A resolution to officially rename India as Bharat is likely to be discussed at Parliament’s special session scheduled from September 18 to 22, and some are concerned.
Is the proposal a sort of scheme based in Hindutva supremacy? Or, perhaps, in Aryan supremacy?
Whatever you believe, one thing’s for sure: the weeds of plot have a way of tangling us all. Especially when it comes to decisions made by the Indian government — decisions that tend to lead to the vilification of Hindu Americans, despite taking place on the other side of the globe.
Before wading too deeply into the brushes of this issue, we thought you might want to know a little of the history, as it will provide the appropriate blade of knowledge needed on the jungled path of discernment.
So stick with us. It won’t take long.
In ancient times, India wasn’t exactly the unified country we know it as today, but made up, rather, of various tracts of land named for the clan-confederations inhabiting them. Tamilakam, for example, was the Tamil term for where Tamilian cultures resided, while Gandhara referred to the area occupied by the Gandharan people (modern Kandahar, Afghanistan).
Consciousness of the subcontinent in its entirety, though existing, wasn’t something that was necessary or natural, for most remained absorbed in the affairs of their own regions, detached from those of others.
This began changing, however, with the first invasions of Ancient India, through which its people weren’t differentiated by their distinct clan-confederations, but instead as a collective bunch who lived beyond the Sindhu River (the local Sanskrit name for the Indus river that flows through the Northwestern part of India).
The Zorastrians of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, due to linguistic morphology, spelled it as Hindush, and from this a number of derivatives emerged in other prominent cultures — Hodu in Hebrew, Al-Hind in Arabic, Tianzhu in Ancient China, and India in Ancient Greece.
Still, as it happened, “Hindu” was most commonly employed to denote the land and people living across the waterway, eventually evolving into a cultural, and more specifically, religious significator. Yet, being the segmented group they were, what religion it actually signified, no one could truly say.
Though, in general, most of them followed dharma, or ancient teachings that help one navigate the volatile nature of the world in pursuit of spiritual transcendence, the pluralistic essence of these teachings gave rise to a vibrantly diverse range of philosophical traditions, expressed in numerous languages, ethnicities, practices, and customs.
Nevertheless, “Hindu” took on a broader civilizational meaning, particularly during occupations by Islamic empires, as influential authors of the time, more versed with global affairs than far-reaching knowledge of the various dharma traditions, used it to distinguish the culture of Ancient India’s people from that of their invaders.
And given the popularity of their works, “Hindus” who were active in the political world of navigating the sultanates and subsequent empires, began adopting the label, even if most who practiced “Hindu spirituality” typically called themselves by the designation of their dharma tradition.
Of course, they too would eventually lean into the “Hindu” identifier under the British, who gave legitimacy only to those who conformed to their own idea of religion. Hence selecting the specific philosophies and practices that would enable their oppressors to understand they too had their own “coherent faith,” the burgeoning country’s spiritual leaders provided the movement for national freedom the ideological foundations needed to ground their reasoning towards independence.
When that independence finally came, the constitution included — as it continues to today — two names.
The first being “India,” which was a more secular title popularized by the British and better known to the Western world. And Bharat (“land of Agni/the descendants of the Bharatas/those who seek brilliance”), one of several names found in traditional sources more familiar to the people of the country itself.
Of the two, the latter obviously doesn’t have the colonial connotations the former does, making it far more appealing to those hoping to further India as a free and independent nation cleansed of its subjugated past.
Either way, it’s important to note, India isn’t the first to go through this process, and it certainly won’t be the last. Turkey and Ceylon, both once colonized by foreign empires before gaining independence, have since changed their names to Turkiye and Sri Lanka, respectively. Others in similar situations haven’t.
In the end, a name is but a word, and a country is defined not by what they are called, but what they do.
Hopefully we can all remember to keep that in mind as things move forward.
If you enjoyed this piece, then you may also be interested in reading “Why India’s caste system isn’t what you think it is”