History Files



An Introduction to India

by Peter Kessler, 1 April 1999. Updated 15 March 2009



India has less of a tradition of political unity than China or Japan. Indeed, most of the names for India (such as "India," "Hindustan") are not even Indian.

It is not easy to find a truly native (ie. Hindu) name for the whole country which is called India, but the conception certainly existed from an early date. Bharatavarsha is used apparently in the Puranas with something like this conception. Bharatavarsa meant the "division of the world" (varsa) of the Bharatas - the heroes of the great Mahabharata epic.

Naming India

An independent India in 1947 decided to officially become Bharat (the short final "a" not being pronounced in Hindi). When a unified state has occurred in Indian history, it has had varying religious, political, and even linguistic bases: eg. Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, and foreign. The rule of the sultans of Delhi and the Moghul emperors was at once Islamic and foreign, since most of them were Turkish or Afghan, and the Moghul dynasty was founded directly by incursion from Afghanistan.

The supremely foreign unification of India, of course, was by the British, under whom India achieved its greatest unity, although lost upon independence to the religious division between India and Pakistan. The Moghuls and British called India by its name in their own languages (ie. "Hindustan" and "India" respectively).

In addition to these complications, Indian history is also less well known and dated than that of China or Japan. Classical Indian literature displays little interest in history proper, which must be reconstructed from monumental inscriptions and foreign references.

The dating of both the Mauryas and the Guptas displays small uncertainties (the rulers and dates for them are taken from Stanley Wolpert's A New History of India, Oxford University Press, 1989). The "Saka Era," as the Indian historical era, significantly starts rather late (AD 79) in relation to the antiquity of Indian civilisation.

Indeed, like Greece (circa 1200-800 BC) and Britain (circa AD 400-800), India experienced a "Dark Ages" period, circa 1500-800 BC, in which literacy was lost and the Harappan civilisation vanished from history altogether.

In Depth

Such twilight periods may enhance the vividness of quasi-historical mythology like the Iliad, the Arthurian legends, and the Mahabharata.

India changed forever when, from the seventeenth century BC, the Aryans, a grouping of Indo-Europeans who spread from the Asian Steppes over much of Europe, the upper middle East and India, moved over the Hindu Kush mountains to eventually dominate Indian society. This changed Indian language, leaving many similarities between its languages and those of Persia and Europe.

Language links

The first systematic theory of the relationships between human languages began when Sir William Jones, "Oriental Jones," proposed in 1788 that Greek and Latin, the classical languages of Europe, and Sanskrit, the classical language of India, had all descended from a common source.

The evidence for this came from both the structure of the languages - Sanskrit grammar has similarities to Greek and to nothing else - and the vocabulary of the languages. Therefore, "father" in English compares to "vater" in German, "pater" in Latin, "patÍr" in Greek, "pitr" in Sanskrit, "pedar" in Persian, etc.

On the other hand, "father" in Arabic is "ab," which hardly seems like any of the others (although strangely, it is the same as one of the most common forms of the same word in the Welsh language).

This became the theory of "Indo-European" languages, and today the hypothetical language that would be the common source for all Indo-European languages is called "Proto-Indo-European".

Words that are related to each other by descent from a common source are called "cognates". English "wise" and Sanskrit "veda" are thus cognates. Note that descent can become confused when words are subsequently borrowed.

English has borrowed "idea" and "agnostic" from Greek, "video", "visa", and "cognition" from Latin, "vista" from Spanish, etc. Another striking example of cognates are all the following words for "is" - modern French and Persian pronunciation is given in parentheses:










est (Í)




ast (Í)



Text copyright © P L Kessler. An original feature for the History Files.