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Above the Emperor

The Chinese civilisation is one of the oldest and most fascinating in the world. Even though very different from India, the West often lumps the two together as part of the ‘exotic’ East. Ironically, China clubs India and the West together as Indo-European cultures that are highly speculative, obsessed with philosophy, and hardly pragmatic.The one thing that separates India from both the West and China is faith in rebirth that forms the cornerstone of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Also, Indian religions value thoughts over things, unlike both the West and China.

Yes, the idea of rebirth did spread to the rest of the East via Buddhism, but it remained in the background, never as central as it was in the Indian subcontinent. The Chinese therefore clung on to their older practices of ancestor worship, building tombs and storing urns of ashes, not seen in cultures rooted in rebirth.


Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Currently, the liberal and modern West identifies itself by being anti-religious. But when the West uses the word religion, it uses it in a very Judaic-Christian-Islamic sense, where God is an external agency. God was not seen the same way in India or China.

In India, God could be both external agency as well as inner potential. While the masses prefer God as external agency, the wise realise it is all about inner potential, the God within. China developed into a great culture without needing the idea of an external, all-powerful God.

The Chinese had the notion of heaven (Tian) and one-above-emperor (Shang-di) which represents order and morality and correctness, but this was very different from the angry rule-enforcing God of the Bible. It was an abstract notion used as a reference point to ensure there was order and harmony one earth. What mattered more was its human representation on earth: the Emperor, who brought order to the otherwise volatile Chinese lands.

The Chinese have always loved the idea of order and feared the idea of chaos. The point of building the Great Wall was to keep chaos out and order in. The heavenly order maintained by the Jade Emperor was visualised as a circle while earthly order maintained by the Emperor in the Forbidden City was visualised as a square.

The history of China is the history of its Emperors and warlords trying to bring order to the land. They did primarily by two means, either the rational Confucian method using rituals and discipline and moral codes, or the more mystical Taoist method involving divination and harmonious movement of energies using art, architecture, diet, music, invocation of spirits, even sex.

More than the idea of God, China valued the notion of spirits and sages and ancestors who were seen as gods; who lived in the harmonious Jade heaven with the Jade emperor. They also valued the dragon who controlled the rains and the waters and a whole variety of benevolent and malevolent beings, which are part of local folklore, different in different parts of China.

Chinese influence reached India and Indian influence reached China through the sea, via Kerala, and across mountains from Bengal. Both Bengal and Kerala are strongly associated with Tantrik practices that were once called Chinachara, or the way of China. While there is the Indian theory that martial arts went from India to China there is a Chinese theory that steamed idlis were probably introduced by Chinese cooks of Tamil merchants, who otherwise preferred fried wadas.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.¬†

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