Bharatywhatta?

We know it as India, and the ever-helpful Indians also refer to their country by that name when they speak to the rest of the world. But just as the name for China among the Chinese is not ‘China’ but ‘Zhonghua’, or ‘The Middle Kingdom’, so the actual Hindi name for India among Indians is ‘Bharat’. On Indian lips it would sound like ‘Bart’.

‘Bharat’ is from Sanskrit, the ancient lingua franca of the subcontinent. It was the name of the mythical emperor Bharata (compare with Europe, named after the goddess Europa), but it also means ‘to be maintained’, as in a fire to be nurtured and kept alight, or in other words a hearth-fire – a term used widely across ancient cultures for ‘home’: safety, harmony, identity. In ancient Greek, for example, the word for hearth is ‘oikos’, from which we derive ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’.

In any case, ‘Bharat’ means home, it means motherland, or ‘Bharata Mata’ as Indians often say – Mother India.

‘India’, on the other hand, is originally from Greek and refers, with a foreigner’s eye, to the river Indus – across which, to the east, the Hindus dwelt. The name of the river itself comes from Sanskrit-influenced Old Persian: ‘Hind’, from ‘sindhu’, or river. So even though ‘India’ is sort of an Indian word, it’s a stranger’s definition.

If Bharat is the nation, then ‘Bharatiyata’ is the essence of its people – it simply means ‘Indianness’, and is a word sufficiently capacious to contain all the aspects and elements of the vibrant reality of the country and its people. That is one of the reasons I chose it as the name of this website, which is devoted to explaining to foreigners everything I can about India. It also, of course, implies an Indian’s view of the world rather than a foreigner’s of India (even though I am a foreigner, I am going to do my best to see things from an Indian’s point of view).

So I think the name fits, and if you say that it is foolish to use a funny-sounding foreign word to try to catch the attention of Westerners, I reply that on the contrary, it is deliberate and necessary, for it is my ambition to spread the word ‘Bharatiyata’ far and wide in the English-speaking world. In twenty years’ time India will be one of the foremost economic and cultural influences on the planet, so best get acquainted with the language starting right now! (Of course, the polite Indians also speak English, so no problem.)

Hindi is colourful and hip as well, and you might be surprised at just how much Hindi there already is in English, not only from shared linguistic roots in pre-historical times, but also from the centuries in which the British were guests (cough, cough) in the subcontinent. For example, Prime Minister Modi recently launched an initiative named ‘Swachh Bharat’ or ‘Clean Up India’. It was to encourage Indians to tidy their frankly squalid and scrofulous cities. The interesting thing is that ‘swachh’ means broom. In English one name for a broom is a ‘switch’, and both originate in Sanskrit, of course, and mean ‘a slender, flexible shoot cut from a tree.’ It clearly got to English from Hindi (it enters the language about the time we started to have serious international trade in the late 1500s, via the Dutch who were already in India). When you use a broom to sweep up you ‘swish’, see? Which is why if you are graceful or indeed hip, you might be called swish as well, slender and supple of body and soul. Well, that’s Hindi for you.

There’s another reason for me to stress Bharat instead of India/Hind, a political one, and that is ‘Hindutva’ (pronounced ‘Hindutwa’), a rival name for ‘Indianness’, but a much narrower one. Over the past few decades it has become the by-word for extreme Indian nationalism. Modi has often been accused of espousing it, although whenever I mentioned it to him a look of weariness would pass across his face: he just was not interested at all. In truth, no matter what the left-wing, Congress-supporting Indian media say, violent Hindutwa is not the preserve of the present Indian government but only a few extreme chauvinist head-bangers nowhere near the levers of political power. I’ll write about all this in detail in other posts.

In the meantime suffice to sum it up in this way: if we say that a patriot is someone who loves his country and a nationalist is someone who hates his neighbours, then Hindutva is surly parochialism whereas the energies of Bharatiyata are akin to love of and pride in one’s country. Bharatiyata is about engaging with the world and making Indianness a vital force for global peace and prosperity.

So pronounce it like an Indian: ‘Bart-yatta’. Say it twice, quickly. Now you’ve got it!