This is a follow-up to an earlier post “a clash of civilizations” and on the question of whether cultural differences must inevitably lead to war. Here the world can learn from the wonder that is India. The name India has geographical origins and referred to the land and people south of the river Indus, a peninsular surrounded by oceans and fenced by the highest mountains from the lands beyond. In India there evolved more than 30 languages (and many more dialects) a good number of which have their own distinct script and there are as many literatures, forms of dance and music, cuisines, costumes, traditions, faiths, and even Gods; a cultural vibrancy and diversity unlike any other place. So much so that it would be hard to pinpoint anything that the people of the region have in common that could be termed in that sense as Indian? What is it then to be Indian besides to live in this region and share a common history?

In the ninth century, the Zoroastrians found refuge in India fleeing from what is now Iran fearing conversion by Muslim invaders. In an often repeated story, when the Zoroastrians asked for asylum, the ruler of Gujarat gestured to a bowl of milk full to the brim. In reply, a Zoroastrian priest added sugar to the milk, implying that they would not be a burden and would make the kingdom sweeter. Earlier following the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC and then again in 70 AD Jewish exiles escaping persecution found sanctuary in India. Inscriptions engraved in ancient Tamil script on copper plates now kept in Cochin’s main synagogue read that the then ruler awarded the Jews a village and declared that “so long as the world and moon exist they could live freely, build synagogues, and own property without conditions attached”. In recent history, Tibetan Buddhists fleeing their homeland rather than give up their faith, customs and way of life have likewise found safe haven in India.

Perhaps it is precisely this that characterizes being Indian – an open-mindedness and an assimilating mind and not just a tolerance but a celebration of differences. Wherefrom came this manner of thinking is a question I shall take a crack at in my next post. Then again such diversity made the region easily conquerable and India was overrun a number of times in its history by invading tribes from Central Asia and after that by the Europeans. Yet in India’s diversity lies its greatest strength – its dynamism and its unregulated creativity. Unregulated is the important word here. Power structures disapprove of opposing points of view and a questioning or creative spirit that might challenge its authority. Uniformity on the other hand is conducive to regulation and control. No monarch, church or party has ever been able to dictate the mind of India. Though many have tried and continue to do so.

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