Is One Belt, One Road the Chinese ashwamedha?

Published on 23rd May, 2017, on The Times of India Blog

As Western hegemony wanes in the global village, China envisions the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. India withdraws from it. What makes cultures do what they do? The answer perhaps lies in their mythologies, which map the culture’s mind.

At the heart of Chinese mythology is belief in the Mandate of Heaven. The Emperor of China has been given the divine authority to mirror heavenly order on earth. If the emperor fails to do so, he can be replaced. A successful revolution marks the shifting of this mandate from one king to another.

Although communism sees itself as rational, and so anti-religion and anti-mythology, the communist revolution under Mao Zedong effectively marked the shift in the Mandate of Heaven from the old order to the new. The rise of China into an economic powerhouse under Deng Xiaoping also indicates yet another shift in the Mandate of Heaven. The current leadership in China is now expanding its Pax Sinica.

Geography plays a key role in Chinese mythology. At the centre is the Forbidden City (Beijing) around which is China and around which is the peripheral nations who look towards China for guidance to create heavenly order on earth. Beyond are the lands of chaos, whose people are best kept out using projects such as the Great Wall of China.

By contrast, time (kala) plays a key role in Hindu mythology. Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism speak of a world that has no beginning (anadi), no end (ananta) and is always impermanent (anitya). Indian mythologies speak of great universal emperors (chakra-varti) but these are more conceptual than historical. India thrives in dynamic diversity, with multiple kingdoms that rise and fall from Mauryas to Guptas to Vakatakas to Rashtrakutas to Kadambas to Gangas to Pallavas to Pandyas to Cholas to Nayakas to Mughals to British.

There is no Beijing equivalent in Hindu mythology, though Delhi is often projected as such in post-Independence textbooks. India, known in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu texts as Jambu-dvipa or Bharata-varsha or Arya-varta, is bound not by politics but by religion; it has been united not by empires but by pilgrim routes, an idea that perplexes modern historians who try very hard to prove India is a creation of the British.

In Chinese mythology, there is authority and bureaucracy in heaven too. The gods enable the living to be successful, and successful mortals such as emperors, military commanders and noblemen take the position of immortal gods. The highly formal, hierarchical and socially-responsible Confucianism, with its great regard for authority, is balanced by the more mystical and occult Taoism, that speaks of harmony and flow.

Essentially, the tone is highly materialistic and worldly in contrast to the otherworldly nature of Indian mythologies, where the psychological matters more than the physical. Jain, Buddhist and Hindu mythologies place great value on yoga, the un-crumpling of the mind crumpled by hunger and fear.

In Chinese worldview, India is seen in two ways. Firstly, it embodies luan, chaos. This chaos threatens the Chinese sense of order. This makes India a perpetual threat. It makes the Chinese leadership nervous. Secondly, India is Sukhavati, the Western Paradise in Chinese Buddhism, source of great spiritual wisdom. It speaks about transcending materialism to be free of suffering, an idea that invalidates the promise of the material philosophies, be it communism or capitalism.

Until the arrival of the Europeans, Buddhism was the only foreign idea that has had a dramatic impact on Chinese history. Since then, China watches with trepidation the rising tide of Christian evangelism in South Korea and Singapore, and Islam on its Western borders, and the hurricane of technology coming from the West. The Chinese way is eroding, unless the Emperor takes charge. Hence, OBOR.

Is OBOR the Chinese equivalent of the ashwamedha, the Vedic ritual by which a king established his authority and sovereignty? Is India reacting like the insecure Indra, king of the sky? Or are we choosing the hermit’s isolation over the householder’s pragmatism? Is maya (delusion) at play as we indulge our inflated sense of importance?

The Chinese classic, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, is about winning while Krishna’s Bhagavad Gita is about union with the divine. Very different goals. Something we need to meditate on.