India differs from the West in the ethical foundations of its nationalism and its idea of the state
Nationalism is the new flavour of the season in the world. Many scholars predict that the post-Covid world order will witness a further rise of nationalism in many countries. The healthcare challenge posed by the pandemic has led to countries turning inwards. The much touted globalisation and unipolarity seem passé now.
The nationalism that Western scholars are talking about was a much loathed idea until recently. It was associated with dictators like Hitler and Mussolini and dismissed as chauvinistic and dangerous. Liberal globalism and constitutional moralism were touted as the new order. Yet, in less than eight decades after the dreadful World War II in which over 80 million deaths and extensive destruction and displacement occurred, nationalist forces are back in many countries. Unfortunately, the return of nationalism on the world stage need not be good news. Today’s nationalism in the West is a response to certain contemporary challenges like illegal immigration, racial rivalries and the collapse of globalisation and multiculturalism. The pandemic has added urgency to it.
The nationalism discourse is a recent phenomenon in the West. It starts with the rise of nation-states in Europe a couple of centuries ago. Nation-states came into existence after the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, when countries started untangling from the control of religious authorities. From that time until Italy marched armies into Ottoman Libya in 1912, setting off a chain of events leading to World War I, nationalism was seen as a panacea for mankind. Jefferson’s United States of America, Napoleon’s France, Bismarck’s Germany and the United Kingdom were all hailed as the sentinels of nationalism.
‘The concept of nation-states, that the aspirations of the people that constitute a nation are best served by a common political entity, is considered a relatively recent idea in Europe from the 18th century. Nationalism led to the formation of nation-states and modern countries,’ wrote author Sankrant Sanu in an enlightening article, ‘Why India Is a Nation’.
British history of the last 200 years is a case in point. England, Scotland and Wales got together in 1707 in what was called Great Britain. Even after coming together, they had retained different laws and held on to separate national churches. Scotland had an old Presbyterian Church order. It is in a way the national Church of Scotland and is known as Kirk. The English continue to have Anglican Christianity as their state religion. Although an Anglican Church, the Church of Wales has its own archbishop who is independent of the Anglican establishment of England.
Great Britain became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, when it annexed Ireland in 1801 using political, military and religious power. However, the Catholic majority in Ireland never accepted this arrangement and a long, bloody struggle followed, which culminated in the Catholic areas of southern Ireland seceding in 1922 to emerge again as the Republic of Ireland. By that time the Anglican Church had ensured that its followers become a dominant group in Northern Ireland and continue their allegiance to the UK. Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK. Thus, the state of the UK that we see today can boast not even of a century’s history.
American history, too, tells the same story. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Anglo-Saxon voyagers, who had sailed to the shores of the eastern coast of America and anchored near Boston, were hardly in control of less than 10 per cent of the geographical entity of what is today the US. At the time of the American Revolution in 1776, when the 13 British colonies came together and declared independence from the control of the British parliament, their geographical area was limited to the area covering the states on today’s East Coast. Texas and California joined the union in 1845 after the Mexican war and Hawaii became a state in 1900. Seen from this historical background, the US as a nation-state is not more than two centuries old.
Has the US emerged as a nation yet? This is a raging debate among academics in the West even now. The Second Continental Congress had declared American independence in July 1776 and adopted the United States Declaration of Independence drafted by Thomas Jefferson. In 1788, the new American constitution was adopted. The Bill of Rights, the most important first ten articles of the US constitution, was adopted in 1791. It is this Bill of Rights that keeps the diverse American people together.
In his important work, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Samuel Huntington raised the crucial question as to whether it was enough. ‘Globalisation, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, immigration, sub-nationalism, and anti-nationalism had battered American consciousness. Ethnic, gender and racial identities came to the fore. In contrast to their predecessors, many immigrants were ampersands, maintaining dual loyalties, and dual citizenships. A massive Hispanic influx raised questions concerning America’s linguistic and cultural unity. Corporate executives, professionals and Information Age technocrats espoused cosmopolitan over national identities. The teaching of national history gave way to the teaching of ethnic and racial histories. The celebration of diversity replaced emphasis on what Americans had in common. The national unity and the sense of national identity created by work and war in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and consolidated in the world wars of the twentieth century seemed to be eroding. By 2000, America was, in many respects, less a nation than it had been for a century. The Stars and Stripes were at half-mast and other flags flew higher on the flagpole of American identities,’ Huntington bemoaned.
The nation states in Africa were a creation of the colonists. During 1884-85, European nations had held a meeting called the Berlin West Africa Conference to discuss the partitioning of Africa. In a series of treaties in 1890-91, colonial boundaries were completely redrawn. What is most important to note is that not a single representative of the African people was involved when the colonial masters were redrawing the boundaries and creating the nation states in Africa.
There are a few countries in the world that can claim much longer history. For example, countries in South America like Mexico and countries in Eurasia like Egypt and Turkey, to name a few. But here again the nation-states of all these countries are of very recent origin and had nothing to do with their ancient civilisational past. The ancient Mayan culture that was predominant in Mexico or the Aztec culture of the medieval period have largely remained today as museum pieces while the present-day Mexican society has become Hispanic in language, religion and culture. The case is the same with countries like Egypt and Turkey. The ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia, Egypt, etcetera, had lost all their traces in the modern nation states of Egypt, Italy and Turkey.
All this points to the fact that the global understanding of the concept of nation and nationhood is based on short-lived models shifting their bases constantly. Yet, based on this short experience of last two centuries, various scholars in the West attempted to develop theories for nation and nationalism. Ethnicity, language, kinship, culture, territory and several other factors have been enumerated by these scholars as the basis for nationalism.
The Church’s and Rome’s political dominance was challenged by the Reformation. The Reformists had vehemently argued that there was no need for the Church to reach heaven, and thus the road to wisdom and heaven need not pass through Rome. In his illuminating article, legal luminary and Biblical scholar Lynn Buzzard wrote, ‘The Protestant Reformation helped shatter the religious unity of Europe, and it was linked with the emergence of nation-states with their own boundaries, legislatures, jurisdiction, and therefore laws. It was a time of growing national consciousness. In place of the authority of Rome or the papacy or some universal principle, the source of the law’s authority now became the state.’
Many Western scholars consider the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which brought the bloody Thirty Years’ War between the Catholics and the Protestants in Europe to an end, as the birth date of the nation-state. The Treaty of Westphalia had made the kings and rulers the sovereign authority over their respective territories, replacing the Catholic Church’s authority.
European nationalism was a product of wars and conflicts. They needed the ‘other’ to define and fortify their national identities. Wars with France had brought the English, the Welsh and the Scots together to form a ‘Protestant nation’ called Great Britain against the ‘Catholic’ aggressions. In his work War and the Nation State, historian Michael Howard argued, ‘No nation, in the true sense of the word, could be born without war…no self-conscious community could establish itself as a new and independent actor on the world scene without an armed conflict or the threat of one.’
Despite definitional worries, there was some agreement among Western scholars about the most typical, paradigmatic form of nationalism. Territorial sovereignty has traditionally been seen as a defining element of state power, and essential for nationhood. It was extolled in the classical works of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. But nationalism as a politico-territorial concept didn’t stand the test of time though. Rousseau raised a pertinent question contradicting this argument. ‘If Sparta and Rome perished, what state can hope to endure forever,’ he asked.
Some scholars have added cultural dimension to the definition. Canadian philosopher Michel Seymour gives a ‘socio-cultural definition’ that nation is a cultural group, possibly but not necessarily united by a common descent, endowed with civic ties.
Definitional variations abound. The early German elaborations talk about ‘the spirit of a people’, while somewhat later ones, mainly of French extraction, talk about ‘collective mentality’. Isaiah Berlin, writing as late as in the early 1970s, proposed as a part of his definition of nationalism, that it consists of the conviction that people belong to a particular human group, and that ‘the characters of the individuals who compose the group are shaped by, and cannot be understood apart from, those of the group…’
There are some scholars who believed that the concept of nation itself is artificial and imagined. British-Czech philosopher Ernst Gellner observed that nationalism is an ‘invention’ or fabrication. ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist,’ he dismissively stated. Benedict Anderson, the Anglo-Irish historian, authored a book claiming that nations were ‘imagined communities’.
This insufficient understanding of the concept of nation and nationalism had encouraged the British to proclaim that India was never a nation. Sir John Strachey, a member of the Council of the Secretary of State of the British government, wrote in 1888: ‘This is the first and the most essential thing to learn about India that there is not and never was an India or even any country of India possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious. No Indian nation, no people of India of which we hear so much.’ The Simon Commission, which came to India in 1928, had referred to India as a ‘conglomeration of races and religions.’
Some Indian scholars, too, fell for this European discourse. Surendranath Banerjea, eminent leader of the Indian national Congress, was prominent among them. Banerjea authored a book titled A Nation in the Making, in which he observed that India was being made into a nation thanks largely to the British efforts. At the time of the making of the Indian Constitution, both Ambedkar and Nehru also toed the line that India was to be made into a nation with the help of the new Constitution.
Article 1 of India’s Constitution begins with the statement, ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States…’ Rarely does one come across such a description about nations with two names—one a colonial name and the other, a native one. Independent India couldn’t decide upon the question of what identity to give to this nation, primarily because of the confusion in the initial years about whether the newly independent entity was already a nation or a new one under creation. The British had claimed that such an entity came into existence when British India became a member of the League of Nations after World War I.
India’s Constitution borrowed heavily from many constitutions in the world. The very opening sentence of the Preamble to the Constitution, ‘We the People of India’ was also borrowed from the American constitution, which begins with the statement, ‘We the People of the United States.’ When the issue came up before the Constituent Assembly of India, many politically-minded members preferred ‘We the Indian Nation’ in place of ‘We the people.’ However, BR Ambedkar opposed the view stating that it was a “delusion” to think that there was an Indian nation.
Ambedkar held this view right from the time of his dialogues with Gandhi in the 1930s. “First of all, there is no nation of the Indians in the real sense of the word. The nation does not exist, it is to be created,” he argued. Describing nation as a “spiritual principle”, Ambedkar argued that the Hindus “lack the consciousness of kind” to be called a nation. What existed in every Hindu was only the “consciousness of his caste”, he bemoaned. His proposition of the making of a nation was based on his view that unless caste divisions are mitigated, the nation in India cannot flourish.
Rabindranath Tagore, too, incidentally, was a strong critic of nation and nationalism. He called nationalism “a cruel epidemic of evil”. But in India’s case, Tagore believed that it ‘has all along been trying experiments in evolving a social unity within which all the different peoples could be held together, while fully enjoying the freedom of maintaining their own differences. This has produced something like a United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism.’
Most of these scholars have viewed Indian nationalism from the European prism. ‘The concept of nation itself is, in fact, alien to the Hindu temperament and genius. It is essentially Semitic in character, even if it arose in Western Europe in the eighteenth century when it had successfully shaken off the Church’s stranglehold. For, like Christianity and Islam, it too emphasizes the exclusion of those who do not belong to the charmed circle (territorial, or linguistic, or ethnic) as much as it emphasizes the inclusion of those who fall within the circle. Indeed, the former, like the heretics and pagans in Christianity and Islam, are cast into outer darkness,’ wrote Girilal Jain.
Sri Aurobindo rejected the Western theory that the essential conditions of nationality are unity of language, unity of religion and life, and unity of race. He pointed out that the English nation itself was built out of various races, that Switzerland has distinct racial strains speaking three different languages and professing different religions, that in America, the candidates for White House addressed the nation at one time in fourteen languages, that Austria is a congeries of races and languages. In an illuminating passage, Sri Aurobindo defined the essential elements of nationality.
‘… there are certain essential conditions—geographical unity, a common past, a powerful common interest impelling towards unity and certain favourable political conditions which enable the impulse to realize itself in an organized government expressing the nationality and perpetuating its single and united existence. A common enthusiasm coalescing with a common interest is the most powerful fosterer of nationality,’ he wrote.
Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya argued that when a group of people lives with a goal, an ideal, a mission and looks upon a particular land as motherland, the group constitutes a nation. ‘If either of the two—an ideal and a motherland—is not there, then there is no nation,’ he observed. Upadhyaya called nation a ‘living organism’. It evolves over millennia through historical and civilisational experiences. ‘When a human community living in a certain tract of land for centuries starts experiencing a certain identity with it; customises the special qualities of its life; develops a common set of traditions; a common life mission; common feelings of happiness and sorrow; common experience of friends and foes; a common history through which its great saints and sages nurture that great civilisation through their penance and sacrifice—it is then that a nation with distinct cultural life is born,’ he explained.
In his concept, nation is a spirit, a feeling and an emotion. It is not just about the land, not even about the people. A land and a people together constitute a country. In the West, besides these two prerequisites, a common racial or historical identity was described as the basis for nationhood. But Upadhyaya differentiated between a country, which is a product of land and people coming together through a legal document like a constitution and a government, and a nation which is all of them but much more. He used to cite the example of Israel to raise the important question that for centuries, even when they did not have the land and a united people, much less a government of their own, hadn’t the Jewish nation existed?
The Jews lived in many countries as persecuted refugees for centuries. On a specific occasion in a year, the Jewish people used to get together at a place in countries wherever they were living, remember their fatherland, history and ancestors; and while departing, would shake hands with each other with a greeting: ‘Next time, in Jerusalem.’ This became a mantra for the Jews all over the world for centuries until their cherished Fatherland became a reality in April 1948. Once the new Jewish nation of Israel was born, the Jews from all over the world started pouring into it. They didn’t know the land or Hebrew language; they didn’t have any knowledge of their customs and traditions; yet, they left everything behind in the countries of living and flocked to the ‘Promised Land’, almost empty-handed. What was that sentiment that had lived on for centuries even when there was no country or government of their own? What was that sentiment that had motivated them to return to their Fatherland leaving behind their hard-earned wealth and prosperity? That was the sentiment of nationhood. Upadhyaya called it the ‘eternal reality’.
Shimon Peres, former Israeli prime minister, in his book No Room for Small Dreams,makes an interesting observation about the Jewish nation. ‘The Jewish people have lived by the guiding principle of tikkum olam—the ambition to improve the whole world, not just ourselves. We lived in exile for two thousand years, without land, without independence, held together not by borders, but by this simple set of values that have echoed through history—in Hebrew, in Yiddish, in Ladino—in every language of every country into which the Jewish people dispersed. It is the basis of our identity. And it is from this moral code that we knew, fundamentally, that Israel was not born to rule over other people, that to do so is in profound opposition to our heritage.’ The choice of words shouldn’t be missed—‘set of values’, ‘identity’, ‘moral code’, ‘heritage’.
To understand the main distinction between the European and Indian understanding of the nation, one can refer to a profound observation made by the eminent Indian author and novelist K Raja Rao. ‘It is not the Indian who makes India, but India makes the Indian,’ he cryptically observed once.
The ‘Prince of Paradox’, GK Chesterton, had once described America as a ‘nation with the soul of a church.’ The immediate provocation for Chesterton’s observation was the questions asked for his entry into America. When he entered the American consulate to secure papers for traveling to America, the application form that he was handed down contained questions like ‘Are you an anarchist?’ and ‘Are you a polygamist?’ etcetera. Irked and amused by these questions, Chesterton started pondering over the traits of the Americans, and the result was an autobiographical essay titled ‘What is America?’ ‘America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed,’ he concludes. Chesterton’s observations sparked a major debate in the world. Do nations, like individuals, have souls?
Decades before Chesterton, another great Englishman from Chesterton’s country, Benjamin Disraeli, a conservative strongman and the two-time prime minister of Britain, had championed the idea of national character. “Nations have characters,” Disraeli insisted.
Psychologists have disagreements over the efforts to find a common characteristic of nations. The so-called national soul or character, to them, appeared over-generalisation leading to stereotyping of the nations.
‘Germans don’t laugh’, one stereotype goes, because they are ‘sticklers for order to the point of absurdity’. The French are typical playboys always thinking of wine and women. The Americans are fond of expensive cars; the Russians, uncouth, pugnacious and reckless, fond of vodka and street brawls. This kind of trivial stereotyping of nations in the name of national character has led to the manufacturing of several jokes as well. One such joke in Russia goes something like this:
What will people of different nationalities do when they see a fly in their glass of beer? The German, being a practical guy, will remove the fly and drink the beer. The Frenchman, being an idealist, will fish out the fly, wipe it, allows it to fly away and discard the beer. The Russian will drink the beer along with the fly, while the American, a conscious guy about his rights, will summon the waiter, scold him to his heart and demand for another glass of beer.
Such stereotyping of the national character is no doubt incorrect. However, to deny that nations have their own character like individuals, and it is reflected in its social mores, customs and traditions, is also equally incorrect.
Two philosophers, Sri Aurobindo from India and Georg Hegel from Germany, had alluded to the concept of national soul in their writings. ‘The nation or society, like the individual, has a body, an organic life, a moral and aesthetic temperament, a developing mind and a soul… [I]t is a group soul that, once having attained a distinctness, must then become more and more self-conscious…,’ wrote Aurobindo.
Hegel saw ‘pure Spirit incarnating into the world, not just as one great beam of light, but as refracted light of many different rays.’ He described these rays as incarnating into particular geographical regions that have an ecological integrity or clear boundaries. The local ecology—fauna, flora and humanity—interacts with the incoming ray of spirit, and the result of that interaction eventually becomes a nation. Hegel then goes on to talk about a soul for each such nation. He called it the ‘volksgeist’, or folk soul. ‘The national folk soul, which has also been described as an over-lighting angel, carries the unique energy of its people and can be seen manifesting in the culture, songs and myths of its people. This loose-knit grouping of peoples eventually unifies as the Spirit of the nascent nation incarnates more fully,’ Hegel argued. To put it simply, Hegel believed that nation was nothing but a spirit with a folk soul, which manifests through the culture, myths, and at a sophisticated level, even in the form of the state.
Upadhyaya used the word chiti for describing the national soul. Every nation has its own chiti. ‘Chiti is fundamental and is central to the nation from its very beginning. Chitidetermines the direction in which the nation is to advance culturally. Whatever is in accordance with chiti is included in culture. Chiti is the touchstone on which each action, each attitude is tested, and determined to be acceptable or otherwise. Chiti is the soul of the nation. It is on the foundation of this chiti that a nation arises and becomes strong and virile…,’ he wrote.
The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a modernist seeped in Western ideological traditions. Yet, he too invoked this concept of the national soul in his famous Tryst with Destiny address to Parliament at midnight on August 14th, 1947 when India became independent. He said: ‘Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.’
The Indian word for denoting this eternal emotional and spiritual idea of nationhood, as distinct from the European racial, political and geographical idea of the nation, is ‘rashtram’. Rashtram is the Indian concept of nationhood. Rashtram is a living organism manifested through a national soul. Rashtram is the alter-nationalism of Tagore and Ram Rajya of Gandhi.
References to rashtram can be found in many places in ancient Indian literature. In Rig Veda, rashtram was used to describe the national identity of the people of the land called Bharatavarsha. Rashtram as an idea is a unifying and development-oriented (abhyudayam) concept as against today’s concept of nation, in which the basic urge to live together in harmony is not developed, and which has been a major source of political conflict and violence throughout the history of the last several centuries.
Rashtram has been invested with divinity and motherhood in the Vedas. Sage Vak, one of the many women composers of the hymns in the Vedas, says in the 10th mandala of the Rig Veda:
Aham Rashtri Sangamani Vasunam Chikitushi Prathama Yagyiyanam (‘I am the beholder of this rashtra; benefactor of the gods; and first among the worshipped’.)
Thus, an effort was made to infuse the sense of divinity, sacredness and motherhood in rashtram from the Rig Vedic times. Nation is a feminine entity in India as against the common Western masculine understanding of the Fatherland. This Vedic hymn is in a sense the origin of the concept of Bharat Mata—the Motherland Bharat. Shri Aurobindo described her as ‘Jagajjanani’—the mother of all mothers—the Universal Mother.
In the foreword to RK Mookerjee’s The Fundamental Unity of India, Ramsay MacDonald, former Prime Minister of Britain writes: ‘The Hindu regards India not only as a political unit naturally the subject of one sovereignty—whoever holds that sovereignty, whether British, Mohammedan, or Hindu—but as the outward embodiment, as the temple—nay, even as the goddess mother—of his spiritual culture… He made India the symbol of his culture; he filled it with this soul. In his consciousness, it was his greater self.’
This distinct idea of nation as rashtram evolved in India through the efforts of countless saints and sages, who deliberated upon the mission of the nation and came up with the concept of ‘bhadra iccha’—benign wish. The Atharva Veda states that the rashtram—the national identity of the people of India, was the product of that ‘bhadra iccha’—benign wish—of those sages.
Bhadram icchhantah rishiyah
swar vidayah, tapo dikshaamupanshed agre.
tato raashtram, bala, ojasya jaatam
It means that a bhadra icchha had originated in the minds of ancient seers during the course of their penance. This benign wish was for abhyudayam—the welfare and glory of all. This is not divisive and is not guided by any selfish desire for personal pleasures.
In order to fulfil the bhadra icchha for abhyudayam, a doctrine of dharma, set of moral codes, was developed. Sage Kaṇāda in Vaiśeṣika Sūtra defines Dharma by its beneficial impact: Yatobhyudaya nisreyasa siddhihi ca dharmah (‘That which leads to the attainment of abhyudaya [material prosperity in this world] and nihśreyasa [total cessation of pain and attainment of eternal bliss hereafter] is dharma.’) The bhadra icchha of the sages was to secure this two-fold objective.
Dharma manifests in the chiti—national soul of India as a rashtram. It includes the outlook to life, creation, universe, god, state, wealth and everything else. It is these ideals on which the Indian nationhood—rashtriyata—was founded and thrived. It is these ideals that India has ‘never lost sight of’ in her long journey through victories and vicissitudes.
The moral and ethical value system that is described as dharma is a product of the Indian genius evolved over millennia of the penance and dialogue of its sages and saints. It is universal. In fact, the Hindus call it Sanatana Dharma—an eternal value system, universal in time and space. In the course of a long history, the sages and saints of India have defined the concept of dharma variously.
In the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, it was stated:
Yah syatprabhavasamyuktah sa dharma iti nischayah (‘That which is able to bring about evolution is called dharma’).
Adi Shankara described dharma as: Jagatah Sthitikaranam Praninam Sakshat Abhyudaya Nishreyasa Heturyah sa Dharmah (‘Dharma is that which accomplishes exceptional administration of the entire world, brings about the worldly progress of every living being and causes progress in the spiritual realm as well’).
Dharmasaram Idam Jagat (‘This entire universe is the essence of dharma’), proclaims sage Valmiki, in the Aranya Kanda of the Ramayana.
Dharma as a view of life goes about enumerating a set of moral and ethical values for mankind. It is these values that delineate the ethical foundation of Indian nationhood.
On the question of Creation, the dharma worldview believes:
Isavasyam idam sarvam (‘The entire universe, animate and inanimate alike, is pervaded by Isvara, the divine consciousness,’ from Chapter 4 of the Isavasya Upanishad).
This concept of the omnipresence of divinity must be understood in the face of the confusion arising out of the Christian doctrines of monotheism and polytheism. The Indian Dharmic worldview is neither. It can at best be described as ‘omnitheism’.
The Christian worldview attributes divinity only to the Trinity—God, His Son and the Holy Ghost, whereas the dharmic worldview sees divinity everywhere. When divinity is omnipresent, why must there be conflicts over religion, race, caste and nationality? The Hindu answer is the pervasive maya (illusion).
On the question of ethnic, racial, linguistic and other difference in the world, it proposes:
Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (‘The entire world as one family’).
The West, in the name of globalisation, talked about global markets. The dharmaworldview talks about a global family. The daily prayer of an aged, illiterate, poor village woman in a corner or India starts with Ganga Mata ki Jai (Victory to Mother Ganges) and ends with Lok Kalyan Ho (Glory to the Entire World).
On the economic question, it talks about ‘sustained consumption’:
Tena tyaktena bhunjitah (‘One should acquire only that much which was left for him by Isvara’).
After traversing through many economic theories, the West is now coming round to the view that for achieving sustainable development, we need to advocate for sustainable consumption also.
On the welfare question, it states:
Sarve bhavantu sukinah, Sarve santu niramayah (‘Let all be happy and free from diseases’).
This is in contrast to the West’s theory of maximum benefit to the maximum number.
On the environment-related questions, its proposition is:
Mata bhumih putro’ham prithvyah (‘This earth is my mother, and I am her son’, from Atharva Veda).
Worship of nature is against the core Western idea of the exploitation of nature. From Socrates and Plato downwards, it was believed that man should master nature, whereas the dharmic worldview insisted that it should be worshipped as mother and only ‘milked’ like a child does from mother, not exploited.
On the question of religious diversity in the world, it proposes:
Ekam Sadvipraa bahudhaa Vadanti maatarisvaanamaahuh (‘Truth is one; wise men interpret in different ways,’ from the Rig Veda).
The dharma worldview stands for pluralism and diversity. It abhors uniformity and rejection. Contrary to the Semitic worldview which insisted about the possession of the ‘ultimate reality’, the dharmic worldview suggested that the ‘ultimate reality’ is an endless search by man. Gandhi called the Sanatana Dharma as an “endless search for truth.”
The ethical and spiritual nationhood of India is a benign and universal idea. It sustained India’s unity as a nation for millennia. Like all pathbreaking ideas, this nationhood also faces certain contemporary challenges.
India’s national consciousness was jolted into action when it came face-to-face with the Semitic worldview. The exclusivist Islamic concept of Ummah—a supra-national community of Muslims—posed the first ever serious challenge to the rashtram. India had to endure a bloody Partition as a consequence. The two-nation theory of Jinnah was a complete anti-thesis of the inclusive concept of national consciousness in India. There are forces to this day in India that believe in that theory.
The other challenge is the possible Semitisation of Indic thought, where Indian society, as a reaction to Semitic exclusivism, starts internalising those very exclusivist mores.
The forces of Partition were actively supported by the Indian communists who argued that India was not a single nation but a conglomerate of 16 different nationalities. The heady cocktail of these two forces of separatism and exclusivism can be witnessed in prestigious academic institutions even now. The Tukde Tukde gangs whose slogan is ‘Bharat, tere tukde honge’ (‘India, you will be broken down into pieces’) are still active.
False application of the notion of secularism, an essentially European concept, is another serious challenge. Much before secularism came into vogue in Europe, India practised the idea of Sarv Panth Samaadar (equal respect for all religions.) KT Shah, a member of the Constituent Assembly, wanted the word ‘secular’ to be explicitly stated in the Constitution. But both Nehru and Ambedkar didn’t seem inclined. All members agreed that secularism should be respected. But which secularism? The European understanding of separation of the church and state or the American understanding of freedom of religion? Nehru viewed the Indian nation as cultural and Ambedkar viewed it as spiritual. Both believed that the Western secularist concept will lead to confusion. Hence, the Indian Constitution did not contain the word ‘secular’ until 1976.
The flawed secularism discourse in India tries to negate the moral and ethical value system by using an erroneous concept of Dharma Nirapekshata. Translated into English, it means ‘non-relation to religion’. Confusion stems from the use of the word ‘dharma’, whereas the correct word for religion should be ‘panth’. India’s national motto is, as inscribed on the national symbol, the Ashok Chakra, ‘Dharma Chakra Pravartanaya’—meaning, ‘the wheels of Dharma should keep on rolling.’
Whereas in the West the state has been identified with the nation, in Indian national consciousness, the state is never regarded as a superior institution. Devotion to king is not warranted; instead, devotion to nation is promoted. Talking about the relationship between the nation and the state, Upadhyaya says, ‘Self-rule is only useful and effective until the point that it fulfils the requirements of the motherland. This can only happen when the national society progresses from the worship of the state to the worship of the nation. True capability lies not in the state, but in the nation. The nation is the sole truth. Devotion to this truth has been described as a cultural duty. Political duties can only be successful when these intensive national values are bolstered by the strength of cultural duties that accompany them.’
In the long history, India was very rarely ruled by one sovereign ruler. Events like Rajasuya would occasionally give rise to emperors with suzerainty over their subjects, but never a single state. The Aitereya Brahmana, one of the ancient texts of India, describes 10 kinds of rajyas under one rashtra:
samrajyam. bhaujyam. svarajyam. vairajyam.
parameshthyam. rajyam. Maharajyam Adhipatyamayam.
samantaparyayI syat. sarvabhauma sarvayusha
There were autocratic monarchs, hereditary kings and democratic republics living side-by-side. There were instances when foreign aggressors had occupied some of these states and established kingdoms. Greek conquerors like Alexander and Seleucus came, Huns, Shakas and Kushans came. They established their kingdoms for some time over parts of the territory of this country. Then came the Islamic hordes. Muhammad bin Qasim was the first Islamic invader to occupy the Sindh province in today’s Pakistan in the early 8th century. From then to the 18th century, many parts of the Indian nation were under Muslim rule. After that came the British who ruled over almost the entire Indian territory for two centuries. During all this time, the state was under alien control. Yet, the nation didn’t cease to exist. The soul of this nation existed elsewhere, in its religions, culture, pilgrimages, social institutions and many other entities.
In fact, the state as a political institution was even seen as dispensable. In Mahabharata, there comes a narrative about the first epoch of the Hindu almanac, the Krita Yuga. The relevant verse reads like this:
Na Rajyam Naiva Rajasit Na Dando na ca Dandikaha / Dharmenaiva Praja Sarvaha Rakshantisma Parasparam (‘There was no state; no king. There was none to be punished and none to punish. People have protected each other through the eternal principles of Dharma’).
Thus, aeons before Marx envisaged ‘withering away of the state’, the Indian nation had experienced such a state of statelessness. Yet, the national life continued on the basis of Dharma.
Chanakya states that the rajah (the king) is a servant of dharma. Unlike in nation states, the rajah enjoys no special privileges whatsoever. He is mandated to live like a commoner. The happiness of the rajah lies in the happiness of his subjects. Even his powers as a ruler are subject to the scrutiny of dharma. When a rajah is coronated, he would declare thrice that he is above punishment (adandyosmi). A revered sage is then made to pronounce thrice ‘Dharmadandyosi’ (‘Dharma will punish you’).
The challenge is when the state assumes all-encompassing powers and all other civic institutions become subservient to it. Loyalty to the state then becomes the sine qua nonof nationalism.
The ancient nationhood of India withstood many such vicissitudes and challenges. Nevertheless, India needs to be vigilant about these challenges because it has, as Vivekananda put it, ‘a destiny to fulfil, duty to perform and mission to accomplish’. That mission is not just local or national. It is global and beyond.
Aurobindo described the Indian approach to the eternal nature of Indian nationalism in the following words: ‘In India we do not recognise the nation as the highest synthesis to which we can rise. There is a higher synthesis, humanity; beyond that there is a still higher synthesis, this living, suffering, aspiring world of creatures, the synthesis of Buddhism; there is a highest of all, the synthesis of God, and that is the Hindu synthesis, the synthesis of Vedanta. With us today nationalism is our immediate practical faith and gospel not because it is the highest possible synthesis, but because it must be realised in life….We must live as a nation before we can live in humanity.’
(The article was originally published in OPEN Magazine on December 9, 2020. Views expressed are personal.)