India: Past, Present, and Future

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Duration 01:13:46


Vinay Lal is Professor of History and Asian American Studies at UCLA. His eighteen authored and edited books include: The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India (2003), Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture (2005), and, most recently, The Fury of Covid-19: The Politics, Histories, and Unrequited Love of the Coronavirus (2020). Professor Lal’s abiding commitment to the idea and practice of nonviolence has been recognized by the California Legislative Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives.



It is quite likely that no country presents such sharp contrasts, and is so recalcitrant to social theories, as India. The country boasts a large number of billionaires and yet has the world’s largest number of people living lives of abject poverty. It has been home to the world’s most glittering empires, among them the Guptas (300-500 CE) and the Mughals (1526-c.1800), and yet as a nation-state India has struggled to leave its imprint on the global stage. India birthed four of the world’s principal religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—and has been home to Christians since the 1st century CE — just as it has the world’s third largest population of Muslims and a singular history of unparalleled hospitality towards Jews. But India’s reputation as a country of religious tolerance is increasingly being tarnished by religious conflict.

The staggering religious, linguistic, ethnic, and cultural diversity of India appears to be under assault. Nevertheless, this would not be the first time that India would appear to be buckling under the fissures that are as much external as internal. Almost uniquely among countries in Asia and Africa that decolonized, India has — since independence in 1947 — largely retained the features of a democratic state. In this talk, Professor Vinay Lal will offer a panoramic view of the Indian past, identifying some of the most salient features of Indian civilization, and then suggest some of the challenges that face the country. The future of India, it will be argued, can be seen as a tussle between a capacious view of India as a great civilization—warts and all—and a more restrictive and often xenophobic view of India as a nation-state. How this will be resolved holds meaning not just for India, but for the world at large.


Recommended Reading:

The Idea of India, by Sunil Khilnani

Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi:  Essays on Indian History and Culture, by Vinay Lal

The Romance of the State and the Fate of Dissent in the Tropics, by Ashis Nandy

Now It’s Come to Distances, by Soumyabrata Choudhury


Discussion Questions:

  1. Is India an unusual example of an industrializing democracy which is at the same time an ancient civilization navigating its way carefully between modernity and tradition?

  1. Why is it that among the dozens of countries which were colonized, India is nearly distinct in not having succumbed to military dictatorship, authoritarian rule, or totalitarianism?

  1. Has religion played a greater role in the shaping of India than it has in other countries, especially the countries that comprise the modern West?

  1. In what respects is India as a democracy similar to, and also different from, the United States or other democracies in the West?

  1. In what ways is democracy in peril in India today? Is that distinct, or is what is happening in India part of a worldwide drift towards the rule of the “strong man?”

  1. Why is it that China has largely managed to eliminate poverty–certainly extreme poverty–but that India has been much less successful in doing so?

  1. What have been some of India’s greatest contributions to world civilization?






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marianne bernsen

I learned a lot and liked his personal energy expressed in his
strong feelings for Indian history and Indian global positioning.
I get tired of just the facts in some of these lectures and his energies
made a nice mix for a lecture!!!!

1 year ago
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