Nationalism and the ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ Idea

The sages of India have produced perhaps the most humanistic philosophy in the world; it is second to none at any rate. Despite all the obvious diversity, those accomplished souls essentially saw the oneness of man wherever he is in the world.

However, the oneness they saw was spiritual, not material. When this simple fact is forgotten, diversity doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and all hell breaks loose. The Indian concept that the entire world is one’s family (vasudhaiva kutumbakam) is a spiritual one whereas the concept of nationalism isn’t. One can’t use the former to justify the latter, but that is exactly what we do in India.

Nationalism is essentially a materialistic concept; it has nothing to do with spirituality. It developed in Europe which is, to say the least, a desert of spirituality. When a culture that had never considered all human beings as one with any seriousness had to come up with a solution to conflicts arising due to the admixture of diverse peoples on European soil, it hit upon what we now call nationalism. This was a way of building what Rabindranath Tagore described as “narrow domestic walls” across which there wouldn’t be too many unmonitored interactions. The Europeans never thought of it in Tagore’s terms, of course; for them nationalism was a natural expression of their culture.

This European material culture imposed itself all over the world like a cancer for several centuries in order to suck it dry of resources, the Indian idea that the world is one family be damned. It spread slavery and created colonies wherever it went, and those slaves and colonies had no option but to respond on the same level as the imposing culture. That is, they had no option but to acquire the European disease of nationalism. Despite all pretense, Indian nationalism is no exception to this.

Although it got this disease, India hasn’t let go of its cultural roots, its idea of the spiritual oneness of all humanity in particular. However, the fact that nationalism is a materialistic concept hasn’t registered fully within India. Used to seeing everything as a spiritual concept, Indian intellectuals with even a rudimentary exposure to Indian philosophy consider the nation, too, as something spiritual. That is why we see right from pre-independence days to today, the names of sages such as Adi Shankara being roped in to justify Indian nationalism. Exactly what they said which requires one political unit called India is never discussed.

But taking materialism out of nationalism, even for a moment, is taking everything out of it. There is nothing in nationalism except dry material transactions with profits and losses. Adding spirituality to the idea of a nation, on the other hand, actually creates a great danger. This, too, is hard to understand for the seasoned Indian philosopher and the novice alike. How can there be anything which my culture of spirituality cannot elevate? This being the fundamental confusion, Indian intellectuals continue to flog a dead horse.

Nationalism, a material concept developed to protect different peoples from hurting each other, as it were, requires one to acknowledge that different peoples exist in the first place, and to recognize those peoples as separate nations. Taking language as the fundamental difference marker, this would mean two dozen or so nations in the place of India. But this is not what we have; what we have is one nation. Plus, there’s the idea that people must give up their diversity to conform. The most erudite reason given for this idea is that Indian philosophy requires us to think of everyone as belonging to the same family. Never mind the fact that that was not meant in the materialistic sense, and never mind that we’re applying this only to India and not the entire vasudhaa (world).

Let us not mind these things either, for argument’s sake, and see what happens when this confusion between spiritualism and materialism enters Indian nationalism. One-sixth of humanity is tucked under one umbrella and all diversity is forgotten in an essentially materialistic setting. The result is that the exact same explosive situation which led to dozens of nations in Europe exists in India, too, but there is no attempt to deal with it. Instead, there’s the repeated assertion that the said situation is unreal and created by those who are unspiritual and anti-national. In reality, it is created by those who refuse to take the realistic definition of nationalism. Again, those who are called unspiritual are not even supposed to be spiritual, and those who are called anti-national are actually national in the real sense of the term, which is materialistic.

In India, the explosive situation in the above paragraph has a very specific nature. It is nothing but the inequality of the Pyramid of Corruption. This is a term I use for the caste-system and everything related to it. This Pyramid has the pure Brahmana at the apex, followed by the Kshatriya and the Vaishya and finally the Shudra at the bottom. Hundreds of millions of Indians, including the whole of South India, are Shudra, and in the context of nationalism, it means that they are ripe for oppression by the other Varnas. In ethnic terms, the lower castes of Aryans and all the non-Aryans are at a risk of economic and political exploitation by high-caste Aryans, and the risk has been triggered. What makes this situation explosive is the fact that all these material differences are neglected by the popular idea of India. It urges us to think on a spiritual plane whereas the crime is happening on the material plane.

Therefore, at the root of India’s problems lies a refusal to think of nationalism as something purely materialistic, and a mistaken belief that spiritualism can elevate the crass materialism of nations. Those who worship Bharat Mata may not have the intention to cause harm. But their refusal to come to terms with what nationalism really is, and their attempt to deify the undeifiable, are nothing but harm. So, the next time you hear someone uphold the oneness of humanity, I hope you ask them whether it’s physical or spiritual oneness; and the next time someone justifies Indian nationalism on spiritual grounds, I hope you tell them they have no clue what they’re talking about.