One of the oft-repeated urban myths that sometimes pops-up in conversation even among many educated, well meaning Indians is that India as a nation is a British creation. The argument goes roughly as follows – India is an artificial entity. There are only a few periods in history when it was unified under the same political entity. It was only the British that created the idea of India as a single nation and unified it into a political state. A related assumption, in our minds, is that the developed Western countries have a comparatively far greater continuity of nationhood, and legitimacy as states, than India.
This urban myth is not accidental. It was deliberately taught in the British established system of education. John Strachey, writing in `India: Its Administration and Progress’ in 1888, said “This is the first and most essential thing to remember about India – that there is not and never was an India, possessing … any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no Indian nation.
To teach this self-serving colonial narrative obviously suited the British policy of divide and rule. That it still inanely survives means that it is worth setting to rest.
In this essay, we establish that Strachey’s colonial narrative is demonstrably false. Not only is India a coherent nation but, in fact, there are few countries on the planet that are more legitimate nation-states than India. That some of us don’t see this clearly only reflects how we have accepted the colonial myths as well as failed to study the history of the rest of the world.
The Modern States and Their Origins
The concept of nation-states, i.e. that the aspirations of the people that constitute a nation are best served by a common political entity is considered a relatively recent idea in Europe from the 18th century. Nationalism led to the formation of nation-states and modern countries. This development was followed up with a gradual hardening of state boundaries with the passport and visa regime that followed it.
Note that the concept of nationhood is based on the idea shared by a set of people that they constitute a nation. This idea or feeling may be based on common ties of a people based on their culture, common descent, language, religion or other such attributes. The state constitutes a group of people inhabiting a specific territory and living according to a common legal and political authority.
The modern nation-state, as it exists today, is a new development for the entire world, and not just for India. Mediaeval Europe, for instance, was divided politically into many small principalities, the boundaries and sovereignties of which changed frequently. Many of the countries as we know them today got established in the 19th and 20th century, and the boundaries of these changed throughout the 20th century – in the two World Wars, border disputes and the turmoil in Eastern Europe.
The United Kingdom was not really united till the act of Union in 1702 when England (including Wales) and Scotland came together. Even then they retained different laws and (even more crucially in European nationhood) retained separate national Churches. In 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. In 1922, Ireland broke off as an independent country resulting in the present political formation – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thus the UK in its present political state, if that is the criteria to be used, is not even a hundred years old.
Across the Atlantic, the picture is even more stark. In 1700, the British colonies were spread barely over the area that comprises the few North Eastern States, less than 10% of the current geographical areas. The diverse Native American tribes that inhabited the area of the present day United States could not be said to have comprised a nation, and even if they did, the current United States neither considers itself as a continuity of the native culture, nor are its people primarily descendents of the natives. Even in 1776, when America declared itself a separate state from the British, its area was a small fraction of the area it has today, mainly constituting the states on the East Coast. Only in 1845 did Texas and California, among its largest states, become part of it as a result of a war with Mexico. Washington State gained statehood in 1889, Hawaii in 1900. Thus the United States in its present political and geographic conception is barely 100 years old as a state and, at the maximum limit, as a political entity is about 250 years, with many annexations and a civil war in between. No state or kingdom existed on its boundaries before that in history.
If you take Mexico, the story is better, but not much. While it has greater continuity from pre-colonial times than the United States because of the Aztec Empire that existed for about a hundred years before the Spanish Conquest, the Aztec never controlled all of present day Mexico. No other conception of nation-hood, such as shared religious beliefs, united the other areas of Mexico with the Aztec ones. Furthermore, while present day Mexicans take pride in their Aztec heritage and use symbols from the Aztec nation on their flag, they have largely lost any direct cultural continuity of either language or religious beliefs from pre-colonial times. Spanish has very nearly wiped out the native languages and 95% of Mexicans are now Christians and described as `Hispanic’. i.e. of the Spanish culture.
Similarly, Africa and South America mostly constitute of state boundaries carved up by colonial rule. The present boundaries of the African states were largely carved out by treaties among the European nations between 1884 and 1899 in meetings held in Europe with no African representation into the process! While there had been some kingdoms like Ghana and Mali in earlier times that were politically united, the boundaries of current African countries rarely map to the territories of historical kingdoms.
In short, if we take the legitimacy of current nation-states on the basis of centuries of common continuous political rule over the same geographical boundary and inhabited by the same people, then practically no country on the planet meets this criteria. Simply put, shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries legitimize virtually no country in its present form.
To understand nationhood then as it is supports the modern nation-state, we thus must search the roots of nationhood first and foremost in the conception of nationhood, i.e. did a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation?
Understanding Indian Nationhood
The first element of Indian nationhood draws from its unique geography. India is one of the few countries that can be located on a physical map of the world, even when no political boundaries are drawn. It is worth taking a deep breath and looking at the map below, reflecting on the significance of this geography before we go further.
|Fig 1: India’s geographical unity|
The Indian peninsula and vast plains are bounded by the ocean on three sides and the land stretches to the highest peaks of the Himalayas in the north. The vast sweep of the land ends in the East with the mountainous border with Burma. In the West, just past the Indus, the mountains come downwards towards the ocean again forming a natural boundary.
Early civilizations all developed on the banks of great river systems – Egypt on the Nile, Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates, the Chinese on the Yangste Kiang. Thus civilization developed on the great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain – one of the richest river-soil-climate systems in the world; and on the Narmada and Cauvery. And because of the ease of access in this land throughout the ages, there was an enormous interchange of thought and ideas, people and customs, and there developed a culture that is distinctly Indian, and at the same time incredibly diverse.
The culture’s distinctive nature evolved precisely because the unique geography facilitated it. The large mountains and bodies of water separated it from surrounding cultures to give it its distinctiveness. The low barriers to movement within this land mass ensured an ease of access to build a coherent whole. This ensured that the exchanges that took place within this large separated petri dish were much deeper and longer lasting than those that took place with those from without. Hence was created a unique and diverse civilization.
Among the earliest political consolidations, even by the dates of present colonial scholarship, was under the Mauryas from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC, when most of India was under their rule.
After the Mauryas, there was repeated political consolidation of large parts of India, even when all of it was not under a single rule. The Kanishkas consolidated the north from the Hindu Kush Mountains to Bihar and south to Gujarat and Central India. The Satavahana Empire, considered to be founded by high officials of the Mauryas, consolidated the south and central parts.
The Gupta Empire again politically consolidated the area from Afghanistan to Assam and south to the Narmada, possibly exerting political control even further down south. Samudragupta led an expedition all the way down to Kanchipuram in present Tamil Nadu. While the southern areas were not formally part of the Empire, they were quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tribute to the Emperor. The only other major comparable empires in the world of this size at the time were the Chinese and the Roman.
Note that it would be a thousand years after the Mauryan Empire was established and even much after the Gupta Empire that the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century AD would first move into the region that would later be called England. It would be nearly five hundred more years before the territory of England would be consolidated as an independent political entity. Only much later would there be attempts at unity of `Great Britain’. The `United Kingdom’ that includes Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as we mentioned earlier, is only a recent political artifact.
After the Gupta Empire, the Chalukya-Chola dynasty consolidated most of India in the south, leading expeditions even up to the north of the Ganges river.
Later on, much of India would be consolidated again under the Mughals, and after the Mughal empire disintegrated, by the British.
So while the British were the last power, before the current state of India, to administratively consolidate its territory (as well as to divide it up as they left), they were by no means the first ones to do so.
Even when multiple kingdoms existed, these kingdoms were not like the countries of today with a passport and visa regime needed to cross and all kinds of regulations on movement of goods and people. A continued exchange of ideas, people, goods and scholarship took place throughout the sub-continent, largely unmindful of the boundaries of kingdoms.
Furthermore, the territorial boundaries of India were largely maintained. There were few, if any, times before the British came when large parts of India were consolidated into kingdoms that were centered outside it. There were no significant long-lasting kingdoms, for instance, that ruled from Persia to the Ganges plain, or from Burma to Bengal, or from China or Tibet to Delhi. There was a separateness and integrity to this land, unlike European countries or even Europe as a whole. For centuries, the Romans consolidated north Africa and southern Europe into one contiguous centrally ruled empire, as did the Ottomans after them. Central Asia became part of one external empire or another.
Even in the case of the British, when all of India became part of a larger empire centered outside it for the first time, it was clear that it was distinct from Burma, for instance, even though they were contiguous land areas ruled by the British. And thus the freedom movements in Burma and India were separate. Burma and India did not become one after their respective independence, nor was there any call by Indian or Burmese nationalists to do so.
Thus there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms.
The Idea of India
This then becomes our second question – is the idea of India as a unit a new idea brought by the British or did it exist long before the British came? Did the people of this vast land recognize that they were linked together? Did they share a common story of their civilization, of their Indian-ness, their Bharatiyata? Remarkably, the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha orAryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years in our stories, thousands of years before there was an America or a Great Britain or a Mexico or France.
From the Manusmriti, we learn of the land of Aryavrata stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans. Without the idea of Bharata, there could have been no epic called the Maha-Bharata that engaged kings throughout this land of Bharata. The story of Mahabharata shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context and inter-relationships, from Gandhari, the wife of Drithrashtra who came from Gandhara, (spelled as Kandahar in present-day Afghanistan), Draupadi from Panchala (present day Jammu and Kashmir), all the way to Arjun meeting and marrying the Naga princess Uloopi on a visit to Manipur in the east (from where he gets the `Mani‘ or Gem). Interestingly, Arjuna is said to have gone on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east when this happens, showing the current North-East was very much linked in this. Finally, Krishna himself is from Mathura and Vrindavana (in UP) though his kingdom itself is in Dwarka (Gujarat).
Similarly, the story of Ramayana draws the north-south linkage from Ayodhya all the way down to Rameshwaram, at the tip of which is finally the land of Lanka. Note that it is not, for this particular thesis, important that the stories are historically accurate. What we are interested in rather is whether the idea of India or Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata as a culturally linked entity existed in the minds of the story-tellers and ultimately in the minds of the people to whom these stories were sacred. And these stories were then taken and told and retold in all the languages of the people of this great civilization, till the stories themselves established a linkage among us and to the sacred geography they celebrated. This sacred geography is what makes northerners flock to Tirupati and southerners to the Kumbha Mela.
And the diffusion of these common ideas was certainly not only from the north to south. The great Bhakti movement started in the 6th and 7th centuries AD had its roots in the south in the Tamil and Kannada languages. Even while the boundaries of kingdoms changed, enormous cultural and religious unity continued to take place across India. It started off with the Alvars and the Nayanars (Tamil, 7th to 10th century AD), Kamban (Tamil, 11th century), Basava (Kannada, 12th century) and moved on to Chaitanya Mahaprabu (Bengali, 15th century), Ramananda (15th century, born in Allahabad of south India parentage, guru of Kabir, 15th century), Raskhan (16th century), Surdas (Braj, 16th century), Mirabia (Rajasthan, 16th century), Tulsidas (Avadhi, 16th century), Nanak (Punjabi, 16th century) and Tukaram (Marathi, 17th century), among the many. All these together weaved a garland across the land that spoke again of our common truths, our common cultural heritage.
The Bhakti movement retold our ancient stories in the language of the common people, in Marathi and Bengali, in Avadhi (present day UP) and Bhojpuri (present day Bihar), in Gujarati and Punjabi and in Rajasthani. We can marvel at the cultural unity in India, where while theBhakti poets initiated the great movement for devotion to Shiva in the south, the erudite philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism was being developed coevally in the north. Or that Kamban in the south was the first poet to take the story of Rama to the major regional languages, and Tulsidas, much closer to Ayodhya, came centuries later. Or that the great Krishna bhaktaChaitanya was celebrating his devotion to the King of Dwarka in Bengal while Tukaram sang praises of Lord Vithal in the west. An immense body of pan-Indian worship revolved around the triad of Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti in their various forms – whether as Rama, Krishna, Sri Venkateshwara, Sri Dakshinamurti, Jagdamba, Durga Mata or Kali. These common stories were told and retold without the mandate of any central church and seeped through the pores of the land of Bharata, forging a shared bond, unlike any other seen on the planet.
It was this idea of civilizational unity and sacred geography of India that inspired Shankaracharya to not only enunciate the mysteries of the Vedanta but to go around setting upmathas circumscribing the land of India in a large diamond shape. While sage Agasthya crossed the Vindhya and came down south, Shankracharya was born in the village of Kalady in Kerala and traveled in the opposite direction for the establishment of dharma. If this land was not linked in philosophical and cultural exchanges, and there was no notion of a unified nation, why then did Shankracharya embark on his countrywide digvijay yatra? What prompted him to establish centers spreading light for the four quadrants of this land – Dwarka in the west (in Gujarat), Puri in the east (in Orissa), Shringeri in the south (Karnataka) and Badrinath (Uttaranchal) in the north? He is then said to have gone to Srinagar (the abode of `Sri’ or the Shakti) in Kashmir, which still celebrates this in the name of Shankaracharya Hill. What better demonstration that the idea of the cultural unity of the land was alive more than a thousand years ago?
And yet, these stories are not taught to us in our schools in India. We learn instead, in our colonial schools, that the British created India and gave us a link language, as if we were not talking to each other for thousands of years, traveling, telling and retelling stories before the British came. How else did these ideas travel so rapidly through the landmass of India, and how did Shankracharya circumscribe India, debating, talking and setting up institutions all within his short lifespan of 32 years?
Fig 2: Ideas of India: Shankaracharya and Shakti
These ideas of our unity have permeated all our diverse darshanas. We have talked about Bhakti and Vedanta and the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But this idea of unity was not limited to particular schools. They were equally present in the tantric schools that exerted a tremendous influence on popular worship. Thus we have the legend of Shakti, whose body was carried by Shiva and cut up by Vishnu, landing in 51 places throughout the landmass of India that are now the site of the Shakti Peetham temples. The body of Shakti, or so the story goes, fell all the way from Neelayadakshi Kovil in Tamil Nadu to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, from Pavagadh in Gujarat to the Kamakshi temple in Assam and 47 other places.
Why would the story conceive of these pieces of Shakti sanctifying and falling precisely all over the landmass of India, rather than all of them falling in Tamil Nadu or Assam or Himachal (or alternately, Yunan (Greece) or China, or some supposed `Aryan homeland’ in Central Asia) unless someone had a conception of the unity of the land and civilization of Bharatavarsha? Whether these stories are actual or symbolic, represent real events or myths, it is clear from them that the idea of India existed in the minds of those that told these stories and those that listened. Together, all these stories wove and bound us together, along with migration, marriages and exchange of ideas into a culture unique in the story of mankind. A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity.
And this unity as nation has been with us far before the idea of America existed. Far before the Franks had moved into northern France and the Visigoths into Spain, before the Christian Church was established and Islam was born. They have been there before Great Britain existed, before the Saxons had moved into Britannia. They have been there while empires have fallen, from when Rome was a tiny village to when it ruled an empire that rose and collapsed.
Thus the Arabs and Persians already had a conception of Hind far before the Mughal Empire was established. If we suggest that their conception of Hind was derived only from their contact with Sindh in western India, why would the British, when they landed in Bengal, form the EastIndia Company, unless the conception of the land of India (a term derived from the original Hind) was shared by the natives and the British? They used this name much before they had managed to politically hold sway over much of India, and before they educated us that no India existed before their arrival. Why would the Portuguese celebrate the discovery of a sea-route to India when Vasco de Gama had landed in Calicut in the south, if India was a creation of the British Empire?
The answer is obvious. Because the conception of India, a civilization based in the Indian sub-continent, predates the rise and fall of these empires. True, that large parts of India were under unified political rule only during certain periods of time (though these several hundreds of years are still enormous by the scale of existence of most other countries throughout the globe) such as under the Mauryas or the Mughals. But those facts serve to hide rather than reveal the truth till we understand the history of the rest of the world and realize the historic social, political and religious unity of this land. We are not merely a country; we are a civilizational country, among very few other countries on the planet.
Some Other Civilizational Countries
While we occupy the rarefied space of countries that have as much legitimacy and continuity as civilizations, it is worth examining a few others civilizations that have lasted. The country of Greece is one such country. However, Greece as a contemporary state was established in the 19th century, coughed up by the Ottoman Empire as it was breathing its last. Over the centuries, Greece has not existed as an independent political entity, having been absorbed by the Roman Empire and assimilated into the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Ironically, the rise of contemporary Greek nationalism can be traced to the late 18th century, when Greek students studying in Europe came to realize that their civilization was actually highly regarded in western Europe. This resurgent pride about the ancient Greek civilization formed the basis of the movement to establish the modern Greek state even though there was no political continuity between the two entities.
If the continuity of political unification is the criteria that is used to define the legitimacy of a country, then Greece is far less legitimate than India, and other countries around the globe are even less so. The boundaries of the contemporary Greek state do not match with the original Greek Empire. Furthermore, even ancient Greece constituted of politically independent city-states, united more by the feeling that they belonged to the same culture, rather than having political unity. So clearly the measure of political unification, even when it did hold true for large parts of India over the ages, is not the relevant criteria, but the idea of a shared culture and civilization.
The only other continuous civilizations that come close to India as legitimate nations are nation-civilizations like Egypt, Iran and China. But Egypt, though old, having been assimilated in various empires and conquered first by Christianity and then by Islam, hardly retains much contact with its ancient traditions, languages or indigenous religion. Similarly Iran, the inheritor of the Persian empire which reached its peak in the 6th century BC, was assimilated into other empires and finally conquered by Islamic Arabs – it retains little of its Zoroastrian roots, though it retains its pre-Islamic language, albeit in Arab script. China is the other civilizational nation that can claim to have a legitimacy and continuity similar to India. However, for most of its history, Chinese civilization developed and concentrated in the Eastern plains. Consolidated rule, either political, social or religious/ideological over the entire vast area that present-day China occupies is relatively recent. Indian Buddhism obviously had a huge influence on China. Interestingly, despite communism and the Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectuals have sought to link the roots of present day communist ideology with the teachings of Confucius.
So there we have it. India is one of the few nations of the world with a continuity of civilization and an ancient conception of nationhood. In its religious, civilizational, cultural and linguistic continuity, it truly stands alone. This continuity was fostered by its unique geography and its resilient religious traditions. Unlike any other country on the planet, it retained these traditions despite both Islamic and Christian conquest, when most countries lost theirs and were completely converted when losing to even one of these crusading systems. The Persians fell, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon were lost, the Celtic religion largely vanished, and the mighty Aztecs were vanquished, destroyed and completely Christianized. Yet Bharata stands. It stands in our stories, our languages, our pluralism and our unity. And as long as we remember these stories, keep our languages and worship the sacred land of our ancestors, Bharata will stand. It is only if we forget these truths that Bharata will cease to be. That is precisely why the British tried to hard to make us forget them.
Posted on Oct 9, 2003 by Sankrant Sanu