Listen to this article:
In his new book, The Truths and Lies of Nationalism: As Narrated by Charvak, Partha Chatterjee argues convincingly that the idea of nationhood is not applicable to any of the ancient civilizations, however rich they may be, and this applies for India as well. In other words there was nothing like an ancient Indian nation. The same argument can be made against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra.
It would be interesting, and also appropriate, given the present times where Hindutva defenders so fanatically invoke nationalism, to analyse M.S. Golwalkar’s We or Our Nationhood Defined in the light of Chatterjee’s argument. In this book, Golwalkar, the RSS ideologue and its second chief, attempted to present what M.S. Aney, who wrote the foreword, calls a thesis on the concept of nationhood. Over the years, the book has come under severe criticism for its extremely narrow and sectarian way of conceiving the idea of a Hindu Rashtra in terms of an essentialist understanding of religion and an exclusivist definition of Hinduism that clearly reflects a fascist view. So uch so that in 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee distanced himself from the fascist views Golwalkar expressed in this book, saying that these were “his own” views.
Golwalkar’s views on Hindu Rashtra and his narrative were flawed from the start. In the preface to his book, Golwalkar acknowledges that G.D. Savarkar’s Marathi work Rashtra Meemansa was the primary source of inspiration for his book. Meemansa, traditionally, means rules of correct interpretation where the word has to clearly reflect the sense. Rashtra Meemansa, literally, means the correct interpretation of Rashtra, the word.
Has this word Rashtra been correctly interpreted by Golwalkar? This is the important question in the context of his book. In chapter six, he makes a futile attempt to interpret Rashtra. The concept of a nation, he says, was very much part of the Hindu heritage and not something that we have borrowed from the West. The word, he claims, is as old as the Vedas. True, the word did find reference in the Rigveda. But it never meant “a nation” there.
The term as is currently used in Hindi, and other Indian languages, means nation. However, in the Rigveda, it meant the realm, dominion or jurisdiction where the command or order holds. In the Mahabharata it meant an empire or kingdom. Partha Chatterjee takes examples from the history of great empires like the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Delhi Sultanate, Vijayanagara, the Mughals and the Marathas. According to him, they held different parts of the state “by military force and tribute-paying arrangements.” Such tribute paying arrangements can be enforced by a state order or command that can be exercised over a particular realm and that idea of force corresponds with the meaning inherent in the word Rashtra in the Rigveda.
However, it is a different matter that the word has been appropriated to stand for nation. Having appropriated the word to mean nation, Golwalkar goes on to list what the constituents of the nation are as it stands today.
To him, the idea of a nation is a compound of five “Unities”: 1) Country 2) Race 3) Religion 4) Culture 5) Language. These five “Unities” are what together make a nation. In other words, he gives an essentialist view of nation when he says that these are “the necessary and indispensable ingredients”, all of which have to exist for the nation to exist. Of all these factors, he makes religion central because, according to him, it is religion that shapes the race and culture of people of a geographical territory (the country).
Drawing upon the meaning of the word janapada to emphasise his point, he claims that it prominently encompasses the sense of religion and culture. This sense of religion is revealed, he claims, in expansion of the meaning of the term janapada. The rough translation of the Sanskrit quotation ‘janasya varnashramalakshanam dravyotpatte sthanamiti’ cited is “the place where people follow the caste codes enriches itself.” The three components of religion, culture and language, that Golwalkar so unconvincingly adumbrates as essential constituents of a nation, are not reflected in the meaning of the word janapada.
Golwalkar and his Hindutva proponents also hold the view that the idea of a Hindu Rashtra or a Hindu nation has been in existence from the glorious past. This idea coincides with what Chatterjee characterises as “a conventional idea”. But there is no basis for such an idea even in the Vedas.
Two authoritative works can be referred here. A.A. Macdonell and A.B. Keith have compiled a comprehensive and authoritative two volume work, Vedic Index of Names and Subjects (Vedic Index), giving all the details of the names and terms occurring in the Vedas. Monier-Williams’s Sanskrit-English dictionary is the other work that also gives the diverse meanings of names and terms tracing their sources.
Golwalkar, and before him V.D. Savarkar, draw upon the word Hindu and connect it to the idea of nationhood. The word Hindu is derived from the word Sapta Sindhu (seven rivers) and references to this word can be found in the Vedas. According to the Vedic Index, however, there is only one reference to Sapta Sindhu as a territory and no mention of nationhood connected to it. Further, Macdonell and Keith go on to mention how other scholars tried to identify what these seven rivers were. The authors favour the view of Zimmer, who does not take this identification seriously, stating that Sapta or seven was a favourite number of the Rigveda and nothing more. Also, this term does not find a place in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit English dictionary.
By proceeding in this fashion Golwalkar privileges the Vedic faith, its obscurantist beliefs and practices like varnashrama, as constituting the ancient Hindu Rashtra, but without any textual basis. This is the ill-defined Hindu Rashtra, or the lie of the ancient Indian nation.
S.K. Arun Murthi taught Philosophy in the Humanities and the Social Sciences department, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research , Mohali, Punjab.