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How Hanuman offers lessons for India’s and the world’s public diplomacy orientation today

Besides foreign minister Jaishankar calling Hanuman a great diplomat, the Hindu god is revered across Southeast Asia as the anchor of a 'civilisational nation state'.

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India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar recently said that Hanuman from the Ramayana was a foremost diplomat besides Krishna. Indian Administrative Service officer Divya S. Iyer also called Hanuman a prospective mascot for the Indian Foreign Service. I recall reading former ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan’s book Applied Diplomacy: Through the Prism of Mythology, edited by Iyer, which weighed on this idea as well. Some other Indian diplomats, especially the reviewers of the book, also engaged with the idea. The cover of the book depicts a picture of Hanuman flying over the United Nations Headquarters. Without going into the merits or demerits of the book, it is safe to say that the idea of Hanuman being important to Indian diplomacy is neither new nor can be ignored.

Several Indian diplomats who have served in Sri Lanka have also asserted the importance of Hanuman to Indian diplomacy. I want to go a step further. Hanuman today offers several lessons for India’s and the world’s public diplomacy orientation. Public diplomacy is communicating with people in one’s own country and with those abroad to present values, cultures, and policies. Therefore, it becomes pertinent to see how Hanuman embodies this ideal.

Although rooted in India, Hanuman comes across as a transnational figure and an inspiration to many, from former United States President Barack Obama to Krishna Das, a Grammy nominee and American vocalist.

By calling Hanuman one of India’s foremost diplomats, the Narendra Modi government is bringing back the importance of a ‘civilisational nation State’ to the country’s foreign policy discourse. Such a move augments the role of culture in international relations and instrumentalises it for national aims. Hence, the timing cannot be more appropriate.

It is important that academicians and analysts realise that Asia is a continent where civilisations existed and thrived. French President Emmanuel Macron has also stressed on the importance of a European Union (EU) civilisational framework. This does not suggest that one civilisational nation State is holier than the other, nor it is meant to divide countries. It is only important to underscore that world history began much earlier than the very creation of the ‘nation State’. This also doesn’t suggest that America or the countries in the West aren’t civilisational nation States. That said, this aspect of a civilisational nation State and its contours definitely needs a nuanced and thorough analysis by Eastern and Western minds.

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At the core of civilisational nation State

First, let’s define what a civilisational nation State is. To borrow the words of famous Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei, a civilisational nation State can be defined as “the combination of the world’s longest continuous civilisation with a large modern State”. Weiwei made this point in reference to China and further added that “China is a civilisational nation State that is an amalgamation of hundreds of countries”. Besides Weiwei, another Chinese scholar Tan Chung has been very vocal about China being recognised as a ‘civilisational State’ at par with India in his 2018 book China: A 5,000-Year Odyssey. In India’s case, as we know, there were hundreds of princely states, prior to which several civilisations flourished and engaged with the rest of the world.

Back to Hanuman. The power of a country’s civilisational story lies in its history. Ramayana is an integral part of India’s civilisational story that continues to be celebrated in several parts of Asia, and Hanuman is an important part of it. I participated in the International Ramayana Festival that Indonesia hosted in 2006. Bali’s performance began with a light and sound show based on Hanuman. In 1977, when Indonesia hosted the Southeast Asian Games, Hanuman was their official mascot. The Hindu god is the idol of Indonesian military intelligence too. Also known as ‘Anjaneyam’ or the ‘Monkey God’, Hanuman remains widely respected in Southeast Asia and is a common thread uniting India with the region. In 2018, Taiwan’s National Palace Museum introduced an educational video game for children in which Hanuman was the host.

The time is ripe for India to initiate a healthy and constructive discussion on how it views itself as a civilisational nation State with Hanuman as its anchor.

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Essential to public diplomacy

Good communication is fundamental to public diplomacy. Hanuman was a communicator par excellence. Anyone who has heard or watched the Ramayana or even read portions of the sundara kandam (a chapter in the epic) will allude to this. Be it speaking to Ram in disguise the first time they met or interacting with Ravan during his mission, Hanuman proved his prowess at communication. These attributes are described vividly by Divya Iyer who, in Sreenivasan’s book, writes: “There is no grimace on his face, forehead or brow, nor any inappropriate gesture from any other part of the body. His diction is neither too expansive, nor elliptical, neither too slow nor too fast. The thoughts in his heart, escaping his throat, are expressed in a medium tone. His language is cultured, attractive, and beatific, and his manner neither gushing, nor tardy.” Other experts and writers have also analysed Hanuman as a distinct part of human culture.

Hanuman was a keen learner and listener. According to Hindu philosophy, he learnt his lessons from the sun by flying in front of it. Stories mention how passionate Hanuman was to learn about the world from the sun because the star was ‘all-wise’ and observed everything. In public diplomacy, countries learn by listening to one another. Today, listening is an important component of public diplomacy; research shows that in a 13-hour day of a public diplomat, 9 hours is dedicated to simply ‘listening’. Shravana (listening) is an important strand of Indian spiritual thought.

Those who study, practise, and champion it would know that public diplomacy is enabled with an objective of mutual benefit, or, in other words, ‘win-win’ situations. Public diplomacy or any form of its subsets such as cultural, digital diplomacy, or soft power — is practised to arrive at win-win situations and envisage the importance of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’ and ‘mine’. It is not meant to make other counties subservient but to realise that there should be no othering. Hanuman forged an alliance with Ram and sought his help through Sugriva to defeat Bali, but through that mission, he also helped Ram rescue Sita.

Evaluation is also an integral component of public diplomacy. By evaluation, I mean the ability to ascertain what one’s outputs are and what prospective outcomes could be. There are various other models of evaluation such as focus groups, longitudinal studies, and surveys. Hanuman’s diplomatic mission to Sri Lanka was a part of his assigned task, but the larger outcome of that mission was to enable Ram to evaluate what he must do to bring back Sita. His mission produced a first-hand survey for Ram to initiate a strategic campaign to meet his overall aim. India needs to evaluate everything it does — good, bad, or ugly.

Good public diplomacy helps countries to be modest and real about their aspirations and be the voice of reason in any scenario. Hanuman’s report of his mission to Sri Lanka was a great fact-finding exercise for Ram, and, by all means, it also gave a sneak-peak to Ravan about his strength and comprehensive power. He was truthful about his mission and a great voice of reason for Ram to depend upon. This is discernible all through the storyline of the Ramayana. Even though diplomats are termed as ‘honest’ people sent abroad to lie, in my opinion, Hanuman was truthful about his mission in India and abroad, and today, public diplomacy should be nothing but truthful.

The icon of ‘smart power’

Hanuman also embodied ‘smart power’. American political scientist Joseph Nye has defined smart power as a combination of both hard and soft power. Hanuman showed how to not only nurture both hard and soft power capabilities but also use them to one’s benefit. A footnote is necessary here: This does not mean he resorted to the use of force unabashedly; by learning more about him one will know that he fought for ‘peace’.

Finally, Hanuman is an icon of diversity and inclusion in India. This is such an important attribute for public diplomacy and a quality to imbibe for any public diplomat anywhere. I have written this in the past and I say it again — he is integral to the discourse of indigenous communities.

Communication, learning and listening, forging alliances for mutual benefit, or using unique evaluation methods — Hanuman stands tall as a great architect of India’s public diplomacy discourse if one were to study his history. And lessons from his life are relevant now more than ever for India as it moves toward hosting G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) forums this year. Even the world at large can learn from the Hindu god — Hanuman is, after all, a ‘glocal’ icon.

Sudarshan Ramabadran is an author and researcher. He is currently a student at the University of Southern California and visiting fellow at India Foundation. Views expressed are his own.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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