The idea of India

Print edition : May 20, 2005

India Studies in the History of an Idea, edited by Irfan Habib; Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2005; pages 270, Rs.500.

"WE are all Indians" is a cliche that is frequently heard. But what is India and who are "we"? India as a geographical entity can be seen in an atlas, but it is well known that what is shown as India now is quite different from what was seen under the same name prior to 1947. Pre-1947 India consisted also of territories that are today depicted as Pakistan and Bangladesh. But while pre-independent India was geographically larger, it was politically not quite one entity: it consisted of British India, part of a much larger British empire, owing allegiance to the British monarch, and some 600 native states - some large and some tiny - that were quasi-independent and whose populations owed greater loyalty to the local rulers than to the distant monarchy or its Indian representative, the Viceroy.

This brief narrative shows that the question "What is India?" is not as simple as it may first appear. There is a deeper issue. While Indians can be said to be those who are citizens of India, different groups of Indians may have widely divergent perceptions of what India is or should be. In this sense "the idea of India" is not easy to comprehend and define.

The book under review is the attempt by a group of historians to deal with a set of questions relating to this complex theme. Says the preface to the book: "What India means may elicit different answers from different people today. The answers that might have been given a thousand, two thousand or three thousand years ago would have been possibly quite different. This volume explores how notions of India have grown."

It may appear that a landmass bounded by one of the tallest and longest mountain ranges on one side and by the sea on all other sides is carved out by nature to be a country. However appealing and visually familiar that perception may be, there are difficulties about that formulation. For one, even the geography is not that simple. That description overlooks the fact that the boundaries in the northeast and the northwest are not so natural at all. And, if natural boundaries are the defining criterion, the peninsula known now as South India, separated in the north by another mountain range, should have had a greater geographical claim to be a country. But for long, that landmass consisted of several distinct kingdoms, none of which was considered to be a part of India.

Hence we must look more into history than into geography to see how India, with its geographical boundaries changing frequently over time, evolved as a separate country. Here again, there are some apparent paradoxes. Today, whatever may be the nature of India, its Indianness is what those who are within it provide, cherish and defend. But in the distant past India as India was seen by those who were outside its territory and Indianness, too, was the description provided by those who came from outside.

On that basis this volume, which contains 16 independent essays and an introduction by the editor, traces the idea of India as seen by the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs and the Persians in the ancient past and the Dutch and the French in the more recent past. Most of these outsiders saw only parts of the territory that finally emerged as India.

Of that territory, what the Greeks knew best was the region around the river Sind or Sindhu. (Rivers came to have names long before land territories.) This region could have been part of some empire of which the Mediterranean was also a part. According to the usages of the Greeks and the Iranians, from Sind came Ind and Hind. The Persians used the suffix -stan to refer to large territories and so the land around and beyond the Sind or Hind became Hindustan and the inhabitants of the region came to be known as Hindus. The term was in use in the B.C. centuries. Its restricted use to refer to a religious group came much later, after Muslims established themselves in large parts of Hindustan. Says Irfan Habib: "But by the Hindus themselves the name was not accepted till the latter half of the fourteenth century, being obviously an alien imposition" (page 5).

While Hind, Hindustan and Hindu came from the Persians, from the Greeks, who were familiar with the Indus basin, came the name "India", possibly between 500 and 400 B.C., and the associated term "Indians", referring to the inhabitants of the region. However, there was a lack of clarity about the region: a writing of the same period referred to it as neighbouring Ethiopia (page 47). The geographical knowledge of India was not much better even in the time of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), who thought that the Indus was the upper Nile. Alexander set out on his campaign of India also with such a notion. One of the most informative accounts about India came from a Greek, Megasthenes, who was the Greek envoy to Chandragupta Maurya's court in the third century B.C.

The Chinese interest in India began in earnest only after the spread of Buddhism to China. The Chinese monk Hiuen Tsiang visited India during A.D. 630-44 and produced a splendid geographical, cultural and political survey of India. The Chinese knew India under three names, Shin-tu, Hien-tu and In-tu. According to Hiuen Tsiang, people in the country preferred the third, which meant the moon and from which the name India was derived, adding that even this name was not used widely. There were different names in different parts of the territory, whose description would suggest that Hiuen Tsiang equated India broadly with the Indian subcontinent, possibly including a part of Afghanistan.

Writings about India and its people by several Arab and Persian visitors are available from the 10th to the 14th centuries. Some of them stayed on for fairly long periods and their writings marked the transition from a rather vague notion of India to a more precise awareness of its geographical regions and the customs of its people.

Of such writings one of the most notable was by the Arab scholar and scientist Alberuni. He gave a fairly dependable description of the country, its rivers and major cities. He studied Sanskrit and made a conscious attempt to understand Indian culture and convey it to the Arabic-speaking world. His accounts portrayed India as a single cultural tradition, carrying within its folds a variety of faiths, languages and social formations. There was also Amir Khusrau, born in Etah of Uttar Pradesh in A.D. 1253, son of a Turk who had migrated to India from Uzbekistan. Khusrau wrote extensively about India, which he considered as the earth's Paradise. He was impressed by the linguistic variety in India and the versatility of Indians. He was of the view that while men of letters could be found in many parts of the world, nowhere else was wisdom and philosophy so well written as in India.

The writings by some Europeans in the 17th century are also commented upon in the volume. The documents of the Dutch East India Company contain many observations about the country and its people, but understandably most of them relate to trade and commerce. The French writer Francois Bernier spent several years in India in the second half of the 17th century and wrote extensively about the country, contrasting India with Europe, and producing a general thesis about "oriental tyranny".

THE attempt made in this volume to show how the idea of India has evolved over long centuries is certainly commendable. Those who are not familiar with this history may not have even suspected that outsiders played such a crucial role in that evolutionary process. However, by concentrating so heavily on the role of outsiders, and almost completely ignoring internal factors in that process, particularly of the early periods, the volume gives a slanted picture.

The internal factors are not omitted completely. Six of the 16 chapters deal with what may be described as internal aspects. One is about the evolution of a regional identity with reference to Kerala, which, for long, did not figure in any external account of India, and has some widely held beliefs about the creation of the land itself. Another deals with the vision of a free India in the Bengal renaissance and a third with Swami Dayanand's Aryavarta. Through the works and thoughts of Pandita Ramabai and Rameswari Nehru, another essay argues for a more just India for women. There is a critical chapter on Veer Savarkar's (and those of his followers') attempt to establish that "India must be a Hindu land, reserved for the Hindus". And, finally, there is a chapter that spells out the rationale of Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of a democratic, secular and socialist India.

Each of these essays makes a useful contribution to our understanding of the idea of India. But the gap between the treatment of the ancient days (as seen largely by outsiders) and of the present (as perceived by insiders) is quite glaring. Some continuity of treatment could have been ensured by (for example) an account of the internal factors that contributed to the political unification of the geographical territory that constitutes India, the frequent disruptions of that unity, subsequent reunifications and the final division of the Indian subcontinent.

Similarly, while there are occasional references to the cultural plurality that prevailed in medieval India and emphatic assertions about the need to protect it today, some discussion of how what prevailed once was lost would have been useful. And, of course, to show the role of the external-internal interaction in the continuing evolution of the idea of India, a discussion of the changing notion of Indianness today as a result of globalisation would have greatly enriched the volume.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×