That India is a young nation is beyond doubt. But was it also, for millennia, a unified civilisation in social and cultural terms with a defined geographical territory? The British believed that they created India. British historian John Strachey is a good example of this colonial deceit. He writes: “There is not, and never was an India, nor ever any country of India, possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no nation, no “people of India” of which we hear so much.”
The British believed that before they came, India was a collation of random diversities, which they melded together into a nation. As rulers, they were entitled to such an illusion, and to some extent, cannot be blamed for being overwhelmed by the surface diversities that India presents to any foreigner. The apparent cacophony of languages, dress, customs, rituals, food and regional identities, can appear bewilderingly different.
But, below the surface, there is a civilisational unity, and objective historians have little doubt about it. Dr Upinder Singh, in her magnum opus, A History of Ancient India and Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, testifies to this. She is a professional historian of impeccable credentials and —incidentally — the daughter of Dr Manmohan Singh, former prime minister of India. She writes: “One of several explanations of the name Bharatvarsha connects it with the Bharata people, descendants of the legendary king Bharata, son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala. Cosmography blends with geography in the Puranas. Bharatvarsha is said to consist of nine divisions (khandas), separated from one another by seas. But the mention of mountains, rivers and places—some of which can be identified—suggests that the composers were familiar with various areas of the sub-continent, and perceived them as part of a larger cultural whole (emphasis mine)’.
Other historians, such as Sunil Khilnani, in his very readable book The Idea of India, discounts colonial hubris but still believes that “the moments of actual unification of India’s past were achieved under the yoke of British rule.” But this too is factually incorrect. Political unity — even if not in the modern sense of a nation-State — was achieved as far back as the fourth century BCE, in the reign of Chandragupta Maurya. His contemporary, the legendary Chanakya, defined that unity as the ‘Chakravarti Kshetra’: “The area extending from the Himalayas in the north to the sea and a thousand yojanas wide from east to west is the operation of King-Emperor.” Scholars of ancient India endorse this territorial unification. Koenraad Elst, in his book, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, writes: “Chandragupta Maurya, Ashok and Samudragupta are fully historical rulers who approached the ideal of uniting the whole sub-continent….There aren’t many countries which had a sense of national unity 23 centuries ago on the basis of the same boundaries which (disregarding the Partition) are valid today.”
This civilisational unity is borne about by the four mathas established by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century CE, much before the British arrived. One was in Sringeri in the south, the second at Puri on the east coast, the third at Dwarka on the west coast, and the fourth at Joshimath in the Himalayas in the north. These four mathas define the civilisational map of India. The great philosopher-sage was himself born in Kerala, and died at Kedarnath.
The truth is that India as a self-conscious civilisation has existed since the dawn of time. Over the centuries, it has interacted with and assimilated other cultures and influences. That has not diluted but only enriched its essential and syncretic cultural unity. Arun Shourie gives some fascinating examples of how this unity is demonstrated in everyday life: “Only Namboodris from Kerala are to be priests at Badrinath, those in the Pashupatinath temple at Kathmandu are always from South Kanara in Karnataka, those at Rameshwaram in the deep south are from Maharashtra….the Sankalp Mantra with which every puja commends the prayers in the deities, situates the jajyaman (the person organizing the puja) with reference to the salients and sacred rivers of the entire land.”
Book launch in Bhubaneswar
This week, I made a day’s visit to Bhubaneswar to launch a biography on the late Maharaja Rajendra Narayan Singh Deo, written by Professor Pabitra Mohan Nayak and VR Singh. It was a jam-packed function. RN Singh Deo was the ruler of Patna state in Odisha, but joined democratic politics after 1947 and became the chief minister of Odisha (1967-71), and was also a member of the Lok Sabha. He was a remarkable man, of great integrity and character, learned and cultured, a fine administrator, and in spite of his privileged background, a person of great humility.
I was invited to launch the book by his son, AU Singh Deo, who is himself a highly respected and successful politician. He was the founder, along with Naveen Patnaik, of the Biju Janata Dal, a senior minister in the Odisha government, and a member of the Rajya Sabha. His sons too are in politics. The eldest, Kalikesh Singh Deo, was elected twice to the Lok Sabha, and Arkesh, the younger son, was also a member of the Odisha Assembly.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).
Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers
The views expressed are personal