The Idea of India

The idea of India is a conception often credited by our English-speaking “secular” elite to Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru or Sunil Khilnani, not necessarily in that order.

Our British colonizers too gave themselves credit for it, with an echo by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on July 8, 2005 at Oxford University.  It is they, he said, who gave us our notions of the rule of law, of a Constitutional government, of a free press, of a professional civil service, of modern universities and research laboratories, our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy, the English language, and cricket. [1]  Mr Singh on that occasion did make the token nod to “India’s ancient civilization”, but it is clear he believes we did not have these notions before the British blessed us with them.  Regrettably, he omitted mentioning the railways that are supposed to have knitted us together and, for universal school education, he omitted making the conventional ascription to British missionaries. [2]

In point of fact, however, the historical conception of the one-ness of what in English is called “India” goes back at least 6000 years to the Rig Veda. [3] It is important to understand this history because the name we give ourselves or that others give us provides us with a social and political identity and meaning, so that “India” says something about how we see ourselves and how others see us.

The citizens of India are called Indians, as distinguished from the followers of a “religion” called Hinduism. [4]  At the same time, the indigenous peoples in many parts of the world are called “Indians”.  “Indian” was frequently a Western imperial and pejorative label for dark-coloured indigenes and, at least till the end of the 14th century (a Vijaynagar inscription c.1393 referring to the emperor as “Hindurayasuratrana”), that is, just about 600 years ago in the history of our civilization going back at least 9,000 years, we had no such thing as “Hinduism”.  So let us see how we got our name, and the meanings often connected with it.

The word “India” is the pronunciation in English of the Greek pronunciation of the Iranian pronunciation of the Sanskrit word “sindhu”, which was our own name in our own language for the mighty river called Indus which has always been a major landmark for travellers to our country from lands to our northwest.

The ancient Iranians – or Persians, as they used to be called – found difficulty in pronouncing the initial “s” of “sindhu”, so they called it “Hindu” – the word occurs for the first time in the Avesta of the ancient Iranians, and they used it to describe generally this land and all the people in it.  From Iran the word passed to Greece where it became Indus, with variations among the ancient Arabs, Turks, Mongolians, and Chinese (the last saying “shin-TU”) who came into contact with us to study, trade or conquer.

This word “Hindu” is not found in any of our ancient texts. It is nowhere in the Vedas; it is nowhere in our epics, nor in the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, nor in any of the treatises of Yoga. It does not appear in any of our indigenous languages, not till the 7th century when it was brought in by the Islamic invaders.  The Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang who visited our country between 630 and 645 AD reports that while “shin-TU” or its variants could be heard outside our borders, it was unknown within our country. Even after Islamic rule was established in our country, the word did not gain popular currency and was not used, at least till the 14th century, except by the Islamic rulers to refer to the non-Muslim population of this land.

So, it is quite clear that, to begin with, “Hindu” was a foreign word.  It was not a “religious” description.  It was a purely geographical label, initially describing the land and people in the vicinity of the Sindhu river but gradually spreading to cover all parts of this country and its people. It can be said that the word “Hindu” acquired a pan-Indian connotation from ancient Iranian times – but this was only in the speech of foreigners, and even with them it did not indicate any distinction of class, caste or creed.  To emphasize, it was merely a foreign geographical description, and “Hindustan” was the land of the “Hindus”.  How from being a geo-cultural description this was made into a “religious” label is another story.

Thus, the word we have adopted to describe our country and ourselves evolved as a word foreign to us.  Over the millennia, this word has acquired a number of meanings that foreigners associated with us, and many of which we have internalized.  Most of these meanings are not complimentary.  In fact, most frequently, in the post-colonial international eye, India stands for overpopulation, poverty, dirt and corruption, and the majority of our people are believed to be lazy other-worldly Hindus.  Remember that it was an  Indian who made an international joke of what he cunningly called  “the Hindu rate of growth” [5] – conveniently forgetting, of course,  that in pre-colonial times it was this same rate of growth that resulted  in making us what the historian KM Ashraf described  as  “the wealthiest  colossus  of the world”.  How British colonial rule reduced us from being one of the richest lands to becoming one of the poorest is also another story. [6]

It is a well-known phenomenon that, in an unequal power relation, the weaker tries to model itself on what is commonly perceived to be the stronger, and so one of the legacies of centuries of colonial rule (compounding the dhimmitude ingrained in us by Islamic rule) is that we still try to invent ourselves in ways we think will find us Western approval. The West gave us (among other things) our name, its concept of the nation, its modern value system, its political system and our political boundaries, its understanding of religion and of time, its educational system, its view of female beauty and of masculinity as machismo so, not surprisingly, it is still to the West we turn for recognition and for affirmation of our identity.

In politics, we define ourselves in Western terms. We have modelled ourselves on the British model of parliamentary democracy. We have a fixed border, limiting ourselves in time and space. We argue that we are, or we are not, a nation, a concept that has come to us from the West.  And when we go West, as so many of us hope to do, we try and make it easier for us to be accepted by them by changing our names – or our “religion” – to theirs.  Hari becomes Harry; Akanksha, Angie; Kishore, Kevin; Sudha, Sue; Ramsadan, Ramsden; Piyush becomes Bobby and a Catholic. These are actual examples.

Indira Gandhi, when she was harassed by criticism in India, used to go to Europe for approbation, and she was known to have commented that the European press and people were more appreciative of her worth and achievements than the Indian press and people.  So dominating is our need to reify ourselves in Western terms that, if I recall correctly, even our philosopher-President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan explained our dharma as polymorphous monotheism – that is, a monotheism of many shapes – because Christanity is monotheistic and propagates itself as ipso facto superior to all our richly symbolic and fascinating ways of constructing Divinity.

We have internalized the Eurocentric view of the world and the need for a foreign affirmation of ourselves and, as long as this need remains, we will always be inferior to the West.

But are we only a construction of the West?  Did we never have any word, any name, of our own for ourselves?

If we look at the Constitution of India, we find a very telling phrase that occurs in it but once. This is “India, that is Bhārat,…”.  Clearly, the modern Indian Constitution, promulgated in English, sees India as the primary name and, hence, identity, but it does make one mention of a “Bhārat” as a secondary name.  Significantly, the Constitution in its Hindi translation reverses this to “Bhārat, that is India…”; significant, because this endeavour at synonymy in fact glosses over, as we shall see, an essential attitudinal dichotomy.

Western social science discourse postulates the concept of The Other that defines identity in terms of opposition (and not complementarity).  Thus, the Devil is the Other of God, the Black Man of the White Man, the woman of the man, communism of capitalism, atheism of theism, polytheism of monotheism, and so on.

The Fathers of the Republic of India chose to retain as our primary identity a label of Otherness.  But who or what is this Bhārat to which they accorded token recognition?

Bharat was a legendary sage-emperor of our land, and Bhārat is the offspring of Bharat. Therefore, the children of Bharat are Bhārati and the land of the children of Bharat becomes Bhāratvarsha. This was the common name our pre-Islamic ancestors shared for our homeland.  It had no fixed political boundaries but was actually the land in which we shared a common spiritual-cultural complex, a civilization. This land (now referred to as Akhand Bhārat) comprised broadly eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and upto Kailash in Tibet, Bangladesh, and Myanmar, and the shared spiritual-cultural complex was called the sanatana dharma. There was a common name for the land and a common name to include the numerous different ways of worshipping in it, and the evidence is that we shared a single common name for ourselves as a civilization – as the children of Bharat, the Bhāratis or Bhāratvasis.

By the time of the epic Mahabhārata about 5000 years ago, [7] the understanding of a shared land and a shared spiritual-cultural complex was well in place. The Mahabhārata presents peoples from the entire subcontinent as a civilizational unity.  The Kuru-Panchala kingdom extended through the Gangetic plain. Gandhari, the mother of the Kauravas, was from Gandhara which is now part of Afghanistan.  Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas, was of the Yadava clan of what is now Madhya Pradesh in central India. The Pandavas allied with Krishna who was originally of Mathura south of Delhi but who shifted to Dwarka in Gujarat. Krishna’s main enemy was Jarasandha of Magadha or Bihar. In the war of the Mahabhārata, kings participated from as far off as Sindh in the west and Pragjyotish or Assam in the far north-east. In their pilgrimages and victory marches, the Pandavas travelled from Afghanistan to Tibet to Assam to Kanyakumari, and even Sri Lanka is mentioned.

The Vishnupurana has

uttaram yat samudrasya himadreshcaiva daksinam

varsam tad bharatam nama bharati yatra santatih

(Bhārata is the land north of the seas, south of the Himalayas, and where the people are called Bhārati.)

Thus, there cannot be any doubt whatever that any “idea of India” pre-dates by centuries both the British and the Muslims, and can be traced back culturally to the very wellsprings of our civilization. [8]  The devious, insidious, widespread and (even today) official propagation of the diametrically opposed Macaulayan myth [9] has had horrendous consequences for our rashtra, for Bhāratvarsha.

Macaulayan mythology denies Bhārat through a false Aryan Invasion Theory and a false Aryan-Dravidian “racial” divide [10]; through false distinctions of “religion” [11]; a false history of caste and tribe [12]; a false claim of foreigners as our civilizers, saviours and educators [13]; and a grotesquely false interpretation of secularism [14].

Macaulayan mythology is designed to further the evangelical manifesto of making Indians become Christians “without knowing it” [15], the Macaulayan manifesto of forming “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” [16],  and the ruinously effective colonial strategy and legacy of destroying Bhārat by dividing-and-ruling it.

What then is significant about Bhārat as the construction of our country?

It is indigenous, evolving from within the psyche of our own people.  India is a response to a foreign label; Bhārat is our own name for ourselves.  It is self-affirmative.  What is common is not defined by political interest or by religious dogma but by spiritual aspiration eventually personified as Bhārat Mata – our land as Mother.  It was created through two major means – at the classical or scholarly level by the spread of Sanskrit, and at the popular level by the phenomenon of pilgrimage.  And an indigenous universal school education – superior to that that the British had in their own country – played no little part in nurturing it.[17]

The ordinary people of our land, through centuries of foreign rule, retained a sense of an overarching civilizational unity embodied in Bhārat Mata. All as children of Bharat are of one rashtra; we see ourselves with a common ancestor; normatively (and, as now proven, genetically), Bhāratis are one “race”, one people. “India” was always a foreign construct, with a foreign-focused divisive interpretation. The people of “India”, through oppressive foreign rule, internalised a psychological inferiority.  Consequently, our Macaulayan elite likes to see “India” as progressive, modernising, Westernised; and we distinguish the “Bhārat” of the ordinary non-English speaking people as poor, backward, illiterate, regressive and native. This is an elitist prejudice and unfortunate, apart from being quite untrue.

I lived almost 6 years in the USA – and let me assure readers that the West gives us nowhere near any of the importance we want the West to give us.  Yet our Macaulayan elite continues to salivate for the West, to become second-class Whites. [18]  I sometimes teach MBA students in an upscale b-school; most are quite unfamiliar with the Mahabhārata, even its principal characters.  I know of an elitist private school in Delhi whose students described a desi collation of aloo-puri as “shit” and refused to eat it.  I know MBA students in a premier b-school who described as “s-h-i-t” the cultural personification of knowledge as a goddess and, therefore, to be respected.  I know a Punjabi young woman both of whose parents are fluent in Punjabi and her mother still covers her head; but the young lady, educated in an elite missionary college, is fluent neither in Punjabi nor in Hindi nor knows why her subculture’s festival of “lorhi” is celebrated – but proudly declares she’s “secular” and knows the reason for Christmas.  In Princeton, I saw schoolchildren playing “ball” by kicking around their book-filled backpacks; in Bhārat, a book that falls to the ground is picked up and touched to one’s head.  A successful desi businessman described his wife as his chief asset, and when this was explained to MBA students in terms of a cultural perception of the wife as Lakshmi, many male students laughed. And, no, these are not isolated examples. There are many more, and these represent an emerging mindset, a pattern of civilisational change. It is two different worlds – one in which, for example, food is symbolized as Annapurna and knowledge as Saraswati, and the other that dismisses such imagery scatologically.

That the “idea of India” or, correctly, a comprehension of bhāratiyata, still prevails and holds together our civilization and our remaining land is not because of our Macaulayan elite.  If “India” can still be thought of as “eternal”, it is thanks not to the citizens of India but to the children of Bharat.

Look around ourselves.  From the vast geo-cultural domain in which the dharma flourished, we steadily began to lose it to violently hostile belief systems, totally antithetical to bhāratiyata, that entered our land.  Even after Independence, we continue to lose ground; even today, quite literally. [19]  The Republic of India is riven by division. It is founded on a conception of society that is so inherently divisive that we now need to position anti-aircraft guns to protect our prime minister when he celebrates its Independence in our national capital. [20]

Bhāratvarsha bases itself on an entirely different conception that is inherently unifying.

Two examples should make this clear:

  1. Bhārat sees all the indigenous panthas and sampradayas as constituents of the dharma, the Constitution of India formally constructed and promotes some of them as distinct and mutually exclusive “religions”;
  2. Bhāratis see themselves as having contextual and fluid identities within the overarching dharmic one; the British privileged and fixed one – that of jāti – and, with their missionaries, made it central to Indian identity [21]; with the Constitution of India following suit, now casteism, vote-bank politics and minority appeasement run rampant in India.

From an anthropological perspective, I believe one root lies in understanding whether the individual is the unit of society or whether the group, but this too becomes another story. [22]

The “idea of India” is, therefore, an insubstantial linguistic expression. Cognitively and experientially, it is bhāratiyata, emerging from the dharma, that still holds us together.

Our name is important, but even more important is that, whatever name we use, we need always to remember that the backbone and strength of our land, our civilization, our rashtra, is bhāratiyata.

India divides; Bhārat unites.


This article is adapted slightly from the one first published in November 2008.

  1. This is a fine example of our official school of historiography that claims it is foreign rule that civilized us lawless natives.
  2. A totally false ascription; see Dharampal, “The Beautiful Tree”, Mapusa: The Other India Press, 1996.
  3. For the date, see NS Rajaram & David Frawley, “Vedic Aryans and the Origins of Civilization”, New Delhi: Voice of India, 2001.
  4. It is most emphatically iterated that Hinduism is not a “religion”.  It is “dharma”, and there is no equivalent in English to “dharma”. What English commonly understands as “religion” (typically, “recognition of, obedience to, and worship of a higher, unseen power”) is an Abrahamic construction with no conceptual equivalent (because of the requirement of “obedience”) in any of our own languages. The dharma does not require a belief in or worship of, much less obedience to, any higher, unseen power by whatever name called, and an atheist is a dharmi too. The words closest to “religion” that we have are “pantha” and “sampradaya”.  However, because of our Macaulayan system of education, we tend to accept as appropriate the Abrahamic construction.  (Our Macaulayan system of education can be summed up in its subliminal projection of “West is best”; an enduring legacy of TB Macaulay’s notorious Minute on Indian Education in which he stated “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India…..all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England…..false history, false astronomy, false medicine…a false religion…..absurd history, absurd metaphysics, absurd physics, absurd theology”
  5. Prof. Raj Krishna of the Delhi School of Economics.  Prime Minister Singh too was once on its faculty.  It is not without relevance that Mr Singh again parroted a myth when he claimed the Amarnath yatra “was run by Muslims in Kashmir and it is over 180 year old pilgrimage”.  In fact, documentation of the yatra pre-dates any Muslim involvement in it and goes back centuries to ancient texts. See.
  6. Ashraf, quoted in Akhtar Riazuddin, “History of Handicrafts: Pakistan-India” (Islamabad: National Hijra Council, 1988).  “It has been estimated that the total amount of treasure that the British looted from India had already reached Pds 1,000,000,000 (Pds 1 Billion) by 1901.  Taking into consideration interest rates and inflation this would be worth close to $1,000,000,000,000 ($1 Trillion) in real-terms today” (Dr Leo Rebello, “My India”, pps).
  7. For the date, see Rajaram & Frawley, op. cit.
  8. David Frawley, “The Rig Veda and the History of India”, New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan, 2001.
  9. The British did not accept any notion of the historical unity of the Indian subcontinent; the Muslims do, but credit it to Islam.  See Sankrant Sanu, “Why India Is A Nation”,  and Dileep Karanth, “The Unity of India”.
  10. See, for example, David Frawley, “The Myth of the Aryan Invasion of India”, New Delhi: Voice of India, 2005.
  11. See Koenraad Elst, “Who is a Hindu?”, New Delhi: Voice of India, 2002.
  12. “All ancient Indian sources make a sharp distinction between the two terms; varnais much referred to, but jāti very little, and when it does appear in literature it does not always imply the comparatively rigid and exclusive social groups of later times. If caste is defined as a system of groups within the class, which are normally endogamous, commensal and craft-exclusive, we have no real evidence of its existence until comparatively late times” – AL Basham, quoted by Arvind Sharma, “What Was Manu Up To?”, , emphasis added.  See also Nicholas Dirks, “Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India”, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.  On the British deliberately and fraudulently excluding “tribe” from the dharmic mainstream, see Sandhya Jain, “Adi Deo Arya Devata”, New Delhi: Rupa, 2004.
  13. See, for example, the works of the late Dharampal.  See also P Priyadarshi, “Zero Is Not The Only Story”, New Delhi: India First Foundation, 2007.
  14. See, for example, the works of the late Sita Ram Goel.
  15. The influential British politician and evangelist William Wilberforce, quoted by Dharampal, op. cit.  Conversions to Islam are more problematic than conversions to Christianity, but the lower rate is compensated for by the demographic aggression of illegally immigrating Bangladeshi Muslims who are then enabled by a “secular” State to get Indian identities that allow them to vote in and influence Indian elections (see, for example, Samudragupta Kashyap, “Bangla infiltrators now kingmakers in Assam: HC judge”, The Indian Express, July 30, 2008).  “Former President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, in his neighbouring Assam Lok Sabha constituency, invited Bangladeshis to make his constituency a Muslim majority” (DN Mishra, “Neighbour or invader?”, The Pioneer, Feb 23, 2003).  Even President APJ Abdul Kalam prevented the deportation of Muslim aliens (A Mishra, “Kalam responds to SOS; stalls quit India notices”, The Pioneer, Feb 25, 2005). There is no record of any President intervening to return Hindu citizens to Kashmir, and the “secular” State makes little more than token attempts to repel what the Supreme Court bluntly called this “external aggression” (Navin Upadhyay, “Govt failed to protect Assam from external aggression: SC”, The Pioneer, July 15, 2005).
  16. Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, op. cit.  Note how in English our dharmic lore is invariably referred to as “mythology” whereas comparable lore in Christanity and Islam – such as the parthenogenetic birth of Jesus or Mohammad’s excursion on an eagle-winged horse – is not.
  17. For Sanskrit, see Karanth, op. cit.; on education, see Dharampal, op. cit.; on pilgrimage, see SM Bharadwaj, “Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India: A Study in Cultural Geography”, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.  Both Sanskrit and pilgrimage as unifiers pre-date by millennia not just the railways the British introduced but all other foreign factors to which Macaulayans ascribe our civilizational unity.
  18. Symptomatic is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s gratuitous declaration on Sept 25, 2008 in Washington, DC to US President George Bush that “In the last four and half years that I have been Prime Minister, I have been the recipient of your generosity, your affection, your friendship. It means a lot to me and to the people of India…The people of India deeply love you”.
  19. Witness the roaring declaration on July 22, 2008 in Parliament by a Kashmir MP that “hum jaan de denge lekin zamin nahi denge” (we will give our lives but not our land) – Omar Abdullah, quoted by Ashok Pandit, “Dark side of freedom”, The Pioneer, Aug 15, 2008.  And,  “…..the Constitution itself contains the seed for a de facto and de jure separation of even those parts of Kashmir that are physically still within India. Read Art 370 and you will know why even the already broken crown rests so uneasily on our head. By this provision J&K is exempt from many laws that are applicable to the rest of the country, many other constitutional provisions themselves are declared redundant in that State and worse, the operation of even the ‘residual’ laws are subject to the approval of the J & K Assembly! That is, a State Government can overrule the writ of the Union! Indeed, this Article is a dangerous knife in the nation’s stomach, an independence within an independence and a huge mockery of a free, united India” (TR Jawahar, “Freedoms Galore”).  Prafull Goradia points out the decline of the Hindu population of the subcontinent from 80% to 60% between 1900 and 2000 AD (“Can Muslims be secular?”, The Pioneer, Apr 7, 2004).
  20. Unprecedented security for Independence Day
  21. It is therefore that Justice C Dharmadhikari can write, “The real component or unit of the Hindus is caste only.  The term Hindu is concord of all castes.  In Hinduism, caste is real, religion is myth, so it is not even a community” (in Muzaffar Hussain, “Insight into Minoritism”, New Delhi: India First Foundation, 2004:6).  On contextual identities and the role of missionaries in singling out one of them, see Dirks, op.cit.
  22. “The unit of this democracy is citizen or voter and not the institution or community” – Justice Dharmadhikari, op. cit., p7.  In an insightful essay, Kalyan Viswanathan shows why “Hindus, even though they are a majority in India, do not behave like a majority.  They behave more like a large collection of small minorities. While from a spiritual/religious point of view this is not a problem, and India has always valued a certain inherent diversity and a co-existence of different paths, sects and sampradayas, this is a very serious problem from a political standpoint……In any modern democracy (where numbers matter), assembling a coherent identity translates to influence and power…..So unless Hindus learn to forge together a larger overarching identity, and start behaving like a more coherent and homogenous group, they are in for trouble…..Hindus will inevitably come out losers in their own country where they are supposedly a majority” (K Viswanathan, “Hindu Identity: why and why not”, Aug 17, 2008).   Questions, then, are not just of the need for Hindu political self-consciousness but of the aptness of Western-style so-called “modern” democracy (that is solely number/individual-based) to the bhāratiya ethos and to the survival of Bhārat.   Justice Dharmadhikari goes on to say “the perfect Indian citizen of this nation is one who considers India as his motherland and possesses a special kind of love for it…” (op. cit., page 8) – and there you have it, the India/Bhārat muddle and mismatch. It is Bhārat Mata, not India Mata (all that pop-culture on Indian TV that sings “In-dee-yaa” looks to America for inspiration).  It is Bhāratis who venerate the land as mother; for India, the land is a resource to be exploited.  It is two different mindsets, two different worlds.  On an individualism-based “modern” society as inherently violent, see Krishen Kak, “Enucleated Universes: An Ethnography of the Other America and of Americans as the Other”, Princeton University, Ph.D. dissertation, June 1990. This is not for a moment to suggest that Bhārat does not have its own problems, but the solutions to these do not lie in the West – see Krishen Kak, “The White solution to Brown problems”, Vicharamala 68


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