The Vedantic Influence on Indian Foreign Policy

The great Indian mystic and seer Swami Vivekananda once remarked, “All differences in this world are of degree and not of kind, because oneness is the secret of everything.” This idea finds reflection in the way India engages with the world via its foreign policy. Foreign policy is undoubtedly an important part of any government or administration’s agenda. This is especially so in the case of the current Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is (in) famous for his numerous foreign and diplomatic trips. To Modi, “Foreign policy is about finding the common meeting points.” And it is in this context that PM Modi refers to the Sanskrit phrase “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” which roughly translates to mean “the world is one family” as being India’s philosophy. This is not just a descriptive phrase, rather it is the mantra of India’s diplomatic lexicon. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is a Vedantic thought and is an integral part of Hindu philosophy. It stresses compassion, collaboration, partnership and coexistence with zero vested interests. In fact, a “Universal Brotherhood Day” is observed on September 11 every year to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s speech in Chicago on religious harmony.

Not long ago, The Indian PM Modi opened his historic UN address with a tribute to this principle of world fraternity, which has guided his nation from time immemorial. Modi’s speech emphasised the need to combat climate change, external security threats and the need to utilise the untapped potential of space exploration. He highlighted the need for unity in combating various social menaces and called for the participation of ‘G-All’. He called for reforms to the UN Security Council and asked countries to move beyond the policy of zero-sum games. PM Modi even evoked this policy at the World Economic Forum (Davos). He delivered the keynote address at the plenary session and stated that this policy was crucial to bridge the existing fissure in humanity itself.

C. Raja Mohan, a prominent Indian foreign policy analyst, considers this timeless current of civilisational ethic to be India’s strategy of cultural diplomacy and soft power politics. It acts as a symbol of cultural nationalism to counter China’s expansionist nationalism. PM Modi’s diplomatic outreach via his visits to cultural sites in Japan, China etc. and the Asia-Pacific Growth Corridor highlight India’s ancient civilisational connectedness with these countries.

As a departure from the previous government, a crucial dimension of the Modi administration’s foreign policy is a vibrant and dynamic rapport with the diaspora. Any cultural ambassador talking about India’s foreign policy, both consciously and unconsciously, would speak in the language of multilateralism. The Modi administration endorses this contact with the diaspora both quantitatively and qualitatively by making it a part of its development agenda (Grievance redressal, rule simplification, public meetings etc). It has taken steps to strengthen this contact through the consistent use of social media. In fact, it would appear that the Prime Minister’s much criticised ceaseless foreign visits have indeed been fruitful. The PM had fruitful interactions with leaders of the US and Japan on the lines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. China, Russia, and Australia have also come within its loop. This becomes important for the proper operationalisation of India’s “Act East” Policy. The narrative of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam became so popular that the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry stated that America shared this goal and was willing to work in full cooperation with the new government to realise it. The PM has successfully constructed India’s narrative on global challenges, even if real peace with neighbours and actual success in the West is yet to be a reality.

Now, since foreign policy is a continuum, there cannot usually be a tectonic change when governments change. India’s former PM Rajiv Gandhi evoked Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam to challenge the concept of First, Second and Third World Countries, putting forward his idea of one world and “Earth citizens”. Modi’s ideological predecessor, Mr Vajpayee referred to it at the Asia Pacific forum to put forward the traditional Indian understanding of human rights as being universal. In his Harvard Alumni Association address, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh contrasted Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam with Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” to assert his preference for the former philosophy of global unity. It’s almost as if the continuous narrative has been that the idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the idea of India.

Henry Kissinger (well, obviously) once stated: “A country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy can achieve neither perfection nor security.” India’s world-embracing philosophical narrative stands against communal polarisation and regional jingoism. But this is far from being a reality at all. Regional jingoism has become the very definition of India’s relationship with Pakistan or China. Not unlike Trump v Kim Jong-un, the most recent espousal of ‘universal brotherhood’ between Messrs. Imran Khan and Narendra Modi was reduced to mean tweets. The relationship with China has only superficial bonhomie; post the stand-off in the Himalayas in 2017, both India and China have been low-key at loggerheads over trade and border disputes. Finally, the humanitarian Rohingya crisis is being ignored by India—which is deporting Rohingya refugees and doing nothing to rebuke Myanmar’s organised genocide. The philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam preaches tolerance in a highly insular world where race and ethnicity are used to incite hate crimes against humanity. But the chief proponent of that philosophy falters in promoting that in its own country and in its neighbourhood.

Though an ideal, a world that lives as one family is worth creating. It works for India as well, making it a force of good in the world. It reflects the changing horizons of India’s foreign policy marked by the opening of several arenas of untapped opportunity. It may be worthwhile to consider projecting Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in a more sustained manner at various global forums so that it may find resonance all over the world. Yet actions speak louder than words. India needs to deal with challenges pragmatically and innovatively, it has to fix its relationships with its neighbours and actually stand up for human rights in South Asia. For the last thing that should happen to Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is it being reduced to an empty slogan.


Swarnima Swastika Tewary

Independent researcher associated with IPSA. I am a passionate reader of ancient Indian scriptures & everything that falls in between & beyond. I live by & for Nature so when I'm not reading I'm out there in the garden living that magical life!

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