Of Nations, Nationalism And National Anthems

Posted by Pratyush Rawal in Politics
August 14, 2017

In the Young India Fellowship, Prof. Gopalkrishna Gandhi taught us a course titled “Mother India- Romance and Reality”. The basic idea of the course was to teach an enlightened form of nationalism to the students, wherein while taking pride in the country, they also generate a habit of being critical and question some aspects of the country. Professor Gandhi believed that critical thinking and analysis are important for any citizen and the idea of the nation should not be beyond it.

The following is the evaluation essay I wrote for the course. It was an evaluative component wherein I have analyzed the kind of patriotism depicted in the national anthems of some countries.

When I was in secondary school, a time came when I became interested in patriotic poetry. I scanned through the internet to read how various poets have expressed their love for India, its geography, its people, culture, traditions in various forms. I also read the entire text of the national anthem-“Jana Gana Mana” (all the five stanzas of the poem, the first of which became the anthem), national song-“Vande Mataram” and  “Saare Jahaan se Achha” (one of our popular patriotic songs) and understood their meanings through their translations. Once I read and understood the poems in the larger version, I was able to appreciate these creations even more. These emerged as live pieces of art, rather than a set of lines which one was meant to remember and sing in chorus in school.

While reading these poems, I wondered how other countries expressed their patriotism. I thought that the national anthem of a country is usually the most patriotic poem and speaks a lot about the country and the people’s relation with their homeland. Because of an inherent affinity to Urdu, I began with the national anthem of Pakistan- the “Qaumi Tarana”. Gradually I ended up reading, studying, understanding and remembering the national anthems of eight different countries -Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, United Kingdom, Australia, United States, South Africa, besides India. In many of the cases, like India, a particular stanza of a large poem was selected as the national anthem. In all these instances, I ended up reading the entire hymn, given that all these were very beautiful and emotional pieces of poetry and art.

Professor Gandhi in the course “Mother India”, taught us about patriotism and its manifestation in different forms- visible and invisible, physical and emotional, tangible and intangible. Through this essay, I wish to analyse how people in different countries express their love for their homeland through their national anthems. What is the conception of their country in the anthem- a generous mother, a rich and fertile geographic region and/or a territory that needs to be aggressively defended from the enemy? In a culturally diverse country, how does the anthem make an appeal for unity? I have done this analysis by studying various themes that appear across these anthems. For the ease of evaluation and for the sake of reference, I have also attached the lyrics and translations of the anthems at the end of this essay.

The Country As An Entity

The conception of the country as the mother is very common in the South Asian region. While Indians conceive their homeland as a mother, the ‘Bharat Mata’, most explicitly manifested in “Vande Mataram”, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh also share this philosophy. The first line and title of the Sri Lankan national anthem is “Sri Lanka Matha (Mother Sri Lanka)”. The mother blesses its children by providing gifts of nature along with the spiritual strength and faith.  The poet makes this entity worthy of worship by writing the lines “Piliganu mena apa bhakthi puja/Namo Namo Matha (Receive our grateful praise sublime/ Mother, we worship, worship Thee)”. Similarly, in the national anthem of Bangladesh, “Amar Shonar Bangla” that translates to ‘My Golden Bengal’, Tagore calls the land as ‘Maa’ (Mother). However, unlike Sri Lanka, the relationship with the mother and the child in “Amar Shonar Bangla” is more intimate and lifelike. The beauty of this relationship is visible in the last few lines of the anthem- “Ma, tor bodonkhani molin hole, o ma, aami noyonjole bhashi (If sadness, O mother! casts a gloom on your face, my eyes are filled with tears!).”

For Afghanistan, which has had a violent and bloody history, their land is the land of peace and sword. “Daa watan afghanistan di/ daa ezzat de har afghan di/ Kor de soli kor de tori/ har bachi ye qahraman di (This land of Afghanistan/ it is the pride of every Afghan/ The land of peace, the land of sword/ each of its sons is brave)”. On very similar lines, the American National anthem- “Star-Spangled Banner”, refers to their land as “The land of the free and the home of the brave”. The anthem was written by the poet after witnessing a bombardment of Fort McHenry in a war. The above examples reflect how history and war have inspired national anthems and the conception of these countries for their people.

The exception here is the United Kingdom, whose anthem- “God Save the Queen” has no reference to the land or the people. It is an invocation of the Almighty to protect and bless the Queen.


For all those countries which are composed of a diverse population, their anthems make a strong appeal for the unification of its peoples. This ‘unity in diversity as a concept is not unique to India. In “Jana Gana Mana”, Rabindranath Tagore traces the western, southern and eastern boundaries of the Indian subcontinent “Punjab Sindh Gujarat Maratha Dravida Utkala Banga (Thy name rouses the hearts of the Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, and Maratha, Of the Dravida, and Odisha and Bengal.)

While the first paragraph of the hymn talks about the regional diversity of India, the second talks about the religious diversity of India- “Hindu Bouddho Shikh Joino Parosik Musolman Khrishtani/ Purobo poshchimo ashe/ Tobo shinghashono pashe/ Premohar hoy gatha. (The Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsees, Muslims, and Christians/ The East and the West come together/ To the side of your throne/ And weave the garland of love).”

Afghanistan is a country of many tribes, and 14 of them are referred in its anthem, reflecting the amazing diversity of the country. The following are the lines depicting the same:

“Daa watan di tolo kor di, de balocho, de uzbako

De pashtoon aw hazarwoo de turkmano de tajeko ,

Worsara arab, gojar di pamirian, noristanian ,

Barahawi di, qizilbash di ham aimaq, ham pashaiyean

(This is the country of every tribe – Land of Baluch, and Uzbeks

Pashtoons, and Hazaras – Turkman and Tajiks with them,

Arabs and Gojars, Pamirian, Nooristanis

Barahawi, and Qizilbash – Also Aimaq, and Pashaye)”

However, the most explicit display of diversity is in the South African national anthem- “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” that translates to “God Bless Africa”. It is unique as its lyrics employ five most widely spoken languages- Xhosa (first stanza, first two lines), Zulu (first stanza, last two lines), Sesotho (second stanza), Afrikaans (third stanza), and English (final stanza). This is probably the only multilingual national anthem of the world.

Invocation Of God

Most of the national anthems I have analysed for this essay invoke God or Almighty in some form of the other. The Indian national anthem is an ode to Bharat Bhagya Vidhdaata (The Dispenser of India’s destiny)’. In one of the later paragraphs of the hymn, there is also a reference to the ‘Chirasaarthi’ or the ‘Eternal Charioteer’, giving an impression that it was probably inspired by the character of Lord Krishna in “Mahabharata”. The Afghan national anthem ends with the following lyrics- “Noom de haq mo di rahbar wayoo Allah o Akbar, wayoo Allah o Akbar (We will follow the one God – We all say, Allah is great, we all say, Allah is great)”. Similarly the national anthem of Pakistan ends with the description of Pakistan under the shadow of God- “Tarjuman-e-Maazi, Shaan-e-Haal, Jaan-e-Istaqbaal/ Saaya-e-khuda-e Zul Jalaal (Interpreter of our past, the glory of our present, inspiration for our future! Shade of God, the Glorious and Mighty).”

The anthem of the United Kingdom and South Africa, as discussed before, invokes God to bless the Queen and Africa respectively. The last stanza of the hymn from which the national anthem of the USA is selected, states ‘In God is our Trust’. The national motto “In God we trust” seems to originate from there.

Politics And Policy In The National Anthem

The lyrics and the composition of the national anthems also portray the political setup of their respective countries. One of the lines in the Australian national anthem is –”For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.” Complementarily Australia as a country in its current form was built by immigrants from Europe and has a liberal policy of accepting migrants from around the world.

The Pakistani National Anthem is written in highly Persianized Urdu, very different from the lingua franca of the country. While Urdu as a language borrows heavily from Hindi grammar, the only word with Hindi origins in the Pakistani National Anthem is ‘ka’ in the line “Pak Sarzameen ka Nizaam (The order of this sacred land)”. Pakistan and its leaders, since its independence have tried to create a narrative of a separate identity for the country, from that of India, to justify the partition.

The US assumed the role of an ‘International Policeman’ after the First World War and often interfered in the internal affairs of other nations, especially the Americas. One of the lines in the extended form of its national anthem is “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just/ And this be our Motto, in God is our Trust.”


With the rise of nation states, national symbols also emerged. One of the most prominent national symbols is the national anthem. It not only portrays the relationship between the people and their country but also speaks volumes on the life, culture, history, emotions and other aspects of the people of the respective nation state. Plus, these are often wonderful pieces of poetry. The national anthems are thus not only great pieces of patriotic literature but also a wonderful window into the life of the respective nations.