The Panchbhoota of World Peace

Talk Delivered by Ashwin Sanghi at G20-Y20 Jammu on April 19, 2023
Shri Manoj Sinha ji, Prof Umesh Rai ji, Shri Ajay Kashyap, Shri Prakash Antahal, Organizers of Jammu University, national and international speakers and delegates, students, and so many dear friends that I deeply admire and respect.

An American actor once said: A good speech should have a good beginning and a good ending, and they should be as close together as possible. So, I will try and keep this talk crisp and well within the time allotted to me.

I am always amused by a wonderful little story. A farmer in China had an old horse that he used for ploughing his field. One day, the horse escaped into the hills. His neighbours sympathized with him over his bad luck. The farmer replied, ‘Bad luck or good luck? Who knows?’

A week later, the horse returned but he came back along with a herd of wild horses. This time, the neighbours congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was the same. ‘Good luck or bad luck? Who knows?’

Unfortunately, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell down, broke his leg and was crippled for life. Everyone thought that this was very bad luck. But the farmer’s only reaction was, ‘Bad luck or good luck? Who knows?’

Some weeks later, the Chinese army marched into the village. They forced every young man to enlist in the army and go fight the war. But the farmer's son had a broken leg, so they did not recruit him.

Now was that good luck or bad luck? Who knows? We live in a constant state of “who knows?” Maybe the unfortunate conflicts that are happening around us are compelling us to analyse how to prevent something even bigger. Who knows?

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Standing here before you in this sacred land, I must start by going back to the roots of Jammu.

It is said that 3500 years ago, a king by the name of Maharaja Jambu Lochan was out on a hunting expedition. When he reached the banks of the Tavee River, he noticed that a lion and goat were drinking water at the very same spot. He decided to establish a town after his own name there at that magical spot and Jammu was born.

So, you can understand why I find it incredible that we are discussing peace building and reconciliation at the very spot where a goat and a lion defied the law of the jungle. A spot where the weak and strong found that they could get along.

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Nine centuries ago, a great poet and chronicler called Kalhana wrote a work on the history of Kashmir—the Rajatarangini. According to Kalhana, the first in the line of Kashmir’s kings was Gonanda.

Gonanda lived around 5000 years ago and was a relative of Lord Krishna’s arch enemy: King Jarasandh of Maghada. Gonanda allied with Jarasandha to attack Krishna’s Mathura. When Krishna was on the brink of defeat, his elder brother Balarama managed to kill Gonanda. So, Mathura was saved in the nick of time.

But the battle for Mathura taught Krishna a valuable lesson: peace was to be favoured over war; and war was to be the very last resort.

Years later, Krishna would be standing in the Kaurava court. He would plead for just five villages for the Pandavas from the Kauravas. Five villages to avert a great war.

A king from this very region—Gonanda—had unwittingly taught Krishna the importance of peace through war.

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From this Pavitra Bhoomi, another great thinker called Vishnu Sharma gave us the five principles—that we call the Panchatantra.

It is said that there was a king in Kashmir who was worried about his three spoilt sons. The monarch was terrified to hand over the reins of the kingdom to any of these spoilt princes. Vishnu Sharma wrote the simple animal fables of the Panchatantra to teach these young princes the fundamentals of kingship; the nature of alliances; the consequences of greed; the value of good advice; and the necessity of enlightened leadership.

The Panchatantra then travelled from Kashmir to Persia to Arabia to Spain and Italy… today there are 200 versions of the Panchatantra in fifty languages.

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Another famous work was written, this time by one Vishnu Gupta, not Sharma. He was also known as Kautilya or Chanakya. That work was the Arthashastra. 2300 years ago, Chanakya outlined his strategies for dealing with conflict in four stages.

Stage one was Saama—or conciliation.
Stage two was Daana—or reward.
Stage three was Bheda—or covert action.
And stage four was Danda—or war.

Chanakya was careful to mention that this particular order of Saama, Daana, Bheda and Danda was the best one. A wise ruler would always seek to keep war as the very last resort. After all, it is said that war does not determine who is right but simply determines who is left.

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Chanakya’s Arthashastra has five key sections known as the Panchamshaastras. Whether it is the Panchatantra or the Panchamshastras, there is something about the number five that makes it almost magical.

  • The Mahabharata had five Pandavas, not four.
  • Krishna asked for five villages, not six.
  • Our Puja offerings are Panchamrita or the five nectars.
  • Our incredibly accurate Vedic calendar is called the Panchaang.
So, I thought that I would express my ideas for peacebuilding in a five-point framework. These five ideas are inspired by the Panchbhoota—or the five elements—air, water, earth, fire, and space.

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My first idea comes from air.

Think of the monsoon winds. When there is a difference in air pressure, air currents flow to equalize that air pressure. In effect, whenever there is imbalance, there is disturbance and churning.

Water flows from a higher water table to a lower one. Ocean currents flow from warmer to cooler waters. Electric current flows due to a voltage imbalance. But this principle is equally applicable to human turbulence.

Massive human migrations and upheavals have happened in history due to water scarcity, climate change, pestilence, and food shortage. Countless battles have been fought over an imbalance of minerals, oil, gold, or natural resources.

It is abundantly clear that the first step to build peace is to alleviate imbalance. Security of rich nations can only come from the prosperity of the poor ones. Demographically, older nations need the younger ones. Urban and rural economies complement each other.

It was Rudyard Kipling who said, “East is east, and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” But that idea is contrary to eastern spirituality. Look at the Ardhanarishwara and we see male and female energy encapsulated in one. Look at the yin-yang symbol where light yields to dark and vice-versa. It is wisely said that the human who continuously travels eastwards will eventually reach the West… and the person who continuously travels westwards will eventually reach the East.

It is heartening to see India’s actions on global debt restructuring, crisis response, technology sharing and medical leadership. Prime Minister Modi is earnestly attempting to create a bridge between the Global North and Global South. The world needs more of that.

My learning from the first element, air, is this: reduce global imbalance to improve the chances for peace.

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My second idea comes from water.

All of us have watched a pressure cooker in action. We’ve seen how it blows a whistle and lets off excess steam through a safety valve. One sees a similar valve in steam engines. We have an electrical fuse in a circuit to prevent fires. We have airbags in cars to reduce the impact of collision. We have circuit breakers in stock markets to prevent excessive volatility.

The truth is that the world needs to build safety valves wherever possible. Because safety valves prevent explosions. Multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the IMF and the UNHRC were meant to be such safety valves.

Alas, many of them have become cosy clubs. Unless such institutions reform dramatically, they may risk irrelevance. What use is a valve that does not work during an emergency? I hope that in these Y20 deliberations, we will ponder over appropriate safety valves for the global world order.

So, my learning from the second element, water, is this: build safety valves to lessen the chances of conflict.

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My third idea comes from earth.

We know that our Earth is a globe that has two poles—north and south. In some ways the poles illustrate the duality of our world. Day and night. Hot and cold. East and west. Positive and negative.

But Jammu & Kashmir taught us something else. In Srinagar, we have the famous Shankracharya Temple, a spot that owes its name to the great philosopher Adi Shankaracharya. It was Shankracharya who reintroduced us to Advaita or non-duality. He reminded us that that the ultimate reality, Brahman, is the same as the individual self, or Atman.

But remember the days after 9/11? American President George W. Bush said, “you're either with us or against us”. Two poles. Most of the cold war was about two poles—America and the Soviet Union. In the new millennium our discussions have changed to America and China.

But go back 2300 years to the Arthashastra and Kautilya’s Mandala Theory. Kautilya proposed a model of foreign relations based on circles of common purpose. He called these mandalas. Kautilya suggested that states should pursue foreign policies that protect their interests and security on some issues, while recognizing that other states will do the same on other issues.

Some of our mandalas will overlap and some may not. So, India is a member of the Quad which includes America but is also member of BRICS that does not. India is member of the SCO that includes China but is also a member of BIMSTEC that does not.

Think of all the acronyms in the news. AUKUS, I2U2, ASEAN, NATO, GCC, OPEC, OIC, G7, G20, EU, Commonwealth, SAARC, and countless others. Each one of them is a mandala. And a multiplicity of mandalas means less polarity.

So, my learning from the third element, earth, is this: build circles of common interest to reduce polarity.

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My fourth idea comes from fire.

Did you know that the finest swords of Damascus were produced using steel ingots from India. Iron ore and powdered charcoal were heated in a fired crucible. Bonding of iron and carbon at high temperature produced this wonderful material… it had a higher carbon content than usual around two millennia ago. Bonding is the answer to creating enduring strength.

Think about it. The ancient Pallavas and Cholas of South India built outstanding relationships with Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand—without military conquest. In Indonesia, the 20,000 rupiyah still features Ganesh ji. In Malaysia, the shadow-puppet Ramayana is performed even today. In Thailand, the national symbol is the Garuda. The world’s largest Vishnu temple is in Cambodia, not India.

We need to find more avenues for cultural, economic, educational, religious, social, and political interactions.

So, my learning from the fourth element, fire, is this: cross-border bonding can build enduring peace.

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My fifth idea comes from space.

You may have heard a story from the Bhagvata Purana about a king called Kakudmi. Kakudmi ruled a powerful kingdom and had a beautiful daughter, Revati, of marriageable age. So, Kakudmi and Revati travelled to a different space dimension called Brahmalok to meet Lord Brahma to seek his advice on her marriage.

The king and his daughter waited for a while before Brahma met them. Upon listening to the king’s question about suitors for Revati, Brahma laughed. The king was puzzled. He enquired what had amused Lord Brahma.

Brahma replied, “O King, time runs differently on different planes of existence. During the time you have waited here to see me, 27 chaturyugas have passed on Earth. All the potential suitors are long gone.”

The Bhagvat Purana was alluding to the notion of the relativity of time. Albert Einstein himself joked about relativity. He said, “When you sit with a good friend for two hours… you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” Einstein was talking about the fact that space alters our perceptions. When we look at the sun, we are actually looking at the sun as it had existed eight minutes ago because that’s the amount of time it takes light to travel from the sun to Earth.

Much of geopolitics is driven by perception and misperception. The writer, Mark Twain, joked “If you don't read the newspaper, you're uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're mis-informed.” Who was the poet who said, “Nazar badlo to nazare badal jaate hain, soch badlo to sitare badal jaate hain.”

So, my learning from the fifth element, space, is this: create platforms that can reduce bias, misinformation, and flawed perception.

* * * * *
At the SCO Summit held last year, our Prime Minister delivered a very important statement. He said, “Yeh yug yudh ka nahin hai.” This is not an era of war.

He said it earnestly and deliberately. I am reminded of Ronald Reagan who famously said, “Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”

I hope that in this Y20 discussion we will find ways to make our Pradhanmantri’s words come true. I took the liberty of adding a few lines to what the PM said.

Yeh yug, yudh ka nahin hai
Yeh yug, dukh ka nahin hai
Antarman mein jhaanko yaaron
Yeh pal, khud ka nahin hai

In the words of Hamilton Fish, if our lands are worth perishing for in times of war let’s also ensure that they’re worth living for in times of peace.

Jai Hind, Vande Mataram!

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