Prosperity of heart and mind should take precedence over material wealth

By Anand Mishra
In Interview
April 4, 2016

Benoy K Behl has devoted much time and energy in bringing to light the deep cultural and religious relation between India and Asia in general and between India and Japan in particular. Prior to his work, the practice of worshipping of Hindu deities in Japan was nearly an unknown thing for us Indians. In a conversation with Anand Mishra, Editor, Governance Today, Benoy delves on the various facets of India’s cultural relation with Asia.

binoyHow did the idea of making a film on the worship of Hindu deities come to you?

Actually for almost 40 years, I have been documenting the culture of India and Asia through which I have been able to reveal the close cultural connection that India has with many countries in Asia. I have been working on Japan for almost 25 years, on and off. While researching, I always take photographs and shoot videos. These become the vehicles through which I pass on the knowledge. The same was the case with the film on the subject of the worship of Hindu deities in Japan, which has been exhibited in various places like Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. It will be taken to Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara when our external affairs minister visits Japan the next time. So, it is always a composite thing for me; research, analysis, film, photography, and book. The book on the subject, which has been sponsored by the Japan Foundation, would be coming out towards the end of this year or early next year.

Is it not unique that all this Hindu tradition and gods were taken by Buddhists to Japan? What do you think of it?

Actually, the concept of Hindu or Buddhist is a colonial construct. The entire history of ancient India basically comes from inscriptions. And every family of India since ancient times has been worshipping Lord Shiva or Buddha or Tirtahnkar. So the idea that these are different religions is a European and colonial construct. They came from a land which had separated religions and had religious wars. For them it was hard to understand a culture which didn’t have any of these. So, we did not have anything like Buddhism or Jainism. It is also important to understand that we don’t have Gods in Indic philosophy. Actually, we have deities which are basically personifications of the qualities that are inside us. When you look at these deities, you are moved by their beauty and that awakens those qualities inside yourself. They are means to self emancipation for awakening all the beautiful thoughts that are already within us. And since they are not Gods, they are not mutually exclusive and there is no rivalry between them. Therefore, when you go to any Asian country, you will find that there is no difference between Hindus or Buddhists. For example, in Thailand, you will find most Indian gods being worshipped by millions of Buddhists. You find the largest statue of Vishnu at the new Bangkok airport. So these are western terms. That’s why in Japan there are Hindu and Buddhist deities.

There is a notion that the export of Indian culture was primarily through Buddhist monks. What is your take on it?

While monks played a huge role, a lot of culture was taken abroad by traders. Indians have been known to have a very deep and philosophical vision of life permeating all classes of people. Even a lay person here is well versed with concepts as deep as the illusory nature of material world. In any western country, only a university professor would be able to talk on such issues. India, on the other hand, had democratized philosophy since the BC period in which sophisticated philosophy of life had reached even the poorest people. So, the Indian traders when they sat with the people in other countries, talked about philosophy. And those who heard them, wanted to hear more. In a sense, therefore, every Indian who visited abroad was an ambassador of Indian culture and was highly respected. For example, the King of Koocha, a central Asian province, now in China, married his daughter, named Jeeva, to an Indian trader Kumar,  and the son of the couple, Kumar Jeeva, went on to become the most popular name of Buddhism in China.

You have also worked on the Buddhist and Hindu traditions in Southeast Asia. There has been such a deep interaction between India and this part of the world. But that entire connect seems to have been lost. How do you look at it?

Well, Indians have been preoccupied with copying the west and therefore entire focus has been on west. We have forgotten that the Indian vision of ethics had spread to entire Asia. Take for instance the notion of Ram Rajya. This concept was accepted by every country of Asia and it continues till date. The kind of Thailand, for example, calls himself “Rama the Ninth.” All temples of Thailand have paintings of Ramayana and statues of Rama are found everywhere. So, the notion of kinship in whole of Asia was built on the life of Rama. So much so, Muslims of Indonesia celebrate Ramayana more than the Hindus of India. So, it is a cultural thing. Ramayana is a tale of ethics and ethical rule. Even Mahatma Gandhi motivated people by invoking Rama Rajya. Unfortunately, we in India have forgotten all of that. It is time to understand the cultural imprint of India on whole of Asia. In fact, I am right now making a film on Ramayana in South and Southeast Asia and I am making it because Ramayana is performed by more people, has been seen by more people over more centuries and in more countries, has impacted the lives of more people, and is the inherent part of the culture of more people than any other theater tradition of the world.

How and when in your opinion we receded from our cultural connection with the rest of Asia.

India remained one of the most prosperous countries of the world till around 16th century. The Portuguese, the rulers of the seas, when they came to India in 16th century, wrote that there was no country like India and there were no cities like ones here. According to their writings, people were so well off that they couldn’t do without roses and ladies were laden with jewelry. In India they found high prosperity with honesty and compassion which came from the philosophy of Ahimsa. However, all of that declined with Europeans coming in and that is also the time when Indian cultural connections started to fade away. So, the European colonization of not only India but whole of Asia dealt a blow to the cultural connect, as it was blow to the economy as well as psychology and culture of the region.

Some of your most enduring works have been on the sculptures and paintings of ancient India. Don’t you feel we have been neglectful of our heritage? Of late there has been an increase in Indian art.

I would say that even one hundredth of our heritage is enough to make us the richest in the world in terms of art and culture. When I was invited to present the art of Ajanta in all major museums of the world, there was a unanimous opinion among art critics and art historians that it was the finest art of the human kind, till today. Such is the quality of ancient Indian art. What we need to understand is art is not a dead thing, it is alive. It is the quality of human beings that is expressed in art; an artist can only make himself. We need to re-inculcate in ourselves those qualities that can create such art. That’s what needs to be revived.

Coming to the rise in interest in Indian art, I would say there was more interest during 1950s. Now there is no interest in any art and culture anywhere in the world. Now it has been reduced to a marketable commodity. The cheapest part of art is being taken and being sold as it is easiest to understand, is most colorful, and therefore most sellable. During fifties, there was more interest and India was taken more seriously. But we did not live up to our own expectation. We got disillusioned. There was a positive vigor then, which got lost.

What’s your suggestion for Indian society?

Most importantly we need to realize what life is all about. Earlier, we were taught to focus on Dharma, the material success followed automatically. But today, material success has assumed primacy. We need to look back to our ancient history and see how material success can be earned through Dharma. In modern times, we should learn from Japan which has retained its culture, art and value system even as it has become such a rich country. Prosperity of heart and mind can engender material wealth and should take precedence over the same. We need to realize that we taught to the world the greatest human values before we got corrupted by the European colonialism. We need to revive the virtue of Dharma.