The Unity of India

This article is the first in a series planned to explore the idea of an India – to see if the idea is meaningful, and if so, to trace the birth and the evolution of the idea. Was this concept indigenous to India? Was it a bequest by outsiders, or invaders, or colonizers? This article is little more than a collage of quotes, held together by a tenuous commentary. Whether it amounts to a picture at all is for the reader to decide. No chronology is given – the reader can pick her/his favorite dates for the various Puranas and epics; it should not matter to the conclusions we have drawn.

An English authority, Sir John Strachey, had this to say about India:

… this is the first and most essential thing to learn about India – that there is not and never was an India or even any country of India, possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political … [1]

His was not an isolated opinion. Reginald Craddock, Home Minister of the Government of India under Hardinge and Chelmsford, in The dilemma in India (1929) denied the existence of an Indian nation:

An Indian Nation, if such be possible, has to be created before it can exist. It never existed in the past, and it does not exist now. Do we flatter ourselves that we created it? If so, it is sheer flattery. There is no word for ‘Indian’ in any vernacular tongue; there is not even any word for ‘India’. Nor is there any reason why there should be an Indian Nation. The bond or union among the races to be found there is that they have for the last century and a half been governed in common by a Foreign Power. [2]

P.C. Bobb sums up Craddock’s views nicely:

By this account ‘Indian’ was the same kind of misnomer, applied by the English, as the term ‘European’ when applied to the English (as it was in India). According to Craddock, India was merely, like Europe, a subcontinent within the vast single continent of Europe and Asia, whose peoples had “roamed over the whole” in prehistoric times. Down the centuries nationalities had become localized, until Europe and India, for example, each contained well over twenty separate countries, divided by race and language. India looked like one country only if seen from the outside, from ignorance or distance. [3]

India’s cultural diversity, and lack of political unity has often invited its comparison with Europe. Also the boundaries of India have changed very often. The present boundaries of India do not include all the regions that have been part of ‘Classical India’ at some time or another in history, and doubtless, the nation-state of India as we see it today is a very recent political entity. Also the word ‘India’ is not to be found in the modern languages of India, suggesting that ‘India’ is a latter-day conception.

If ‘India’ is not a word native to India, the etymology of its name would have a special interest and would carry implications of its own. One explanation is provided by the renowned Islamic scholar, Mawlana Syed Sulaiman Nadwi, who develops a variant of a widespread idea about the origin of the name ‘Hind’:

Before the advent of the Muslims, there was no single name for the country as a whole. Every province had its own name, or rather a state was known by the name of its capital. When the Persians conquered a province of this country, they gave the name ‘Hindu’ to the river, which is now known as Indus, and which was called Mehran, by the Arabs. In the old Persian and also in Sanskrit, the letters ‘s’ and ‘h’ often interchange. There are many instances of this. Hence Sindh became in Persian Hindhu, and the word ‘Hind’ derived from Hindhu, came to be applied to the whole country. The Arabs, however, who were acquainted with other parts of the country, restricted the word ‘Sind’ to a particular province, while applying the word ‘Hind’ to other parts of the country as well. Soon this country came to be known by this name in distant parts of the world. The Western nations dropped the ‘h’ and called the country Ind or India. All over the world, now, this country is called by this name or by any one [sic] of its many variants. (Nadwi, p.8) [4]

A more nuanced account is given by the historian, André Wink, writing about the fashioning of “India” from whatever geographical, cultural and human materials were present in the region now known as India:

We will see that the Muslims first defined India as a civilization, set it apart conceptually, and drew its boundaries. The early Muslim view of India includes, to be sure, a close parallel to the Western Mirabilia Indiae in the accounts of the “aja’ib al-Hind”. It also includes a number of stereotypes which were already familiar to the ancient Greeks: of India as a land of self-absorbed philosophers, high learning, “wisdom”, the belief in metempsychosis, of sacred cows, elephants, and, again, great wealth. The Arab geographers are perhaps uniquely obsessed with Indian idolatry and polytheism, “in which they differ totally from the Muslims”. But the Arabs, in contrast to the medieval Christians, developed their conception of India in direct and prolonged contact with it. In a political-geographical sense, “India” or al-Hind, throughout the medieval period, was an Arab or Muslim conception. The Arabs, like the Greeks, adopted a pre-existing Persian term, but they were the first to extend its application to the entire Indianized region from Sind and Makran to the Indonesian Archipelago and mainland Southeast Asia. It therefore appears to us as if the Indians or Hindus acquired a collective identity in interaction with Islam. [5]

According to this view, the idea of “India” or “Hindus” itself emerged in interaction with Islam. The Arabs must have called a vast land ‘al-Hind’ as a shorthand term, just as a modern textbook of geography might club diverse nations under the umbrella term ‘Middle East’. Another example is the term Sudan. It was the Arabs who named a vast tract of land (without delimiting it exactly) as Bilad al-sudan – “land of the blacks”. The various peoples of that region did not refer to themselves as ‘Sudanese’ until modern times. Yet the alert reader who reads the excerpt given above would surely notice that the concept of an Indianized region stretching from Makran (Baluchistan) to Indonesia has somehow wriggled its way into a discourse which would deny (a priori) the existence of an “India”. A question arises immediately: What was it about the region from Sind to Indonesia that merits the term ‘Indianized’, which caused the Arabs to call this region collectively as ‘al-Hind’? A partial answer to this question can be formulated by quoting what Vincent Smith, an authority on early India had said: “India, encircled as she is by seas and mountains, is indisputably a geographical unit, and as such is rightly designated by one name.”

But was this unity only a geographical phenomenon? Or did it begin as a geographical accident, and then acquire cultural, linguistic and ethnic overtones? Let us postpone that discussion briefly, and go back to Wink’s statement: “We will see that the Muslims first defined India as a civilization, set it apart conceptually, and drew its boundaries.” Let us clarify whether:
a) the definition or conception of India is a Muslim (or generally Arab or West Asian) invention.
b) the name India/Hindu/Ind is an Arab (or Greek or Persian) coinage.

As is clear from several of the quotes given above, the fact that the word “India” is ostensibly of foreign origin is used to insinuate that the very idea of an Indian nation is a contribution by outsiders. But such an argument is really untenable. To see this, it may be useful to make a few preliminary remarks about country-names.

First of all, there are many countries with names of foreign origin. Consider, for example, the case of France. The French people are descendants of the ancient Gaulish people, who spoke languages of the Celtic family. The Gauls were conquered by Rome. When Rome was itself taken over by Germanic peoples, Gaul came under the influence of the Germanic Franks. The Franks gave their name to France, a country now Latin by language and Celtic by race. However, few would argue that French nationhood somehow depends upon Germany.

Again consider the example of Germany itself. The word is of Latin origin, and the self-appellation “Deutschland” is hardly known among non-Germans. In the Latin world, Germany is known as Allemagne (after the name of a Germanic tribe). This French word is also used by the Arabs and Iranians.

Or take the familiar case of Great Britain. Today the bulk of the population of Britain is English, that is, Germanic by language and culture. But the name “Brittania” celebrated by English poets, is the original Celtic name.

The French may have popularized the term ‘Basque’, but the Basques call themselves Euskera. “Hayastan” is more widely known by its Latin name “Armenia”. “Sakartvelo” in the Caucasus is known as “Gruzia” to the Russians, and is called “Georgia” by the anglophone world. “Suomi” is known the world over by its Swedish name “Finland”. America is named for an Italian, and Spain takes its name from a Carthaginian word for “rabbit”. This list is by no means exhaustive.

It is clear that a people’s sense of identity does not crucially depend on the name by which they are widely known. What matters is whether a single term can adequately capture their ‘identity’. The term itself can be native or foreign. Thus the simple fact that the word ‘India/Hindu/Ind’ is probably not of Indian origin alone does not amount to a proof that no notion of an India existed, in the indigenous cultures of India.

No matter how the name India originated, it eventually came to mean something quite well-defined, and the use of a single term India is justified, and not only as a shorthand for a hazy notion. Vincent Smith explains:

The most essentially fundamental Indian unity rests upon the fact that the diverse peoples of India have developed a peculiar type of culture or civilization utterly different from any other type in the world. That civilization may be summed up in the term Hinduism. India primarily is a Hindu country, the land of the Brahmans, who have succeeded by means of peaceful penetration, not by the sword, in carrying their ideas into every corner of India. Caste, the characteristic Brahman institution, utterly unknown in Burma, Tibet, and other borderlands, dominates the whole of Hindu India, and exercises no small influence over the powerful Muslim minority. Nearly all Hindus reverence Brahmans, and all may be said to venerate the cow. Few deny the authority of the Vedas and other ancient scriptures. Sanskrit everywhere is the sacred language. The great gods, Vishnu and Shiva, are recognized and more or less worshipped in all parts of India. The pious pilgrim, when going the round of the holy places, is equally at home among the snows of Badrinath or on the burning sands of Rama’s Bridge. The seven sacred cities include places in the far south as well as in Hindustan. Similarly, the cult of rivers is common to all Hindus, and all alike share in the affection felt for the tales of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

India beyond all doubt possesses a deep underlying fundamental unity, far more profound than that produced either by geographical isolation or by political
suzerainty. That unity transcends the innumerable diversities of blood, colour, language, dress, manners and sect. [6]

The reader may not agree with all that Vincent Smith says. Caste is not uniquely an Indian institution. It was found among Indo-European peoples like the ancient Persians; it is also found among the Naga tribesfolk, to mention just two examples. However, Hinduism, though it is far from the being the sole cultural matrix of all the peoples of India, does provide a framework for thinking about ‘India’. ‘India’ is meaningful at least to the extent that ‘Hinduism’ can be discussed as a coherent whole.

Indeed, in the Puranas and the epics, we find evidence of the existence of an “India”, an ancient superstructure over the various distinct regions that now make up India. This superstructure was (and is) known as Bharata to the Indians themselves, and as “India” (or variants like Hind and Hindustan) to outsiders. The oft-repeated quote from the Vishnupurana says:

Uttaram yat samudrasya himadreshcaiva daksinam
Varsam tad bharatam nama bharati yatra santatih

That is, the Vishnupurana defines “Bharata” as the land north of the seas, south of the Himalayas, and where the people are called “Bharati”. But the Bharati peoples were not all alike. The fact that they were distinct peoples was also not unknown to the authors of the Puranas. That did not deter them from using a blanket term to refer to the peoples of “Bharata”, for:

Already during the Gupta period this pluralism had become an established feature of life in India and a defining feature of its Indianness. Already in the Kurma Purana we find the Hindu thinkers reckoning “with the striking fact that men and women dwelling in India belonged to different communities, worshipped different gods, and practised different rites.

Bharatesu striyah pumso
Nanavarnah prakirtitah
Nana devarcane yukta
Nanakarmani kurvate [7]

The words translated as “dwelling in India” are literally expressed as “among the Bharatas” in the original. Who are the Bharatas? What is the Bharati Santati? If asked, the linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji would probably have answered this question with his quote, written in another context:

Sanskrit looms large behind all Indian languages, Aryan and non-Aryan. It is inseparable from Indian history and culture. Sanskrit is India. The progressive Unification of the Indian Peoples into a single Nation can correctly be described as the Sanskritisation of India. [8]

Let us take as a definition of “India/Bharata” roughly that land where “Sanskrit” is spoken. What outsiders called “Hind” was what the locals considered as Bharata. Sanskrit was the ‘Hindi’ language, as far as outsiders were concerned. The earliest translations from Sanskrit to Arabic, carried out in the early days of the Baghdad Caliphate, referred to Sanskrit as “Hindi”. [9] The Persian poet Firdousi Toosi, refers to the language of the Kalila wa Dimna (Panchatantra) as Hendi. Al-Biruni, who wrote about the Islamic kingdom of Sindh and Mansura (Multan), made a distinction between the vernacular Sindhi language and the learned “Hindi” language (Sanskrit). Earlier, the Chinese pilgrim Yuan-Chwang had referred to Sanskrit as the language of India. [10] Thus, observers familiar with the differences in the colloquial speeches of India, refer to Sanskrit as the ‘language of India’.

There are many names for the Sanskrit language, but the only name which can be related to any territory or people is the name “Bharati”. The Indian tradition preserves no memory of where the Sanskrit language originated. Unlike the Latin world, which remembers that the well-springs of the Latin language is the Italian peninsula, the Indic world has no such regional territorial word for its classical language. This would suggest that the Indic civilization has developed an organic unity, and if at all it was united by conquest in some remote period in history, that is now long forgotten. “Bharati” now belongs to all “Bharata”.

In the tenth century, when arguably no Western Orientalist had set foot in India, Al-Biruni would write:

The middle of India is the country round Kanoj (Kanauj), which they call Madhyadesha, i.e. the middle of the realms. It is the middle or centre from a geographical point of view, in so far as it lies half way between the sea and the mountains, in the midst between the hot and cold provinces, and also between the eastern and western frontiers of India. But it is a political centre too, because in former times it was the residence of their most famous heroes and kings. [11]

If there is a concept of ‘middle country’ there must also be an awareness of the region that makes up its periphery. In fact, without an awareness of the whole, a part cannot be identified as such. Those who referred to their homeland as Madhyadesha would also have a geographical awareness of the rest of the country whose central part was Madhyadesha. It is a modern accident that the middle country is now called Uttar Pradesh (Northern State) in post-partition India. But this region was in the ‘middle’ of the Indo-Gangetic plain, and also the Indian peninsula. Now, al-Biruni was only reporting about the idea of a middle country, and peripheral regions; he did not think up this notion himself. (Al-Biruni himself never crossed the Indus.) The people who conceived of an India were indigenous Indians who:

Had a system of dividing the country into five zones, and for an ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and even political-historical study of India that classification is very useful. The five zones are: Madhyadesha (the Middle Country), Purvadesha (the east), Daksinapatha (the South), Aparanta or Praticya (the West), and Uttarapatha or Udicya (the North). We find them explained in the Dharma-Sastras, in the Buddhist Vinaya, and in the Bhuvanakosha or gazetteer section of the Puranas. The provincial distribution of the Maurya empire conformed to these zones, and all the digvijayas described by our classical poets are arranged on this pattern. The five zones are called the five Indies by the Chinese pilgrim Yuan Chwang (c. AD 640), and five sthalas by Rajashekhara (c. AD 900). In later periods, whenever there were regional States in India maintaining a balance of power for a sufficiently long time, they too generally conformed to them. [12]

The epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata provide a clear example of how the various regions of India were linked by a common culture and awareness. Al-Biruni, writing about India from a place west of the Indus, is aware of the centrality of Vasudeva and Rama to the Indian tradition. All over India we find local versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They may disagree on the details, but not on the essentials. Even the regional variants of the epics show an awareness of the ‘whole’ and not merely of the region they were composed in. The ‘Great’ tradition of the Sanskrit epics is mirrored in the ‘little’ traditions, which are local in their form and yet global in their scope. The detailed geography of India, as reflected in the epics, will be saved for another article. Here let me be content with a single quote:

Besides this intimate knowledge of the parts, the Mahabharata presents a conception of the whole of India as a geographical unit in the famous passage in the Bhismaparva where the shape of India is described as an equilateral triangle, divided into four smaller equal triangles, the apex of which is Cape Comorin and the base formed by the line of the Himalaya mountains. As remarked by Cunningham [Ancient Geography of India, p. 5], “the shape corresponds very well with the general form of the country, if we extend the limits of India to Ghazni on the north-west and fix the other two points of the triangle at Cape Comorin and Sadiya in Assam.” (Mookerji pp. 62-63) [13]

This does not mean that the Puranic conception of India was static, and always referred exactly to what is now called India. In the words of Subas Rai:

In all Puranas there occurs a particular topic designated as Bhuvankosa, in which are actually discussed the general and the regional geography of the world and India both. … The shape and bulk of Bharatvarsha is given in various puranas and contemporary literature where it has been described as a half moon, a triangle, a rhomboid or an unequal quadrilateral or like a drawn bow. The Markandeya Purana (57.59) is quite specific about the shape of the country. Its configuration is that of a bow in which the Himalaya is like the stretched string of the bow and the arrow that was placed on it indicates the peninsular area of the south. It is said to extend in a triangular shape with its transverse base in the north. (Vayu Purana 45.81).

The different stages of Bharatvarsha as given in ancient literature represent various stages in the process of extension of the occupied or known areas of the country during the course of history. To say that there are inconsistencies in the Puranas regarding the shape of the country is thus unfair. [14]

The modern Sinhalese word for India (the name you would find in colloquial parlance) is Dhambadiva (Deshappriya Jayasuriya, private communication). This word is ultimately to be traced to the Pali name for India, Jambudiipa (Sanskrit Jambudviipa), literally the “Rose-apple Island/Continent”. The conventional explanation is that it got this name from the shape of the fruit which, like the Indian Sub-Continent”, is also roughly pear-shaped/triangular. If this explanation is true, then a geographical awareness of the whole peninsula (and naturally the Indo-Gangetic plain to which it is attached) must have been inherent in the word. In fact, the Jammu region takes its name from Jambu-dvipa, and reflects the awareness that the pear-shaped land was attached to the Himalayas at Jammu.

We thus see that the concept of Bharatavarsha, even if considered cosmological to begin with, became firmly geographical, and that in “classical” times. The words Jambudvipe Bharatavarse chanted by the Brahmin in countless ceremonies could only have strengthened this geographical concept over the centuries.

The idea of a culturally united India – call it a nation, or a civilization — clearly did not depend upon the Arabs/Muslims. Nor was the idea born out of the labors of the Western Orientalist or the British colonial administrator.

“India” — the name which launched a thousand ships, and which has fired the imagination of explorers for ages, predates the emergence of Islam and Western Indology, by centuries, if not millennia.

Where did the term ‘Hindu’ come from?

Now let us look at the name Hindu/India, and see whether the term is of Muslim origin, even if the concept is not. As mentioned in the quote from André Wink, the Arabs and the Greeks got their term for India from a pre-existing Persian term. The most influential Islamic scholar writing on India, Al-Biruni, includes those regions in India which the astronomer Varahamihira considered as Indian. It is interesting to note that “Hindu” is not the only word for “Indian” in the Arabic literature. In Egyptian Arabic, the Greek word “Indus” (pronounced as “indoos”) is still used, as a relic from the days the Arabs learned about India from the Greeks.

The classical explanation for the origin of the term Hindu/India is that the Persians referred to the Sindhu river as ‘Hindu’, and the initial ‘h’ was later dropped by the Greeks. However, the change from ‘s’ to ‘h’ is not a characteristic of Iranian alone. To name a few examples, the same trend is found in Kashmiri, Sinhalese, and Assamese. It is surprisingly common in Indic languages from the western frontier of India – Marwari, Gujarati, Kashmiri. The same trend surfaces again in Assamese, but that may be a coincidence. This trend is very common in Sinhala, but again that may be indicative of the fact that Sri Lanka was populated by emigrants from western India. (If Dr. S. R. Rao’s decipherment of the Indus seals is correct, some Harappan words would resemble Avestan words. For example, ‘seven’ would read hapta. [15]

Dialects of the Romany (Gypsy) languages (which originated in India) fall into two classes, with words spelt with an ‘s’ in one changing to words with an ‘h’ in the other. Thus, it is at least theoretically possible that the Sindhu river was called ‘Hindu’ colloquially by Indians themselves, even if the word was not used in Sanskrit.

According to D.P. Singhal:

The first mention of India to be found in Chinese records is in connection with the mission to Ta-hsia (Bactriana) of a talented and courageous Chinese envoy, Chang Chien (kien), about 138 BC. Fourteen years later, having escaped after ten years as a captive of the Huns, he returned home and in his report to the Chinese Emperor he referred to the country of Shen-tu (India) to the southeast of the Yueh-Chih (Jou-Chih) country. Chang Chien had seen bamboo poles and cloth in Ta-hsia, which had reached there from Szechwan, a province in the southwest of China, through India and Afghanistan. Whilst his diplomatic mission did not succeed, his observations and reports impressed the Han Emperor with the need to encourage trade and contact with India and other countries to the west. [16]

But Shen-tu did not remain the only Chinese word for India. In his book on the travels of Yuan-Chwang, Watters has devoted much attention to the vexatious issue of India and its name:

His [i.e. Yuan-Chwang’s] statements about the name may be roughly rendered as follows:

We find that different counsels have confused the designations of T’ien-chu (India); the old names were Shên-tu and Sien (or Hien)-tou; now we must conform to the correct pronunciation and call it Yin-tu. The people of Yin-tu use local appellations for their respective countries; the various districts having different customs; adopting a general designation, and one which the people like, we call the country Yin-tu which means the “Moon”. [17]

The old Chinese name for India Shên-tu changed into Yin-tu by the time Yuan-Chwang was visiting, and it has remained that ever since. Let us explore whether this name change has any significance.

It is well-known that the word India in European languages derives from the Greek. The Greeks themselves had learned of Hindu — the Persian rendering of the Sanskrit word Sindhu (meaning the Indus river). There are are good reasons to believe in this classical explanation for the origin of the term Hindu/Ind, is also enough to account for the Chinese name for India:

In Chinese “hs” (Taiwan) or “x” (PRC), pronounced “sh”, often represents a foreign H or KH, in this case the H of Hindu. Initial h in most languages tends to weaken and disappear, so by the time the next Chinese traveller came through Bactria, “Hindu” was pronounced “Indu”, just as the Greeks had relayed it. [18]

That is, the word ‘Shen-tu’ in Chinese may just be ‘Hindu’ transcribed. And when Yuan-Chwang came looking for ‘Shen-tu’, he heard a word ‘Indu/Yin-tu’, which had become current in the borderlands of India, and was startled enough to make a note of it.

Let us read on as Watters continues Yuan-Chwang’s story:

It is plain, however, that he is not dealing with names given to India generally but only with those used in Chinese books. Then his words would seem to indicate that he regarded T’ien-chu, Shên-tu, and Sien-tou as only dialectal varieties or mistaken transcriptions of Yin-tu, which was the standard pronunciation. Further, his language does not seem to intimate that Yin-tu was the name for all India used by the inhabitants of the country. In some other works we find it stated that Yin-tu was the native name for the whole country, and Indu-desha given as the original Sanskrit term. Our author may have had this opinion but this does not seem to be the meaning of his statements here. On the contrary he apparently wishes us to understand that the natives of India had only designations of their own States, such as Magadha and Kausambhi, and that they were without a general name under which these should be included. It was the peoples beyond, as for example the Turks, who gave the name Yin-tu, and the Hu who gave Sin-tu to a great territory of uncertain limits. Then the Buddhist writers of Kashmir, Gandhara, and other countries beyond India proper, seem also to have used the name Yin-tu. But, as I-ching tells us, although this word may mean “moon” yet it was not the current name for India. In Buddhist literature India is called Jambudvipa, and portions of it Aryadesha and Madhydesha. One of the other names for India to be found in Buddhist literature is Indravardhana. But in the Chinese accounts of letters or missions sent by Indian rajahs to the court of China the rajahs are only represented as styling themselves kings of special countries in India. Thus the great Shiladitya, who treated our pilgrim with great honour, is made in Chinese history to call himself king of Magadha. [19]

Watters then proceeds to give us Yuan-Chwang’s own etymology for the name “Yin-tu”. India is said to be named “Yin-tu” because, like the moon, its wise and holy men shed light even after the sun of the Buddha had set. Watters himself rejects Yuan-Chwang’s etymology as being a “sorry” explanation. [20] He goes on to say:

A later Chinese writer, apparently under the impression that he had the authority of Yuan-chuang for the statement, tells us that T’ien-chu means moon. But he, like several other authors, explains the giving of this name to India in a different way from that described by the pilgrim. He says that the country was called T’ien-chu or Moon because it was great and distinguished above the other countries of the world, as the moon is great among the stars of night – “velut inter ignes Luna minores”. Other writers, like I-cing for example, are more discreetly wise, and refrain from proposing any explanation of the names for India. Admitting, they say, Yin-tu to be a Sanskrit term denoting the moon, yet it was not for that reason that the Chinese gave it as a name to the country, nor is the name the universal one. Yin-tu is the Chinese name for India as Chi-na and Chen-tan are terms used in that country to denote China, and apart from such use these names have no signification. This is going too far, and the word India at least has a satisfactory explanation. When our pilgrim enquired about the size and form of the country, he was told that was shaped like a crescent, or as it is in the text, a half-moon. The term used was apparently Indu-kala, transcribed Yin-t‘ê-ka-lo. This word means a digit of the moon or a crescent, but is rendered in Chinese simply by yueh or moon. It was perhaps this fact which led to the absurd comparison and explanation of our text. [21]

Watters does not accept Yuan-Chwang’s rationalization for the fact that India is named for the “moon”. He does not even admit that the various kingdoms in India had a conception of their unity. However, even if we share Watters’ skepticism and regard Yuan-Chwang’s story as a fable, it is clear that Yin-tu is not merely a rendering of the Persian word Hindu. The word “Indu” means “moon” in Sanskrit. If Yuan-Chwang had merely chosen the pictogram for “moon” to represent India, it would have been read as the Chinese yueh. The pronunciation Yin-tu is clearly derived from Sanskrit. This would seem to indicate that there was at least some place called ‘Indu’ (distinct from ‘Sindhu’), which could have given its name to all India. Could it be that the ‘Indians’ themselves called the country ‘Indu’ after the lunar dynasty, and that its other name Bharata later became universal? Or did the name ‘Indu’ refer to the crescent shaped Indo-Gangetic plain? Was it the half-moon shaped India of the Puranas (referred to by Subas Rai above)? It is interesting to note that ‘Indu’ in Sanskrit could well be changed to ‘Hindu’ in Old Persian, as is clear from the word pairs asta (Sans.) /hasht (O.P)(eight) and andha (Sans.) /hand (O.P.) (blind). If ‘Indu’ was a non-native word, and if the pictogram for the “moon” was picked up only as a “pun” of sorts, we have to allow at least the fact that this word was adopting a general designation, and one which the people liked, a name acceptable to the “natives of India”.

On the other hand, if “Indu” was an indigenous term for India, we must be able to explain why it has been so completely washed out from memory, to be replaced by Bharata. Until that is done, the suggestion that “Indu” is the origin of the word “Hindu” must be regarded as only a speculation.

Watters mentions another name used by Yuan-Chwang for India:

Our author in this passage mentions another general name for India, viz –Country of the brahmins (P‘o-lo-mên-kuo). Among the various castes and clans of the country the brahmins, he says, were purest and in most esteem. So from their excellent reputation the name “Brahmana-country” had come to be a popular one for India.

Now this is also a foreign designation, and one used by the Chinese especially. It does not seem to have been ever known, or at least current, in India. In Chinese literature we find it employed during the Sui period (AD 589 to 618) but it is rather a literary than a popular designation. In the shortened form Fan kuo, however, the name has long been in common use in all kinds of Chinese literature.

But was the name Brahmana-country a ‘foreign’ name, as Watters suggests? It is possible. But can we rule out the chance that Yuan-Chwang was translating the name Brahma-varta? Here is some geographical information from the Manusmriti:

The land between the rivers Sarasvati and the Drishadvati was called Brahmavarta. Beyond it, the land of the five rivers upto the Mathura region was called Brahmarshi Desha. The land between Vinashana (the place of disappearance of the Sarasvati river in the desert) and Prayaga and Vindhya was called Madhya Desha (Central Land). And finally, the land bounded by the mountain of Reva (Narmada), the Eastern Sea (Bay of Bengal) and the Western Sea is Arya Desha. This is the land where the black-skinned deer roam freely. [22]

Whether Yuan-Chwang recorded a name that was indigenous to India, or a name given to India by outsiders, it is clear that it was not merely a shorthand term for an ill-defined territory which lay across a frontier:

The territory which Yuan-chuang calls Yin-tu was mapped off by him, as by others, into five great divisions called respectively North, East, West, Central, and South Yin-tu. The whole territory, he tells us:

Was above 90,000 li in circuit, with the Snowy Mountains (the Hindu Kush) on the north and the sea on its three other sides. It was politically divided into above seventy kingdoms; the heat of summer was very great, and the land was to a large extent marshy. The northern region was hilly with a brackish soil; the east was a rich fertile plain; the southern division had a luxuriant vegetation; and the west had a soil coarse and gravelly. [23]

Thus, Yuan-Chwang used the term Yin-tu to apply to the whole of the Indian subcontinent. He can only have written what his informants told him. This means that Yuan-Chwang’s Indian informants must have had a geographical conception of the whole of India, even if they were citizens only of Magadha or Kashmira. Also, Yuan-Chwang clearly spoke of ‘Indian’ lands which were then under Persian rule. That is, Yuan-Chwang could tell that a province was “Indian” even if it happened to be under foreign rule.

Hiuen-Tsang includes Nepal, then a subordinate ally of China, in India. Another of Hiuen-Tsang’s Indian kingdoms, Lang-Kie-lo, was subject to Persia. [24]

It may not be inappropriate to remind ourselves that Yuan-Chwang visited India in the time of Harshavardhana, at least half a century before the Arabs under Muhammad bin Kasim knocked on the gates of India.

So far, we have seen that:
i) the idea of “India” has existed since classical times – since time immemorial, some would say. It has been celebrated in the classical literature of India, even though the name “India” was not used.
ii) the civilizations that came in contact with classical India did perceive the very diverse peoples of the land as somehow “one”
iii) the term “Hindu” has been current among Greeks, Persians, and Chinese quite independently of the Arabs or the Muslims. It is widely believed that the term itself is the creation of foreign peoples (even if the idea is not). However, this belief needs to be reexamined.

The fact that the idea of an India is very ancient, and that it predates the arrival of Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism on the subcontinent, by no means implies that the followers of these faiths do not belong in India. In 1909, when Hindu-Muslim differences were vitiating the political atmosphere of the country, Sri Aurobindo said of the Indian Muslim that “to him too our Mother (India) has given a permanent place in her bosom”. [25] Madan Mohan Malaviya, a Hindu leader, spoke truly when he said:

Now it is not only Hindus who live in India [Hindustan]. India is not now their land alone. Jut as India is the beloved birth-place of the Hindus, so it is of the Muslims too. Both these communities live here now, and they will always live here (Malaviya 1962: 24-25). [26]

The same applies to all the inhabitants of India, regardless of religious belief.

Indeed, followers of these faiths have often themselves taken the lead to emphasize their bonds with India, and celebrated their Indianness. Justice Mohamedali Currim Chagla, to name an example, had this to say in his autobiography:

As far as I am concerned there are three things to which I have always adhered. They have represented my working faith and my abiding belief. These principles are unity, secularism and democracy. I know all the divisive factors but to my mind they are superficial. I have always thought that it was India’s destiny to remain one country and one nation. One has only to look at a map of Asia to be convinced of this fact. With the Himalayas in the north and the sea in the west, south and east, India stands out as something distinct and apart from other countries that separate it. The Gods in their wisdom wanted India to remain one and undivided. Further, there is an Indianness and an Indian ethos, which has been brought by the communion and intercourse between the many races and the many communities that have lived in this land for centuries. There is a heritage which has devolved on us from our Aryan forefathers. There is an Indian tradition which overrides all the minor differences which may superficially seem to contradict the unity. Even the Muslim community, which numbers about 60 million, inherits the same tradition and legacy, because more than 90 per cent of the Muslims living in India were converted from Hinduism, which is the primary religion of this country. Hindus and Muslims have lived together as friends and comrades from times immemorial. They participate in one another’s festivals and even worship together common Saints in whom they both have faith. (Chagla, Roses in December) [27]

Indian nationalism thus has deep roots, and yet its expressions at the surface may change with time. Peoples such as the Buddhists of Ladakh may not be represented in the classical literature of India, in a measure proportional to their stature as one of India’s numerous constituents. Yet, they have now taken their place as staunch and patriotic Indians. In the spring of 1953, the Head Lama of Ladakh argued for the complete integration of Ladakh into India,. In August 1953 he went as far as to say: “Plebiscite or no plebiscite, Ladakh has made its choice, and its decision to accede to India is irrevocable.” [28]

The Ladakhis had originally been interested in an arrangement which would have bound them closely with the Tibetans, who are spiritually and ethnically kindred to them. But when Tibet’s submergence inside China, the Ladakhis chose to throw in their lot with India. What started as a mere convergence of interests has in time become a strong bond, which has enlarged the scope of term India. The concept of India is now broad enough to embrace all peoples whose homelands are contiguous to India, and who choose to celebrate the notion of an India.

Nations are, in the words of Ernest Renan, ultimately a consensus among people who wish to be included in a nation. East Germany united with West Germany to become one single nation, because a consensus for unity was reached in both countries, and factors which blocked the consummation of this consensus became ineffectual. On the other hand, Czechoslovakia split up into two nations because the Czechs and the Slovaks preferred to separate. The fusion and dissolution of nations need not be a difficult process.

The two examples cited above show that nationalism is inherently morally neutral. However, in recent years the very concept of nationalism has come in for much criticism. After fighting two World Wars, Europe is weary of nationalism. Scholars all over the world are quick to take up cudgels against the real and imagined excesses of nationalism. The historians of the Middle East, Ephraim and Inari Karsh have noted the tendency to view nationalism as the scourge of international relations, the primary source of inter-state conflict and war, a tendency that has gained considerable currency following the end of the Cold War and the bloody wars of dissolution in the former Yugoslavia and several former Soviet Asiatic republics. “From the very beginning the principle of nationalism was almost indissolubly linked, both in theory and practice, with the idea of war,” writes the British military historian Michael Howard. “It is hard to think of any nation-state, with the possible exception of Norway, that came into existence before the middle of the twentieth century which was not created, and had its boundaries defined, by wars, by internal violence, or by a combination of the two.” [29]

They go on to clarify the matter further:

This historical diagnosis raises the question of cause and effect. For nationalism is the desire of a specific group of people – sharing such attributes as common descent, language, culture, tradition, and history – for self-determination in a definite well-demarcated, and bounded territory that they consider to be their historical or ancestral homeland, then there is nothing inherently violent about it as far as its international ramifications are concerned. Nationalism and interstate violence go hand in hand only when one nation tries to seize foreign territory or impose its domination over another, in which case it transgresses the line between a nationalist and an imperialist policy, or when one’s quest for national self-determination is hindered by another party. And since most of the globe was under the sway of a handful of empires during the past few centuries, every community becoming sufficiently aware of its distinct national identity so as to demand its own place under the sun, be it in Europe, America, Asia, of Africa, has had to contest this right by force of arms: not because of its inherent predilection for violence but because the respective imperial master would not voluntarily concede this right.

In other words, imperialism rather than nationalism, has constituted the foremost generator of violence in modern world history. For it is the desire to dominate foreign creeds, nations or communities, and to occupy territories well beyond the “ancestral homeland”, that contains the inevitable seeds of violence – not the wish to be allowed to follow an independent path of development. In each of imperialism’s three phases – empire-building, administration, and disintegration – force was the midwife of the historical process as the imperial power vied to assert its authority and maintain its control over perennially hostile populations. True, violence as not the only means of subjugation, as many incentives were offered for those prepared to be integrated within the imperial order, but it was always there, like a huge sword of Damocles, and was occasionally used with great ferocity as the ultimate penalty for nonsubservience. [30]

Indian nationalism is not the fruit of any imperialism. While actions based on the ancient notion of a chakravarti-raja may have imposed a certain unity from above, it has not left behind backlashes in the form of disaffected peoples fighting for deliverance from the scions of King Bharata (who is regarded as the first chakravarti or Emperor.)

To understand how a land as diverse as India could develop a sense of unity is a subject best understood with a concrete example from more recent times. This example is taken from the writings of Jared Diamond who describes “the formation of complex societies”, by means of “merger by conquest”. He tells us how the Zulu state was born, when a Zulu king had been able to forge a lasting unity among various warring tribes:

When first observed by white settlers, the Zulus were divided into dozens of little chiefdoms. During the late 1700s, as population pressure rose, fighting between the chiefdoms became increasingly intense. Among all those chiefdoms, the ubiquitous problem of devising centralized power structures was solved most successfully by a chief called Dingiswayo, who gained ascendancy of the Mtetwa chiefdom by killing a rival around 1807. Dingiswayo developed a superior centralized military organization by drafting young men from all villages and grouping them into regiments by age rather than by village. He also developed superior centralized political organization by abstaining from slaughter as he conquered other chiefdoms, leaving the conquered chief’s family intact, and limiting himself to replacing the conquered chief himself with a relative willing to cooperate with Dingiswayo. He developed superior centralized conflict resolution by expanding the adjudication of quarrels. In that way Dingiswayo was able to conquer and begin the integration of 30 other Zulu chiefdoms. His successors strengthened the resulting embryonic Zulu state by expanding its judicial system, policing, and ceremonies. [31]

But Dingiswayo’s methods were hardly a novelty to classical India. The law books of India, such as the Arthashastra, had dealt with these issues a long time ago and promoted acceptance of diversity. The law-books long counseled the fiery of temper in India to make their peace with the world:

Not only are all these provisions of the various law books humane, they are remarkably wise, as they take into account all the particular and individual aspects, they recognise differences as legitimate. The same attitude prevails in the case of a conquered territory, where the king “should carry out what is agreeable and beneficial to the subjects”, also “what he has promised” (ASh, 13.5.3). “For, he who does not keep his promise becomes unworthy of trust …, also he whose behaviour is contrary to that of the subjects. Hence he should adopt a similar character, dress, language and behaviour (as the subjects)”, tasmat samana shila vesa bhasacaratam upagacchet (ASh, 13.5.6-7). It is even added: “And he should show the same devotion in festivals in honour of deities of the country, festive gatherings and sportive amusements,” desha-devata-samajotsava-viharesu ca bhaktim anuvarteta (ASh, 13.5.8). In this passage concerning “Pacification of the conquered territory” (labdha-prashamana), the ASh recommends neither weakness nor hypocrisy – but shrewdly shows consideration for the new subjects’ customs, beliefs, and feelings. Many revolts, even in recent years, have taught us how wise Kautilya’s recommendations are. They are all the more striking when we remember what western attitudes have too often been. [32]

It is difficult to determine when the idea of an India arose in India, but it is clear that it is an ancient phenomenon. A notion comparable to the idea of ‘manifest destiny’ may never have been explicitly stated. However, such a process has long been at work. As the frontiers of Bharata expanded, newer peoples entered the Bharati fold. An acceptance of diversity made the integration of very different peoples possible. Already in the days of Kautilya, it was “politically incorrect” to speak ill of other people’s janapadas (provinces, “nationalities”), and was considered a crime to be punished as libel. [33]

The India that grew over the centuries developed a non-hegemonic political character as has been long recognized:

India herself has never been seized by the compelling will to bring other nations within her sway. Already in 851 A.D. Suleiman the Merchant comprehended this when he said, “wars waged by the Indian kings are not usually undertaken with a view to possess themselves of the adjoining dominions.” [34]

Over the centuries, the call of the idea of an India has exerted a powerful influence on the peoples who make up India. The Spirit of India came to permeate the diverse lands and peoples that make up India. It is to this Spirit that Rabindranath Tagore pays tribute in the second stanza of the national anthem:

Aharaha tava ahvana pracharita, zuni tava udara vani,
Purava-pazchima-ase tava singhasana pase,
Prema-hara haya gamtha
Jana gana aikya vidhayaka jaya he bharata bhagya vidhata
Jaya he, jaya he, jaya he, jaya jaya jaya jaya he!

Day and night your call resounds,
And to the sound of your loving voice,
Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, Parsi, Muslim and Christian,
Approach your throne from east and west,
And weave for you a garland of love.
Unifier of the peoples, thou, dispenser of India’s destiny!
Victory, victory, victory to Thee!


Acknowledgements: It was my privilege to have learnt much from discussions with Dr. S. Kalyanaraman, Dr. Koenraad Elst and Deshappriya Jayasuriya. Dr. Kalyanaraman also kindly put an earlier version of this article on his web-site, thereby bringing it to its intended readership. I am grateful to him for that. I am also thankful to Arvind Sharma for his paper, “What is Bharata? What is Bharatiyata?”, from which I have drawn heavily.



[1] Quoted in The Fundamental Unity of India (From Hindu sources), Radhakumud Mookerji, Longmans, Green and Co. 1914, pp. 5-6.
[2] Quoted in P.G. Bobb, Muslim Identity and Separatism in India: The Significance of M.A. Ansari, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Volume LIV, Part I, 1991, pp. 116-117.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mawlana Syed Sulaiman Nadwi, Indo-Arab Relations (An English Rendering of Arab O’ Hind Ke Ta’alluqat) By (Translated by Prof. M. Salahuddin), The Institute of Indo-Middle East Cultural Studies, Hyderabad, India, p. 8.
[5]Andre Wink, Al-Hind:The Making of the Indo-Islamic World, Oxford University Press, 1990, Pp. 4-5
[6] Vincent Smith, Oxford History of India, 3rd Edition, 1958, p. 7.
[7] Arvind Sharma, What is Bharata? What is Bharatiyata? In The Perennial Tree: Select papers of the International Symposium of India Studies (Ed. K. Satchidananda Murty, Indian Council for Cultural relations, New Delhi & New Age International (P) Limited Publishers
[8] Suniti Kumar Chatterji, India: A Polyglot Nation and its Linguistic Problems vis-à-vis National Integration, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Research Centre, Bombay 1973, p. 32.
[9] See for instance, Pahlavi, Pârsi, Dari: Les Langues de l’Iran d’après Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ , by G. Lazard, in Iran and Islam, ed., C.E. Bosworth, Edinburgh University Press, 1971. Lazard points out that Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, who translated the Kalila wa Dimna (the Panchatantra fables translated from the Sanskrit) into Arabic, refers to Sanskrit as al-hindiyya. The same term is employed by Mas‘udi (d. 956) in the Muruj al-dahab (Meadows of Gold) when listing works translated into Arabic from various foreign languages.
[10] For instance, Yuan-Chwang notes that the language of the Buddhist scriptures in Kucha was “the language of India.” (Thomas Watters, On Yuan Chwang’s Travels In India 629-645 AD, (Edited by T.W. Rhys Davids, & S.W. Bushell, AMS Press, 1971, New York), p. 60)
[11] Alberuni’s India (translated by Edward Sachau), Abridged Edition (edited by Ainslee T. Embree) (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, 1971), p. 198.
[12] Jay Chandra Vidyalankar, Regional Structure of India in Relation to Language and History, in The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol. I, 1958, Calcutta, The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture. Vidyalankar refers the reader to Kavyamimamsa of Rajazekhara (Gaekwad’s Oriental Series, 1916), p. 93-94.
[13] Mookerji, op. cit. pp. 62-63.
[14] Subas Rai, Aryans through the Ages, Allahabad, Pandey Pub. House, 1996.
[15] Koenraad Elst, The Vedic Harappans in writing, Voice of India, Page 5.
[16] D.P. Singhal, India and World Civilization, Rupa and Co., 1993, p. 292. (For the meaning of the word Shen-tu, Singhal says: “The term Shen-tu can be philologically related to the word Sindhu (Indus). See B. Karlgren, Analytical Dictionary of Chinese, No. 869.”
[17] Watters, op. cit., p. 130.
[18] Koenraad Elst, private communication.
[19] Watters, op. cit., pp. 130-131.
[20] Ibid., p. 138.
[21] Ibid., p. 139-140.
[22] N.S. Rajaram, A Hindu View Of The World: Essays in the Intellectual Kshatriya Tradition, Voice of India, p. 82.
[23] Watters, op. cit., pp. 140-141.
[24] Surendernath Sen, India Through Chinese Eyes, K.P. Bagchi & Company,
Calcutta, 1956 (Reprinted 1979, University Of Madras), p. 61.
[25] India’s Rebirth, Sri Aurobindo.
[26] P.K. Malaviya. 1962. Malaviyaji Ke Lekh. Delhi [Quoted in Gyanendra Pandey, The Appeal of Hindu History, in Representing Hinduism: The Construction of Religious Tradition and National Identity, (eds. Vasudha Dalmia and Heinrich von Stietencron, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1995).
[27] Mohamedali Currim Chagla, Roses in December: An Autobiography (Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1973, Bombay.
[28] Josef Korbel, Danger in Kashmir, Princeton University Press, 1954, p. 244.
[29] Efraim Karsh And Inari Karsh, Empires Of The Sand: The Struggle For Mastery In The Middle East 1789-1923, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999. p. 347.
[30] Ibid., p. 348.
[31] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London 1999, pp. 291-292.
[32] Colette Caillat, What India Can teach us? In The Perennial Tree: Select papers of the International Symposium of India Studies (Ed. K. Satchidananda Murty, Indian Council for Cultural relations, New Delhi & New Age International (P) Limited Publishers), pp. 14-15.
[33] Arthashastra of Kautilya, Ed. Shama Sastri, Second Edition, Mysore, 1919, pp. 193-94, quoted in Vidyankar.
[34] R.A.Jairazbhoy, Foreign Influence in Ancient India, Asia Publishing House, 1963, preface, page v. (Jairazbhoy refers to E. Renaudot: Ancient accounts of India and China by two Mohammedan travellers, 1733, p. 33.)

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