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Reject Rashtrawad: Redefining our sense of Rashtra

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I say that it is the Sanatan Dharma which for us is nationalism. This Hindu nation was born with the Sanatan Dharma, with it, it moves and with it, it grows.
-(Sri Aurobindo)

Sri Aurobindo in his famous Uttarpara Speech speaks about founding nationalism on Sanatan Dharma and his ideological moorings are entrenched with sacred love, earnest longing, and loyal devotion to the selfless service for Bharat. Indeed, he uses the word nationalism which is a Western import, but what he gives emphasis on in the Bharatiya context is the ideological founding of nationalism on deep spiritual experience. The aspect of spirituality calls for critical interventions on the term rashtrawad which is used as a synonym for nationalism in the Bharatiya context.

Nation and Nationalism

Nation and nationalism are predominantly Western concepts. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (2006) remains a seminal text for the definition of a nation. Anderson defines a nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (p.6). He further explains that a nation is imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (p.6). It implies that a community feels a connection to each other at a mental level in spite of the impossibilities of knowing every person. Here, we are not engaging in a discussion that Anderson should have taken into consideration the distinction between nation and nationalism: while a nation generally refers to a political group of people, nationalism designates movements on a national scale including diverse aspects of identity. Also, we are not engaging with the tendency of certain fringe groups to stigmatize those who show strong commitment to national causes as fascists. What we are engaging with is the question of tradition of a concept or idea.

The major problem with Bharatiya thinkers is that they think of a concept or idea, but they do not pay attention to the tradition in which they position their thought. The irony is that we raise clamours for decolonizing the mind situating our thought in the Western tradition.

The -ism tradition

The word nationalism ends with the suffix –ism. We come across many words that end with –ism: for example, feminism, Marxism, criticism, and so on. The English suffix –ism comes from the Greek one –ismós. This suffix is used for noun formation denoting a philosophical thought, a practice, a system, etc. The foundation of philosophical thought in Western intellectual tradition was laid by the Greek thinkers, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These thinkers developed the scientific method and rational thought. In this scientific tradition, which gives importance to objectivity, one thinker searches for a definition or gives a hypothesis, while another thinker raises problem with the definition or hypothesis. Therefore, advancement in thought on a particular subject is made through reasoned methods of argumentation following dialectic or critique.

Translating –ism

In Hindi and many Bharatiya languages –ism is translated as wad or vad (वाद). The suffix –वाद is derived from the Sanskrit root (धातु) वद् meaning to speak. In this vein we come across words such as nariwad (नारीवाद). Such Bharatiya translation of the Western concepts aligns with the Western intellectual tradition. As an effect of this translation, nationalism becomes rashtrawad (राष्ट्रवाद). When we speak of rashtrawad, knowingly or unknowingly, we position our thought in the Western intellectual tradition. Ironically, we end up intellectually colonizing the rashtra. Although we vauntingly vouch for decolonizing the mind being inspired by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, we unfortunately end up recolonizing the mind. The imperative of decolonizing the mind is to assert the native tradition.

Nation and Rashtra

Besides positioning our thought in the Western intellectual tradition, another problem of translation is the semblance of synonymity and unfortunately Bharatiya thinkers most often remain oblivious of the semantic nuances. To such thinkers, rashtra is nation. Shri J. Nandakumar ji, senior RSS leader, brings out the subtle differences between nation and rashtra, “We are using nation to define rashtra as well. This is not correct. Nation is about government and state, while Rashtra is spiritual development.” He further explains that while nation is a socio-political entity, rashtra is a spiritual thing which evolves organically based on memory. Another senior RSS leader and scholar, Shri Krishna Gopal ji has asserted, “Western countries have taken race, language, geographical limits as basis of their nation, which has only led to conflicts . . . We in Bharat have had a more inclusive and wider basis, which is culture (sanskriti). It is this culture which holds together the people in Bharat”. What Nandakumar ji and Krishna Gopal ji are trying to say is that our country gives importance to cultural organicism, that is, diverse cultural groups functioning as one. In other words, culture is a fabric woven with multiple threads. Therefore, rashtrawad which aligns with the Western intellectual tradition is without the spiritual fervour that Nandakumar ji and Krishna Gopal ji are insisting upon.

From wad (वाद) to bodh (बोध)

Our discussion on rashtra needs to go beyond the Western intellectual tradition of wad and align with the Bharatiya spiritual tradition. It means the spiritual dimension of the rashtra cannot be wad which aligns with the Western intellectual tradition. At this juncture where we are exploring the subtleties of nation and rashtra, it is important to add a caveat. The caution about importing the Western intellectual tradition is a proposal not for a total rejection of the West; rather, our culture has always given importance to various knowledge systems, and we should certainly know the West. However, blindly running after Western tradition without knowing our own tradition yet participating in debates with an air of erudition is unmitigated ignorance.

As Nandakumar ji has noted, the Bharatiya dharmic tradition, unlike the Western intellectual tradition, gives emphasis on spiritual development. The spiritual dimension of wad is bodh (बोध). We can achieve this bodh only when we successfully elevate through the Panchakoshas — Annamaya Kosha (food sheath), Pranamaya Kosha (vital energy or breath sheath), Manomaya Kosha (mind sheath), Vijnanamaya Kosha (intellect sheath) and Ananadamaya Kosha (bliss sheath). [I have given the English words for comprehension, but we should keep in mind that English translations of Sanskrit words trivialize dharmic concepts.] A person who elevates through the Panchakoshas becomes selfless. Only a person who sacrifices (त्याग) to serve (सेवा) the rashtra believes that the rashtra exists above everything (राष्ट्र सर्वोपरि). To elevate through the Panchakoshas one needs to undertake meditation and sadhna (साधना). Sadhna enlivens the faculties of intuition: Dhi (Spiritual heart), Medha (Higher intellect), Pragya (Higher awareness), Dhriti (Higher will) and Smriti (Great memory). So the spiritual sense of rashtra achieved through sadhna cannot be rashtrawad but rashtrabodh (राष्ट्रबोध). An individual who attains rashtrabodh is not a rashtrawadi but a rashtrabodhi (राष्ट्रबोधी). It should be emphasized that rashtrabodh has two primary pillars: Sanatan Dharma and Sanskrit language. Eminent academician and prolific writer, Dr Sarup Prasad Ghosh has enlightened us in his powerful speech on rashtrabodh.

Embracing Rashtrabodh

Dwijendralal Ray’s “Dhana Dhanya Pushpa Bhara”, or its Sanskrit version “Ratna Dhanya Pushpita”, evokes a strong feeling for the janmabhumi through a picturesque landscape description. It was Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya in Ananda Math (1882) who imbues patriotism through fervent celebration of the motherland as a goddess. Taking a step ahead Rabindranath Tagore in Ghare Baire [The Home and the World] (1916) gives a reason for the visual depiction of the motherland as goddess, “The geography of the country is not the whole truth. No one can give up his life for a map. True patriotism will never be aroused in our countrymen unless they can visualise the motherland — we must make a goddess of her!” [This English translation from Bengali is taken from Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s article “Bharat mata: The nation as a Goddess”.] These lines reflect the necessity for pictorial depiction of Bharat Mata. Different pictorial versions of Bharat Mata appeared in different times, but the sanctity remains pristine.

The Bharatiya concept of rashtra is imbued with life. To feel the pulse of this life we need to have a closer look at the first depiction of Bharat Mata painted by Abanindranath Tagore in 1905 under the inspiration of Sister Nivedita.

This anthropomorphic representation of motherland in the form of a woman is divination of the sense of rashtra. This representation is highly symbolic. The saffron robe symbolizes Bharat Mata as an ascetic deity of sacrifice and renunciation. Diagonally in one hand Bharat Mata holds the japamala and on other hand the Vedas, and again diagonally in one hand rice and on the other hand cloth. Japamala gives us bodh through sadhna and a person who gains bodh can only understand the Vedas which symbolize knowledge (ज्ञान). Rice (अन्न) and cloth (वस्त्र) are the basic necessities of sustenance. Bharat Mata stands above white lotus which symbolizes purity. The symbolic meaning of this picture is that Bharat is sanatan and in Bharatiya sanskriti we value spirituality, knowledge, sacrifice, and purity.


Bharat is not a cartographic delimitation that we see today. Bharat is a sanskriti, the expression of which can be found in Vietnam, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Afghanistan and many other places in the world. This sanskriti which has enriched different countries evolves from the Bharatiya dharmic tradition which values spirituality. The understanding of the entire process of evolution needs rashtrabodh. Rashtrabodh can be referred to as the expression of socio-political thought which gives emphasis on Bharatiya spiritual and cultural traditions which extend beyond the cartographic signifier. A person who attains rashtrabodh can only heartily chant, Bharat Mata ki Jai.

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