Thailand’s greatest ancient city was Ayutthaya, a variation of India’s Ayodhya. The Hindu-Buddhist Ayutthaya Empire (1350-1767 AD) viewed both religions as one. Thai kings were viewed as avatars of Hindu gods such as Vishnu, and also as Bodhisattvas. The Thai national epic, the Ramakien, is an adaptation of the Ramayana. Scenes from it are painted on the walls of many temples as well as the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
Buddhism was taken to China by a South Indian called Bodhidharma. There are different versions of his life, but a widely revered version says he was a son of the Tamil Pallava King Simhavarma. He was well-versed in martial arts and took to Buddhism. He renounced his rural lineage and went to China to spread Buddhism there. He is reputed to have established the martial arts (Kung-fu) in China’s famous Shaolin Temple. Another Indian guru, Padma Sambhava, took Buddhism to Tibet.
Traders and priests also spread Buddhism via the Silk Route from India to China and beyond to Japan. The Ajanta caves are India’s most famous Buddhist caves, but are tiny in size and numbers compared with the great painted Mogao caves at Dun Huang in the Gobi Desert, a major transit city along the Silk Route. Many more Thousand-Buddha caves full of statues dot the Silk Route.
Any other country would boast from the rooftops of its great cultural imprint across half the ancient world’s population. In India we hear nary a whisper. Our history books, literature and Bollywood films are obsessed with military battles and conquests. They extol kings and generals and say very little about the great Asian cultural flowering that originated in India.
The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party. Yet it does not project India as the source of the great Hindu and Buddhist cultures that peacefully conquered half the ancient world’s population. It regards Buddha as the ninth avatar of Vishnu, yet takes no pride in Buddhism, which has now been appropriated by Mayawati’s BSP. The BJP emphasises military conquest, seeking to make heroes of Hindu rulers and villains of others. This promotes its notion of a Hindu Rashtra. A BJP history symposium portrayed the Emperor Hemu as establishing a Hindu Rashtra in 1556 by beating Mughal armies. In fact, Hemu spent most of his life as a general in the Afghan army of the Suri dynasty. He seized the Delhi throne after one battle, but was killed just 29 days later in the Second Battle of Panipat.
BJP historians can rightly accuse Marxist historians of many distortions, but seem intent on creating even worse distortions. During BJP rule, the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education altered history textbooks for Class X to say that Rana Pratap won the Battle of Haldighati against Akbar in 1576. He was heroic in battle but lost. Why lie about it?
The irony is that BJP historians are neglecting a separate theme they can be proud of — India’s cultural conquest of Asia. There was indeed a Golden Age when India’s soft power created its greatest empire ever, without spilling any blood. Alas, historians of all stripes have led us to view only military triumph as greatness.
On Republic Day, let’s remember that Golden Age. Let us look forward to an India that conquers not through military or economic muscle but cultural greatness.