Shoaib Daniyal’s intellectual high horse

In the manner of all open letters, here I am, responding to Shoaib Daniyal’s article Indian Conception of Nationalism Borrows Heavily from Religion published by

I’d start with asking Mr. Daniyal if he has read this superbly insightful book called ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari. I wish he had; for he would have had no need to write his article, nor I, my response. I certainly do recommend reading The Sapiens and Harari’s latest, Homo Deus, which takes the subject a notch higher.

Anyway, Harari says in Sapiens that “Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A Lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The Lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” In other words, religion exists only in human societies. Just like politics, arts, science, and even marketing :-). What makes all of these things possible is the human being’s ability to think and communicate in abstractions, go beyond what is here and now. It is a special ability and is unique to humans.

Harari offers a detailed explanation of why such fictions had to exist: “Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to co-operate flexibly in large numbers.”

Many creatures in the animal world are somewhat like us, they co-operate and work collectively: “Ants and bees work together in huge numbers but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives.” But, a Leftist-Marxist worker bee revolution against the Queen Bee i.e. monarchy isn’t going to come.

Wolves and Chimpanzees co-operate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals they know intimately. A lone wolf is a dead wolf when it comes across another wolf pack and chimps won’t ever manage to dominate the world with just one command: Go forth and multiply.

In this regard, particularly, Mr. Daniyal might like this line about ‘religion’ from Sapiens: “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.” The difference between humans and other creatures is that humans can convince another human to take his own life by promising him future glory or an interesting afterlife. And as a result, the human race has been able to accomplish for itself much more than all the other species for themselves combined.

Maybe Mr. Shoaib Daniyal doesn’t realize this but not just religions, all ideologies, all philosophies, all manners of schools of thought, even all cricket teams and football teams, all business organisations are pieces of fiction. Some are held together through cultural norms, some through legalities, most through both. Without creating these fictions, we cannot function well TOGETHER as a team, as co-workers, as citizens, as a society, as a culture; in fact, we can’t even do a Mexican wave across the stadium at a football match without a clear sense of a collective approach.

Why should nationalism be any different? Think of the world as a playground. Think of nations as territories and think of people within them as teammates. All nations are teams and they do everything within their power to further the interests of their teams. While the piece of land is real, no doubt, the team is a fiction. What was once a fiction named the Indian sub-continent is now a collection of fictions called India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Some amount of national feeling will be needed if national integrity is to be guarded. Why do liberals find this so hard to understand? If they think themselves to be global citizens, why don’t they enact this fiction first by renouncing their passports?

Mr. Daniyal, when he states that Indian nationalism borrows from religion, he thinks he is making an original observation. Clearly he isn’t.

Mr. Daniyal seems concerned that ‘Indian nationalism often fuses the Hindu conception of a female Shakti deity to literally imagine a national goddess, Bharat Mata’. 

Is it possible that he is ignorant of the existence of the idea of the ‘motherland’ in various other cultures? Or fatherland in case of Germany? He does start out correctly in mentioning the female Shakti deity and then disappoints with the suggestion that we Indians imagine our country as a national Goddess of sorts.

Mr. Daniyal seems to have misunderstood his fellow Indians: We imagine Bharat Mata in the image of our own mothers, is that so hard to see? If so, why? Mata means mother. In fact, we Indians even imagine our female deities as mothers – Maa Durga, Maa Kaali, Maa Sita, and so on. For us, motherhood is divine and mother is divinity. Sadly though, for liberals, nothing is or can be sacred. For them, this is paganism. The very paganism that has allowed them to thrive in this beautiful culture without a hate campaign, persecution, or a genocide.

Coming to the deity angle: If there is a deity angle here it is because in the Hindu culture, we are expected to revere our mothers as deities, for sure. Matrudevo Bhava, pitrudevo bhava… (Let your mother be respected as a devi, your father as a deva).

Now, what is a deity? It’s a loose translation of the word Devas and Devis, which literally means ‘givers’: those who give. These are not mythical beings, not magical beings, and not mystical beings. These are ordinary beings who have risen to extraordinariness of stature due to their special talents, abilities, and efforts. It’d be safe to assume that most of us would agree that our parents do perform an extraordinary role in our lives.

To explain further, in the Indian epics, Ram, Sita, Indra, etc. were all devas (devis). These deities all had mortal bodies and they had their imperfections, just like in Greek mythology. They were not Gods, that interpretation came about later. The concept of God, as in the all-pervading, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God of the Abrahamic tradition is totally and completely non-existent in the Hindu culture. Instead what is, is Brahma (cosmic consciousness or intelligence, known as creation in Abrahamic religions), which is related to the word Brahmand (The Universe, the physical manifestation of this cosmic intelligence), and the word Brahman (the knower, the intelligent one).

Bharat Mata, therefore, if she is revered as a devi, becomes a cultural norm that is only to be expected in a land that has stuck to its 5,000 year old culture despite everything. How else would you expect a common Indian to respond to the demands of a modern world cut up in chunks of nations within its stated borders?

In this context, what really is the problem? Is it possible that Mr. Daniyal doesn’t find this imagination secular enough? Or, is it that Mr. Daniyal doesn’t approve of the imagination at all, in the manner of warning us all against something akin to idol worship? Or is it that Mr. Daniyal simply doesn’t approve of this ’emotional’ and therefore unintellectual way of relating to one’s country and culture? Is he opposed to any national feeling? In that case, should he not take recourse to his ‘nationality’?

Another problem area Mr. Shoaib Daniyal has highlighted is the use of the term ‘martyr’ for Indian soldiers killed in combat, while stating that the Union government had clarified in the Lok Sabha that it does not use the term ‘Martyr’ to describe a soldier who had died in action. The reason for not using the term, as Mr. Daniyal puts it is: the word Martyr comes from a Greek word that literally means ‘witness’, refers to a Christian killed for his belief in Jesus. The term gained prominence in the first few centuries of the Christian Church in Rome, where the religion often faced persecution at the hands of Roman authorities.

Mr. Daniyal also says, “it is widely used in Indian English to refer to Indian armed personnel killed battling militants, say in Assam or Kashmir”. Please note the non-committal way this line comes about: Indian armed personnel battling militants. Militants, not terrorists.

In Mr. Daniyal’s world, utopian superhighways of logic and rational thinking cover the entire expanse of the collective minds where none thinks differently and they ride on and on, on their intellectual high horses not eating or drinking or cultivating or producing a single thing. Because, all of these activities would require people to work together and that’s not possible without some form of organization. Such organisations would require fictions of community, society, religion, etc AND THAT WOULD BE UNACCEPTABLE. Besides, everyone would want to ride their high horses, who would want to work to produce, cultivate, or construct or even care about it all?

That’s why he uses the word militants and not terrorists. The word Terrorists would imply a judgement against people willing to die for their ’cause’ which may be a religion or an ideology, a judgement that intellectuals such as Mr. Daniyal are wont to make; but the same intellectuals leave no effort to deride that collective of people who is willing to die to protect the existing order of their society: their country.

They will not judge the terrorist for his religiously motivated zeal to destroy but will readily judge people trying to protect themselves from that terrorist through collective nationalistic feeling. They will call nationalism religion-like, because in this case it is the Hindu “religion” being referenced, but will not question religion itself and its contours because here he would have to talk about other main religions, i.e. Christianity and Islam, thanks to which the Indian sub-continent has had to split up in various chunks that sing different national anthems, i.e. accepting Christian hymnody.

Anyway, coming back to the term ‘Martyr’, the use of which Mr. Daniyal terms as theological cross-pollination, he deftly links it to the Supreme Court order that makes it mandatory for the National Anthem to be played in movie theatres. He cites the order: “All present in the hall are obliged to stand up to show respect to the National Anthem.”

Mr. Daniyal rightly points out that the concept of national anthem comes to India from Europe, tracing its origins to the Christian hymnody, and yes, he’s right that in this regard, standing up was a mark of respect. He also offers a counter – a kirtan or a qawwali is performed sitting down and, one would assume, the singer or the audience means no disrespect. He sounds concerned that ‘as in the case of martyr, without realizing it, Indian nationalists are importing elements of organized religion to give shape to their conception of community’.

And I see that Mr. Shoaib Daniyal is absolutely right in diagnosing the problem. You see, the Hindu culture of Sanaatan Dharma has absolutely no concept of martyrdom. We also have absolutely no history of having a National Anthem. Later, the kings did have emblems and flags, but no National Anthem. That came from India’s ties with Christianity and the Christian invasion, or in other words, the East India Company – the British raj, the Christian Missionary.

But, maybe Mr. Daniyal should be equally concerned about how this hymnody has now gone universal – I don’t know of any country that doesn’t have a National Anthem, doesn’t have a set of rules observant upon how to respect National symbols, doesn’t take pride in its National symbols.

Does Mr. Daniyal have any problem with any other country having all these symbols of nationalism? Perhaps not, because and only because no other country’s people call their motherland Bharat Mata. He probably finds it confusing that a people who imagine their nation in Hindu finery accept Christian hymnody. And, this is why he should understand India better. The Hindu culture has openly welcomed all religions and kept them safe – ask the Zoroastrians, ask the Jews. If at all he wants to ask this question about being influenced by Christian hymnody, he should put it to Islamic states.

Finally, Mr. Daniyal doesn’t like the fact that our nationalism is too rooted in our territories. This is what he has to say: “Today, nations will be ready to pay immensely in terms of lives and money to maintain the integrity of their map. This is true even for seemingly pointless strips of land – think the Falklands war between Argentina and the UK, or the Siachen conflict closer home.”

To this, I have nothing to say but quote Donald Trump, “We are a nation and nations have borders”. Liberal intellectuals steeped in the idea of globalized world fail to understand this at their own peril. Siachen, to Mr. Shoaib Daniyal, is a pointless strip of land. Tomorrow, he’ll call Kashmir so, to be followed by West Bengal, possibly Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and then maybe Hyderabad, and maybe Uttar Pradesh, and then who knows… “Bharatmaa tere tukde hongey” (that chant of JNU intellectuals whence Kanhiya Kumar’s fame came and went) … you know where this is going, right?

The parallel between nationalism and religion notwithstanding, I would advise Mr. Shoaib Daniyal to take heart: at least, unlike the very imagined ‘kingdom of heaven’ and the afterlife, nations truly exist. India exists. Indians exist. We, as one country, do exist.





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