From Buddha to Tata: the incredible figures that have shaped India

Author photo credit: Sheetal Mallar

Author photo credit: Sheetal Mallar

From Buddha to Tata: the incredible figures that have shaped India

21 March 2016

By Naomi Canton

A book which chronicles the lives of 50 remarkable Indians from ancient times to the 21st century who have helped make India what it is today has been launched at Asia House.

Sunil Khilnani launched Incarnations: India in 50 Lives at a packed event in the Fine Rooms.

The Director of the King’s India Institute said he wrote the lengthy hardback book to chronicle the lives of 50 Indians as he felt there was not enough written about the people of India who embody its rich intellectual and cultural history. On the contrary Indian history remained an “unpeopled place,” he said.

His book has also been serialised on BBC Radio Four in two parts. The second series chronicling 25 Indians who made up modern India started at the beginning of March. The first series chronicling 25 ancient figures that have contributed to what India is today was broadcast in June last year.

“I would like to provide a deeper and more engaged conversation about Indians past and present. In recent years many people have woken up to the fact that India is a country that can’t be ignored or ghettoised,” Khilnani told the attendees. “Since independence one of the most impoverished countries has become one of the fastest growing countries which will soon surpass China to be the most populated country on the planet.”

He said that with newly recovered documents and declassified files becoming available it was time to document the people that had helped shape India, which was undergoing unprecedented and historical change. He wanted to document the role of the remarkable individuals that have helped shape India.

“India’s dynasties have been well documented but it’s a relatively unpopulated place. Too often compelling people like Gandhi get turned into cartoon figures that are mystical and miraculous but unrecognisable as humans and we exclude other individuals that have contributed to India’s incarnation as a global power,” he added.

Figures featured in the book include Mughal ruler Akbar the Great; Swami Vivekananda, credited with introducing the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the West; Jamsetji Tata, the industrialist who founded the Tata Group creating the empire that now owns Land Rover and Tetley Tea; Siddartha Guatama, known as Buddha, who was born in north India in the 5th century and is the sage on whose teachings Buddhism was founded; the painter M F Husain who spent his final years in self-imposed exile; iconic Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray; India’s first woman prime minister Indira Gandhi; actor and movie director Raj Kapoor; Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan; Mahatma Gandhi, the key figure in India’s Independence movement; Bengali writer and poet Rabindranath Tagore; Indian business tycoon Dhirubhai Ambani, founder of Reliance Industries; and freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose.  Chennai-born Ramanujan, one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century, as well as legendary mathematician and astronomer Aryabhatta (476–550 AD), who calculated pi, are also included.

Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld is pictured with author of 'Incarnations: India in 50 lives' Sunil Khilnani

Asia House Literature Programme Manager Jemimah Steinfeld is pictured with author of ‘Incarnations: India in 50 lives’ Sunil Khilnani at the launch at Asia House

“Many concepts that the West considers unique to itself have parallels, resonances and counter arguments in other parts of the world,” Khilnani said.

In his talk Khilnani spoke about some of the figures he had chosen to feature in the book.

He exposed contradictions too, for example he said that Vivekananda was “a critic of many aspects of Hinduism but despite that he is a mascot for the Hindu right”.

Apart from his spiritual ideas, Buddha was also a political radical, Khilnani said. He sought the inclusion of women in worship, shared property and the expansion of literacy to the lower classes. “He was a challenger of the powers-that-be in India – both the Hindu and the Muslim regimes,” he said.

Another figure in his book is Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar who campaigned against social discrimination against the Dalits (considered to be at the bottom of the Hindu caste system), who also authored the Constitution of India. Khilnani described Ambedkar as “a political incarnation of Buddha – an icon against the caste system – a less spiritual more interesting figure than Buddha with a message for stigmatised Indians.”

School dropout Periyar, who started the Self-Respect Movement which fought for backward castes to have equal rights, founded in Tamil Nadu in 1925, is also featured. “He waged a campaign against upper-class Northerners,” Khilnani said. The rationalist and social activist, who founded the Dravidian Movement, campaigned against domination of North India over South and for the freedom of women, he explained.

Another great Indian figure to feature in the book is Kautilya whose ancient Hindu text The Arthashastra about political power, statecraft and military strategy dates back at least 2,000 years. The text on how to ruthlessly get to the top is often considered the ultimate self-help guide to corporate success, Khilnani said. It covers how to recognise and groom leaders, the key to success in the corporate world, time management and so on. “The Pakistani army presents it to its army officers to gain insights into the Indian mind,” Khilnani revealed.

Gandhi also appears in the book. “It took guts to build a movement in a country with little history of large-scale collectivism,” Khilnani pointed out.

Sunil Khilnani's book was published by Penguin on 26 February 2016.

Sunil Khilnani’s book ‘Incarnations: India in 50 lives’ was published by Penguin on 26 February 2016

Just six female figures feature in the book of 50 Indians. One of them is Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, who fought against the British and became a heroine of India’s 1857 Rebellion.

India’s first female prime minister Indira Gandhi who was “loathed and inspired in equal measures,” according to Khilnani, is also among the few women listed. “The Emergency served paradoxically to revive spirited democratic dissent,” he said.

Khilnani said there were few historical records of significant females in India and there was a “tendency to turn women into goddess-type figures in India.”

Malik Ambar, an Ethiopian teenager originally “shipped to India as a slave who became an entrepreneur who took on the Mughal Empire in the 16th century,” is also covered in the book. But Khilnani points out he is barely spoken about in Indian history books even though he could serve as an inspiration to many descendants of African slaves in India.

“Such diverse energy is embraced in these individuals – it’s worth celebrating,” he said, adding all had different viewpoints and represented the various arguments and stances on India that have been going on in India for years  – such as what kind of society India should become.

He said it was a tough call deciding who to feature and he had to leave out some important figures like Indian mathematician Bhāskara II and the Tamil poet Andal.

“The book helps us deepen our understanding about our Indian past. My intention is not to say this is the list of 50 but to start the conversation and bring more in. This is an invitation to deepen our understanding about our past,” he said.

The annual Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival will take place from Wednesday 4 May until Wednesday 18 May. The lineup of speakers has now been published and tickets have gone on sale. To see all the events and book tickets click here. 

Don’t miss our exciting range of events exploring writers and literature in Georgia, a country which is considered the gateway between Asia and Europe. To find out more click here.