Is Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam a Pacifist Notion? Discussing the Blind Application of the Phrase
Rohith Krishna
Introduction: A Brief Background of the Phrase and its Usage at International Forums

As India ascended the G20 presidency, the discussions on its theme, ‘Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam’, became widespread. The theme’s motto is ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’, highlighting universality and oneness. In short, there is an emphasis on oneness, which undermines the division of the ‘other’. One of the major references to the phrase Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam is from the Mahopaniṣad, which goes:

Ayaṃ nijaḥ paro veti gaṇanā laghucetasām |
udāracaritānāṃ tu vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam || ( Mahopaniṣad 6.71-75)

It is often translated as:

“The narrow-minded like to ask, ‘Is this person one of us, or is he a stranger?’ But to those of noble character the whole world is one family.”

India's leaders, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, have frequently quoted the Mahopaniṣad verse in multiple contexts.[1] Rajiv Gandhi, for instance, used Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam to refute the notion of the first, second, and third worlds, and embraced the concept of "One World," and advanced the idea of an "Earth Citizen" in 1989. Atal Bihari Vajpayee used it in 2002 to claim that, "India's understanding and promotion of human rights are as universal as they are ancient," at an Asia Pacific Forum meeting on national human rights institutions. Dr. Manmohan Singh used the phrase in 2007 to convey India's stance on global warming and climate change. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi used it to highlight the world body’s inability to combat cross-border terrorism. Now someone might wonder, how can Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam, a seemingly pacifist phrase, be fitted while talking about combating terrorism?

The Question of Nativity while Talking Universalism

The emphasis on ‘oneness’ by discarding the idea of a ‘stranger’ may appear bizarre even to many Indians because our living cultural experiences tell us otherwise. In our everyday interactions, we feel it is wise to behave in a certain way with people we know and differently with whom we do not know. It might not be an exaggeration to say that ‘relatives’ means more to Indian families than families of any other country. Does that mean most Indians are ‘narrow-minded’ compared to other cultures that do not discriminate between relatives and strangers and don't even follow the ideas of family as an institution? So, if Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam tells people that such a way of thinking is narrow-minded, is it to say that we all are wrong in how we live? How to make sense of this verse in relation to our lived experiences? As long as one doesn’t feel that relation, it is natural that anyone would feel that Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam is another pacifist notion that is utopian or impractical in the world we see around us.

When Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam is brought into the arena of International relations and geopolitics, the problem mentioned above gets further elevated. To many, it might even appear as a sign of weakness for a country to acknowledge oneness among all.

For instance, in a book called “Grasping Greatness,” edited by Bibek Debroy et al., Rahul Sagar shares his concern as, “India’s love of mankind — its Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam ethos — tends to drown out its patriotism, or Rashtra Dharma. Reverse it, and India will be in a leading position in Dharma.” [2] According to him, the ethos of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam harms Rashtra Dharma (note that here he uses patriotism and rashtra dharma interchangeably). He further calls for developing an appetite for India to become a global power and to be hungry in grasping it to prevent the country from subservience. To summarise this position, India’s universal ethos and values would essentially handicap its national agenda for growth, and its love for humankind would negatively affect India in global power equations.

While many criticise India’s universal ethos for being damaging to its national concerns, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jayashankar observes that Indian thought always engages with a kind of universalism that makes it grounded to its native roots at the same time. In his book ‘The India way’, he observes that from our past in India “… there is a tradition of reconciling nationalism with global engagement.”[3] He adds, “...unlike in many other powers, that sense of nationalism does not translate into an ‘us versus the world’ mentality.” He goes on to say that despite the immeasurable damage done by the West, Indian nationalism or India’s self identity is not driven by an anti-Western sentiment or a sense of victimhood (emphasis added). Minister Jayashankar identifies this as a distinguishable feature from China of the 1950s or Japan of the 1930s.

This observation requires scholarly attention on multiple grounds to think why India did not fall into the hands of any stream of ideologies that was gaining popularity in the last two centuries, which essentially functioned on a sense of victimhood or an ‘us versus them’ mentality. Even during the times of misery due to the unjust rule by the British, Indians resonated more with the ‘nationalist’ thought leaders, who had a ‘Universalist Outlook’, whether it was Swāmi Vivekānanda, Tagore, Gāndhi or Subramaṇiya Bhārathi.

India’s discourse on nationalism was never detached from universal values, its view on humans, nature, and oneness. Arguably, this position has helped India to retain originality and preserve its civilisational character to the best and the thought and practice of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam could be credited for the same. Even though India kept diverse identities locally, they simultaneously kept a universal outlook and such identities were indivisible from one another. Arguably, it is the universal outlook that helps them to keep diverse local identities in harmony, and the native traditions help people to experience the so-called ‘universality’ of oneness locally. That being said, there is a need to understand the cultural difference in how the West and India understand the term ‘universality’, which is beyond the scope of this article.

However, as the critics warn, a fractured comprehension of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam can invite many societal troubles and confusions. A reductive understanding of the same, when coupled with our tendency to grasp it with dominant Western ideas, might make it further complicated. For instance, the agitations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which intended to give citizenship to persecuted religious minorities of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan is well known. As a reaction to which The Gujarat Roman Catholic Diocese opined that CAA and NRC are discriminatory and evoked the concept of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam, on which the Constitution of India is based, according to the Diocese.[4] For many others categorising Rohingyas of Myanmar as ‘migrants’ instead of ‘refugees’ is also against the principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.[5]

It's evident that the phrase is often thrown as an empty slogan in bizarre contexts without much reflection. This article attempts to clarify the concept, taking the following question as an entry point, is Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam a pacifist notion? In conclusion, the article tries to argue that the tradition itself is aware and warns us about the possible blind application of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as a pacifist notion.

Why is ‘Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam’ Misunderstood as a Pacifist Notion?

One may misunderstand Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as a pacifist notion because our dominant discourses are vulnerable to certain conditions that pave the way for such an understanding. If one is concluding Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam to be a pacifist notion, arguably, they would have the following presumptions to arrive at it. We will take these three presumptions, which are interrelated to one another, to discuss the issue. The first two are only an entry gate to discuss the third one. To illustrate the third presumption, a comparison is made between the misconception of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam with that of ahiṃsā.

Presuming Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam Promises an ‘Utopian’ Future

People can conclude Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam to be pacifist if they presume it to be another ‘universalism’ that promises an utopian future. There is a tendency to follow the slogan of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as any other future-oriented utopian slogans and movements that have rung in the world before, creating more misery. In that confusion, someone might even reduce Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam similar to other utopian visions of ‘global citizenship’, imagining a world of equality without any countries, etc.

Presuming Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam to be ‘Human-centric’

As mentioned earlier, Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam is not a call for a utopian tomorrow; rather, it is a concept that reminds us about the essential nature (sattva) of the existing universe. In the words of Prof. Kapil Kapoor, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is a Siddhanta….it primarily means that prakriti, nature itself is a kutumb, a family that is interdependent, supportive mutually.”[6] This means the phrase talks not about an ideal world that needs to be built; rather, it points us towards an existing reality or knowledge as Indian traditions understand the universe.

In a world where conflicts over identities, memories, and ideologies are burdening the earth increasingly, India's way forward to strengthen ties among our people and harmony with mother earth is through reminding the existential nature of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam, by de-centering ‘human’ out of our discussion. This is not to ignore humans but rather to consider humans only as part of the whole.

It not only reminds us about the interdependency of all species on the earth to one another but also brings into our consciousness that the ‘other’ is nothing but an extension of the self. Just as, Sṛṣṭi (Self-creation) is not considered an act of creating an ‘other’, but an extension of the Brahman itself. Currently, our public discourse puts ‘human’ at the centre of concern. Even our action plans and language to deal with the ecological crisis presumes a moral superiority of ‘humans’ to ‘save’ the earth. Arguably, the theme of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam can make the world re-think about ‘humans’ by pointing out the problems in the dominant understanding of humans in our contemporary world, which was inherited from the modern West.

When our interactions with others emerge from a consciousness about the existential reality of oneness, it may pave the way for mature dialogue. Ideally, the theme of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam should offer the world room for such quality discussions and dialogues, if not to promise a utopia like other ‘universalisms’. By making it a G20 theme, we could aim only to remind the world to discuss our problems as issue (knowledge) based and less of identity (ego) based. It is not to blur or wash away all identities; rather, to say that identities do have a harmless place when they are organically formed and bask in the sense of seeking self-knowledge (Ātma-jñāna).

However, it's true that if someone defines Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam in human-centric terms as India’s love for humankind, it might sound like another future-oriented utopian vision that merely calls for a universal brotherhood among people or countries. Instead when Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam is defined by de-centering ‘human’, it would appear as pointing us towards making sense of the world or a knowledge that already exists and could be experienced at present.

Presuming Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as a ‘Stand Alone’ Concept

It is unfair to look at Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as a stand-alone concept or to read the Upaniṣadic verse in isolation. As long as this concept is discussed alone, by singling out a verse, it will be described only in humanocentric terms. It is only intelligible and open for knowledge when it is discussed along with other Indic clusters of India in a comprehensive manner. If one doesn’t understand the concept of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam along with other clusters of Indian ideas, Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as such might appear as an empty slogan.

In such a void, one may assume it to be a pacifist notion or a dreamy world that would never come. Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam cannot be detached from other concepts such as dharma, karma, yajña, puruṣārtha, etc. In such a combination of ideas, it can never be pacifist in nature or become exclusively non-violent. Instead one would be able to discriminate and judge the right thing to do if one can comprehend Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam with other clusters of Upaniṣadic ideas. However, if one understands it merely as an empty slogan, there are chances that one would fall into such a problem. This point might require a bit of explanation.

One would land in a similar situation when someone reads the Mahābhārata verse, ‘ahimsā paramo dharmah’ (1.11.12a), as a standalone verse from the entire epic. Can one conclude that Mahābhārata is a text that gives the message of pacifism and non-violence? No, because the contents of the epics are full of descriptions of violence, present causes of violence, and cases of grief. On the other hand, if one claims ahiṃsā to be a concept that is a misfit in the text, it amounts to a matter of reductive reading. This predicament is similar to when one reduces Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam to pacifism. Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of ahiṃsā paramo dharmah should also shed light on clarifying Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam.

The concept of ahiṃsā cannot be exclusively reduced to absolute non-violence. Because on the other hand, Hindu traditions are aware that violence (in the sense of hiṃsā) is inescapable in saṃsāra.[7] While on one side, Mahābhārata reveals ahiṃsā paramo dharmah, on the other hand, it says that the ultimate source of violence is time (kāla) itself. Mahābhārata (1.1.187-90) reveals that, “All this is rooted in time, to be or not to be, to be happy or not to be happy, Time ripens the creatures, Time rots them, Time burns down the creatures, Time unfolds all beings in the world holy and unholy, Time shrinks them and expands them again, Time walks in all creatures, unaverted, impartial. Whatever beings there were in the past, will be in the future, whatever is busy now, they are all the creatures of Time.”

Hence, within the work of time, absolute non-violence is not possible, according to Mahābhārata. In other words, creation (time) or saṃsāra involves violence and sacrifice. Yet, how is ahiṃsā, Paramo dharmah? Here, one should turn attention towards the word Parama to understand ahiṃsā. The word parā doesn’t denote 'another world’ or a ‘transcendental’ entity. Rather it signifies that enigmatic constant base of the repetitive universe, changeless of the ever-changing, which cannot be sensed through individual senses but could be experienced or accessed by humans in saṃsāra (world). The ultimate liberation is said to be when one completely realises the parā. And, one can only access parā or attain mokṣa only ‘through’ saṃsāra, not ‘from’. There is no escape ‘from’ the saṃsāra, but one should really ‘go through’ it to reach the parā. Therefore, the question is how to go about in this world or saṃsāra to access parā in this world itself.

In the Mahābhārata verse ahiṃsā paramo dharmah, the state of mokṣa or Parama Gati, the Absolute, is linked with the state of ahiṃsā .[8] Whereas, in the state of Sṛṣṭi (self-creation) or saṃsāra, an absolute ahiṃsā does not exist. However, to achieve liberation or access parā, there is a need to practice ahiṃsā to one’s best in their ordinary lives. Forgetting one’s dharma, duty to perform in the name of ‘peace’ cannot be ahiṃsā, according to the tradition. In fact, that can lead to more karmic bondage and make us far from mokṣa (the ultimate state of ahiṃsā). This is precisely what Śrī Rāma demonstrated and Śrī Kṛṣṇa advised Arjuna. Therefore, one has to know ahiṃsā in relation to being in the saṃsāra and in ahiṃsā relation to parama gati, simultaneously (though they are interrelated).

Therefore, in the Bhagavad Gītā, one would find various dimensions to ahiṃsā in the following ways – in the Gītā, the term occurs as a quality that emanates from the Lord, or as a practice required for Ātma-jñāna (Self-knowledge), as a practice required for tapas (Gītā 10.5, 13.7-12, 17.14 respectively). While on one hand, in parama gati ahiṃsā is absolute, on the other hand, the work of time or creation or saṃsāra is inseparable from hiṃsā. This way Mahābhārata avoids preaching utopianism while encouraging practical and thoughtful living that brings happiness and puṇya.

Hence, to access ‘parā’ in saṃsāra, our recourse is performing pañcamahāyajña (often translated as - ‘five daily sacrifices’), which can reduce us from overindulging in ahiṃsā and prevent one from incurring pāpa.[9] In fact, through such practice and knowledge, one could have a better sense of discrimination between what is ahiṃsā and what is not. Such a conscious living would ultimately purify one to get the parama gati, mokṣa, the state of ahiṃsā. Ahiṃsā is fully accomplished only realising one’s identity with Brahman. It is in this sense that ahiṃsā is paramo dharma.

Just as how the word ahiṃsā is more comprehensible when placed with other clusters of ideas, similarly, Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam also makes more sense when understood along with other concepts. On the other hand, ahiṃsā as a stand-alone concept or a singled-out verse gives a fractured understanding different from our day-to-day practical experiences. Similarly, taking Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as an empty slogan, as a stand-alone verse in Mahopaniṣad would invite a similar predicament.

To gather a comprehensive idea of the term, one has to have an understanding of interrelated ideas like how Indian traditions understand human, time, Brahman, Sṛṣṭi, other species, or concepts like dharma, pañcamahāyajña, etc. Such a fractured understanding of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam or ahiṃsā as a pacifist notion, as a singled-out concept, can potentially create confusion and lead to weakness, as many critics warn.

Conclusion: Vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam in the Hitopadeśa Tale

The tendency, in rhetoric, to describe Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam in anthropocentric terms as a sense of fraternity among ‘human beings’ and countries is essentially linked to a deeper problem of describing it as a stand-alone concept. As a result, it gets romanticised as a pacifist notion. The Indian tradition foresees this problem, for which the Hitopadeśa stands as an example. One of the major references of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam comes from Hitopadeśa. While discussing Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam, the verse from Mahopaniṣad is often repeated. The mentions of the phrase from other references, such as Hitopadeśa, often get sidelined. This tendency could be because, in Hitopadeśa, Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam appears in a seemingly different context. However, to have a cumulative understanding of the phrase, the Hitopadeśa reference is as important as any other references.

Hitopadeśa warns us against the above-mentioned blind application of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam in matters of state policy and individual relationships. It tells the story of a deer, who fell for the sweet words of a jackal (the preacher of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam in the story), not knowing his true intentions of wanting to kill it.[10] The crow, a wise friend of the deer warns it by saying, “But, do you know him (jackal) 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.” Here, the crow clearly advises the deer about the need to discriminate between strangers and the need to familiarise with people before taking them into account. To clarify the deluded deer, the crow illustrated another story, about a blind vulture who had to suffer because he accommodated a wrong friend, a cunning cat. The story within the story goes like; a blind vulture had to suffer for its own mistake of unconditional openness. To convince the vulture, the cat gave a sermon on hospitality to the vulture. The cunning cat said the following to prove his point,

Arāvapyucitaṃ kāryamātithyaṃ gṛhamāgate
chettuḥ pārsvagatāṃ chāyāṃ nopasaṃharate drumaḥ

(Should they arrive at one’s house, one must offer hospitality even to one’s enemies, just as the tree offers its shade to the woodcutter.)

Through such multiple efforts, the cat convinced the vulture that it would not pose any threat to the birds that are living with and helping the blind vulture. However, the cat ate some birds and ran away, making the blind vulture guilty for his carelessness and foolishness.

Thus ended the story by the crow to its friend, the deer.

As a response to this conversation between the deer and the crow, the Jackal recited the famous śloka of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam and tells the deer that it need not be narrow minded and pointed out that even the crow was a stranger to the deer at one point of time. The Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam dialogue seemingly ended all the dilemmas the deer had in its mind, and it ignored the crow’s wise advice. By stating the concept of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam, the cunning jackal could enter the deer’s house. The rest of the story is about how the deer narrowly escapes from the jackal’s trap and understands his true intentions.

Now let us ask this question, why did the Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam dialogue appear very convincing to the deer? Despite a long advice from his close friend crow filled with analogies, the śloka of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam seemingly ended the dilemma the deer had. Isn’t it because the deer took the phrase or śloka of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam as a stand-alone concept? Isn’t it because the deer lacked the knowledge of the śāstras to aptly apply the philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam?

The deer was innocent enough to appreciate someone who narrated a random śloka. But anyone can memorise a śloka and deliver it. Isn’t it because the deer ‘believed’ in a stand-alone verse by not turning to its own real-life experience? Now that the deer finally had an unforgettable experience of a narrow escape let’s hope that the deer would learn from his experience (anubhava) and re-look and reflect at the phrase Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam comprehensively, locating it along with a cluster of Indian ideas. In that case, let us close with this question to ponder, does the Hitopadeśa story warn us that a fractured understanding of the śāstras can lead to the blind application of its concepts, like Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam or ahiṃsā , and end facing consequences of the same?


[1]W.P.S Sidhu “‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ for the 21st Century” Live Mint Acessed: April 10, 2023
[2]Lakshmi Puri “The will to power: How India can become a leading power in the world” Firstpost Accessed April 10, 2023
[3]See in the chapter titled ‘Public Opinion and the West’ in Jaishankar, S.. The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. India: HarperCollins India, 2020.
[4] “CAA discriminatory, against principle of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Gujarat Roman Catholic Diocese” The Indian Express Also see in, “Gujarat Catholic Church: CAA, NRC 'contradict' Vasudhaiva Kutumbham, scrap it” Counter View Acessed April 10, 2023
[5]Nandita Haskar “By turning away refugees from Myanmar, India is betraying its ancient idea of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” Acessed April 10, 2023.
[6]Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam: Relevance of India's Ancient Thinking to Contemporary Strategic Reality. India: Aryan Books International, 2020. p.5
[7]To give an instance, in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (Bhāgavata Purāṇa) 1.13.47 its given that “ahastāni sahastānām apadāni catuṣ-padām phalgūni tatra mahatāṁ jīvo jīvasya jīvanam” (Those who are devoid of hands are prey for those who have hands; those devoid of legs are prey for the four-legged. The weak are the subsistence of the strong, and the general rule holds that one living being is food for another). See in, (Accessed April 1, 2023).
[8]An elaborate discussion on Ahimsa in Mahābhārata is available at Adluri, Vishwa. “Ahimsa in the Mahabharata.pdf.” Journal of Vaishnava Studies, 2018. Accessed April 1, 2023
[9]Gita 3.16. Papa is not ‘Sin’ rather in brief it could be understood in opposition to punnya as a state of unhappiness, agitation caused out of actions and thoughts that leads one away from the wheel of Dharma.
[10]Kale, Moreshvar Ramchandra. Hitopadesa of Narayana. India: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.
For a casual read, a summary of the story could be found here “The Hoax Called Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” Hindu Post Accessed April 10, 2023.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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