An Indian Civilizational Perspective

Why India was Always a Nation in History, much Before the Concept of Nation States

Mona Ozouf, a French historian described the trend for formation of nation states in terms of how the concept of what was sacrosanct in terms of social contract was changing.  She calls it“transference of sacrality” from the strict religious domain to the nation.  This is in line with how the basis of nation state was discussed by John Locke, English politicalphilosopher who backed the need for making individual conscience central to the interaction in a society as opposed to state or religious control.  Locke was the product of what is known in Europe as the “Age of Enlightenment”.

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The need for separation of State and Church was obvious.  When the individual belief came bundled with the covenant to enforce it on others to make it a mass belief (thus providing sanctity to its “correctness”) – then a nation was basically going to be reduced to a mass of herded cattle.  Nation State, an idea that grew out of the fight against the “Dark Ages”, was founded in minds which valued individual consciousness and not herd beliefs.  Even in the US, when the Americans revolted against King George III of Britain, and the founding fathers created the Constitution – it was specifically amended by the Congress to ban the establishment of a state religion!

If religion was indeed about bringing man closer to God and priests/Popes “men of God”, then didn’t it make it even more important that religion should have been the guiding force for the rulers?  But a look at the history of religion and the genocides that happened in the name of Christianity in Europe can be one of the darkest hour of humanity.

Also read:  Dharma Civilization Foundation establishes First Chair of Hindu Studies in the US

Between 1560 and 1715, Europe witnessed only thirty years of international peace. The greatest “international” conflict of the period was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a war that had its origins in the complicated religious and political environment of the period. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg brought an end to religious wars in Central Europe by dividing the numerous German states between Catholic and Lutheran authority. Although each prince had the right to determine the religion of his subjects, it happened that Lutheranism continued to spread into catholic-held lands. The spread of Calvinism, not recognized at Augsburg, also increased tensions. By 1609, the Holy Roman Empire had fragmented into two hostile alliances — the Protestant Union and the Catholic League.

The truth is that Abrahamic belief systems were never about God or Divine at all.  They were about ideological prejudices and the use of force to thrust it down on others as a mark of supremacy.  The battle between Protestants and Catholics was never about the legitimacy of Jesus or any spiritual understanding of things.  But about how to go about it.  Just one small difference that someone would come up with was enough to justify the killings of perfectly nice men and women in the most gruesome ways.  All in the name of ONE book, ONE man, and ONE path.  And, this is important to understand.  Religion had nothing whatsoever to with the divine or God!  It was and is about supremacy of ideological prejudices.

And, this is what the constructors of democracies and nation states wanted to avoid.  They wanted to leave the internecine battles in Europe – and Europe’s past post-Renaissance – and move to a Secular future.  Where Secularism was defined as being anti-thesis or denial of God.  Secularism was an atheistic answer to theological states.  And, a promise for sanity itself!

This was the backdrop of the need for nation states.

India’s spiritual backdrop was never religious.  It was based upon seeking.  There are FOUR Vedas, 200 known Upanishads, 18 Maha Puranas & 18 Upa Puranas, and numerous authoritative texts of high spiritual value (Ashtavakara Samhita, Yoga Vasistha, Bhagwad Gita, etc).  And yet, there was no internecine battles, barring few unfortunate exceptions – Kolathunga Chola (the ideological Shaivite) being the worst example of how belief sans any spiritual understanding starts a prejudicial conflict (Shaivites vs Vaishnavites).  But these battles between Shaivites and Vaishanavites – mostly philosophical except in times of upstarts like Kolathunga, were confined to one area of India for a brief period.  It represented the breakdown of spiritual work in that time.  For, Bhishma is known to have recited Vishnu sahasranama to Yudhister during Mahabharat whereas Krishna recited Shiva sahasranama.  In Ramayana, Ram is shown to have invoked Shiva and worshipped him, while Shiva has been shown to have glorified Ram by reciting Srirama rama ramethi rame raame manorame sahasranaama tathwalyam rama nama varanane!

Barring that exception, the diversity of philosophies, paths and ways was embraced across the land.  Spiritual texts and example abound on how Spiritual work begins where mental constructs stop.

How is it that One book and one conception of God took people to the depths of demonic behavior, while so many texts/ways/articulations prodded another set of people to the height of Spiritual expression?

The answer lies in the question itself.  The diversity of paths was the best insurance for diversity.  Despite diversity of ways, there was one unmistakable ethos that underpinned the very basis of social existence.  In such societies you don’t need pretenses like Morality or formal rejection of belief by creating Nation states.   There is a national ethos.  Nation or the thread that ties all the different flowers is the Ethos of Seeking and Urge for Truth.  When one is working to find the existential truth, social differences are the first casualties.  They are rendered meaningless not as a favor to others, but as the foundational preparation for the journey within.

There are two ways to exist – Enforced Moral Edicts or Natural Outpouring of Humanity.  Belief systems necessitate the former, while Spiritual paths result in the latter.

Those who have to be forced to behave as humans under the pressure of legal edicts and punishment can never understand the paradigm of free expression of humanity.  Those who have evaluated the entire cosmic existence from the viewpoint of the worst human traits (jealousy, vanity, anger) cannot come to terms with the calm splendour of human bliss.  To them it is fishy and even non-existent.

And, this is where one needs to look at the conception of Bharat or India as a natural, diverse, ethos-based “Nation”.   Many brought up on the Western narrative of nation states as the greatest social invention look for a neat-nice creation of India as a political unit.  So they go around spreading the falsehoods of how India was made into a nation by the British.  Quite like someone saying that before the 10 commandments of Moses, humans had no humanity in them and post that everyone was moral!

The fact is that constitutions or a piece of paper does not make a nation.  Even laws do not keep nations together.  It is the ethos that binds people.  You divide and corrupt the ethos, you let others undermine that ethos – and the nation is no more.  You cultivate the ethos, irrespective of who the ruler is and how many states, provinces, fiefdoms or kingdoms you are divided into politically – and you are still a nation of people.

That is why Christopher Columbus in 1492, Vasco Da Gama in 1497, and Alexander before them were not undertaking expeditions to conquer the Cholas or the Cheras or the Mughals or Marathas or Magadha.  They all went looking for India.  In fact, even in the theological commentaries and texts, the Christian theologians as early as 313 AD looked at this land as India!

Book of Eusebius

If India as a nation was indeed a “gift by the British” as many – brought up on fictional account of past written by the likes of Romilla Thapars and Ramachandra Guhas peddled as History – would have us believe, then how was it that everyone through centuries and indeed millennia – before the advent of Islam or Christianity even, saw the people and land as India and Indians as ONE people?  That courtesy was never extended to the Europeans ever.

Just like, despite (rather because of) so many texts, ways and paths Sanatana Dharma was always seen as one large ethos WITHOUT any Pope or authority to enforce adherence, unlike Abrahamic belief systems, India – despite of many kingdoms – was always known, seen and understood by those within and without as ONE people.

For, ethos does not need enforcement.  Just as expression of humanity does not need edicts.  Either it is there or not.  The fundamental prerequisite of Dharmic way is the inclusivity that comes from embrace of diversity.  Corrupt and dilute that, and you banish Dharma.  Ditto for India as an ethos.  You push in the primacy of belief into the culture and contaminate the urge for Moksha or Liberation with the belief in a make-believe god, and you use the diversity of India against it.

That is why Secularism – a reaction to religion in the West – when imported mindlessly into India has failed so spectacularly.  In fact, Secularism itself is the biggest expression of bigotry in India!

India is a nation.  India was a nation.  And it will remain a nation.  Not because of laws or word on paper.  But because it nurtures the waves of diversity on the foundation ocean of one ethos.  As long as one lets the freedom of the waves to take shape buoyed and held by one ethos of seeking, the nation remains intact.  We cannot be defined and defiled by the narratives of those who needed pretense and enforcement to remain together!

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7 Comments
  1. saradeshwari banerjee says

    The concept of a nation state is only about a three century old.In western sense we cannot say that India was a nation from the beginning and it is true that before the British colonial rule, it could not fulfil the terms and conditions of the definition of a nation state. But if we recall it in a broader sense then IIndia was a nation since past many millenniums with a common cultural norm n behaviour. The nation was uUnited more by social systems than political system. The foreign travellers who came here for different purposes felt that from chabahar in West to East of Karakoram, Himalaya in North to Indian ocean in South. there was an invisible line tha united the people of India to be compassionate to others. we can define it as a civilised state. perhaps the people who are putting this question, there is a conspiracy to support the formation of Pakistan and its claim on J&K.

    1. Rajesh CS says

      You mention Christian theologians from 313 AD whereas Megasthenes visited “India” almost 600 years before that and even wrote a book about his travels to the Indian subcontinent called “Indica” which was lost but ressurected by other Greeks like Arrian. Even he called this subcontinent by the word India. However you clearly have ignored the roots of the word ‘India’ which comes from the Persian word Hindu which comes from the word Sindhu, the Sanskrit name for the river Indus. Just because a land was called India by Megasthenes and others in history and is today referred to as India doesn’t mean that the idea of a nation state existed from immemorial times as you would like to believe.

      The Nation state is an entirely western concept and the first one is commonly accepted to have been formed in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1848. For a nation state to exist, the cultural entity of a nation and the political entity of a state has to be a single fused entity. When Vasco da Gama arrived at Indian subcontinent in the village of Kappad, he did not approach an ‘Indian Head of State’, he approached the King of Calicut. The Indian subcontinent before the British was never ruled by a single system of governance (though parts of it were under various kingdoms such as the Mauryans and the Mughals) so it cannot qualify as a State. It did not qualify as a Nation because it did not have a single cultural entity. Nobody living in the Chola kingdom or the Maghada or the Mauryan kingdom thought of themselves as ‘one people’. So when there was no unifying system of government or a unifying culture, how can it be called a nation state? You talk of a ‘common unifying Ethos’ which did not exist and for which this is no historical basis.

      So yes, today the country is some version of a nation-state but please don’t resort to this kind of lazy history-revisionism. It is misleading, but more importantly it points your lack of understanding of what a nation state actually means. Also, although you seem to extol India’s cultural diversity as compared to monotheistic, warring Abrahamic religious systems, you are only presenting the brahminized hindu ideas instead of the wonderfully syncretic cultural traditions of India which included along with the brahminical, Buddhist and Jain traditions along with Christian and Muslim ones to name a few. Of course this is to be expected from any writer in this right wing website.

      1. Desh Kapoor says

        I doubt if you have read the article properly. I do not subscribe to nation state as a useful way of looking at any entity of the East. I argue and with merit that the nation state was a reaction to the Church and the very synthesis of Constitutions were to take away the role of the Church. So, I have NOT argued that India was a nation state. In fact, I find that idea meaningless in India’s context.

        Second, I talk of an Indian ethos which you refute with mere rhetoric and weak polemics. The way the temples were built, the timing of the festivals, the way spiritual pursuit was undertaken, the way god was perceived (not an interventionist but primordial consciousness), the centrality of Moksha, Karma and Dharma – which are very different from how the same things are understood even in China where Buddhism went – underline an unbroken and same ethos throughout the geography. How come those same principles and spiritual underpinnings did NOT transfer to China or Japan or other countries? And, that is why – cock-and-bull leftist stories of Hindu kings attacking Buddhists notwithstanding – Buddhism folded back in to the larger Dharmic fold after the universities and ashrams were attacked and destroyed by the Islamic invaders.

        That you invoke “brahminized Hindu” phrase shows that you are indeed beholden to the narrative of missionaries who used the vitriol against the Brahmins to further their conversion agenda. The truth is that it was NOT the Brahmins who defined the Dharmic spirituality, but unknown yogis of all folds. As for Christians and Muslims – are you talking about the inquisitions of the Portuguese? Or about the Jehadi invaders? How about the missionaries who came to help the British break down the heathens? Or are you talking about the Sufis like Chisti who accompanied Mohammad Ghori? Would be nice to know which of these barbaric ways you call “syncretic”?

        Your cock and bull polemics with no basis in history or philosophic traditions betrays your leftist and Jehadi apologist mindset. NO wonder you peddle the stories of Romilla Thapar as history while you sanitize the truth that is all too visible in Fatehnama-e-Chittor, Babarnama, and the writings of the missionaries themselves! You can get a loving audience on Scroll or Wire, but elsewhere you will be questioned and challenged nicely!

        1. Rajesh CS says

          Ha ha, this was a classic right wing Hindutva answer, in fact you almost mechanically ticked off all the boxes! Hate non-hindus, check; hate any mention of brahminical Hinduism, check; hate secularism, check check check 😀 That’s cool!

          What’s interesting however is that you retreated so quickly on the premise of your article, which is that India has always been a nation state and when I actually point out the inaccuracies in that, you immediately say that nation states is a useless concept and that isn’t what your article is about? Really? 😀

          To simply say that a few festivals were celebrated in different parts of the country and mentioning moksha, dharma and then saying that it points to a collectives Ethos, I mean seriously? But I agree with you in that maybe we did have a central Ethos, the only thing that was so prevalent everywhere was the caste system so I suppose people could have that in common whether they belong to the Cheras or the Vijayanagara kingdom or wherever else.
          And yes, Hindu kings like Raja Raja Chola and Rajendra Chola did expand into Sri Lanka and SE Asia and did indulge in destroying and subduing Buddhist temples and Kings, especially in Sri Lanka for which there is ample evidence.

          And long before the arrival of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughals and the imperial European forces, Muslims arrived as traders in Kerala and Christian missionaries also. You should read about the Muslim trading communities in Kerala, it’s a fascinating history. One of the features that allowed them to integrate into the strictly caste Hindu society in the then Kerala was that they didn’t seek to convert anybody.

          Indian history is fascinating and I hope you keep an open mind. We can accept the problems with our past while at the same time exploring it’s richness.

        2. Desh Kapoor says

          Someone who is steeped in leftist ideological bigotry – which has been responsible for more deaths and poverty than any other mindset, I am not surprised that you have the habit of looking at everything from your masters’ lenses. See, the issue with you is that you have constructed your own view of history and even my article. I have nowhere – from my title to the content – ever argued that India was a nation state. I would not because I think nation state construct has a historical baggage which does not align with India’s backdrop. But whom am I discussing nuances with? Someone who is happy to look everything and everyone as “boxes”?

          Yes, Islam came to Kerala – ONLY Kerala mind you – via traders, but it was hardly syncretic! Wasn’t it clear from the Moplah massacres and the tension that always existed between the Hindus and the Mappilas/Moplahs? Are you sure you understand what syncretic really means? Hint – It is not Islamic supremacy.

          What is culture if not way of life, philosophical underpinnings, festivals, literature, and what is held dear? Has that not been the same throughout India – with local flavors? Where else did the idea of liberation from the cycle of karma originate intrinsically? where else in the world did the idea of Dharma – the way it originated in India and then spread outside.

          As for destruction of Buddhist temples by “Hindus rulers” like the Cholas – you leftists have a habit of plastering ideology on even normal battles. The truth is that the Sinhalese king joined with the Pandya “Hindu” king to attack the Chola king. The Pandya king stole the royal insignia and went over to Sri lanka… which enraged the Chola King and he attacked Anuradhapuram. In THAT ATTACK, some Buddhist temples were destroyed in Anuradhapuram. As is obvious to ANY student of history and war fare – it was NOT an attack on Buddhism by a Hindu king – but an attack on an enemy COMPRISING of Hindu + Buddhist kings. I am using their religion here because that is the ONLY way how you see things through your Red colored glasses. Spinning history and bastardizing historical contexts have long been the habit of leftist historians and flunkies who use that as their intellectual input. This mental sickness is now quite popular and has been bared by even the High Court in the Ayodhya case when the ONLY “scholarship” that most leftist historians had were “newspaper reports” and “social media postings”! So, I am not surprised that given your regular fodder you come up with such cock-and-bull crap! So, what is next? Baby Dragons and Unicorns?

  2. Rajesh CS says

    The central issue I had with your article was that you were trying to portray a subcontinent of various kingdoms as one nation when it clearly wasn’t. There wasn’t even a uniting religion or culture, there was a huge diversity of cultures and kingdoms and people of those time did not consider themselves as belonging to “India’, they considered themselves as belonging to whatever kingdom they were part of. You continously keep pointing to how all these various cultures all apparently shared some ‘ethos’ (which works very well in your efforts at historical revisionism) and how in India this wasn’t based on religion whereas you continuously keep returning to religion as the basis of this fictional nation!

    Also, there were “no internecine battles barring a few exmaples” in between all the “spiritual work”? Whom are you even kidding? You just brushed the huge number of wars between so many clashing kingdoms over so many hundreds of years and you could only point out the Cholas as one example? Come on man, even for this website this is taking it a little too far!
    (and we haven’t even touched the horribly casteist structure of most of these kingdoms which ensured that the divine spiritual work and all the wonderful texts that you mentioned were only open to a tiny minority of upper castes who were ruling a vast majority of shudras and lower castes doing the actual productive work in the fields).

    Also, conflating the Mappila conflicts (with the British which ended with major skirmishes) with Hindus which occured in the early 1920s to the arrival of muslim trading communities so many years before that is stroke of genius.

    1. Desh Kapoor says

      Aah there you go. Now you have another set of issues. So let us deal with them squarely.

      First, you use the “religious and belief” glasses that are UNSUITABLE to what was in India. Sanatan Dharma or what is known as Hinduism was NOT a belief system in the Abrahamic sense. So, first lets take off those glasses and look at what was there in India for what it was. Ok?

      Uniting religion – Spiritual unity and NOT religious unity is relevant in the Indian context. From the pilgrimages to Kailash, Kedarnath, to the 4 Dhams (Centers) set up or revived (in some cases like Badrinath) by Adi Shankara to the Kumbh mela – there was a common way of Spiritual path. It was common for seekers in South to visit Kailash or other places of pilgrimage. These are matter of record, so you can keep reading your leftist commentary, which is based on the narrative created by the Missionaries who came along with the British and who wrote most of the early British time anthropology and sociology works, but when you look at the reality they end up as being ideological crap. From the structure of the temples, the mantras used to consecrate, the processes used, the philosophical underpinnings DESPITE different ways of approaching the spiritual paths, there has been a spiritual unity in India.

      India and the Kingdoms – you sure argue from both sides of your mouth, don’t you? You have shared your own evidence of how this region was known to the outside world as India or Hind or its variants.. and we know how the cultural and spiritual unity existed far beyond what was there anywhere else… and YET, you try to argue that well, outside world may have known us as India, but we never looked at it like that. Well, that is the most hilarious argument I have heard. The people, despite the different kingdoms visited pilgrimage sites thousands of kilometers apart, celebrated festivals at the same times of the year – from Diwali to Pongal/New year etc – for the same reasons, followed the same calendar to schedule the cultural practices. Isn’t it the same now? India’s unity was NOT a manufactured identity, but something that has been in place for thousands of years.

      Internecine battles – another example of speaking without understanding. I specifically discussed religious wars – in context of what happened elsewhere – Shia/Sunni, Anglicans/Protestants/Catholics. The example of that Chola king was in THAT context. paraphrasing you – “come on dude, even for someone as ideologically bigoted as you, this is a bit too rhetorical!”. At least and comment properly!!!

      Scriptures and castes – Actually, the truth is that almost ALL the scriptures were NOT even written by any ‘higher caste” people. From Ved Vyas to Valmiki – all were the lower “castes. As for the dynamics and the importance of castes as well as the impact of British colonial rule – you may want to do some reading from “Castes of Mind – by Nicholas Dirk. you have been swimming in a lot of horseshit from your leftist masters… time to get some real education.

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