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

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

Bhārata becomes India’s ancient name

Bhārata is a discourse on space, but a discourse that does not allow a visual representation of that space. It is not possible, on the basis of that discourse, to draw a map in the modern sense of the word. To say that Bhārata denotes all regions comprised between the sea and the mountain range of the Himalaya is not to describe the shape of India as we know it from modern maps. The maps that associate India with a given space, that is to say with a precisely bounded space, are so familiar to us that we might easily forget that they were not introduced to the educated Indian public before the 1870s. By then, moreover, what became represented was not only a geographical space but also a political space enclosed in boundaries or administrative units drawn by the colonial power. This new national space was inseparable from the equally new idea of ‘country’.

Manu Goswami has written eloquently on the conditions that allowed the emergence of new ways of viewing Indian past and has shown how the old Puranic conception of Bhārata acquired a new meaning for the Hindu intelligentsia during the colonial period. Whereas Bhārata was conceived as a social order, a space where specific social relations and shared notions of a moral order prevailed, (British) India referred to a political order, to a bounded territory placed under the control of a single centralized power structure and an authoritarian system of governance. By the mid-nineteenth century what educated Hindus called ‘Bharat’ was the territory mapped and organized by the British under the name ‘India’.

The old and native name Bhārata became a workable concept for the national cause despite the forcefulness with which the British conception of ‘India’—and all it entailed in terms of spatial and political unity—was propagated and imposed. Now the reason why it retained its prestige for the educated Hindus is not only to be found in the uninterrupted transmission of the Puranic conception within their class. It is also due to the fact that from the mid-nineteenth century Orientalists gave ‘Bhārata’ a very special place in their discourse. Thus in the first volume of his Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India published in 1858, John Muir, while describing the geographical conceptions of the Purāṇas, equated Bhāratavarṣa with India as a matter of course; needless to add that he made no attempt to identify the other equally fabulous varṣas of Jambudvipā with any region of the world as we know it.

To project Bhārata as the ‘ancient name’ of India was to transform it into a political conception. Muir was quite aware of the implications if one is to judge by what he wrote in 1860 in the preface of the second volume of Original Sanskrit Texts:

My primary object in this volume, as in its predecessor, has been to produce a work which may assist the researches of those Hindus who desire to investigate critically the origin and history of their nation, and of their national literature, religion, and institutions; and may facilitate the operations of those European teachers whose business it is to communicate to the Hindus the results of modem inquiry on the various subjects here examined.

In 1893, the German Orientalist Gustav Oppert went one step further than Muir when he declared that Bhāratavarṣa was the only relevant national designation for India:

I prefer as India’s name the designation Bharatavarsa, or land of the Bharatas. […] Such a name will bridge over the great social chasms, which divide at present the Hindus, and perhaps bring together in union the two great antagonistic sections of the original inhabitants, which since the earliest times of antiquity have lived estranged from each other [i.e. what he calls further ‘Aryanised and non-Aryan Indian clans’]. […] by accepting such a time-honored and honorable name as their national designation, a great step towards national unity would be taken in India.

Bhārata was now fully prepared to embark on a career on the political stage, as politics had become ‘the unavoidable terrain on which Indians would have to learn to act.’ In The Soul of India published in 1911, Bipin Chandra Pal (1858-1932) proclaimed it to be the only real indigenous name for India. The Bengali nationalist and social reformer, well-known for the part he had taken in the organization of the swadeshi movement after the Partition of Bengal, wrote:

We never called her either India or Hindoostan. We knew her of old by quite a different name. […] The fact of the matter really is, that as long as you look upon our country as ‘India or the Land of the Indus’—you will get no closer and truer view than the foreign officials and students have been able to do. […] Our own name was, and is still today, among the Aryan population of the country, Bharatvarsha.

In this language of ‘you’ and ‘we’, whereas ‘you’ refers to a young foreigner desirous to understand India with whom Bipin Chandra Pal is supposedly corresponding (The Soul of India is in the form of four letters), ‘we’, which includes the author himself, is associated with ‘Ᾱrya’. At a time when the definition of one’s nation was woven into the self-definition of Indian, Ᾱrya appears to have been the best ‘non-foreign’ word at Bipin Chandra Pal’s disposal. The ethnonym was popular both with the representatives of the orthodox Hindu set-up—against whom Bipin Chandra Pal stood squarely, and with the Ᾱryasamāja, the religious organization that claimed India as the natural homeland of the Ᾱryas—whose views he did not espouse either. Like many Hindu reformists of his days, he combined nationalism with religious symbolism taken from Hinduism with outright rejection of basic aspects of that tradition.

Bhārata? Hindustān? Hindusthāna?

Supported from all sides as it was, then, not only had the old name Bhārata not fallen into oblivion, but it had been invested with a new meaning and was ready to serve the emerging country. But Hindustan remained a worthy candidate for the same cause, as, among other reasons, it could claim a political career that was associated with the Moghul Empire and therefore predated the colonial period. It is noteworthy that although Bipin Chandra Pal stigmatized Hindustan as ‘foreign’, he was keen to draw the attention of his young correspondent to the contribution of the Moghuls to the development of an Indian national consciousness. For unlike Puranic Bhārata, Hindustan had been associated with political sovereignty and administrative centralization, two dimensions, he stressed, that were ‘foreign to the genius of the Aryan people of India’:

The unity of India was […] neither racial nor religious, nor political nor administrative. It was a peculiar type of unity, which may be best described as cultural […] at a very early period of our history we had fully realized a very deep, though complex, kind of organic unity at the back of all the apparent diversities and multiplicities of our land and people. […] The Moslem rulers of India came into these invaluable inheritances of the Hindus. […] To the old community of socio-religious life and ideals the Mahomedans now added new elements of administrative and political unity. […] all irrespective of castes or community, became equally subject to certain laws and obligations, known only to Islam. […] Thus we had, under the Moguls [sic], a new and more united, a more organic, though not yet fully organized, national life and consciousness than we had before. The British came to this India; and not to an unorganized, unconscious, and undeveloped chaos, having simply a geographical entity. And in view of this, it is unpardonable ignorance to say that […] the Indians have always been and still are a chaotic congregation of many peoples, an incoherent and heterogenous collection of tribes and races, families and castes, but not in any sense a nation.’

It was during Moghul rule rather than during British rule, at a time when India was called Hindustan, that political unity had been achieved and added to the already existing cultural unity of Bhārata, allowing Indians to develop a complete sense of belonging together, irrespective of their religions.

In 1904 when he penned his famous patriotic poem in Urdu Hamārā deśa, ‘Our country’, Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938) also associated Hindustan with Indians at large and with a composite religious culture:

Sare jahāṃ se acchā Hindustāṃ hamārā

Ham bulbuleṃ haiṃ us kī, yi gulistāṃ hamārā

Mażhab nahiṃ sikhātā āpas meṃ bair rakhnā

Hindī haiṃ ham, vatan hai Hindūstān hamārā

The best in the whole world is our Hindustan

We are his robin, he is our rose-garden

Religion does not teach mutual hatred

We are Hindī, Hindustān is our native country

The sense of belonging to a country (vaṭan) here overrides other loyalties. It is with this nationalist understanding of Hindustan that Iqbal’s song, which became immediately popular in anti-British rallies, was solemnly chanted on 15 August 1947, the day of the proclamation of India’s independence, along with Jana Gana Mana, composed by Rabindranath Tagore. Iqbal’s song is still widely sung in India today.

The attempt by Savarkar to hinduize the name Hindustan was another crucial moment in the naming of the budding nation. Whereas Iqbal called the inhabitants of Hindustān by the old appellation Hindī, which signifies ‘Indian’ in the ethno-geographical sense, Savarkar called them Hindus, and reserved the term only for those Indians who considered Bharat both as their Holy land (puṇyabhūmi) and as their fatherland (patṛbhūmi), by which he meant the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs but not the Muslims and Christians. It is not, therefore, that Savarkar did not think of Bhārata as a suited designation for the country of his dreams. But he found the name Sindhusthāna (or Hindusthāna, given the phonetic evolution) more ‘authentic’, and he also preferred it to Ᾱryāvarta, a notion that he found too ‘parochial and narrow-minded’. It was more authentic, he argued, because Hindusthan was not, as was commonly held, a foreign term, but a purely Sanskrit term, just like Hindu and Sindhu. Hindu was the name by which the Hindus had always referred to themselves, Sindhu the name they had given to the Indus River and Hindusthan, the name they had given to their nation. Thus Savarkar constructed the genealogy of Hindus, demonstrating the autochthony of the three terms with due etymological and phonetic explanations. In his conception, the key element was Sindhu: the Indus River was made ‘the vital spinal cord that connects the remotest past to the remotest future’. To territorialize Hindu identity, Savarkar needed to associate the territory with the word Sindhu even when he called that territory Bharat. Under his pen Bharat becomes the land delimitated by the Indus River (sindhu) and by the sea (also sindhu in Sanskrit), an unheard of definition in Brahmanical literature.

With Hindusthan, Savarkar produced an exclusive Hindu vision of India. This vision that stressed religious differences was to remain influential in the Hindu nationalist milieu and beyond. It also left its mark on those Sikhs who from the 1940s onwards had begun visualizing the Panjab as their natural homeland and who were heard demanding in the early 1950s: ‘the Hindus got Hindustan, the Muslims got Pakistan, what did the Sikhs get?’


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

Click here for Part-I 


Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also

Back to top button