When we refer to India today, are we also referring to the historic concept of India that ancient historians and explorers wrote about? Turns out it’s not. The India of today is not the historic India…ironically Pakistan is the real India. Confused? You should be…unfortunately European colonialism played a big part in how the term “India” was misused and mislabeled. Let’s discuss this more in detail. Before moving on, let’s define some basic terms to avoid confusion: When ‘Republic of India’ is mentioned, we are referring to the modern-day India (1947 to present). When ‘India’ is mentioned, we are referring to the historic definition of India (the Indus Valley) as cited by Greek, Persian, Macedonian, Arab and Roman sources.
~ Jinnah vs Mountbatten ~
Following independence in 1947, many maps printed in the Republic of India referred to the newly formed country as Bharat – in fact the Constitution of India officially names the country as Bharat. The word Bharat derives from Bharatavarsha (the land of the Bharatas), with these Bharatas being the most prominent and distinguished of the early Vedic clans who migrated from the Indus Valley to the Ganges plain sometime between 1200 BCE to 800 BCE. By adopting this name, the new republic in Delhi could, it was argued, lay claim to a revered Arya heritage that was geographically vague enough not to provoke regional jealousies yet doctrinally vague enough not to jeopardize the republic’s avowed secularism. Bharat would seem preferable since the term India was too redolent of colonial disparagement. It also lacked a respectable indigenous pedigree. In the whole colossal corpus of Sanskrit literature, nowhere is the term India ever mentioned. Nor does the term India appear in Buddhist or Jain texts and nor was it used in any of India’s numerous languages. Worse still, if etymologically the term 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. No tussle over the word India is reported because Jinnah preferred the newly coined and Islamic-sounding acronym Pakistan. Additionally, he was under the impression that neither state would want to adopt the colonial term India. He only discovered his mistake after Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, had already acceded to Nehru’s demand that his state be named Republic of 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 sub-continental primacy that 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) and its tributaries. Hence India was largely outside the Republic of India and largely within Pakistan.
~ European usage of the word India ~
Reservations about the word India, which convinced Jinnah no nation would use it, stemmed from its historical usage among European colonialists. India or Indies (its more generalized derivative) had come, as if by definition, to denote an acquisition rather than a specific territory. India was yet conceptually concrete to Europeans: it was somewhere to be coveted as an intellectual curiosity, a military pushover and an economic bonanza. While the historic term of India exclusively referred to the Indus Valley (today known as Pakistan), the European definition of India was used to describe acquired territories across the world. Let’s go over some of them:
*British East India Company – present-day Bangladesh, Ganges plain & Deccan
*British West Indies – The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Antigua, Virgin Islands, Dominica, Montserrat, Grenada, Cayman Islands, Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago
*Dutch East India Company – present day Bangladesh, Ganges plain & Deccan
*Dutch East Indies – present day Indonesia, Brunei & Malaysia
*Dutch West Indies – present-day Suriname & Netherlands Antilles
*French East India Company – present-day Puducherry
*French West India Company – present-day Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe & Haiti
*Portuguese East India Company – present-day Goa
*Portuguese East Indies – present-day Malacca (Malaysia) and Macau (China)
*Casa da India – managed all overseas territories including Brazil & Angola
*Spanish West Indies – present-day Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela & Dominican Republic
*Spanish East Indies – present-day Philippines, Guam, and Papua New Guinea
*Danish East India Company – present-day Bangladesh, Bengal & Tamil Nadu
*Danish West Indies – present-day US Virgin Islands
*Swedish East India Company – present-day Bangladesh & Bengal (but never lasted long).
You get the picture…India was geographically imprecise among the Europeans. This is in stark contrast to terms like Africa, Arabia, Britain, Scandinavia or America, where the territory was well defined. The term India on the other hand was indeed moveable if one took account of all the “Native Indians” in the Americas, and all the overseas Indies. Tulane University professor Rosanne Adderly says the phrase “West Indies” distinguished the territories encountered by Columbus or claimed by Spain from discovery claims by other powers in [Asia’s] “East Indies”. The term “Indies” was eventually used by all European nations to describe their own acquired territories in the world.
~ Historic India ~
Now that we have a clear picture of how the word India was misused, let’s delve deeper into where the term India comes from and what it actually defines. The first occurrence of the word sets the trend and is an inscription found at Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire of Darius I in Persia. Dated from 518 BC, it lists his numerous domains including that of “Hi(n)du”. Where does Hindu comes from? Let’s investigate.
The word for river in Sanskrit is “Sindhu” and hence “Sapta Sindhu” meant the land of the seven rivers, which is what the Vedic clans of the Indus Valley called Punjab. Six of these rivers were all tributaries to the Indus River and hence the Indus was viewed as the “Sindhu par excellence”. In the ancient Persian language, a relative of Sanskrit, the initial ‘S’ of a Sanskrit word was invariably rendered as ‘H’ and thus Sindhu became Hindhu in Persian. When the word found its way into Greek, the initial ‘H’ was dropped, and it began to appear as the root “Ind”. In this form, it reached Latin and most other European languages, giving rise to “Ind + ia” or India. In Arabic, Persian and Turkish, the “H” was retained and the term “Hindhu” would eventually give rise to Hindhustan, by which Turks, Persians and Mughals would know India. The word Hindhu also reached Europe much later and was used to define the country’s indigenous people – the Vedic clans of the Indus Valley (ie. Sindhu, Kasmiras, Kambojas, Gandhara etc).
On the strength of a slightly earlier Persian inscription, which makes no mention of Hindhu, it is assumed that the Indus Valley was added to Darius’ Achaemenid Empire much earlier than 520 BC. This earlier inscription does however refer to “Gadara” (or Gandhara), a Buddhist state mentioned in both Sanskrit and Buddhist sources located in an arc reaching the western Punjab through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa towards Kabul and perhaps into southern Afghanistan (where it is believed Kandahar got its name from). According to Xenophon and Herodotus, Cyrus The Great had conquered Gandhara. The first Achaemenid invasion may therefore have taken place as early as the mid-sixth century BC. This invasion seems likely from a reference to Cyrus dying of a wound inflicted by the enemy. The enemies were the “derbikes” – they enjoyed the support of the “Sindhu” people and were supplied by war-elephants. In Persian and Greek minds alike, the association of “Sindhu” with elephants was thereafter almost as significant as its connection with the mighty Indus River. To Alexander of Macedon, following in the Achaemanids’ 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’ Sindhu territory must have been beyond it, and so to the south or east. Later Persian records refer to Sindhu giving rise to the word Sind, today Pakistan’s southern most province. It seems unlikely though that the present-day Sindh borders were that of Sindhu in the late sixth century BC, since Darius subsequently found it necessary to send a naval expedition to explore Sindhu. Flowing through the middle of the Indus River would surely have been familiar to any naval explorer of the region. More probably then the territory of Sindhu lay east of Gandhara. This in all likelihood would be the region between eastern Punjab and Thar Desert. Sindhu territory thus occupied what is today Cholistan and Thar (much of what is now southern Punjab and northern Sindh provinces). Both Gandhara and Sindhu would later on become provinces or “satrapy” of the Persian Empire.
Under Xerxes (Darius’ successor), troops from the satrapy of Gandhara and Sindhu were reportedly serving in the Achaemenid Army. These people were mostly archers, although cavalry and chariots are also mentioned. They fought as far as eastern Europe and some were present at the Persians’ 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 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 registered in political circles. With several rivers to rival the Nile and behemoths from which to give battle (war-elephants), it was clearly a land of fantasy as well as wealth. Herodotus, of course, knew only of the Indus Valley, and that too by hearsay. Hence he did not report that the land beyond the sensational extent the Thar. Hence the Indus Valley was considered “terra firma” or the “end of the world” to Greeks and Europeans. In abbreviated form, Herodotus’ history circulated widely throughout ancient Greece and Europe…and a hundred years after his death, people would still be reading his writings…including an avid teenager named Alexander of Macedon, who knew it well enough to quote and follow its stories. It wouldn’t be until Alexander’s arrival in the Indus Valley (~330 BC), that people would discover a land beyond Thar…the Gangetic plain and Deccan. Up until this point, the Indus was considered “one end” of the ends of the world. The rest as they say is history…
~ Moving Forward ~
If Pak Studies had been written properly, today we would not be having this discussion. It’s very easy to blame European colonialists for disparaging the word India, but why haven’t we claimed this name? What are we sitting around for twiddling our thumbs for? Pakistan should have done to the Republic of India as Greece did to the Republic of Macedonia.
The Macedonia naming dispute is a political dispute regarding the use of the name Macedonia between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, formerly a federal unit of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia gained independence in 1991, naming itself Macedonia. Citing historical and territorial concerns resulting from the ambiguity between the Republic of Macedonia, the adjacent Greek region of Macedonia and the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon which falls mostly within Greek Macedonia, Greece opposed the use of the name “Macedonia” by the Republic of Macedonia without a geographical qualifier such as “Northern Macedonia” for use by all and for all purposes. As millions of ethnic Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, unrelated to the Slavic people who are associated with the Republic of Macedonia, Greece further objects to the use of the term “Macedonian” for the neighboring country’s largest ethnic group and its language. The Republic of Macedonia is accused of appropriating symbols and figures that are historically considered part of Greek culture such as the Vergina Sun and Alexander the Great, and of promoting the irredentist concept of a United Macedonia, which involves territorial claims on Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia. The dispute has escalated to the highest level of international mediation, involving numerous attempts to achieve a resolution. In 1995, the two countries formalized bilateral relations and committed to start negotiations on the naming issue, under the auspices of the United Nations. Until a solution is found, the provisional reference “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (sometimes unofficially abbreviated as FYROM) is used by international organizations and states that do not recognize translations of the constitutional name Republic of Macedonia. UN members, and the UN as a whole, have agreed to accept any final agreement on a new name resulting from negotiations between the two countries.
Similarly, Pakistan should have done the same to the Republic of India, which has no legal claim on the term India – neither geographically (Indus Valley vs Ganges plain), neither religiously (Early Vedic vs Brahminism) and neither culturally. The only reason the Republic of India is named India is purely due to European colonialist ignorance and greed. It remains to be seen if Pakistan would ever legally question the usage of the term India, however, it is our responsibility as a nation to educate not only us, but also the world about the true concept of India. The Indus Valley is the true India…always has been and always will be.