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Global Viewpoint

The surprising factors behind Asia's renaissance

With a bright future ahead of it, Asia is increasingly rediscovering its past. To fully understand Asia's rise, we must come to grips with the forces that shaped its history: Western, Islamic, and Buddhist heritage. It's time to consider Asia's lesson on religious and cultural pluralism.

By George Yeo / April 12, 2011



Singapore

As Asia reemerges on the world stage in this century, its civilizational origins will become a subject of intense study and debate. Asians are rediscovering their own past and deriving inspiration from it for the future. This inspiration covers all fields including governance, scientific inquiry, architecture, wellness, and aesthetics. A tremendous burst of creative adaptation is increasingly evident across Asia. The Western world went through a similar phase as it emerged out of the medieval ages. Hence the word “renaissance” has come to be applied to Asia’s reemergence today.

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As part of this renaissance, the Indian parliament recently passed a bill reestablishing Nalanda University as an international university. Nalanda was the world’s oldest university by far, flourishing for centuries before it was destroyed by Afghan invaders in the 12th century.

In the same way as one could identify the origins of Western civilization in Greece, Rome, and Judeo-Christianity, so too could one trace the origins of East Asian civilization to the influence of Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism.

Just as Europe’s past was partly retrieved through the Arab vehicle – for it was the Arabs who were fascinated by the civilization of the ancient Greeks and had its works translated into Arabic when Western Europe was still in the Dark Ages – Asia’s past has been partly retrieved through the Western vehicle. Without the massive contribution of Western scholars, our knowledge of our own past in Asia would be much poorer today.

I include here Alexander Cunningham’s identification of Nalanda from an English translation of Xuan Zang’s record of his journey to the West and Joseph Needham’s encyclopedic study of science and civilization in China. Asians, too, stand on the shoulders of others.

Where's all the world's great religions meet

It is much easier emotionally to talk about the Buddhist heritage in Asia than it is to discuss the painful interactions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam over the centuries. For the children of Abraham, it has been a history of conflict. In the case of Buddhism, however, after the bloodbath in Kalinga which shocked Ashoka and set him off on a different path, the message is generally one of peace, compassion, and acceptance. Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent. This reminds us not to be arrogant. Buddhism teaches us that every action has consequences. This reminds us to be good. The deep humanism in Buddhism is a value we need more than ever in a shrinking world where no religion, no ethnic group, is in a majority.

In between East Asia and South Asia is Southeast Asia, where all the world’s great religions and cultures meet and mingle. If we are not able to live with people who are different from us in their core beliefs, there can be no peace or partnership. Beneath the trade winds, there have evolved in Southeast Asia cultures which enable diverse ethnic and religious groups to cohabitate. This softness has its roots in the Hinduism and Buddhism which came to our shores more than 2,000 years ago. Many of the great monks like Fa Xian and Yi Jing who traveled between South Asia and East Asia spent time in Southeast Asia, especially in Sriwijaya, Sumatra.

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