India And its Name

Currently, I am reading the book India: A history by John Keay. Some may argue the book must be called South Asia: A history, but by the end of this post I believe you will realize why India is more apt a name :grinning: . To describe its contents in one line: 5000 years of rich Indian history compressed into 700 pages of well researched, authoritative narrative tracing the evolution of its culture, religions, and peoples.

Though, I haven’t completed the book, a particular chapter seemed very interesting (excerpt below) given the current nationalistic mindset held by a major (Loudest) fraction of the subcontinent’s population. I hope this does provide some food for thought.

MAPS PRINTED AFTER 1947 sometimes show the republic of India not as ‘India’ but as ‘Bharat’. The word derives from Bharata-varsha, ‘the land of the Bharatas’, these Bharatas being the most prominent and distinguished of the early Vedic clans. By adopting this term the new republic in Delhi could, it was argued, lay claim to a revered arya heritage which was geographically vague enough not to provoke regional jealousies, and doctrinally vague enough not to jeopardise the republic’s avowed secularism.

In the first flush of independence ‘Bharat’ would seem preferable, because the word ‘India’ was too redolent of colonial disparagement. It also lacked a respectable indigenous pedigree. For although British claims to have incubated an ‘India consciousness’ were bitterly contested, there was no gainsaying the fact that in the whole colossal corpus of Sanskrit literature nowhere called ‘India’ is ever mentioned; nor does the term occur in Buddhist or Jain texts; nor was it current in any of South Asia’s numerous other languages. Worse still, if etymologically ‘India’ belonged anywhere, it was not to the republic proclaimed in Delhi by Jawaharlal Nehru but to its rival headed by Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Pakistan.

Partition would have a way of dividing the subcontinent’s spoils with scant reference to history. Pakistan inherited the majority of the main Harappan sites, so depriving India of the most tangible proof of its vaunted antiquity. Conversely, India inherited most of the subcontinent’s finest Islamic architecture, so depriving Muslim Pakistanis of what they regard as their own glorious heritage. No tussle over the word ‘India’ is reported because Jinnah preferred the newly coined and very Islamic-sounding acronym that is ‘Pakistan’. Additionally, he was under the impression that neither state would want to adopt the British title of ‘India’. He only discovered his mistake after Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, had already acceded to Nehru’s demand that his state remain ‘India’. Jinnah, according to Mountbatten, ‘was absolutely furious when he found out that they [Nehru and the Congress Party] were going to call themselves India’. The use of the word implied a subcontinental primacy which Pakistan would never accept. It also flew in the face of history, since ‘India’ originally referred exclusively to territory in the vicinity of the Indus river (with which the word is cognate). Hence it was largely outside the republic of India but largely within Pakistan.

The reservations about the word ‘India’, which had convinced Jinnah that neither side would use it, stemmed from its historical currency amongst outsiders, especially outsiders who had designs on the place. Something similar could, of course, be said about terms like ‘Britain’, ‘Germany’ or ‘America’; when first these words were recorded, all were objects of conquest. But in the case of ‘India’ this demeaning connotation had lasted until modern times. ‘Hindustan’, ‘India’ or ‘the Indies’ (its more generalised derivative) had come, as if by definition, to denote an acquisition rather than a territory. Geographically imprecise, indeed moveable if one took account of all the ‘Indians’ in the Americas, ‘India’ was yet conceptually concrete: it was somewhere to be coveted – as an intellectual curiosity, a military pushover and an economic bonanza. To Alexander the Great as to Mahmud of Ghazni, to Timur the Lame as to his Mughal descendants, and to Nadir Shah of Persia as to Robert Clive of Plassey, ‘India’ was a place worth the taking.

The first occurrence of the word sets the trend. It makes its debut in an inscription found at Persepolis in Iran, which was the capital of the Persian or Achaemenid empire of Darius I, he whose far-flung battles included defeat at Marathon by the Athenians in 490 BC. Before this, Darius had evidently enjoyed greater success on his eastern frontier, for the Persepolis inscription, dated to c518 BC, lists amongst his numerous domains that of ‘Hi(n)du’.

The word for a ‘river’ in Sanskrit is sindhu. Hence sapta-sindhu meant ‘[the land of] the seven rivers’, which was what the Vedic arya called the Panjab. The Indus, to which most of these seven rivers were tributary, was the sindhu par excellence ; and in the language of ancient Persian, a near relative of Sanskrit, the initial ’s' of a Sanskrit word was invariably rendered as an aspirate – ‘h’. Soma, the mysterious hallucinogen distilled, deified and drunk to excess by the Vedic arya, is thus homa or haoma in old Persian; and sindhu is thus Hind[h]u. When, from Persian, the word found its way into Greek, the initial aspirate was dropped, and it started to appear as the route ‘Ind’ (as in ‘India’, ‘Indus’, etc.). In this form it reached Latin and most other European languages. However, in Arabic and related languages it retained the initial ‘h’, giving ‘Hindustan’ as the name by which Turks and Mughals would know India. That word also passed on to Europe to give ‘Hindu’ as the name of the country’s indigenous people and of what, by Muslims and Christians alike, was regarded as their infidel religion.

On the strength of a slightly earlier Iranian inscription which makes no mention of Hindu, it is assumed that the region was added to Darius' Achaemenid empire in or soon after 520 BC. This earlier inscription does, however, refer to ‘Gadara’, which looks like Gandhara, a maha-janapada or ‘state’ mentioned in both Sanskrit and Buddhist sources and located in an arc reaching from the western Panjab through the north-west frontier to Kabul and perhaps into southern Afghanistan (where ‘Kandahar’ is the same word). According to Xenophon and Herodotus, Gandhara had been conquered by Cyrus, one of Darius' predecessors. The first Achaemenid or Persian invasion may therefore have taken place as early as the mid-sixth century BC. That it was an invasion, rather than a migration or even perhaps a last belated influx of charioteering arya, seems likely from a reference to Cyrus dying of a wound inflicted by the enemy. The enemy were the ‘Derbikes’; they enjoyed the support of the Hindu people and were supplied by them with war-elephants. In Persian and Greek minds alike, the association of Hindu with elephants was thereafter almost as significant as its connection with the mighty Indus. To Alexander of Macedon, following in the Achaemenids' footsteps two centuries later, the river would be a geographical curiosity, but the elephants were a military obsession.

If Gandhara was already under Achaemenid rule, Darius’Hindu must have lain beyond it, and so to the south or the east. Later Iranian records refer to Sindhu, presumably an adoption of the Sanskrit spelling, whence derives the word ‘Sind’, now Pakistan’s southernmost province. It seems unlikely, though, that Sindhu was Sind in the late sixth century BC, since Darius subsequently found it necessary to send a naval expedition to explore the Indus. Flowing through the middle of Sind, the river would surely have been familiar to any suzerain of the region. More probably, then,Hindu lay east of Gandhara, perhaps as a wedge of territory between it, the jana-padas of eastern Panjab, and the deserts of Rajasthan. It thus occupied much of what is now the Panjab province of Pakistan.

Under Xerxes, Darius' successor, troops from what had become the Achaemenids' combined ‘satrapy’ of Gandhara and Hindu reportedly served in the Achaemenid forces. These Indians were mostly archers, although cavalry and chariots are also mentioned; they fought as far afield as eastern Europe; and some were present at the Persians' bloody victory over Leonidas and his Spartans at Thermopylae, and then at the decisive defeat by the Greeks at Plataea. Through these and other less fraught contacts between Greeks and Persians, Greek writers like Herodotus gleaned some idea of ‘India’. Compared to the intervening lands of Anatolia and Iran, it appeared a veritable paradise of exotic plenty. Herodotus told of an immense population and of the richest soil imaginable from which kindly ants, smaller than dogs but bigger than foxes, threw up hillocks of pure gold-dust. The ants may have intrigued entomologists, but the gold was what registered in political circles. With rivers to rival the Nile and behemoths from which to give battle, it was clearly a land of fantasy as well as wealth. Herodotus, of course, knew only of the Indus region, and that by hearsay. Hence he did not report that the land of Hindu was of sensational extent, nor did he deny the popular belief that beyond its furthest desert, where in reality the Gangetic plain interminably spreads, lay the great ocean which supposedly encircled the world;Hindu or ‘India’ (but in fact Pakistan) was therefore believed to be the end of terra firma, a worthy culmination to any emperor’s ambitions as well as a fabulous addition to his portfolio of conquests. In abbreviated form, Herodotus’History circulated widely. A hundred years after his death it was still avidly read by northern Greeks in Macedonia, where a teenage Alexander ‘knew it well enough to quote and follow its stories’.

The traffic that resulted from the Achaemenid incursion into India was not all one-way. It may well have been from contacts between Indian troops and the enemies of the Achaemenid empire that Sanskrit acquired a name for the Greeks. Long before Alexander’s arrival on the scene, they became known in India as Yona or Yavana, words derived from a Persian spelling of ‘Ionian’ but which would thereafter serve to designate almost any people belonging to the lands west of the Indus who were alien to India’s traditions. Such peoples were also by definition mleccha (foreign and unable to speak properly), and hence despicably casteless. But caste being assimilative as well as exclusive, they might, as overlords, aspire to the status of vratya ksatriya, or ‘degenerate’ksatriya. Macedonians, Bactrians, Kushans, Scythians and Arabs would all at some time be called Yavanas, and many would eventually be awarded vratya caste status.