“People of the West say that acquiring things will make them happy, but in the East we believe that we are born with this happiness within us.” These were the words of Ruming Pan, a Chinese student in her early twenties who was having dinner at the table adjoining ours and whom we had invited to join us, as she was alone and we were entertaining our Chinese business delegates at the Park Sheraton in Chennai. She had made this statement in support of her earlier observation that China was very much like India and different from the United States, where she was pursuing a degree in Business Management at the Emory University and had currently been posted on a project to Chennai, India. She exuded a quiet confidence, was firmly rooted in her culture yet open to fresh influences; anchored within herself while choosing to travel thousands of kilometres West to learn about, participate in and master the external environment. She was completely at ease with her Asian identity amidst the western milieu of which she was presently a part and could easily assimilate the two. To me she epitomised the Resurgent East, the New Asia.
In 1947, a major part of Asia was under foreign rule. Available figures for 1950 tell an interesting story. Compared to 17% of the world’s population and 56% of the world’s income that arose from the Western World, Asia housed 67% of the world’s population but was only responsible for 19% of the income. In 1955 Taiwan was as poor as Zaire and South Korea was no richer than Sudan. In 1960 each Japanese had one eighth of the dollar income of each American. At that time it might not have seemed altogether insane to argue that Africa would outperform Asia over the next three decades.
It was during such a time and age that Sri Aurobindo dreamt the seemingly impossible dream. In his message of August 15, 1947, Sri Aurobindo said that one of his dreams that seemed on the way to fulfillment was “the resurgence and liberation of Asia and her return to the great role which she had played in the progress of human civilisation.”
Over the next 40 years from 1947, the whole of Asia got liberated from the foreign dominion, and even while much of the world faced periods of economic recession, East Asia persevered on its own in a period that later became known as the East Asian Miracle. In 1992, Asia had climbed to 33% of the world’s income and as analysts prepared for the turn of the century, many predicted this trend would continue, and even went as far to state that by the year 2025, Asia would produce over 50% of the world’s income, stepping in as the new economic superpower. In the past 35 years, China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan have transformed themselves from technologically backwards and poor economies to relatively modern, affluent economies. Each has experienced more than a fourfold increase in per capita income. In each, a significant number of firms are producing technologically complex products competitive with firms in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Their growth performance has exceeded that of virtually all comparable economies.
Several reasons have been attributed to this unprecedented growth of Asia but none of them are able to explain it completely. What really happened nobody really knows. As Richard Nelson put it in a recent review of Growth Theory, “the extremely uneven performance among nations that were very poor as of 1960 remains a nagging puzzle”. The phenomenon has rightly come to be known as a “miracle” which the Longman dictionary of Contemporary English defines as “an act or happening that cannot be explained by the laws of nature”, a “wonderful surprising unexpected event.”
The Asian countries have been the fastest growing economies in the world—a geographical concentration so extraordinary that the World Bank estimates that there is only one possibility in ten thousand that it happened at random. There seems to be an unseen plan behind this rise which is difficult to explain using known theories of economic growth. It can only be explained from an evolutionary and spiritual point of view.
The 19th and the 20th centuries belonged to Europe and the US and were representative of the Age of Individualism and Reason. The next age according to Sri Aurobindo is the Subjective Age and for this the rise of Asia and in Asia, India is a must and Asia would rise not for herself but for the progress of human civilisation. “…in the next great stage of human progress it is not a material but a spiritual, moral and psychical advance that has to be made and for this a free Asia and in Asia a free India must take the lead……for the spiritual and intellectual benefit of the human race.”
At this stage, we need to clarify that Asia and the Indian sub-continent form a region which is not just a geographical territory, but a culture with a shared set of values and a distinct psychological identity. By the rise of Asia and India, is therefore meant a resurgence of a certain set of values that have been nurtured in this cradle of civilisation from times immemorial. And what are these values? What does Asia and India stand for? What is the meaning of the rise of Asia and India?
In his famous Uttarpara Speech, Sri Aurobindo says, “When therefore it is said that India shall rise, it is the Sanatana Dharma that shall rise. When it is said that India shall be great it is Sanatana Dharma that shall be great. When it is said that India shall expand and extend itself it is the Sanatana Dharma that shall expand and extend itself over the world. It is for the dharma and by the dharma that India exists.”
Regarding Asia, Sri Aurobindo says, “…..Asia young, strong and vigourous, dowered by the gift of immortality and the secret of self-transmutation, is preparing to step forward and possess the future. She alone can teach the world the secret of immortality which she possesses and in order that she may do so, she must reign.”
If by the rise of India is meant the rise of the Sanatana Dharma and if Asia stands for its quest for immortality, then where is the quest of immortality or for the eternal religion in GDP growths and per capita incomes? Where is God in the midst of rising skylines, towering sky scrapers, booming trade and flourishing economies?
We ask this question because we see only the external and material rise of Asia as we are trained in viewing the world mentally and objectively. When we are unable to perceive the spiritual in one human being how can we see the Will of the Divine in this complex national or regional phenomenon which is replete with currents and cross-currents of social, political and economic issues and problems? But just as there are certain pointers that hint at the spiritual nature of a person,—for instance, equality in the face of circumstances, a state of desirelessness, a detachment from the fruits of action, an atmosphere that radiates inner joy and peace,— can we arrive at some pointers that would prove that this economic rise of Asia has a spiritual force behind it? Is this rise of Asia and India merely economic as it overtly visible or is there a deeper psychological and spiritual truth trying to establish itself, of which this affluence is the outer sign?
In his book, The Indian Spirit and the World’s Future, Amal Kiran writes:
All events and movements must be evaluated by reference to one standard: Do they, however remotely tend towards the increase of spirituality? The phrase, “however remotely” has some importance. For all happenings do not have an easily perceptible connection with the Spiritual Truth. There are plenty of intellectual questions, social issues, political problems, economic situations that seem far away from matters mystical. The apparent far-away-ness should not lead us to regard them as irrelevant and to decide them with considerations within a narrow and isolated sphere. If the Divine is the centre of things there can be nothing even on the remotest periphery without an invisible radius running out towards it. We must find the radius and discern in the peripheral object the point at which the contact is made or refused. The labour of discovering whether there is or not a point of contact, however subtle, with the spiritual goal of mankind calls for intellectual no less than than intuitive examination.
The Divine is hidden under many layers of existence and evolution is nothing but the layer by layer unfolding of this hidden Divine. Each unpeeling of the layer is essentially a movement for the unveiling of the Spirit within. Life coming out of matter and mind evolving out of life may not have revealed to us the face of the Divine, but were nevertheless spiritual movements as they opened up future vistas of consciousness. In the present context, any aspiration to unveil the deeper and higher dimensions of our being beyond the mental consciousness could be interpreted as a spiritual movement. Spirituality is not a static goal; it is an endless becoming. And every step towards this becoming and bringing us closer to the Divine constitutes the increase of spirituality.
For thousands of years under the yoke of the British, India was in a stupor and a state of self-forgetfulness. It had forgotten even to dream of freedom. It took a Mangal Pandey to shake the people of India and assert the need for freedom. When Mangal Pandey laid down his life, how many of us perceived his act as a spiritual happening. It looked like a stray incidence of mutiny at that point and for many years after that. Later, when Sri Aurobindo clarified that “India must have Swaraj in order to live, she must have Swaraj in order to live well and happily; she must have Swaraj in order to live for the world, not as a slave for the material and political benefit of a single purse-proud and selfish nation, but as a free people for the spiritual and intellectual benefit of the human race,” the stray mutiny of Mangal Pandey was revealed to us as the working of a conscious Hand leading India to freedom, and the mutiny rightly come to be known as the “first war of Indian Independence.”
When the Divine lies buried in poverty and squalor, the removal of this layer of poverty, a converting of it into abundance constitutes a spiritual rise; when He is shrouded in ignorance, a movement towards knowledge is a spiritual movement. The Divine reveals Himself to us through Knowledge, Power, Beauty and Perfection; so any aspiration towards the establishment of any or all of these is essentially a spiritual effort.
Any progress, however preparatory, is a movement towards the spiritual when its ultimate goal is the Divine. Seen in this context, even the rise of reason in the West was a necessary movement because it helped to lift humanity from the clutches of superstitions and a mass of blind beliefs into the light of reason thereby making it possible for it to take the next leap. This next leap according to Sri Aurobindo will come from “the influence of the East [and] is likely to be rather in the direction of subjectivism and practical spirituality”.
What does then this age of subjectivism constitute of? What are the conditions and characteristics of this age of subjectivism? Do we see it reflected in the rise of Asia?
1. Following One’s Swadharma
In recent centuries, Europe and the United States played a leading role in world affairs; international exchanges were largely one way, leading many Western nations to believe that their economic, social and political systems were suitable for the whole world. Having destroyed most of the original civilisations and cultures of the world by means of military power, law and trade, and Christianity and in their over-confidence that their ethical standards were superior and could effectively set up new standards all over the world, the Western countries aggressively exported their social system, developmental model and values to other countries. And the Asian countries could do nothing but submit to the Western supremacy.
But now, economic vitality and interdependence have enhanced the self- confidence of the Asian countries and they have begun to make clear that Western values do not conform to Asian ideals. Asians are undergoing psychological changes from “Everything being the best in the West” to finding again the values of their cultural heritage and achieving a modernisation which is not equal to westernisation.
A case in point is the preaching of democracy by the West. The West has been sparing no efforts to aggressively promote democracy and criticise the “autocracy” and “centralisation” of South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. Without understanding the local conditions and without mentioning the problems in its implementation in the West, they believe it to be the best form of Government for every country just because they are following it and it seems to have worked for them. But the experts and scholars of Asian countries unanimously hold that democracy itself is not bound to lead to economic development, but economic development will definitely promote democracy. They began their growth stories with diverse political systems and stuck to them. Korea began its extra-ordinary economic growth under a military dictator, Park Chung Hee, while Hong Kong did it under the British colonial rule and China managed its remarkable economic transformation under communist party rule. They sought a balance between economic growth and political democracy and built forms of democracies suitable to their countries and economic phases. The tide of democratisation in Japan, Korea and Taiwan has proved that in this context democracy could be successful only after the economy had risen to a certain level. The fact that the economy of Phillipines whose political system was most similar to the US was long stagnant further corroborated the point.
This understanding of the deep saying of Gita, “Better the law of one’s own being though it be badly done than an alien dharma well-followed; death in one’s own dharma is better, it is a dangerous thing to follow the law of another’s nature’” by Asia is a big step in the rise of its consciousness and is hence spiritual. “…in his subjective return inward he gets back to himself, back to the root of his living and infinite possibilities, and the potentiality of a new and perfect self-creation begins to widen before him. He discovers his real place in Nature and opens his eyes to the greatness of his destiny.”
2. Effortless Assimilation of the Best of the West
The people in the original colonies and semi-colonies experienced a painful cultural impact. They were forced to abandon their native cultures and adopt foreign cultures. The compulsion resulted in two deviations. One was to fiercely boycott all western culture while resisting the exploitation and oppression of colonialism and imperialism; the other was to feel keenly their own apparent backwardness, to worship the west and copy it indiscriminately. But national independence enabled them to eliminate the two deviations and learn to choose on their own. And the economic success has led to a resurgence of cultural and political confidence in Asia and given rise to an awakening of Asian people’s cultural identity. Asia’s economic success today is not merely a renewal of ancient Asian cultures, nor is it a simple copy of modern Western civilisation; it is a brand new culture incorporating both Eastern and Western traditions.
An official Chinese document, Outline of Patriotism, states: “Patriotism is not narrow nationalism. We need not only to inherit and develop the fine heritages of the Chinese people, but also to study and absorb the civilisations created by other people. Only by doing so can the Chinese people make their due contributions to world peace and human progress along with other nations,” finds its echo in the following words of Sri Aurobindo, “As the individual lives by the life of other individuals, so does the nation by the life of other nations, by accepting from them material for its own mental, economic and physical life; but it has to assimilate this material, subject it to the law of its own nature, change it into stuff of itself, work upon it by its own free will and consciousness, if it would live securely and grow soundly.”
This ability and willingness to learn the Western ‘best practices’ and to adapt, assimilate and apply them is the key distinguishing feature of the Asians. Instead of being afraid of losing their cultural identity in trying to copy the West, they retained their deep cultural confidence that they could learn from the West and not lose their souls. In this capacity to learn and the confidence to accept ‘best practices’ from the West or from anywhere else in the world, the two key central elements of the Asian success story, we see the practical yearning of Asia, for this adaptive flexibility is the hallmark of both the ancient philosophies, Hinduism or the Sanatana Dharma of India and Taoism of China that have enabled the only two ancient civilisations to survive till date.
3. Strength and Resilience of the Soul
For centuries, Asian nations suffered from economic backwardness. When they took the task of catching up with the West economically and accomplished industrialisation in just a few decades whereas it took the West hundreds of years to industrialise, the following words of Sri Aurobindo about Asia, “She will now learn the scientific method of the adult and senescent West and apply it with far greater force and ability to lines of development in which Europe is a bungler and a novice.” were proven true.
The swiftness and determination with which China fought the vice of opium or the grit with which East Asia regained its confidence after the East Asian financial crisis when all these economies began to collapse like dominoes, showed the world that unlike Africa and Latin America, Asia possess a secret source of limitless strength and “…it is this moral strength, this ability to go to the roots, this gift of diving down into the depths of self and drawing out the miraculous powers of the Will, this command over one’s own soul which is the secret of Asia. And he who is in possession of his soul, the Scripture assures us, shall become the master of the world.”
4. Swarajya precedes Samrajya
The Asian countries adopted industrialisation strategies that were export oriented and enjoyed an export-led growth. While countries in Africa export primary goods and natural minerals to the First World, only to buy them back in the form of finished goods paying many times over, Asian countries utilised their own or imported raw materials and minerals and sold them as finished products after the required value addition. In order to accomplish this they set up industrial bases by indigenising production technologies from across the world and specialised in the finished goods they could produce most efficiently. They first utilized their produce to achieving self-reliance and self-sufficiency, kept what was necessary for growth within and only then exported the rest to the world for “one can help the world by his life and growth only in proportion as he can be more freely and widely his own real self.”
This export-led growth, besides adding to the foreign reserves of the Asian countries and shifting the balance of trade in their favour, has made these economies outward-looking and confident and are reflective of the resurgence of the self-assurance of Asia.
5. Mutuality, Regional Co-operation and Harmony
The dominant values used by the West in past cycles of rise and expansion were individualism, war, strife and competition, whereas, increasingly, the way of the rise of the East, in its current cycle of growth and expansion, barring artificial exceptions, has been through mutuality, regional co-operation, and harmony in spite of their cultural and political differences. This is evident from the acceleration in relevance of multi-lateral organisations like ASEAN, SAARC and APEC that aim at free trade and higher co-operation within the region. Further, Asian economies and industries have been increasingly focusing their output on the needs of their region, and there is a conscious and concerted effort to balance regional trade levels between Asian countries vis à vis trade levels with the rest of the world. This movement has a natural multiplier in the fact that the region, in its own right , is amongst the fastest growing markets in the world, and will continue to be so for a while given China and India’s growth rates.
“Freedom and harmony express the two necessary principles of variation and oneness and these are the two conditions of healthy progression and successful arrival”
6. Strong Leadership and Silent Learning
The critical difference between Asia and the rest of the developing world is the nature of the Premiers who have been leading and managing the successful states. While they have achieved and retained power in different ways, they have remained focused on uplifting their nations and societies while in office. Even though the societies of Asia are quite different and their leaders seem independent of each other, there has been a lot of silent learning among them. Goh Keng Swee, one of the founding fathers of Singapore learnt from the Meiji reformers who are credited with the Japanese success story. It is little known that China, under the initial guidance of Deng Xiaoping, had made a significant effort to learn and adapt from Singapore. Deng visited Singapore in 1978 and what he saw there became a point of reference as the minimum the Chinese people should achieve. It is remarkable how he turned the most populous country in the world and moved it almost instantly from socialist central planning to free-market economics. Similar is the story of South Korea having learnt its economic lessons from Japan. On the surface, one often witnesses popular hostility towards Japan in Korea because of the bitter memories about the Japanese occupation. Yet, underneath this hostility, there is also a layer of deep cultural respect for Japan and its enormous accomplishments. All these countries learnt from one another and yet there was no slavish copying; they remained “true to themselves.” “For it is necessary, if the subjective age of humanity is to produce its best fruits, that the nations should become conscious not only of their own but of each others souls and learn to respect, to help and to profit, not only economically and intellectually but subjectively and spiritually, by each other.”
Sri Aurobindo has said that before achieving spiritual freedom, any country must first attain political freedom, economic freedom and intellectual freedom, in that order. Asia has already achieved political independence; it is swiftly on its way to achieving economic self-sufficiency, which too cannot be eschewed and is an essential step in its journey. Behind this political and economic rise are clearly visible the signs of the arrival of the subjective age, the age of living from within and of seeking for answers within of matters without. If these trends of subjective thought are seen in politics and economics—“that hard refractory earthy matter which most resists all but a gross utilitarian treatment”, then we know for sure that we are on the right track because then these signs must be present, however “incipient and sporadic” in other areas of human thought and social endeavour as well, and the story of the rise of Asia can be portrayed as the journey of human progress from the age of Reason to the age of Subjectivism—the next step in social evolution. Whether or not this subjective turn, which is the precursor to the spiritual age, will lead to the spiritual renaissance of Asia and Eastern values will depend on the depth and wideness of this inward gaze. Asia to rise spiritually will have to learn individually and collectively that the real truth of man or nation has to be found in the soul which is immortal and every part of human life, the intellectual, the ethical, the aesthetic, the vital, the dynamic and the physical, has to be touched and transformed in the light of this Reality, “the true self of man”.
The dominant cultures of Asia, namely India and China, have survived so persistently, as if immortal because they have always sought the Immortal. They failed for a while because they did not seek after it sufficiently and did not learn how entirely to make it the master of life. Now having come round a full circle, and in the process having learnt their lessons, we can be sure that once again the journey of Asia towards its highest has begun and this time on a stronger footing and any nation anywhere in the world can join in the journey to establish “the Kingdom of God on earth”. For, in line with the Will of the Divine,