India: Past, Present, and Future

Vinay Lal / UCLA

It is quite likely that no country presents such sharp contrasts, and is so recalcitrant to social theories, as India. The country boasts a large number of billionaires and yet has the world’s largest number of people living lives of abject poverty. It has been home to the world’s most glittering empires, among them the Guptas (300-500 CE) and the Mughals (1526-c.1800), and yet as a nation-state India has struggled to leave its imprint on the global stage. India birthed four of the world’s principal religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—and has been home to Christians since the 1st century CE — just as it has the world’s third largest population of Muslims and a singular history of unparalleled hospitality towards Jews. But India’s reputation as a country of religious tolerance is increasingly being tarnished by religious conflict.

The staggering religious, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural diversity of India appears to be under assault. Nevertheless, this would not be the first time that India would appear to be buckling under the fissures that are as much external as internal. Almost uniquely among countries in Asia and Africa that decolonized, India has — since independence in 1947 — largely retained the features of a democratic state. In this talk, Professor Vinay Lal will offer a panoramic view of the Indian past, identifying some of the most salient features of Indian civilization, and then suggest some of the challenges that face the country. The future of India, it will be argued, can be seen as a tussle between a capacious view of India as a great civilization—warts and all—and a more restrictive and often xenophobic view of India as a nation-state. How this will be resolved holds meaning not just for India, but for the world at large.


Discussion Questions:

1. India is, along with China, the oldest continuous civilization in the world, and yet rather young as a nation-state. Does the idea of India as a civilization have any purchase at a time when the nation-state has monopolized the imagination everywhere in the world?

2. In what ways do plurality and hierarchy survive together in India?

3. Has the migration of a large number of well-educated Indians deprived India of talent and held the country back, or have diasporic Indians energized the country in various ways?

4. Do the ideas of the Buddha and Gandhi have any significant hold in India today?