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Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes | All hail the Vishwaguru: It is marketing and mantra and modernity and manliness

The idea of a “Vishwaguru” is a new addition to the Indian political lexicon. It defines a lofty ambition, a call to lift India above itself, and be a beacon to the world. The highest offices in the land, from the President to the Prime Minister, promote it with gusto. If you were ever confused by the question, “What are India’s aspirations?” help is at hand. Think of India as a Vishwaguru. All your doubts will melt away. It is the cure for an enervated soul, a healing balm for a wounded world. But how do we imagine India as a “Vishwaguru”? What tasks does it set before us? It is a beautiful concept that is imagined by our leaders in so many different ways.

Vishwagurus aspire to be teachers to the world. They point to the true spring of LIFE. You might think the idea of the Vishwaguru is simply MARKETING. But this is unfair. There is the pedantic point that no one ever became Vishwaguru without marketing. It is the genius of communication. But it is much more. Slogans stick in people’s minds. They make the world familiar, and subconsciously motivate and inspire. Like a MANTRA, the incantation itself will have magical effects. We will become who we chant, if we chant it often and sincerely enough. It is the power of more than a billion Indians chanting the same thing in unison.

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They do this in many ways. Vishwaguru signifies the comforting warmth of the MOTHERLAND. India that is Bharat is sacred territory. The territory itself washes off all sins. This is a signifier of purity; mere contact with it gets you redemption. Vishwaguru signifies the MOTHER. It is associated with natality. Much that is good in the world was already born here. It is an already accomplished fact. India is the mother of all democracies, the mother of all science, the mother of all ecology, the mother of all inventions, and the mother of all spirituality. Merely retrieving or acknowledging achievements in these areas is not enough; India has to be the mother if she is to be the Vishwaguru. No origin story, no title for the Vishwaguru.

If this maternal mode does not satisfy you, you can think of the Vishwaguru in the more itinerant mode. This is the land of MENDICANTS — those selfless purveyors of knowledge, the gurus to the world who, discarding all possessions and ego, go forth and transform people’s souls. They give you a glimpse of the union of atman and Brahman. They free you from the bondage of desire, setting you on the path of true liberation. They provide glimpses of a life of service. They spread knowledge. India is the Vishwaguru because it is saintly. True, sometimes mendicants are known more for their MENDACITY than saintliness — all the new age gurus that have spread spirituality across the world. But that mendacity also has its uses: It points to an alternative world, a yoga in a different register.

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The Vishwaguru, at its most useful, is a MEDIATOR. The world is wracked with conflicts: Russia versus the West, North versus South. The Vishwaguru is above all conflict, and is therefore the ideal mediator, the non-aligned that aligns the world, the swing state that stabilises it, the bridging power that unites it. Its own conflicts don’t need mediators, since the Vishwaguru is mediation itself. In a world wracked by great power hypocrisy, the mediator stands for the common good.

But if all this is too spiritual for you, the Vishwaguru has much else to offer. It can offer a new vision of MANLINESS. As Aurobindo put it in his less enlightened phase, we shall show ourselves “to the nations as a people with a great past and ancient civilisation, who still possess the genius and character of their forefathers, have still something to give the world, and therefore deserve freedom — by proof of our MANLINESS and fitness, not mendicancy.” Never mind that Aurobindo, probably wisely, renounced manliness for mendicancy. But the ideal of manliness endures, now made vivid by a leader who personifies it.

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The Vishwaguru imperiously walks on the world stage. It stares down every external challenger, hunts down every internal enemy. But these are the more exalted ideals. The Vishwaguru is also MATERIAL power, the factory of the world, a leader in manufacturing, the self-sufficient powerhouse in defence production, the land of abundance and overflowing jobs that the rest of the world will envy and covet.

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The Vishwaguru is MODERNITY itself, the top of every index of development, cutting edge on every future trend. The Vishwaguru is the idea of the MARVELLOUS itself, India as an ethereally sublime experience that leaves you shaking your head and leaves you speechless. It is truly Incredible India, a riot of colour and culture like no other. Everything about it, its politics, its social idioms, defy classification. It is one of a kind. Behold the wonder.

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I would not underestimate the power of the Vishwaguru. God knows humanity needs someone to claim that mantle to help it overcome the epidemic of collective narcissism that is sweeping the world. Someone needs to infuse a world wrecked with crony capitalism, dysfunctional nation-state forms, great concentration of power, ethnic tensions, territorial obsessions, ecological catastrophe, with new wisdom, bold new ideas and a track record of impeccable execution. The ideal of the Vishwaguru is exactly what we need: The spiritual, the material, the historical, the aesthetic and the political all rolled into one. Maybe it will help us rise above ourselves.

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And while we are moved by the idea of the Vishwaguru, please make sure you do not commit a grammatical mistake. The philosopher Arindam Chakrabarti tells the story of the great saint Sitaramdas Omkarnath of the Ramanuja Sampradaya, who once gently reprimanded someone for using the epithet “Vishwaguru” to signify the teacher of the world. He turned around and pointed out that syntactically, Vishwaguru need not mean the teacher of the world. It is the one who thinks the whole world is my teacher (jo vishwa ko guru mane). But how dare Bhartahari’s descendants, even liberated souls like Saint Omkarnath, come up with this interpretation? Its political corollary is deeply disturbing. For it implies not an India bringing enlightenment to a benighted world. But India being the place where anyone and everyone can freely feel at home.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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