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Mahabharata: The idea called India

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Lakshmi Prasad Jonnalagadda
Lakshmi Prasad Jonnalagadda
Deeply passionate about India. Blogs at


With thousands of years of continuous existence and conspicuously absent indigenous history recording traditions, the subcontinent had always taken names given to it by people visiting from the West. From the times of Alexander to the Mughals, we were variously called as Indians, Hindus, Hindustanis.

Clearly, these names did not refer to the same lot of people at all the different periods in history. What Sardar Patel achieved was not mere political integration of Princely States and Presidencies that variously called themselves Kashmiri, Marwari, Gujarati, Andhra, Dravida, Bangla, Madrasi, Canarese, Marathi etc., and collectively India by the British, but the formal consecration of a new identity called India that gained prominence during the revolt of 1857 and has since been crystalizing.

The question of a uniform historical identity

With powerful indigenous traditions of lore creation, it is tough to establish a uniform historical view about the whole of the subcontinent. When the means to verify a claim no longer exists, the Hindus (i.e., Indians), rather than speculating, consign such a claim to antiquity and continue to draw useful allegorical references from it.

What is called PuraNa (antiquated/old) by Hindus cannot be accurately described by the terms ‘mythology’ or ‘history’ as was attempted by the western scholars. Instead, it sits right in the middle, incapable of being used as conclusive evidence and at the same time real enough to be dismissed as myth.

Epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata, while giving a vivid picture of the varied peoples and landscapes of the subcontinent, do not give the picture of a homogeneous group of people with a single national identity. In fact, scriptural and literary evidence only suggest the existence of diverse nations and cultures with multiple independent identities.

The Mahajanpadas of Anga, Vanga, Kalinga, Kashmira, Kamboja etc., were independent republics of people of clearly distinguishable languages and cultures. We do not know for sure what the peoples of all the Mahajanpadas collectively called themselves, if they so called themselves. Indian literature is replete with notions like Bharat and Aryavarta and these notions are not limited to the scholars but appear to have been well entrenched in the masses. The question is whether that was the primary identity of the masses of those times.

Expressions like Bharata Varsha, Aryavarta find mention both in literature and inscriptions throughout the length and breadth of the country corresponding to the rise of large empire states. However, it is unclear whether those were the primary identities of the people of the empires or were mere idealistic and aspirational notions of their rulers. Empires and States alternated between Vaidika, Bauddha and Jaina Dharmas for a long time in history.

It is often argued that Indians’ identification with monolithic nationalistic themes as against sects (Jaati) and sub-sects (sakha) is a predominantly post-colonial phenomenon. Though this maybe correct as against the white Europeans who never attempted to mingle with the local society, the idea of a grand Hindu identity never fully permeated into the largely rural agrarian Indian society. For example, in many Indian rural households, the sense of identity is argued to have never been primarily Hindu, as against Muslim, Christian, Sikh or other monolithic identities. The primary identity remained that of the sect, sub-sect to which the family belongs. This is despite the acceptance of a strong nationalistic super narrative and a history of grassroots participation in the independence struggle.

Here, the terms sect (Jaati) and sub-sects (Sakha) have been used in place of the derogatory foreign term ‘caste’ which has most denigrated the original idea of a Jaati. The famous German orientalist, Professor Max Muller, in his ‘Six Systems of Indian Philosophy’ cautions about the use of the term caste as below.

“This term caste has proved most mischievous and misleading, and unless we avail ourselves of it the better we shall be able to understand the true status of the society in the ancient times of India. Caste is of course, a Portuguese word, and was applied from about the middle of sixteenth century by rough Portuguese sailors to certain divisions of Indian society which had struck their fancy. It has been used in the sense of breed or stock, originally in the sense of a pure or unmixed breed. In 1613, Purchas speaks of thirty and odd several castes of Baniyas (Vanigs).

To ask what caste means in India would be like asking what caste means in England or what fetish (Fetico) means in Portugal. What we really want to know in what was implied by such Indian words as Varna (colour), Gati (kith), to say nothing of Sapindatva or Samanodakatva, Kula (family), Gotra (race), Pravara (lineage); otherwise we shall have once more the same confusion about the social organisation of ancient India as about African fetishism or North American totemism. Each foreign word should be kept to its native meaning or, if generalised for scientific purposes it should be most carefully defined afresh. Otherwise, every social distinction will be called “caste”, every stick a “totem”, every idol a “fetish”.”

The primary identity 

For a vast majority, the dominant identity remains that of dialect, language (Bhasha), region, sub-sub-sect (Upa Sakha), sub-sect (Sakha), sect (Jati). That’s despite the perception of a fast breaking down of caste and language barriers owing to migration to urban centres and blurred sect/sub-sect lines resulting from increasing instances of mixed ancestry.

To the contrary, a recent report of the National Council for Applied Economic Research found that an average of 95% of Indians marry within their own caste with Mizoram (45%) and Madhya Pradesh (99%) featuring at the extremes of the in-caste spectrum. These studies seldom go beyond caste to cover sect, sub-sect, sub sub-sect etc., due to the enormity of such an exercise. The overwhelming number of sects (Jati) and sub-sects (Sakha) in India create as many numbers of primary identities. For instance, Telugu Brahmins, identified as a single caste for survey purposes, are classified into sects like Vaidiki, Niyogi, Dravida (Konaseema, Arama), Sri Vaishnava, Lingadhari, Vyapari etc.,

Further, Vaidikis are branched out in to sub-sects like Velanadu, Veginadu, Telaganya, Kasalanadu, Mulakanadu depending on the region they belong to / migrated to. There are similar sub sub sects in the remaining sub-sects too. These sub-sects are further classified into Gotra (kith) like Haritasa, Bharadwajasa, Kaushikasa, Gautamasa etc. These Gotras refer to main ancestor the family belongs to and are patrilineal. There are about 200 Gotras of Brahmins who do not intermarry, even if they belong to the same sub-sect. Similar sects and sub-sects exist across the country. It is well known that the ubiquitous Marwadi Baniya community has sub-sects like Agarwals, Barnwals, Khandelwals, Oswals, Jaiswals, Maheshwaris etc., who do not traditionally intermarry.

While these sub-sect distinctions are slowly blurring, efforts are still made to first look for a marital match within the sub-sub-sect and only then proceed to the other sub-sects/sects in arranged marriages. We can see these micro identities in full display in the plethora of sect specific matrimonial sites.

The prismatic nature of Indian society

Applying a monochromatic filter to a fundamentally prismatic society results in a general loss of identity for its constituent members forcing them to adopt synthetic identities in a frenzy. Adopting new identity was relatively easier in the heat of the freedom struggle as the old sect/sub-sect identities were fast superimposed by a monolithic ‘Indian’ identity.

This synthetic monolithic Indian identity that evolved around the 1857 revolt soon fell to the communal appeals of the two nation theory. The subsequent partition of Bengal further fueled the religious divide and polarized the sub-continent by creating Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha. In this bipolar world, one wonders what the smaller minorities of India think of their identity. What do the Indian Christians, Jews, Parsis identify themselves with? India? Hindustan? or Bharat?

Interactions with educated Christians reveal that, as with the average Indians, they identify themselves with the Indian Union with its fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution. However, within their own communities, they identify themselves with the caste or sect they converted from or inducted into. And these caste/ sect / regional lines are just as rigid as in the case of Hindus and Muslims.

For example, the state of Kerala alone has 53 Castes, 36 Tribes and 72 Other Backward castes as per the schedule and notified in the Official Gazette of India. That’s excluding the numerous castes grouped under ‘Other Castes’ category. The Christians of Kerala converted from one of the numerous sects mentioned above and their primary identity remains that of the sect they converted from. The Syrian Christians who are supposed to have converted from Namboodri Brahmans enjoy a high status, though not legally. Similarly, it is observed that upper caste Goan Christians seldom have marital relations with Christians from other denominations.

Syncretism, flexibility and egalitarianism of Jatis

The reality lies in the multiple strands of the society that we live in. While we have secularized our public institutions, we have not been very successful in secularizing the most important institution of the society, the family. The family unit predominantly remains sect / sub-sect centred and the communities which are an extension of families remain largely sect / sub-sect centred.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about it. Ignoring the variety of sect identities in public discourse in the name of nationalism or an idealistic secularism masks the reality while political parties continue to exploit sect identities insidiously. Sometimes two or more of these micro identities coalesce forming new political equations. Sect / sub-sect identities are vital for any community to exist independently. Shared identity allows sects to perpetuate traditions.

The society needs creative and syncretic forces to ensure that while unwanted traditions are demised, the useful ones are continued. Such syncretic phenomena happened throughout history across the sub-continent. While the sects and castes appear to have a defined social order, there are umpteen number of instances of communities moving up the social order in a flexible manner. Communities acquire new and unique statuses. Not necessarily equal, but equitable.

These changes generally happen against the backdrop of social reform movements. These movements eventually slow down and crystallize to form new sects. The reformatory movements of Vaishanvism, Veera Saiva and Lokayata from the early to middle ages have all uplifted and assimilated followers from diverse backgrounds. Such an assimilative process continues till the time a reformatory movement is actively led by a pioneering reformer / spiritual figure. Once such luminaries / leaders are no longer physically present, these reformatory movements tend to slow down and crystallize. This underscores the importance of a living guru / master for a non-proselytizing creed to continue to expand.

For instance, we don’t see as many people taking up the Kabir Panth today as was the case during Kabir’s lifetime and immediately thereafter. Nor do we find as many conversions to Sikhism as there used to be during the times of the Sikh Gurus. The same holds true for Vaishnavism, Saivism etc., All the once liberating forces have long been crystallized into sects.

It is interesting to note that the originally proselytizing faiths of Jainism and Buddhism have, over centuries, become sects without the organizational machinery to propagate faith and seek new converts long after the passing away of their leaders and patrons. They got crystallized to such an extent that they are now recognized as sects forming part of greater Hinduism. The syncretic efforts to assimilate Buddha and Mahavira in to the Vedic fold are well known.

Natural versus invented identities


The various new sects and faiths got slowly assimilated into the Hindu pantheon in a natural syncretic process while retaining their separate individual identities. This is in stark contrast with the rapid Dalitisation, which is an attempt to bring all the numerous sects outside the Vedic fold under one umbrella.

The word Dalit is a Sanskrit word which means ‘branched’. It comes from the root ‘Dal/Dalam’, meaning a leaf. It is also used in the sense of ‘splintered’, ‘fragmented’ (communities) as opposed to the popular meaning attributed to it in the past century, i.e., ‘oppressed’. The rationale behind Ambedkar’s use of the word Dalit (splintered) to represent the downtrodden sects is unclear. This goes against his profession of the Buddhist faith which advocates ‘Sangha’, meaning community.

One wonders if it would have been more appropriate to call the downtrodden – ‘Sanghis’, thereby calling them to unite, rather than ‘Dalits’ (mere splintered)? Dalitisation coupled with affirmative action has brought many dividends to the downtrodden sects over decades. Yet the groups remain splintered and not united.

Far from unification, the Dalit sects have risen to assert their individual identities. Sub-sect identities have re-assumed their importance. The successful mobilizations of the once oppressed castes in events like Madiga dandoras, Mala Mahanadus, Lambadi Bheris are not too different from the recent uprisings of the other prominent castes like Jats, Marathas, Kapus, Gujjars etc. They only prove the vitality of sub-sect identities over the cosmetic unity brought by Dalitisation.

Sufi centrism to Turk-o-Arab centricism

The assimilation of sub-cultures in India has always been symbiotic in nature and uplifting in many cases as opposed to a forceful severance of ties with the old faith and conversion to a new one. As many subcontinent Muslims were converted to Islam under the influence of Sufis as were forcefully converted, if not more. These conversions are voluntary in nature and are centered around spiritual luminaries as against institutionalized (including State) conversions which are either forced or induced.

Quite often these converts are more tuned to the precepts and teachings of their respective Sufi masters and less literate about Quran, Hadith and the various Tafsirs. As in the case of new sects joining the Vedic fold, these conversions slow down with the passing away of the Sufi saint and crystallize into new sects. Any subsequent conversions will be mostly due to a spiritual awakening upon visiting their shrines or by a miracle, in true Hindu spirit.

It may not be far too wrong to assume that by middle ages, the average Indian Muslim was not too different from the average Hindu of his time, when it comes to sect / sub-sect identity and assimilation in to the society. As centres of faith, the Dargas of Sufis are not too different from the Punya Kshetras of Hindus despite their widely differing eschatology and philosophies.

This is in stark contrast to what Al Biruni observed in 10th century during his visit to India. He observed that the Hindus and the Muslims of India have very less in common and that they live in completely segregated communities. That was a time when the Muslim population was still very nascent and is mostly comprised of settlers from Arab and Turkish lands with very few regional converts. With the rise of Madrassas and increased focus on scriptural studies in Islam, the risk of rise in separatist tendencies and alienation of Muslim community from the syncretic culture is increasing. There is a real risk of complete shift of identity from regional Sufi centric sects to Arab / Turk centric monolithic Caliphates.

Distortionary narratives in mainstream public discourse

Monochromatization of a culture that is fundamentally prismatic and symbiotic, as opposed to mechanical and organizational, tends to create megaliths which need to be chipped back to life long after circumstances underlying their creation cease to exist. This severely undermines and obstructs the evolution and assimilation of new sects in a melting pot society. Multiculturalism reduces to mere co-existence of two or more dominant narratives which compete against each other for power as is the case of the sub-continent today.

Academic studies on religious lines is the heritage of a colonial past which is being continued till date without questioning the relevance and unscientific nature of such studies. A recent article in Economist discusses the results of a religion based surveys indicating an increasing estrangement of Indian Muslims. The study traces the number of Muslim ministers in the cabinet since 1951 and describes the sharp decline in recent years as an indication of marginalization.

While the percentage of Muslims ministers is closer to the percentage of Muslims in Indian population, the only two sharp declines correspond to NDA I and NDA II tenures. The problem with such studies is that they are used to build narratives that create an artificial sense of alienation while the reality is plain common sense that a right wing Hindu party will have very few, if at all any, Muslim candidates.

The same article also discusses the abysmally low percentage of Muslim students at post graduate courses in Indian universities. While the number is useful at a big picture level, without further drilling down to identify which sects of Muslims are more progressive and how the social dividend is distributed amongst the various sects and classes of Muslims, it is close to useless. It appears that some communities within Muslims like the Dawoodi Bohras are more prosperous than the average Muslim.

However, without the rigour of scientific studies the true picture is never known and narratives that are apparent do not make it to the mainstream discourse. The article while admitting that there is little common between a Bengali Muslim and a Kerala Muslim and that most Indian Muslims cannot relate with the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, still treats the community as a large monolith and paints a grand narrative of Muslim marginalization and alienation. Giving the sanctity of a survey / study to something that is commonly perceived in a matter of fact manner, only catches the attention of wrong eye balls, often through foreign press, and creates wrong impressions abroad.


While identifying ourselves with the grand idea of India makes us secular in principle, it is dangerous to ignore our sect / sub-sect roots in entirety. Discrimination in the name of jati needs to be fought against, not the jatis themselves. A ‘Vividha Bharati’ (diverse India) is any day preferable to the current nationalist narratives which paint the vast majority of the population as Hindu as against a huge minority of Muslims.

Unless, we reintroduce the nuance of the multi-culturalism and multi-sect / sub-sectism in our national discourse, the nation risks becoming inflexible to the point of breaking. Once Hindus and Muslims realize that they are not Hindustanis or Indians as the Persians and Greeks called us, and the Dalits realize that they are not the only Mulanivasis as the Indologists made them believe, they will attempt to rediscover their roots and re-position their shared identity with the sub-continent at the centre.

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Lakshmi Prasad Jonnalagadda
Lakshmi Prasad Jonnalagadda
Deeply passionate about India. Blogs at
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