We exported Theravada from the south and civilized Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Cold and austere (observe how calm Lankans and Thai are), godless and illuminating, for me, Theravada is real Buddhism.

Past glory: The Buddha statue at the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad, Maharashtra. By Karthikeyan Pandian/Wikimedia Commons

It is true, however, that the Japanese didn’t absorb the poisonous Indian message of maya. They look at the world empirically, and their Buddhist sites and rituals are different from ours. These nations accept their debt to us and it is remarkable how liked Indians are in many of these places.

Anyway, we had no use for Mahayana either and it is gone from here. From the West we imported Islam. I suspect a profit was not made on the transactions.

What export do we have to offer the world today? Looking at what I pay for visas, I’m convinced India’s main export is the illegal immigrant. But one cannot say what is obvious without hurting Indians, so I won’t. Having booted out Buddhism, we settled instead for our colourful, effective and easy-to-follow Puranic faith. My understanding of its essence is as follows:

Hindu: “God, gimme!"

God: “First gimme!"

The Shanti Stupa at Dhauli Giri in Orissa where it is believed that Ashok, full of remorse after the Kalinga War in 261 BC, renounced violence and turned to Buddhism. By Debashis Pradhan/Wikimedia Commons

That evening, Prinsep announced that he had deciphered the Brahmi script, in which mysterious and uniform inscriptions were found all over India, but not understood. One can imagine the excitement in him, and in his audience, as Prinsep read out the single most commonly found line on rock edicts that were planted in triumph from Afghanistan to Bengal—on pillars in territory governed by Alexander the Great’s Greeks, where the European submitted for the first and only time to the Indian.

That night, after 23 centuries, from the time of classical Athens, our greatest ruler called out to us again: “Devanampiya Piyadasi raja evam aha (King Priyadarshi, whom the gods love, says this)."

I stared at the line a long time when I first happened across it, and was not surprised when tears welled up and blurred it. Jawaharlal Nehru must have been as moved, for Ashok’s wheel is on our flag, and his superb lion capital (when did we lose that talent for sculpture?) is the symbol of our republic.

Nehru was moved further, for he named his only daughter Priyadarshini, after Ashok. What a gift Prinsep gave us. Functionally literate, but really only numerate, our learned Brahmins ignored the writing for 2,000 years. They were unable to find meaning in, unwilling even to observe, this spindly script. Prinsep, who was not a linguist, unlocked it quite easily by locating its vowels.

The Indus Valley script will remain an enigma because the white man is gone and the Hindu is neither interested in nor capable of decoding his past. The foreigner must do this work for him. Rudyard Kipling knew this and rubs it in with pride and glee in Kim, when the Lahore Museum’s English director educates the stupefied lama about the treasures of his faith. Nothing has changed since then.

Today, Scot William Dalrymple will instruct us about our last emperor. Frenchman Christophe Jaffrelot writes the history of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise. German von Stietencron teaches us how to identify which king built what temple. Finn Asko Parpola reveals to us that the Harappan script is actually proto-Dravidian. I could go on but there’s no point.

Why are we such a pathetic and helpless race today?

We were not in Ashok’s time. The determination and single-mindedness of the men who, for a thousand years, bore into the hard rock halfway up a mountain at Ajanta are not identifiable as Indian.

The slow trajectory of Buddha’s appropriation into the Puranic faith is stamped in stone there. First, the stupas in the oldest caves, then, the anthropomorphic statues we’re familiar with and then, when you drive down the road to Ellora, the total absorption into the fold of avatars. Game over.

But even then, the resilience, the quality, was there. Generations of baniyas—Hindu, Jain and Buddhist—funded the massive sculpting project at Ellora.

Today, Indians at Ellora only litter and scratch. These places are noisy, vulgar picnic spots, not monuments that terrify us into looking at ourselves.

It’s even worse across the border. A decade or so ago, writer Avirook Sen and I were driving from Multan to Islamabad when we stopped at Harappa to see the Indus Valley Civilization’s mighty site. It was heart-stoppingly beautiful and utterly deserted. The man at the counter punched out two tickets for foreigners and had them at the ready even before we reached him (Pakistan shares our brilliant policy of penalizing tourists who brave a visit to our nations). How did he know we weren’t Pakistanis? “Pakistanis don’t come here," he said.

Somewhere near the middle of the two-and-a-half-dozen caves at Ajanta is one that is fully excavated but not finished. It has no sculpture, its walls and pillars are rough, ready for workmen to shape them. Shorn of the finished look of the others, the visitor will immediately register how much work went into the project.

When I saw it, I understood that it was deliberately left half finished. It is an act of insolence, of justifiable arrogance. This, it says to us, is what we are capable of. What about you?

It is terrifying, because today we cannot even keep our neighbourhoods clean.

When one points out that we make no contribution to science, the answer is that India gave the world zero. I don’t disagree with that statement.

Having vomited out all this, it occurs to me that there is another way of looking at it. If we view this less emotionally, and in a purely Darwinian sense, I am absolutely wrong.

The truth is that the Indian subcontinent cannot be seen as a failure. There are 1.6 billion of us here, sending down our genes more rapidly than any other race in history. We may live a parasitical life, off borrowed learning from the West and with nothing to offer of our own. But we are by numbers the most successful people in history.

So what if our days of civilizing the world are behind us.

Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.

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