Why India Is A Nation

by Sankrant Sanu - May 28, 2016 12:34 PM +05:30 IST
Why India Is A NationWikimedia
  • One of the oft-repeated urban myths that sometimes pops-up in conversation even among many well meaning Indians is that India as a nation is a British creation.

    For thousands of years the people who have lived in India have celebrated its sacred geography.

    The British certainly contributed to the political re-unification of the land, just as the Mughals had done before that. But they re-unified politically an existing civilisational entity.

    The civilisational roots of India belong to all Indians, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

    Pluralism is a basic principle of Hindu thought, which leaves plenty of room for other beliefs.

    Nationhood is ultimately a feeling of being one people.

Sankrant Sanu’s popular piece,Why India Is A Nation has gone viral on the internet, garnering several lakh views. You can read the full article here. The Q & A Section from the end of the article is reproduced below.

One of the oft-repeated urban myths that sometimes pops-up in conversation even among many well meaning Indians is that India as a nation is a British creation.It was only the British that created the idea of India as a single nation and unified it into a political state.

Contrary to such claims, India is one of the few nations of the world with a continuity of civilisation and an ancient conception of nationhood. In its religious, civilisational, cultural and linguistic continuity, it truly stands alone.However there are some objections that may arise against this thesis.Let us analyse these objections-

Objection #1-What you are calling the Indian civilization is actually the Sanskritic civilization of the Aryans who were invaders.

There are many theories about migrations of people into the Indian sub-continent. Some contend that a tribe of people called the Aryans migrated from somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia. Others contend that no such migration took place and the Aryans were original inhabitants of the Sindhu (or Sindhu-Sarswati) region.

Still others hold that `Aryan’ was never an ethnic term but the word `Arya’ in Sanskrit basically means a noble person.In any case, practically all countries that exist today were settled by migrants.

The Saxons, the Franks and the Visigoths were all migrants to western European countries such as present day England, France and Spain. North America was recently settled (or more accurately, usurped) by migrants. Even the Native Americans in North and South America are considered to have migrated from Asia 30,000 years ago.

At some point in history, it may be that all people came from Africa. Clearly, using this criterion, all nations of today are illegitimate.So the validity or lack thereof of a particular Aryan migration theory, even assuming such a migration ever actually took place, does not concern us.Suffice to say, that even those that subscribe to the theory of an invasion or migration place the date no later than 1500 BC.

By contrast, the Saxon reached present-day England in only the 5th or 6th century AD, about 2000 years after the hypothetical Aryan migration — yet England is considered an Anglo-Saxon country and no one wastes a whole lot of energy arguing otherwise or creating political factions representing the `pre-Saxon’ people.

That a hypothetical Aryan invasion 3500 years ago is still relevant to our politics shows the absurd divisions created in our minds by colonial theories, intended to keep us fighting amongst ourselves on artificial boundaries.So, regardless of whether there were such a people as Aryans or whether they came from the outside, our interest is in the fact that the people who have inhabited India over the last 3000 or more years formed both a conception of Indian nationhood and a distinct civilisational continuity.

Our hymns sing glories of the Himalayas, not of the Caucuses. Our stories talk of the Vindhyachal not a mountain in the Central Asia. We sing of the Ganga and the Cauvery, not the Amu Darya. Thus for thousands of years the people who have lived in India have celebrated its sacred geography. Regardless of their origins in pre-history, our ancestral people made the land of India their home and wove stories around its features.

Objection #2-Isn’t India simply like all of Europe, sharing some common history and religious ideas but no more?

Parts of Europe came under the rule of the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. None of these Empires held sway over all of what is the territory of Europe today. Rather, their areas of control were largely around the Mediterranean Sea – parts of southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. There has also been some uniformity of religion in Europe imposed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

But, there has been no empire of Europe. Eastern, western and Scandinavian Europe have had substantially different histories and cultural, linguistic and ethnic origins. There is a more significant difference. The land of India has been thought of and considered a sacred whole by the people of India in a way that is simply not true of Europe. As the Shankracharya of Kanchi said recently, for thousands of years, Indians throughout the land have woken up in the morning and sang a hymn celebrating the holy rivers of Ganga,

Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Sindu, Saraswati and Cauvery as part of nitya kriya, or daily worship.

gange ca yamune caiva, godAvari sarasvati

narmade sindho kAveri, jale’sminn sannidhiM kuru

Thus our hymns and religious stories not only share common themes, heroes and deities, they also uniquely link us to this particular land in a way Christian stories do not link to the land of Europe. There are no hymns that Europeans sang that spoke of the land from the Urals to Scandinavia or from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean as one.

No one sang devotional songs listing all the major rivers of Europe, east to west. The idea of Europe is like another continent, like Africa or Americas – with some shared geography and history but no historic conception of the integrated whole as a unity that was recognized among all the common people.

Thus there have been no religious stories of Europe linked to its particular boundaries and capturing the common fealty of the people, unlike the story of Shakti being dispersed over the land of India in peethams that millions of people visit, or the sage who set up mathas in the four quadrants of the land, or who wrote the Mahabharata, or who wrote of the land of Bharatvarshaand Aryavrata. So there is a unity to India, an Indian nationhood that is far greater than any shared similarities between Europe.

Adi Shankaracharya
Adi Shankaracharya

Objection #3-If the British hadn’t been here, wouldn’t we be a bunch of fighting kingdoms?

The British certainly contributed to the political re-unification of the land, just as the Mughals had done before that. But they re-unified politically an existing civilisational entity. This entity had existed long before they came, had been politically re-united in the past and will exist long after they have gone.

The British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilisation. But the British also divided and partitioned us, not only physically but also mentally. They also impoverished us and planted many seeds of divisive scholarship that cut us from our roots and our sense of nationhood.

There are many entities today who would see us become a bunch of fighting states, all the easier for political, religious and economic conquest. But a division of India is like cutting a human body. We are already bleeding from the cuts inflicted 50 years ago. Eternal vigilance is the price of our freedom. Telling our common stories, the core of our nationhood.

Objection #4-You are excluding Islamic contributions and Indian Muslims from your definition

This essay is about finding the historic roots of the Indian civilisation and defining who we are as people and as a nation. We have had many migrants and invaders. While Islam has contributed to the Indian civilisation, our roots are much older than when Prophet Mohammad first appeared in Arabia in the 6th century AD, so our civilisation cannot be defined by Islam. Alexander the Greek came to our shores, so did the Kushans and Mongols and Persians and Turks. All of them added their contributions to our civilisation as we did to theirs. The Mughal Empire helped in our political re-unification. But none of them define who we are.

We had the great Chinese civilisation towards the north and the Persian civilisation towards our west. Each of them influenced us as we influenced them. But because the Chinese came under Buddhist influence from India does not mean that their civilisation ceases to be Chinese, an entity with a distinct cultural flavor and history from India.’

Why India Is A Nation

Similarly, the Persians and the Turks came in many waves and contributed to Indian culture, even as we did to theirs. This does not mean that our civilisation suddenly became Persian or Turkish. Some of these people settled in India, some of them brought a new religion called Islam and converted some of the existing people. All those who ultimately accept India as their homeland are accepted as Indians, for we have been a welcoming land. It would be a strange case indeed if conversion to Islam led people to deny the roots of their civilisation. Do the Persians cease to be Persians, now that they are Muslims?

Islam does not define nationhood. If it did, the entire region from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan would be one country. Iran and Iraq would be one large Islamic country, rather than separate entities based on Persian and Babylonian civilisational roots. Indonesia and Malaysia would be one country.Thus the civilisational roots of India belong to all Indians, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Indonesian Muslims don’t trace their civilisational roots from Arabia, but from the Indonesian culture developed over the centuries.

As Saeed Naqvi writes, the Ramayana ballet is performed in Indonesia by “150 namaz-saying Muslims under the shadow of Yog Jakarta’s magnificent temples for the past 27 years without a break” — Indonesians can apparently celebrate their civilisational roots without conflict of their being Muslims. There is no reason that Muslim Indians feel any differently unless led by the creation of fear or sustained demagoguery to believe otherwise.

Lakshmana, Rama and Sita during their exile in Dandaka Forest depicted in Javanese dance.
Lakshmana, Rama and Sita during their exile in Dandaka Forest depicted in Javanese dance.

Objection #5-Indian Muslims are Arabs, Persians and Turks, not originally Indian

Some Indian Muslims are descendants of Persian, Turks and others. Many more are descendants of people who have been in India for thousands of years. In the Indian Muslim caste system, the invaders were considered higher castes than the natives and tracing one’s `foreign’ status often yielded greater prestige, leading more people to identify themselves thus.

As late as the early 20th century, some Indian Muslims continued to identify themselves as `Hindu Mussalmans’ (as they might have been called) to census takers marking the civilisational, rather than religious (in a separative sense) meaning of the term Hindu.

In either case, it is somewhat irrelevant. Even the Persians and Turks who settled here in numbers came here far before America, for instance, existed as a country. The Indian civilisation has assimilated many people into its bosom and there is no reason that the descendants of the Persians or Turks who migrated to India can be considered any less Indian as result.

Objection #6-You say that Islam is not the basis of nationhood, yet Pakistan is founded on the very premise. Your geographical conception of India includes present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. Do you want to create an ‘Akhand Bharat’ and re-unite India by force?

Pakistan is an entity with no civilisation basis. In an attempt to create one, Pakistani history textbooks teach that Pakistan was established by Babur as `Mughalistan’. However, Babur was a Turk of Mongol descent and the majority of people that live in Pakistan today are certainly not descendants of Turks or Mongols nor is their civilisation Turkic. Pakistan’s crisis of identity emerges primarily from the rejection of their ancient civilisational roots in the name of `religion’. Till they can reconcile to their roots, they will remain a rootless nation, preserved per force by the state apparatus as long as it lasts.

The idea of Bharata certainly goes from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Sindh to Manipur. However, the idea of re-uniting Pakistan or Bangladesh to India is unviable at this point in history. The best one can hope for is that the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh themselves become aware at some point of their deep civilisation roots that have been taken away from them in the name of religion.

Objection #7-India is not a `Hindu rashtra‘, you are trying to make India into a Hindu rashtra.

The interest of this essay is in establishing what is true, not in any political flavor of the day. In the multi-century big picture, particular political movements or systems of government will come and go, but the history of our civilisational roots still needs to be understood and articulated.

Our reading of history certainly does not support Hindu rashtra as a religious concept that means it is only for those people who are currently called `Hindus’ as a religious term. Classically, Hindu has been a civilisational, not a religious term, nor is it exclusive. `Hinduism’ is different from Abrahmic religion in this regard.

Surprising enough, even the article in Encarta on nationhood recognizes that:

“India is a nation in which the Hindu religion served as the cohesive traditional element in uniting peoples of various races, religions and languages.”

Has Encarta been saffronized? Or is it merely stating the obvious, albeit in a westernized framework? That there is no India without what has been called `Hinduism’. This by no mean implies that all the people have to `convert to a religion’ called Hinduism to be Indians. It also doesn’t imply that those who worship Allah or Christ as a religious idea are inherently lesser citizens or disloyal. Rather, it is simply recognition of the civilisational heritage that links us together as a nation.

In contemporary times, the civilisational term Hindu has been replaced by the term Indians. The roots of the Indian civilisation, when the concept of the land of Bharata or Aryavrata was articulated and absorbed by the people of this land, are thousands of years old. Even though much of what constitutes these roots is now classified as `Hinduism’, which is unfortunate and limiting, the wide diversity of our civilisational beliefs and quest for knowledge and understanding cannot be confined to a religious dogma or belief system — it belongs to all Indians.

Furthermore, pluralism is a basic principle of Hindu thought, which leaves plenty of room for other beliefs in the framework of mutual respect – as long as these beliefs are not directed at destroying the roots of the very civilisation that holds them.Certainly, those that are called `Jains’ today have stories that refer to Krishna, the `Sikh’ Guru Granth Sahib has hundreds of mentions of `Rama’ and many Muslims are quite happy to acknowledge their roots in the Indian civilisation.

Hundreds of Indian Muslim poets have celebrated their civilisational roots – Abdul Rahim Khan-e-khan wrote poems in praise of Rama, in Sanskrit; Justice Ismail of Chennai was the leading authority on Kamban Ramayana; Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote powerful revolutionary poetry in Bengali replete with references to Kali. In recent times, the script for the entire Mahabharta epic was written by Masoom Raza Rahi; and who can ignore the inspiration that our Gita-reading president Abdul Kalam from Rameswaram is providing to the nation.

Similarly, Indian Christians can be both Indian and Christian without denying their cultural roots. Says Fr Michael Rosario, who teaches Indology at St Pius: “As an Indian priest, Indian spirituality is my heritage and culture.” Fr Michael Gonsalves goes a step further: “We must substitute the Old Testament of the Bible with Indian history, scriptures and arts. For us, the Holy Land should be India; the sacred river the Ganges; the sacred mountain the Himalayas, the heroes of the past not Moses, or David, but Sri Ram or Krishna.”

All these people have had no trouble in reconciling their reverence to Allah or Jesus without denying the civilisational heritage that binds us together.The converse of this is also true – that the way to break us apart is to systematically deny and denigrate our civilisational roots. This is exactly the tactic the British used.

Thus the evangelical Baptists preaching in the North East have over the last few decades told the Nagas that they don’t really belong with the Indian civilisation – despite the fact that they have a place in our stories as far back as the Mahabharata, when Arjun goes on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east and marries the Naga princess Uloopi. Similarly do Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and the other states in the North East.

The situation in Kashmir, spurred on by Pakistan, is a surviving artifact of the two-nation theory even while Kashmir has always been a significant part of the Indian story, its religion and philosophy. The Khalistani separatist movement is also the outcome of decades of colonial scholarship that continues till today to prove that Sikhs are completely different from the `caste-ridden’ Hindus and emphasizes the separateness rather than the common roots.

While the Khalsa panth was clearly established as a separate path, the teachings of Guru Nanak can be placed very precisely in the Bhakti tradition while keeping to the idea of a Nirguna Brahma.Guru Granth Sahib is liberally saturated in the philosophical and religious streams of Indiandharma, yet contemporary scholars continuing the colonial tradition often fail to educate people about this. The root of all movements to break India are ultimately found in denying the religious and cultural unity of the Indian people – whether it be found in movements inspired by colonial scholarship, communism, pan-Islamism or evangelical Christianity.

Objection #8-I am not religious, but am a patriotic secular Indian. Why is all this relevant today? I am uncomfortable with the idea of religion defining our nation – we are a secular country.

The idea of being `religious’ is ultimately a western idea. In the Indian tradition, there were atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, like Charvaka, all of which get lumped under `Hinduism’. Obviously, if we take the Abrahmic idea of religion, atheistic religion is absurd – you can’t really be a ‘Christian atheist’ or a `Muslim atheist’ – not so long ago you would be hung for heresy. Hinduism is a colonial term for the rich banquet of the dharmic traditions that cannot be combined under the framework of religion. Indian civilisation is a much broader concept than narrow restrictive dogmas that define religions.

A secular state is a system of government. We have embraced secularism precisely because of our long civilisational history of accepting plurality of thought and worship. This is how it must remain. However, secularism does not define nationhood in any way. There are plenty of secular states. What is unique about us is that we are Indians with a history of civilisation rooted in our religious and cultural ideas. That is why we are a nation today, not because of secularism. If false notions of secularism prevent us from understanding the roots of our nationhood, we will all be the lesser for it.

But to get back to the question, nations are born, but are also made. If we fail to understand our common civilisation, we will ultimately fall prey to those that seek to destroy us – by convincing us that we have none, that India is a British construction and so on. The effect of this will not only be a separation from the Indian state, but from the Indian tradition. To see the devastating effects of this, consider that we are still paying the price of our first partition based on accepting colonial ideas and still struggling with its wounds.

If India gets split up into different countries, we will all lose – there will be more wars, more armies, and all the lines we draw will be artificial and straight across our hearts.

Every child in America in a public school recites an oath of allegiance every morning in front of the American flag. They obviously take their nationhood seriously, even as they are a young nation. While we are old as a civilisation, we are young as a country. Our education is based on colonial scholarship. Nationhood is ultimately a feeling of being one people. To strengthen this feeling and being resilient to divisive propaganda, we need to see that every child in India is educated about why we are a nation, lest we forget why we are together.

Sankrant Sanu is an entrepreneur, writer and researcher based in Seattle and Gurgaon.
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