In 440 BCE, Herodotus, often referred to as the Father of History, ventured to offer a comprehensive account of India and its inhabitants in his third book. In his words, “Eastward of India lies a tract which is entirely sand. Indeed, of all the inhabitants of Asia, concerning whom anything is known, the Indians dwell nearest to the east and the rising of the Sun.” These insights provided early glimpses into India’s significance in ancient times.
The term “India” itself has a storied history. The Greeks bestowed this name upon the subcontinent, tracing it back to the Indus River. Its initial usage can be traced to the era of Alexander the Great and later adopted by the Romans. By the time European explorers embarked on their voyages and eventually made inroads into the Indian subcontinent, it had already been established as “India” to the world. The moniker “India” was deeply entrenched, with historical roots stretching back to antiquity, as it appeared in various forms in Sanskrit and Persian texts. This familiarity with the term “India” firmly secured its identity on the international stage.
Upon the arrival of European powers on Indian shores, they encountered a region teeming with diversity and cultural richness, and they referred to it as “India.” This adoption further cemented the name’s status in the global consciousness, strengthening its identity as “India” rather than its traditional name, “Bharat.”
However, the origins of “Bharat” as a name have deep historical roots that predate the Greek renaming of the subcontinent. “Bharat” holds a special place in the hearts of millions in India, signifying more than just a word—it’s a symbol of the nation’s rich and diverse heritage. Even though “Bharat” is now one of the official names of the country, its roots can be traced back to
the ancient foundations of Indian civilisation, particularly within the Rig Vedic texts.
Hindu mythology offers various narratives that give rise to the name “Bharat.” In the Rig Veda’ s 18th hymn of the seventh book, the epic battle of ten kings near the river Ravi in Punjab led to the rise of King Sudasa and the identification of the people with the Bharata tribe. This connection made “Bharata ” synonymous with their land. Another legend attributes the name to Emperor Bharata, son of King Dushyanta and Queen Sakuntala, who united a vast territory into a single political entity called “Bharatvarsha” in his honor, as recounted in the Mahabharata Text. In yet another perspective, the Vishnu Purana links “Bharat” to ascetic practices, where a father entrusted his kingdom to his son, Bharata, before embarking on a spiritual journey, creating a legacy tied to the name “Bharat.”
During British colonial rule, the subcontinent was officially referred to as “India” as part of the colonial administration’s efforts to categorise and govern the diverse regions and people under its control. However, this naming was essentially an external imposition, arriving with the baggage of colonial exploitation, subjugation, and cultural erasure. Many Indian nationalists viewed the name “India” as a symbol of this colonial legacy.
In contrast, “Bharat” held deep-rooted historical and cultural significance in Indian mythology and ancient texts. It was seen as an indigenous name reflecting the country’s rich heritage. The Rig Veda and the Mahabharata, for instance, mention “Bharat” as a prominent term, connecting it to the land and its rulers. Advocates for using “Bharat” argued that it was a name resonating with India’s ancient identity and cultural continuity.
The recent opposition to changing the name from India to Bharat after the G20 Summit also reflects a certain level of rigidity in how people identify themselves. For many, being called “Indians” has become a fundamental part of their national identity, and they feel a strong attachment to the name despite its colonial origins. This sentiment highlighted the complexity of national identity and how it was shaped by historical and contemporary factors. Despite the historical and cultural significance of “Bharat,” there was resistance to changing the official name of the country from “India” to “Bharat.” This resistance stemmed from practical considerations, global recognition, and the inertia of colonial-era administrative systems. Changing the country’s name would have had wide-ranging implications, from legal and bureaucratic adjustments to international diplomatic matters.
The ongoing debate surrounding the names “India” and “Bharat” encapsulates the ongoing struggle in post-colonial societies to reconcile their colonial past with their indigenous heritage. While “Bharat” carried deep cultural and historical significance, the continued use of “India” reflected the complexities of identity, practicality, and the enduring legacy of colonialism. The debate serves as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of our national identity and the enduring impact of colonial rule on the citizen’s of our country.