Swami Vivekananda (left) and Walt Whitman (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
PERHAPS, MANY OF us are not fully aware of this. That’s why I want to say it loud and clear. Nothing is as important for the future of our world as India-US relations.
This fact assumes renewed importance in the light of US President Donald Trump’s forthcoming passage to India.
It will be his first visit to our country. There is much excitement and anticipation, especially in Gujarat, where he will be received with full state honours.
Unfortunately, there is already an undercurrent of negative publicity from certain more or less expected quarters. Including the usual band of naysayers and US haters.
The latter have been much augmented by Trump’s own complex and, to many, offensive personality. Add those who dislike our own Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The community of the unenthusiastic only increases.
One leader, for instance, announced that his party would protest wherever Trump went. Wonderful! Especially, as someone on social media commented sarcastically, given that that leaders’ own children were in the US.
The communist Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, himself had opted for medical treatment in the US. All the while, his party had been criticising US capitalism and imperialism.
Contradictions galore, not only when it comes to our beliefs. But also when it comes to the world’s still most powerful nation, America.
But shorn of all the froth, the ‘Namaste Trump’ summit is a fitting and reciprocal complement, as well as a compliment, to the hugely successful ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston last year.
I was there and have personally witnessed the tremendous enthusiasm and hope it generated. Not only in the Indian community in the US, but among all those who wish for better India-US ties. True, the hype over the boost in economic and strategic ties was somewhat belied by the lack of actual agreements. Trump is a smart businessman and dealmaker. He will not succumb to short-selling US interests. In fact, he has come to be known as a protectionist and economic nationalist.
But then so is our Prime Minister. Modi, despite Sitaram Yechury’s fears, isn’t likely to compromise India’s military, diplomatic or trade interests for short-term gains. Or just to look good in the eyes of the US or the world.
What is more, the Ministry of External Affairs under S Jaishankar is much more efficient, well-coordinated and diplomatically proactive than ever. So the question of compromising Indian interests, whether deliberately or accidentally, does not arise.
All the more reason to deplore those who are preparing to portray us as a deprived, if not depraved, caste-ridden, minority-hating society in front of a visiting world leader just to score points against the ruling party.
That is so loserly. And in bad form. Self-abjection and self-debasement in front of visiting dignitaries just to undermine our own Government? No one else in the world does this sort of thing.
I also wouldn’t pay too much attention to those former allies who accuse the Government of being slavish to a Western superpower. Or fast-tracking a ‘garibi chhupao’ whitewash to show India in a better light to the visiting great White chief.
The fact is that when leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful democracies meet in such a high-profile fashion, it sends a message of stability and security to all the other
countries of the world.
For India it is a great opportunity to enhance our soft and smart power. In addition, we might be fairly sure that economic, military and cultural ties will also be strengthened by a summit of this sort.
One might argue that today Trump needs Modi as much as Modi needs Trump. Why? Because Modi has emerged as a global leader and statesman. Someone who is not only a strong leader but also a figure of moral and spiritual stature. The world really needs leaders of this sort.
But, actually, there is much more in the offing.
If we are to remember Indian writer Raja Rao’s famous dictum, India is not a desa, it is a darsana. More than a country, India is a way of being in and regarding the world. It is a perspective, a vision, a realisation of the self’s own true nature and the ultimate reality.
India always signals to more than itself. To the hidden possibilities of our own being that are also reflected in nature. A passage to India is thus nothing less than a journey of cosmic unfolding
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This EM Forster, the author of the famous 1924 novel, A Passage to India, knew. At the climactic Janmashtami celebrations towards the end, Forster observes how ‘in a land where all else was unpunctual, the hour of the Birth was chronometrically observed’.
At the very stroke of midnight, a miraculous transformation occurs. To the sounding of the conches, trumpeting of elephants and shower of gulal, the much awaited moment: ‘… infinite Love took upon itself the form of Shri Krishna, and saved the world. All sorrow was annihilated, not only for Indians, but for foreigners, birds, caves, railways, and the stars; all became joy, all laughter; there had never been disease nor doubt, misunderstanding, cruelty, fear.’
We can’t be sure that Trump is even aware, let alone awake, to this idea of India. What India really stands for in its truest, spiritual sense.
Not just the annihilation of sorrow through the realisation of the infinite and deathless self. But also the unity of all existence.
A truth and reality not just for Indians but, as Forster reminds us, also for foreigners. For birds, caves, railways and stars too!
Though Forster’s novel is well-known in India, the source of its title, Walt Whitman’s extraordinary poem, ‘Passage to India’, isn’t. Whitman published it in 1871. Some say it was his last major poem.
In it he celebrates not just the technological feats which led to the laying of the transatlantic undersea cable (1866), the opening of the Suez Canal (1866) and America’s first transcontinental railroad (1869): ‘In the Old World the east the Suez canal,/ The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,/ The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires;… .’ But also: ‘The earth to be spann’d,/ connected by network,/ The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,/ The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,/ The lands to be welded together.’
Whitman’s notion of the Divine, in fact, comes quite close to the Hindu’s: ‘O Thou transcendant,/ Nameless, the fibre and the breath,/ Light of the light, shedding forth universes, thou centre of them… .’
To such a God, he addresses himself: ‘Passage to more than India!/ O secret of the earth and sky!/ Of you O waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers!/ Of you O woods and fields! Of you strong mountains of my land!/ Of you O prairies! of you, gray rocks!/ O morning red! O clouds! O rain and snows!/ O day and night, passage to you!’
To Whitman, a passage to India is always a passage to more than India. It is a way to bring the best of the past, which is India, in conjunction with the best of the present, which is America.
It is to wed the continents, one to the other. To bring land and sea together. The earth and stars into joyous convergence.
India always signals to more than itself. To the hidden possibilities of our own being that are also reflected in nature.
A passage to India is thus nothing less than a journey of cosmic unfolding. Of the human quest to exceed itself in its evolutionary journey.
In this, science and technology on the one hand and ancient Indian spirituality properly grasped as a consciousness revolution on the other hand must come together.
This is exactly what Swami Vivekananda emphasised at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, concluding on September 27th, 1893, with these famous last words: “‘Help and not Fight’, ‘Assimilation and not Destruction’, ‘Harmony and Peace and not Dissension’.”
One cannot be sure that Trump’s passage to India will touch on, let alone fulfil, these dreams. But as long as the potential and the intention exist, so should our hope and faith.