India used to be a country of innovation, which gave to the world the zero concept, chess, Vedic mathematics, astronomy, philosophy… In fact, French astronomers up to the 18th century, used to say that ancient Indians knew before everybody how to calculate the distance between the earth and the moon. More than that, the influence of Vedantic philosophy on Greek thought and mythology, or of Vedic maths on the making of the Egypt pyramids, has been remarked upon by many Indologists, France’s Alain Danielou being one of them. Even after the savage onslaught of Arab invasions, from the 10th century onwards, Chinese and Portuguese writers still marvelled in the 16th century at India being a land of ‘gold and honey’, where the ‘iron never rusted’, as symbolized by the Vishnu pillar, which is today in Delhi’s Qutub Minar.
It is probably the British colonization that blunted for good the Indian innovation spirit. First, the English broke the backbone of rural India which had lived on barter for centuries – farmers would exchange part of their crops for whatever they needed from potters, weavers, food merchants etc, – by imposing crops they needed for their industrial revolution, such as tobacco or cotton, which led to widespread famines in the 19th and early 20th century (20 million Indians, 7% of the population of that time, died of famine in a 100 years, according to British statistics) … And then the infamous Macaulay decided that the only way to win India’s heart, would be to fashion a class of Indians, educated in Oxford or Cambridge, that would think like the British and act as intermediaries with the ‘natives’. This masterstroke heralded the end of Innovation in India, as Indian leaders started copying everything that the British did. At Independence indeed, Nehru, who was a great admirer of English socialism, adopted whatever the British had left – the constitutional, judicial, education systems, without caring to adapt them to the Indian psyche, which is unique and very different from the English.
The result today is that Indians lag three decades behind nations like China, which was in the same bracket as India at Independence, with overpopulation, analphabetism and poverty. Take the manufacturing sector, for instance, since Independence, India has often copied English models, such as the Ambassador car, the Royal Enfield Bullet, or the Raleigh cycle, selling them at huge profits for decades and never caring much to improve them. Today we see even companies like Hero, who for decades produced the same heavy cycle and still do, partner with the Japanese to produce better quality products, then dump them unceremoniously after copying the Japanese models – and still not able to come up with anything really new. We also observe that since the much-hyped software revolution happened in India 20 years ago, Indian companies are still not manufacturing any hardware worth the name for computers, even more, no computers of international quality. Look in comparison at China’s Lenovo, who has become market leader in the world! Indians have also still not built their own plane, except for the Tejas, which is 23 years in the making and a white elephant. Compare this with the Brazilians, again a country very similar to India, in term of challenges, who have produced the Embraer, one of the best short haul planes in the world. This is not to say that Indians did not innovate at all- but when it happened it was the exception to the rule – like the Tatas for instance.
A word about Indian architecture, which used to be one of the most innovative in the world – witness Mohenja Daro, whose planning, houses, sewer systems, water supplies, were so good that it would take Europe quite a few centuries to catch-up. Today India is a vast jungle of concrete, city after city, town after small town in styles that were used in the 50’s in the West and since then have been razed. See Gurgaon, an entire new city, where everything could have been built right! But what a mess it has been made off: hardly any trees have been planted, no proper drainage system, no uniformity of architectural style. It’s only the five star hotels that have borrowed some of India’s architectural genius and used indigenous materials, tiles, wooden pillars, inner courtyards, thatch…Modern Indian art too, is a copy, brilliant or not, of western art and most of the time does not use any Indian-ness in its expression, Raza being one of the lone exceptions. And of course the ever-present Bollywood, often copies entire western films, not only the scripts, but scene by scene, dialogue by dialogue. Its actors never go to acting schools, do not sing, and their dances are speeded-up digitally so that they look slick.
Today Indian universities basically teach the same curriculum that is imparted in the West. As a result, what they produce are brilliant clones, who have no root in their own culture and are only good for export. This is in fact what happens: as most Indians who go abroad, either as students, or on employment, eventually settle there and their children and grandchildren, are lost for India, without bringing anything of an Indian-ness to the United States, UK or Canada, which badly need it, as family values are lost there: 98% parents die now in old people’s homes, three out of five couple divorce and people are stressed and often depressed. Thus it is clear that India does NOT innovate anymore.
What is that Indian-ness then? And what to do so that Indians become innovators again and not copiers anymore?
Firstly “I am conscious of my own history: my poets, my warriors, my philosophers, my heroes and heroines”. As a Frenchman, I was brought up to be proud of Voltaire, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, or Charlemagne. India has amongst the greatest heroes, poets, writers, warriors in the world. If France had one Jeanne d’Arc, India has dozens of them: Rani of Jhansi, Ahiliabai, Chennama, Rani Abbakka, Rani Rudramma, Rani Velu Nachiyar, etc. The British have Shakespeare, but India’s Kalidasa, even translated from the Sanskrit, is one of the greatest poets ever, on par with Homer. But is he taught in schools? No! In warfare, we the French have Napoleon, but Maharashtra Shivaji Maharaj should be a hero for Modern India: alone with a few hundred men, he stood against the most powerful army in the world of his time, with only his wits and extraordinary courage. He was also secular in nature, in spite of being an ardent Hindu: he never harmed the wives and daughters of his enemies did not touch mosques and donated to Sufi saints. He administered justly wherever he conquered, was incorrupt and built the first Indian navy. Yet, even in Indian History books, he is treated little better than a chieftain and is totally unknown abroad, whereas Napoleon is known in India. In Tamil Nadu, if you say Shivaji Maharaj, people think you are talking about the actor!
Indian students learn about Descartes or Kant, but India has Sri Aurobindo, who was not only one of the early revolutionaries, as 30 years before the Mahatma Gandhi, in the true spirit off the Bhagavad Gita, he thought that the British should be fought, not only a yogi, but also is one of India’s most comprehensive philosophers. His ‘Foundations of Indian Culture’ or ‘Synthesis of Yoga’, are amongst the best ever on Indian philosophy and Thought. But is he part of the philosophical curriculum in India? Not at all. Nietzsche or Hegel, who were inspired by the Vedantic thought, are though!
What else is Indian-ness? First of all, a knowledge that has survived the millenniums: “what happens when I die; what is rebirth? How God manifests Himself or Herself at different times, using different names and scriptures; what is karma, what is dharma”… Today monotheistic religions think there is only one life, then heaven, purgatory and hell; or that if you blow yourself up in the midst of innocent people, you will go to heaven and enjoy 27 virgins, simplistic and superstitious beliefs. What else is Indian-ness? There are also ancient tools that have been devised by sages which are secular in nature, and can help modern Indians, whatever their religion and ethnic origin: “I use Ayurveda (or Siddha or Unnani), the most ancient medical system in the world still in practice, that knew long before western medicine that many illnesses have a psychosomatic origin and that plants and minerals are the best medicines; I learn pranayama, the ancient science of breathing that gives me a more intuitive mind and a better energy; I do hata-yoga, to give my body more suppleness and endurance; I practice simple techniques of meditation to de-stress myself”; and finally: “I look at the whole world as my family ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, a unique concept that can save the world from the self-destruction path that it has embarked upon at the moment”. The irony is that all these techniques, born in India, are now taking the West by storm, where most Hollywood stars fluently practice yoga, where pranayama is used for stressed executives’ workshops and hata-yoga is being introduced in American schools, while India has turned its back to them.
What happens then when Indian-ness blooms? First a feeling of nationalism: “I am proud to be an Indian” – not like often now: ‘” am ashamed to be an Indian, as my intellectuals and Media keep harping about our poverty, castes wars, or fundamentalism; let me thus blend in the US and become totally American, or totally British”. Secondly, “I excel in business, in arts, in entertainment, in sports, not only for myself, but also for my nation”. And finally: “it’s been a privilege to be born in a country where such an ancient Knowledge still exists, whereas it has disappeared from other ancient civilizations such as Greece, Egypt, or Mesopotamia; let me give me then back to my country a little bit”. To paraphrase what Kennedy famously said for the US: “ask not what India can do for you, but ask yourself what you can do for India”. Then will India innovate again and excel at all levels.