China’s Tryst with Sanskrit as Area Studies: A Few Lessons on Diplomacy for India

China’s Tryst with Sanskrit as Area Studies: A Few Lessons on Diplomacy for India

Policymakers have a lot to learn from historians and language experts. So do diplomats. Unless the policymakers of a country like India – which is surrounded by aggressive, imperialist nations on three sides – start to realise the importance of analysing the various expressions of those nations made in the areas of politics, economy, culture, science and technology, religion, and philosophy from an essentially Indic point of view, all policies and consequently all diplomatic missions are bound to fail in the ultimate analysis. After all, what good is a policy for a country that is always under the threat of military aggression owing to its ignorance of wherein lies its own good, compounded by its particularly vulnerable and porous borders? Under such precarious circumstances, all its resources would be taken up in the defence budget; and programmes in the key areas of health, education and infrastructure building will suffer miserably. Diplomacy, intelligence network building and foreign policy must ensure the prevention of warfare – whether open or proxy – as Kauṭilya’s precepts instruct; moreover, these areas must also focus on strengthening commercial ties with the neighbouring countries with an ultimate aim of increasing revenue, but not at the expense of border security.

Diplomatic foreign policy is a field where one may also learn volumes by simply being a smart copycat. The thumb rule for this is: keep a close watch on the day to day affairs within your neighbouring country, try to learn how they are attempting to cope with the cultural, political and economic dynamics, and then simply replicate those – but this time effectively reversing the direction of the gaze. What is there for India to copy, for example, from its largest and most formidable neighbour China? Over the last decade, China has been silently yet rapidly upgrading its capability to deal with India in a more holistic manner by equipping its citizens with something that is key to understanding India: the knowledge of the Sanskrit language. In doing so, the officials in the Chinese administration seem to be determined not to let the dogmas of either its ruling communist party in particular, or of Marxism in general cloud the pragmatic wisdom that characterises the Chinese mind. Indeed, the communist party of China has of late launched what is being referred to as a “national campaign to rejuvenate traditional culture”; and the act of resuming Sanskrit classes at the Hangzhou Buddhism Institute for the first time in more than a decade is being celebrated as a part of that campaign by voices from right within the Chinese media itself – as this particular piece of news report demonstrates.

It is highly remarkable how the policymakers in the Chinese administration appear to be ready to go to any length in order to gain in-depth understanding of India, which is the biggest threat to its supremacy in the regional context of Asia as well as a growing challenge in various pockets of influence in the world (such as the African continent and Latin America) and certainly in the ever expanding level playing field of the world market. For regardless of how well the Chinese are accomplishing the job of learning Sanskrit and understanding India’s traditional psyche, one must compliment the earnest efforts they are putting into the construction of an original and highly reliable database in the process, dedicated solely to Sanskrit studies and Indology, which in time will prove to be a huge payoff for the country’s present and future generations of international relations students and scholars alone – not to mention the benefits that will accrue to the area studies experts and think-tanks of the country focused on South Asian affairs. In fact, China seems to have taken a page from the USA’s book here, which had started building its database on specific areas from all over the world under the garb of doing comparative literary and cultural studies in its premier institutes of higher learning. Initiated in the late sixties, the academic phenomenon came to be known as ‘area studies’, which in effect was a set of interdisciplinary exercises focused on specific ‘areas’ of the world, acquiring first-hand knowledge about them through developing language skills, acquiring familiarity with the literary canon and cultural practices of the area and passing on all these valuable information to the Pentagon office to be utilised for potential on-the-ground operations or for carrying out regime-changing coups. All this went on (and in some cases still does) under the pretence of doing so-called ‘objective’ academic studies in the chosen area by dedicated departments or centres in the Ivy League universities – typically led by one or more tenured professors of American origin and by co-opting many ‘natives’ from the area of focus as students, research assistants, scholars and adjunct professors, whose careers would be particularly vulnerable given the limited career options that humanities scholars get outside the academia itself these days. The ‘natives’ are thus treated as little more than petty informants passing on insights to the real masters who hire them, besides being used as ‘faces’ to be displayed as and when there arises a political pressure to prove the authenticity of the academic work and to gain sympathy for the same by highlighting the genuineness of the humane aspect of the whole endeavour to justify and ensure continued public expenditure for running these courses. It functions like a double-edged sword: valuable data and insights about a culture, where US influence is to be exercised, is gathered and passed on to the department of defence while creating a class of ‘native scholars’ who would endorse the American neo-colonial perspective on their ‘area’ – by being either brainwashed or coerced to parrot the employers’ cause. In return, they would be rewarded by being installed in the premier institutes back in their native country, where they would function as ‘beacons of light’, as role models to be emulated by the aspiring youth of the ‘area’, trying desperately to get a ticket to the neo-coloniser’s land to fulfil the dream in their eyes, a dream planted by those same ‘beacons’ who initiate them into the neo-colonial agenda. It is a devious design, devised to catch and train more and more foot-soldiers in this vicious circle of a  sovereignty-stealing  machinery, who would look native enough to earn the credibility of their countrymen but think and talk exactly like the invader/neo-colonialist (just as Lord Macaulay would have them do) in a mission to bring in political and economic domination of the big players in world politics to weaker or ill-prepared, unassuming nations under various ‘holy’ garbs, such as the now-famous ‘human rights’ and ‘social justice’ causes (which are more and more frequently and unabashedly being described as ‘wars’ by their proponents who call themselves ‘social justice warriors’), much in the same way as the grand old British colonialists had brought in their colonial administration in the name of ushering in ‘civilisation’ to the heathen lands. China’s government, through the help of its loyal institutions of higher learning led by dedicated and learned Chinese scholars who have obtained training from the top universities of Europe and North America, has clearly taken the first step by recognising the need to nurture such two-pronged institutional projects as part of its soft/hard power balancing act; and the Chinese dragon looks poised to take its military and intelligence database gathering methods to a whole new height by adopting this effective American line.

Even without getting into the nitty-gritties of a plethora of benefits that Sanskrit studies has to offer to the student of medicine, art, literature, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and a wide range of other topics, it is self-evident that intimacy with Sanskrit gives one the ability to penetrate a large number of modern Indian languages, including those of South India. This puts the Chinese experts on Indian affairs on an advantageous position, with the skill of deciphering first-hand information and knowledge from Indian sources, without the intervention of an intermediary such as a translator or an interpreter. One can truly appreciate this sincerity of approach in Chinese policymaking only when one traces the trajectory of how the Chinese communist party has evolved in its thinking.

Since the days of Mao and the execution of his two most nefarious designs – the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – the Chinese communist party has come a long way. It has come a long way from the days of Tiananmen Square massacre, too. It has clearly shed off Chairman Mao’s obsession with Marxist ideological purity and yet it has institutionalised the spirit of the Great Leap Forward, which caused one of the largest genocides in all of human history, transforming the meagre benefit of movement into phenomenal economic growth. In any case, China has moved on from the Mao era in its more significant recent yearning for the revival of traditional knowledge culture, which is where Buddhism, and in its trail Sanskrit, comes along. While rekindling scholarship and interest in Buddhism, a religion that had spread to China from India many centuries back, an emphasis on Sanskrit studies in China is bound to thrive for the visible dividends it ought to pay in getting familiarised with its enemy – India. What India must take home from these developments in contemporary Chinese politics and culture is the realisation of the necessity for readiness – which is a prerequisite of good defensive strategy, and the indispensability of which can hardly be overstated – but the country pitiably lacks in sincerity to really get to the heart of the matter. This is an area where China has shown promptness to pick up valuable skills essential for its national security – an uncompromisable issue – even if those skills must be learnt from its archenemy. Where are the centres/departments/disciplines/institutes for learning Mandarin, the standard Chinese tongue, in India? Where are the Indian schools that do not just train students in the many regional languages of China, but also encourage more people to take up a course on one or more of those languages, and pursue it in all seriousness? Citing sporadic instances of one or two institutes such as Visva-Bharati, where Mandarin and Tibetan are offered as regular degree courses, cannot settle these debates, because these handful of institutions are more of an aberration than any indication of the ground reality of the status of Chinese studies or Tibetan studies in India. There is substantial interest among the Indian public, especially the youth, in Chinese affairs, as is demonstrated by the recent surge in Indian students’ interest in China as a preferred destination for studies abroad. The Indian policymakers and well-meaning private players in the education sector must capitalise on this to promote Chinese studies from the perspective of India’s national security interests. Think-tanks in India may be urged to employ bright graduate students or research scholars to engage with the Chinese question. Academic departments may be set up in universities across the country to accommodate studies on Chinese languages, culture and politics in order to create a pool of dedicated scholars and an ecosystem conducive to produce experts on matters related to China alone. This will not only serve the need for creating a valuable database of Chinese matters, which the country’s foreign policy, diplomacy and military operations may heavily draw from, but will also give a positive orientation to the presently dismal state of affairs of the country’s humanities departments and their outputs – rendered impotent and even counterproductive by the postmodern scourge – wherefrom graduates and scholars will be able to find promising career prospects by making themselves fit for some real service to the nation, instead of their usual anti-India and Breaking-India orientations resulting out of a lack of proper direction and purpose in the present cynical humanities curricula.

The most crucial aspect in the attempts at studying China from India and by Indians, however, is the point of view which is to be employed in undertaking such studies. Indian initiatives at deciphering the enigma that is China (thanks to the tight control over information and broadcast exercised by the Chinese state) must make sure that the point of view is Indic, so that a fair purvapaksha of the Chinese situation is accomplished, following which the data available from the purva-paksha can be effectively mined for specific purposes pertaining to India’s national interest. In the process, a framework for the uttarapaksha of the Chinese question will be simultaneously laid down. It will do us some good to remember Kumarila Bhatta, the great champion of the Purva-Mimamsa school in this connection, who went right into the Buddhist stronghold of Nalanda to learn all Buddhist texts of importance and beat them on their home turf to establish the pre-eminence of his own school of philosophy. We must all learn from the example of this illustrious ancestor of ours, and act wisely to harness knowledge of the ‘other’ for rewarding our aggressors with danḍa – coercion – instead of getting co-opted and outsmarted by them.


The Arthashastra of Kautilya, Ed. and translated by L.N. Rangarajan.

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Andrzej Paczkowski, Jean-Louis Margolin, Jean-Louis Panné, Karel Bartosek, Nicolas Werth, and Stephen Courtois.

Sanskrit class reveals China’s growing fever with Indology, Buddhism, May 15, 2015, Source: XINHUA. URL:

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Sreejit Datta

Sreejit Datta is an educator, researcher and social commentator on subjects critical to rediscovering and rekindling Indic consciousness in a postmodern, neoliberal world. He is a fellow of the Rajeev Circle Scholars (RCS) Program ). Sreejit is a poet, translator, and a trained musician. Blogs: |