During the lunch break of a training programme for corporate executives earlier this week, one of the topics that came up for informal discussion around the lunch table was whether India as a nation is a creation of the British or not. One view expressed was that it is since India as a nation did not exist as a single entity before the British conquered our land and made it part of the empire.
Of course, this is a widely held view and one that the British wanted us Indians to believe, or rather insisted that Indians accept and be grateful to the British for. However, the facts are very different. While it is true that ancient India was divided into several independent states and was ruled by different kings, this is true of the history of most modern nations in the world. But in spite of this, the concept of a unified India did exist, with geographical boundaries that correspond to the present state of India, apart from the parts that have since become separate nations, like Pakistan and Bangla Desh, for instance.
For those who have doubts about this, I am giving below the description of India as given in the Mahabharata, an epic that was written in the 4th millennium BC according to one widely held view and much later according to another, though not later than the Gupta period. In the Mahabharata description, India is called Bharatavarsha, which is a name still used, more so in its shortened form Bharata or Bharat, which is one of the two official names for India today.
The excerpt given below is from KM Ganguli’s translation of the Mahabharata. The translation was done in the last years of the 19th century. KM Ganguly died in 1896. The excerpt quoted is Chapter IX in the Bhishma Parva of the epic. I am quoting the chapter in its entirety. I have made some minor changes in spellings, necessitated mostly by Ganguly’s frequent use of ‘v’ where it should have been a ‘b’ or ‘bh’, as in Suvala/Subala and Rishava/Rishabha, for instance.
Incidentally, this is a topic I have had to discuss several times in the past. Years ago when I used to teach in an Education college, I had to counter the same argument by many of my students there. The myth that India is a creation of the British seems to be an enduring one.
Dhritarashtra said,--'Tell me truly (O Sanjaya) of this Varsha that is called after Bharata, where this senseless force hath been collected, in respect of which this my son Duryodhana hath been so very covetous, which the sons of Pandu also are desirous of obtaining, and in which my mind too sinketh. O, tell me this, for thou art, in my judgment endued with intelligence.’
Sanjaya said,--'Listen to me, O king. The sons of Pandu are not covetous about this country. On the other hand, it is Duryodhana that is covetous, and Sakuni the son of Subala, as also many other Kshatriyas who are rulers of the provinces, who being covetous of this country are not able to bear one another. I will now tell thee, O thou of Bharata's race, of the tract of land known by Bharata's name. This land is the beloved one of Indra, and, O thou of Bharata's race. This land, O monarch, that is called after Bharata, is also the beloved land of Manu, the son of Vivaswat, of Prithu, of Vainya, of the high-souled Ikshwaku, of Yayati, of Ambarisha, of Mandhata, of Nahusha, of Muchukunda, of Sibi the son of Usinara, of Rishabha, of Ila, of king Nriga, of Kusika, O invincible one, of the high-souled Gadhi, of Somaka, O irrepressible one, and of Dilipa, and also, O monarch, of many other mighty Kshatriyas. I will now, O chastiser of foes, describe to thee that country as I have heard of it. Listen to me, O king, as I speak of what thou hast asked me.
‘Mahendra, Malaya, Sahya, Suktimat, Rakshavat, Vindhya, and Paripatra, --these seven are the Kala-mountains (of Bharatvarsha). Besides these, O king, there are thousands of mountains that are unknown, of hard make, huge, and having excellent valleys. Besides these there are many other smaller mountains inhabited by barbarous tribes.
‘Aryans and Mlecchas, O Kauravya, and many races, O lord, mixed of the two elements, drink the waters of the following rivers, viz., magnificent Ganga, Sindhu, and Saraswati; of Godavari, and Narmada, and the large river called Yamuna; of Dhrishadwati, and Vipapa, and Vipasa and Sthulavaluka; of the river Vetravati, and that other one called Krishna-vena; of Iravati, and Vitasta, and Payosyini, and Devika; of Vedasmrita and Vedavati, and Tridiva, and Ikshumalavi; of Karishini, and Chitravaha, and the river called Chitrasena; of Gomati, and Dhutapada and the large river called Gandaki, of Kausiki, and Nischitra, and Kirtya, and Nichita, and Lohatarini; of Rashasi and Satakumbha, and also Sarayu; of Charmanwati, and Vetravati, and Hastisoma, and Disa; of the river called Saravati, and Venna, and Bhimarathi; of Kaveri, and Chuluka, and Vina, and Satavala; of Nivara, and Mahila, and Suprayoga, O king; of Pavitra, and Kundala, and Rajani, and Puramalini; of Purvabhirama, and Vira, and Bhima, and Oghavati; of Palasini, and Papahara, and Mahendra, and Patalavati, and Asikni, and the large river Kusachira: of Makari, and Pravara, and Mena, and Hema, and Dhritavati; of Puravati, and Anushna, and Saivya, and Kapi, O Bharata; of Sadanira, and Adhrishya, and the mighty stream Kusadhara; of Sadakanta, and Siva, and Viravati; of Vatsu, and Suvastu, and Kampana with Hiranwati; of Vara, and the mighty river Panchami, of Rathachitra, and Jyotiratha, and Viswamitra, and Kapinjala; of Upendra, and Vahula, and Kuchira, and Madhuvahini: of Vinadi, and Pinjala, and Vena, and the great river Pungavena; of Vidisa and Krishna-vena, and Tamra, and Kapila, of Salu, and Suvama, the Vedaswa, and the mighty river Harisrava; of Sighra, and Pischala, and the river Bharadwaji, of the river Kausiki, and Sona, and Chandrama; of Durgamantrasila, and Brahma-vodhya, and Vrihadvati; of Yaksha, and Rohi, and Yamvunadi; of Sunasa and Tamasa, and Dasi, and Vasa, and Varuna, and Asi; of Nila, and Dhrimati, and the mighty river Parnasa; of Pomasi, and Vrishabha, and Brahma-meddhya, and Brihaddhani.
‘These and many other large rivers, O king, such as Sadonirmaya and Krishna, and Mandaga, and Mandavahini; and Mahagouri, and Durga, O Bharata; and Chitropala. Chitraratha, and Manjula, and Vahini; and Mandakini, and Vaitarani, and Kosa, and Mahanadi; and Suktimati, and Ananga, and Pushpaveni, and Utpalavati; and Lohitya, Karatoya, and Vrishasabhya; and Kumari, and Rishikullya and Marisha, and Saraswati; and Mandakini, and Supunya, Sarvasanga, O Bharata, are all mothers of the universe and productive of great merit. Besides these, there are rivers, by hundreds and thousands, that are not known (by names), I have now recounted to thee, O king, all the rivers as far as I remember.
‘After this, listen to the names of the provinces as I mention them. They are the Kuru-Panchalas, the Salwas, the Madreyas, the Jangalas, the Surasena, the Kalingas, the Vodhas, the Malas, the Matsyas, the Saubalyas, the Kuntalas, the Kasi-kosalas, the Chedis, the Karushas, the Bhojas, the Sindhus, the Pulindakas, the Uttamas, the Dasarnas, the Mekalas, the Utkalas; the Panchalas, the Kausijas, the Nikarprishthas, Dhurandharas; the Sodhas, the Madrabhujingas, the Kasis, and the further-Kasis; the Jatharas, the Kukuras, O Bharata; the Kuntis, the Avantis, and the further-Kuntis; the Gomantas, the Mandakas, the Shandas, the Vidarbhas, the Rupavahikas; the Aswakas, the Pansurashtras, the Goparashtras, and the Karityas; the Adhirjayas, the Kuladyas, the Mallarashtras, the Keralas, the Varatrasyas, the Apavahas, the Chakras,the Vakratapas, the Sakas; the Videhas, the Magadhas, the Swakshas, the Malayas, the Vijayas, the Angas, the Vangas, the Kalingas, the Yakrillomans; the Mallas, the Suddellas, the Pranradas, the Mahikas, the Sasikas; the Valhikas, the Vatadhanas, the Abhiras, the Kalajoshakas; the Aparantas, the Parantas, the Pahnabhas, the Charmamandalas; the Atavisikharas, the Mahabhutas, O sire; the Upavrittas, the Anupavrittas, the Surashatras, Kekayas; the Kutas, the Maheyas, the Kakshas, the Samudranishkutas; the Andhras, and, O king, many hilly tribes, and many tribes residing on lands laying at the foot of the hills, and the Angamalajas, and the Manavanjakas; the Pravisheyas, and the Bhargavas, O king; the Pundras, the Bhargas, the Kiratas, the Sudeshnas, and the Yamunas, the Sakas, the Nishadhas, the Anartas, the Nairitas, the Durgalas, the Pratimasyas, the Kuntalas, and the Kusalas; the Tiragrahas, the Ijakas, the Kanyakagunas, the Tilabharas, the Samiras, the Madhumattas, the Sukandakas; the Kasmiras, the Sindhusauviras, the Gandharvas, and the Darsakas; the Abhisaras, the Utulas, the Saivalas, and the Valhikas; the Darvis, the Vanavadarvas, the Vatagas, the Amarathas, and the Uragas; the Vahuvadhas, the Kauravyas, the Sudamanas, the Sumalikas; the Vadhras, the Karishakas, the Kalindas, and the Upatyakas; the Vatayanas, the Romanas, and the Kusavindas; the Kacchas, the Gopalkacchas, the Kuruvarnakas; the Kiratas, the Varvasas, the Siddhas, the Vaidehas, and the Tamraliptas; the Aundras, the Paundras, the Saisikatas, and the Parvatiyas, O sire.
‘There are other kingdoms, O bull of Bharata's race, in the south. They are the Dravidas, the Keralas, the Prachyas, the Mushikas, and the Vanavasikas; the Karanatakas, the Mahishakas, the Vikalpas, and also the Mushakas; the Jhillikas, the Kuntalas, the Saunridas, and the Nalakananas; the Kankutakas, the Cholas, and the Malavayakas; the Samangas, the Kanakas, the Kukkuras, and the Angara-marishas; the Samangas, the Karakas, the Kukuras, the Angaras, the Marishas: the Dhwajinis, the Utsavas, the Sanketas, the Trigartas, and the Salwasena; the Vakas, the Kokarakas, the Pashtris, and the Lamavegavasas; the Vindhyachulakas, the Pulindas, and the Valkalas; the Malavas, the Vallavas, the further-Vallavas, the Kulindas, the Kalavas, the Kuntaukas, and the Karatas; the Mrishakas, the Tanavalas, the Saniyas; the Alidas, the Pasivatas, the Tanayas, and the Sulanyas; the Rishikas, the Vidarbhas, the Kakas, the Tanganas, and the further-Tanganas. Among the tribes of the north are the Mlecchas, and the Kruras, O best of the Bharatas; the Yavanas, the Chinas, the Kamvojas, the Darunas, and many Mleccha tribes; the Sukritvahas, the Kulatthas, the Hunas, and the Parasikas; the Ramanas, and the Dasamalikas. These countries are, besides, the abodes of many Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Sudra tribes.
‘Then again there are the Sudra-abhiras, the Dardas, the Kasmiras, and the Pattis; the Khasiras; the Atreyas, the Bharadwajas, the Stanaposhikas, the Poshakas, the Kalingas, and diverse tribes of Kiratas; the Tomaras, the Hansamargas, and the Karamanjakas. These and other kingdoms are on the east and on the north.
‘O lord, alluding to them briefly I have told thee all. Earth, if its resources are properly developed according to its qualities and prowess, is like an ever-yielding cow, from which the three-fold fruits of virtue, profit and pleasure, may be milked. Brave kings conversant with virtue and profit have become covetous of Earth. Endued with activity, they would even cast away their lives in battle, from hunger of wealth. Earth is certainly the refuge of creatures endued with celestial bodies as also of creatures endued with human bodies. Desirous of enjoying Earth, the kings, O chief of the Bharatas, have become like dogs that snatch meat from one another. Their ambition is unbounded, knowing no gratification. It is for this that the Kurus and the Pandavas are striving for possession of Earth, by negotiation, disunion, gift, and battle, O Bharata.
‘If Earth be well looked after, it becometh the father, mother, children, firmament and heaven, of all creatures, O bull among men.'
So this is how Sanjaya describes Bharatavarsha to Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata. As even a casual reading will, mountains, rivers and nation-states from every part of what we call India today, and many that are outside the boundaries of today’s India, have been mentioned in the list. This India described in the Mahabhrata is definitely not a British creation.
There are numerous other arguments to prove that India as a nation existed millennia before the British ‘gifted’ it to us. But of them, maybe some other time.