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 Follow the Footsteps of Savants: Promote Deeper Understanding and Greater Partnership between India and China 


C.V. Ranganathan


The year 1998 has ushered in many birth centenaries. Four are related to the development of relations between India and China. Born a hundred years ago in China were Zhou Enlai and Tan Yun-shan; and in India were P.C. Bagchi and K.P.S. Menon. Tan Yun-shan and P.C. Bagchi were the pioneers in Sino-Indians studies advocated by India's first Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. K.P.S. Menon was the first Indian Ambassador to China. I have the honour of succeeding that post vacated by him and a dozen of his successors. I and many others who held that office had shared his enthusiasm and enjoyment in building up bridges between the two great civilizations of the world. Zhou Enlai, of course, belonged to another category. I was still a student when he started visiting India renewing friendly contacts with Indians who had not long ago attained independence of their motherland. I am glad to know from my good friend, Prof. Tan Chung, that his father, Prof. Tan Yun-shan, was consulted by Zhou Enlai on how to improve relations with India. it was Tan Yun-shan's suggestion that has brought the Chinese Premier to Santiniketan in 1957 to receive an honorary degree from Tagore's university, Visva-Bharati. It is both rare that Visva-Bharati confers an honour on a foreign politician, and a Chinese leader of Zhon Enlai's stature arriving in India to receive an academic degree from an Indian University.

Many Indians know the illustrious family of Tan Yun-shan which has made India its second home. My connection with this family is cemented by a personal friendship between me and the Tan couple, Tan Chung and Ishu, with whom I started my acquaintance in early 1960s after I had just returned to New Delhi from my diplomatic assignment in Beijing. Both of them were the pioneers in setting up a Department of Chinese Studies in Delhi University. Tan Chung and his colleague used to hold a regular small group discussion on China's current developments, and I used to attend whenever I could take time off from the South Block (where the Foreign Office is). In one session, I was struck by Tan Chung's candid talk describing Jawaharlal Nehru as a Sinophile. It was then that he revealed the intimate relationship between Nehru and his father Tan Yun-shan.

A vivid case demonstrating Nehru's regard for Tan Yun-shan was in difficult times when he addressed the Visva-Bharati convocation at Santiniketan on December 24,1962. The bitter memory of the Sino-Indian boundary war was just fresh, and Nehru was very hurt and wanted to vent his strong sentiments against the Chinese government. But, he spotted Prof. Tan Yun-shan in the audience with white Indian dress sitting on the ground like a Buddha. His heart melted. Before he started criticizing China, he began by these words :

In the Visva-Bharati you have got various departments. You have got the Cheena-Bhavan under a distinguished Chinese scholar [Tan Yun-shan]. That is a good thing to remind you always that you are not at war with China's culture or the greatness of China in the past or present. (See Jawaharlal Nehru's Speches, vol. 4, p. 27.)

After hearing this, warm tears gushed out from Prof. Tan's solemn face, and he immediately caught the limelight of the media. The episode was reported by all major newspapers the next day. I think it remarkable that when bilateral relations between India and China fell to the nadir such an exhibition of soft and kind affection between the two great civilizations occurred. This all the more places Tan Yun-shan at the centre of cultural relationship between India and China.

In history we have many such touching stories between Indians and their Chinese brethren. We have the story of the Chinese emperor of Houqin named Yao Xing (reigning from 394 to 415) who admired Kumarajiva's genius so much that he even resorted to blasphemy to get the Indian saint to leave a number of progeny behind in China after he attained his nirvana. When the great Chinese pilgrim, Xuanzang, made it known to his colleagues at the Nalanda Buddhist University his intentions to return to China, the Indian monk-scholars did not want to miss him and tried their level best to persuade him to stay. Then, Xuanzang asked and extracted an answer from those who deeply loved him that even the sun had to travel to bring light to all the dark corners of the world, and he begged support from those much endeared fellow-Buddhists for his returning to his country to spread Buddha's enlightenment to the vast areas of darkness and ignorance.

But, Tan Yun-shan, the modern Xuanzang, had far exceeded Xuanzang's 15 year pilgrimage to India. Tan was teaching in Singapore for a number of years and Tagore was visiting Singapore. Tan was invited to Santiniketan in 1927 by Tagore when the two met there. He promptly arrived at Santiniketan the next year.

From 1928 to 1983 (when he breathed his last at Bodhgaya), he had virtually stayed in Santiniketan (and also Bodhgaya) all his life with occasional sojourns to China; that, too, to get support for his work and career in India. When he first arrived, he came alone leaving a newly married bride behind in Malaya. Although Tan was immediately appointed as a "Professor" by Tagore, he drew no pay from Visva-Bharati which was practically an ashram, and an extended family gathering of dedicated scholars around the "Gurudeva" (Tagore) to build up an international commonwealth which is suggested by the name "Visva-Bharati". Tan Yun-shan (then only 30) partook in this spiritual atmosphere of service, sacrifice and dedication while his new wife slogged in Malaya to send him financial support. Then, there was the well-known story of Tan's shuttling between Santiniketan and Nanjing-Shanghai to get Tagore's dream realized. It was by Tan Yun-shan's sheer personal persuasion that he got Tagore's long cherished Sino-Indian Cultural Society formed with eminent scholarly support from China, and subsequently got a handsome donation frqm Chinese leaders and government to have the Cheena-Bhavana built at Santiniketan and sustained for 12 years without asking for a penny from Tagore and Visva-Bharati. Prime Minister Nehru knew all the, details from the beginning. That was why he spoke with so much emotion about Cheena-Bhavana andTanYun-shan (without naming him) at the convocation when he was at the height of his anger and anguish about what had happened between India and China.

So, Tan Yun-shan's modern pilgrimage to India is very different from Xuanzang's in the 7th century. While Xuanzang spent all his post-pilgrimage life spreading Buddha's messages among the Chinese, and building up a sound intellectual and emotional friendship between the two civilizations on the soil of China, Tan Yun-shan's pilgrimage to India has extended to the life and careers of his children in spreading information and insight about China among Indians, and sound intellectual and emotional friendship between the two civilizations on the soil of India. In my limited contacts with Indian educational institutions from the Ministry of External

Affairs, I could feel the impact of Tan Yun-shan and also his extended pilgrimage carried on by his eldest son, Tan-Chung from strength to strength. It is, like Nehru said in 1962: the spiritual bonds that Tan Yun-shan and his family struck with Tagore and the disciples and followers of Tagore at Santiniketan for many decades that has reminded India that we are never at war with China's culture or the greatness of China in the past or present, or even future.

Immediately after Independence, Nehru and other Indian leaders sent a message to the entire world that India wanted to be friends with all, and enemy to none. I joined my IFS colleagues from 1959 onwards to spread this message wherever I was posted. I have learnt from experience that it is easier to make enemies than making friends. There is so much ego, selfishness, suspicion, jealousy, and enmity among humans that only those who are honest, unselfish, dedicated, sincere, generous to others and treat others as their own near and dear can win trust and friendship. I have come across so many such people in my three-and-half decades of diplomatic career, and many of them are Chinese. There is a lot in common between the peoples of India and China. We have in our blood a thick cultural sediment which, sometimes, prevent us from knee-jerk reactions and a quick change of faces as if changing masks. Again, both the peoples have immense endurance and toleration, capable of absorbing shocks and sufferings. Even when I was in China during the days of tension and mutual distrust I discovered the innate affection and friendship on the part of Chinese people for India and the Indian people. My life-long experience of a diplomat also tells me that apart from a handful of us who are ambassadors accredited by the government, there are innumerable cultural ambassadors among the people who come to play the bridge-role on their own volition without accreditation and unmindful of reward. Such cultural ambassadors can easily put to shame some professional diplomats whose covetous self-serving is unproportionately greater than their devotion to duty - to the cause of building friendly bridges between nations. It is such an experience that has made me admire the cultural ambassadors.

Tan Yun-shan should be remembered as a cultural ambassador of the highest stature. Throughout his life He had spent time and energy to serve others. I am told that he had great talent in writing in both classical and modern Chinese, both poetry and prose. But, he sacrificed his own chances of becoming a great writer to facilitate others to achieve in knowledge and scholarship. Yet, the greatness of Tan Yun-shan did not lie in his self-sacrifice only. He had an unusual conviction in human kindness, in forging a synthesis between all the noble values of the civilizations of India and China. I was invited to Tan Chung's house many times, and saw hanging on the wall his father's fine calligraphy framed in a "Sino- Indian Motto" (Zhong-Yin zhenming). I tried to decipher those seal-script characters quoting Confucian teachings of "Li de Ii yan" (establishing one's virtue and also one's speech), and the Buddhist preaching of "Jiu ren jiu shi" (rescuing others and also the human kind). I, then, realized that what had attracted Tan Yun-shan to settle down in India, particularly at a place like Santiniketan where life was spartan, was not India's want of luxuries and material facilities, but her spiritual greatness and high thinking. It was not for nothing that on the Visva-Bharati campus Tan Yun-shan was revered as the "Chinese sage".

From what little I know about the nature and character of this "Chinese sage", I am greatly impressed that although he had attended innumerable Chinese banquets in the exalted company of, VVIPs, Tan Yun-shan was basically a vegetarian, and his favourite things to eat throughout his life were sweet-potatoes and monkey -nuts. In Santiniketan, sitting on the floor without shoes was the daily practice. Many Indians much younger than Tan Yun-shan could not feel comfortable after a while, while Tan remained motionless for hours in the pose of (lion's sitting) like the Indian deities. I am also impressed by the fact that Tan Yun-shan had, in late life, styled himself as "Ksantyrishi"(renxian) which meant the saint who could tolerate all humiliations and outrages. This needs an enormous spiritual power which even escapes very great personalities whose public image is one thing and private life is another. No one, even his children, had seen Tan Yun-shan flared up. His children testify that on no occasion did their father lose his cool. I know from my own family tradition that to win universal admiration in India one needs not only to have a fine mind, but also an exemplary personal behaviour at any time and place. Tan Yun-shan belonged to this precious category, hence his "sage" image. Tan was, of course, not the only Chinese who had adopted India as his homeland. Many other Chinese have done so in Calcutta and other Indian cities. But as a Chinese who could be regarded as a sage in his adopted land - India -Tan Yun-shan has stood alone without match.

Culture is created by humans, and there can be a great culture only when there is a great people. Tan Yun-shan personifies the great people and great culture of China beyond doubt. But, he had enjoyed in his own personal cultivation the inspiration of many an Indian great man, like Gurudeva Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, and Sri Aurobindo with all of whom Tan had maintained personal contacts. Thus, Tan Yun-shan was the embodiment of the virtues of both the Chinese and Indian cultures which, I think, is a rare feat, unachieveable by ordinary souls. Today, when we commemorate the birth centenary of Tan we must see that such a fine example gets multiplied in dozens, hundreds, and thousands. We must see that every Indian and every Chinese reflect the good points of their own cultural traditions first, and then absorb each other's admirable cultural traditions. This would require that the peoples of India and China enhance their mutual understanding, and promote their cultural synergy. Against the background of universal moral degeneration, if not decadence of our times, such a coming together by Indians and Chinese to uphold the highest spiritual standards and moral values is absolutely necessary. Only in this manner can the two nations enter the new century and new millennium as the frontline members of the world commity.

Prof. Tan Yun-shan has left us for 15 years now and during these 15 years much water has flowed down the Ganga and Yangtse. As the Chinese leaders are fond of saying, we are faced with great opportunities and great challenges. Opportunities are plentiful after the end of the Cold War and the universe is sailing into a new culture of dialogue, accommodation, engagement, cooperation, and genuine peaceful coexistence. Opportunities lie before the two nations as all countries, all nations, and all peoples are greeted by the incoming new revolution of humanity, i.e. the information technology and soft culture without universal discrimination and externally imposed handicaps. Challenges we face because both India and China are still in the developing stage, and it is a herculean task for the two billion people of India and China to catch up with the advanced science and technology which climb to higher classes and generations not in the courses of centuries or decades, but in every few years, even few months. Without catching up with the frontline achievements of  humanity, India and China will not become the frontline countries for sure. Thus, we need to emulate the tenacity of Tan Yun-shan to create institutions and provide facilities for the talents. We need the example of Tan to shine upon the future Sino-Indian relations to build up a partnership of synergy. India and China should and could throw up more bridges like Tan Yun-shan, and cross the bridges to march together into the future.


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