India’s Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy: The Role of Yoga and Dharmic Traditions


This article is a summary of the address delivered by Dr. David Frawley, Founder & Director, American Institute of Vedic Studies on 29th January, 2018 at the Workshop on India’s Foreign Policy organised by India Foundation in partnership with Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.

This article is carried in the print edition of March April 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal. 


Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy

Soft power is one of the key components of foreign policy in this age of mass communication, global trade and tourism. This soft power includes cultural factors, sharing the intellectual, artistic and spiritual culture of a country with the other nations of the world.

Soft power is part of what we can perhaps better call “cultural diplomacy”, using culture to create a favorable foreign policy image for a country to expand its associations and its interests. Cultural diplomacy aids in educating the people of foreign countries as to the values and heritage of a nation, and can correct negative portrayals in foreign media, academic and political presentations.

In this multicultural world today, there is a clear and pronounced clash of cultures. If a country today does not communicate and promote its own culture to the world at large, then its culture may be undermined, undervalued or lose credibility even at home. When a country loses its cultural identity, other national interests may come under threat. Cultural diplomacy has many economic, political and social benefits, but also aids in the defense and security of a nation.

Such cultural diplomacy is particularly important in the case of India that is one of the world’s oldest, most profound and diverse civilisations, with an enduring worldwide impact. India’s older civilisational connections with the many countries of Southeast Asia form a common cultural heritage that can aid in favorable relationships and sustain a common regional identity. India can benefit by such cultural alliances with its neighbors, and they can benefit by India as a cultural ally to help sustain their own national ethos from inimical outside forces.

Extending to East Asia that has adopted India’s dharmic traditions for many centuries, cultural diplomacy can aid in communication, common values and overcoming clashing national interests for a broader regional consensus. At a global level, India’s ancient culture of tolerance, diversity and peace can be a model for creating harmony between competing nations and the different clashing cultures, ancient and modern, of the entire world.

Humanity should strive to preserve the unique cultural heritages of different countries and regions, not simply reduce them to a uniform model in the global arena. This is much like the ecological need to preserve biodiversity. Cultural diversity is under threat in many areas of the world, where languages and local cultures are quickly disappearing with rapid urbanization. This is particularly true in India where many local and tribal cultures are struggling to survive.

Exporting culture, however, requires that the culture within the country is supported as well. If local cultural traditions are not maintained, there will be little of any unique culture to export to the outside. Yet cultural diplomacy also gives value and prestige to the native cultures within the country, particularly when it enables cultural leaders and groups to travel, teach and perform throughout the world.

India’s potential soft power and cultural diplomacy is reflected in its vast and unique heritage that is already influencing the world by its own intrinsic value. This is indicated by the worldwide popularity of India’s Yogic teachings and dharmic traditions that historically have been centered in India. This process should be supported in the light of cultural diplomacy.


India’s Civilisational Strength

India has a tremendous cultural and civilizational power that has maintained a profound impact on the world for thousands of years. This is most clearly represented by India’s great gurus, yogis and dharmic traditions at an inner level, along with a sophisticated intellectual, artistic and material culture outwardly.

India’s many-sided civilisation spread to Indochina and Indonesia from the start of their histories and their formative period of development. It had a profound and lasting influence on China, Japan and East Asia, becoming an integral to their own civilizational identities as part of a greater sphere of dharmic civilization. Such historical ties are of great relevance today when Asia is seeking to awaken and reclaim its identity and prestige.

Since the dawn of civilization, India has maintained regular trade contacts with Mesopotamia and the Middle East.  India’s connections with ancient Iran by language and religion are well known, with the two cultures closely intertwined at many points of time.

India’s civilisation was honored in ancient Greece and Rome on intellectual, spiritual and economic levels. Indo-European traditions that dominated ancient Europe like the Celts, Germans and Slavs had much in common with India’s older Vedic culture. India had a significant influence on Central Asia through Afghanistan, which for many centuries was part of an Indic and Buddhist cultural sphere, including the Silk Trail. India’s maritime influence along the Spice Trail brought many cultural influences through the Indo-Pacific region as well.

Such Indian civilisational influences flourished from ancient periods up to the Islamic era starting in the eighth century, when these began to decline – a decline that increased during the colonial era when the British suppressed India’s native culture and its extensive networks of trade and communication, supplanting them with its own.

Yet while India’s civilisational influence declined, it did persist. India’s science and medicine reached the Islamic world, like the Arab adaptation of India’s decimal system starting in the ninth century. From the eighteenth century, western thinkers came into contact with Hindu and Buddhist thought. One can mention such notable figures as Voltaire, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Emerson and Thoreau among those who expressed their admiration for India.


Modern Yoga and India’s Soft Power

Yet it was Swami Vivekananda’s travels to the West starting in 1893 that ignited a major resurgence of India’s cultural influences throughout the world, led by a global adaptation of Yoga-based teachings and practices. Vivekananda’s emphasis on universal consciousness and Self-realisation paralleled the work of Einstein in breaking down time and space barriers and ushering in a new unitary vision of the cosmos.

Vivekananda was also one of the primary inspirations in India’s national awakening that motivated India’s Independence Movement. His work spreading Yoga to the West was complemented by his restoring respect within the country for its own Dharmic traditions, which were dismissed as regressive under foreign rule.


The Global Yoga and Dharma Movement

The world Yoga movement continued to expand exponentially throughout the twentieth century. A major upsurge of interest in Yoga and meditation occurred in the West in the nineteen sixties, with a steady growth since. Numerous Indian gurus have traveled throughout the world teaching Yoga and meditation, with Tibetan teachers often joining them.

Today perhaps over a hundred million people throughout the world practice some form of Yoga. Though asanas remain the main focus, pranayama, mantra and meditation are often included.
Yoga training programs routinely examine traditional Yoga texts like the Yoga Sutras and Bhagavad Gita.

Many Yoga students follow gurus and lineages from India and take on Sanskrit names. Great gurus like Paramahansa Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satya Sai Baba, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Mata Amritananda-mayi, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, and many others have become recognisable names in numerous countries. For their students, Yoga is not just a fitness system but a complete culture and way of life.

Yoga has brought with it important aspects of Indian culture including Sanskrit mantras, Hindu kirtans, Indian music and dance, pujas and yajnas, and a new orientation towards Vedic sciences. Remarkably, ancient Ayurveda has emerged as one of the cutting edge forms of mind-body medicine in the world today. The study of Sanskrit at a popular level in the world has increased rapidly.


Independent India’s Failure to Develop its Soft Power

Yet during this extraordinary spread of India’s cultural traditions through the twentieth century, the government of independent India did little to encourage or to benefit from it. Perhaps no other country in recent times has so ignored the potential value of its soft power and so much neglected the role of cultural diplomacy. Even China, whose culture the Communist Cultural Revolution not long ago tried to eradicate, is now happy to promote its traditional medicine and martial arts, along with Chinese art, dance and commerce.

India’s leftist academia has been happier denigrating the country’s older culture, than producing any deeper scholarship that worldwide friends of India can appreciate. India’s Congress Party rule showed some respect for Yoga, particularly under Indira Gandhi, but did little to actually support Yoga nationally or internationally.


New India and its New Vision of Yoga

The present BJP government is the first to truly honor India’s soft power and proudly share it. The Modi government has emphasised India’s cultural gifts to the world, and aimed to strengthen diplomatic connections, particularly with the countries of Asia most influenced by India in the past. Cultural power must form an integral part of any realistic foreign policy.

Narendra Modi’s new Yoga initiative, starting with International Yoga Day, is a welcome break from India’s prior cultural lethargy. It marks a new era, a new India that honors its millennial civilisation and strives to share it. His government is introducing Yoga training into the schools, not limiting Yoga to exercise but including Yoga philosophy and meditation. Modi’s new India is a rebirth of yogic India from its classical era of world influence.

Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) can play an important role in this new expression of soft power and cultural diplomacy. ICCR has the facilities and associations in the many countries of the world that are necessary to enable it.

It is imperative that India expands its soft power and civilisational strength, both for national unity and to gain the proper place in the world for its magnificent heritage that can benefit all humanity. India has the cultural and civilizational depth to lead the world to a new era of peace and higher consciousness, but needs the political will and the diplomatic skill in order to do so. Developing that is essential and should not be neglected. It requires a new generation of seasoned diplomats with a worldview in harmony with India’s civilizational values.



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