Communication of Ideas: Asia and its Influence

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Communication of Ideas: Asia and its Influence

Asia comprises a vast amount of land divided into numerous countries, many of which have civilizations dating back thousands of years. Due to the huge scope of this topic, this entry will focus on India as an important hub for the transmission of ideas throughout Asia and how other Asian countries influenced the development of Indian civilization.

When India became independent in 1947, the new government faced the daunting task of convincing a large and highly disparate population that the various peoples of India constituted one nation. The populace was divided among a variety of religious groups, the majority of whom were Hindus (more than 80 percent). Hindus are divided into more than two thousand endogamous castes (jati ), each of which considers itself to be different from all the others. In the early twenty-first century there are over 800 million Hindus, 81 million Muslims, 20 million Christians, 14 million Sikhs, 6 million Buddhists, 3 million Jains, and about 600,000 Zoroastrians in India. In addition, there is enormous linguistic diversity: the 1971 census (the most recent containing a survey of languages) listed thirty-three languages with more than one million speakers, and there are numerous smaller languages and dialects, many of which are mutually incomprehensible. Since independence, the government has made great strides in promoting education, but more than half of the population remains illiterate.

In this situation, oral and visual texts play a central role in communicating ideas among India's population, which currently numbers over one billion. The ideals of nationhood and government initiatives are often disseminated orally or symbolically, and this is also true of religious ideas. Public performances of religious tales are widely popular all over India, and the annual Ramlila ("Sport of Rama") plays generally draw huge crowds. These are based on Tulsidas's (1543?1623) version of the Hindu epic Ramayana, which tells the story of the mythical king Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu. When the Ramayana was serialized on television in the 1980s, it became a major national event, and the country came to a standstill every week when it was showing. This was followed by serialization of the Mahabharata, the other major religious epic of India, which was equally well received. Due to the continuing popularity of public performances and mass media presentations of religious themes, religious narratives and the ideas they convey are widely diffused in India. The spread of Internet access and growing expertise in software development in India have increased this process, at least among those who are able to use computers. It is now possible to make virtual pilgrimages to Hindu holy sites and to perform virtual puja (offerings and prayers) at several popular Hindu cultural Internet sites. These generally use English, the language of elite communication in India, and they appeal particularly to Indians living overseas.

Language Issues

Even after fifty years as an independent country, there is no real national language, despite government attempts to promote Hindi, which is spoken in the northern part of the country. Linguistically related to Sanskrit, Hindi is the single most spoken language in India, but even so it falls well short of a majority. In 1971 there were 153,792,062 Hindi speakers listed, but even though it is widely spoken (and linguistically related to other languages in the so-called Hindi Belt of north India), there was significant resistance to a government proposal to make it the national language.

The main opposition came from speakers of the Dravidian languages of the south and tribal groups, who felt that they would be disadvantaged if Hindi became the language of government examinations, higher education, and interstate communication. People in the north who speak either Hindi or a linguistically related language would have a significant edge, while speakers of other languages would have to become proficient in Hindi to compete. In response to these concerns, the Indian government first mandated that both English and Hindi would be national languages until 1965, after which English would be dropped, but continued pressure forced the government to retain English for an indefinite period until it could be replaced by Hindi. Many Indian nationalists deplore this situation and feel that the continued use of the language of India's colonizers is an affront to national dignity, but the situation seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

A complex system of center-state communication has been devised. Most of India's states are organized along linguistic lines, and those states in which Hindi is dominant must communicate with the central government in Hindi. Others may communicate in either Hindi or English. In India, language is closely linked to cultural identity, and there are concerted efforts in many parts of India to ensure that traditional tongues are maintained.

English and Sanskrit

The use of English as a national medium proved to be an important aspect of India's rise to prominence in science and technology in the late twentieth century, particularly the development of computer software. Hindi and other Indian languages are poorly suited to communication of modern scientific ideas and terminology. The development of vernacular equivalents is still in its infancy, and so the widespread use of English in elite education, tertiary institutions, and the government-sponsored Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)which turn out the majority of Indian information technology workershas helped India to become an international powerhouse in software technology. English also functions as a marker of elite status in India and is seen as a sign of education and upward mobility among the middle classes. Despite this, according to government estimates, only 11 percent of Indians are fluent in English, and its use is mainly confined to the educated elite.

The use of English as an elite lingua franca has parallels to the position of Sanskrit in ancient and classical India. As with Latin in medieval Europe, Sanskrit was the language of philosophers, writers, and religious teachers, who used it to bridge the linguistic diversity of the subcontinent. The Vedas, the earliest sacred texts of Hinduism, were composed in Sanskrit, probably between 2000 and 400 b.c.e. Most of India's great classical literature, philosophy, and religious works were written in Sanskrit, and it functioned as a means for communicating ideas across the subcontinent for millennia. Despite the widespread use of writing, oral transmission has always been predominant. The main religious duty of the priestly caste of Brahmans is to memorize and transmit the Vedas to their descendants, a process that continues in the early 2000s.

The use of Sanskrit by the elite facilitated the communication of ideas within the areas that adopted it as the lingua franca. One example of its use in communication of ideas was the tradition of public philosophical debate (vadavidya ) among rival philosophical factions. From at least the time of the Buddha (c. 563c. 483 b.c.e.) and Mahavira (c. 599527 b.c.e.) such debates were common. Reports of the time indicate that they were generally sponsored by rulers and often attracted large crowds. The stakes were quite high in these contests: the winners received financial rewards, government patronage, and increased status, but the losers had to publicly acknowledge their defeat and leave the area. Thus it is not surprising that underhanded techniques were commonly used to win debates, and by the first century c.e. there were several manuals outlining the rules and proper conduct for philosophical disputes. According to Akshapada, there are three types of debate: (1) honest debate (vada ), in which both sides seek the truth and try to establish the correct view; (2) sneaky debate (jalpa ), in which one tries to win by any means; and (3) destructive debate (vitanda ), in which one side merely tries to demolish the opponent's position without putting forward an alternative. The most famous practitioner of the third type was the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (fl. c. 150250 c.e.). By all accounts, because the stakes were so high, the first type of debate generally was confined to members of the same philosophical school, and the primary objective in encounters with rival traditions was to defeat them and establish one's own school as dominant.

Some of the common concerns of oral philosophical debates were: What is the meaning or purpose of life? Should one pursue sensual pleasures, or does asceticism lead to better results? Is the world eternal? Is there an individual soul, and if so, is it eternal? In ancient India there was an enormous diversity of philosophical schools, and one of the key focal points of debate concerned what should function as valid means of knowledge (pramana ). There were a number of commonly accepted pramanas, such as direct perception (pratyaksa ), inference (anumana ), verbal testimony (or scripture, sabda ), and analogy (upamana ). Some of the most vigorous intersectarian debates centered on issues of validity; some schools accepted all of the pramanas, some orthodox Brahmanical schools relied ultimately on scriptural testimony, and the Buddhists only accepted direct perception and inference. These philosophical debates were waged for millennia between rival philosophical factions, and the interchange of ideas they fostered led to significant developments within all major philosophical traditions.

Trade and the Exchange of Ideas

Because India was a major cultural and commercial center, it had widespread influence in the region. Sanskrit was not only the language of ruling elites in India but also extended into neighboring countries. Sanskrit was adopted as the language of statecraft and a symbol of royal legitimacy in Angkor (whose name derives from the Sanskrit word nagara, city), and was used by ruling elites ranging from Prambanam in central Java to Annam (modern-day Vietnam) to Peshawar in Gandhara (modern-day Pakistan). The languages of neighboring countries such as Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia are strongly influenced by Sanskrit and contain many cognate words. Versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are found all over South and Southeast Asia and continue to be widely performed, and Indian thought, myth, and cultural themes pervade the region.

In addition to being a hub of ideas and technology, India was the nexus of trade in the region. Early records indicate that guilds run by Brahmans dominated regional commerce and document commercial interactions with Thailand, Alexandria, Lebanon, Burma, island and mainland Southeast Asia, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. India's major international trade routes began at Patna in the north and went on to Taxila, through the Hindu Kush mountains to Bactria and Seleucia, and west toward Damascus and the seaports of Ionia. Trade with China is documented as early as the first century c.e., when embassies were sent between the two countries, and a major expansion of trade took place during the Tang dynasty (618907). The most important avenues of trade were the silk routes, which brought goods and technology by sea and overland through Central Asia. The overland trade routes from northern India went to the north and south of the Tarim Basin and met at the Chinese frontier at the Jade Gate near the oasis city of Dunhuang. The famous caves of Dunhuang were constructed between the fifth and eighth centuries and were used to store texts and images. Dunhuang became a major center of interchange between Indian and Chinese culture, and during the period that it was annexed by the expanding Tibetan empire (ninth century) it also served as a conduit for Buddhist learning and literature from Tibet, Central Asia, and China.

Beginning in the second century c.e., Buddhist missionaries began to follow the trade routes through Central Asia and made their way into China. In 142 a group of monks led by An Shigao established a translation bureau in Loyang to render Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Chinese. For several centuries interest in Buddhism was largely confined to émigrés from Central Asia, but in the fourth century significant numbers of Chinese began to convert. This led to increased importation of texts and ideas from India as well as increased pilgrimage by Chinese Buddhists to India. Among the most famous of these intrepid travelers was Faxian, who traveled overland to India in 399, and Xuanzang, who journeyed overland through Central Asia to India. Xuanzang spent a total of sixteen years there (629645) and traveled all over the subcontinent, chronicling Buddhist institutions and schools. He brought back numerous texts and spent most of the rest of his life translating and interpreting them.

During the Tang dynasty there were reportedly thousands of Indians in China's major cities. Some were traders and others were Buddhist missionaries. Some, such as Bodhiruchi (fl. 508537), brought more than just Buddhist learning: Bodhiruchi was born into a Brahman family and was learned in Samkhya philosophy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, and grammar. He translated fifty-three volumes of the Buddhist canon under the patronage of the emperor and was also influential in introducing the court to other aspects of Indian learning and technology. Pilgrims and traders who returned to India brought peaches, pears, vermilion, and Chinese silk with them, and many also studied Chinese medicine, astrology, and mathematics during their stay.

Conquest, Invasion, and Emigration

In addition to these generally amicable trade relations, conquest and invasion played major roles in the transmission of ideas into India. India is geologically separated from the rest of Asia; the Himalayasthe world's highest mountainsconstitute its northern border, but their passes have been crossed by innumerable invaders, migrants, and travelers. One important early group of migrants was the Aryans, who probably originated in Europe and arrived in India in the second millennium b.c.e. They spoke a proto-Sanskrit language and brought their sacred texts, the Vedas. Over the course of centuries they became predominant in northern India, but their culture probably absorbed elements from India's indigenous inhabitants.

Alexander the Great crossed the Indus River in 326 b.c.e. and easily conquered the divided kingdoms of northern India, but his troops revolted at the Beas River and refused to advance, so his expansion into the subcontinent was halted. In the political vacuum left by Alexander's withdrawal, an Indian dynasty, the Mauryas (321185 b.c.e.), conquered the Gangetic plain and the Indus River valley, but the dynasty fell apart several decades after the death of the great emperor Ashoka (r. 269232 b.c.e.). After this there were some small dynasties, such as the Shungas and Kanvas, but none were able to match the Mauryas' power. In the following centuries there were invasions by several groups of foreigners, including Bactrian military commanders of Alexander's frontier provinces. They were followed by Persians, Scythians, and Central Asian barbarian tribes.

The Bactrians carved out small kingdoms in the northern parts of the subcontinent, and their rule was a time of cultural exchange between the Greek cultural world and India. There is evidence of transmission of technology and literature as well as medical and astrological knowledge. The works of Plato were brought to India, and the Mahabharata was read by some Greeks. In one famous example of intercultural exchange, the Bactrian king Menander (fl. 160135 b.c.e.) reportedly had a series of philosophical dialogues with the Buddhist sage Nagasena, which are preserved in the Questions of King Milinda (Milindapanho ). This became one of the classics of Buddhist philosophy and was translated into Chinese as early as the fourth century c.e. In this text, Menander poses questions from the perspective of classical Greek philosophy, and Nagasena answers from a Buddhist perspective. Menander is presented as an admirer of the Buddha and his doctrine, and he seems to be familiar with Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhist thought and culture were also spread into Southeast Asia beginning in the third century b.c.e. The first successful Buddhist mission was reportedly sponsored by Ashoka, who sent his son Mahinda, a Theravada Buddhist monk, to Ceylon. After becoming established there, Theravada spread to other areas of Southeast Asia and became the dominant religion in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Laos. Beginning in the seventh century, Mahayana Buddhism was adopted by the kings of Tibet, who began a process of importation of Indian Buddhist culture and learning. They sponsored Tibetan scholars to study in the great monastic universities of north India, and Indian scholars were brought to Tibet to spread their religion and to translate the Buddhist canon into Tibetan.

Beginning in the eighth century, a series of Islamic invaders penetrated into India from the north. One of these, Mahmud of Ghazni (9711030), conquered large areas of northern India and also engaged in widespread destruction and looting of religious sites. As a result of the depredations of his armies and later Muslim invaders, the Buddhist monastic universities were destroyed, and by the thirteenth century Buddhism had largely disappeared in India. In the thirteenth century, the Ghurids from Central Asia established the Delhi sultanate, which ruled much of northern India until 1526. They in turn were defeated by the armies of Babur (14831530), a descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, who established the Mughal dynasty, which ruled most of India until 1856. The Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire established a prolific trade in both ideas and commerce between India and the Islamic world. Persian was the language of the Mughal court, which patronized the arts and philosophy. The height of the Mughal dynasty was a period of cultural flourishing in India, and ideas, literature, and technology circulated among India, Persia, and the Middle East as well as the rest of Asia.

In 1656 the Mughal emperor Dara Shukoh had sections of the Upanishads translated into Persian, believing that they were secret scriptures referred to in the Koran. Sufi writings and teachers also exercised significant influence in India, and this continues in the early twenty-first century. The great emperor Akbar (r. 15561605) was highly influential in the interchange of ideas in India and is reported to have held philosophical and religious discussions with representatives of a range of religions and traditions. Following an expansion of the empire under Aurangzeb (r. 16581707), internal pressures weakened it, and local hegemons began to carve out small states.

European traders began to arrive in the sixteenth century. The first were the Portuguese, who established Goa as their trading base in 1510. In 1608 the British East India Company founded its first trade headquarters in Surat, followed by Madras in 1641 and Calcutta in 1691. During the next century, the East India Company gradually extended its control and by the eighteenth century had overcome most of its rivals. Following General Robert Clive's defeat of French forces at Plassey in Bengal 1757, Britain became the dominant power in the subcontinent and began to create rail and communications networks. In the early 1850s the East India Company spent £110,250 on telegraph lines linking the presidencies of India (the areas under direct British rule), which along with the railways and a postal service created by the British allowed for transport of goods and ideas all over the subcontinent. In 1865 a cable link was established between Britain and India.

Indians at first perceived the British as low-caste invaders, but gradually elites began to recognize the benefits of British education and started sending their children to study abroad. At the same time, the British established English-medium schools in India for their children and those of Indian elites. As British scholars began to explore India, interest in its classical literature increased dramatically. Chairs for the study of Sanskrit and Indian culture were established at leading British universities, and religious, philosophical, and literary classics were translated into European languages. Initially the main emphasis was on classical studies, and German scholars were at the forefront of this movement. The pioneering Indologist Max Müller published the first printed versions of the Vedas in Oxford between 1849 and 1873. A French translation of the Upanishads (from the Persian translation sponsored by Dara Shukhoh) was published in 18011802.

At the same time, European humanism and political philosophy were widely disseminated among British-educated Indians. The most influential leader of India's independence movement, Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi (18691948), first read the Bhagavad Gita in Sir Edwin Arnold's English translation after joining the London Vegetarian Society while studying law in London. His writings indicate that in addition to the Gita, he was profoundly influenced by Leo Tolstoy, the Sermon on the Mount, and Henry David Thoreau. As with many other Indians educated in British schools, his thought was a mixture of traditional Hinduism and Western thought.

During their study in British schools, India's independence leaders learned about Western notions of democracy and used these against their colonizers. In addition, the British-built railroads enabled activists to travel all over the subcontinent and to speak with like-minded people in distant areas. This, along with the availability of instant communications via telegraph and, later, telephone and wireless, facilitated the process of learning to imagine themselves as constituting one people belonging to a unified nation.

Because of India's diversity, the process of nation-building and the task of fostering nationalist consciousness among its various religious, linguistic, racial, and tribal groups continues in the early twenty-first century. The growing penetration of telephone service, television, radio, and other forms of mass communication is part of this process. Probably the most pervasive and influential medium for the dissemination of ideas is "Bollywood" films, which are produced en masse and are widely popular not only in India but also Nepal, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. Most of these use a simplified version of Hindi (often referred to as Hindustani), and they function as cultural markers that contain lessons about morality, behavioral norms, courtship and marriage, political issues, and religious themes. The plots are generally thin, characters tend to be stereotypical, and the acting is mediocre at best, but they are enormously popular and are important texts for both Indians and outsiders in regard to popular attitudes and current ideas. They also have helped to spread oral comprehension of Hindi throughout the subcontinent and even beyond, which may in time aid the government's goal of making it the national language. As it continues to define itself in the aftermath of its colonial period, India is once again emerging as a major center for the development and dissemination of ideas in Asia, and Indian thought and technology have become part of the global inheritance of humanity.

See also Aesthetics: Asia ; Asceticism: Hindu and Buddhist Asceticism ; Chinese Thought ; Consciousness: Indian Thought ; Cosmology: Asia ; Education: Asia, Traditional and Modern ; Empire and Imperialism: Asia ; Hinduism ; Jainism ; Sufism .


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John Powers

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Communication of Ideas: Asia and its Influence