The grand truth of India’s ancient cultural nationalism... And the myth of Brtish-led unity
By VIJAY PHANSHIKAR :
The little boy stood all naked in the bathroom enjoying the warm water his mother was pouring on him, his ears taking in the Sanskrit verse imagining that the water from the brass bucket was a mix of waters from India’s seven holy rivers -- Ganga, Yamuna, Godawari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Cauvery. To the culturally uninitiated, the verse may appear like a poet’s imagination. But millions upon millions of Indians have found the words inscribed indelibly on their heads and hearts. No accurate timeline may be attributed to the point when the verse was first written. Yet, the common belief is that it was added to India’s repository thousands of years ago. Similar verses inviting men and women to imagine the great cultural spread across India’s vast geographical landmass have been round the clock reminding the people of the cultural unity the nation harboured for centuries upon centuries. Such verses talk of temples, shrines, hermitages, places of worship, and pilgrimage from the Himalayas in the north to the seas in the south, from the eastern mountains to the Western Ghats.
Each verse talks of India as a culturally united land that may have been shared in small state-forms by countless rulers, but was bound by the common thread of history and ethos. This reality of India’s history needs to be reminded to all of us in response to the vicious propaganda by some vested interests that India was a terribly cleavaged entity that the British stitched together as one political country. This is, of course, an utterly false, politically-motivated, and very malicious propaganda that needs to be proved wrong, once and for all. Factually, the British created terrible cleavages in India, leaving in their wake a very problematic polity that refused to fuse into nationhood easily post-Independence. Let us take a look at what kind of dirty legacy the British left for us. At the dawn of Independence, the new India was saddled with nearly 600 princely States with freedom to choose what to do of themselves at the lapse of British paramountcy. All those States, thus, were independent political entities with their own constitutional thumbprint. Can this be called any unification? Can we ever say that the British brought India together? Never. Much to the contrary, the British left India totally politically divided, leaving the task of bringing all the princely States under one flag, to the leadership of new India. It was Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to have those states incorporated into one political entity -- a task that won him the honorific ‘Iron Man of India’ -- Loh Purush! Unfortunately, however, several vested interests kept building a fake story of how the British united India -- which is nothing but utter falsehood.
The purpose of these elements is to tell the common people that India was a backward place divided into several small units that had nothing in common; and that the British wove all those States together into one country. As we get down to debunking that false propaganda, we come to another historical reality -- that cannot be lost sight of. This reality tells the actual story of India. This is the story that highlights how India had been one single cultural civilisation spread over the vast subcontinental land-mass. Every Indian living anywhere in that place thought himself to be the citizen of a common culturally-united nation. He travelled across the length and breadth of India through different States, visiting places of pilgrimage, bowing to deities in temples and shrines, seeking blessings from the sages whose hermitages dotted the vast landscape. The people -- men and women and children -- from deep south made their way to the high north of the Himalayas. The people from the eastern States travelled to the western ghats. This massive tourist activity was for multiple reasons -- religious pilgrimages, educational excursions, commercial pursuits, political ambassadorial duties, military campaigns. Throngs of artists and litterateurs and academics and scholars travelled individually or in groups to different parts of the country to establish their primacy in a pursuit, or to get connected with their equals in those parts.
That was how a little boy who had yet to enter his teens walked thousands of kilometers from Kerala to central India to meet his guru Govind Yati -- who converted the little fellow into Adi Shankaracharya. In turn, Adi Shankaracharya continued his work by establishing his mutts in four corners of India. In his short lifetime of about 32 years, Adi Shankaracharya toured the country on foot twice and bound the people together in a wonderfully-conceptualised nationhood. But then, he was only following what the Indians had been doing for countless centuries. And the numbers of such people on the move often were in countless thousands on any given day round the year across enormous timeline whose definition is beyond one’s capacity. This inland movement was only one part of the overall national activity. The other part was all the more interesting.
Thousands of Indian people sailed across seas in ships of amazing engineering to different countries -- from Somnath in west coast in Gujarat, from Mahabalipuram on the east coast in southern part of Tamil Nadu and from several other international ports on the long shoreline of nearly 9,000 kilometers to more than a hundred countries around the globe -- not only engaging in trade and commerce, but also in military and cultural diplomacy. In the process, countless Indian rulers established their overseas kingdoms and governed those lands and established firm Indian footprint there, whose evidence is available even now. And in each of those countries, all these people were known as INDIANS -- from the massive, prosperous land which the world called India or Hindustan or Bharatvarsh. If India were not one single nation, how could the world call the people from that country as Indians? And this answers the dirty propaganda fully and effectively. The evidence of this ancient reality is found reflected even today in Indian homes at all corners of the country, in all segments of the larger Indian society -- by way of verses and songs and stories and accounts of historical and historic events in Sanskrit and all other Indian languages -- as was described at the outset in this article. And that boy in the family bathroom can be anywhere -- in Kerala or in Kashmir or in Bengal or in Rajasthan or in Madhya Pradesh or in Andhra Pradesh or in Arunachal Pradesh or in Haryana and Punjab or in Karnataka or even in the far off Andamans and Lakshdweep isles. W hen India became free from the British control, the new Indian leadership recognised this historical truth very clearly -- no matter the subsequent distortions by some vested interests that aimed at causing trouble in the country.
The rulers of new India ensured that the diverse princely States came under one flag and were bound by a common Constitution. And nothing of this was ever done by the British. They may have introduced common laws -- but all those were more for the convenience of administration, and definitely not with an idea of binding the country together. They also developed railway and roadway networks and postal services etc. But again, that was for the rulers’ advantage and convenience and not for the people’s benefits. For, had the British wanted to unite India as one single entity, they would not have milked its economy dry; would not have damaged and distorted its history beyond recognition, destroyed its industry and agriculture beyond redemption, and demolished its fine age-old institutions of learning that numbered in thousands across landscape.
If the British had cared for India, their officers would not have allowed Jallianwala Bagh to take place -- as just one example! It is time we Indians understood this historical reality, and recognised that Indian has been ancient civilisation that was bound together by a strong eco-system of cultural nationalism. This reminder is not being offered as a revivalist ideology; this is being presented with a clear idea of debunking false propaganda by some unholy elements that have ill of the country as part of their hidden agenda.