How often have we heard the term ‘Vasudaiva kutumbakam’? Haven’t we been told that Hindu scriptures tell us that the entire world is one big happy family and that is what the term Vasudaiva Kutumbakam stands for? This term is often quoted to point out at the universality of Hindu religion and show its ‘peaceful and all encompassing’ side especially by so called liberals and seculars. Even Hindutva ideologues have used this quote without actually analysing or delving into the context of this phrase. No doubt Hinduism is possibly the most dynamic religion that has absorbed cultures and traditions from across the spectrum but it would be good if we can put things in perspective as far as this much misused term is concerned.
The term Vasudaiva kutumbakam, as we shall soon see, occurs not in the Vedas or Mahabharata but in texts such as Panchatantra by Vishnu Sharma (probably written around 300 CE or earlier), Hitopadesha by Narayana Pandit (possibly written between 800 to 950 CE), compositions of Chanakya, Bhartruhari, Kashmir poet Udbhata Bhatta and in some parts of the work known as Vikrama-charita and Mahaupanishad. If we observe carefully most of these are political treatises. Panchatantra and Hitopadesha use animal characters in short stories to get across their message which varies from story to story. However, it is amply clear that these too have a deeper meaning that just what we can take from the surface. It is important to delve into the contexts given in these texts so as to better understand the message being conveyed by the authors and the true meaning of the Sanskrit verse ‘Vasudaiva kutumbakam’ as found in these texts. The entire verse from which the last part is often quoted is “अयं निज: परो वेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् । उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥ (ayam nijaH paro veti gaNanaa laghuchetasaam, udaaracharitaam tu vasudhaiva kutumbakam)”. We will now go through three important political treatises to learn how this concept has been taken out of context and its meaning been distorted to suit the narrative of pseudo-liberals.
1) Hitopadesha is a text written by Narayan Pandit to instruct the sons of Raja Dhavala Chandra. The text contains stories with animal characters much like Panchatantra. Narayan Pandit uses the story form to get his message across to the princes who had opted out of traditional schooling. Hitopadesha uses story within a story and it is in response to one of the stories that Vasudaiva kutumbakam appears. The phrase is uttered in the story “mitralabha” (benefits of gaining friends). We shall take a brief look at the story so as to understand the context in which it was said and the message that the teacher was getting across to his pupils.
A deer named Chitranga was friends with a crow called Subuddhi. Seeing the deer grazing in the lush meadows, a jackal named Kshudrabuddhi desired to make a meal out of the deer. However, knowing that he couldn’t out run the deer, Kshudrabuddhi resorted to cunning and made friends with the deer. Subuddhi, seeing his friend with a stranger, asked him not to trust the jackal. Chitranga brushed aside Subuddhi’s concerns. It was then that Subuddhi narrated the story of a vulture named Jaradgava who was conned by a friendly impostor. Hearing the crow’s tales Kshudrabuddhi recited the phrase “ayam nijah…vasudaiva kutumbakam” and prevailed upon Chitranga to trust him. Chitranga took the jackal home who on finding an opportune moment tried to kill the deer. However, Subuddhi rescued his friend in the nick of time.
The great political master that Narayan Pandit was, it shouldn’t be difficult for us to understand that he was actually warning the princes to not trust anyone blindly no matter how sweetly and convincingly they spoke. He makes this quite clear by stating how Jaradgava the vulture had to pay the price by giving his life for having blindly trusted a cat. So we are not being taught universal brotherhood but to be cautious while making friends.
2) Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra pre-dates Hitopadesha and uses story with animal characters to get its message across. Needless to say that Vishnu Sharma was an Acharya par excellence who passes on niti-gyaan (knowledge of law and conduct) through his famous work. It would be worth noting that Hitopadesha borrows the shloka of Vasudaiva Kutumbakam from Panchatantra. Interestingly the context in which the shloka appears in Panchatantra also warns us to not blindly trust anyone and how it is a foolish person who fell into this trap of ‘universal brotherhood’
The story is about four Brahmins who set out to find their fortune in the city. While three of them are learned scholars the fourth one is an uneducated yet intelligent fellow. Vishnu Sharma makes it clear through the title itself that the scholars are actually fools. It is the third learned fool who utters the dialogue in an argument as to whether they should let the uneducated fellow travel with them. On their way to the city the four of them pass through a jungle when they see the carcass of a dead animal. Wanting to test their skills the three learned Brahmins decide to revive the animal. The first one uses his knowledge to assemble the skeleton and the second one puts in flesh and blood. At this juncture, the fourth Brahmin realises that the carcass is of a lion and warns his friend not to revive it. The third scholar-fool refuses to listen. The fourth fellow climbs up the tallest tree in order to save. When the third scholar breathes life into the animal, the lion pounces on the three of them and devours them all.
It is not without reason that Vishnu Sharma states the scholar to be a fool and attributes the verse to him. Both Vishnu Sharma and Narayan Pandit being political experts would definitely not ask their pupils to be foolish or naive. The next reference we are going to see will make it even clearer that the context in which this phrase was used stands for exactly opposite of what its present day exponents would have us believe it teaches us.
3) Chanakya’s Arthashastra is the foremost treatise in political, economic and social conduct. It is without doubt a manual with regards to polity. Suffice to state here that Kautilya (Chanakya) consulted several earlier authors and studied five distinct schools of politics before compiling his Arthashastra. Therefore, this book is more than just a treatise on politics and economics. Vishnu Sharma pays tribute to Chanakya in the opening verse of his work and states that he wrote his Panchatantra after thoroughly studying Kautilya’s Arthashastra. Vasudaiva kutumbakam finds no place in this major work of Chanakya but is found in one of his secondary collection named Vriddha Chanakya. Here too it finds mention only once. We can safely state that the concept of universal brotherhood is incompatible with Chanakya’s philosophy where he states that punishment is to be used to make people fall in line and that discretion is to be used to identify the state’s friends and foes. Knowing Kautilya’s philosophy it is safe for us to assume that Chanakya would never recommend the philosophy of Vasudaiva kutumbakam as a philosophy for statecraft or even a principle for the society to follow.
Now that we know the context in which Vasudaiva kutumbakam is stated, we can say with confidence that these writers did not ask us to practice universal brotherhood. On the other hand, they asked us to be cautious before blindly accepting anyone into our brotherhood. It is about time we stopped misquoting this much misquoted quote and put things in the right perspective.