Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Idea of India

    Mauryan Empire Circa 265 B.C


The Indian republic maybe just 64 years old, however India as an idea has existed for nearly 5,000 years. When chiefs who ruled over the scores of tribes which inhabited India met in the battlefield outside Hastinapur (today’s Delhi) to decide who would rule over that city state – the Kaurava clan or the Pandavas, they called themselves princes of Bharat (India) and named their battle Maha- Bharata (Great Indian war).

Recent archaeo-astronomical studies, results of marine-archaeological explorations tends to place the year of the legendary war, chronicled as an epic Sanskrit poem as probably the year 1478 BC. There is still debate over that result, but more or less the epic is placed around that time and indicates that people from various parts of India shared a similar culture and considered themselves one people as early as then.

Being a sub-continent, bound by deserts to the west, high mountain ranges in the north, seas in the south and thick almost impenetrable rainforests in the east, India not only became a single geographic  entity but also a single cultural entity.

Long before the Aryans (historians place the advent of Aryan tribes at around 2,000 B.C) appeared in this sub-continent,  there was a civilisation which had advanced cities, whose ships plied the seas to connect with Egypt and Babylon, supported huge grain silos linked to ports, the people themselves (of proto-Austroloid extraction) had  fine taste in sculpture, coinage and pottery, had changing women’s fashion styles and  worshipped gods now found in Hinduism (Pashupatinath or Shiva, Mother Goddess – revered now as Tara, Durga or Kali). 

The people who lived in this civilisation (Circa 3300-2,500 B.C) spread over modern Pakistan, Gujarat, Indian Punjab, Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh, were one people, if not one nation. They could be called the earliest Indians.

However, the spread of one unitary culture, socio-religious beliefs and belief in a single national identity had much to do with the Aryan tribes who seemed to have come from the Noth West, and spread through length and breadth of the sub-continent from Himalayas in the north to the forests of Assam, Manipur and Tripura in the North east to the seas of South India. They sometimes defeated indigenous tribes, sometimes assimilated them through a web of marriages and a process described as Aryanisation – co-opting local chiefs by cooking up Aryan ancestry for them drawn from the Sun or Moon gods and assimilating local religious and cultural beliefs within the umbrella of a pan-Indian religio-culture. The unitary religion created for want of a better name was called Dharma/Dhamma (meaning: Religion) and the culture Bharatiya (Of India).

Over centuries, the Aryans mixed with the original inhabitants – a people anthropologists call the Proto-Astroloids. To this mixture were added over time sprinkling of Mongol blood (mainly from Tibet, but also from Burma, Thailand, Central Asia), Negroid blood, Semitic, Iranian-Aryan and later European blood. As a result of  this intermingling, all Indians have at least two building blocks – Proto Australoid and Aryan and possibly a third – Mongol. Most have many more ingredients. The admixture over the centuries has been such that no caste or region in India can claim to be pure this or pure that - India, the melting pot has created a unique new race – Indian.

Legends which originated in one part of India (such as Ramayana and Mahabharata or Durga), became pan-Indian with translations in local languages and dialects. Architecture, arts, dance, music and drama forms followed prescribed similarity, with local variations and embellishments.  The dress all over the country was a variation of the same dhoti and saree. The court language in principalities and chieftaincies all over the country tended to be Sanskrit or its derivative Pali. Even texts on sexual practices prescribed for the sons and daughters of the rich were the same -Kama Sutra!

When the original Aryan religion which believed in a single nameless and shapeless God who encompassed all that was within the cosmos and beyond (defined as infinity) and who could be reached through simple prayers and contemplation of nature was replaced by the new myriad worship of local  deities (co-opted by the Aryan priests) who were believed to represent the original infinite god and when simple prayers were replaced by complex rituals, animal sacrifice and possibly priestly corruption,  religious challenges came forth.

The two main early challenges came from a school called the Jaina school of philosophers – who built an austere version of the original Dharma – which has now metaporphosed into Jainism, a separate pan-Indian religion – and from Prince Siddhartha of  a little principality in the foothills of Nepal (who became Gautama Buddha after his ascetic contemplations in eastern India).

Buddha (Circa 56—480 B.C ) and his new religion (he did not describe it as a new religion or call it Buddhism, his followers eventually did and even then for a long time they too called their belief simply Dhamma, forcing adherents of the earlier religious belief to call their belief – Sanatan (eternal) Dhamma/Dharma ) soon became a pan-Indian religion, which again reinforced  a sense of oneness among Indians.

A century and a half after Buddha, India faced its first European invasion. Alexander the Great invaded the tribes living in north west India ( modern Pakistan to be precise). The short lived invasion touched just the fringes of India but impacted India greatly. The greatest power in India at that time was Magadha (modern day Bihar and parts of eastern Uttar Pradesh) – which had a huge disciplined army with separate elephant, horse and infantry corps, whose strength, some chroniclers said was one of the reasons why Alexander did not try to reach the “farthest end of the world”.

A Brahmin scholar who lived through the war in the university town of Takshshila or modern Taxila, Chanakya or Kautilya, propounded the theory that the culturally similar India needed to now politically unite as one nation to face external and internal threats. He picked as his candidate for the job of the first emperor of India, an unknown Magadhan – Chandragupta. Somehow the dreamer and schemer managed to combine and were successful in overthrowing the Nanda dynasty ruler of Magadha.

However, Chanakya’s aim was not just the throne of Magadha for his disciple, but the unification of his beloved motherland. What Garibaldi did several millenniums later, Chanakya did for India in the third century before Christ – united it under one emperor.  Chandragupta reigned over much of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Baluch province of Iran, the whole of the Gangetic plain and parts of modern Assam province. His descendants who together came to be known as the Mauryan dynasty extended this first Indian Empire to cover almost the whole of South India, except the tip near Sri Lanka.

For the first time, India experienced political unity which lasted for several centuries (321 B.C – 185 B.C). This facilitated commerce on a larger scale, prosperity and a pan-Indian ethos. The spread of Buddha’s teachings by Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, helped unify the country to an even greater extent. For Buddhism was not merely a religion, it was a way of life. The traits which the world now associates with an Indian’s were helped formed by this religion, which India later kept aside.

Ashoka perhaps built the first highways which linked the southern corners with the north, the eastern epicentre of the empire with the western borders, bringing India and Indians nearer to each other. He gave the land a single set of just laws, brought law and order to furthest corners of his realm. Importantly for a country of this continental size, he also preached tolerance to his subjects, enjoining them to respect each other's religious beliefs and to live together without acrimony.

Missionaries and traders sent out by him to Central Asia and South East Asia not only brought fresh converts to Buddhism and riches to India's coastal provinces, but also projected the `soft power' of the great empire and civilisation he had wrought - which to the world was known as Indica, Indo, Indu, Hindu - names derived from one of the principal river systems of the country - Sindhu or Indus.