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India, through the ages and beyond

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There are as many views and images of India as many authorities are willing to give their opinion on this living entity. Here, India has been referred to as a living entity because the Idea of India is just like a living organism- it is continuously evolving and it cannot live dormant. It is bound to change and has a history of its own, such as, India as a civilization, as a subcontinent, as the land beyond river Indus, the land of bubbling diversity, the land of snake charmers, an erstwhile colony and a modern nation-state. All these ideas of India go on to prove the historicity, diversity and dynamism attached to India.

W. Norman Brown, an Indologist stated:

“Since the third millennium B.C. India has had a highly developed civilization, and when we can see that this had a continuity through successive periods with many variations from then to the present…. Yet there must be something which in each successive periodic reincarnation of the civilisation has caused the new existence of the civilisation, something which in terms of the Buddhist doctrinal analogy corresponds to consciousness.”

This quote rightly explains the nature of Indian civilization and one of the causes for its cultural continuity and sustenance: consciousness. The consciousness of belonging to one entity called India which is not merely political and not merely a nation but a living entity vulnerable to change.

Here, the term entity is used and not the term ‘nation’. This is because the idea of India as a nation is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the corridors of the time leading to this phenomenon has a complex constitution of their own. Using the term nation is to look at the constitution of the idea of India very narrowly. So, the consciousness of belonging to one entity automatically subsumes nationalism. Therefore, then, the consciousness of belonging is not limited to the goosebumps that one gets during the course of India’s National Anthem, or the consciousness that manifests itself in the form of overwhelming support during India v/s Pakistan cricket match. It is much vaster phenomenon that is historical in nature.

Now, one of the many historical example of this consciousness that will be used in this essay to a great length can be cited from the Vishnu Purana, which is a Brahmanical source. The Vishnu Purana refers to “the land to the south of the Himalayas and north of the ocean as Bharata and ‘all born in it are called the Bhartiyas’.” The Brahmans were aware of “Aryavarta as a cultural region.” 

This example is not only an excellent example of geographical awareness, but also of geographical consciousness. The Brahmans were aware of their geographical surroundings (actually the whole subcontinent given the description clearly mentions two extreme locations) and also prescribed a name to this landmass and an identity to the people of this subcontinent. They were also conscious of sharing the same language and heritage with their fellow caste- men throughout the subcontinent.

A clear opposition arises to this argument revolving around the fact that the Brahmans weren’t the only ‘Indians’ at that point of time. But what opposition forgets is that Brahmans held a high position in the Indian society and thus had authority over the people of this subcontinent at one point of time or another. This is evident in John Malcom’s observation of Maharashtran Brahmans in the 19th century and power they wielded:

“…..some general feelings seem to unite them (Indians) and of these the more instructed part (Brahmans) of the community understand how to take full advantage whenever it suits their purpose.”

One more way this consciousness could have been widespread is by virtue of being a part of Brahmanical ideology.

Brahmanical ideology, in Ainslie Thomas Embree’s work Imaging India: Essays in Indian history has been characterised as a dominant ideology and also a unifying linkage that socially and ideologically held the subcontinent together. For Vincent Smith, a historian who attempted to write history of India during the colonial times, the ‘deep underlying fundamental unity’ of the Indian civilization was due to Hinduism. But it was Embree who pointed out that what smith recognised as the reason for fundamental unity wasn’t Hinduism but practices that he characterised as ‘Hindu’, thus it was Brahmanical Ideology that acted as the unifying linkage in the diverse subcontinent of India.

Ashok Rudra, an economist while talking about feudalism in Indian society and how starkly different it was (and is) from the Western feudal organization remarked:

“what is special about India is the stupendous success that was achieved by ideology.” 

The ideology that Ashok Rudra is talking about is Brahmanical worldview of a hierarchical social organisation where the idea of dharma was used to reinforce class divisions rather than violence which was the sole instrument to harden class division lines in western societies .

Considering the consciousness or the sense of belongingness to India as a unifying linkage, one can surely assert that this consciousness might have decreased or increased in its concentration throughout the subcontinent (differing regionally). And the nature of the entity (within political from kingdom(s) to empires to colony to nation).

The sense of belonging to one entity or consciousness is imperative for the idea of India to exist in the first place, and is thus, an integral component of the idea itself. This Internal Consciousness of belonging to one entity, however, doesn’t (and can’t) act in isolation. It needs external consciousness to negate it so that internal consciousness can defend itself and comeback with greater vigour. The emergence of the nationalist discourse in opposition to colonial discourse is one such case. The colonial discourse, while negating the existence of unity in the Indian subcontinent by referring to India as a “political artifact of the British,” unknowingly sowed the seeds of nationalist discourse. The Indian National Congress meeting in 1885, as well as the Indian nationalists writing about the reality of Indian unity and its historicity, are examples of how the nationalist discourse critiqued the divisive forces of colonial discourse and how nationalists aroused the consciousness of being Indian simultaneously asserting the possibility of the Idea of India as a Nation.

While addressing a gathering in Punjab in 1983 former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi said:“It takes years to build a house, but only seconds to destroy it.”

Here, Mrs. Gandhi was referring to the Khalistan Movement that emerged in Punjab demanding nationhood. While condemning separatism as something anti- national, Mrs Gandhi put forth an analogy where India is a house and the process of Nation building is truly cumbersome. Destroying a nation as diverse as India, however isn’t that difficult. This was aimed at arousing nationalism (a constituent of consciousness) in hearts of Punjabi People.

Consciousness and constant effort share a bidirectional relationship. In some cases, the constant effort arouses consciousness and in some cases, there is a constant effort because there Is a consciousness in the first place. Hence, the oneness of this living entity India is maintained through constant effort to revive the consciousness of being Indian, and vice versa. The constitution of the Idea of India is precisely that the intermingling of external and internal consciousness, with a constant effort to maintain oneness.

Just Perceiving the constitution of the Idea of India as unity in diversity is to look at only the tip of the iceberg. The Idea of India, therefore is a nuanced structure composed of often opposing and complementing tendencies, coupled with persistent attempts to emphasise fraternity.

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