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What Should India’s Name Be?

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What Should India’s Name Be?

Bharat, India, Hindustan: A history of the words used to describe this ancient state.

What Should India’s Name Be?

“India” written in Egyptian hieroglyphs on the Statue of Darius I, circa 500 BCE.

Credit: Wikipedia/Jona Lendering

Recently, there has been talk about India being renamed “Bharat” after invitations for a dinner for G-20 dignitaries hosted by President Droupadi Murmu went out in the name of the “President of Bharat” and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen sitting behind a name card that said “Bharat.”

India is the common international name of the country, and derives from a Greek word that has since been borrowed into other Western languages. Bharat, which is equivalent to India in most modern Indian languages, is an ancient Sanskrit term. Many members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), particularly those further along the nationalistic spectrum, have suggested that India should be renamed “Bharat.”

But it is unlikely that India would be renamed Bharat, primarily because there is no need to do so: both names are already designated as official in the Constitution of India. Part I of the constitution begins with “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” What is more likely, however, is for “Bharat” to be more frequently used in the English language and both domestically in India, as well as at international forums, such as the G-20.

Despite nationalistic rhetoric, the BJP itself often uses the word India, and many of the government’s signature initiatives, such as “Make in India,” use the term. The word “India” has too much brand value and marketing power to simply be discarded, so it is highly unlikely that it would be, and that only Bharat would be used.

That said, there are several reasons for the Indian government to use Bharat more. One is simply the national pride felt by many of using a local, indigenous name.

Another reason is Bharat is already a common synonym for India. Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress named his recent mass movement “Bharat Jodo Yatra” (Unite India March) instead of “India Jodo Yatra.” However, the most likely reason for the government using Bharat more is because an alliance of opposition parties has recently christened itself INDIA (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance). The use of Bharat is a way for the BJP government to contrast itself as a representative of “native” Bharat as opposed to the “Westernized” or “foreign” INDIA alliance.

Therefore, words that originally had no strong political connotations are becoming politicized. This is a pity, because both Bharat and India have positive connotations, deep roots in India, and are interchangeable.

It is not uncommon for a people or nation to be called different names throughout history. There is no reason this cannot also apply to modern India. The people of Greece call themselves “Hellenes,” but in ancient times also called themselves “Achaeans,” “Danaans,” and “Argives” in the Iliad. In medieval times, they called themselves “Rhomaioi” or Romans, because they had inherited the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. Indians called the Greeks “Yavana” (Ionian), while the Romans called them “Greek,” the name that stuck in the West.

It is also not uncommon for a nation to acquire a name from the outside. Roman Gaul is today’s France, named after the Germanic Frank people who conquered and ruled the area. Indonesia (“India island”) and Ethiopia (“burnt face”) take their official, modern-day names from European languages via Greek, and not their own.

India, Bharat, and a third term, Hindustan, are essentially interchangeable today and refer to the same place.

India has had several names throughout history. To Indians and those in Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia, it was known as Bharat, Jambudvipa, or Aryavarta. To those in the Islamic world, it was known as Hindustan (in Persian) or al-Hind (in Arabic). In the West, the term India has been common from the ancient Greeks onward. These words referred to the modern Indian Subcontinent, or South Asia.

The largest country in the subcontinent, India, has retained both the names India and Bharat, and is also often called Hindustan in common usage. Even though it has been widely recognized even in ancient times that there were many kingdoms and types of people in India, there was still some sort of unified notion of India.

Sanskrit literature dating from the 5th century BCE to the 3rd century CE describes and defines Bharat. In popular tradition, Bharat was the ancestor of the Kurus, the clan that features prominently in the Mahabharata. Bharat was said to have conquered all of India, becoming its chakravarti (universal ruler), thus giving his name to the land. The Vishnu Purana explains that “the country that lies north of the ocean, and south of the snowy mountains, is called Bharata, for there dwelt the descendants of Bharata.” The Mahabharata goes into much more detail, describing the peoples and kingdoms of Bharatavarsha (“India Country”) in the tenth chapter of its sixth book (Bhishma Parva):

“Dhritrashtra said: ‘Tell me about Bharatavarsha, where this senseless army has gathered, and for which, my son Duryodhana is so avaricious.’

Sanjaya said: ‘O King… I will now describe to you the land that is named after Bharata [an ancient king]… [in Bharata] they drink water from the rivers — the great Ganga, Sindhu, Sarasvati, Godavari, Narmada…Yamuna…After this, listen to me as I recount the names of countries… they are Kuru, Panchala, Shalva, Madreya [Punjab], Jangala, Shurasena, Kalinga [Odisha]… Kashi [Varanasi]… Sindhu [Sindh]… Kerala… Andhra… Magadha [Bihar]… Kashmira [Kashmir]… Gandhara [Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa]… Dravida… [and ] Chola [Tamil Nadu]. There are other mleccha [non-Indian] people to the north — Yavana [Greeks]… Huna [Huns]… China… Tukharas [Turks]… Parasikas [Persians]… [and] Bahlikas [Bactrians]…’”

Although many of these places and names are obscure to the modern reader, taken together, they describe a notion of Bharat as India that is very similar to today’s conception of India.

The first mention of the word “India” in Western literature comes from the “Histories” of Herodotus, written around 430 BCE. Herodotus’ geographical knowledge of India was hazy; though he knew it lay to the east of Persia, he also claimed that “India was situated on the eastern edge of the inhabited world.”

The later Greco-Roman writer, Arrian, wrote a biography of Alexander the Great in the 2nd century CE, in which he described India more accurately because by then, the Greeks and Romans were much more familiar with India. Arrian wrote that from “the parts from the Indus eastward, these I shall call India, and its inhabitants Indians. The boundary of the land of India towards the north is Mount Taurus [the Himalayas]. It is not still called Taurus in this land; but… reaches as far as the Eastern Ocean, running right across Asia… The western part of India is bounded by the river Indus right down to the ocean… Towards the south, this ocean bounds the land of India, and eastward the sea itself is the boundary.”

He then goes on to describe the Ganges River, to the east of the Indus River. The Greek word “India” is derived from the Old Persian word “Hindush,” which itself comes from the Sanskrit “Sindhu,” which refers to the Indus River. As the Indus valley was the part of India closest to the Persians, it gave its name to the Persian, and then Greek, conception of India.

The first Mughal Emperor Babur, writing in his memoirs in 1526 CE, said: “Hindustan [is] a vast and populous kingdom… to the east and south, and in fact to the west too, it ends at the ocean. To the north is a mountain range [Himalayas] that connects the mountains of the Hindu Kush, Kafiristan, and Kashmir. To the northwest are Kabul, Ghazni, and Kandahar [modern Afghanistan].”

Therefore, the Indian, Islamic, and Western conceptions of India were largely similar to each other, whatever their name.

Jumping forward to the early modern era, European nations inherited the notion and name of India from the Greeks. When the Europeans — primarily the Portuguese, French, and British — arrived in India and acquired colonies, they used the name most familiar to them: India.

During the British Raj, the term India also began to be widely used by Indians, and many political parties and institutions dating from this time, such as the Indian National Congress, the organization that was founded in 1885 and spearheaded India’s independence movement, use the term “India.”

Just as the term “India” has spread from English to Indian languages, it should not be surprising, in a multilingual country, that “Bharat” has spread from Indian languages into English.

India, Bharat, and Hindustan should all be considered equally valid and used synonymously in Indian languages and in English without these terms — all ancient, all beautiful — being politicized. India is Bharat. Bharat is India.