Opinion

Far from being eternal, Bharat Mata is only a little more than 100 years old

It's only from the late 19th century that Bharatvarsha to refer to the subcontinent and Bharat as mother found their way into the popular vocabulary.

At a time when India is being projected as eternal, when the chanting of Bharat Mata ki jai has become a testimony to patriotism and refusal to do so invites the wrath of Hindutva outfits and political parties, it is pertinent to look at the history of the country known as Bharat whose antiquity cannot be pushed too far back in time.

The earliest references

The geographical horizon of the Aryans was limited to the north western part of the Indian subcontinent known as Saptasindhava. The Vedic texts do not mention the word Bharata in the sense of a country though they refer to the tribe of Bharatas at several places in different contexts. In Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (500 BC) we find a reference to Prachya Bharata in the sense of a territory (janapada) which lay between udichya (north) and prachya (east). It must have been a small region occupied by the Bharata tribe and cannot be equated with the Akhanda ­Bharata or Bharata of the Hindutva brigade.

The earliest reference to Bharatavarsha (Prakrit Bharadhavasa) is found in the inscription of the Orissan king Kharavela (first century BC), who lists it among the territories he invaded: but it did not include Magadha, which is mentioned sepa­rately in the record. The word here may therefore refer in a general way to northern India, its precise territorial connotation remaining vague. A much larger geographical region is visualised by the use of the word in the Mahabharata (200 BC to AD 300), which provides a good deal of geographical information about the subcontinent, but a large part of the Deccan and the far south does not find any place in it. Banabhatta’s Kadambari (seventh century), at one place describes Bharatavarsha as being ruled by Tarapida, who “set his seal on the four oceans”. But since it is referred to as excluding Ujjaini from it, the location and boundaries of Bharat are far from clear.

Bharatavarsha figures prominently in the Puranas, but they describe its shape variously. In some passages it is likened to a half-moon, in others it is said to resemble a triangle; in yet others it appears as a rhomboid or an unequal quadrilateral or a drawn bow. The Markandeya Purana compares the shape of the country with that of a tortoise floating on water and facing east. Most of the Puranas describe Bharatavarsha as being divided into nine dvipas or khandas, separated by seas and mutually inac­cessible.

The Puranic conception of Bharatavarsha has similarity with the ideas of ancient Indian astronomers like Varahamihira (sixth century AD) and Bhaskaracharya (11th century), though in their perception it does not seem to have included southern India. Although a 14th-century record mentions Bharata as extending from the Himalayas to the southern sea, by and large, the available textual and epigraphic references to it do not indicate that the term stood for India as we know it today.

A part of Jambudvipa

In many texts Bharata is said to have been a part of Jambudvipa, which itself had an uncertain geographical connotation. The Vedic texts do not mention it; nor does Panini, though he refers to the jambu (rose apple) tree. The early Buddhist canonical works provide the earliest reference to the continent called Jambudvipa (Pali, Jambudipa), its name being derived from the jambu tree which grew there. Juxtaposed with Sihaladipa (Sans. Simhaladvipa=Sri Lanka), of the inscriptions of Ashoka, Jambudipa stands for the whole of his empire, which covered nearly the entire Indian subcontinent excluding its far southern part. He unified the major part of the Indian subcontinent and called it Jambudipa. But he did not use the word Bharat to denote this vast land mass.

Despite the use of the word Jambudipa for the whole of his empire, the ambiguity about its territorial connotation is borne out by both epigraphic and literary sources during the subsequent centuries. In a sixth-century inscription of Toramana, for instance, Jambudvipa occurs without any precise territorial connotation, and in the Puranic cosmological schema, it appears more as a mythical region than as a geographical entity. According to the Puranas the world consists of “seven concentric dvipas or islands, each of which is encircled by a sea, the central island called Jambu­dvipa…”. This is similar to the cosmological imaginings of the Jains who, however, placed Jambudvipa at the centre of the central land (madhyaloka) of the three-tiered structure of the universe. According to another Puranic conception, which has much in common with the Buddhist cosmological ideas, the earth is divided into four mahadvipas, Jambudvipa being larger than the others. In both these conceptions of the world, Bharatavarsha is at some places said to be a part of Jambudvipa but at others the two are treated as identical. The geographical conception of both Bharat and Jambudvipa are thus factitious and of questionable value.

Abanindranath Tagore/ ‘Banga Mata’ water colour that he later decided to title 'Bharat Mata'.  1905.
Abanindranath Tagore/ ‘Banga Mata’ water colour that he later decided to title 'Bharat Mata'. 1905.

Bharat as Mother

It was only from the late 19th century that Bharatvarsha in the sense of the whole subcontinent, and Bharat as Mother found their way into the popular vocabulary. The anonymous work Unabimsapurana (1866), KC Bandyopadhyaya’s play called Bharat Mata (1873) and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Anandmath (1880) were among the earliest works to popularise the notion of Bharatmata. Its visual evocation came perhaps not earlier than 1905 in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore, who conceived of the image as one of Bangamata but later, “almost as an act of generosity towards the larger cause of Indian nationalism, decided to title it ‘Bharatmata’”.

Far from being eternal, Bharat mata is thus little more than a 100 years old. Insistence on her inhabitants forming a nation in ancient times is sophistry. It legitimatises the Hindutva perception of Indian national identity as located in remote antiquity, accords centrality to the supposed primordiality of Hinduism and spawns Hindu cultu­ral nationalism which prompts the saffron brigade to bully the Indian people into chanting of Bharat Mata Ki Jai.

DN Jha is former Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Delhi

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.