Is ‘Hindu nationalism’ something that one should be wary of? That is the notion promoted by western media and intelligentsia. It is a common practice to discredit the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for the rise of Hindu nationalism in Bharat as this is projected to be an anti-minority concept.
A general line of argument taken by detractors of the RSS is that Hindu nationalism would lead to Hindu majoritarianism. These interpretations are an outcome of a straitjacketed conceptual framework that has emerged from the West’s own experience and, hence, it is ill-equipped to deal with subjects like Hindu nationalism.
The fundamental problem with western academia and media is that they are looking at the concept of Hindu nationalism within the European framework. The rise of nation-states in the late medieval period in Europe led to the rise of nationalism there. But the concept of nationalism in Europe was parochial, narrow and negative.
Nationalism in the European context primarily meant subjugation of others to serve the interest of the dominant race in a geographical region. The logical corollary of this concept was that once the dominant race captures the political power in a country, then it should dominate the other countries militarily, and that is the only road where nationalism leads to.
The rise of the ‘white man’s nationalism’ in Europe resulted in colonisation of large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America; civil wars within western nation-states, countless military conflicts, at least two world wars and ethnic cleansing of minorities in western countries by dominant political powers, who had captured the power riding on the wave of nationalism. That is why, significant sections of society as well as academia, media and intelligentsia in the West are wary of nationalism.
In the West, utterance of the word ‘nationalism’ brings back memories of loot, plunder, bloody wars and a quest for material wealth and military superiority. But Hindu nationalism is quite different from European or western nationalism. In this context, it is important to bust this myth propagated by colonial and Marxist historians that the rise of nationalism in India was an outcome of British rule and, hence, it has followed in the footsteps of European nationalism.
The trajectory of European nationalism and Hindu nationalism is altogether different. In fact, when Europe was going through the dark ages, nationalism was already well established in Hindu culture. Radha Kumud Mukherjee, one of the foremost scholars on ancient history, wrote in the early 20th century in his path-breaking work Nationalism in Hindu Culture: ‘India was preaching the gospel of nationalism when Europe was passing through what has been aptly called the Dark Age of her history, and was labouring under the travails of a new birth. It was truly the dark age of Europe, because it was a period of unrest and unsettlement, when she was a prey to the invasions of the barbarians who, leaving their old homes, overran and disorganised the Roman Empire, but were not progressive enough to plant fixed local habitations of their own in place of the old ones they abandoned.’
It took centuries for these barbarian and nomadic people to settle in Europe and, subsequently, regroup into specific geographic entities leading to the rise of the nation-state. So, when Europe was going through the Dark Ages, according to Mukherjee, the gospel of wholesome nationalism was already a vital force in the public life of India.
All the conditions that make for the growth of a sense of nationhood were fully developed and long known in ancient India. The first and the foremost requirement for the rise of nationalism is to have conspicuous geographical boundaries. Indian Vedic literature had defined that specifically by clearly defining mountains, rivers and important pilgrimage centres or cities that defined India’s geography.
Vedic literature explained Bharat’s geography thousands of years before the West was yet to get over the Dark Ages: ‘Uttaram yat samudrasya, Himadreshchaiv dakshinam, varsham tad bharatam nama, Bharatee yatra santatihi (The country that is north of the Sea and south of the Himalayas is known as Bharat and its residents are known as Bharatiya).’
So, Bharat as a nation has existed for thousands of years and the rise of nationalism was equated with the love for the motherland, which was deified as a manifestation of the divine and, hence, to worship it was important as it would bring prosperity. This is Hindu nationalism and its core was not aggression or military superiority, but it was based on the dictum of vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family).
Rabindranath Tagore elaborated on this during a lecture at Kolkata, which was later published as a book titled Swadeshi Samaj: ‘India has never fought over kingdom, squabbled over trade… Tibet, China or Japan, who are willing to close all doors and windows in fear of the great Europe, that same Tibet, China, Japan have beckoned India inside their home in an unworried fashion as guru or religious leader. India has not traumatised the whole world’s flesh and blood with her own army and goods, but has earned the esteem of mankind by establishing peace, consolation and religious system everywhere. Thus, the glory she has acquired has been through penance and it is greater than the glory of sovereignty over other kingdoms.’
The concept of Hindu nationalism when applied to Indian polity was based on the rule of dharma. Aurobindo explains it comprehensively in The Renaissance in India and Other Essays on Indian Culture: ‘A greater sovereign than the King was Dharma, the religious, ethical, social, political juridic and customary law organically governing the life of the people… The subjection of the sovereign power to the Dharma was not an ideal theory inoperative in practice; for the rule of the socio-religious law actively conditioned the whole life of the people and was, therefore, a living reality and it had in the political field very large political consequences.’
In a nutshell, Hindu nationalism preceded much before the concept of nationalism emerged in Europe. While the core of European nationalism was to attain more and more material wealth for one particular race or a country, the nationalism in Hindu culture is based on spiritual advancement for not only a particular race or a country but for the whole world. Dharma is the driving force of Hindu nationalism, where righteousness takes precedence over sovereignty.
Unlike Hindu nationalism, whose aim is salvation of the whole world and not material wealth or military superiority or subjugation of any race, religion or a country, European nationalism is driven by a quest for material wealth through subjugation, domination and exploitation. The key characteristics of western nationalism is militarism, trade dominance and material progress at the cost of others.
Thus, it is a great fallacy to denounce Hindu nationalism as the West has a lot to learn from it.
(The writer, an author and columnist has written two books on the RSS. He tweets @ArunAnandLive. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication)
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