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.

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.

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.

Syncretism is a way of life in Southeast Asia. In many Southeast Asian cities, it is not uncommon to find bustling mosques, temples, and churches within short distances of one another, cheek by jowl. Are there problems? Yes, of course, every day! But the prevalent wisdom is to tolerate, accommodate, and find ways to live together.

Asia's Islamic and Western heritage

In addition to the Buddhist heritage, the Islamic heritage and the Western heritage are also important unifying elements in Asia. Unlike Islam’s historical contact with the West, which was often unhappy, Islam’s arrival in Southeast Asia was very different. It brought hygiene and a system of trust which facilitated trade. For a long time, the maritime silk route from the Mediterranean to China was dominated by Muslim traders. The Ottoman influence among Muslims in Southeast Asia was profound. The songkok, which Southeast Asian Muslims wear, is a relic of that influence.

It was not only from the Middle East and India that Islam came to Southeast Asia. It was also from China. The great fleets from Ming China that sailed to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean 600 years ago were commanded by Muslim admirals, the most famous being, of course, Zheng He. The Islamic heritage is therefore another theme in the Asian renaissance, which should one day be taken up. We should not only be preoccupied with the dangers of jihadist extremism. Though it will take many years, the upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East bespeak a future that wants to be born.

The Asian renaissance is incomprehensible without taking into consideration the Western influence of the last 500 years. Although the Western dominance has receded, its impact on every aspect of life in Asia is obvious, enduring, and ubiquitous. Any honest treatment of the Asian revival must acknowledge the many positive contributions of the West, including the ideas of democracy, socialism, and individual rights. The Christian influence in Asia is pervasive. Without Christian missionaries dedicating their lives to the education of millions of Asians, Asia’s modernization would have taken much longer to happen.

The international spirit of Nalanda University

For over 700 years, the great university in Nalanda was a center of learning for a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, science, mathematics, and public health. Nalanda is an icon of the Asian renaissance in the 21st century and should draw students and scholars from everywhere, as it once did. It should be a center of civilizational dialogue and inter-faith understanding, as it once was. It should again make available for the common betterment of all human beings knowledge already existing in the world. In this way, the Nalanda project is not only a celebration of the past but also an inspiration for the future of Asia and the world. In a messy multipolar world, the Nalanda spirit of man living in harmony with man, of man living in harmony with nature, and of man living as part of nature should be our common spirit.

George Yeo is Singapore’s foreign minister. This article was adapted from a presentation to the Berggruen Institute’s 21st Century Council.

© 2011 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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