‘India that is Bharat…’ – One Country, Two Names (Part-I)

The politics of naming is shaped by broad socio-political conditions and can be studied from several angles.

When Nehru’s book ‘The Discovery of India’ was published, these names, Hindustan, Bharat (also Bharata), India, coexisted in the subcontinent.

Catherine Clémentin-Ojha

The politics of naming is shaped by broad socio-political conditions and can be studied from several angles. Adopting a cultural history perspective, this paper considers some of the inherited discourses on ‘Bhārata’ both prior to and at the time of its official equation with ‘India’ in the Constitution (1950). It focusses on three successive definitional moments: the Puranic definition of Bhārata; the shift to its colonial definition, when the old toponym became the ‘indigenous’ name for a budding nation exposed to the imported political and geographical conceptions of (British) India; and, lastly, the choice of the Constitutional assembly to register the nation under a dual and bilingual identity: ‘India, that is Bharat’. The paper concludes with a sample of contemporary reactions that show that this double-name formula remains a baffling subject for Indian citizens.

In The Discovery of India, a book that he composed in the Ahmednagar Fort during his years of captivity (1942-1946) and published in 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote:

Often, as I wandered from meeting to meeting, I spoke to my audiences of this India of ours, of Hindustan and of Bharata, the old Sanskrit name derived from the mythical founders of the race.

When The Discovery of India was published, these names, Hindustan, Bharat (also Bharata), India, coexisted in the subcontinent. Of constant usage also was Hind, as in ‘Jai Hind’ (Victory to Hind), the battle-cry that Nehru, like several other political leaders, liked to proclaim at the end of his speeches. To capture these various meanings today is not an easy task. It entails being aware of the simple and yet too often forgotten fact that words have a history of their own; they do not maintain the same signification throughout time. The terms with which we name reality participate in the construction of reality, in the perception that we have and give of it.

Take the name India. Since its ancient use by Greek (Indikê) and Latin (India) authors, it has been applied to a variety of territories as, for example, Yule and Burnell remind us in their famous Hobson-Jobson. Or take the word Hindustan, which was already used in Persia in the third century B.C. to refer to the land lying beyond the Indus River. Its definition too has always been accompanied by some confusion. A comparison of 18th and 19th century British maps shows that the size and political designation of the territory corresponding to Hindustan changed over time along with historical developments (Barrow 2011). It was associated with the land of the Moghuls as, for example, in The History of Hindostan by Alexander Dow (1792) or in the Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan or the Mogul Empire (1793) by Rennell. Did it then refer only to North India (the South being called Deccan) or was it equivalent to the whole subcontinent as in the maps of the British Empire by the 1840s? And then in the compound of Hindustan the word ‘Hindu’ itself raised a difficulty of interpretation. It too had changed as everything changed around it. From being a geographic and ethnic term, it became a religious term, as in the late nineteenth century slogan ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’ that linked national identity to one language, one religious denomination and one territory or, as we will see later, in the sanskritized Hindusthāna (the Persian -stān and the sanskrit -sthāna both mean ‘place’) of the radical political activist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s Hindutva, published in 1923, which referred to the land of the Hindus, to a people therefore, and not to a river.

At the time of independence then, the names Bharat, India, Al-Hind and Hindustan coexisted to designate the Indian subcontinent. Those who, like Nehru, used them side by side understood their differences and knew how to interpret their contrasting usages, even if, given the complicated history of each, they did not agree on the nature of their differences. What they all agreed upon was that their meaning and usage were context—and language—sensitive.

In 1950, four years after the publication of Nehru’s Discovery of India, the drafters of the Constitution of the larger of the two successor states of British India decided how the country should be known. In the opening article of the Constitution of India they wrote: ‘India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States’. Two names: one, India, associated with the foreigners whose rule was coming to an end; the other, Bharat (skt. bhārata, also bhāratavarṣa), perceived as native because it was found in ancient Sanskrit literature. Henceforward no other name besides these two was to be used legally. In this juridico-political conception, India and Bharat were to be interchangeable terms.

What are we to make of the equation of Bharat and India in the Constitution? How did such a double-name formula come about? This is the main question dealt with here. My argument is that the Constitutional assembly’s decision should be understood as the outcome of a long historical process with deep cultural roots. I will also make the point, though more briefly, that this process did not stop with the promulgation of the Constitution.

Critical to an enquiry of how Bharat could be equated with India at all, I contend, are preexisting definitions of Bharat, and also of Hindustan, found in different textual sources. I present some of them in the first part of the paper, focusing more particularly on the definition of Bhārata given by the Purāṇas. Then I consider the shift from the Puranic Bhārata to the colonial Bharat, when the old toponym became the ‘indigenous’ name for a budding nation exposed to the imported political and geographical conceptions of (British) India. I also briefly examine the pre-independence destiny of the word Hindustan. In the next part of the paper I analyze the arguments exchanged by the members of the Constitutional assembly when they adopted and discussed the double naming of the new nation. For this section I rely on the official recordings of the debates (in English) found on a website maintained by the Indian government. Finally I thought it interesting to give a sample of contemporary reactions on the basis of information published in the printed press and on the internet. These indicate that to this day the Constitutional Assembly’s decision to give their country two names remains a baffling subject for Indian citizens.

Bhārata is a native name, but a native name for what?

Bhārata is indeed an old name. In the Purāṇas and other Sanskrit texts of the first centuries of the Christian era, it refers to the supraregional and subcontinental territory where the Brahmanical system of society prevails. It seems to have absorbed the older and spatially narrower toponym Ᾱryāvarta (the land of the Ᾱryas) described in the Laws of Manu. We have hardly any historical evidence of the way in which the name Bhārata was used in actual life, in what circumstances and by whom. We are more assured in our knowledge of its religious and cultural imagination since we can rely on textual sources. We also have reasons to believe that the traditional depiction of Bhārata was transmitted over many generations down to the colonial period thanks to the fact that the recitation of the Purāṇas was part of the spiritual education sponsored by temples, and not only for the literate circles, since the Purāṇas were not meant to be their exclusive prerogative.

The main feature of Puranic Bhārata is its insularity. This insularity has two dimensions: one is spatial, the other is social. The territory of Bhārata is situated on Jambudvīpa or the ‘apple-tree island’ (Jambosaeugenia). Annular in its form, the island of Jambudvīpa is itself surrounded by six other similarly annular-shaped continents that are concentrically organized around Mount Meru, the axis mundi situated just beneath the polar star. Bhārata is said to be situated between the sea in the south and the ‘Abode of snow’ (himālaya) in the north. Its shape cannot be clearly determined for it varies from text to text. It is described as a half-moon, a triangle, a trapezoid, or a bended bow, as in Mārkaṇḍeyapurāṇa, for example. In this Purāṇa, Bhārata is said to be surrounded by the ocean on the east, west and south and by the Himalaya (himavant) in the north, a description evoking a familiar shape. However geography is not the main concern here: the text also compares Bhārata to a tortoise floating on water and looking towards the east. Though in the Purāṇas Bhārata is not per se an island but a section of the island of Jambudvīpa, it is nevertheless fairly isolated, being cut off from the main land by a high mountain and surrounded by seas. In some other ancient Indian texts it is coextensive to Jambudvīpa, as in the inscriptions of King Ashoka, and in the Buddhist (and Jain) literature.

From the spatial perspective, Bhārata is thus a naturally bounded territory. It is also a territory on which a specific social order prevails. As a socialized territory it shelters an organization of time and modes of living whose specificities are essentially expressed in soteriological terms. We get some idea of what Bhārata represents by examining the notions with which it is correlated. It is on its territory alone, not in the other regions of the world, that time is properly divided into cosmic ages (yuga), that humans who celebrate rites (karman) correctly can expect appropriate consequences: there and there only can they reap the fruits of acts (also karman) committed in previous births; there and there only can they strive to obtain the permanent release from transmigration (saṃsāra), which entails the cessation of karman. Such considerations are summarized in the well-known classical characterization of Bhārata as the ‘land of works’ (karmabhūmi), as for example in the Viṣṇupurāna.

In Brahmanical literature Bhārata is moreover associated with an internal principle of unity. Its naturally bounded territory is unified by a network of pilgrimage sites (tīrtha). It is organized around some key natural sites found within it. Its mountains and rivers in particular are made objects of worship. Therefore one also finds the idea that the land of Bhārata itself is sacred.

Bhārata then refers to a spatially delimited social order, but not to a politically organized entity. In this respect, it differs from Hindustan, at least since Moghul times, and from (British) India, two toponyms correlated with political regimes. Nobody puts it better than P.V. Kane. In the third volume of his opus magnum the History of the Dharmaśāstra (which was also published in 1946, like Nehru’s Discovery of India), after reviewing the definitions of Bhārata in their original Sanskrit, this well-known historian of Hindu codes of law observed:

The Viṣṇu (II, 3, 2), Brāhma, Mārkaṇḍeya (55, 21-22) and other purāṇas proudly assert that Bharatavarṣa is the land of action (karmabhūmi). This is patriotism of a sort but not of the kind we see in western countries. Bharatavarṣa itself has comprised numerous countries from the most ancient times. […] There was no doubt a great emotional regard for Bharatavarṣa or Ᾱryāvarta as a unity for many centuries among all writers from a religious point of view, though not from a political standpoint. Therefore one element of modern nationhood viz. being under the same government was wanting.

And yet… Kane introduces a caveat: ‘But it must be noted that from very ancient times there was always the aspiration among great kings and the people to bring the whole of Bharatavarṣa ‘under one umbrella’.

And yet… Bhārata is said to be named after King Bharata, one of the ‘mythical founders of the race’ mentioned by Nehru. And yet…the king who conquers the whole of Bhāratavarṣa is styled samrāṭ, universal sovereign. Such conceptions contrast with most descriptions of Bhārata as having natural borders—borders of the sort not likely to move under the control of humans. They do raise the question of the immutability of its limits. Moreover, one important law code at least mentions the spatial expansion through conquest of Ᾱryāvarta, the older and smaller Brahmanical territory. The often quoted 9th century commentary on Manu by Medhatithi says:

If a kṣatriya king of excellent conduct were to conquer the Mlecchas, establish the system of four varṇas (in the Mleccha country) and assign to Mlecchas a position similar to that of cāṇḍālas in Ᾱryāvarta, even that (Mleccha country) would be fit for the performance of sacrifice, since the earth itself is not impure, but becomes impure through contact (of impure persons or things).

There is undoubtedly here an idea that the size of the Brahmanical territory can expand as more and more people are integrated into its settled social order and made to accept its norms of conduct. But besides telling us that the world is divided between the pure Ᾱrya and the impure Mleccha and that the earth is not per se impure (two key Brahmanical representations), it is open to debate whether this commentary on Manu offers sufficient evidence for the historian to explain the actual extension of the hierarchical social system of the varṇāśramadharma in political terms. The notion of samrāṭ offers another ground for debate depending on its translation and interpretation. In its original context, it refers to a universal sovereign. A samrāṭ is the ideal ‘Hindu’ king who maintains the cosmic order (dharma), and whose ambition is to take the whole (Hindu) world under his unique umbrella so that dharma may prevail. In royal eulogies this goal is rhetorically claimed to have been achieved. But in practice Bhārata was never politically unified by any known samrāṭ. It was never co-terminus with a political regime.

‘Bhārata’, then, as found in the Brahmanical tradition, belongs to a cosmological discourse that inscribes human activity within a grand spatio-temporal frame (dvīpa, yuga). It is associated with a vision of human beings, of their condition and experience and of their interpersonal relationships within a given social structure. Outside its territory non-order prevails. Nowhere does it refer to a country in the modern sense. (Continues)


Courtesy: Courtesy: Open Edition Journal – Ideas of South Asia (Published 2014)

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