India as a civilization culture
Image by Vinoth Chandar on Flickr

Mark Twain famously said that “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grandmother of tradition.” Twain stressed the unique philosophical and spiritual characteristics of India’s civilization. Do India’s unique culture and history provide a different model for understanding politics?


  • India acknowledges 22 official languages with more than 1 million speakers, written in 13 different scripts, with over 720 dialects. The 1961 census recognized 1,652 mother tongues
  • There are over 2,000 different ethnic groups in India.
  • The Indus Valley Civilization, also known as the Harappan Civilization, is more than 5,000 years old.
  • India has a population34 billion, and will surpass China as the most populated country in 5 years. Its population will peak in 2068 at 1.75 billion.
  • Almost every major religion has millions of Indian adherents.
  • India is ranked fourth on the Cultural Diversity Index.
  • According to Hegel’s “Philosophy of History”, India is the antithesis of China: its phantasy, sensibility and idealism that culminate in its free civil society contrast with the rational, secular unity of China’s political organization and optimized and centralized civil machinery.
  • Max Weber, in his sociology of religion, distinguishes the Indian ethical pluralism and “otherworldly” mysticism – in which salvation can only be reached in a transcendent reality – from the universalist ethics and “innerworldly” orientation – in which salvation can be reached in our world, during our lives – of China and Christianity.



Chinese philosopher Zhang Weiwei conceives China not as a regular nation state, but as a “civilization state”: a large, populous state with distinct cultural traditions and a history that dates back millennia. Zhang uses this concept to argue the “China model” is a distinct developmental model from others, notably Western economies, and fits the unique conditions and characteristics of China’s civilization. In his book “The China Wave“ Zhang explicitly states that India is not a civilization state: “India’s population is also large and second only to China’s, but India was not a unified state until the British rule in the second half of the 19th century, as compared with China’s first unification back in 221 BC.” (p.53).

India is the synthesis of both: a distinct state and civilization, or a “civilization culture”.

The lack of political unity is why India is disqualified from using Zhang’s definition of a civilization state. However, even during periods of political fragmentation and foreign domination, India does show a remarkable unity. This is the core thesis of Rajiv Malhotra’s book “Indra’s Net“, in which he shows that India has a long-lasting philosophical and spiritual unity. The family of dharmic traditions, the interplay between intellectual analysis and sadhana (spiritual practices), the fundamental openness of Hinduism, and the concepts of “astika and nastika” (philosophical terms for affirmation and denial in general) distinguish Indian philosophy and culture from any other in world history. What is striking in Malhotra’s book is that he does not define India’s unity in terms of political, economic or institutional categories, but in philosophical and spiritual categories. With this, he stands in a broader tradition of philosophers and sociologists who distinguish India on the basis of its philosophical and spiritual culture. India’s cultural diversity, philosophical openness, and religious tolerance are reflected in the absence of largescale religious wars on the Indian subcontinent. Furthermore, with 800 million eligible voters, India is the world’s largest democracy, and functions relatively well given its GDP per capita level, with strong federal states. The secular character of the Indian state stems from the “otherworldly” orientation of India, in which politics has always been secondary to religion. This shows that ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions are still present in modern-day India and it underpins its political model and functioning. India is too diverse to be considered a “nation state” in the Western sense, nor does it strictly fit Zhang’s definition of a “civilization state”. India is the synthesis of both: a distinct state and civilization, or a “civilization culture”. India could leverage this concept using its soft power strategy: India, for example, is better in using Buddhism as a foreign policy tool than China, despite that there are far more Buddhists in China than in India. In the “age of continental politics”, in which nation states become less important, India’s model might provide an example for other emerging countries.