What is ‘India’?

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

India has turned 73 years old post-independence from the British. However, does it embody the ancient ideas of civilization that spanned beyond the country’s current geopolitical borders? The ancient civilization of ‘Bharat’ had never existed under one political rule or the dominance of a single culture. Diversity has always existed, but the unity lay in similar spiritual discourse. Similarly, the contemporary nation as a whole does not share a common language, common culture, cuisine or any other factors that have served as flexible instruments for stirring up patriotic sentiment in other nations. Indeed, the democratic ideals established in the constitution were surprising features in a country where inequality and differences are vastly prevalent. Here, the concepts of country and nation are being used interchangeably because while India is a recognized country with its constitution and political government, the lack of concrete nationhood has major implications in the definition of the country.

Ironically, one of the significant notions that could strongly materialise the idea of India was the anti-colonial sentiment and the desire for freedom from the British. Presently, it is not that there is a lack of perspectives on the definition of India. An abundance of such viewpoints becomes a matter of which one will prevail in the field of ‘common-sense’ at a particular point in time.

There are the colonialist perspectives generated during the British rule (obviously). At first, a group of scholars known as the “orientalists” became stirred by the notion of life in Eastern societies and classified India as an ‘aggregate of independent village republics’ more or less. To them, each village was a self-sufficient, autonomous unit capable of functioning in isolation. However, they did not elaborate on the interrelations which linked such isolated communities together. In reality, the villages intricately connected in terms of marriage relations, trade and juridical functions. The governing officials also concentrated their study on the villages for administrative purposes, but they no longer romanticized them as independent republics. Instead, they were considered degraded and backward. It is interesting how India has always evoked an image of villages despite not being a country with an exclusive claim to such units of organization.


village; India

Not just the colonialists but even prominent national leaders shaped their definitions around villages. Mahatma Gandhi felt the need to revive the orientalist image of the villages of India to counter the perspectives of the British government as well as to boost the confidence of the natives. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar underlined the village as a pit of discrimination, narrow-mindedness and a primary unit of Hindu social organization. These were features of the villages that the orientalist perspective missed due to its overemphasis on sacred “Sanskritic” scriptures and their interpretation by individuals of the upper echelons (read: castes) of society. Jawaharlal Nehru went along the lines of the western idea of modernization and emphasised the need for ‘modernising’ and industrialising the nation. Whatever history may portray, the lack of the ‘voices’ of the masses is too conspicuous to be overlooked. Why is it that the masses can only be represented by a chosen ‘voice’? Is it because it is a more convenient and time-saving affair to consider the opinions of one ‘on behalf of everyone else? The subaltern approach is one such perspective that attempts to bring out the voices that history has trampled over.

It seems that ideology is the only way of ordering the chaotic existence of India. One feels stupid to think of the problem in this manner since it can apply to all nations. Other nations may have been established upon certain commonalities, but all shared values, at the end of the day, are products of an ideology. So now, we need to evaluate the nature of the ideology that concretises the idea of India. India, that is, Bharat has been a notion that dates way back before the colonial rulers came over. But, the mystery accredited to the land of India may as well be claimed for one’s inability to mark out a specific community of ‘Indians’. The Indian subcontinent is named so because India was more or less considered as a geographical expression by many – scholars and laymen alike. So we share geographical unity, but when we attempt to establish commonality through religion, the problem gets complicated. Hinduism was denoted to all religious and spiritual practices in the Indian sub-continent by Western society. Thus, it was heralded as the Great Indian Tradition. From the moral urges of the patriarch to return to the good old days’ to formal lectures delivered in colleges, the values which are perceived as ‘Indian’ even today despite constitutional characteristics of Western origin, belong to one of the many Hindu schools of thought. Religions like empires rule over particular territories over a certain period of time, and it is undeniable that Hinduism became the central religious force in India during the Aryan era.

When the native youths began to go abroad for academic purposes, they were aroused by western ideas of democracy, secularism and other such notions now regarded as democratic values. The country of India post-independence was established upon such western ideas. However, once again, the idea of a few was imposed upon the masses. But there was no major uprising against such a rule. One could have easily presumed that India demonstrates ‘unity in diversity’. However, it could also have

been the case that it was all too confusing and complex to be pondered over by laymen and even by most literates. Never before, in any kind of rule has there been such an elaborately organized bureaucracy as in a democratic government. As for the notion of secularism, India is often popularly proclaimed to have been a universally tolerant nation. Is that the real reason behind the acceptance of all religions? Or, are all religions not really at par but hierarchically graded? Maybe, there seems to be an atmosphere of tolerance due to the coexistence of different and even contradictory spiritual ideas within the umbrella term of ‘Hinduism’. It is too naïve to state that a nation that does not have a concrete definition in terms of community, can rigidly adhere to a moral value that has never been explicitly imposed. Moreover, there is also a need to question the contemporary relevance of the ‘Indian-ness’ of the traditional and moral values being propagated. Do we, as Indians, still hold a shared spiritual discourse outside the borders of Hindu thought? Or, should we simply disclaim Hinduism as organized religion and an ‘ism’ so that it can assume an effable status of being a “way of life”?

Contemporary politics provides evidence of the fragile nature of the nation. Communal divisions have come out more prominently than ever. Linguistic groups and caste struggles have always been the primary sources of organization and discrimination. Democracy is not necessarily majoritarianism, but it does imply the danger of arousing the latter idea. Maybe, that is the reason why communal politics can still sweep over the masses. So, do we assume that the actions of the masses are guided as a result of rational decisions or even collective opinions? Or, is it the power of the words over the mind, that is, the general acceptance of an ideology?

Ancient India and contemporary India cannot be synchronised nor can ‘Bharatvarsha’ be employed to signify ‘India’ anymore. The sense of Indian-ness that exists amongst all residents can be attributed to a shared experience of living in addition to the inter-cultural assimilation of values and traditions such that there has come about a shared system of values concerning specific spheres such as family, kinship, sexuality and so on. The very idea that a nation needs one or more common traits among its population to be defined as a “nation” is in itself a very “un-Indian” perspective. India as a nation can perhaps be studied from a perspective not searching for its common interests but its differences so that a general structure of the nation can be established through the interaction of its diversity.


Image Credits- Global Asia, Times of India

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