The meaning of oneness in ‘one nation’

It is the oneness independent of the language we speak or the religion we practise

Updated - September 26, 2019 12:27 am IST

Published - September 26, 2019 12:15 am IST

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Philosophy as a discipline or practice is not popular these days. However, today we are faced with many challenges in the political arena that need philosophical reflection. Unintentionally, the government’s actions and utterances create the possibility of a new climate for public philosophy, which in turn is important for a functioning democratic society.

The claim by the Home Minister about ‘one language, one nation’ is an instance of this. While much has been said about the idea of a nation, here I want to point out how even the word ‘one’ in this phrase has many complex meanings embedded in it.

The notion of one

At the surface it seems as if this idea is about imposing a particular language. But the idea of ‘one’ that is invoked here is not only philosophically rich but also culturally common. It is impossible not to come across the notion of ‘one’, whether in philosophy, art, science or everyday cultural practices. And now, increasingly in politics. The search for one underlying truth, one underlying principle, one unified theory or one language has been privileged through the ages in all cultures.

But what is this idea of ‘one’? Although even children know about this number, there is nothing simple about it. There are many complex ideas hidden within this number. The most foundational principle of mathematics lies in the simple fact that 1 should always be equal to 1. Whatever you do to numbers or even equations, at the end the rule that cannot be violated is that 1 = 1.

The mathematical one has two other important properties. All integers can be produced by adding one. So if we begin with 1, we can then create 1+1 = 2, then create 2+1 = 3, and so on until infinity. Infinity itself is imaginable by us only because it is impossible to imagine the largest finite number. This is so because given any number which is the largest, we can always add 1 to it.

There is another way by which infinity is created from 1 and this is by dividing 1. Starting with 1, we can create fractions out of it such as one-half, one-third, and so on. There are infinite divisions that we can make. We can thus say that one contains the infinity already within it and that it is defined as much by its divisibility as by its countability.

The one and the many

In philosophy, these questions are part of a fundamental problem called the problem of the ‘one and the many’. It is the puzzle of how is it that many different things can be ‘seen’ as one and at the same time how the ‘one’ can be seen as being made up of ‘many’. For example, what is in our cognition and language — in the way we experience and understand the world — that makes us perceive the many things in a room as being part of ‘one’ room?

This is not merely a question about how we perceive the world. The moment we use terms like unity, unified, together, collection, group, set, identity etc., we are actually talking about the idea of ‘one’. We do this in our conceptual thinking too. Concepts, one could argue, are really nothing more than creating oneness out of many. For example, the moment we use the concept ‘chair’, we are putting all the different, individual chairs into ‘one’ family called ‘chair’.

Many great thinkers have repeatedly invoked the idea of one. Narayana Guru imagined a casteless society or, equivalently, a society of only one ‘caste’, what he called the manusha jati . There have been countless thinkers who have called for ‘one humanity’ as the ideal that we should follow. In the Advaitic philosophy of Shankara, the true reality is a oneness, and difference is only an illusion. Religious traditions focus on liberation, which is nothing but achieving oneness with god, as the central goal of human life.

Quality and quantity

So when the government invokes the idea of ‘one nation, one language’, what could be the meaning of ‘one’? It is surely not the meaning associated with the mathematical number. First of all, if it is the number one, then ‘one nation’ does not make sense since the nation (as it is singular) is always only one. If we say ‘one apple’, the meaning of one here is that it counts the number of apples leading to terms such as ‘one apple’, ‘two apples’, and so on. When the government says ‘one nation’, it is not using one in this countable sense. That is, the meaning of the word one in ‘one nation’ is not a measure of quantity.

So what else could it be then? The only possible meaning is if ‘one’ is understood not as a quantity but only as a quality. It is the quality of oneness that is the meaning of one in ‘one nation’. And herein lies the problem: quantity does not matter to the qualitative meaning of one. So even if 100% of the people in the country speak Hindi, it would still not be enough to create the quality of being one nation. (In fact, having a common language to define oneness is not a good idea since it is the common language which makes conflict easier!) At the same time, even if none of the people in a nation share the same language, it is still possible to have the quality of oneness.

Quality cannot be reduced to or totally converted to quantity. Social science methodology is based on this distinction between quantity and quality. So the problem in the government’s view is really this: when they use the term ‘one nation’ they are thinking of one in terms of quantity (such as majority). But the meaning of one in ‘one nation’ cannot be based on quantity and has to be only a quality. When any of us relates the oneness of nation to sheer numbers of majority, such as majority in language or in religion, then we are not really talking about the quality of oneness. Majority does not create oneness, it only creates bigger numbers. The importance of the quality of oneness lies in its strength to remain a simple ‘one’ and not get inflated by bigger and emptier numbers.

The oneness in ‘one nation’ is the kind of oneness talked about by Narayana Guru, Shankara, the saints in the Bhakti movement and the Sufi poets. It is the oneness between the humans and the world, and oneness between each one of us independent of the language we speak or the religion we practise. Those who talk about ‘one nation’ must realise that the true meaning of oneness lies in its quality of unity and togetherness. It does not arise through measurable and majoritarian views but only as a quality that comes through recognising the common humanity in all of us, independent of our gender, caste, class and religion.

Sundar Sarukkai is a philosopher based in Bengaluru

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