Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The wheel of the world ruler

Bovenkant formulier

Belgo-Indian contacts in historical perspective, this is the subject and subtitle of a much-needed project: classifying what in history Belgium had to do with the emerging superpower India. As this book is unlikely to be translated, I take it upon myself to summarize some of its salient findings. Compiler of the book is the Slavicist and historian, Professor Idesbald Goddeeris, whose focus is the history of colonization and now, increasingly, of modern India. Previously he wrote a standard work on the history of India together with Prof.Em. Winand Callewaert.

The title, The Wheel of Ashoka, is a reference to La Roue d' Açoka, title of the memoirs of Prince Eugène de Ligne (1959), the first Belgian ambassador in independent India (1947-51). Although an admirer of his class peer Jawaharlal Nehru, he did not quite believe in the latter’s identification of this symbol of Emperor Ashoka . Rightly, he wrote that this was an older symbol of empire, the ideal of the Cakravarti or " wheel turner ", the emperor who is in the centre of administration and receives tribute from all the vassal states. The ideal of the universal ruler existed for centuries, though Ashoka (not Queen Victoria, as too many Westerners still think) was the first who realized it by uniting most of the subcontinent under one scepter.

Belgians in India, politically

In strictly political terms, Belgium and India have had little to do with each other. Some Belgian seamen were employed by the Portuguese fleet and thus were among the first to colonize some peripheral regions of India, especially Sri Lanka and Goa. In 1498 Vasco da Gama landed in the southwestern coastal city of Kozhikode (Calicut). That area, cocopalmwaving Kerala and neighboring Sri Lanka, were regarded as the earthly paradise. An Antwerp imprint of Thomas More's book Utopia therefore contains a poem by the humanist Pieter Gillis which is partly in the local language, Malayalam.

In 1500 the Portuguese trading posts became the Estado da India, the base of some Flemish travellers, including diamond traders and missionaries who tried to win souls, on site or farther inland. For example, while in prison awaiting his execution, Moghul prince and throne pretender Dara Shikoh reported profound discussions with the Flemish Jesuit Father Busée. In 1602, the Netherlands founded the United East India Company (VOC), also an employer of a lot of Flemish adventurers. Christophe Vielle (Louvain-la-Neuve) and Michael Limberger (Ghent) present an overview of these early contacts, from antiquity to about 1700. The following contributions deal with the next stages of colonization , which include the momentary Ostend counterpart of the Dutch East India Company in ca. 1720.

The Kingdom of Belgium (1830-) had no structural links with India, only a lot of personal and business contacts, with the diamond trade as its crown jewel, and only in the last twenty years, the fast-growing Indian investments in the Belgian industry. When still a prince, Leopold II paid a visit to India in 1865, and Albert I, his successor as king, did so in 1925. It was especially his wife Elizabeth who conceived a lifelong fascination with India . She took up practising yoga and received some well-known yoga masters. Brussels became one of the main centres for introducing yoga to the West.


In 1943, the Flemish collaboration leader Hendrik Elias received his Indian counterpart Subhas Chandra Bose, or so history has come to call them, but both saw themselves more as freedom fighters. Bose was killed in 1945 in Taiwan, but his country was independent two years thereafter, while Flanders is still waiting. In the reserved atmosphere of the Cold War, King Baudouin (r.1951-1993) waited until 1970 before paying this Soviet ally a state visit.

At a slightly lower protocol level, however, there had been a major contact between Belgium and the fledgling Indian republic concerning the Kashmir issue. In 1947, this principality had not joined the newly independent India nor the tear-away state of Pakistan. When irregular forces from Pakistan invaded the area, it acceded to India and was narrowly saved by Indian troops, who began the reconquest of the state. This would have been completed in 1948, were it not that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had already referred the matter to the nascent UN. Precisely that month, Belgium presided over the Security Council, and so it was up to the Belgian diplomacy to resolve this conflict. A thankless chore, and we cannot say it was really  "resolved" : for we hear frequently in the news that as late as in 2014, there is still a Kashmir question, with the same line of control as in 1948, an effective boundary between the recaptured territory and the third of Kashmir that is still under Pakistani occupation. In that area in 1947-48, Pakistan has wiped out all non –Muslims, and it has refused to vacate the conquered territory, a condition imposed by the UN for a plebiscite. In 1965 and 1999 there were more wars over Kashmir, and it became a sde flashpoint in the 1971 Bangladesh war. In 1948-49, the Belgian diplomats acquired the reputation of being very pro-Pakistan, and so the Kashmir issue has continued to fester. At this point, this review adds the information that one of the best sources of information on Kashmir is the bulletin issued by the former professional soldier Paul Beersmans, who stayed in the area for long as a UN observer and revisits it frequently.


The book reports correctly that there has been a shift from the study of the classics ("Indology") to the sociological approach ("South Asian Studies") within the Orientalist departments. The authors, like most intellectuals involved, seem to find this good and normal, but we have our doubts. The “natives” concerned are still very focused on their classics. Islam’s Western advocates strongly support "studying not Islam but Muslims", but the Muslims themselves faithfully keep to their source texts. Their Islam is in essence, following the scripturally recorded example of the Prophet, but what postmodern Islamologists choose to study is precisely the non-Islamic element in the lives of Muslims. In Hindus, the role of the scriptural corpus is less pronounced but still stronger than the trendy neglect of the classics presupposes. This shift takes place both in India itself, where Sanskrit comes increasingly under pressure, and in the entire West, where not only Orientalist chairs be abolished, but in parallel also Latin and Greek, along with history. The classics and any reference to the past are wilfully side-tracked by socialist policy-makers ideologically driven to capture the population under a dome of contemporaneity. On this, they make common cause with the liberals, who shut down chairs of Latin or Sanskrit in pursuance of the Thatcherite principle of abolishing everything that is not immediately self-supporting or lucrative, “to invest less in chicken and more in eggs".

Consubstantial with the rejection of classical studies is the use of "Orientalist" as a term of abuse. Orientalists were eccentric scholars of Asian cultures to the extent that they devoted a lifetime to studying them. They and their perfectly venerable discipline, Oriental studies, were vilified by the late Edward Said, a Palestinian Christian who claimed that they had only been water-carriers of the colonial or imperialist project by purposely devising a contempt -laden characterization of Oriental man. In his famous book Orientalism (1978), Said only defended Islam by denouncing its Western analysers, though his approach has been applied to other fields within Oriental Studies. He painted Islam as a pathetic victim, although the British in India persisted in honouring and maintaining the Moghul empire until 1857, and made ​​common cause with the Muslim League against a freedom movement identified as Hindu. Among the colonial powers it was only Portugal that had attacked Islam as such. It is somewhat understandable that Muslims still flaunt Said’s thesis: after all, he served their interests. But for others it is quite ridiculous, partly because his book is teeming with factual errors, partly because of its over-all nature of what should be called a conspiracy theory: the so-called scholars across countries and centuries actually were all agents of imperialism, and their seemingly scientific theories were only coded weapons to belittle the Asian civilizations and put them in manageable boxes.

Since about 1990, all students of Political Science and Oriental Studies are given large doses of Said’s worldview, a trend that will no doubt be studied one day as a textbook example of a politically motivated aberration In the present book, different contributions show its influence. Thus, we find an example of this “Orientalism” discourse in an otherwise very informative chapter of this book, "shapes of the spirit" by Patrick Pasture and Elwin Hofman (both historians from Leuven), about the history of yoga. This is hardly a reproach to the authors: they only apply a theory which, although wrong, happens to be the prevalent paradigm. In any case, their trendy proposition that yoga is but a Western-inspired recent phenomenon is factually incorrect. The yoga tradition has existed since at least three thousand years. The very popular Bhagavad-Gita exhorted its hero Arjuna two thousand years ago to “become a yogi”, the Yoga Sutra was commented by many ancient and more recent philosophers, the postures of hatha yoga are the subject of written instruction recorded since a thousand years.

At most, some foreign elements have been included: around 400 AD the Chinese notion of the "microcosmic orbit" (a guided tour of attention along the spine up to the crown and along the front back down) had a formative influence on the so-called kundalini yoga and the chakra system; and around 1900, some elements of Western gymnastics crept into Hatha Yoga, especially the headstand and the concatenation of 12 ancient postures into a dynamic sequence, the " salute to the sun”. The approach to the postures, which requires total relaxation and slow performance, however, is unknown in the West, except precisely in recent disciplines that draw on Hatha Yoga in this regard. Conversely, the western pelvic floor muscle exercises that every pregnant woman nowadays, are actually inspired on the yogic mula bandha ("root lock"), not to mention the numerous neuro- and psychological techniques that are based on ancient Indian meditation exercises. A recent example is Mindfulness, a velvet version of Vipassana meditation which was, among others, already practiced by the Buddha.


The topic of a playful chapter illustrates the Zeitgeist before and after independence quite well: Belgian comic-strips. We see the gradual elimination of the existing stereotypes and prejudices. The recent economic and demographic history is also discussed, including the experiences of the now numerous Indian students in Belgium, and a description of the newly built Jain temple in Antwerp by museum curator Chris De Lauwer, who regularly guides visitors there.

An important aspect, especially for the historically very Catholic territory of Flanders, is mission history. After the Congo, India was the destination of most of the missionaries from our region. In Kerala, Panjab and especially Chotanagpur (today Jharkhand and a part of West Bengal), they could leave their mark. The Jesuit mission expanded from Kolkata to the tribal area west of the city, and there the mission of Constant Lievens s.j. played an important role. The naive tribals understood nothing of the property laws the British imposed, and lost their mineral-rich lands to urban investors; so Lievens offered them legal support. "Fire must burn", was his motto. Another important figure was Herman Rasschaert s.j, who tried to intervene in religious riots and was slain by his own tribals on March 24, 1964 (exactly 50 years ago). Recently, the pastoral responsibility was transferred to indigenous priests .

Typical of the Flemish priests, unlike for example the American missionaries, was their attention for the vernacular languages. Camille Bulcke s.j. wrote a Hindi dictionary that is still authoritative. The tribal languages ​​in Chotanagpur were written down for the first time, provided with modern terminology, and introduced as medium for primary education. In 2000, the Hindu nationalist government added some languages to the list of official languages​​, including the tribal language Santali. That these tribal language were upgraded is the merit of the Government, to be sure, but that they had become mature vehicles of culture and therefore came to be considered for official status at all, was mainly the work of the Flemish Jesuits .

Belgian research into India is the subject of a contribution by Winand Callewaert (Leuven). Important scholars include Charles de Harlez (Louvain), Louis de la Vallée-Poussin (Ghent) and Etienne Lamotte (Louvain) . A well-known name in the Flemish movement is Walter Couvreur, co-founder of the Flemish nationalist party in the 1950s, but here mainly the Sanskritist who also taught Hittite and Tocharian (Ghent) . Then comes the more recent research, including my own professors Pierre Eggermont and Gilbert Pollet (Leuven). The latest generation includes among others Christophe Vielle (Louvain) and Eva De Clercq (Ghent). I should add that Callewaert himself is no doubt the most famous Belgian scholar in modern India, writer of a vast Hindi-English dictionary of the devotional movement and editor of many works by or about popular devotional saints (Dadu, Ravidas and others), whose followers deeply venerate him. Foremost in this category is his editing the Guru Granth, the holy book of Sikhism.

Since completeness is not of this world ("only Allah is perfect"), we cannot summarize the whole book. But we can warmly recommend it, there was a real need for a work that presents all this information.

Idesbald Goddeeris , ed : Het Wiel van Ashoka. Belgisch-Indiase Contacten in Historisch Perspectief (Dutch: “The wheel of Ashoka, Belgo-Indian contacts in historical perspective”), Lipsius , Leuven 2013 , 243 pp. , € 29.50 , ISBN 978 90 5867 954 3 .


Anonymous said...

A rare topic, and a good review. Thank you. I wonder if you could also review the work of S.N. Balagangadhara, at Ghent University.

Unknown said...

Nice article!