Our Planet seems to be getting smaller and smaller. We now interact all the time with our once-distant neighbours around the globe. Yet our cultures remain almost as different as ever. Civilizations are the largest widely recognized units of this diversity. Over the centuries, each has evolved its own distinctive contributions to human life. But differences can be a source of conflict as well as mutual enrichment. Since the end of the Cold War, and even more in the aftermath of the events of September 11,2001, the scenario of a “ clash of civilizations” has struck many people as plausible.
Proposing the alternative scenario of a “clasp of civilizations”, these essays stress the persistence of cultural diversity despite the homogenizing pressure of globalization, but argue that this diversity need not lead to conflict and may be our greatest resource. Given the centrality of religion to many cultures, much depends on the replacement of outdated attitudes of religious exclusivism by a pluralism that embraces the other. A historical landmark in the emergence of religious pluralism was the Parliament of Religions that opened in Chicago on 11 September 1893. This book brings out its significance as a global cultural event, too far ahead of its time to be fully understood by its contemporaries.
The Parliament brought several notable exponents of Asian spirituality to America, including the charismatic Swami Vivekananda from India. Thus began the contact between these two countries which continues to deepen to this day. Written by an American living in India, the book contains essays on the idea of India and the American dream, as well as discussing broader questions raised by the meeting of different ways of knowing and being in an enigmatic world.
Richard Hartz studied philosophy at Yale University and South Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington. Since 1980 he has lived in Pondicherry, India, where he is an independent scholar studying Asian languages and cultures with a particular focus on Sanskrit literature and the writings of Sri Aurobindo. These essays reflect the perspective of a Westerner who has long been immersed personally, intellectually and spiritually in an Eastern civilization.
From the Silk Road to the Internet
One night in 629 CE, a young Chinese Buddhist named Xuanzang set out alone across the shifting sands of the
Taklamakan Desert beyond the border of the Tang Empire. His destination was India. To reach it he had first to go west; but travel to those troubled regions of Central Asia was restricted by imperial decree. Keeping off the beaten path to avoid detection, he soon lost his way. He collapsed from dehydration before reaching the first oasis and barely survived the desert crossing at the beginning of his pilgrimage.
Sixteen years later, Xuanzang returned to China at the end of a 1O,OOO-mile journey. He had traversed some of the most formidable terrain on earth and criss-crossed the Indian subcontinent acquainting himself with the various schools of Buddhist philosophy. He had studied and taught at Nalanda, one of Asia's foremost centers of learning. King Harsa, ruler of northern India, had showered him with gifts and honors. Now he was accompanied by a train of horses loaded with hundreds of manuscripts of Buddhist texts he wished to translate. When he reached Chang' an (modern Xi' an), the Tang capital and the largest city in the world, crowds thronged the streets to greet him. The emperor Taizong, whom he had disobeyed when he left China, welcomed him and sought information about the lands he had visited.
Xuanzang's epic journey became the stuff of Chinese legend.
It was also a significant episode in the centuries-long spread of Buddhism from India to China. The political scientist Samuel Huntington, best known for his stress on conflict in the relations among civilizations, called this transmission "perhaps the most important cultural diffusion not the result of conquest"." Xuanzang's story, along with those of other agents in this peaceful process, provides a vivid historical illustration of the ability of cultures to overcome the barriers that separate them and learn from each other's values and achievements.
Xuanzang's journey was possible because of the Silk Road, a system of routes that enabled the exchange of goods and ideas between far-flung regions of Asia, Europe and sub-Saharan Africa for over a millennium. Travel has become easier since those days. Access to the riches of another culture no longer normally requires a scholar, artist or seeker to risk his or her life as the Chinese monk did in the seventh century. Getting from one place to another is likely to be a matter of hours where it used to take months, if one was lucky. Nor do handwritten copies of documents have to be transported on horses or elephants at the risk of losing some of them in a river as Xuanzang did. Their electronic images can now be flashed over the Internet in a moment to the other side of the earth.
Yet the difficulties Xuanzang faced did not prevent what globalization scholar Nayan Chanda refers to as "the biggest information transfer of the epoch". 3 Dazzling technological advances often blind us to continuities in the dynamics of cultural interchange from ancient to modern times. These continuities are highlighted by the French-born Chinese- American cellist Yo-Yo Ma when he calls the Silk Road "the Internet of antiquity".' The difference between then and now is largely a matter of the speed, range and volume of transactions. But the world was more connected in the first millennium than most of us are aware.
Major cultural exchanges once occurred without the benefit of modem technology to facilitate them. On the other hand, our possession of this technology does not guarantee its use for better purposes than those for which our ancestors relied on horses and elephants. The Xuanzang of the twentieth century was a Chinese scholar named Xu Fancheng. He lived in India for thirty-three years, spending most of that time at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, where he is remembered as Hu Hsu. It goes without saying that his travels were infinitely less eventful than those of his seventh-century predecessor. However, his Chinese translations of texts of Indian spiritual philosophy, ranging from the Upanisads to Sri Aurobindo, form a body of work comparable to Xuanzang's.
Xu Fancheng was almost unknown during his lifetime. It is only since his death in Beijing in 2000 that his reputation has begun to grow. In contrast, Xuanzang's funeral more than thirteen centuries earlier is said to have been attended by over a million people," Modernized societies evidently do not value philosophy and spirituality as some ancient civilizations once did. In the near future, whatever revival of cultural contact between China and India may be stimulated by contributions such as Xu Fancheng's is likely to be overshadowed by the more mundane preoccupations of these two mega-countries. China has recently proposed to resurrect the "Southern Silk Road" leading to South Asia - not the route Xuanzang took, but one further east. However beneficial for trade, it cannot be expected to have much immediate cultural impact.
But a short-term view may be misleading. Both India and China are still dealing culturally with the transition to modernity. Though their economic and political power is on the rise and that of the West has begun to wane, Western culture remains globally dominant. Under these circumstances, any challenger's first concern must be not only to recover its own identity, but to assimilate what it needs or wants to take from the West. As the historian William McNeill points out, "one of the clearest patterns in world history" is that "any geographical displacement of world leadership must be prefaced by successful borrowing from previously established centers of the highest prevailing skills".' At the moment it is still mainly in the West that those skills are located. Paradoxically, the "Westernization" of Asia may be a sign that Asia is preparing to throw off its subordination to the West. Once that is done, Asian cultures will develop in a new context in which their relations with each other may assume an importance equal to or exceeding what they had in the past.
The religious scholar Xinzhong Yao sums up the attitude of the twentieth-century Neo-Confucian thinker Tang Junyi toward China's adoption of elements of Western culture:
Accepting and transforming these western elements, while responding to their challenges as well as transcending their limits will enable Chinese culture to be rebuilt in a new system, like the ancient Chinese who created a new system of Buddhism in accepting and transforming Indian Buddhism. Therefore, to reform Chinese culture does not necessarily require the abandonment of its traditions. Returning to the tradition (fan ben) and developing the new (kai xin) are related and mutually promoted,
Centuries of cultural contact with India played a major role in shaping the Chinese tradition. We may expect a renewal of this contact to be part of the creative return to that tradition.
What is ironic about the present cultural apathy in relations between India and China is that outward conditions are ripe for a far more vibrant interchange than ever before, not only between these two civilizations, but among all the cultures of the world. There could be a global renaissance. Since the eighteenth century our species has called itself homo sapiens (wise man). In former times, however, the pursuit of wisdom was often taken much more seriously than it is today. The contrast between the recognition received by Xuanzang and Xu Fancheng illustrates the difference between then and now in the case of two cultures where learning and knowledge were traditionally held in the highest esteem. It remains to be seen how far humanity's deepening existential crisis will compel it to grapple once again with the ultimate questions of life.
The Changing Face of Globalization
Globalization is usually assumed to be the result of the surge of Western progress and expansion that began with the Age of Discovery and the Scientific Revolution and has culminated in the Information Age. But globalizing tendencies had already been at work for centuries during Europe's Dark Ages when Xuanzang was traveling the Silk Road, Islam was surging out of the Arabian Peninsula, classical Indian civilization was at its peak and China was the leader in technology. The rise of the West amplified and accelerated economic, political and cultural processes that had long been interlinking much of Afro-Eurasia, if not other continents. It also distorted these processes by associating them anomalously with the dominance of one civilization over all others. That dominance appears to be coming to an end." Globalization continues.
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