Liberty and Nationalism – the Indian way – Part 3

Liberty and Nationalism – the Indian way – Part 3

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Part 3: What is Nationalism and Patriotism?



In this current debate people are using patriotism and nationalism interchangeably, without reaching an agreement upon the definition of each.


According to Merriam-Webster dictionary:

1: a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries

2: a desire by a large group of people (such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.) to form a separate and independent nation of their own

Full Definition of Nationalism –

1:  loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially :  a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups

2:  a nationalist movement or government


Many thinkers of the world have actually abhorred both the ideas of nationalism and patriotism. The strongest criticism came from Leo Tolstoy: “The feeling of patriotism – It is an immoral feeling because, instead of confessing himself a son of God . . . or even a free man guided by his own reason, each man under the influence of patriotism confesses himself the son of his fatherland and the slave of his government, and commits actions contrary to his reason and conscience.” [Patriotism and Government]

Indian-born British author George Orwell said that ‘nationalism is the worst enemy of peace’. From our experience of the past two centuries we can say that there is a degree of a ‘superiority’ complex when someone says ‘I’m nationalist’. Hitler’s assertion of a superior German race can be given as an example of extreme nationalism. Nationalism can be construed as racism as well.



According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:  ”love that people feel for their country. Devotion to the welfare of one’s country; the virtues and actions of a patriot; the passion which inspires one to serve one’s country”.

However, Shakespeare had reservations about patriotism:  “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it’’.

So, what is the difference? Famous American Journalist Sydney J. Harris simplified it : “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”

Therefore, it appears that the key problem with these two concepts is this assertion of superiority – of culture or values or economic or military power.  The fine line is ‘pride’ .vs ‘superiority’. Anyone using the words nationalism or patriotism without pondering this connotation of aggression can simplify and cluster the definitions as ‘love, loyalty and duties for a nation or country’.

People have also confused these with love for a particular government or a political party. While Scottish Poet Thomas Campbell said, The patriot’s blood is the seed of Freedom’s tree’,  Mark Twain  warned: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it. 

Irish historian and politician James Bryce gave a balanced view: “Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance. It is also owed to justice and to humanity. Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.” This assertion echoes the Indian idea of Raj and Rashtra-dharma.

When it comes to India – it has never invaded any nation to impose its superiority. It welcomed people from everywhere. In the field of learning – Taxshila and Nalanda and many other such institutions welcomed people from around the globe. In terms of welcoming people of different worldviews – including the Muslims and Christians – it voluntarily welcomed and gave space to establish bases (this was before the invasions and proselytization campaign of the missionaries started). Thus India became and still is the most plural society with all the major religious groups and seculars and atheists; they have been living together for centuries. When it comes to giving shelter to the persecuted, India has the best record as well – from the Zoroastrians, to the Jews, to the Tibetans and even the people from Bangladesh – India has never rejected. Why is it so? Because inherently, Indian ethos is pluralistic and motherly – not world-conquering people and this pluralism gave birth to great kings like Chandragupta, Samudragupta, Harshavardhan, Shivaji and gigantic spiritual leaders like Mahavir, Buddha, Nanak, Chaitanya and more and it said:

नोभद्राःकरतवोकष्यन्तुविश्वतो.अदब्धासोअपरीतासउद्भिदः |

देवानोयथासदमिदवर्धेअसन्नप्रायुवोरक्षितारोदिवेदिवे ||

 ā no bhadrāḥ kratavo kṣyantu viśvato adabdhāso aparītāsa udbhidaḥ 
devā no yathā sadamid vṛdhe asanaprāyuvo rakṣitāro dive-dive [
Rg Ved 1.89.1.]

‘May auspicious knowledge come to us from all sides, which harm no one; are unimpeded and victorious over the forces of division; May the gods be always for our increase, never moving away from us, but always guarding us day-to-day.’

Bankim Chandra’s– ‘Vandemataram’ and the ‘mother’ is not an expression of superiority. It is an oblation to what Sri Aurobindo called ‘collective consciousness of people’, and Rabindranath said – ‘jana gana mana adhinayaka’.

American writer George W. Curtis echoed this sentiment of Sri Aurobindo that a country is not merely a piece of land:  “A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.”

India’s concept of a nation-state or rashtra is not a purely a political one. It is akin to federalism with a most benevolent ruler or ruling system. The concept of Rashtra has a very deep and profound meaning; it is not just  a land, a country or a nation but it also includes the ethos, principles, obligations, duties and the collective will of people.  

According to Aurobindo: “Nationalism [rashtra-bhakti] is simply the passionate aspiration for the realization of that Divine Unity in the nation, a unity in which all the component individuals, however various and apparently unequal their functions as political, social or economic factors, are yet really and fundamentally one and equal.” 

And finally, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose takes this idea of nationalism to a new dimension: “Nationalism is inspired by the highest ideals of the human race, satyam (truth), shivam (highest ideal of godhead), sundaram (beauty and creativity). Nationalism in India has … roused the creative faculties which for centuries had been lying dormant in our people.” This is the unique thought of India.

There is a Vedic concept called rta – the ‘natural order’ or the ‘universal order’. And there is the concept of dharma – the reciprocal sustaining principles and acts – both for the material and spiritual sense.  The Vedic idea of rashtra has direct links to rta and dharma. Rg Veda (9.7.1) declared: asrgam indavah pathaa dharmann rtasya sishriyah – ‘with the support of and along rta, the principle of truth and order, flow soma essences (of life); dharma stands parallel to path’ –  which includes the principles, path and acts for reciprocal sustainability and finally for being and becoming.  Rashtra provides the framework to follow dharma for each citizen, achieving progress and harmony.

Hence the Rg veda offered this prayer:


ॐसंगच्छध्वं संवदध्वं

सं वो मनांसि जानताम्

देवा भागं यथा पूर्वे

सञ्जानाना उपासते ||


saṃgacchadhwaṃ saṃvadadhwaṃ

saṃ vo manāṃsi jānatām

devā bhāgaṃ yathā pūrve

sañjānānā upāsate || (Rg Ved. X -192 -2)


May you move in harmony, speak in one voice; let your minds be in agreement; just as the ancient gods shared their portion of sacrifice.


The key to Indian thought is diversity and not homogeneity, harmony and not uniformity. Incidentally some scholars have suggested that ‘Sanjanana’ mentioned in the last shloka is Devi Saraswati and also the Devi for ganatantra (democracy).


Social and judicial laws are more in the plane of the masses. While living in a rashtra Indian system, we have talked about moral duties. People are supposed to observe and fulfill few ‘rnas’, translated loosely as debts or obligations or commitment. These rnas are:

Pitri: Duties to ancestors so that institutions of parenthood are respected, protected and strengthened.

Deva: Duties to all natural and divine forces to observe understand and utilize the forces.

Rishi: Duties to the seers and teachers so that the institution is respected, protected and propagated.

These are called trayo rnas (in Taittiriya Samhita).

Shatpath Brahman noted two more rnas:

Nri-rna: compassion and duties towards the fellow human beings.

Bhuta: compassion, protection and preservation of nature, plants and animals


Part 4 (final) next: The practical implications of patriotism and free speech


Part 1:Meaning and scope of Freedom

Part 2: Role of freedom, spirituality and dharma


Kanchan Banerjee



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