Populist Nationalism and the Kena Upanishad

By Dr. Anantanand Rambachan, Professor of Religion, Philosophy and Asian Studies at Saint Olaf College and Sadhana advisory board member

The Kena Upanishad, which belongs to the Sama Veda, cautions us in a series of verses (1:4-8) about the dangers of mistaking the finite for the infinite and of worshiping the finite. In a series of five verses, the teacher differentiates the finite from the infinite. In each verse, he instructs that the infinite is not a worldly object, even one that is worshiped by people (nedaṁ yad idam upāsate — “not this that people worship”). It is a classic criticism of idolatry, understood here as the error of substituting that which is finite for the infinite. The Kena Upanishad regards such idolatry as having it roots in ignorance (avidyā).

That which speech does not illumine, but which illumines speech: know that alone to be the Brahman (the infinite), not this which people worship here.

That which cannot be thought by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is able to think: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which is not seen by the eye, but by which the eye is able to see: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which cannot be heard by the ear, but by which the ear is able to hear: know that alone to be Brahman, not this which people worship here.

That which none breathes with the breath, but by which breath is in-breathed: know that alone to be the Brahman, not this which people worship here.

Translation by Swami Paramananda (source)

These remarkable verses of the Kena Upanishad challenge and invite us to reflect on our own choices with regard to the finite over infinite. The teacher is not denouncing or inviting hate and revulsion towards those things that are finite. Life in this world would not be possible without such objects. The problem here is regarding the finite as having ultimate value and making it an object of our worship (upāsate); it is giving over our hearts and minds to those things that, by nature, have limited value. When this happens, pursuits such as wealth, power, fame, and success become all-consuming. These become de facto objects of worship in the sense that we instrumentalize everything and everyone for their gain. Even traditional religious worship and practice may be directed solely for the attainment of these ends. The contemporary prosperity gospel movement exemplifies many elements of the worship of the finite that the Kena Upanishad teacher cautions against.

In thinking, however, about old and new finite substitutes for the infinite, we must not limit ourselves to those that are well-known such as wealth, power, or fame. We must think also, for example, of leaders, political or religious, who demand and to whom we may give loyalty above and beyond all other values. Such loyalty reinforces the corruption of the leader and is detrimental to the spiritual wellbeing of the follower. We must extend the Kena Upanishad’s description of the finite to include human beings who want to be treated as objects of ultimate value.

The finite object, however that I want to highlight and which is too often exempt from the Kena Upanishad’s critique is the nation. When the finite nation becomes an object of ultimate value and worship (upāsate), the dangers of ignorance (avidyā) and idolatry multiply, whether we are speaking of the United States, India or any other national entity. Invoking the nation as an object of ultimate value too often means that actions undertaken in the name of the nation are exempt from criticism and that criticism is regarded as a treacherous act of disloyalty.

Glorification of the Nation: The Example of Hindutva

The glorification of the nation is in actuality often the exaltation of a particular ethnic or religious community within constructed national boundaries or beyond it. The spiritual obstacles of egocentrism do not disappear when these are projected and transferred onto the nation and when we exalt ourselves in the name of our nations. Deśa ahaṁkara (national egocentrism) and deśa mamākara (national self-centeredness) are not less spiritually debilitating than their individual expressions. In fact, these become more dangerous when professed in the name of the nation since there is a self-deception that conceals the betrayal of religious values. Religious teachers find it much easier to condemn individual egocentrism; they are hesitant to denounce national egocentrism from fear of the accusation of disloyalty. Even those who claim to have transcended narrow identities become complicit in this matter of nation-worship.

The problems of attributing ultimate value to a finite nation take a sinister turn, with violent consequences, when definitions of the nation and national identity are championed to exclude some communities and to privilege others. In his well-known work Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966), articulates criteria for Indian identity based on citizenship, common ancestry, common culture and regard for India as fatherland (pitrbhu) and sacred land (puṇyabhu). According to Savarkar, Jain, Sikhs and Indian Buddhists satisfy his criteria of “Hinduness,” but not Indian Muslims and Christians despite their centuries of life on the Indian subcontinent. They are, according to Savarkar, divided in their loyalties since, for them, “fatherland” and “sacred land” are not identical. He regards them as essentially alien communities in India. Savarkar’s definition of “Hinduness,” and its adoption by Hindu nationalists, and especially by those who use it to differentiate sharply between “we” and “they,” is associated with attitudes of hostility, mistrust, and increasing violence towards those minority communities that do not satisfy his criteria. Savarkar’s “Hindutva” is an example of holding the nation and a version of national identity as an ultimate value. His definition is constructed to ensure that certain communities will never satisfy his conditions for inclusion. Savarkar himself was not religious, but other versions of Hindutva ideology confer a quasi-divine status to the nation and proposes the highest aim of life to be the service and defense of the fatherland. There is no transcendent source of meaning from which one may interrogate the idea of the nation and constructions of national identity.

Thinking Beyond the Nation

Source:  Pixabay

Source: Pixabay

Although the idea of the nation is a construct that has evolved historically, and a multiplicity of nations are part of the fabric of our existence, creation accounts in Hindu sacred sources do not speak of nations, but of the undivided universe. The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, even while celebrating the independence of India, prayed that his country would awake to a “heaven of freedom,” “where the world has not been broken into up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.”

It is not realistic to expect the dissolution of national walls, but the Hindu tradition requires that we profess our national identities lightly, never losing sight of the more fundamental truth of a universe and living beings united by having their origin in a single divine source described in the Taittiriya Upanishad as “That from which all beings originate, by which they are sustained and to which they return.” Any version of nationalism and national identity that undermines the dignity of others or that justifies and instigates violence is contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Hindu tradition. Even as we embrace and celebrate our rich and diverse traditions, we must do so cognizant of our shared humanity and our common home in the universe.

In fact, the most ancient Hindu teachings do not call us to the service of a nation, but we are certainly called to the devote ourselves and to rejoice in the flourishing of all beings (sarva bhuta hite ratah). Our highest calling is not identity with a nation, but identity with fellow beings in joy and suffering. Our prayer is for the happiness of all (loka samasta sukhino bhavantu). The Bhagavadgita commends a concern for the universal common good (lokasamgraha) in all actions. The implication is that a nationalism that advances the interests of a nation by the exploitation of other nations or which ignores the suffering of other nations violates the Bhagavadgītā’s call for commitment to a universal common good.

The rise of populist nationalism, and especially those versions that clothe themselves in religious colors, requires a critique from the same religious traditions. The Kena Upanishad’s caution about worshipfully substituting the finite for the infinite provides solid grounds against the lifting up of a nation as an object of ultimate value.