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.

An autobiographical note

I am a Dravida Brahmana. I did not choose my caste; it chose me. I use the term Dravida Brahmana to mean ‘a Brahmana whose mother tongue is a Dravidian language’. The term has been historically used to include Marathi or Gujarati speakers also, but I don’t use it in that sense. I attach the modern meaning in linguistics to Dravida.

If we go some fifteen-hundred-odd years ago, it should be possible to find among my ancestors a marriage between a migrant Brahmana from North India and a non-Brahmana woman from South India. I am glad it happened and gave me a chance to be what I am today, although I do not approve of many other things that came to happen in society because of such marriages. We belong to a Brahmana subdivision called Deshastha. The word means ‘one who stays in the country’. The country is very likely north Karnataka or south Maharashtra. But clearly, we haven’t ‘stayed in the country’. Here I am in Mysore.

We Batnis are Kannadigas. I have heard of a few who have matrimonial links with Marathi Brahmanas such as Peshwas, but their percentage is negligible. My father’s name is Batni Raghavendra Rao, and quite a few Batni Something Rao’s are found in Shimoga and Mysore. Batni is supposed to be a place near Sagara, Karnataka. Nobody has found it either on the ground or on the map. Someone suggested to me that it must be a submerged village. I am told that all Batnis belong to the Agastya gotra and I find this to be interesting in many ways. I certainly do belong to this gotra.

We are not just Deshastha Brahmanas but Madhva Deshastha Brahmanas (I think all Batnis are, but I can’t be sure). Someone in my ancestry must have taken Madhvacharya or one of his disciples as his guru. He is not my guru, though I have read and continue to read him. I have also read and continue to read Shankara’s as well as Buddhist and Jain works. Every spiritual text written in India interests me. I think I can take all the great saints of India together as my gurus but not any one of them individually. Whatever I have learned from these saints is due to personal interest; I have no formal training in the scriptures or Sanskrit.

I am yet to come across a living guru of the Brahmanas (often the head of a Mutt) who can fill me with a feeling of respect; they are mostly administrators who don’t write anything worth reading or do anything worth following. I don’t approve of organized religion in the first place – it leads to things like The Pyramid of Corruption. I consider spirituality an individual pursuit and I am an ardent spiritualist.

Some people think I hate Brahmanas. I don’t. The best among them have made extremely important contributions to the knowledge of the world. But I dislike the superstition of the others and their stated or unstated acceptance of The Pyramid of Corruption (not the book but what it’s about). I don’t think all of them choose these evils consciously, though.

There’s a lot of reform work that needs to be done within the Brahmana community. Superstition of all sorts must go – it’s more prevalent than one can imagine in these modern times. It’s not acceptable that most Brahmanas have no clue about the spiritual core of Hinduism – the Upanishads – but stand up to defend the worthless shell: things such as the caste-system and Sanskrit’s exclusive claim to divinity. The less they understand the Upanishads, the more they defend the indefensible.

All this must change, and I have some plans to bring about this change in my own small way. If you are interested or know someone who is, please contact me. For the work I have in mind, you should be a Kannadiga reasonably well-versed in the Upanishads, consider yourself a poet, and be willing to write in Ellara Kannada. Being a Brahmana is neither a qualification nor a disqualification.

I could go on and on, but I just wanted to add this brief autobiographical note to answer a few questions some of my friends have been asking me.

Some thoughts on the apex of the Pyramid

In his 1955 classic History of South India: From Prehestoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar, the famous historian K. A. Nilakanta Sastri writes:

[The] institution of caste with all its social and economic implications was accepted almost universally, and the upholding of the social order organized on its basis was held to be the primary duty of the ruler. This accounts at once for the prevalence of  much social exclusiveness in matters of food and marriage among different sections of the people, and for the readiness with which they came together and cooperated on matters of common concern like the management of a temple and its adjuncts, the regulation of land and irrigation rights in the village, and the administration of local affairs generally. The emphasis was throughout on the performance of duties attaching to one’s station rather than on the rights of the individual or group. The general atmosphere was one of social harmony and contentment with the existing order; differences and disputes there were – there has been no society without them – but they were seldom acrimonious. Even the quarrels between ‘right-hand’ and ‘left-hand’ castes, a distinction which has an early start and whose origin is a mystery, did not attain the violence that characterized them in subsequent times. Both in towns and villages, the castes tended to live in separate quarters of their own and follow their own peculiar customs and habits. The outcastes who tilled the land and did menial work (under conditions little different from slavery) lived in hamlets at a distance from the village proper. [p. 289]

Sastri is writing about South India in the period from the sixth to the seventeenth century, A.D. Clearly, there is hardly any criticism of the caste-system in the above passage. There isn’t anywhere else in his book, either. Of course, it’s a book of history (an excellent one, in fact) and one doesn’t expect the author’s personal views to influence it. But as I have argued before, selection and emphasis are inevitable to the historian. Sastri has clearly selected and emphasized only those facets of the caste-system which he likely considered positive. The negative facets are buried in vague terms like ‘social and economic implications’ and ’emphasis on duties’; even the slave-like situation of the outcastes finds a mention only within brackets. Before the reader even notices them, the narrative moves on to what Sastri seems to be more interested in.

But why exactly was the caste system, with all its ‘social and economic implications’ that is to say with all its social and economic injustice to the lower castes, ‘accepted almost universally’ (I don’t doubt Sastri’s knowledge of facts)? Sastri himself hints: because the rulers were concerned with upholding the system. It would have been impossible for the people subjected to a monarchy not to accept what the ruler considered his duty; death would have been an easy way of getting rid of dissenters. So then, why did the rulers uphold such an unjust system? This is also quite straightforward: the more subdued and ‘well-behaved’ the people are, the less the threat to the ruler’s authority. This does not mean the people welcomed it, only that they must have had no option but to display ‘social harmony and contentment with the existing order’.

We must also realize that this ‘existing order’ was hierarchical, meaning every layer in the hierarchy had inferiors of their own to oppress, i.e., exploit socially or economically or both. This is what makes it a Pyramid of Corruption where every layer assumes power over layers below and abuses it for its own gain. This structure yields further stability to the whole system because when everyone is corrupt, seldom does anyone raise a voice against the system. I explain this further in The Pyramid of Corruption (Ch. 4):

The Aryan Pyramid of corruption has exhibited an inordinate degree of stability; it has endured for thousands of years. But why is it so stable? It is stable due to a unique feature of its: the most visible and active castes possess not just a certain quota of inferiority, but also a certain quota of superiority. Each of them is inferior to the castes above it in the hierarchy, assuming they exist, but is superior to the castes below it in the hierarchy, assuming they exist. Therefore, the people in the middle of the Pyramid who are most vocal and most in charge of material wealth are equal in that all of them have their quotas of superiority and inferiority. So, all of them can assume power over those southwards of them and then abuse it, at the cost of giving away power to those northwards of them who then abuse it. Life is not only roses but thorns too, and everyone accepts this as normal. The brahmanas at the top of the Pyramid, however, have no inferiority whatsoever and they assume power over the entire Pyramid which lies to their south. The shudras at the bottom of the Pyramid have no superiority whatsoever because all superiority lies to their north; they have their voice removed from them, and, therefore, no complaints are heard from them, even if there is the urge to voice them. Thus, the opportunity that all the vocal and active people in the middle of the Pyramid have to abuse public power for private gain, together with the suppression of the voices of those who lie at the bottom of the Pyramid and an overall reverence for the top of the Pyramid which abuses its power over it, lends stability to the entire Pyramid.

It may now be asked why the brahmanas, not the kshatriya rulers, were (and are) at the apex of this Pyramid. After all, weren’t the rulers the ones who wielded the sword of enforcement? Why didn’t they place themselves at the apex? One easy answer is that the ruler cannot openly declare himself supreme. Among other complications in doing so must have been the fact that he would become the laughing stock of the people should that inevitable defeat in war occur. Instead, the kshatriyas seem to have found it useful to bow down to the brahmanas and spread the belief that their job is to act according to eternal rules laid down by the brahmanas: the dharma. And of course, the brahmanas presented no political or economic threat to the kshatriyas. As Sastri points out, they indeed ‘stood outside the race for wealth and power’. By power Sastri means political power, but the brahmanas were certainly in the race for social power, i.e., social status. Their word was literally taken to be the word of God, and nobody throws that sort of respect away; hardly anyone dislikes kings falling at their feet.

Were the brahmanas the authors of this whole system? Clearly the system required help from the kshatriyas, but they cannot be called its authors. They were merely its protectors. In fact, if the brahmanas had cared, they could have refused to become party to this whole business even if it meant corporal punishment. Many must have actually refused. One expects such adherence to values from the brahmana, not to mention the possibility of escaping to the forest. But the fact is, a good number of brahmanas seem to have happily entered into an alliance with the kshatriyas and considered the creation and sustenance of this system good for one and all. This together with the lower status of the kshatriyas makes them the authors, although Sastri is almost right in pointing out that they ‘lived on voluntary gifts from all classes of people from the king downwards’. It is also true that the brahamanas were the last ones to have benefited materially from this (some refuse to attribute authorship for this reason), but that was not the benefit they sought to begin with. The caste-system is proof that one can make a complete mess of society even if, or just if, one has little self-interest in the material world of politics and economics. Of those who only faked it, on the other hand, there is nothing to be said at all.