There was once a very famous book titled Asia and Western Dominance (G Allen and Unwin, London, 1953) by the historian-diplomat KM Panikkar. The book made quite a splash when it first appeared half a century ago, but now it is nearly forgotten. While it still does find mention in PhD dissertations and books on modern Indian history, Panikkar’s work is no longer part of a living discourse either in Asia or elsewhere.
In many ways, the language that Panikkar employed appears almost forgotten. Nobody talks of Western dominance anymore. There is occasional reference to Asia, but unlike in Panikkar’s heyday, the term is not used in any political or cultural sense. ‘Asia’ is reserved for mere geographic usage. When Pannikar wrote his book, everybody was certain what Asia was and meant. Today, nobody is. The term is used more to denote a landmass which is not Europe or Africa. Indeed, was there ever a meaningful reality called Asia?
It is interesting to note that most of the Indian languages, the classical Indian tongues such as Sanskrit or Pali, or even modern languages, some of which are 1000 years old, do not have a word for Asia. At best, they have coinage such as ‘Ashiya’, which is nothing but a transliteration of ‘Asia’. In other words, the Indian language world has no awareness of an Asia from pre-colonial times. I am not certain if the Chinese word for Asia, ‘Yazhou’, is also not merely a transliteration. A modern dictionary of Chinese gives the meaning of Yazhou merely as a word for Asia. But we do know that the classical Chinese tradition has hardly any awareness of Asia.
It is possible to argue that it was Europe which created the notion or awareness of Asia. For the Europeans, Asia constituted the world to discover and to dominate. Asia was in that sense a territory to be colonised. One can even say that historically Asia was, to use the Chinese term Ya, ‘inferior’ or second in status. Europe invented Asia as an area to be occupied and exploited and, perhaps for that reason, to be celebrated. When the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the queen’s representative spoke of connecting the two continents of Europe and Asia. Interestingly, he went on to add that the canal would also link two periods of history. In his view, Asia belonged to a historical epoch while Europe was contemporary. The dominating colonialism was modern and contemporary and the colonised and the dominated world was the dated ‘Asian’ world.
The world and word of Asia would have been discarded and forgotten if the phenomenon of Asia was limited to what the queen’s representative had said at the opening of the Suez Canal. The colonial powers had made the interesting connection between the civilisational greatness of the lands they were going to rule or dominate and the historical need of that dominance for the colonised lands themselves. Lord Balfour defended the British role in Egypt in these terms in 1910.
This need not be taken only as an exercise in cynicism as it no doubt also was. There was an orientalist view of the greatness of the ‘other’ necessarily involved in this exercise. The orientalist scholarship of the 18th and the 19th century as also British and German romanticism had invented an Asia, which the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist leadership, both political and cultural, had internalised. It was comforting and even flattering to see that European scholarship was interested in ‘our’ cultural achievements. The paradox in all this was that the Europeans were also introducing us to our own historical past. The German poet Goethe’s apostrophe to Kalidasa’s play Shakuntalam made us aware of the greatness of the classical Sanskrit drama.
A typical Asia-Europe relationship had begun. Europe defined Asia for us. We did not like it and at the same type lapped it up. For colonising Europe, the notion of the cultural and civilisational greatness was both a historical reality and an instrument of dominance. Asia as Western dominance was as much a reality as Asia and Western dominance.
The fact of the matter is that there is in reality no such entity as Asia. Even the orientalist scholarship estimated the several Asian civilisations differently. It was far more respectful of the Chinese civilisation than it was of the Hindu-Bauddha or the Islamic, respectively of the Subcontinent and the Arab-Persian world. While Edward Said has argued that the thrust of orientalist scholarship was far more dismissive of the West Asian Islamic civilisation than it was of the other civilisations, that may not be entirely correct. The Hindu-Bauddha world was as much demonised as the Islamic world was.
Perhaps the Chinese world at least partially escaped this demonisation (through simultaneous glorification) because it escaped total colonisation and, as there was no rupture in its political tradition. The Confucian world remained a distant world, which the Europeans were destined to only vaguely and respectfully understand. James Legge, the Jesuit missionary translator of the Chinese classics, has at one place written of the surprise many expressed at his respect for the Chinese classics. He then goes on to explain his respect for those classics. No Indian classic has ever received such awe-inspiring respect. Even the Goethe apostrophe is qualified.
Many Asias, none Asia
Europe thus not only invented Asia; it also invented many Asias. We have now to come to terms with these many partly real and partly unreal Asias. Asia is a myth. Certainly one Asia is. And this simply is why no pan-Asian movement ever succeeded. This is also the reason why Asian consciousness is on the decline if it has not already disappeared. A shared history of colonialism of barely a couple of centuries could not have made one region of many which had their own heritages going back two millennia. And indeed, it did not happen.
The modern Asian mind remains torn between an imposed cultural and civilisational unity and actual divisions on the ground, including hostilities. India and Pakistan are a good example of this phenomenon. There are no deeper hostilities and distrust than exist between the people of these two countries, even though no two peoples have as much in common. Indeed, the recent history of South Asia, extrapolated to the larger continent, is standing refutation of the notion of Asia.
There is a landmass called Asia. There are also billions of people called Asians. But these lands or these people have no common conception of Asia. Such notions of Asia as they have do not affect their daily life or their mutual relationships. ‘Asians’ remain as distant from each other as possible.
The first step in the European exercise of the creation of the myth of an externally defined Asia (in order perhaps to define, in turn, a distinct European identity) was to establish the myth of Asia. The second step was to sever the historical link between Greece and West Asia. Modern Europe thus became a distinct Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian civilisation, which has now come to achieve a remarkable economic and political union. Asia was denied this chance of defining itself. The post-colonial dominance of Asia continues precisely because the conception of Asia as ‘dominance’ persists. Whatever strength the Asian consciousness might have had during the anti-colonial times, it has lost it completely during our globalised times. Europe (naturally inclusive of North America as it is but an extension of Europe) is a unified reality; Asia is a divided landmass, a myth constantly challenged by its unreality.
It is also arguable that the myth of Asia in reality weakened the more palpable realities of its civilisations. Europe needed this to happen. Europe does not wish to survive only as a strong economic and political union. It wishes to survive also as the dominating and, preferably, the only civilisation. We can think of the traditional world as made of many civilisations. Perhaps it is time to move away from the notions of landmasses and retrieve the civilisations of these landmasses. There has to be a consolidation of the sense of the Arab-Persian civilisation or the Hindu-Bauddha-Indian Islam civilisation. The world from the Mediterranean to China has lost its civilisational perspective, which needs retrieving. That fundamentalism of one variety or the other dominates this area is in itself an indication of the amnesia that this world suffers from.
Curiously, fundamentalism is a Western invention, with the West having carefully nurtured the relevant notions and practices. The West has attacked these fundamentalist notions only when they have worked against its interests. The American tolerance of Saudi Arabian fundamentalism and its impatience with Iranian fundamentalism is a good example to prove the point. We have here a strange but interesting chain of developments. The myth of Asia also turned the history of Asia into a myth.
All fundamentalism denies historical specificity. It does not see the difference between, shall we say, the Muslims of Pakistan and those of Arabia. Nor will it recognise the difference between the Christians of the Philippines and of, say, Brazil. In case of Europe, the totality of civilisation brings the European people together and cements them together into a prosperous union. In the case of the so-called Asian lands, faith is the only arbiter of identity and as such is used to divide the Asian people irreparably.
It would be foolhardy to deny the importance of faith. But it is not and need not be the only decisive element of identity. It is the orientalist logic, which described the Eastern (read Asian) people and traditions as essentially ‘spiritual’, that has been now thoroughly internalised and has been responsible for the loss of our historical memory. The ongoing march of globalisation only worsens the amnesia.
The so-called Asian people thus live among the ruins of their civilisations. Their main battle is one of identity and where to locate it. The Islamic and the Hindu-Bauddha worlds are far from victory in this battle, if they have not already lost it. From the Taliban to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, it is a long and painful story. But it would be an error to ignore its historical and political roots. Equally, one should not forget the fact that the reconstruction of Asia under the aegis of colonising Europeans was at least partially responsible for the present denouement. The earlier we give up the myth of Asia the better it will be for the people who inhabit the continent.
China is China
China seems to have escaped this self-defeating identity crisis. It appears as if the Confucian civilisation has been eminently successful in determining who the Chinese are and perhaps more importantly who they are not. There is no decline of faith in China (attacks on groups such as the Falun Gong notwithstanding), and yet faith is not a sine qua non of being Chinese. The Confucian civilisation is better able to face the challenge of globalisation and Western civilisation precisely because of its historicist view of itself. It would appear that the Chinese have matched the Hegelian and historicist view itself of the Europeans. The Persians or the Arabs or the Indians and the Pakistanis have not managed to do it, at least as yet. Indeed, vague notions of this sort do exist everywhere, but so unformed as to appear more often than not in a distorted manner.
It is very instructive to see the difference between the Chinese world and, shall we say, the South Asian world. During the heyday of empire, the myth of Asia had penetrated the world of ideas within South Asia. This was the reason that ideas such as pan-Asianism or pan-Islamism held such sway in the Subcontinent. China has never shared this perspective on Asia. There has been no ‘Asia’ as a decisive idea in the Chinese mind. There has only been China and the Chinese civilisation.
Does this mean that the Chinese subscribe to the idea of ‘clash of civilisations’? They do not. This is not the place to go into the thesis of ‘the clash of civilisations’. But, we should note that the theory at least partially serves the purpose of inducing such a clash, of course, to the immeasurable and inevitable advantage of the West. The current crisis involving Iraq is a case in point. If the concept of Asia served a purpose for imperialism and colonialism at one time, the concept of ‘the clash of civilisations’ serves the same purpose. It would appear that the Chinese leadership has grasped this fundamental truth.
We may be at the end of the period of Asia, ‘Asia’ as playground of Western dominance that is. Such ‘Asian’ states and people as see this clearly stand a chance of surviving the current Western drive of new initiatives at domination. If China is not alone in its undertaking and in fact is joined, for example, by the people of South Asia, we might actually see an emergence of Asia, an Asia which is neither an area of Western dominance nor merely a concept that is a part of the Western repertoire of concepts as ‘dominance’.