What’s the idea of India?
It is time we stop brandishing the “Idea of India” as a weapon in ideological or electoral warfare and begin to savour its many flavours

Pushpesh Pant

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a celebration of faith and fervour
The Golden Temple in Amritsar is a celebration of faith and fervour
History and heritage come together in Delhi’s Purana Qila, built by Sher Shah Suri
History and heritage come together in Delhi’s Purana Qila, built by Sher Shah Suri 

In the elections just decided, the "Idea of India" was often invoked as the deterrent to Modi’s juggernaut. The argument was how can a man who doesn’t share "The Idea" be allowed to occupy the august office of the Prime Minister of our Republic? The glibly articulate English-speaking urban elite has long monopolised the definition and interpretation of the "Idea of India," oblivious of the idea(s) of India that people unlike them cherish or how the "original" idea has evolved through millennia.

For almost three generations, Nehru’s Discovery of India has served as the scriptural text that has engendered an almost dogmatic following. Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India that has acquired an almost cult-classic status in recent years is only the latest sympathetic exegesis of this Nehruvian "Idea of India". The essence of this Idea is the thread of "Unity in Diversity," that is grounded in a syncretic culture that has always remained open to diverse influences. Nehru’s personal ideological predilections and preferences (dare one add prejudices?) continue to distort this idea to date. The problem with this "Idea of India" is that it prioritises the "politically correct" (secularly sanitised) — at a specific point of time — superficial over the essential, eternally vigorous and substantial. How easily we forget that many other eminent Indians have shared their Idea of India with their compatriots. "India of My Dreams" that Mahatma Gandhi talked about centered on Village India. The agenda outlined in Hind Swaraj to realise these dreams was very different from the blueprint of development and modernisation project that his political heir put forward.

Epic narratives

It is important to remind ourselves that for the average Indian the Idea of India and his or her own identity is inseparable entwined with mythic memories that are deeply rooted in Indian consciousness constantly reinforced by "narratives" in the epics. Another important thing to bear in mind is that consecration of this land has played a crucially significant role in crystalising the Idea of India. Adi Shankracharya, who is credited with establishing four monasteries in four different corners of the subcontinent but he was perhaps only formalising what the Hindu epics had documented for centuries before his birth.

The Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata describe a land and people that was identified as one nation. Vishnu Purana is more specific and draws the geographical boundaries or Bharatvarsha stretching from the Himalaya to the Ocean. Seven sacred rivers and seven holy cities were enumerated and ritually invoked to enhance the sense of belonging. Ganga Yamunaschaiva, Godavari Saraswati, Narmade Sindhu Kaveri Jalesmin sannidhim Kuru. (Let us perform oblations with the waters represented by the seven sacred rivers) Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya Kashi, Kanchi, Avantika, Puri, Dwarawati Chaiva Saptaita Mokshsdayiaka. (With the seven cities I evoke in this hymn are all linked to liberation) In addition, 12 jyotirlinga and 84 shakti peeth were designated distributed all over the map that there were major pilgrimages for devout Hindus. A similar pattern is discernible in places associated with the life of the Buddha and Jaina Tirthankara or Sikh Gurus too. The Golden Temple, set amidst the pool of nectar, sparkles like a gem in Amritsar. It reminds us how Sikhism has sought to bridge the "gap" between orthodox Muslims and Hindus while the gurdwara at Hemkunt Sahib bears testimony to the austerities performed by a Guru that bridged sectarian divides. Footprints of Buddhism remain indelible from Ladakh to Sri Lanka, the borders of Afghanistan to Arunachal Pradesh

Deep down south in Mahabalipuram stands by the seashore the Pandava ratha carved out of monoliths reviving memories of the heroic brothers who fought the legendary battle of Mahabharata in Kurukshetra. Close by is the splendidly sculpted rock depicting the Penance of Arjuna and also the descent of Ganga the celestial river. These structures date back to 6th century. It is difficult to contest the claim that by that then the people who dwelt here shared a sense of identity with their compatriots residing in the Himalayan foothills. The "presence of Shiva" is as palpable at the Brihadeeshwar (circa 1000 AD) temple in Tanjore as at Kailashnath in Ellora in Deccan built some time in the 12th century by the Rashtrakutas. Himvat, Meru and Samudra have cast an unbroken spell over the Indian mind and shaped their identity.

Krishna, the dark-skinned prankster god, beloved of the milk maids in Brij (on the banks of river Yamuna near Mathura), continues to inspire singers and dancers in far-flung corners of India in genres as different as Kathakali, Bharat Natyam, Odissi, Manipuri Raas, Kathak; singers of Dhrupad-Dhamar, thumri and bhajan. When MS Subbulakshmi rendered a Mira bhajan, transporting her audiences into a sublime realm no scholarly preface or footnote was required to communicate the "Idea" that is India.

Art unites

The masterpieces of miniature painting— Mughal, Rajput or Pahari — work their magic with the Radha-Krishna mantra. The artists — Hindus, Muslims, Sikh, Buddhist or Jaina and Christians have always transcended the narrow confines of caste and community to keep alive this priceless artistic heritage. Today, "specialist-scholars" have more or less appropriated this legacy and made it look exotic but in the days before what is euphemistically referred to as "identity politics," unlettered commoners took delight in calendar art reproductions. It is not considered politically correct nowadays to refer to "Greater India" but the shared Hindu-Buddhist heritage with many countries in South-East Asia can’t be wished away. The sprawling Angkor Vat Temple in Cambodia and the stupa in Borobudur in Indonesia are just two of the magnificent "survivors" among dozens of Hindu and Buddhist shrines extant in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. China, Japan, Korea never had any difficulty in identifying the land of India or conceding that the Indic civilisational imprint was distinctly different from their own.

Travellers from overseas

Travellers coming from West too have chronicled this. When the armies of Alexander the Great reached the Punjab they knew what lay beyond was Ind. In 6th century BC, India comprised 16 great janapada. A couple of hundred years later, Megesthenes’ account Indica provides confirmation that this was largely the tract of land recognised by the foreigners as India and this information is supplemented by the material available in the Arthashastra. The domain of achakravartin was traditionally described as Asamudra paryanta — literally extending up to the ocean. When Chandragupta, the founder of the Maurya dynasty, established the first historical Empire in India its geographical extent broadly corresponded to these mental contours. The distribution of Ashoka the Great’s inscriptions bears this out.

More than a thousand years later, when Al Beruni visited India at the turn of the second millennium and documented the life and mores of the people of al Hind he had no confusion about what he was talking about. His Book Of India leaves us in no doubt about this.

Amir Khusru, a polymath, descending from foreign parents made India their home. His Ode to Hind is a moving tribute to this land. He was the disciple of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

Let us not be in haste to pronounce that the "Idea of India" has remained fossilised or frozen in time. The Indic idea incorporates much more than the Hindu-Buddhist inheritance. Sufi silsila and dargah of pirs are integral to the timeless Idea of India. The Idea of India that people have lived by for ages celebrates diversity and happily recognises the coexistence of many mainstreams. Dr. Kapila Vatsyana once likened it to "a great river system," with many tributaries, distributaries and confluences, each significant.

Unfettered idea

The idea can’t be fettered by the oversimplified version (prescription?) of Ganga-Jamani tehzeeb that was quintessentially a social compact between the collaborating elite adhering to different religious beliefs in North India during the medieval period. Brahmputra, Narmada, Godavari, Kaveri too have rendered vast tracts of land fertile and spawned a way of life no less rich, syncretic and vibrant. It is time that we stop brandishing the "Idea of India" as a weapon in ideological or electoral warfare and begin to savour its many flavours.

— The writer, a former JNU professor, is an expert on international affairs


Markers of identity

Costume and cuisine are an integral part of the Idea that defines the Indian Identity. The sherwani, churidar pyjama, salwar Kameez, sari, ghagra-choli-dupatta, headgear-pagari, safa, shawls are strands that weave a resplendent mosaic. Silks from Kanchipuram and Banarasi brocade, pashmina and shahtoosh from Kashmir may have a geographical indicator prefixed, but in the world without are Indian. Tandoori delights and Awadhi or Hyderabadi delicacies, Culinary gems from Kashmir and Kerala, Goa or the coastal belt and Bengal are also a shared heritage that all Indians enjoy and take pride in. Like music and dance, architecture, sculpture and painting one doesn't require the secular key to unlock this treasure trove.

Music as Cosmic bridge

‘Baba’ Allauddin Khan, arguably the greatest classical musician born in 19th-20th century India, was a devout Muslim. This didn’t stop him from proclaiming his reverence for Sharada Mata, a manifestation of Saraswati the Hindu goddess of learning and patron of arts. Ustad Bismillah Khan played the shehnai regularly at the shrine of another Hindu goddess at Varanasi almost till his last breath. Vilayat Khan Sahib once told the writer of these lines that music is the religion that recognises no sectarian strife. It is the expression of the supreme power that reins the cosmos. It was the Anglo-Indian AK Coomarswamy who brought alive through his perceptive "interpretation" the Chola bronzes depicting Nataraja Siva in his glorious dance of creation and dissolution. This is what has ignited the minds of quantum physicists like Fritzoff Capra. It is pity that the obsession with secularism has brought us to a sorry pass where igniting a lamp before an icon of Saraswati is shirked as lapse in majoritarian communalism. Similarly, appeasement of a fickle vote bank extends its limits to an elected MP who has sworn to protect the constitution turn his back on Vande Mataram, the national song that one believes has status equal to the National Anthem. Undoubtedly, the idea of India is too serious a subject to be entrusted to politicians and partisan scholars.