Living is an exciting thing to do. That is, if you live your life beyond just your routine responsibilities and newspapers. So much is happening around us, that it feels silly not to stop once in a while to smell the roses around you. The only problem is that once you develop a habit of smelling roses, you become addicted to it! But then, life is meant for living, not just for fulfilling our responsibilities, after all, we do have responsibility to ourselves.
So let us spend some time together every now and then, looking at savouring the strangeness of the strange things in life. For one thing, we live in one of the strangest and most curious countries. We give our country a name that itself is strange. India comes from Indus, which does not even flow within its borders! The name stuck because our western neighbours, from Iran to Europe, could not make sense of us. So they clubbed all people living east of the Indus River as Indians! And Indus is not even the correct name for the river the correct name is Sindhu (which, with a curious turn of phrase which has now become generic for all rivers)! We then call ourselves, residents of the land east of Indus, as Hindus and happily define a religion called Hinduism - itself again a name given by outsiders. There is in fact no such religion. Hinduism was, in some sense, was a term coined to club together and name all the religious practices followed by people living east of Indus. Fortunately for the British and the Persians, they came to India when the Persians had adopted to Islam otherwise so many practices and gods of Persia were similar to those followed by people living east of Indus that the poor British people would have been confused! Coming from a land of limited landmass and equally limited imagination, they would have really lost it. In fact their imagination was so limited that to them, all non-citrus fruits were apples – pine apples, custard apples as the case may be, but only apples. And as for the religious practice of ritual fasting, just because they don’t eat for the whole 8 hours of night, they have to break-fast in the morning. Imagine explaining Jain Pajusan to them!
And as for Hinduism, it is less about religion and more about region the other side of the Sindu - and even in this, there is confusion on who called it that - Persians refer to Al-Hind or the British called us India. Since that region was also called Hindustan, all residents of Hindustan were Hindus (if they were not followers of any religion known to the westerners).
It includes all traditions from atheist to animist, monotheist to polytheist. From worship of a snake or the Sun to the most abstract Trimurti, Hindus have a choice of 36 crore gods! These gods are incidentally, born and die, can be cursed and show all frailties typical of humans, and for this they receive appropriate punishment. Is Indra the primary god (Rigveda) or Krishna (god incarnate of Mahabharata) or Rama (of Ramayan) or Shiva (of Shiva Purana) or Vishnu (of Vishnu Purana? The answer is, all of the above or none of the above depending on who you ask! And then there is the Mother Goddess – in her many manifestations worshipped across India. Most of us don’t even know when their year ends and a new one begins. In fact, we are unsure if our day begins at midnight or Sunrise! As for the list of what we can and cannot eat while fasting, the lesser said the better.
Many would cite the idealism of Rama or the religious framework of Bhagwad Gita as the defining texts. There is no doubt that the Bhagwad Gita is a defining exposition in many ways. But it also approves of many many different ways of worshiping the all mighty. Krishna himself is an incarnation of God whose might exceeds that of Krishna or any single incarnation. So while Gita is an excellent book to guide a human life in distress or confusion, it hardly defines a specific set of practices: social or religious identity. It does not provide any concrete structure for a lifestyle. It just asserts that we are all creatures and creations of the God almighty and an ideal person is the one, who meditating on Him, overcomes his anxieties and greed for the common good of all creatures, big and small.
So let us play safe and talk of another name that ‘we’ have chosen to give ourselves. Bharatiya. And one realises that we know even less about Bharata than we know about ‘people east of Indus’!
“The name Bhārata (भारत) has been used as a self-ascribed name by people of the Indian Subcontinent and the Republic of India Bhārata is the official Sanskrit name of the country, BhārataGaṇarājya, and the name is derived from the ancient Indian texts, that which refers to the land that comprises India as Bhārata varṣam, and uses this term to distinguish it from other varṣas or continents. For example, the Vayu Puranas says he who conquers the whole of Bharata-varsa is celebrated as a samrāt (Vayu Purana 45, 86). However in some puranas, the term 'Bharate' refers to the whole Earth as Emperor Bharata is said to have ruled the whole Earth. Until the death of Maharaja Parikshit, the last formidable emperor of the Kuru dynasty, the known world was known as Bharatavarsha.
According to the most popular theory, the name Bhārata is the vrddhi of Bharata, a king mentioned in Rigveda.
The Sanskrit word bhārata is a vrddhi derivation of bharata, which was originally an epithet of Agni. The term is a verbal noun of the Sanskrit root bhr-, "to bear / to carry", with a literal meaning of "to be maintained" (of fire). The root bhr is cognate with the English verb to bear and Latin ferō. This term also means "one who is engaged in search for knowledge".
According to the Puranas, this country is known as Bharatavarsha after the king BharataChakravarti. This has been mentioned in Vishnu Purana (2,1,31), Vayu Purana,(33,52), Linga Purana(1,47,23), Brahmanda Purana (14,5,62), Agni Purana (107,11-12), Skanda Purana, Khanda (37,57) and Markandaya Purana (50,41) it is clearly stated that this country is known as BharataVarsha.”
Clearly, we have no genealogy or the extent of the kingdom of Bharata or even the simplest of details about this king. So clearly we live in a country about which we know so little.Then there is a question of the map. The most exhaustive study of the maps of South Asia is in fact available on the Website of the University of Chicago It is a very instructive map. And in the journey of life, every Indian must spend some time smelling this rose. It is a labour of love by Dr. E Joseph Schwartzberg of the University of Minnesota. It shows the important towns, cities and kingdoms of India from stone age to the present, and while present dispensations in India may want to deny some of the facts presented there, it is, by far the most authentic study of the geography of India I have ever seen.
But even the more cursory look at school history text book will tell you that India as we define today is a mid 20th written about this division and continues to be a point of discord amongst all involved.
And yet, we vaguely know who we are.
We are Indians, not just holders of (or eligible for) Indian passport and with an entry in the local electoral role. Indeed whatever religion you practice, it is still possible to distinguish an Indian from other people of the world. We are Indian in a better defined value system. An average Indian is generally tolerant, respecter of all (or no) religion, not particularly given to religious frenzy (the current events of religious riots are largely a post-independence phenomenon, driven by politics), selfish and greedy, yet selfless and generous, quite apt to circumvent law if he thinks he can get away from it and believer in a broad set of value systems and accommodative of the differences between different gods and practices of different people from different regions. Many a visitor visiting India is struck by the fact that there is more peace in Indian crowds than in an empty town in the West. This is because, we have learnt to let everyone be and have defined a series of rules for public behaviour which allows one to be alone in a crowded train and have most amusing chats with the nearest fruit vendor since both would have broadly similar attitude to life. This unique ability to let people be alone if they wish, but extend the most giving help when need arises, defines India more than anything else to the foreigners. It is a pity that commercial greed and pressures of large cities often see deviation from this behaviour – Cities are westernising us in many ways, not all very welcome.
But there is more, an India is also very ambitious, not so much for himself (or herself) as for his nation. We are by and large very proud of our nation and ourselves – even the most cynical amongst us. Most of us would not leave our shores if we could get a decent education and a decent job. Indians love India so much that they, more than any other communities, create mini India’s where ever they go. They are not eager to change the world where they go, just encircle themselves and within that encirclement, create a make believe India.
Clearly we are a strange people living in a strange land that has everything from regions with equatorial climate to snow clad mountains, from thick forests with highest rainfall in the world to the most barren and hot deserts. If you look at the map of South Asia I mentioned above, you will notice that we are as big as USA or Europe but with much larger latitudinal spread, cutting across the Tropic of Cancer.
In fact, India is more than that. India has long been hailed as a crucible of ideas and people.There is hardly a region of the world that was not once directly connected to India. Indeed, India is the only country with an ocean and a constellation named after it. People discovered the world while searching for faster ways to reach India. But we will leave that story for other times.
For the present, let me end by saying that we are a strange people in a strange land and there are so many roses and thorns in our garden that one can spend a lifetime smelling century construct of the last Viceroy of India and much has been them as one moves around. Also, the roses smell different depending on the training your nose has received. Many of these roses and thorns are also imports.
So in this occasional column we will look at these roses and thorns, pause in our daily life for a little while and amuse ourselves, not with jokes but with the perfume of roses.
Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way the our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.