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The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Part I - Hitopadesha

By: Sarvesh Tiwari
Aug-29-2008
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If a survey of the Samskrita verses most quoted in the modern times were undertaken, the following would certainly secure the top rank:

ayaM nijaH paroveti gaNanA laghu-chetasAm
udAra charitAnAM tu vasudhaiva kuTumbhakam ||

""This is my own and that a stranger" - is the calculation of the narrow-minded,
For the magnanimous-hearts however, the entire earth is but a family"



The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Part I - Hitopadesha
The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Part II - Panchatantra and kauTilya
The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Part III - Upanishada and Poetics


Along with its short form "vasudhaiva kuTumbakam", this shloka somehow finds a massive popularity among the modern Hindus. Of late though, the secular variety seems to have developed quite a fetish for it and the verse has gained a rhetorical note. Apparently it offers them an aesthetic emblem of multiculturalism and universalism, as well as an authority of yore to denounce the nationalistic thought as narrow-minded. Even the most Samskrita-phobic ones therefore can be seen reciting this shloka on every sundry occasion.

Thanks to the rhetoric, the traditional Hindus too seem to have taken to this shloka like a duck to the water. vasudhaiva kuTumbakam is often cited by them as an evidence of how ancient Hindus had set for themselves (and for generations thereafter) the principles of an unconditional universal brotherhood. It has been generally taken for granted by them that VK is an unquestionable value, a traditional nIti recommended by wise ancestors of how to deal with the world.

VK has also become an unchallenged cornerstone of India"s official policy-making in the last six decades, and has been officially proclaimed so on several occasions since independence. No wonder then, that as a symbolic reflection, VK has been literally inscribed in stone, on the walls of the India"s Parliament House.

However, this prominence to VK in the modern public discourse springs from a superficial or even a perverted understanding. If we study the original sources which recited it in the first place, it becomes amazingly apparent that its application in the matters of policy is a height of ignorance and squarely flawed. That is precisely the objective of this note in which we shall glean through the original sources, recognize the contexts in which the ancient Hindus uttered VK, and most importantly, validate whether it was meant by them as a recommendation.

Contrary to the popular myths, the verse is neither located in Rigveda nor in Mahabhaarata, neither in manusmriti nor in the puranas. Thus far, we have seen the verse in the following Samskrita sources: hitopadesha, pa~nchatantra, certain compendiums of chanakya and bhartrihari, mahaupanishadam, certain recensions of vikrama-charita, and finally in the works of the great kashmIraka poet bhatta udbhata. While there might be additional sources of the verse as well, which we might identify in future, here we shall make an excursion into these texts identified so far, and understand the proper contexts and true purport of VK in each occurrence.

vasudhaiva kuTumbakam in hitopadesha

That this verse comes to us from the massive web of tales called hitopadesha, this I accidentally learnt while reading the preface of Mahadevi Varma"s collection of autobiographical essays called "Mera Parivar" (My Family). The towering modern-Hindi poetess was a lover of animals and had in her home a curious gathering of different creatures which is what she described as her family in this book. The preface compares her family to "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam of the creatures described in pa~nchatantra" -- although the author would have really meant hitopadesha -- and that is how I came upon pa~nchatantra and hitopadesha in search for origins of VK.

Several centuries before Friedrich Froebel proposed the ideas about educating the child through entertaining activities - kindergarten as he called it - teaching young pupils through entertainment must have been a successful practice in India. If the terse instructions are wrapped inside intriguing and memorable tales, not only are the lessons better received by the instructed, but also acquire meaningfulness and longevity of the teaching -- arguably the discovery of this principle is to the credit of ancient Hindu-s, and hitopadesha is a shining evidence of the same. It was compiled by narayana pandita in roughly 5th century of the CE either in Pataliputra or in Bengal, as a textbook for two young princes who being hard at studies were dropouts from the conventional schooling.

Organized into four chapters, hitopadesha is a fascinating loop of one tale inside the other which itself is inside the other tale - going all the way back up to the kathamukha or the face-tale. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam makes its sole appearance in its first chapter known as mitra-lAbhaH ("Gaining of Friends"). A mouse named hiranyaka relates to his friend laghu-patanaka the Crow, a story about another Crow, the Deer and ksudrabuddhi the Jackal, and inside this story ksudrabuddhi the Jackal would recite VK as a reaction after hearing from this Crow another story known as "jaradgava the Vulture and dIrghakarNa the Cat".

Encapsulated in this intriguing way within three layers of fables is this important message about VK that narayana pandita the great teacher of politics relayed to his pupils. To understand the context in which VK is quoted and more importantly the instruction of the teacher about it, let us enjoy these two stories: one in which the VK is uttered; and another in response to which it is uttered. Reproduced in the following paragraphs are both of these in a condensed form.

The Crow, the Deer and ksudrabuddhi the Jackal

"Long long ago, in the champakavaTI forest of magadha, there lived two friends - a Deer called chitrA~Nga and a Crow named subuddhi. It so happened that a Jackal named kshudra-buddhi, (the proposer of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam, as we shall soon see), was passing by and his eyes caught hold of the healthy Deer as he was grazing nearby. The lust to devour him immediately arose in the Jackal"s mind, but knowing Deer to be too swift in a chase, he decided to fall back on his cunning - to win first the confidence of the Deer. The VK-preacher therefore approached the Deer, saluted him, and introduced himself as a lonely newcomer with friendly intentions, and proposed a friendship and brotherhood with the Deer. The naive Deer fell for the sweet words of kshudra-buddhi, and not knowing his true intentions, invited him to his own dwellings.

So, they started towards the Deer"s place, and on their way sitting on the branches of a champaka tree was Deer"s old and wise friend subuddhi the Crow. Seeing them passing by, the Crow asked the Deer, "O chitrA~Nga, who is this second fellow with you? " "A Jackal, my new friend", answered the Deer. To this, the Crow asked: "But, do you know him well enough? One should never extend friendship and shelter to anyone without knowing their real nature and intentions, learning the history of their ilk and giving them a test of time." The Deer lightly shrugged this aside, saying, "But this Jackal is very friendly".

Seeing his friend in delusions, the Crow began relating to him a story about how jaradgava a Vulture was killed by unwisely trusting an impostor (that story reproduced later below). He warned the Deer against trusting the Jackal without learning more about him.

So far the Jackal had kept quite, and it is at this juncture that he opened his argument with the famous shloka of vasudhaiva kuTumbakam, demanding the Deer to not be of a narrow mind by considering the Crow a friend and himself an alien. The vasudhaiva-kuTumbakam discourse successfully put to rest all doubts that had arisen in the Deer"s mind, and dismissing the Crow"s wise council he went ahead in bringing the VK-preacher into his home."

The remainder of the story can be summed up in two sentences. The cunning VK-reciting Jackal started dwelling with the naive Deer, and as soon as the opportunity arose, pushed him into a deadly trap. However before he could kill the Deer, our wise hero subuddhi the Crow devised a clever trick by which not only the Deer was rescued but also the VK-reciting Jackal was slain.

So that is the context in which VK is recorded in the hitopadesha by the great paNDita of politics nArAyaNa, and he is unambiguously clear about its application when he assigns this shloka to come from a brotherhood-preaching shrewd subversionist. It gives a clear warning against blindly welcoming any idea, individual or group without due diligence of studying their history, nature and intent.

However, let us also read the other story, in response to which the VK is uttered in hitopadesha, which would leave absolutely no room for any doubts in this matter of how hitopadesha treats vasudhaiva kuTumbakam:

jaradgava the Vulture and dIrghakarNa the Cat

While warning his friend against trusting the Jackal, subuddhi the Crow thus addressed the Deer:

"There, on the banks of the mighty bhAgIrathI is a cliff called gR^idharakUTa, and upon it grew a great fig-tree. In the shelter of its hollow lived an old Vulture named jaradgava, who due to old age had neither any eyesight left in his eyes nor nails in his claws. The other birds that lived on that tree were friendly to him, and out of pity used to donate from their own food small portions to him, and this way the poor fellow was passing his days. In return, jaradgava used to guard the little offspring of the birds when the parent birds were away.

One day, when the older birds were gone, a Cat called dIrghakarNa ("Long Eared") came there to make a meal out of the nestlings; and those tiny birds alarmed at seeing him, created noise that roused jaradgava from his slumber. "Who comes there?" demanded jaradgava. Now dIrghakarNa, on noticing the big Vulture, aborted his meal plans, but as a flight was not possible he resolved to trust his destiny and to approach tactfully. "Arya," he responded, "my salutes to you!" "Who is that?" asked the Vulture. "A Cat," answered dIrghakarNa. "Lay off, Cat, or I shall slay you," shouted the Vulture. "I am ready to die if I deserve death," said the Cat, "but first let me be heard." "OK then, tell me first your purpose of arrival." asked jaradgava.

"I live," melodramatically began dIrghakarNa, "on the banks of ga~NgA, bathing daily, performing the penance of chandrAyaNa vrata, strictly being a vegetarian like a bramachArI. The birds that come there, speak very highly of you as the one firmly established in dharma and worthy of all respects. So with my curiosity greatly aroused about you, I decided to drop by Sir, to learn from you about nIti and dharma."

"You appear like so deep gone in learning," he continued, "and still Sir, I am surprised that your sense of dharma tells you to be ready to slay a guest! Doesn"t the nIti say unambiguously about what a man"s dharma is towards his guests?" The Cat then went on delivering an elaborate speech, quoting eloquently from the shAstra-s about the dharma and cut quite an impressive lecture on peace and non-violence.

Shrugging that onslaught of quotations from shAstra-s aside, wise jaradgava interrupted, "Listen, I know only this, that you are a cat and the cats eat meat. Since here are young birds that I am given to protect, I warn you one last time - leave immediately."

Upon this, dIrghakarNa intensified his drama, and touching the ground with his two claws and then his ears, invoking all the Gods, he said, "I have overcome all the passions by practicing the chandrAyaNa vrata; I have learnt the shAstra-s; and I am a follower of the religion that is called non-violence itself. And so he went on.

Such prolonged drama of the Cat finally silenced the old Vulture, who at last allowed him to live in the hollow of the tree with himself.

With the passage of days, and having gained more confidence of the Vulture, the Cat slowly began picking the nestlings for his meal. After devouring them one by one, the cunning fellow would drop their bones near the hollow of jaradgava, who being blind did not notice it.

One day, alarmed at their children going missing, the parent birds began investigating. The shrewd cat quickly made his escape, and the birds soon discovered the bones near the hollow of jaradgava. They at once inferred that their children had been eaten away by the old Vulture in whom they had placed their trust. Thus enraged the birds swiftly executed jaradgava in no time. Although being innocent and a true well-wisher of the birds, he paid for the folly of giving shelter to the wrong kind."

Above story is which evokes the vasudhaiva kuTumbakam from the cunning subversionist in hitopadesha.

We should be by now convinced that the ancient AchArya of politics nArAyaNa paNDita was not teaching the policy of universal and blind brotherhood to his pupils. Quite to the contrary, he is actually warning precisely against this tendency of blind application of this brotherhood in the matters of policy, as is being apparently taught and believed by the modern powers that be of India.

To be continued....


Sarvesh Tiwari

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