Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam – Yes, It’s a Genuine Hindu Principle

The universe is one family. It’s not Hindu revisionism, but a genuine Vedic principle.

Awful Audrey attacks again, publicly implying that the Hindu principle of “vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam” (world is one family) is merely Vishva Hindu Parishad propaganda.

She is just plain wrong
again, as usual.

It started innocently enough. A Hindu congresswoman publicly welcomed the democratically-elected prime minister of a Hindu-majority country, stating her desire to discuss the importance of working together on mutual issues and bringing about the principle (enunciated in Hindu sacred texts) of “vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam, recognizing that everyone on our planet, we’re all one family.”

One would think this to be a fairly non-controversial and frankly welcome sentiment to anyone wishing to end discrimination and injustice. Yet Rutgers University’s Audrey Truschke, frequently in the spotlight for her Hinduphobic rants, managed to find fault with even this sentiment by responding on Twitter as follows:

Her sinister implication that the phrase has been changed somehow by “Hindutva groups such as the VHP” is (in her view anyway) reinforced by the linked publication of one Brian Hatcher (whose qualifications on the subject of Hindu scriptural exegesis are not clear) in a 1994 Contributions to Indian Sociology paper. Hatcher, who doesn’t actually consult any Hindu scriptural texts in his analysis, suggests that the canonicity of the mantra is not established. He then, against all logic, avoids understanding it according to canonical Hindu śāstra and proceeds instead to analyze the mantra as it appears in the obviously non-scriptural Hitopadeśa. In a fable therein, the mantra is misused by a jackal to lull his victim, a deer, into lowering his guard under false pretenses. The gist of Hatcher’s long-winded, meandering argument is that the VHP must be taking the mantra out of context because the jackal from the fable did. He notes that VHP spokesmen often quote the mantra with its first part omitted, and he strangely perceives the omitted part to mean that, “some people insist on categorising humans according to their gender, religion, caste, or nationality” and that “there has been no overt denunciation of the path of the narrow-minded, chauvinism remains an option for today’s jackals.” Then, quoting from an early 20th century Indologist who also cited the mantra on the subject of Hindu humanism, he concludes that its emphasis on unity and humanism is a recent emergence, but can only be practiced by a renunciant rather than the common Hindu.

As a Hindu who is not a member of the VHP, and in fact who has been a frequent critic of the VHP’s depiction of Hinduism, I believe I am uniquely suited to offer a more nuanced and evidence-based perspective on the subject.

The first problem is that Hatcher is obviously unaware of the mantra’s origin and full context. Lacking further insight into the mantra, he seems oblivious to the implication that the reference to it in the Hiṭopadeśa is premised on it being part of an older tradition with which its Hindu audience should be familiar. The mantra has its origin in the Mahā Upaniṣad, [1] from which the mantra is given in full below:

अयं बन्धुरयं नेति गणना लघुचेतसाम् ।
उदारचरितानां तु वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् ॥ महोपनिषद् ६.७१ ॥

“Only small men discriminate saying: One is a relative; the other is a stranger. For those who live magnanimously, the entire world constitutes but a family.”

(Mahopaniṣad 6.71) [translated by A.G. Warrier]

As one can see from the full text, there is nothing to suggest that it acknowledges discrimination as a valid mentality in its own right. Small-minded people (laghucetasām) discriminate between relatives and strangers, but (and the Sanskrit particle tu here clearly denotes the contrast), the more noble-minded (udāracarita) individual considers the whole world to be a family (vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam). Hatcher’s claim that “chauvinism remains an option for today’s jackals” belies the reality that the Upaniṣad is clearly decrying that mentality.

One might doubt the Mahā Upaniṣad’s canonicity because extant commentaries on it are few, but it is known to have been quoted by Śrī Rāmānuja in his Vedārtha Saṅgraha. [2] For a scholar of Rāmānuja’s stature, this would indicate that the Mahā Upaniṣad had already been widely-accepted as a canonical śāstra among Vedānta scholars by the 11th-12th century period.

But even if we were to doubt the canonicity of Mahopaniṣad 6.71, the concept of vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam is fully in line with other mainstream, Hindu scriptural texts. That this is so should be obvious to anyone reasonably familiar with Hindu scripture, which, sadly, both Audrey Truschkey and Brian Hatcher are not.

For example, a family is conventionally thought of as a group of individuals sharing the same parent. Do Vedāntic texts endorse the idea of a single parent for all different living beings? It should not need elaboration that multiple Hindu texts testify that Brahman (the supreme entity) is the origin of all living entities. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.1.20 states that from the Ātman (here denoting Brahman) emanate all beings (ātmāni sarvāṇi bhūtāni sarve devāḥ sarve lokāḥ sarve prāṇāḥ). [3] There is also the Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 2.1.1 which states that all different creatures emanate from this imperishable being as sparks from a fire (tathākṣarādvividhāḥ somya bhāvāḥ prajāyante). [4] Thus, Brahman is the father of all living entities as Śrī Kṛṣṇa (the Supreme Person identified as Brahman in Hindu texts) explicitly states in Bhagavad-gītā: [5]

सर्वयोनिषु कौन्तेय मूर्तयः संभवन्ति याः ।
तासां ब्रह्म महद्योनिरहं बीजप्रदः पिता ॥ गीता १४.४ ॥

“Whatever forms are produced in any womb, O Arjuna, the Prakṛti is their great womb and I am the sowing father.”

(Bhagavad-gītā 14.4) [translated by Swami Adidevananda]

Members of a family are also united by a sense of equal membership in the group, reflecting underlying common attributes that are independent of their age and station. One may reasonably ask if Hindu texts endorse the idea of a basic underlying commonality that characterizes all living beings. Here also, a dispassionate reading of mainstream Hindu texts discloses a worldview that is premised on a basic underlying equality. That equality is first and foremost understood by the view that Brahman dwells equally within all living beings: [6]

यस्तु सर्वाणि भूतानि आत्मन्येवानुपश्यति ।
सर्वभूतेषु चात्मानं ततो न विजुगुप्सते ॥ ई.उ. ६ ॥
यस्मिन्सर्वाणि भूतानि आत्मैवाभूद्विजानतः ।
तत्र को मोहः कः शोकः एकत्वं अनुपश्यतः ॥ ई.उ. ७ ॥


“He who sees all entities in the (Supreme) self itself and that (Supreme) self in all entities does not abuse anyone. When (at the time of meditation) for him the knower of the Supreme Self, all entities are verily the (Supreme) self (by virtue of it being the inmost self of all), then for him who sees the oneness of the (Supreme) self (in all entities) what delusion or what sorrow can there be?”

(Īśopaniṣad 6-7) [translated by N.S. Anantha Rangacharya]

There is no hostility or delusion for he who sees the same Brahman (Paramātmā) within all living beings. On the other hand, for he who lacks that vision of equanimity and instead sees differences, repeated birth and death, rather than liberation, are his fate: [7]

यदेवेह तदमुत्र यदमुत्र तदन्विह ।
मृत्योः स मृत्युमाप्नोति य इह नानेव पश्यति ॥ क.उ. २.१.१० ॥

“What indeed is here is there; what is there is here again. Whoso here sees as though different, passes from death to death.”

(Kaṭha Upaniṣad 2.1.10) [translated by Vidyavachaspati V. Panoli]

The living entities are not just equal because of being pervaded by the same Brahman. They are also equal in their very selves, as their differences are only due to their external bodies: [8]

विद्याविनयसंपन्ने ब्राह्मणे गवि हस्तिनि ।
शुनि चैव श्वपाके च पण्डिताः समदर्शिनः ॥ गीता ५.१८ ॥

“The sages look with an equal eye on one endowed with learning and humility, a Brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater.”

(Bhagavad-gītā 5.18) [translated by Swami Adidevananda]

The gist of this verse is that differences pertain to the body only, whereas in Hinduism, the locus of consciousness, or the self, is distinct from the body. The selves, also known as jīvātmans, are all equal when separated from their bodies created due to karma. Thus, an enlightened soul seeing different embodied beings, possesses the higher vision of seeing them as their pure selves, distinct from their bodies, and equal in their fundamental nature. This vision of sameness is again mentioned later in the the final instructions of the Gītā where it is described to be in the mode of goodness (sāttvika): [9]

सर्वभूतेषु येनैकं भावमव्ययमीक्षते ।
अविभक्तं विभक्तेषु तज्ज्ञानं विद्धि सात्त्विकम् ॥ गीता १८.२० ॥

“Know that Knowledge to be Sāttvika by which one sees in all beings, one immutable existence undivided in the divided.”

(Bhagavad-gītā 18.20) [translated by Swami Adidevananda]

These straightforward statements clearly illustrate the Hindu view that all living beings are characterized by an essential equality that transcends their external differences based on their different bodies. Not only are living beings of all races, castes, and genders identical as jīvātmās (spirit souls), but they each have the same Paramātmā (the Supreme Soul, or in other words, Brahman) dwelling within them. A worldview based on such underlying unity does not negate the reality of external differences anymore than saying that different members of a family are all of the same age. Rather, it places such differences in their context, as a temporary condition related to each individual’s unique association with matter via its guṇa and karma.

Thus, the scriptures of Hinduism endorse an underlying relationship between all living beings as jīvātmās having Brahman as their shared father, making them, spiritually, a united collective living in this universe as their shared home.

In other words, they constitute a family (kuṭumbakam). Specifically, in the vision of Hinduism, they are all equal selves in the family of Brahman.

Hence, vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam (“world is one family”), in addition to being explicitly stated in Mahā Upaniṣad, follows quite logically from straightforward statements in other, broadly-authoritative Hindu scriptures.

Hatcher’s theory that the universe-as-family vision is meant only for those practicing renunciation is contradicted by the inclusion of that vision in the teachings of Bhagavad-gītā. The direct recipient of the Gītā, Arjuna, was not a renunciant, but rather the prince of a powerful dynasty who was being advised against renouncing his duties. The Gītā’s cardinal teaching of action in renunciation [10] is a part of the Mahābhārata, which itself was written to distill the principles of the Vedas in a format that could be studied by all. Elsewhere, the Mahābhārata records Yudhiṣṭhira, another member of the same royal dynasty, as saying that absence of cruelty is the highest virtue (ānṛśaṁsyaṁ paro dharmaḥ). [11] Similar humanistic principles based on universal equality are found in other mainstream sources available to the common Hindu. The Rāmāyaṇa’s central protagonist Rāma, the Lord taken avatāra as a prince Who embodied ideal Hindu virtues, is described in the text as regarding compassion to all beings as the highest virtue (bhūtadayāparam). [12] The Bhāgavata Purāṇa says of King Parikṣit that he, like other devotees of Viṣṇu, are ever devoted to the welfare of the world (śivāya lokasya bhavāya bhūtaye janāḥ). [13] As we discussed here, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa asserts, in its discussion of varṇāśrama-dharma, that Viṣṇu is metaphorically identical to all living beings, and hence harming any of them is harming Him. [14] All of these texts were explicitly created to teach Vedic principles to ordinary people following worldly duties. Hence, the spiritual humanism of Hinduism isn’t just an ideal to be attained by a spiritually elite few, but a concept to be meditated and acted upon by all classes of Hindus.

Thus it has been proven that “vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam” is very much a Vedic principle intrinsic to orthodox Hinduism. The Hindu texts teach us that we are all in the family of Brahman, Who dwells equally within all of us, who are all equal spiritual entities. Our existence as embodied beings differentiates us, but those differences are only temporary and always changing, based as they are on the particular karmas we are experiencing which create our different bodies. The gross reality of differences is real, but Hindu spirituality exhorts us to see the higher reality, which is one of spiritual unity and equality rooted in our universal dependence on Brahman. Far from being limited to a few esoteric texts meant only for renunciants, these themes are revealed in a broad range of widely-accepted, śruti and smṛti texts intended even for common people engaged in worldly duties.

The genius of Hinduism is not in teaching us to ignore this external, gross reality of differences, but to live in it while carrying out action based on the higher vision of our universal equality. Therefore, it is perfectly valid for the principle of vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam to be cited as a cardinal Hindu principle to inspire us to appreciate our universal kinship.

Notes

[1] The Sanskrit text of the Mahā Upaniṣad can be found at the Sanskrit Documents website while a full translation is available here.

[2] Vedārtha Saṅgraha 134 of Śrī Rāmānujācārya translated by S.S. Raghavachar and available here:

This is a very trivial issue. The truth may be summed up in these words: The entire body of the Vedas, amplified by the words of the best of the knowers of the Vedas and the canons of interpretation, declares that Hari is the cause of the origin etc. of this universe. To explain: On the authority of the aphorism ‘That from which the creation etc. of this universe proceed is Brahman (Brh. Ar. 1, 1, 2)’ and the text 43 ‘That from which all these creatures are born ‘that in which they all subsist and that into which they all enter, enquire into that and that is Brahman (Tai. 111, 2)’, we make out that cause of the creation etc. of the world is Brahman. We have to study it only in the sections which deal with the subject-matter of creation and dissolution. The text ‘Being only, without a second (Cha. VI, ii, 1)’ declares that the ultimate cause, described therein as ‘Being’ is Brahman by virtue of its being the material cause, efficient cause and the inner controller of the world. The same entity is spoken of in another section and is designated ‘Brahman’, as ‘All this was Brahman, Brahman only, in the beginning (Brh. Ar. 3:4;10)’. By this we are made to understand that the principle described as ‘sat’ is Brahman. The same truth is conveyed in another branch of the text, ‘All this was atman only in the beginning and nothing else was there (Ai. 1)’. This brings out that atman itself was described in the other two sections as ‘sat’ and ‘Brahman’. Similarly in another text it is said, ‘Only Narayana existed, neither Brahma, nor Isana, nor the sky and earth (Mahopanisad, 1, 1)’. The culminating inference is that Narayana himself has been described in the other sections by the terms ‘sat’, ‘Brahman’ and ‘atman’ all of which are applied to the ultimate cause.

[3] Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.1.20 translated by Swami Madhavananda, full translation available here:

स यथोर्णभिस्तन्तुनोच्चरेद् यथाऽग्नेः क्षुद्रा विष्फुलिङ्गा व्युच्चरन्त्येवमेवास्मादात्मनः सर्वे प्राणाः सर्वे लोकाः सर्वे देवाः सर्वाणि भूतानि व्युच्चरन्ति ।
व्युच्चरन्ति तस्योपनिषत्सत्यस्य सत्यमिति प्राणा वै सत्यं तेषामेष सत्यम् ॥ भृ.उ. २.१.२० ॥

“As a spider moves along the thread (it produces), and as from a fire tiny sparks fly in all directions, so from this Self emanate all organs, all worlds, all gods and all beings. Its secret name (Upaniṣad) is ‘the Truth of Truth’. The vital force is truth, and It is the Truth of that.”

[4] Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad 2.1.1 translated by Swami Gambhirananda, full translation available here:

तदेतत् सत्यं
यथा सुदीप्तात् पावकाद्विस्फुलिङ्गाः सहस्रशः प्रभवन्ते सरूपाः ।
तथाऽक्षराद्विविधाः सोम्य भावाः प्रजायन्ते तत्र चैवापि यन्ति ॥ मु.उ. २.१.१ ॥

“That thing that is such, is true.
As from a fire fully ablaze, fly off sparks in their thousands that are akin to the fire, similarly O good-looking one, from the Imperishable originate different kinds of creatures and into It again they merge.”

[5] Śrī Rāmānuja’s Bhagavad-gītā commentary is available with original text and translation here.

[6] Though I’ve used a different translation, another translation of Īṣopaniṣad available here gives a similar enough sense of 6th and 7th mantras to make my point.

[7] This is a famous mantra from the Kaṭha Upaniṣad among Vedānta scholars, and followers of Rāmānuja and Śaṅkara render it similarly. One translation following the latter tradition is available here.

[8] Śrī Rāmānuja’s interpretation of Gītā 5.18 is available here, and his commentary is well worth reading to elucidate this point.

[9] Śrī Rāmānuja’s interpretation of Gītā 18.20 is available here, and the commentary is again well worth reading.

[10] Bhagavad-gītā 18.5-9, available here for those who wish to review the full context:

यज्ञदानतप:कर्म न त्याज्यं कार्यमेव तत् ।
यज्ञो दानं तपश्चैव पावनानि मनीषिणाम् ॥ गीता १८.५ ॥
एतान्यपि तु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलानि च ।
कर्तव्यानीति मे पार्थ निश्चितं मतमुत्तमम् ॥ गीता १८.६ ॥
नियतस्य तु सन्न्यास: कर्मणो नोपपद्यते ।
मोहात्तस्य परित्यागस्तामस: परिकीर्तित: ॥ गीता १८.७ ॥
दु:खमित्येव यत्कर्म कायक्ल‍ेशभयात्त्यजेत् ।
स कृत्वा राजसं त्यागं नैव त्यागफलं लभेत् ॥ गीता १८.८ ॥
कार्यमित्येव यत्कर्म नियतं क्रियतेऽर्जुन ।
सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलं चैव स त्याग: सात्त्विको मत: ॥ गीता १८.९ ॥

“The acts of sacrifice, gifts and austerities should not be relinquished; but should be performed. For sacrifices, gifts and austerities are the means of purification for the wise. It is My decided and final view that even these acts should be done, O Arjuna, with relinquishment of attachment and the fruits thereof. But the renunciation of obligatory acts is not proper. Abandonment of these through delusion is declared to be Tāmasika. He who renounces acts as painful from fear of bodily suffering, performs a Rājasika abandonment; he does not gain the fruit of abandonment. When actions are performed as what ought to be done, O Arjuna, renouncing attachment and also fruits, such abandonment is regarded as Sāttvika.” (Bhagavad-gītā 18.5-9) [translated by Swami Adidevananda]

[11] Mahābhārata 3.313.76, translated by M.N. Dutt. The numbering given is for the edition published by Parimal Publishers:

युधिष्ठिर उवाच आनृशंस्यं परो धर्मस्त्रयीधर्मः सदाफलः ।
मनो यम्य न शोचन्ति संधिः सदभिर्न जीर्यते ॥ महा ३.३१३.७६ ॥

“Yudhiṣṭhira said: ‘Absence of cruelty is the highest virtue. The religion of the three (Vedas) always bears fruit. The mind, if subdued, does not lead to misery, and friendship with the righteous never breaks.’”

[12] Vālmīki-Rāmāyaṇa 2.116.8, translation published by Gita Press. Other translators translate bhūta dayā param as meaning that Rāma was ever “compassionate to all beings” which gives a similar sense.

अथर्षिर्जरया वृद्धस्तपसा च जरां गतः।
वेपमान इवोवाच रामं भूतदयापरम् ॥ वा.रा. २.११६.८ ॥

“The ṛṣi, who was not only worn out from age but had also attained ripeness through askesis, replied (as follows), as though quaking, to Śrī Rāma, who regarded compassion for created beings as the highest virtue:”

[13] Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa 1.4.12, translated by C.L. Goswami:

शिवाय लोकस्य भवाय भूतये य उत्तमश्लोकपरायणा जनाः ।
जीवन्ति नात्मार्थमसौ पराश्रयं मुमोच निर्विद्य कुतः कलेवरम् ॥ भा.पु. १.४.१२ ॥

“Men who are solely devoted to the Lord of excellent fame live, not for their own sake, but only for (promoting) the welfare, affluence and prosperity of the world. Why, then, did he cast off his body, which was the support of other beings, in a spirit of aversion?”

[14] Viṣṇu Purāṇa 3.8.9-12, translated by H.H. Wilson/K.L. Joshi:

वर्णाश्रमाचारवता पुरुषेण परः पुमान् ।
विष्णुराराध्यते पन्था नान्यत् तत्तोषकारणम् ॥ वि.प. ३.८.९ ॥
यजन् यज्ञान् यजत्येनं जपत्येनं नृप ।
घ्नंस्तथान्यां हिनस्त्येनं सर्वभूतो यतो हरिः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१० ॥
तस्मात् सदाचारवता पुरुषेण जनार्दनः ।
आराध्यते स्ववर्णोक्त धर्मानुष्ठानकारिणा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.११ ॥
ब्राह्मणः क्षत्रियो वैश्यः शूद्रश्च धरणीपते ।
स्वधर्मतत्परो विष्णुमाराधयति नान्यथा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१२ ॥
परापवादं पैशुन्यमनृतञ्च न भाषते ।
अन्योद्वेगकरञ्चापि तोष्यते तेन केशवः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१३ ॥
परपली परद्रव्य परहिंसासु यो मतिम ।
न करोति पुमान् भूप तोष्याते तेन केशवः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१४ ॥
न ताडयति नो हन्ति प्राणिनोऽन्यांश्च देहिनः ।
यो मनुष्यो मनुष्येन्द्र तोष्यते तेन केशवः ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१५ ॥
देव द्विज गुरूणां यः शुश्रूषासू सदोद्यतः ।
तोष्यते तेन गोविन्दः पुरुषेण नरेश्वर ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१६ ॥
यथात्मनि च पुत्रे च सर्वभूतेषु यस्तथा ।
हितकामो हरिस्तेन सर्वदा तोष्यते सुखम् ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१७ ॥
यस्य रागादिदोषेण न दुष्टं नृप मानसम् ।
विशुद्धचेतसा बिष्णुस्तोष्यते तेन सर्वदा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१८ ॥
वर्णश्रमेषु ये धर्माः शास्त्रोक्ता नृपसत्तम ।
तेषु तिष्ठन् नरो विष्णुमाराधयति नान्यथा ॥ वि.प. ३.८.१९ ॥

“The supreme Viṣṇu is propitiated by a man who observes the institutions of caste order and purificatory practices; no other path is the way to please Him. He who offers sacrifices, sacrifices to Him, he who murmurs prayer, prays to Him; he who injures living creatures, injures Him; for Hari is all beings. Janārdana therefore is propitiated by him who is attentive to established observances and follows the duties prescribed for his caste. The Brāhmaṇa, the Kṣatriya, the Vaiśya, and the Śūdra, who attends to the rules enjoined by his caste, best worships Viṣṇu. Keśava is most pleased with him who does good to others, who never utters abuse, calumny or untruth; who never covets another’s wife or another’s wealth and who bears ill-will towards none; who neither beats nor slays any animate or inanimate thing; who is ever diligent in the service of the gods, of the Brāhmaṇas and of his spiritual preceptor; who is always desirous of the welfare of all creatures, of his children and of his own soul; in whose pure heart no pleasure is derived from the imperfections of love and hatred. The man, oh monarch, who conforms to the duties enjoined by scriptural authority for every caste and condition of life, is he who best worships Viṣṇu: there is no other mode.”

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