Rethinking Indian History Part 1: Who Are We?

-Kushagra Aniket, Cornell University, USA.

One of the primary objectives of politics is to answer the question of identity. “Who are we?” is a question that has confounded the minds of many, particularly since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The genesis of religious extremism in contemporary history also lies in the failure to resolve the crisis of identity, to answer the paramount question of our times. From the coast of East Timor to the snow-clad Alps, people have come to realize that the wrong response to the question can mean a bullet in one’s head. However, without an explicit, clear answer to this question, no people can ever relate with their past or hope to progress in the future.

Indians have had their share of problems while grappling with the question of identity. Identity is a function of one’s mindset. “As one thinks, so shall one be,” goes the proverb. But the Indian mind remains confused. It is tortured by the horror of perceiving itself in the mirror. The result is the present dysfunctional perceptional mismatch that propels a great civilization to a state of inertia and sabotages its endeavor to emerge as a global power. Why? What is it that the Indians lack? The answer, I will argue, is the fact that Indians have not been brought up with a clear concept of identity.

In most countries of the world, the first idea that is drilled into the mind of the child is his identity. Identity defines the parameters within which the individual functions. No agent can act decisively without being conscious of himself, his powers and weaknesses, his rights and obligations. Otherwise, there shall be total paralysis. So, one must either confront this question or perish. But ask an average Indian about his identity, after much persuasion, he will reply that he possesses an Indian passport. Is that what we understand by Indian identity? Is it right for a civilization that has endured for five millennia to rely on a perishable piece of paper to certify its existence? Certainly not

Identities are born when people understand their relation with their past. Whether we like it or not, we cannot disown or deny our history. It is impossible to reverse the flow of time. Every Indian enjoys an equal claim over the composite culture and tradition of his civilization and of entire humanity. No other civilization in the world embraces the extraordinary diversity of language, topography, climate, religion and culture as India does. Thus, the challenge of defining India as something more than the sum of its contradictions is immense but critical.

It is essential to understand that India is a civilizational entity, rather than a nation of present political boundaries. Therefore, the Vishnu Purāṇa (II.3.1) defines India in extremely broad terms: “Whatever is north of the ocean and south of the mountains is Bhārata (India)”. However, all foreign travellers who visited the land recognized a fundamental civilizational entity called India. Macro Polo (1254-1324), who travelled extensively in Asia, observed that “India the Greater” extended from Cape Comorin to the coast of Mekran and included 13 great kingdoms. “India the Lesser” ranged from the province of Vietnam to the Krishna Delta. 

While states have political boundaries, civilizations can only have symbolic boundaries. A civilization has its own elusive identity so that it cannot be controlled entirely by the state machinery or confined within the borders of a political society. When civilizations spread, they tend to bypass the fault lines between political societies. Therefore, Marco Polo used the term “Greater India” to refer to the historical diffusion of Indian culture marked by the spread of Buddhism to Tibet, China and Central Asia via the Silk Route and the adoption of indigenous customs by the Indianized states of South Asia.

But despite sharing common cultural attributes, these countries remained politically independent from each other because in the case of Greater India, the travels of merchants, Brahmins and Buddhist monks contributed to the spread of the Indian culture rather than political conquest. The expansion of the Indian standard of civilization cannot be ascribed to the military superiority of India vis-à-vis its neighbors. Military defeat has been historically associated with a perceived inadequacy of cultural development or inferiority of civilization. Had the cultural influences in the region been alloyed with coercion, there would have been instances of humiliation, resistance and ultimately retaliation against foreign intrusion. None of these happened in South East Asia and the Chola invasion of Indonesia in 1025 CE remains the sole instance of a military confrontation between Indian and other South Asian rulers.  

Indians did not embark on a civilizing mission to colonize South East Asia, as there is no evidence to show that the millennium-long cultural exchanges among the member-states involved large-scale migration, invasion or colonization of people. In fact, the rulers who founded these empires invited ritual specialists as priests and advisors from reputable centers of learning all over the subcontinent. Thus the Indianized kingdoms of the region assumed Indian religious, cultural and economic practices without significant inputs from Indian rulers themselves.

Unlike the Confucian world-order that was premised on the hegemonic position of China vis-à-vis other states, the member states of the Indian world-order interacted on terms determined by their relative power rather than the presumed ascendency of one state. While invoking a common set of Sanskritic concepts in their diplomatic intercourse, the countries in South Asia constructed their relations on the basis of mutual tolerance and non-aggression.

A degree of cultural affinity, apart from geographical proximity, would have been required to moderate political rivalries and ensure commitment to shared norms.The philological meaning of the word ‘nation’ indicates origin or descent. A nation can be defined as the collectivity of persons who have the same ethnic origin and, in general, possess a common ancestry. Although every ethnic extraction known to humanity found its way into the subcontinent, the gene pool of the Indian people remained surprisingly stable over the centuries.

Amidst centuries of war, migration and political disruption, India has strived to uphold the continuity in its identity-an unprecedented incident in world’s history. Today the inhabitants of the subcontinent must acknowledge the fact that they had common ancestors, irrespective of what their present caste, creed, color or culture happens to be. Particularly speaking, all religious communities of the South-East Asia international society must recognize a common Indian ancestry as the only guarantee for peaceful coexistence.

Kushagra Aniket is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at The article was first published in the Cornell Review (Volume 30, No.8), dated 11 March 2012.


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