India, Indic, Hind or Bharat?

Devdutt PattanaikIn nature, there are no boundaries. Humans create boundaries, hence conflict.In ancient times, the people of Persia, referred to a land called Hind in the East. It was located beyond the river Hindu. In the Hebrew language, Hindu becomes Hodu. So even today, in Israel, India is referred to as Hodu. For the people of ‘Hind’, the river ‘Hindu’ was ‘Sindhu’. The ‘s’ became ‘h’ as the words moved westwards. Hind then referred to Sindh, and beyond. Today, political boundaries have decided that Sindh is not part of the Indian republic even though our national anthem refers to Sindh as part of India, perhaps because the national refers less to geography and more to people.

The Greeks turned ‘h’ into ‘I’ and so the river became Indus and the land became India. India was often referred to plural - the Indies. Later, we had East Indies (in Asia) and West Indies (in America). Basically, India was all that was outside the Western world and the Western world was Europe and its arch-enemy, Persia and Middle East, a rivalry that has stretched over 3,000 years. In Vedic times, there is reference to the land of Arya-varta, the land where the noble people (identified as those who valued Vedas) roamed. Where was this? It is the land ‘where the black buck roamed’. Roughly, the north of India, I am told, including today’s Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

In the Jain and Hindu Purans, there is reference to Jambu-dvipa, the continent shaped like a rose-apple or Indian-blackberry (jambul), in which Bharat is located. When we see maps, we realise that the Indian peninsula triangle does look like a berry (jambu). With this, the entire subcontinent comes to identified as a single region: including the Deccan, a word derived from dakshin or south. The boundary between north and south was marked by the Vindhya mountains and the wilderness known as Dandaka-aranya.

Bharat (pronounced Bhaarat) was initially a subset of Jambudvipa and perhaps referred initially only to the north or perhaps the Gangetic plains. It was the land of the Bharata clan. Specifically Bharat is named after Bharat (pronounced without the expanded ‘aa’). In Jain traditions, Bharat was a great king, ruler of the earth, son of Rishabha, the first Tirthankara of this kalpa. Hindus associate Bharat with the son of Shakuntala, who marks the union of the solar dynasty or Chandra-vamsa (his father is Dushyant) and lunar-dynasty or Surya-vamsa (his maternal grandfather is Vishwamitra).

In the Bhagavat Puran, there is another Bharat, a pious king who discovers devotion as a path to outgrow the trials of rebirth.¬†India was united more by faith and pilgrim routes rather than kings and politicians. The only kings to ‘unite’ India were Ashoka, and Aurangzeb, whose empires stretched right up to modern Tamil Nadu. Even Akbar, the great, did not reach that far. Later, it was the East India Company and finally the British Raj, but their India excluded the princely states. Finally, Indian republic was created but without Sindh, which went to the new state of Pakistan. We refrained from using the word ‘Hindustan’ as we wished to be secular, not religious as Hindu had long stopped referring to a geographical entity.

Now academicians are embarrassed or uncomfortable even by the word India, as it refers to a political entity while Indian ideas stretch across the subcontinent. South Asian thought had to include Islamic and Chrisitian and secular ideas and so a new term called ‘Indic’ was created to speak of ideas based on rebirth: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Thus language continues to tear into our imagination with the violence of categorisation.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.¬†



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