Bharat – A Civilization State

Bharat during Mahabharata times https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7651e.ct000605/

Recently the Member of Parliament from Wayanad, Kerala, stated that India is just a union of states. The mischievous subtext is that India is not a single nation but a collection of various nations like Europe. It also implies that the country is an artificial construct with nothing unifying the various states and territories.

This is not a new allegation. The MP from Wayanad had some illustrious predecessors. John Stratchley (some British dude) said, “The first and most essential thing to learn about India — that there is not and never was an India .” Winston Churchill (the British dude responsible for the Bengal genocide) said, “India is a geographical term. It is no more a nation than the equator.”

India, that is Bharat

India was a nation in ways these people could never fathom. The concept of Bharat has been alive for many millennia and has culturally united this land. Ancient Hindus understood this. They made pilgrimages to various holy places around Bharat. Students understood this. They traveled around to get the best education. Saints understood this. Adi Shankara established various mutts are four corners of Bharat. Besides them, our grammarians understood this and united the country with Samskritam.

In this article, we will look at evidence of these. I will be relying on the narratives of some historians you would have never heard of, like Har Bilas Sarda, Radha Kumud Mookerji, and R. C. Majumdar. I picked the summary of their arguments from J Sai Deepak’s excellent book India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution. I will also rely on what my Samskritam teachers taught me about Paninian grammar.

Bharat as a civilization state

Going to Triveni Sangam

A few years back, I went from Kerala to participate in the Kumbh Mela. I was among the millions of Indians walking along the banks of Ganga and Yamuna for the holy bath. Our boat to the Triveni Sangam had people from Rajasthan and Bengal. Though we were from three corners of the country, we all had the same reverence for Ganga and Yamuna and faith that the Saraswati met the other rivers at the Sangam.

There are two aspects here. The first is that people across the land venerated the geography of Bharat. Rivers, mountains, hills — all have a sacred story and are remembered in hymns and prayers. The nation itself is revered as a mother. This is quite different from how the West views nature.

The second: people traveled across the land for pilgrimages. Visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. The lack of physical comforts did not stop anyone. During these long trips, pilgrims took breaks, creating a network of numerous sacred spots. These pilgrims did not think of the country as different nations but as a unified cultural entity extending from the Himalayas to the oceans. This combination of nature and faith generated patriotism and cultural unity, of which the Kumbh Mela is a perfect example.

These pilgrimage spots were centers of higher learning as well. Think of Benares, Nalanda, Mathura, Takshashila, Ujjain, Prayag, Kanchi, Madhura, and Nawadwaip. Students from all over Bharat went to study at these places. With pilgrimage spots and learning centers unifying this land, it is no wonder that Chaitanya and Adi Shankara traveled from one end of Bharat to another. If there was no cultural unity, establishing four mutts at the four corners of Bharat would not make sense.

These indicate that the people of Bharat had an expanded geographical consciousness irrespective of the political boundary of the kingdom they lived in. There was a civilizational oneness despite the diversity, and this unity existed before the invaders and colonizers showed up. This unity exists even now. Thus Adi Shankara was not limited in his Malayali identity but had geographical consciousness to treat Bharat as one cultural unit.

Unification through Samskritam grammar

Panini’s Ashtadyayi

There is the story of a child who went to the gurukul and found the going quite hard. He wanted to quit. So the father told him, “Even if you don’t study a lot, please study vyākaraṇam. Else, instead of saying swajana (my people), you might say shva-jana (dog) or instead of saying sakalam (everything), you might say shakalam (part)”. Pronunciation and intonation are important; else, the meaning will be unintended and sometimes the exact opposite.

Among the six Vedangas, vyākaraṇa or grammar, is considered the most important by Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashyam. Among the grammarians, Panini is the most famous for many reasons:

1. He organized Samskritam using brilliant techniques with four thousand sutras. Just look at the concept of pratyahara, an elegant and impressive in-memory language compression technique.

2. He incorporated the works of other Shakalya, Sphotaka, Senaka, and other grammarians into his work.

3. He did not just mention how words are formed but also their meaning and relation.

Due to Panini, vyakarana-darshana became an important field of study.

But beyond these, there are two crucial points where Panini shined.

 Panini’s grammar has sutras for both Vedic Samskritam and non-Vedic Samskritam. For example, the plural form of देवः is देवाः in Samskritam, while it’s देवासः in Vedic Samskritam. Panini’s grammar has a sutra to address this. In Samskritam, there is a word called jahāra, whereas, in the Vedic texts, it’s used as jabhāra. If no grammar specified the rules, someone reading this could assume it as a typo and rewrite the word. Due to this guardrail, the Vedas remain like a tape recording from millennia back. This is why we say vyākaraṇam protects the Vedas.

Why does this matter? If not for this protection, a naughty Samskritam professor at Harvard could declare that the rishis made a typo in the Vedas. He could declare that the Harvard version of Vedas will fix this, and anyone who does not follow that is anti-minority and a Hindu nationalist. I am not kidding about this. Here is a case where the Vedas were misinterpreted to support the Aryan Invasion Theory. The preservation of personal names in Rig Veda has helped us understand how the various tribes migrated, giving a radically different view of the ancient world. Now, Panini could have left the Vedic Samskritam alone. That was language from a distant past. Instead, he saw a cultural continuity from the past use of language to his present. 

Panini was aware of Samskritam used in different parts of India and their variations. So, he integrated all the variations into this grammar. If he just cared about his political boundary, he could have ignored the regional usage at a distant place. But he did not. He had the geographical consciousness to see that all these lands were part of one unified cultural unit. The political boundaries have changed in various ways since the time of Panini. However, the land of Bharata still has the same name and culture since those times.

Finally

The British treated Bharat as a collection of countries in a Eurocentric way. But that view does not work for India because we did not operate on European concepts of nation and state. India bounded by the majestic mountains and vast oceans was designated by one name – Bharat. The geography was marked out by nature itself. If you think of the concept of nation as a monochromatic picture, India is a civilization drawn with a dazzling array of colors. In this civilization state, there was cultural unity within a federation of creeds. Each of them had the freedom to preserve their special features and enrich the central culture.

By parroting old British propaganda, the Member of Parliament from Wayanad is just following the path of his great-grand father who wrote The Discovery of India which discovered India, but not Bharat.

Book Review: Calling Sehmat

Book: Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka

Calling Sehmet
Calling Sehmat

In 1971, as the tensions between India and Pakistan were rising, the college girl Sehmat Khan agrees to marry a Pakistani Army officer to spy for India. It was a career chosen out of necessity, but she ends up being so good at it that she saved INS Vikrant from destruction. This is not fiction, but the story of a real life patriotic Indian, whose life was so extraordinary, that you would think it’s all made up. As she goes through her journey from a simple college girl to a spy who lived with the sole purpose of safeguarding India, you will find yourself in awe. She was the most beautiful Indian spy who single-handedly ravaged Pakistan’s security system.

The best part of the book is that it gives a well rounded portrayal of Sehmat as she goes through various phases of her life. A quarter of the book is about her college life which shows initial glimpses of her determination and passion. She got selected for a dance competition in which she was to portray Meerabai. She had seen her mother pray to Meerabai and for being the character, she spent hours in the college library, reading all about her. She danced with such intensity and absorption that she did not notice that her legs were bleeding.

Her transformation from college girl to a spy was to honor the wishes of her dying father who had instilled patriotism in her. Her philosophy was “there is no greater reward than to live and die for your country”, a lesson she got from her father. He had told her that there is nothing more disgraceful than being disloyal to the motherland. As a businessman who traveled across the border, he was instrumental in setting up a spy network in Pakistan.

Then you see another Sehmat, who sacrifices her college lover and moves to Pakistan. Her down to earth demeanor and good intentions earn her the trust of her immediate family, her father-in-law and her husband. It was due to her cleverness that they got promoted in their jobs and had career advances. It was during one scan of her father-in-laws office that she found the files which suggested that Pakistani submarines were targeting INS Vikrant.

Living behind enemy lines is not easy. The intelligence gathering techniques of 1971 could not be done remotely; it required acts of courage. The intricacies of these techniques and dangers it entails are covered well. There were many times she could have been exposed and she triumphs over those circumstances with her quick thinking. She even miraculously escaped including a bomb attack. She was a person who planned two steps ahead all the time and that saved her.

Eventually when she settled back in India, the pictures on her house demonstrated her beliefs. Her house had pictures of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Ram Prasad Bismil and Khudiram Bose. In her private space she worshipped Allah, Ganesha, Krishna, Jesus and Wahe Guru. She was fascinated by Meerabai’s hymns.

I finished the book only because it’s inspiring to read about such unknown heroes. The book explores her fortitude and unwavering loyalty to India during a time of war. The initial part of the book about Sehmat’s simple life, her marriage and her activities in Pakistan are paced very well. The writing itself is really plain and starts meandering towards the end. It could have used multiple rewrites with a good editor.. I am not even sure why one chapter of a failed Indian navy attack was described. That would have been better in an appendix or could be the matter for another book.

Despite all the courageous self-assurance displayed by Sehmat during her mission, her life ends in tragedy. Well almost. Memories of the ruthless things she had to do haunt her. Since her life in Pakistan was messy, chaotic and non-formulaic, she ends up suffering from depression. The book describes her encounter with a fakir who gave her spiritual lessons from various scriptures including the Upanishads to get her out of her gloom. In turn she was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in her area and it required an intervention from RAW.

Her life was about love; to her country, to her parents and to her college mate. There is also a movie based on the book, but it leaves out multiple dimensions of Sehmat. As always, the book is better.