The sages of India have produced perhaps the most humanistic philosophy in the world. Despite the obvious diversity, they essentially saw and preached the oneness of man wherever he is in the world. However, that oneness is spiritual, not material. When this simple fact is forgotten, diversity doesn’t get the respect it deserves, and this leads to grave consequences in a world obsessed with nationalism.

The Indian concept that the entire world is one’s family, or vasudhaiva kutumbakam, is a spiritual one (the caste system is a great example of not applying this on the material plane) whereas the concept of nationalism is purely materialistic. One can’t use the former to justify the latter. But that is exactly what we do in India without realizing that if we’re serious about this one-family business, we shouldn’t be talking about any nation, including ours.

Nationalism developed in Europe which, although it had religion, hadn’t embarked on spirituality as we understand it in India. When such a culture, which hadn’t considered all human beings as one with any seriousness, had to come up with a solution to conflicts due to material competition between diverse peoples on European soil, it naturally hit upon what we now call nationalism.

This European materialistic culture imposed itself all over the world for several centuries in order to appropriate its resources. It spread slavery and created colonies wherever it went, and its slaves and colonies had no option but to respond to the colonizers on the same level as their culture. That is, they had no option but to quickly make the alien concept of nationalism theirs. Despite all pretense, Indian nationalism is no exception to this. The British had to leave because they weren’t part of our family.

In spite of its newly acquired nationalism, India hasn’t let go of its cultural roots, its idea of the spiritual oneness of all humanity in particular. It can’t. But we haven’t carefully understood the two concepts and how they can or cannot be mixed. As a result, the fact that nationalism is a purely materialistic concept hasn’t registered fully within India. Used to seeing everything as spiritual, Indian intellectuals with even a rudimentary exposure to Indian philosophy consider the nation a spiritual entity. This is why the names of sages such as Adi Shankara are roped in to justify Indian nationalism even today.

But taking materialism – dry material transactions with profits and losses – out of nationalism, even for a moment, is taking everything out of it. Adding spirituality to it, on the other hand, actually creates a great danger. This is because nationalism, a method of protecting different peoples from hurting each other, as it were, requires us to descend to the world of materialism, acknowledge that different peoples exist, and recognize them as separate nations in the first place. When we stay put at the spiritual level and talk of everyone belonging to one family, these nations vanish from sight. Unfortunately, so does the intended protection of these nations from one another.

Educated Indians assume, as our constitution does inasmuch as language is concerned, that Indians must give up all diversity to support Indian nationalism. The most erudite reason for this is that Indian philosophy requires us to think of everyone as belonging to the same family. Never mind the fact that that wasn’t meant in the materialistic sense, and never mind that we ought to be applying it even in the spiritual sense to the entire vasudhaa (world), not just India.

One-sixth of humanity lives under the umbrella of the Indian nation and yet there’s a push from above to forget all diversity. The result is that the exact same situation which led to dozens of nations in Europe exists in India, too, but there is no attempt to deal with it head on. Instead, there are repeated assertions of unity at a spiritual level. Inequalities of caste and language, which are ultimately regional, take their toll on the material plane but our attempts to build unity are on the spiritual plane.

This refusal to think of nationalism as something purely materialistic, and the mistaken belief that spiritualism can solve conflicts between diverse peoples on the material plane, lies at the root of India’s problems. We, who glorify Bharat Mata, may not have the intention to cause harm. But our refusal to come to terms with what nationalism really is, and our attempt to deify that which can’t be deified, are nothing but harm.