A long-ago event in India’s history is still important today

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I get the Economist magazine each week; I really like reading it. I like its humane version of free-market economics. But I don’t agree with everything it says, not by a long shot.

One thing stuck in my craw in last week’s edition. An article was talking about civil services, and how the calibre of civil servants around the world needs to be improved. It was advocating (with qualifications) the testing of applicants for suitability, and singled India out as an example to be followed by other countries. However, in talking about the Indian examinations, the article said it saw no reason why candidates were asked a question about an event in the Buddha’s life. Clearly the Economist thinks that questions about things which happened over two thousand years ago is of no relevance today.

I think the Economist is wrong. If a person wants to be part of running a country, especially at a senior level, he should understand that country – and that includes knowing about its history. Without having an awareness of how a country came to be the way it is, there is no real chance of understanding its society, culture or politics as it is today. It so happens that the age of the Buddha was one of the most formative times – perhaps THE most formative time – in Indian history. Its modern administrators need to know about it. 

It’s easy to pick on a particular event and say, “it’s not important to know about that”. In the UK we could easily say this about the battle of Waterloo, and in America about knowing when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. In both cases, though, whilst we don’t necessarily need to know the details, we should understand how such great events shaped the ongoing history of the nation.

The actual incident in the Buddha’s life which the Economist was talking about certainly qualifies as a great event. It was his Enlightenment. Indeed, that is one of the more important events in world history, let alone Indian history. Millions (probably billions) of lives today are still deeply affected by it. For those who govern India, knowing about such an event in isolation isn’t the point; but having some awareness of the extraordinarily rich tapestry of Indian history IS important, and the Buddha’s Enlightenment played a significant part in this.

Peter Britton