Geo-civilizational Links and Role of Soft Power: Towards Deepening ASEAN-India Cultural Relations (Part 1)


Geo-civilizational Links and Role of Soft Power:  Towards Deepening ASEAN-India Cultural Relations (Part 1)

Geo-civilizational Links and Role of Soft Power:
Towards Deepening ASEAN-India Cultural Relations

Professor Baladas Ghoshal*

Theoretical Framework for the study: Geo-civilization

One can approach relations between countries and regions from three levels of analyses – geo-strategic, geo-economic and geo-civilization. Most analysts of international relations focus on geo-strategic, a method of studying foreign policy to understand, explain and predict international political behavior through geographical variables, which include area studies, climate, topography, demography, natural resources, and applied science of the region being evaluated; or on the relationship between economic policy and changes in national power and geopolitics (in other words, the geopolitical consequences of economic phenomena); or as the economic consequences of trends in geopolitics and national power. Geo-politics and geo-economics undoubtedly shape objective conditions for convergence of interests and improvement of relations between countries, they can also be contentious under different condition and can lead to conflicts. Some of the major conflicts and flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific region are products of geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic factors and calculations, most important example being the dispute over the South China Sea that threatens the peace and stability of the region. Through its geo-strategic and geo-economic advantages, Beijing is trying to establish its hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region by claiming practically the whole of South China Sea when smaller countries have overlapping claims, some of which are based on the legitimate principle of exclusive economic zone (eez) and the legal framework enunciated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Thus, while geo-strategic and geo-economic calculations, in certain circumstances, can bring countries closer to each other, as in the case of China and Cambodia now, or China and Myanmar during the reign of the Military Junta in the latter country, but then the same factors brought divergence of interests between the two countries in the post-reform era. Geo-strategic and geo-economic often bring zero-sum outcome, where one’s gain leads to the loss of the other. For a non-zero-some outcome or a win-win situation for all, particularly for countries that are geographically, culturally and civilizationally closer to each other, we, therefore, need a different model for analysis of the relationship that can produce a win-win situation for all and can outweigh the negative effects of geo-strategic and geo-economic fall-outs. That model, we would like to describe as ‘Geo-civilization’.

"’Geo-civilization is a new concept . . . means a macro-geo-continuum in which two or more civilizations share a common geographical locus and similar religions and cultural values. In contrast, civilization in the traditional sense refers to a large historico-cultural entity sharing a common set of values. Within a geo-civilization, each of the traditional political entities is interlocked with another, not only geo-historically, but culturally, economically, and politically.”[1]. Applying cost-benefit analysis, a geo-civilization produces a situation in which the cost of association among the peoples or even civilizations concerned is less and the benefits of association is more. This implies a relatively high efficiency or productivity. In this framework, the conventional terms of “civilization" and "culture" are somewhat inadequate.  Geo-civilization can be defined as situation or a state of things when a combination of countries, which may even heterogeneous and can belong to different civilizations but, which share a common geographical locus, constitute a natural geo-unit, or a super geo-community, or simply a geo-civilization[2]. People living in adjacent areas or common geographic space enjoy a high degree of cultural association with one another. A civilization is a way of thinking, a set of beliefs, or a way of life, the sum total of which can be called a worldview or weltanschauung most cases emanating from a religion and the behavioural pattern imposed by the particular religion. A civilization usually develops a complex economy along with equally complex sciences and technologies together with sophisticated writing system, literature, arts and music, a coherent legal system, To quote Ruan Wei: “Through a common geographical locus and a common set of values and social institutions rooted in that place, a particular civilization enables those belonging to it to identify with one another while differentiating themselves from inhabitants of another civilization. Thus based on a common geographical locus, common codes of conduct, common social institutions, and a common historical memory, a civilization endows cohesion, coherence, and consistency upon its members.”

Civilization and Culture defined

Culture is complex whole including knowledge, belief, art, morals, laws, customs and any other capabilities and habits created by man who is a member of society where a group of people is related to each other through persistent relations, or a large social grouping sharing the scarce geographical or virtual territory, subject to the same political authority and dominant cultural expectation. Civilization and culture can bring people emotionally closer to each other. Culture creates a sense of commonness and allows people to relate to each other. It builds a bond based on common religious, linguistic and ethnic beliefs, which when used creatively can be an enduring link between people from different countries and even different cultures. “Culture" refers to a group or community with which we share common experiences that shape the way we understand the world. While civilization and culture are used interchangeably, the former is more than the latter. A civilization can compose of many cultures which interact with each other, as well as other civilizations providing identity to those “who belong to it and are committed to it. To quote Ruan further, ”Through a common geographical locus and a common set of values and social institutions rooted in that place, a particular civilization enables those belonging to it to identify with one another while differentiating themselves from inhabitants of another civilization. Thus based on a common geographical locus, common codes of conduct, common social institutions, and a common historical memory, a civilization endows cohesion, coherence, and consistency upon its members.Common cultural traditions promote a convivial atmosphere and create conditions for cementing the bond between countries, which is the main objective of the foreign policy of a country, but geo-civilizational contacts, as we have noted earlier, are less contentious and shape common worldview.

India’s Civilizational Links with Southeast Asia

The civilization links between India and Southeast Asia has long history. All the three major religions of Southeast Asia, namely, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, went either from or through India, leaving a profound influence on the culture, religious practices and even on the concept of state in the form of Divine King. The kingdom of Champa with its vibrant Sanskrit culture as can be visualised in the elaborate metres of her inscriptions, with its rich holdings of Sanskrit texts, its advanced technology of navigation, controlled the shipping route from Kanchi to Canton. Maritime trade was the hallmark of India’s economic development. India’s script, statecraft, language, literature and other elements of civilizational links like textiles, dance, music, etc. had a profound effect on the evolution of the state system and its cultural pattern in Southeast Asia. The Indian Ocean has been our common maritime home since time immemorial. India was home to some of the earliest seaports in the world and has had a long maritime tradition. The seas around us have facilitated links of commerce, culture, and religion with our extended neighbourhood across several millenniums. This is evident from our cultural footprints which stretch across Asia and Africa. This civilization link can be traced as far back as the 1st century BC, mainly through trade and socio-cultural links that also saw the influence and spread of Sanskrit and Indian art forms in those countries. The ancient Javanese script has many Sanskrit words like Kshatriya, dharmaputra, while shards of Indian pottery with the ancient Kharoshti script, prevalent in India then, have been found in Bali, the spread of the Sanskrit script helped the countries in the region communicate through vast regions. .Many Indians migrated and settled down in some countries in the Indian Ocean region as part of the colonial policy and practice. As a result of strong community linkages of the Indian Ocean, our respective cultural practices, values and societal ethos are well defined in our folk songs and writings. During the Kalinga period, Indian sailors used to embark on long voyages to Sri Lanka, Bali, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaya, Vietnam and also to China. As the voyages used to be undertaken in ships, ‘Boitha Bandana’ that is the worshipping of the ships is a practice that has been there since those days. Evidence of such ship voyages can be found in the Sun Temple of Konarak, where in the wall panel shows a boat containing a giraffe thatproves our linkages with Africa. The festival of Bali-yatra on Karthik Purnima in November is still observed in a continuation of this tradition demonstrating a major connect with our ancient maritime legacy.

Contemporary Links

In the more contemporary period, the nationalist movements in Myanmar, Malaya and Indonesia were deeply influenced by India’s non-violent political thinking and strategy. The freedom struggle in Indonesia was not only influenced by India’s national movement but also received concrete support in the form of goods, services and diplomatic support at the United Nations in its most difficult phase of its struggle against the Dutch. Rabindranath Tagore was the first Asian to talk about Asian solidarity based on intellectual and cultural cross-fertilization between people of Asia that found expression in his writings as well as in his effort to bring some of the best minds and scholars from China, Japan, Indonesia and other parts of Asia. Tagore’s Shantiniketan had deeply influenced Indonesia’s leading thinker, Ki Hadjar Dewantoro and helped him to establish his Taman Siswa at Jogjakarta in Tagore’s vision. Tagore, as the first bridge-builder between India and Indonesia, is less known in this country, and therefore, requires dissemination both among the policy-makers and the larger public.  In the post-independence period, India promoted the idea of Asian solidarity through the principles of non-alignment, anti-colonialism and anti-racialism and was able to influence of foreign policy-making of many Southeast Asian countries. In the more recent context, India’s soft power lies in its human resources, democracy and culture in which it has a distinct advantage over other Asian countries.

Indian culture, therefore, is an inseparable part of Southeast Asia’s customs. Our cultures and values are closely related, which is clearly evident from the history of civilizational contacts between India and the countries of Southeast Asia spanning over 2000 years. Cultural heritage means significant cultural values and concepts; structures and artefacts; sites and human habitats; oral or folk heritage, including folkways, folklore, languages and literature, traditional arts and crafts, architecture, the performing arts, games, indigenous knowledge systems and practices, myths, customs and beliefs, rituals and other living traditions; the written heritage; and popular cultural heritage. The commonalities between India and Southeast Asia provide a platform for building synergies with the countries of the region. Moreover, political and economic integration is not sustainable without integration of people and societies. This can be through sharing of each other’s experiences in nation-building, identifying each other’s strengths and weaknesses and as a corollary helping each other’s capacity-building to manage multifarious challenges countries of the region face in their journey towards building territorial integrity, human security, economic development and finally in the establishment of cooperative  peace and stability of the region against future threats. (Part 2)

* Secretary General, Society for Indian Ocean Studies & Visiting Professor in Public Policy, Amity University, Noida; Former Professor and Chair, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

[1] Wei Ruan, “Geo-Civilization,” Comparative Civilizations Review, available at

[2] Wallerstein, Immanuel (1994). Geopolitics and Geoculture: Essays on the Changing World-System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1994: 184-199

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