Peace and the New Nationalism

Despite the best attempts of the United Nations, conflicts will end only when we rise above nationalistic consciousness.

Autumn, 1971. I was twenty-three years old and hitchhiking south through Yugoslavia. Beneath pines on a Dalmatian coastal hillside, I unrolled my sleeping bag on a bed of fragrant brown needles. The air was warm, still, and dry, and a nearly full moon waited at the end of a shining rippled path on the wide, dark Adriatic.

In the sunny morning, I entered the medieval port city of Dubrovnik for a breakfast of bread, fruit, and yogurt. Old stone forts and walls stood everywhere, but war seemed a long way from the holiday seacoast of Yugoslavia. The place of violence then was Southeast Asia.

Twenty years later, in San Diego, California, I see on television the explosions of shells and bombs amid orange- tiled southern European roofs, spraying shrapnel along the cobbled Dubrovnik streets I had walked as a young man on my way to the East.

And I remember things Nick told me in the dorm at George Washington University in 1966. Nick was Serbian, his father a deceased CIA officer. He lived with his mother and younger brother in a Maryland suburb and worked summers at the Agency.

Nick told me about the Ustashi, the Croatians who had worked with the Germans during the Second World War and massacred Serbs. I later learned the Croatians had their own atrocity stories about the Serbs.

Although I saw nothing of that tension in 1971, today on television I see, yes, some of these people really hate each other. They love their own people, but that love includes—has to include, it seems—hatred for others.

Now the United Nations is trying to monitor a truce between newly independent Croatia and what’s left of Serbia- dominated Yugoslavia. Will the blue-bereted observers succeed in their mission? It’s hard to tell.

The end of the Cold War, with its decades of noble superpower brinksmanship, has not brought peace. Instead, the world has entered a messy new era of nationalistic conflict.

In the United States this shows up in resentment toward the economic success of Japan. Americans smash Toyotas and Nissans with sledgehammers. The Japanese return the favor by calling American business executives over-paid and American workers lazy and uneducated.

In Europe old rivalries have flared into violence, as in Yugoslavia and the republics of the former Soviet Union. In India several regions are demanding independence or autonomy, and war threatens with Pakistan over Kashmir.

In the Middle East, in the confused, slow-moving aftermath of the lightning-swift Gulf War, beneath the talk of regional peace lie the causes of war. And the well-equipped armies of Israel and its Arab neighbors stand ready, as always, for more bloodshed.

Failed Attempts at World Peace
This century has seen two major attempts at international peacekeeping. In the aftermath of World War I came the League of Nations. The onset of World War II marked the end of the League, but in 1945 the United Nations was created to take its place.

Around this time, Srila Prabhupada wrote in Back to Godhead, “Leaders of world politics such as Mr. Churchill have nowadays begun to think of … trying to get rid of the terrible national frenzy of hate. The frenzy of hatred is another side of the frenzy of love. The frenzy of love of Hitler’s own countrymen has produced the concomitant frenzy of hatred for others, and the present war is the result of such … love and hatred. So when we wish to get rid of the frenzy of hate, we must be prepared to get rid of the frenzy of so-called love.”

Almost fifty years later, the frenzy of national love and hate is still with us. Srila Prabhupada once said, “They call themselves the United Nations, but actually they are becoming disunited more and more.”

The U.N. has occasionally succeeded in negotiating peace agreements. For example, the U.N. mediated the talks that led to the end of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. But the movement toward peace came only after a bloody battlefield stalemate that killed millions and exhausted the resources of both sides.

The Disease of Nationalism

Modern civilization, despite its attempts at international cooperation under the banner of the U.N., is in fact still dominated by nationalism, which provides endless causes of conflict. In The Historical Evolution of Modern Nationalism, Carlton Hayes noted, “The Industrial Revolution, despite its cosmopolitan potentialities, has been largely nationalized in actual fact. Modern scholarship, despite its scientific claims and its ubiquitous nature, has been preponderantly enlisted in support of nationalism. Philosophies which in origin were not expressly nationalist and were sometimes definitely intended to be anti-nationalist … have been copiously drawn upon and frequently distorted for nationalist purposes.” These words, written in 1931, still hold true today.

For many people, the nation has become an object of almost religious veneration. In The Faces of Nationalism, historian Boyd Shafer wrote of the modern nationalist,

His nation had a lay priesthood—the high national secular … who cared for and preached to citizens to inform them of their duties. His nation also had its … defenders of the faith—the soldiers … who went out to battle against the forces of evil, the devilish enemy nations. … His nation had its constitution (holy book) and its laws (its moral commandments), which all citizens were obliged to obey. … He paid his taxes (higher than medieval tithes). …He took oaths (sacraments) saying he would be a good and faithful citizen (servant). He made pilgrimages to his capital and its famed buildings … His heroes (saints and martyrs) were buried in solemn national cemeteries (Arlington).

What does the Vedic literature say about this holy nationalism? The Srimad-Bhagavatam is forthright: “Anyone who reveres his homeland is no better than a cow or an ass.”

My neighbors in San Diego have dogs that bark loudly when strangers walk by their yards. And when a human being calls himself American, Russian, or Japanese and considers his home turf worth fighting and dying for, his consciousness, the Bhagavatam says, is at bottom no better than that of an animal.

And to identify with one’s race rather than one’s nation is no better. The Srimad- Bhagavatam says that a person who sees the body as the self is also no better than a cow or an ass.

That brings us to a basic difference between a human being and an animal. A human being can understand that the self, at the most fundamental level, is beyond all bodily and mental labels, such as those of nationalism. An animal cannot understand this. Of course, even French poodles and German shephards are free from nationalistic feelings, but they do identify heavily as dogs of a particular neighborhood.

Nationalism provides a similar form of mental conditioning. It supplies an external, variable label to stick on the self, often to be replaced later by another.

That leads to a question. What is the self like when free from all such labels? In its original state, the self is characterized by pure individual consciousness.

According to the Bhagavad-gita, this individual consciousness results from the presence within the material body of a spiritual particle, the atma, or real self. “As the sun alone illuminates all this universe,” states the Gita (13.34), “so does the living entity, one within the body, illuminate the entire body by consciousness.”

Modern science argues that consciousness is produced not by the soul but by the body, specifically by neurochemical processes in the brain. But scientists have never been able to produce consciousness with chemicals. On the other hand, there is scientific evidence, in the form of out-of-body experiences and past-life memories, that individual consciousness can and does exist apart from the physical mechanism of the body.

The individual conscious particles, when seen distinct from physical bodies and external national labels, are equal. But spiritual equality does not in itself remove the root cause of conflict. Equals can also disagree and fight with one another.

But natural harmony among eternal individual conscious entities arises when they understand they have something in common apart from their similar nature, namely their common ultimate source and their ongoing relationship with this source and, through this source, with one another.

What is the source of the non-physical particles of consciousness that animate the bodies of all living things? The Vedic literature tells us they all come from one supremely conscious entity, just as sparks come from a fire. That supremely conscious entity, the source of all conscious and unconscious energies, is called Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

So when all the external mental and bodily identifications of the self are stripped away, each self stands revealed as a particle of consciousness simultaneously one with and different from the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The soul is individual, and yet it is part of an organic whole, all the elements of which exist for the pleasure of Krishna. And it is this relationship of cooperative pleasure- giving, centered on Krishna, that harmonizes the interests of all the individual conscious particles, thus removing the cause of conflict.

Srila Prabhupada founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness to allow people to live together for the purpose of transcending, among other things, the psychic limitations of nationalism. In this truly international society, members learn to cooperate as spirit souls with a common source of being in the Supreme Soul, Krishna.

In 1969, Srila Prabhupada spoke with a group of international students in Boston, telling them that “the idea of an international society is very nice, but we must try to understand what the central idea of an international society should be.” Here Srila Prabhupada was hinting that simple proclamations of international feeling are not enough.

Not long before Srila Prabhupada spoke in Boston, I dropped out of the school of international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. I had enrolled in an idealistic spirit, hoping, among other things, to play a role in expanding the feeling of international cooperation that began in the Kennedy administration. But my Vietnam-era years in Washington left me with the realization that if I joined, for example, the U. S. State Department, I would always be compelled, when push came to shove, to stand up for the interests of the United States above all others. The desire to find a way to relate to all kinds of people on some common platform of equality was one thing that took me out of the Washington classrooms and into years of travel and self- exploration.

I had a feeling that things were somewhat as Srila Prabhupada explained to the students in Boston:

If the center is right, then you can draw any number of circles around that center and they’ll never overlap.… Unfortunately, although everyone is feeling nationally or internationally, the center is missing. Therefore your international feeling and my international feeling, your national feeling and my national feeling, are overlapping and conflicting. So we have to find the proper center for our loving feeling. Then you can expand your circle of feelings, and it will not overlap or conflict with others.

What is the real central point? According to Srila Prabhupada, it is God. Of course, a lot of conflict has taken place in the name of God. But it takes place only when God is removed from the center and enlisted in the cause of sectarian views. Theists must therefore be careful to recognize God as the true center of being for all people, not just for some few who profess a particular faith. And this is natural, since all living things owe their existence to God.

By acknowledging our common origin and purpose, we can become free from the conceptions of friend and enemy. From the Srimad-Bhagavatam we learn the history of Prahlada, whose father, the demonic king Hiranyakashipu, tried to have him trained in diplomacy: “Prahlada certainly heard and recited the topics of politics and economics taught by the teachers, but he understood that political philosophy involves considering someone a friend and someone else an enemy, and thus he did not like it.” I had the same feeling at George Washington University, sitting in political science classes.