There is a prevailing concept among certain sections of pop-spiritualists, like in this article that the idea of patriotism or nationalism is contrary to the spiritual evolution of humanity, which calls for becoming universal. We are also given the oft-repeated phrase — vasudhaiva kutumbakam — as an example to illustrate the point. As if the nation were redundant! How true is this assessment?
Before deconstructing this completely superficial line of argument, we must try and define what we mean by spirituality and, more importantly, whether this is at variance with the idea of nationalism. In the context of Sanatana Dharma, which of course has a vast array of literature on the four purusharthas, we can start with an examination of the Bhagavat Gita, arguably the most popular and well-known of all spiritual texts. In the very 2nd chapter of the colloquy in Kurukshetra, we find Krshna introducing the term sthitaprajna as a high spiritual state, and Arjuna asking him:
sthita-prajnasya ka bhasa samadhi-sthasya kesava sthita-dhih kim prabhaseta kim asita vrajeta kim
[What are the symptoms of one whose consciousness is thus merged in transcendence? How does he speak, and what is his language? How does he sit, and how does he walk?]
In the next few verses, we find Krshna explaining to his friend and disciple that a man established in the state of sthitaprajna controls his sense organs, is unaffected by pleasure or sorrow, freed from attachments, fear and anger, and has steadied his mind on the Supreme. Moreover, as the conversation goes further and the Divine Teacher ties various kinds of prevalent theology and spiritual psychology together, He finally settles onto the ultimate and wide dictum of spiritual progress — sarva dharma parityajya mamekam saranam vraja — move beyond all dharma and follow the Divine command.
But why do we not find this important text tell us that spirituality means a loose acceptance of universal brotherhood? Noble as it maybe, spiritual evolution is a different matter. It is a flaw of the modern mind to equate social justice, or glib-hippy ideas of universal love bereft of structure and theology that can deal with the complex existential questions of life, with what the ancients knew as adhyatma. Furthermore, if universal brotherhood was the real crux of spirituality, why exactly did Krshna, who is regarded as the purna avatara, insist on the war between brothers for territorial rights? Why also do we see the existence of independent kingdoms during that era if any feeling for one’s country/kingdom is anathema to spirituality? After all, an avatara not only establishes dharma but also paves the path for the spiritual uplift of humanity.
Did Krshna protest the idea of having independent kingdoms, or did he follow the commonsensical idea that each kingdom must be protected from its enemies, internal and external, which automatically implies love for one’s kingdom or country as the case maybe? It is also remarkable that, among the various quotable phrases we have from the itihasas, vsaudaiva kutumbakam is not really one of them? Maybe because this phrase gained popular currency at a much later date — when we were already firmly ruled by a foreign culture. It is also thought-provoking that asceticism-based philosophies became popular in the medieval era far more than the vital enhancement of social structure and life, and the spirituality that comes therein, which was more popular during the Vedic times, and which the last avatara of Vishnu, Sri Krshna, demonstrated unambiguously through the example of His own life.
We have had great spiritual leaders in India like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda who were also nationalistic in their outlook. They believed that every nation is like an entity in the world stage, fulfilling its own dharma and, as such, the Indian people have every right to defend, establish, love and cherish their own country more than another — while not unduly or causelessly denigrating other nations. In fact, without this basic line of thinking, we would not have had our freedom struggle, neither an independent country. And we must wonder, by that insidious line of argument, where superficial universalism is elevated beyond all measures and proportion, is the author implying that the British era was somehow more spiritual than our age because, after all, without nationalism we would not have gained our freedom?
Ramakrshna Paramahansa was known to have considered various pilgrimage places in India with supernatural reverence. Was that not some form of spiritual and cultural nationalism, too? The author goes on to quote Urdu ghazal writers for support. Humanity is not in conflict with the idea of nationalism, rather nationalism may forge greater bonds between people living in a certain geographical area and help them develop together in a singular group towards the unique dharma that they are meant to fullfil.
While the detachment of an astronomer is praiseworthy and surely from space we have no hard national boundaries, yet in practice we do not survive in space. Also, space does not have newspapers or conflict; it is not bothered by human events that occur here; the earth is too insignificant a place in the whole wideness of the Universe. But if someone has truly expanded his consciousness into the literally Universal, why bother about a single judgment from a court in a particular city in a certain state of an individual country in a not-so-centrally placed planet, and other puny things like the existence or non-existence of nationalism?
Truly, spirituality is not just words or emotionalism or a feel-goodishness, it has a structure, and a krama or progression, by which one expands ones being, and that krama cannot be violated randomly; for doing so leads straight to chaos and deeper problems. Internationalism of the consciousness can work in individuals, rarely in masses, but only when nationalism has been lived, realised for its true potential, and then eventually, by mutual agreement, transcended. We are far off from that stage. Till then, good walls make good neighbours!