“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the cherished goal of millions of Hindus but what about Muslims and Christians? Do they believe in it? For the followers of the two desert cults, subscribing to this ideal would be akin to apostasy. Among India’s population of 1,300 million, there are at least 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians whose Abrahamic creed violently disagrees with this concept.” – Rakesh Krishnan Simha
“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” is among the most popular expressions emerging from Sanskrit literature. Literally translated as “the world is one family”, it is the clearest affirmation of the all-inclusive nature of Indian thought, tradition and religion. The words are part of a verse from the Maha Upanishad, written around 800 BCE, in an era that predates both Buddha and Mahavira. It says: “Only small men discriminate, saying: one is a relative, the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously, the entire world constitutes but a family.” (Ayam nijah paro veti ganana laghu cetasam, udaracaritanam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam) (1)
The continuity of the noble ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in India can be attested from the fact that the exact verse is mentioned a thousand years later in the Sanskrit book of fables titled Hitopadesha or “Beneficial Advice”. It also has pan-Indian popularity; nearly 3,000 years ago, the Sangam-era Tamil poet Kaniyan Pungundranar wrote, “To us all towns are one, all are our kin.” (Yathum oore, Yavarum kelir) (2)
Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam has been influential in the major Hindu literature that followed it. The Bhagavata Purana, composed sometime between 500 CE and 1000 CE, and which is the most translated of the purana genre of literature, describes the adage as the “loftiest Vedantic thought”. (3)
To truly appreciate understand a concept, one must know in what context it was developed. The Upanishadic era was an age of peace and prosperity when people had time for reflection and contemplation. It was also a period of great ferment marked by urbanisation, competition for resources, dissatisfaction with traditional ways and a search for new answers. While the preceding Vedic age was an era of rituals and worship, the Upanishad period is characterised by a desire to dig deeper. It was a time for great minds to develop a grand world view.
However, the men and women who composed the concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam were not thinking about a globalised world with a United Nations at its heart. In their view, the world is one family only for those who achieve moksha and have therefore become liberated from narrow mindedness.
According to the Maha Upanishad, a liberated person, or jivanmukta, is one who is untouched whether joy or grief befalls him, doesn’t get angry at anyone or anything, neither is mean to anyone nor fears anyone, is free from desire and non-desire, is silent and without arrogance, acts without envy or agitation, is detached and functions without cravings, is quiet and calm, active and full in spirit. He is self-restrained, driven by inquiry, in the company of good people, studies the shastras, asks, “Who am I? How did samsara (creation) develop?” (4)
These are the people who can afford to “live magnanimously” and look at the world as one family. Not the masses, not the soldiers, not the rulers and administrators.
Misapplication of a Noble Thought
One man’s food is another man’s poison. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is the cherished goal of millions of Hindus but what about Muslims and Christians? Do they believe in it? For the followers of the two desert cults, subscribing to this ideal would be akin to apostasy. Among India’s population of 1,300 million, there are at least 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians whose Abrahamic creed violently disagrees with this concept.
This year 80 per cent of government scholarships went to Muslims, (5) yet three year old Muslim children can be heard shouting “We will kill Modi”. (6) Treating such people as part of your family is like inviting an assassin into your home. Clearly, the ecosystem which was conducive to Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in ancient India does not exist today.
Unfortunately, at independence, India’s political leadership embraced the concept of universal brotherhood and decided to engrave “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” at the entrance hall of Parliament. It also became the foundation of the country’s foreign policy—with disastrous results. Despite the aggressive tendencies exhibited by both Islamic Pakistan and Communist China, the Indian political leadership instead of building a competitive economy and powerful military preferred to appeal to the supposed goodness of these countries.
Influenced by ahimsa or non-violence, Congress politician J.B. Kripalani while speaking on the 1957 Defence Budget in the Lok Sabha said: “The mounting expenses on the Army must be cut down. The followers of Gandhi and adherents of universal peace should not increase military expenditure.”
But it was Jawaharlal Nehru who took Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam too far. Shortly after independence, the army chief took a strategic plan to the prime minister, asking for a government directive on the defence policy. Nehru took one look at the paper and shouted: “Rubbish! Total rubbish! We don’t need a defence plan. Our policy is ahimsa. We foresee no military threats. Scrap the army! The police are good enough to meet our security needs.” (7)
Nehru’s belief that the end of colonialism had ushered in a new era of universal brotherhood was so suicidal that he declared China would defend India, not attack it. With that view, he surrendered a permanent seat in the United Nations to China.
While signing the Indus Waters Treaty, Nehru gave away to Pakistan 82 per cent of the waters of the seven rivers of the Indus basin while keeping just 18 per cent for India. This was despite India being the upper riparian state and having a much larger area to irrigate. Incredibly, Nehru refused to link the Indus river dispute to the settlement of the Kashmir issue. (8)
What were the outcomes of India’s magnanimous acts? A year after Nehru rebuffed his army chief, Pakistan attacked and took two-fifths of Kashmir. It attacked India on four more occasions. In 1962 China invaded and grabbed 90,000 sq km of Indian territory.
After the 1971 War, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi returned 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war and 7,000 Pakistani civilian captives without getting back an inch of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir because she was blindsided by Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The political leadership reckoned that India’s magnanimity would cause a change of hearts in Pakistan and make them see India as a friendly country. In fact, the very opposite happened—ever since that war, the Pakistan Army cadets take an oath at their passing out ceremony that they will avenge the 1971 defeat.
Unlike the misguided politicians of modern India, the ancients knew the dangers arising from wrong implementation of lofty ideas. For instance, in the Hitopadesha there is the story of a scheming jackal who requests a deer to let him live in the deer’s house, citing Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The deer ignores warnings from other animals, who caution that it is unwise to trust someone without first ascertaining his history, nature and intent. Upon deceitfully acquiring the deer’s trust and moving into his home, the jackal tries to get the deer killed. (9)
Another Hitopadesha story is about a cat who requests an old and blind vulture to let him live in the hollow of a tree which serves as a nursery for nestlings. Convinced by the cat’s appeal that it had turned vegetarian after many years of penance on the banks of the Ganga, the vulture allows the cunning carnivore to come and live in the tree. The cat ultimately eats all the baby birds, and for his dereliction of duty the stupid vulture is executed by the other birds. (10)
In the Panchatantra, which influenced the Hitopadesha, there is a story about four Brahmin friends. Three of them are well versed in the scriptures and believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam but the fourth, although not educated, has ample common sense. The three scholarly Brahmins use their knowledge to revive a dead lion and end up being eaten by it while the one with common sense has the presence of mind to climb a tree before the lion comes back to life. In fact, in the Panchatantra, the expression “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” is often associated with someone stupid. (11)
The moral of these stories is that blindly trusting those who preach universal brotherhood can lead to self-destruction. No matter what words mean, they should be studied and interpreted in their historical context.
According to author Rajiv Malhotra, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam in the Panchatantra and Hitopadesha is recited as a signature of Hindu benevolence towards others and is often used to promote a spirit of unconditional generosity towards others. Advising against a literal interpretation he says, “In these stories the phrase is used in both ways—to advocate harmony towards others and also to advocate vigilance and suspicion towards those whom one does not fully understand. The moral of the story depends on the context. If one is operating from a position of power over others, and those others have good intentions, then the message is to include them with mutual respect. On the other hand, if one is ignorant of others’ intentions, or one is operating out of weakness, then such behaviour is seen as a mark of foolishness. It is by no means a blanket statement of an unconditional welcome as is often made out in popular usage.” (12)
Ahimsa: Another Disastrous Offshoot
A friend in the US recently showed her liberal friends an article about how IB officer Ankit Sharma was stabbed 400 times by a Muslim mob before they threw his lifeless body in a drain. (13) Not one of these well to do Hindus showed any interest in the case or showed empathy. They kept saying, “Hinduism teaches Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.”
Ahimsa both as a creed and a strategy is considered an extension of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. While peace is a desirable aim, the reality is that human beings are the most violent species on earth. Practising ahimsa as policy will only lead to defeat, humiliation and slavery. The reason why Hinduism survived while Buddhism was erased from India was that the Buddhists refused to take up arms against Islamic invaders and in some cases actually collaborated with them.
There is an instance in the life of Buddha, significant in this connection. The commander-in chief of a particular kingdom came to him to receive initiation and become his disciple. Buddha asked him as to what had prompted him to become a monastic. To that, the commander replied, “Enemies have invaded our territory. I am now required to lead our forces against them. But that will lead to violence and bloodshed on both sides. I felt that it would be a sinful act. I therefore decided to relinquish the military responsibility and have come over here to follow your path of peace and non-violence.”
Buddha counselled him: “Merely because you have come away, the enemies are not going to give up their aggression. They are bound to indulge in killing and ravaging. If you forsake your duty of protecting the innocents under your charge, the sin of all that violence will visit upon your head. Protection of the good and righteous is verily a duty enjoined by Dharma. No sin will attach to you while doing this duty. So, go back and carry out your assignment.” That was how Buddha interpreted the true meaning of ahimsa. (14)
It is the height of folly that modern Hindus keep citing a principle they cannot begin to understand in its entirety. In today’s transformed religious landscape, India must not waste noble thoughts on the followers of narrow-minded faiths. The ancient Hindus declared that agni-shesha, roga-shesha, runa-shesha and shatru-shesha (the residue of fire, disease, debt and enemy) should not be allowed to persist. Even their smallest traces must be eliminated.
Indian politicians love to throw in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam as a catch phrase to embellish their speeches. Former External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee declared in Parliament in 2007: “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is our foreign policy.” Narendra Modi and his colleagues are also known to do it. In 2018 at Davos, Switzerland, the Prime Minister said that ages ago India echoed Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. According to President Ram Nath Kovind, the highest stage of India’s nation-building project is to contribute to building a composite and cohesive world, a world at peace with itself and at peace with nature—this is the ideal of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. (15)
But does the world care about these highfalutin words coming from a country that is not exactly a role model, is not a military superpower, still has hundreds of millions of people below the poverty line and speaks the language of its former master. There is an incident about Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Japan. India’s great poet was to address university students on the greatness of Hindu philosophy. But the lecture hall was vacant except for a few professors. Thinking that such a poor show would be an insult to the distinguished visitor, one of the professors tried to persuade the students, who were standing far away, to attend the lecture. The students firmly refused saying, “We do not want to listen to the philosophy of a slave nation.”
Referring to this incident, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar the second chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and widely acknowledged as the most prominent ideologue of Hindutva, wrote: “Let us at least now recognise the truth that for real national honour and peace, there is no other way except the building of invincible national strength. It is only then that the great principles that we preach to the world will carry weight and prestige. The world is not prepared to listen to the philosophy, however sublime, of the weak.” (16)
India’s mission since antiquity is dharmasthapana or establishing righteousness. This can happen only if India has the military might and economic heft to back it up. The world only follows the strong. There is an ancient Sanskrit saying, “It is not the horse, not the elephant, and never the tiger but the goat that is offered in sacrifice; even gods destroy the weak.” – IndiaFacts, 18 june 2020
› Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst, with a special interest in defence and military history. According to him the only inspiration he needs is outrage—when he sees propaganda masquerading as journalism. He, therefore, writes on stuff the media distorts, misses or ignores. He is a valued columnist with a large number of Indian and foreign media.
- Verses 7-73, Maha Upanishad, Advaita, http://www.advaita.it/library/mahaupanishad.htm
- WION News, https://www.wionews.com/india-news/pm-modi-quotes-3000-year-old-tamil-poet-and-philosopher-kaniyan-poongundranar-at-unga-address-252511
- Vyasa Online, http://www.vyasaonline.com/maha-upanishad/
- Hindustan Times, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/nehru-wanted-army-scrapped/story-4pCTLAT4tXlKRnBUtJqz9O.html
- India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/news/story/muslim-students-bag-80-of-government-scholarships-1549433-2019-06-15?fbclid=IwAR3XzEJNaeepO0oJz_LHm5Lk-UQ5uz41TL8IwLt7ZmQsGy9vug4cNTH8ugY
- Samit Patra, Twitter, https://twitter.com/sambitswaraj/status/1261509997478977536?s=20
- Jayanta Kumar Ray, India’s Foreign Relations, 1947-2007, page 117
- Swarajya Magazine, https://swarajyamag.com/world/indus-waters-treaty-nehrus-original-himalayan-blunder
- Hitopadesa, Mahavidya, http://www.mahavidya.ca/2017/12/27/the-hitopadesa/
- Hitopadesa, Mahavidya, http://www.mahavidya.ca/2017/12/27/the-hitopadesa/
- Panchantra, http://panchatantra.org/imprudence/the-lion-that-sprang-to-life-1.html
- Rajiv Malhotra, Indra’s Net
- NewsX, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zmCHc-EmQE
- M.S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, page 215, https://www.scribd.com/document/9634738/Thoughts
- Daily O, https://www.dailyo.in/arts/vedas-upanishads-ancient-india-narendra-modi-vasudhaiva-kutumbakam-united-nations/story/1/22026.html
- M.S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, page 211, https://www.scribd.com/document/9634738/Thoughts