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Antiquity of Bhaarata

15 August 2016

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[This article is is likely to appear in Mainstream Weekly]

by D N Jha

In the Hindutva historiographical format Bhaarata, i.e., India, is timeless: the first man was born here; its people were the authors of the first human civilisation, the Vedic, which is the same as the Indus-Saraswati; they had reached the highest peak of achievement in both the arts and the sciences; and they were were conscious of belonging to the Indian nation, which has existed eternally. Views such as these are churned out of the cultural nationalist mill day in and day out and are peddled to the credulous, who accept them as a matter of faith. But evidence shows that India as a country evolved over a long period, and that the formation of its identity was linked with the changing perceptions of the people who migrated into the subcontinent at different times.

The geographical horizon of the early Aryans was limited to the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent, referred to as Saptasindhava, and the word Bhaarata in the sense of a country is absent from the entire Vedic literature, though the Bharata tribe is mentioned at several places in different contexts. In the Ashtadhyayi (IV.2.113) of Panini (500 B.C.) we find a reference to Pracya Bharata in the sense of a territory (janapada) which lay between Udicya (north) and Pracya (east). It must have been a small region occupied by the Bharata tribe and cannot be equated with the Akhanda Bhaarata or Bhaarata of the Hindutva camp. The earliest reference to Bhaaratavarha (Prakrit Bharadhavasa) is found in the inscription of Kharavela (first century B.C.), who lists it among the territories he invaded: but it did not include Magadha, which is mentioned separately in the record.

The word may refer here in a general way to northern India, but its precise territorial connotation is vague. A much larger geographical region is visualised by the use of the word in the Mahabharata (200 B.C. to A.D. 300), which provides a good deal of geographical information about the subcontinent, although a large part of the Deccan and the far south do not find place in it. Among the five divisions of Bhaaratavarsha named, Madhyadesha finds frequent mention in ancient Indian texts; in the Amarakosha, a work of the fourth-fifth centuries, it is used synonymously with Bhaarata and Aryavarta; the latter, according to its eleventh-century commentator Kshirasvamin, being the same as Manu’s (II.22) holy land situated between the Himalayas and the Vindhya range. But in Bana’s Kadambari (seventh century), at one place Bhaaratavarsha is said to have been ruled by Tarapida, who “set his seal on the four oceans” (dattacatuhsamu¬dramudrah); and at another, Ujjaini is indicated as being outside Bhaaratavarsha, which leaves its location far from clear.

Bhaaratavarsha figures prominently in the Puranas, but they describe its shape variously. In some passages it is likened to a half-moon, in others it is said to resemble a triangle; in yet others it appears as a rhomboid or an unequal quadrilateral or a drawn bow. The Markandeya Purana compares the shape of the country with that of a tortoise floating on water and facing east. Most of the Puranas describe Bhaaratavarsha as being divided into nine dvipas or khandas, which, being separated by seas, were mutually inaccessible. A few inscriptions of the tenth and eleventh centuries indicate that Kuntala (Karnataka) was situated in the land of Bhaarata, which is described in a fourteenth-century record as extending from the Himalayas to the southern sea (Epigraphia Indica, XIV. No.3, lines 5-6) but, by and large, the available textual and epigraphic references to it do not indicate that the term stood for India as we know it today.

It was only from the 1860s that the name Bhaaratavarsha, in the sense of the whole subcontinent, found its way into the popular vocabulary. Its visual evocation came not earlier than 1905 in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore. Bhaaratmata is thus little more than a hundred years old, nearly the same age as the Gau Mata of the bhakts.

In many texts Bhaarata is said to have been a part of Jambudvipa, which itself had an uncertain geographical connotation. The Vedic texts do not mention it; nor does Panini, though he refers to the jambu (the rose apple tree/jamun in Hindi). The early Buddhist canonical works provide the earliest reference to the continent called Jambudvipa (Jambudipa), its name being derived from the jambu tree which grew there, having a height of one hundred yojanas, a trunk fifteen yojanas in girth and outspreading branches fifty yojanas in length, whose shade extended to one hundred yojanas. It was one of the four mahadipas (mahadvipas) ruled by a Cakkavatti. We are told that Buddhas and Cakkavattis were born only in Jambudipa — the early Buddhists could not visualize it as home to modern Togadias and Singhals and their followers! Going by its descriptions in the early Buddhist literature, Jambudipa appears as a mythical region, though juxtaposed with Sihaladipa (Simhaladvipa=Sri Lanka), it stands for India in the inscriptions of Ashoka, who uses the word to mean the whole of his empire, which covered nearly the entire Indian subcontinent excluding its far southern part.

Jambudvipa appears as a mythical region also in the Puranic texts. The world, according to them, “consists of seven concentric dvipas or islands, each of which is encircled by a sea, the central island called Jambudvipa…”. According to another Puranic conception, which is similar to the Buddhist cosmological ideas, the earth is divided into four mahadvipas, Jambudvipa being larger than the others. In both these conceptions of the world, Bhaaratavarsha is at some places said to be a part of Jambudvpa but at others the two are treated as identical. Since these differently imagined geographical conceptions of Bhaarata and Jambudvipa are factitious and of questionable value, insistence on their inhabitants forming a nation in ancient times is sophistry. It legitimates the Hindutva perception of Indian national identity as located in remote antiquity, accords centrality to the supposed primordiality of Hinduism and thus spawns Hindu cultural nationalism.

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