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The politics of naming is shaped by broad socio-political conditions and can be studied from several angles. Adopting a cultural history perspective, this blog article considers some of the inherited discourses on ‘Bhārata’ both prior to and at the time of its official equation with ‘India’ in the Constitution (1950).

The Definitions

This blog post focuses on three successive definitional moments: the Puranic definition of Bhārata; the shift to its colonial definition, when the old toponym became the ‘indigenous’ name for a budding nation exposed to the imported political and geographical conceptions of (British) India; and, lastly, the choice of the Constitutional assembly to register the nation under a dual and bilingual identity: ‘India, that is Bharat’.

When the British rule did end over India, there wasn’t much confusion about what the country should be named, for the highest priority was to establish a constituent assembly to draft a republic parliamentary democracy.

Hence the act, India Independence Act (1947) mentioned creation of two dominions-India and Pakistan.

Much debate began after the partition when Pakistan was carved out of the vast territory of British India. From British India, the name India was retained and the term ‘Pakistan’, an abbreviation came from the pamphlet named ‘now or never’ widely circulated during the 1930s authored by Chaudhary Rahmat Ali.


The Etymology of the word Bharat

Much has been described in ancient Indian texts about the geography, territorial expanse, and features of Ancient Bharata. From Rigveda to Atharvaveda, and from Brahma Purana to Braahmadpurana, the territory of bharata has only expanded further and further. The Sanskrit word bharata is an adjective to Agni (fire) of which ‘bhr’ means to carry or bear in its English equivalent. Hence the literal meaning of bharata comes out to be- maintained of fire.

Bharata also means one who is in constant search of knowledge.

For instance, in Vishnu Purana, the expanse that lays north of the oceans and south of the snow capped Himalayas, is named bharata and the residents called bharatiya, the descendants of bharata.

उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम्।

वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम भारती यत्र सन्ततिः॥

Additionally, in the Bhagwat Gita, when Krishna said; whenever there is evil, I shall descend myself, he is dictating these words to the people of bharata.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम्

Also, the Vayu Purana says “he who conquers the whole of Bhāratavarṣa is celebrated as a samrāta.

The most widely accepted notion as to what India was called Bharata was because, according to the Puranas, this country is known as Bhāratavarṣa after Bharata, the son of Rishabha. He is described to be a Kshatriya born in the Solar dynasty. The king finds mention in various puranas.

For centuries during the ancient times, the country was called bharata. Though dynasties changed and there were smaller kingdoms independent with their own identity, the existing brahmanical system formalized the view of the people that although they belonged to such a kingdom, the geographical expanse within which dwell is Bharathvarsha, simply Bharata.

The puranas, the upanishads, the ramayana, mahabharata, bhagwat gita, all contributed to the notion and established it firmly among the people.


But can it be accepted completely that the entire territory was called Bharata?

As it seems from the texts, bias and exaggeration towards aryans and brahmins is evident. The southern india was called Deccan, as it lay towards the south. Or it could just be a partial recognition such that a part of bharata might be called deccan.

The debate stands unsettled.


The Etymology of the word Hindustan

Hindustan, the name could be seen slowly emerging along with the expansion of the Delhi sultanate.

The word ‘Hindustan’ originated from persia, during the third century BC to refer to the land lying beyond the river Indus, then known as Sindhu. It was during the Mughal rule when India was officially called ‘Hindustan’ with proper marked territory and people of this area called ‘Hindustani’, irrespective of their religion.

In c.1020 Al-Biruni wrote about Hind in his travelog, “Hind is surrounded on the East by Chín and Máchín, on the West by Sind (Balochistan) and Kábul and on the South by the Sea.”

During the pre colonial times, though the name ‘Hindustan’ was used, early nationalists viewed Hindustan as a name of foreign origin as for them it was a name with reference to a river known to the arabs.

More debates arose when nationalists like V.D Savarkar used it to denote not a geographical area beyond Indus, but as the land of Hindus. His attempt to add religious meaning to the name suggesting that hindustan is the land of hindus, was met with both cheers and resistance and to date, the debate has sparked communal conflicts.


India-many find this name of foreign origin again, brought along with the Europeans who came to the land for trade and commerce. Who doesn’t know about Columbus reaching America and calling it India!

This name too has ancient origins, references and uses. The ancient Greeks referred to ‘India’ and ‘Indica’ and the Latin as ‘India’. During the European imperial and colonial expansion, this term was used for many other territories as well, but slowly it narrowed down to the territory of South Asia occupied by the British.

Indica- a book by Megasthenes is an account of the Mauryan india refers to a really close name to India. He wrote, “India then being four-sided in plan, the side which looks to the Orient and that to the South, the Great Sea compasseth; that towards the Arctic is divided by the mountain chain of Hēmōdus from Scythia, inhabited by that tribe of Scythians who are called Sakai; and on the fourth side, turned towards the West, the Indus marks the boundary, the biggest or nearly so of all rivers after the Nile.”

In c. 440 BCE Herodotus wrote “Eastward of India lies a tract which is entirely sand. Indeed, of all the inhabitants of Asia, concerning whom anything is known, the Indians dwell nearest to the east and the rising of the Sun.”

During his visit in 1298, Marco Polo described  “India the Greater is that which extends from Maabar to Kesmacoran (i.e. from Coromandel to Mekran) and it contains 13 great kingdoms.


The constitution of India was drafted in difficult times. Post world war and a bloody partition, the members sat down to discuss the laws that govern the newly independent nation.

When the draft constitution was presented, it contained the following terms; India that is Bharat, shall be a union of states. Many voices came up regarding the statement as many found issues with the country being called India.

P.V Kamath, proposed the sentence be replaced with, Bharat, or, in English language India, shall be a union of states. Deriving inspiration from the Irish constitution. 

Seth Govind Das proposed Bharat, known as India in foreign countries, shall be a union of states. 

Kamalapati Tripathi wanted Bharat, that is India shall be a union of states. 

INDIA-Modern or Colonial?

However, in the minds of some, ‘India’ remains a colonial relic that should be discarded, the way Sri Lanka gave up ‘Ceylon’. For others, ‘India’ refers only to the modern, more urban parts of India, while ‘Bharat’ is the ‘real India’.

The unequal growth and urbanization witnessed by the country exacerbates this divide. Still, for many, particularly those belonging to younger generations, ‘India’ is simply the same as ‘Bharat’ or ‘Hindustan’. It is inclusive of everything that is India.

This diversity in connotations derived from the same term highlights the thoughtfulness of the decision to have more than one official name for this country. It acknowledges the existence of diversity, the harmonious diversity of ‘Bharata.


After digging deep into the etymology of these different names, each name for different sections of people evokes different emotions, but still binds them all together by patriotism.

Each signifying its own meaning, the name India has been widely accepted and officially named by the country. While both ‘Bharat’ and ‘Hindustan’ can be thought of as synonyms for ‘India’ in different languages – Sanskrit and Persian – they have histories and cultural ties that complicate their connotations.

Nonetheless, Nehru in his “Discovery of India” writes, “… how each part differed from the other and yet was India.” makes it wholesome for the citizens to live amicably calling their country by what name they wish to, staying together with bonds of fraternity.

India has come a long way. From a mother to ancient civilizations to a modern democratic state, it all lies in what the people dwell here.


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