India's Cultural Soft Power: When Metaphor Meets Reality
Updated: Oct 30, 2022
Recently the New York Mayor announced the public holiday in the state on the occasion of Diwali from 2023. Though the US already declared Diwali as a federal holiday last year, the announcement has again reinforced the immense influence of India's cultural power around the world.
Image Graphics by Team Geostrata
Not just limited to holidays, a Russian Drama group for decades has been performing Ram-Leela all around the world from a European perspective, thus expanding the reach of India's soft power without any surreptitious agenda of propaganda and subversion.
Therefore, with the festival of lights around the corner, let's delve into the unique soft power India holds from a universal perspective.
Rich Cultural Heritage
Diwali is the festival that bridges the gap between metaphor and reality!
Putting into context, it is pertinent to understand that Diwali is not just about lights or crackers but the subtle message it brings into the minds of people on the victory of good over evil and the importance of morality, love and Faith in the hyper-realist world. You see, the concept is not limited to any nationality or single culture. It is, one way or the other, connected to the existing philosophies.
Moreover, Indian tradition connects individual values with universal values and does not differentiate individuals based on religion, race, language or colour. This encapsulates the Sanskrit phrase "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam"—the whole world is one family.
Looking into the rich cultural heritage of India, it is evident that India's soft power will mostly rely on the central pillar of culture rather than political values or foreign policy. While arguing the importance of culture and religion, Niall Fergusson highlighted its importance in shaping politics and argues, "power is also about morale. In a world characterized by the diffusion of most of the material elements of power, real power may depend on credibility and legitimacy. Faith, then, is perhaps as important a component of power as material resources… Faith cannot move mountains. But it can move people".
In a world where countries are vying to promote their culture as superior to others, Indian traditions subtly intermingle with the domestic cultures and bring in the hybrid culture that connects with different sets of people living on separate landmasses. The fact is people are not as united by race, religion or language as by ideology. Here ideology means the prism through which people see the world. And mind you, it is not limited to conventional things.
Importance of Diaspora
India has the most efficient tool that no country wields when it comes to exploring cultural nuances. The name is Diaspora, Indian Diaspora; over the years, it has established itself in powerful positions in foreign countries. Joseph Nye, the originator of the word Soft power, has highlighted that Diaspora plays the most crucial role in furthering any country's culture.
For instance, while conversing with a US company representative, he mentioned they celebrate Diwali and Holi much like other domestic festivals within the company. This phenomenon is not just limited to a single company, and many citizens of Indian origin are promoting Diwali celebrations within the organization.
Since last year, several Indian American citizens and organizations have taken a great leap forward to celebrate Diwali traditionally like never before. The mega celebrations are expected this year as well.
Another significant aspect is that now the governments of various countries are openly promoting festivals like Diwali due to the rise in the importance of India as a key global partner. Being a Kingmaker in international politics, every nation strives for Indian support and access to such a vast consumer market. This directly impacts the mindset of people and dilutes apprehension of invasion of foreign culture in their country.
The Role of the State
Nations over the centuries have indulged in the policy of subversion through propaganda and falsification. However, it is pertinent to understand that cultural soft power transcends the state policy of propaganda in the long run.
Though the state does play a significant role in promoting cultural prowess, it can't force the same in any way. It is the positive exchange between people that leads to the spread of any culture.
Let's check out two analogies. The Chinese Communist Party has built thousands of Confucius institutes in order to promote indigenous culture around the world. Still, the allegations that in the name of culture, they are subverting reality in order to concoct a positive image of Communist China. No doubt, China's cultural heritage is as rich as India's. But with governments shutting down the Confucius Institutes, it has negatively affected the image of China as a cultural hub.
Now looking into Ancient India, the Indian texts, language, religion and culture spread across the continents and dispersed into alien civilizations without the active involvement of the state. This shows the importance of how the intermingling of two cultures in the most natural way can promote indigenous heritage in different nations.
As noted by historian Pollack in his book The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, the spread of Indian languages, scriptures and religion was not straitjacketed to the people nor was constituted or concocted by any imperial state or religious institutions. Instead, this order was characterized by a trans-regional consensus about the presuppositions, nature, and practices of a common culture, as well as a shared set of assumptions about the elements of power.
The state only acted as a catalyst in the growth of culture outside of India. For a millennium or more, it made up the most compelling model of power culture for a quarter or more of the inhabitants of the globe. The same has been reaffirmed by Joseph Nye.
In recent history, the government has admittedly given the necessary push to promote India's culture. The next step has been taken by the people to inculcate some of the best practices. This is what we call public diplomacy. In ancient India, Asoka astutely used public diplomacy that led to the spread of Buddhism and texts throughout Southeast Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Central and West Asia and the Mediterranean region. The relics of the same can still be seen in these nations through architecture and cultural practices.
In recent years, this sort of state involvement while maintaining a delicate balance is what the Indian government has achieved and has been actively promoting in every corner of the world.
With a few days left for Diwali, the excitement all around the world is inevitable, which we all can witness through the satellite images on that day. Diwali also promotes unique clothing and cuisine to foreign countries, thus ingraining the indigenous tradition in a more subtle way. Therefore, it is among the various soft power tools that India has to promote cross-cultural ties and bring different peoples together.
BY NAYAN CHANDRA MISHRA