Bharat or India or both or more?

© Surajit Dasgupta

Part: I 

(“Bharat” is appropriate, perfect and wonderful, but here is why “India” should not be dropped. Please visit my timeline and read the other posts in the series too.)

It’s a widely held misconception here that our country alone has been subjected to a variety of names, which some people now wish to ‘correct’. There are separate names for any given ancient or mediaeval nation in different languages. In fact, being referred to by various names is an indicator of a nation’s antiquity. If your country does not have more than one name, maybe yours is a relatively new country, formed in the modern era.

Consider what the French call different countries:

Bharat/India: l’Inde

England: l’Angleterre

Germany: l’Allemagne

Spain: l’Espagne

Russia: la Russie

China: la Chine

Japan: le Japon


In Arabic, our country is Hind, Egypt is Misr, England is Eenkiltira, China is al Siyn etc.

Now consider countries that did not exist before the 20th century. None has more than one name, whatever be the language. Pakistan is nothing but “Pakistan” in all languages of the world.

Part: II

This second part deals with the inevitable confusion that will arise in orthography and phonetics of the Roman-scripted भारत. 

1. A large part of south India cannot pronounce the voiced labial plosive aspirate “bh”. 

2. Since the terminal “t” is dental, will south Indians turn the spelling into “Bharath”?

3. To differentiate between अ and आ, will some people spell it as “Bhaarat” or use a diacritic to mark the open-mouthed “a” — “Bhārat”?

4. The “a” between “r” and “t” is pronounced “o” in Bengali. 

5. Finally, there is the never-ending debate over the terminal sound (with or without vowel accompaniment) — should it be Bhā-rat/भा-रत, as Hindi speakers say it, or Bhā-ra-ta/भा-र-त, as it used to be pronounced by ancient Indians in Sanskrit? [Think of how you sing the national anthem: it’s “bhā-ra-TA bhā-gya vi-dhā-tā” and not “bhā-ra-T bhā-gya vi-dhā-tā”. But when the word appears in a normal sentence of Hindi, it is Bhā-rat.]

Now, why this is not merely an academic issue.

On 26 July 2018, the West Bengal assembly passed a resolution to change the state’s name to “Bangla” from West Bengal. The resolution was sent to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs for approval. Almost a full year later, on 3 July 2019, the Centre rejected the name change because the state had proposed three names in three different languages — “Bangla” (বাংলা) in Bengali, “Bengal” in English and “Bangal” (बंगाल) in Hindi.

If variations in the name of a given place are not acceptable, why should south Indians accept the spelling “Bharat” and why should north Indians accept “Bharath”? Why should Bengalis accept either, as they pronounce the second vowel as ‘o’? Why must puritans of Sanskrit accept the absence of an ‘a’ in the end? Etc

When I shared this sentiment on X, several people pounced on me with stupid replies and quotes, mostly missing the point entirely. Most challenges thrown at me were, in effect, vindication of my point that the search for a singular name for the country is elusive.

Finally, if the Government of India is seriously thinking of formally stating that our country should be referred to as “Bharat” alone, it would smack of poor education (of history and linguistic studies). Instances such as these bolster the impression that our side is not as intellectually evolved as the left.

Think of China passing a resolution in its parliament, saying it should be referred to only as “Zhōngguó” or Germany saying it can only be called “Deutschland”! Is there any need for that?

किसी ने बोला कि अरे ये colonial है, और सब भागे इसको देशी बनाने के लिए! “कौआ कान ले गया” की तरह! अरे भाई, विषय का थोड़ा अध्ययन तो कर लो!

The name “India” is much older than British Raj. It first appeared in print in Latin books around CE 1000. Latin speakers learned the word from the Greeks, who called our nation “Indía” (note the diacritic on the second “i”), equivalent to Indós, “the Indus river”. That, in turn, came from Old Persian “Hindu”, literally referring to the river Sindhu with a cognate.

पहले भाग में मैं कह चुका हूं कि किसी देश के कई नाम होना उसकी प्राचीनता को दर्शाता है। क्योंकि जब आपका राष्ट्र प्राचीन होता है तो विश्व भर में उसकी पहचान होती है, और तब भिन्न-भिन्न भाषाएं बोलने वाले आपके देश का आख्यान भिन्न-भिन्न नामों से करते हैं, जबकि नए-नए बने किसी देश का एक ही नाम होता है। पाकिस्तान को यहूदी, स्वाहिली, स्पैनिश, फ्रांसीसी, चीनी, जापानी, मलय, पुर्तगाली, रूसी आदि सभी भाषाओं में केवल और केवल “पाकिस्तान” ही कहेंगे, और यह पाकिस्तानियों के लिए कोई गर्व का विषय नहीं है।

Part: III

The complete etymology of “India”

Sanskrit सिंधु — Old Persian 𐏃𐎡𐎯𐎢𐏁(Hindus)/Classical Persian هند — Greek Ἰνδός (Indós/Indus) — Greek Ἰνδία (Indía) — Latin India — Old English Indea and Old French Ynde — Middle English Inde (also French Inde) and Ynde.

The Book of Esther part of the Jewish Tanakh and Christian Old Testament mention our nation as הֹדּוּ (Hodû) in Biblical Hebrew.

These are all derivatives of सिंधु. And these derivations happened long before India was colonised. As I have said before in this series, the existence of multiple names of a given nation in different languages indicates it’s an old civilisation whereas all languages referring to a country by only one name suggests the country was formed in the modern era; it did not exist in the ancient times. 

For, with the passage of time, languages lost their ability to name newly coined words in their respective native ways without translating. This is why these days people speaking any language refer to a given invention by one internationally accepted word; while the rest of the sentence is in the native parlance, the terminology is what the scientist says it is. For example, people may try translating “computer” in their respective classical-era languages, but no translation will gain more currency than “computer”. But ask any Arab what this country is in his language, and he’ll say Hind, which is a derivation, not a translation.

It should be clear from the etymology that “India” and “Hindu” are related words. If we have a problem with “India”, should we not stop associating ourselves with “Hindu” too due to the Persian connection? Should the Sangh Parivar rename its constituent Vishwa Hindu Parishad as Vishwa Bharat Parishad? Have we ceased to be Hindu?

Part: IV

In the previous parts, I have explained how “India” and “Hindu” have the same root. What follows is how the word changed/evolved. You’ll see “India” is not only pre-colonial and pre-invasion, it is even pre-Christian and pre-Islam.

Sometime between 850 and 600 years before Christ, when the ancestors of present-day Iranians spoke Proto-Iranian, the phone of ‘s’ changed to ‘h’. Thus, in the inscription of Darius I, 600 years before Christ, River Sindhu was mentioned as “Hindu” as a geographical term to describe people who lived beyond (to the east of) the river that the Greeks had already described as Indós (Romanised Ἰνδός, written in English nowadays as “Indus”) due to their own phonetic interpretation of “Sindhu”, from where Megasthenes (who lived 350 to 290 years before Christ) titled his travelogue Indica. 

It is possible that the Greeks hadn’t directly interpreted Sindhu as Indós. Rather, Sindhu became 𐏃𐎡𐎯𐎢𐏁(Hidūš) first in Old Persian, from which it turned into Indós in Greek. Remember, Darius I (550 to 486 years before Christ) came generations before Megasthenes.

Now, where exactly was the change of the phone of ‘s’ registered? It was “heptahindu” in Avesta, the holy text of Parsis who interpreted the Rigvedic “saptasindhu” in their peculiar way. Around this time, the Arabs began referring to this land as “ال ہند”(al Hind), based on their learning of pre-Islamic Persian. A subsequent kingdom of the Sasanids turned it “hndstn”, a word without vowels, and pronounced it Hindustan, roughly 300 years after Christ. However, none of these descriptors — from 600 BC to AD 300 — would cover the whole map of India as we know today, let alone the geographical extent to which Maurya Emperor Ashoka’s territory, Hinduism or Buddhism spread (present-day Afghanistan to Cambodia) in the ancient world. 

The Delhi Sultanate in the 13th century began calling this nation “Hindustan”, meaning “the land of Hindus” (not religion-wise), and the Mughals who succeeded them popularised the term even further. It’s important to note here that even as late as Bahadur Shah Zafar in the 19th century, Persian derivatives “Hind”, “Hindu” and “Hindustan” in official communication hardly referred to the indigenous religion (or conglomerate of religions). But as Persian lost currency in the Indian populace, and they switched to the homemade Urdu, it acquired an added connotation of religion, as can be seen in letters written in personal capacity by poets of the era such as Mirza Asadullah Khan Baig ‘Ghalib’.

However, these men of the 19th century were hardly the first or the only people to suggest “Hindu” was a follower of a certain religion. Centuries ago, ‘Record of the Western Regions’, a Chinese text by Xuanzang had said it in the 7th century. Late Mughals were not even the first Muslims to say “Hindu” was a religion. ‘Abd al Malik Isami had done that in the 14th century in his Persian text Futuhu’s-salatin. And Hindus themselves did it too! “Hindu” in Gaudiya Vaishnava texts written between the 16th and 18th century in Bengali was a religious demography; the descriptor meant “not a mlechchha”. Then Christians did it. In the 18th century, English, French, Dutch and Portuguese traders began to refer to the followers of Indian religions collectively as Hindus. Specifically in the written form of the English language, Raja Rammohun Roy was the first to use it in the years 1816 and 17.

But then, there was a section of Hindus for whom “Hindu” was neither a geographical term nor a marker of religion. They were rulers and subjects of princely states that began opposing British colonialism as a collective force by 1840 while maintaining that they were not Muslims or Christians. Finally, the British classified communities by religion. Until then, Indians never cared to define themselves exclusively as followers of a religion, but the consciousness of sampradaya (sect) was strong as was that of varna (vocational proclivity) and jāti (birth-based occupational identity).

Reading so far, did you notice how reading about “India” led you to reading about “Hindu”?

Anyway, let’s study the etymology of “Bharat” too. Sanskrit Bhārata or Bhāratavarsha never covered the whole of today’s or Maurya period’s India either. The Mahābhārata does cover the landmass between present-day Iran/Afghanistan and present-day Cambodia, but was that a nation? Not sure. It was a civilisation, no doubt. Since they were all parts of the same civilisation, they came from these faraway lands to participate in the Kurukshetra war (Shalya Parva). At the same time, there are indications that we did not consider every culture to be our own. A certain Kaliya had attacked Mathura, in search of Krishna, empowered by the boon that Krishna couldn’t slay him. Now why was this character called Kaliya Yavana? “Yavana” in Sanskrit referred not only to Greeks and Arabs of the time, it essentially translated to “aliens”, which means those were separate cultures/civilisations/people.

Eventually, as we draw close to the present times from ancient to mediaeval to modern history, or from Sanskrit to Prakrit to branches thereof, “Bharat” gradually begins to include all the princely states where some sect of Hindus live, in several instances co-habiting with Muslims and Christians. 

There is an excellent book, “Rethinking Hindu Identity” by Dwijendra Narayan Jha, that explains the limits as well as expanse of the terms “Bharat” and “India” as much as it puts in the right perspective the evolving meaning of “Hindu”. For additional reference, one may read Ian J Barrow’s “From Hindustan to India — Naming Change in Changing Names”.

Denying any part of history may limit your geography too, mind you.

(Disclaimer: The Opinions expressed in the above article is purely personal.)

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