From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

BhArata is the original name of Indian subcontinent. bhArata literally means of/descended from bharata. The name India originates from an external reference Hind/Hindustan. Indians have referred to themselves as bhAratIya-s, belonging to the nation bhArata, the central part of which was also often referred to as AryAvarta or or as madhyadeSa. The Indian constitution uses the name India as referring to bhArata (“India, that is Bharat”, Art 1.1).

Historic continuity

  1. The consciousness of this self-designation is attested in the world's oldest text, Rig Veda which refers to the inhabitants of bhArata as bhAratam janaM (RV 3.53.12). Texts from almost all eras after that use bhArata /AryAvarta.
  2. Manu the originator of the concept of constitution, in the world's earliest constitution Manu dharma SAstra (2.17-22) clearly expounds what comprises the AryAvarta, the land in which the rule of law is applicable regardless of who is ruling which part of the land. Indians are the people who, from the beginning of history, have the sense of a nation, distinct from the geographic boundaries of temporal political states.
  3. Mahabharata, the world's longest epic and the oldest Encyclopedia, is the story of bhArata-s. In its 6th book, the bhIshma parva (chapters 4-9) contains the geographic description of entire subcontinent and the various kingdoms. Verses 7.2-7.4 of Bhishma parva are very clear about the geography of bhArata. bhArata is the dynasty to which the Kauravas and the Pāndava-s belonged; the epithet used for the illustrious members of the Bharata dynasty like Bhīşma, Dhŗtarāşţra, Duryodhana, Yudhişţhīra, Bhīma, Arjuna etc.
  4. Most of the major purANa texts refer to bhArata, for instance the Vishnu Purana (2.3.1) clearly states the geographic boundaries of the great Indian nation as stretching from Himalayas to the Indian ocean, and calls the inhabitants of the land as the bhAratIya (the progeny of bhArata).
  5. The invocation of major and minor rituals in India begins with identifying time and place, where the place is referred as a part of bhArata (jambUdvIpe, bharata varshe bharata khanḍe...) and this is an uninterrupted practice that happens throughout the nation to this date.


The word bhArata is used in multiple contexts, such as bhArata jAti (as a nation, in currency), bharata varsha (in the geo-ecological-cultural sense), bharata khanDa (as a subcontinent) etc. deSa originally means the equivalent of “country” in a cultural sense, thus a deSa is a geo-cultural unit. bhArata is traditionally seen as a collection of deSa-s, thus separating the notions of nation and geo-cultural sub units. In turn, these were distinct from the geo-political states which were called rAjya-s. The separation of geo-political and geo-cultural is the primary reason why notions like world-family (vasudhaiva kuTumbakam) were possible in bhArata right from ancient times. While the political unification always has its place, the inherent universal nature of Hindu culture is emphasized through these which transcends the geo-political boundaries and recognize mankind as mankind. The geo geo-political units were often unaligned to geo-cultural, as they had more to do with how the political-military power equations transformed. However the cultural landscapes were described, right from the village level to the earth-family.

The inherent openness of bhAratIya traditions and people, be it in readily accepting other peoples or their ways of lives or the diversity of thought and life systems and worldviews, reflects in the separation of geo-cultural and geo-political. The principle is universal and applicable for all times: to be accommodating at people level, and to be shrewd and discriminative at polity level mindful of nation’s interests.

The rAjya

Traditional Idea of bhArata has two aspects, the rAjya and rAshTra. While rAjya deals with the state (polity, administration etc) aspect, rAshTra is the cultural-social-national aspect.

rAjya is the traditional concept of state. The geo-political units of traditional bhArata were kingdoms or rAjya-s, which are now rendered obsolete and replaced with the current democratic state-union arrangement. However there is still a need to understand the original geo-political arrangement, which is more glued to the Indian culture and psyche. For ages, Bharata always had several janapada-s and rAjya-s, and a political ‘union’ was almost never consisting of the entire Bharatavarsha. At the same time different levels of consolidation always existed – gaNa rAjya, rAyja, samrAjya, cakravarti etc were words used for kingdoms/empires of different spans. They were essentially hierarchical wherever applicable – for instance a cakravarti had rAjAs accepting his suzerainty, rAjA-s had smaller rAjA-s called sAmanta-s. Historically there were always attempts to bring as many kingdoms as possible under an umbrella. The aSvamedha and rAjasUya which are attested in ancient history, are examples. However it remains a fact that such attempts could succeed only partially, because the capability required for such an emperor who could bring the entire bharatavarsha under a single umbrella is only rarely to be found. Those who successfully did so, are celebrated in Indian history – Sri Rama, Yudhisthira, Vikramaditya, Chandragupta Maurya etc.

Figure 1Ancient Kingdoms of Bharata – from Wikipedia

The important thing to note is that these emperors emerged from different parts of the country, and made different places the capitals for their consolidation – Indraprastha, Pataliputra, Ujjain etc. While this seems to be stating the obvious, but there is more to the significance of a capital than being a place from where an emperor hails. To understand this, we need to see the backdrop of the Hindu notion of divine geography.

Divine Geography, the Backdrop

India is a primarily spiritual civilization. Spirituality in India does not simply mean religious or meditation practices, though they are among the tools for spiritual practice. Seeing the world from a spiritual outlook is what spirituality is. In spiritual philosophy, causal, subtle and gross emanate in order from the supra-causal principle of existence. Applying this awareness in the various facets of individual and social life is spirituality. At an individual level, mind-speech-action affect each other and with a rigorous practice of controlling one of these, the other two can also be controlled to achieve a complete alignment between these three (samyama). This is yoga. In modern science energy is limited to physical/vital. However in Sanatana Dharma primal energy descends in different levels of subtlety into different levels of consciousness – the causal, subtle and gross. The subtlest form is unmanifest, then the intelligence principle, then the thought-current, then vibration/wave, then the physical. Thus thought (bhAvanAtmaka) is known to be a subtler form of energy than the vibration (spandanAtmaka), and in continuity with it. A spiritual view of energy is the reason why schools and practices like yoga was possible in India.

An important area of study that that modern knowledge does not yet explore but had been part of Indian knowledge because of its spiritual outlook, is the study of divine geography or the study of energy-centers in a landscape. It is now well accepted not just in Hindu spiritual traditions but increasingly in the west, that there are energy centers in the human (subtle) body and that concentration of thought-currents and life-force in these centers and their control helps in achieving a healthier body and thought. Similarly the seers visualize energy centers in the landscape of Bharata. They decree that making these places capitals/centers for various pursuits is going to result in a long lasting and successful pursuit of the respective collective interests. The spiritual regions are classified into punya, tapo, jnAna and karma bhUmi-s. Based on the same principle, several places are recognized as suitable centers for political, commercial, educational pursuits. With those centers as capitals Bharata achieved the heights of civilization and remained at a high point for several centuries. Takshasila, Kashmira, Kasi for instance have served consistently as educational centers, regardless of political ups and downs the country went through. Delhi served as a ‘cakrasthAna’ or the place of emperor and remained so in the Hindu psyche since Yudhisthira’s times, regardless of how many consolidations subsequently happened with different capitals. Even in their highpoints, the capitals of Vijayanagara and Maratha empires could not dislodge Hastina-Indraprastha as the cakrasthAna from the collective psyche.

The rAshTra

This idea of bharatavarsha is essentially a concept of nation-culture, which comprises of 56 geo-cultural units traditionally called the chappan(na)deSa-s (though some of these fall outside Indian borders). Understanding these deSa-s is essential to understand the diversity and stratification in Indian culture. While the layout of rAjya-s kept changing with political vicissitudes, while the rAjya-s kept merging and breaking up into different empires, the deSa-s remained to be regarded as the units that comprise the nation/subcontinent (varsha/khanda). The practice of describing the span of empires in terms of deSa-s,goes to show the significance of deSa-s in the basic understanding of the subcontinent. Able emperors could control more than a deSa, and a deSa could also have multiple small kingdoms at times. But the deSa as a basic understanding unittranscended the more transient and constantly realigning rAjya-s.This is the reason why the stream of civilizational and cultural enrichment continued uninterrupted in the subcontinent irrespective of political realignments. This does not mean these aspects were completely unaffected by the patronage of rulers.Presence of a strong empire, resulted in patronage and high points of civilizational pursuits. However there was rarely any destructive effect on cultural diversity or identities of these deSa-s.

Importantly, the deSa remained a well-defined concept which is almost agnostic of the rAjya. For all non-political purposes, Bharata geography has often been described in terms of deSa-s. For instance Varahamihira in his bRhatsamhita categorizes the deSa-s of Bharata into different seismic zones. More on this can be seen in the paper “Earthquake prediction in Ancient India” by Prof. RN Iyengar( Lawgivers dealt with validity of local customs and practices based on deSa-s. Panini alludes to rules of grammar with respect to local language practices based on deSa-s.

The cohesion of peoples in the subcontinent and their cultural affinitiesin the diverse landscape, need to be understood on the basis of thesedeSa-s. It also needs to be understood that these deSa-s were regarded as part of Bharata. This tells us the nature of onenessof Bharataingrained in the Indian mind for ages.The cultural affinities between peoples of the same deSa are pronounced, and it is easy to find more similarity between cultural units/jAti-s (belonging to the same strata) of the same deSa than people of same jAti of different deSa-s. This is the reason we prefer the word geo-cultural unit for a deSa. Besides, an integral view of the entire bharatavarsha as a rAshTra is visible from several integration themes – for instance the Saktipeetha-s and Jyotirlinga-s, the spiritual unification centers that people cover. The geo-religious oneness reaffirms itself through several motives, such as the sthala-purANa of Kanyakumari saying the Devi waits to get married to Siva coming from Kailasa of Himalayas. The landscape covered by Pandavas during their exile or Sri Rama during his exile are other classical integration themes.