On embracing national pride in its many manifestations, and the notion of 'India, that is Bharat'

One should leave cultural pride open for anyone to celebrate while making no urgent calls for political action based on it. Like a flower, culture will bloom in its own time or not at all.

Lakshmi Sreeram July 21, 2019 10:30:06 IST
On embracing national pride in its many manifestations, and the notion of 'India, that is Bharat'

A lazy afternoon last week offered three video clips on Facebook, all about national/cultural pride, demonstrating widely divergent manifestations of the sentiment.

“The Creator made one Girish Karnad and we had him,” says Naseeruddin Shah in a searing tribute to the writer-thespian. Shah’s tribute is not the usual pointless drivel that such tributes often turn out to be. “I have avoided clichés and banalities when asked about how I felt on the passing away of Girish Karnad because he detested them and also,” – and this takes the breath away – “I find it hard to define how I feel; anyone at any point in time finds it hard to define what one feels.” Only an actor who has spent a lifetime working with feelings can say this with such casual authority.

Shah does not pretend that Karnad’s passing is a terrible loss to him. “Will I miss him? I can’t say I will; I did not see him that often”. It is a hard, utterly sincere, tribute to a man whose presence on the cultural scene in the country was celebrated. “Girish achieved in one lifetime what ten people cannot.” The video reinforces Shah as a thinking artist of great mettle, worthy of giving a tribute to one such as Karnad.

On embracing national pride in its many manifestations and the notion of India that is Bharat

Representational image. Reuters

Prof Ramasubramanian, Professor at IIT Bombay, delivered another kind of performance about pi in ancient Indian calculations. The post was shared with a disclaimer to the effect that there is no claim in this video that ancient India had invented rockets and knew the theory of relativity. With that assurance, one dived into it. His quiet assurance and restrained call to acknowledge India’s contributions made the video eminently watchable and impressive. Why did Indians need to calculate the area of a circle? For that is what pi is all about. As with some other advances in knowledge in ancient India, it was Vedic ritualism. Every household, he says, every upper caste household, one might qualify, had to have three sacrificial altars (tretaagni) — one square, one semi-circular and one circular — and all three had to have the same area.

This was a serious problem – it was serious in a culture that believed a correct performance of sacrifices could yield heaven or sons etc and incorrect performance assured the opposite. For a performance of a sacrifice is not a supplication, but a commandeering of various forces, seen and unseen to actualise the desired end.

And thus the problem of squaring the circle arose in ancient India and brilliant minds, including Aryabhatta’s, came up with calculations of pi with greater sophistication and accuracy than was realised a few centuries later in the West. “It is a historical footnote,” he says with a casual wave of the hand, belying his seriousness about the need to give credit where it is due. “It should be called the Madhava series,” he says, after the Kerala mathematician who calculated it.

Reclaiming and celebrating India’s achievements in the fields of science, maths and astronomy are certainly desirable but the way forward is not simple. We should be aware of it, so that we have a sense of a self as descended from a culture that had some pretty messed up problems ending up in abject colonisation, but has also produced a Panini and a Madhava and indeed a Bharata of Natyashastra fame.

Teaching at IIT Madras I found students had all heard of Aristotle, even if not of his Poetics, but no one had heard of Bharatha and certainly not of Natyashastra. And this is not ideal. Something is amiss in our school system one would like to think. But most likely the kids heard of Aristotle not from their school syllabus but from other reading. It is a larger issue.

In any case, the last video I want to talk about is Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s conversation with Kiran Bedi about the name Bharat and India.

The Sadhguru has many admirers and for good reason. His manner is a heady combination of confidence, casualness and seriousness and he manages to pitch ancient ideas to the modern sensibility with great charm.

What is this nation called Bharat? He says that it is not one language or religion that unites us a nation. We are not a nation of believers – ie our idea of nationhood is not based on any single belief or dogma. We are a nation of seekers. We seek the truth and we are open to different ways of doing that. That is what has held us together. He might have quoted the clichéd ekam sat vipraah bahudhaa vadanti, but he does not. The suggestion that the idea of this country is based on the idea of seeking after truth makes one sit up for it seems to capture something fundamental. It makes us seem very sophisticated and, in its best form, what is called Hinduism can be that.

But then he goes on to call for the renaming of India as Bharat with a rather convoluted argument. He says “Bharat” is derived from the three syllables, bha meaning bhaava, ra meaning raaga and ta meaning taala and comes up with a rather flimsy application of this to us a nation. This etymology, if one may call it that, is usually given in the context of Bharatanatyam, the dance form. Even though somewhat contrived, it fits – at least that must be granted. Bharatanatyam does deal with emotions (bhaava) and raga and tala are very much part of its performance. But when the Sadhguru appropriates this rendition of Bha-ra-ta as the more appropriate name for the country, it is utterly unconvincing.

“India” does not mean anything, he says – it does not resonate with us like “Bharat” does. Can he really say that after the recent World Cup cricket match? He goes on: “Why did we change our name? Britishers gave it to us in an act of enslavement. When African slaves entered the ports of the US, the first thing that happened was that their names were taken away and some “new, silly” names were given – the first act of enslaving.” One must grant that it might also just be because they had very complicated names. That apart, it is simply inaccurate to say that the British gave us the name “India”. India was famed for its fabulous wealth many centuries before that and had Columbus exulting that he had found it and the native Americans got their name from us.

So, when the Sadhguru calls for converting the name from India to Bharat, the heart trembles. First of all, it would be a logistical nightmare, not to speak of unpleasantness to other communities who have little to do with Sanskrit. And when we introduce ourselves as Bharatiya we will have to contend with complete bewilderment instead of the minor issue of confusion with the red variety.

India or Bharat is too large and too complex an entity for everyone to come on board about anything. Who is the “us” when the Sadhguru says “India” does not resonate with us like “Bharat” does? The quiet acknowledgement in the Preamble of “India, that is Bharat” seems exactly the right measure.

When Shah says “The creator made one Girish Karnad and we had him”, he too does not say who constitute this we. And it does not matter here – the vagueness here is delicious. That is the best way of cultural pride – leave it open for anyone to celebrate while making no urgent calls for political action based on it. Like a flower, culture will bloom in its own time or not at all.

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