The Hindutva ideal of Akhand Bharat has held firm but its spatial, chronological extents remain hazy
Hindu nationalists view the 1947 Partition of India as only the most recent in a long series of divisions of the territory of ancient Bharat. For them, the territorial concept, drawn from ancient Hindu texts, is that the entire landmass between the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas is Bharat.
Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.
Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb is back in the news after a longish hiatus. He recently made a public statement that the BJP has plans to set up governments not only everywhere in India, but also in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Naturally, a few eyebrows were raised at this, since Nepal and Sri Lanka happen to be separate countries. However, this was probably not the case in the age whose tales are celebrated in the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Back in those halcyon times of myth, it is possible that there was no separate Nepal or Sri Lanka – the Ramayana, for example, speaks only of separate kingdoms, such as those of King Janak in the Nepal Terai and of Ravana in Lanka. The Hindu nationalist view, articulated by Deb and found in the writings of ideologues of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, sees those separate kingdoms as parts of ancient Bharat.
The concept of “Akhand Bharat” or undivided Bharat is one that has been explained at length by many Hindu nationalists over the years. A simple Google search will show you the imagined map of this territory on many a Right-wing website; it includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Tibet. Hindu nationalists view the 1947 Partition of India as only the most recent in a long series of divisions of the territory of ancient Bharat. For them, the territorial concept, drawn from ancient Hindu texts, is that the entire landmass between the Indian Ocean and the Himalayas is Bharat.
And yet…do the ancient Hindu texts speak of Bharat as one country? Pandit Pandurang Vaman Kane, in his history of the Dharma Shastras published by the Bhandarkar Research Institute in 1941, wrote that “Bharatavarṣa itself has comprised numerous countries from the most ancient times…There was no doubt a great emotional regard for Bharatavarṣa or Ᾱryāvarta as a unity for many centuries among all writers from a religious point of view, though not from a political standpoint. Therefore, one element of modern nationhood viz. being under the same government was wanting.”
The landmass of ancient Bharat shared aspects of high culture — although local vernacular cultures in the plural exist even to this day — and a shared elite social order. The core of the territory of ancient Bharat, the heartland, was Aryavarta, the land of the Aryas or Aryans. This was the territory that was considered, in the Dharma Shastras, as being a fit habitation for followers of the Vedic faith. It was the land where the “varnashrama dharma” or the classification of society into four varnas, loosely translated as castes, was rigorously observed. Beyond lay the lands of the mlecchas, foreigners who were considered impure barbarians, because they did not observe the taboos prescribed for observers of “varnashrama dharma”. Outcastes and tribes living within the broad territorial limits of Aryavarta were also, similarly, outside the social and cultural order defined by caste.
The geographical area to which this social order corresponded has been described by Dineshchandra Sarkar in his Studies in the Geography of Ancient and Medieval India. He concluded from his study of the Dharma Shastras that it is the land that lay “east of the Saraswati river’s disappearance in the desert, west of the Kalakavana, north of the mountains Pariyatra and Vindhya, and south of the Himalayas”. Where exactly the Saraswati disappeared into the desert is not known, but we do know where a desert exists today. This is the Thar desert spreading across western Rajasthan and adjoining areas of Pakistan. The Vindhya and Himalaya mountains are still where they were. As for the “Kalakavana” or dark forest, Sarkar speculated that it lay east of the town of Prayag. The east, south and northeast of India lay beyond these boundaries. So, too, did Sri Lanka, although Nepal’s position is more debatable.
Apart from doubts on the spatial extent of ancient Bharat, there are also doubts on its chronological extent. The possibility of highly advanced civilisations existing in the Indian subcontinent in the remote past cannot be dismissed out of hand, but the earliest time in which they could have existed is clear. It would be very difficult for any civilisation to exist before the end of the last Ice Age roughly 11,500 years ago. The end of that Ice Age marked the beginning of a major scientific revolution — the agricultural revolution, which saw the domestication of plant species such as rice and wheat. That’s when hunting-gathering began to give way to villages, towns and kingdoms.
The most ancient civilisation that existed in the lands of “Bharat varsha” whose archaeological evidence has been found is the Indus Valley Civilisation. That civilisation’s oldest sites found so far are at the opposite extremities geographically: Mehrgarh in Baluchistan, Pakistan and Bhirana in Haryana, India. Both these sites date to at least 8,000 years ago. The oldest of the vedas, the Rig Veda, was written down much later, an estimated 3,500 years ago.
The Mahabharat is generally believed to have come after the older vedas. It may be 2,500 years old, or less. The existence of the internet at that time, which Biplab Deb famously proclaimed, is, however, rather unlikely. Yet Deb gets unduly picked on. Then too, he was merely voicing an opinion that has widespread acceptability in sections of the Hindu Right, which sees modern science, from televisions to aircraft to test tube babies, in ancient myths and legends.
In the case of the Mahabharat internet, as in other similar cases, this arose out of trying to find ‘rational’ explanations. The text of the Mahabharat has a lot of sentences that start with “Sanjaya Uvacha”, Sanjaya spoke. They are ascribed to a narrator, Sanjay, who describes events on the battlefield of Kurukshetra to the blind king Dhritarashtra in his palace. How could Sanjay see what was happening far away in Kurukshetra all the way from Hastinapur? The ancient explanation was “divya drishti” or divine sight but apparently our Hindu nationalists prefer modern ‘scientific’ explanations. Hence, Mahabharat internet.
The concept of the map as it exists now is also a modern one. Maps such as the ones we have now could not have been drawn before the Mercator projection technique was invented by Gerardus Mercator in 1569. The concept of the nation too is a modern one. There were kingdoms and empires in India from the remote past, down until the end of the British Raj, but they were not nation-states. They were princely states. When the British left the subcontinent in 1947, there were still around 562 princely states in what is now India. They constituted close to half the land area of the country. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel integrated them with the former British Indian territories to build the modern Indian nation-state.
The long, slow process of drawing up separate treaties with most of those 562 princely states had been done by the British during their centuries of rule. However, it was only after Independence and the integration of the 562 princely states under the Indian constitution that the ancient cultural and social space of Bharat became a politically united country called India, for the first time in its history. The map of modern India took shape then. Its current map is even more recent, dating to 1975, when Sikkim became a part of India.
The past is, as someone once wrote, a foreign country.
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