The narratives of nations, national identity, nationalism and nation-worship have been some of the most important foundations of conservative right-wing politics in India (of that of BJP) and elsewhere. There are several value judgements made, both for and against such narratives. However, for any rational inquiry, it is important to understand the facts before making a value judgement. What are the facts of nationalism? Why do we have something called a nation? Why do we have a national consciousness? What do we believe in something called a nation? Why does the concept of nations appeal to our emotions? Are these emotions good or bad for both us as individuals and society? Answering such philosophical questions requires us to go back in history and know where such an abstract concept called ‘nation’ originated from. This essay is first of the two-part series on Nationalism. While the facts of this essay are true to my knowledge and are objective, the value judgments that would follow are subjective, debatable and I would be happy to do so.

Origins of Nation

It could be said that man – since time immemorial – has been living in harmony with his fellow human beings as a community. This goes back to the days as early as that of ancient hunter-gatherers who travelled as a community of extended families in search of food. Human communities then settled to form societies by transitioning from hunting and gathering to an agricultural society. The agrarian epoch led to the formation of boundaries and territories within which the settled communities operated. This was the precedent to the formation of a state; the state was the precedent to the formation of a nation-state. This essay attempts to reflect on the idea of nation, nationalism and nation-worship for which state is a precursor. To understand them it is important to understand the concept of a state.

Aristotle in his seminal work on political philosophy written in 356 BC, ‘Politics’, says, “Man is a political animal, destined by nature for state life”. He means to say that it is impossible to detach man from the state. Man, by virtue of his natural existence is destined to be a part of the state. After the advent of the agrarian epoch, there emerged an important reason for the formation of the state itself i.e. the emergence of literacy and special clerical class.

Firstly, literacy and clerisy introduced political centralization – which forms the core basis of a state. Through this a certain minority section of society alleviated themselves from peasantry to labouring class who went on to form the ruling class; this newly introduced class division based on labour was crucial in the establishment of a state.

Secondly, culture formed one of the most important characteristics of a state. Religion and other cultural beliefs formed the basis of formation of clergymen and priests who were a separate class. Although the origin of religion and theism is unclear, there is ample evidence, for the presence of such beliefs back in the age of settlements. The existence of culture along with the establishment of literacy and clerisy led to political centralization and the formation of a state. In such a state, the centralization vested in the hands of the king who derived his legitimacy from divinity also known as a theocracy.

Abbe Sieyes, who published the pamphlet “What is Third Estate”

In the later part of the sixteenth century, theocracy started to slowly decline. The emergence of the nation-state and national consciousness as a process as well as a doctrine has to be credited to the dual revolutions of French and Industrial Revolution coupled with philosophical romanticism. Eric Hobsbawm in his book, The Age of Revolution: 1789 – 1848, says, “If the economy of the nineteenth-century world was formed mainly under the influence of British Industrial Revolution, its policies and ideologies were formed mainly by the French”.The ideology includes nationalism, the extreme upheaval of which turned into nation-worship.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, considered to be the founder of Romanticism

The French Revolution was sparked by the proposal for the convocation of Estates General in 1788 by King Louis XVI. Soon after, in January 1789, Abbe Sieyès, a French clergyman and political writer published a pamphlet titled ‘What is Third Estate?’ which would later help constitute a National Assembly. In August 1789 following Sieyès’ pamphlet, Honoré Mirabeau drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’. One of the lines of the declaration read “The source of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation”. This fueled the rage against the nobility and all feudal privileges were abolished after which a nation-state emerged.

Religion and nation, when juxtaposed are analogous in nature. Benedict Anderson called them ‘imagined communities’ in his book titled the same. He says that the characteristic of unselfconscious coherence of these communities makes them imagined communities. He defines a nation as “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.

This unselfconscious coherence with respect to the nation can be attributed to romanticism. Romanticism and its effect on the nation started with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparté. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thoughts on ‘individual’ and ‘feeling’ influenced the rise of romanticism. Napoleon was admired and glorified not just as an able general but also as an artistic creator. Isaiah Berlin in his essay Roots of Romanticism’ says,

The State fit for human beings to live in will be invented by the concentrated and organised use of those creative faculties which invent their own principles and their own ends in a creative act.

Today a nation-state is a combination of romantic ideas of ‘nation’ imposed upon a governing institution called ‘state’. This marriage gave rise to two of the most debated concepts of human history – Nationalism and Nation-Worship.

To be continued.

As mentioned earlier, this essay is the first part of a two-part series on Nationalism. The second part will talk about the perils of Nationalism, in relevance to Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist political agenda. Click here to read the second part