Is there such a thing as India? And if there is, how do we define it? Is it a nation? Or a civilization?
Is there such a thing as India? And if there is, how do we define it? Is it a nation? Or a civilization? Is it a federation of nations? A geographic entity? A concept? A vision? Or is it only the borders left by the British when they partitioned it in 1947?
These are the questions that arise when one attempts to consider India. For truth be told, India is a confusing history and darshana, a vision so vast and integral that one gets lost in its profusion and multitude of languages, ethnicities, cultures, beliefs, religions, philosophies, and perhaps, even the definition of itself.
Thus, to me, India is a meditation that I have attempted for as long as I remember, as long as I could think, and feel, as long as I could articulate myself and my confused understanding of its nature and definition. The present essay is an exploration and a journey. With a lot of collated facts but in the end only a deep sense of what it might be. Nor are these thoughts claimed by me to be absolute for all or even the correct ones. But perhaps if might begin to understand her vast expanse and reach, one might begin to understand oneself better. And perhaps humanity as a whole.
I do not pretend to know the answers for when I behold her, I am awe-inspired and mystified, speechless, and grateful. For what she has given me and what I am today.
And any history of Indian nationalism must first define what India is. Or at least, how she has been defined by others in the past and how we may approach her.
For nationalism too must involve a nation. But India seems to elude one’s grasp. It seems to me far more than a nation. And perhaps we can settle that it is an ancient civilization. And it has stretched in mythology, itihasa and cultural memory, perhaps from Afghanistan in the Northwest as far down to Indonesia in the South East, as far north as Kashmir and as far south as Sri Lanka. And I say this without desiring to offend the great nations that seem to be included in its sabhyata.
Perhaps then, there are many ways to define India. First, as a darshana and vision. Then, perhaps, as a culture and civilization. Then perhaps, a spirit that underlies all its chaotic and innumerable names and forms. And finally, perhaps, as a geographic entity that holds together a people who are together despite being split by artificial lines. And these definitions overlap, intermingle, interfuse, until a sense appears of what Sri Aurobindo called a Shakti, a living force, that may yet surprise us with a renaissance that is in the works at present.
For if we define her as a civilization, we have to go back a few millennia and attempt to discover her roots and core, her Idea and her soul.
And this, I confess, is a labor of a lifetime. At least for me. I can only say one thing for sure. I cannot define her at all if I try to limit her to a geographic boundary or a particular religion or culture. Her beauty and grandeur, her detailed refinement and celebration of life always seem to slip through my fingers. And I can only behold her with utmost wonder and humility.
India has had multiple names in its illustrious history. Some of these are Bharatvarsha, Aryavarta, Nabhivarta, Saptasindhu, Hindustan, and India. Each has its own etymology and development. And we will attempt to try to understand them one by one, with an exploration of their roots.
Bharat Varsha or the Land of the Bharatas
According to Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal, Bharata Varsha is the ‘Land of the Bharatas’ mentioned in the Rig Veda. Later texts such as the Puranas would define it as ‘The country that lies north of the seas and south of the snowy mountain is called Bharatam, there dwell the descendants of Bharata’.”
“ उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य : हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम् ।
वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम : भारती यत्र संततिः ।।
Varsha signifies the year in Sanskrit. It might also signify Varsha or rains and a piece of land.
In The Incredible History of India’s Geography, Sanjeev Sanyal comes to a remarkable hypothesis: “That the Rig Vedic people and the Harappans were the same…. It is possible that the Harappans were a multi-ethnic society, just like India today. The Rig Vedic people may have been part of the bubbling mix.” If this is true, many of the questions about India’s ancient peoples might be answered.
The common misperception is that the Aryans invaded the Harappan civilization and destroyed it. However, there is no basis for this theory. Not only is there no evidence for the same, it seems that some Harappan customs have continued in Indian culture to this date according to Sanjeev Sanyal in Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography, e.g., “namaste—the common Indian way to show respect to both people and the gods. There are several clay figurines from Harappan sites that show a person with palms held together in a namaste. There are even terracotta dolls of women with red vermillion on their foreheads. Is this the origin of the ‘sindur’ used by married Hindu women?”
Michel Danino in The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, has found more such continuities including “the persistence of the ratio 5:4” in architecture, town planning and Vedic yajnas. Also, “chess pieces that look remarkably like modern equivalents have been found at Harappan sites. It has long been known that chess originated in India but it is extraordinary that the game, or something similar, was being played more than four thousand years ago,” according to Sanjeev Sanyal. And he adds, “…the Harappans did not just disappear; they live on amongst us.”
It seems that the Harappans are the same as the Vedic people and their culture and genes lived on in India. There is simply no reason why one land should have been simultaneously inhabited by two cultures and one of them disappeared while the other continued as present-day India. Romila Thapar believes that the Harappan ‘material culture shows no continuities’ in The Penguin History of Early India. However, B.B. Lal with extensive research has shown in The Saraswati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture that “many of the present-day cultural traits are rooted in the Harappan Civilization.” Why is this important? It is to realize that India is an ancient land that has shared a sustained and shared culture with continuing threads of commonalities across a span of more than at least 6000 years. This makes more sense than an arbitrary hypothesis of the Aryan Invasion of the peninsula posited by early British Indologists.
Sanjeev Sanyal goes on to say, “The Harappan civilization and the Rig Veda coincide on many things—their time frames, their geography, the Bronze Age technology and even on the existence of the Saraswati river. Combined with the genetic data…it would seem that we are dealing with a population and culture that has continuously inhabited the subcontinent for a very long time. For some, especially archaeologists like B.B. Lal, the matter is settled.”
Sapta Sindhu or Seven Rivers
Sapta Sindhu or the seven sacred rivers are often referred to in the Rig Veda. Of these, Saraswati was considered the most important. The Avesta mentions the hapta hendu which is generally equated with the Vedic Sapta Sindhavaha.
Where did Saraswati disappear? Sanjeev Sanyal in the Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography believes that it is the river also known as the Ghagghar that dried up subsequently leading to the end of the populous cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro.
He notes that “The Vedas clearly mention a wider landscape watered by thrice-seven rivers….it is obvious that the Sapta-Sindhu is a sub-set of the wider Vedic landscape….
Coming together, glorious, loudly roaring—
Saraswati, Mother of Floods, the seventh—
With copious milk, with fair streams strongly flowing,
Fully swelled by the volume of their waters
Some think nowadays that the Saraswati was a mythological river. And indeed, she is a name given to a form of the Mahashakti, the one who is sweet, detailed, the aradhya of the craftsman, the student, the artist, who works with the patience of centuries on the minutest and most granular perfection and leaves nothing incomplete or unfinished. “As a physical river, in the oldest texts of the Rig Veda it is described as a “great and holy river in north-western India,” but in the middle and late Rig Vedic books it is described as a small river ending in “a terminal lake (samudra)… (it) is a deified river first mentioned in the Rig Veda and later in Vedic and post-Vedic texts. It played an important role in the Vedic religion, appearing in all but the fourth book of the Rigveda….The Nadistuti hymn in the Rigveda (10.75) mentions the Sarasvati between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west, while RV 7.95.1-2, describes the Sarasvati as flowing to the samudra, a word now usually translated as ‘ocean’, but which could also mean “lake.” Later Vedic texts such as the Tandya Brahmana and the Jaiminiya Brahmana, as well as the Mahabharata, mention that the Sarasvati dried up in a desert.”
Sri Aurobindo has proposed, on the other hand, that “the symbolism of the Veda betrays itself to the greatest clearness in the figure of the goddess Sarasvati … She is, plainly and clearly, the goddess of the World, the goddess of a divine inspiration …”
“Diana Eck (in India: A Sacred Geography) notes that the power and significance of the Sarasvati for present-day India is in the persistent symbolic presence at the confluence of rivers all over India. Although “materially missing”, she is the third river, which emerges to join in the meeting of rivers, thereby making the waters thrice holy.”
“The Vedic description of the goddess Sarasvati as a mighty river, and the Vedic and Puranic statements about the drying-up and diving-under of the Sarasvati, have been used by some as a reference point for a revised dating of the Vedic culture. Some see these descriptions as a mighty river as evidence for an earlier dating of the Rig Veda, identifying the Vedic culture with the Harappan culture, which flourished at the time that the Gaggar-Hakra hadn’t dried up, and rejecting the Indo-Aryan migrations theory, which postulates a migration at 1500 BCE. Michel Danino places the composition of the Vedas therefore in the third millennium BCE, a millennium earlier than the conventional dates.”
Whether or not, the Ghagghar was Saraswati, it seems plausible that the Vedas could be more than 5000-6000 years old. For they were initially passed down from one generation to another orally; only about two millennia ago were they transcribed. It is also clear that the Indian civilization was heavily influenced by its rivers, especially the Saraswati, a river that according to several ancient texts subsequently dried. It is entirely possible that this drying caused a dissipation of the Harappans and caused its people to migrate to other areas of the nation spreading their culture, darshana and literature.
The word Hindustan means the place of the Hindus. And it seems that it is derived from two Sanskrit words, Sindhu and Sthaan. The Greeks, unable to pronounce the S sound, called it Hindu and the place of Hindus became popularly known as Hindustan.
Similarly, Brahmavarta, the Holy land, according to Sanjeev Sanyal, is the land ‘lying between the Saraswati and the Drishtadvati,’ an area that could be present-day Haryana and north Rajasthan. And he states that “In my view, the importance of the Land of the Seven Rivers probably derives from it being the home of the Bharatas, a tribe that would give Indians the name by which they call themselves.”
Aryavarta in the ancient tongue meant the land of the Aryas. Aryas comes from the Sanskrit root Ari, which means to plough, to farm, in agriculture, but also someone who is a person of self-refinement. ‘It refers to a cultured or noble person—which means that all (Rig Vedic) groups like to refer to themselves as Aryan…The use of the word in a racial sense occurs in ancient Iran and modern Europe but not in India.” Sri Aurobindo has debunked the theory of the Aryan Invasion of the Dravidian people in his two remarkable translations and commentaries on the Vedas, The Secret of the Vedas and Hymns to the Mystic Fire.