At a time when India is being projected as eternal, when the chanting of Bharat Mata ki jai has become a testimony to patriotism and refusal to do so invites the wrath of Hindutva outfits and political parties, it is pertinent to look at the history of the country known as Bharat whose antiquity cannot be pushed too far back in time.
The earliest references
The geographical horizon of the Aryans was limited to the north western part of the Indian subcontinent known as Saptasindhava. The Vedic texts do not mention the word Bharata in the sense of a country though they refer to the tribe of Bharatas at several places in different contexts. In Panini’s Ashtadhyayi (500 BC) we find a reference to Prachya Bharata in the sense of a territory (janapada) which lay between udichya (north) and prachya (east). It must have been a small region occupied by the Bharata tribe and cannot be equated with the Akhanda ­Bharata or Bharata of the Hindutva brigade.
The earliest reference to Bharatavarsha (Prakrit Bharadhavasa) is found in the inscription of the Orissan king Kharavela (first century BC), who lists it among the territories he invaded: but it did not include Magadha, which is mentioned sepa­rately in the record. The word here may therefore refer in a general way to northern India, its precise territorial connotation remaining vague. A much larger geographical region is visualised by the use of the word in the Mahabharata (200 BC to AD 300), which provides a good deal of geographical information about the subcontinent, but a large part of the Deccan and the far south does not find any place in it. Banabhatta’s Kadambari (seventh century), at one place describes Bharatavarsha as being ruled by Tarapida, who “set his seal on the four oceans”. But since it is referred to as excluding Ujjaini from it, the location and boundaries of Bharat are far from clear.
Bharatavarsha figures prominently in the Puranas, but they describe its shape variously. In some passages it is likened to a half-moon, in others it is said to resemble a triangle; in yet others it appears as a rhomboid or an unequal quadrilateral or a drawn bow. The Markandeya Purana compares the shape of the country with that of a tortoise floating on water and facing east. Most of the Puranas describe Bharatavarsha as being divided into nine dvipas or khandas, separated by seas and mutually inac­cessible.
The Puranic conception of Bharatavarsha has similarity with the ideas of ancient Indian astronomers like Varahamihira (sixth century AD) and Bhaskaracharya (11th century), though in their perception it does not seem to have included southern India. Although a 14th-century record mentions Bharata as extending from the Himalayas to the southern sea, by and large, the available textual and epigraphic references to it do not indicate that the term stood for India as we know it today.
A part of Jambudvipa
In many texts Bharata is said to have been a part of Jambudvipa, which itself had an uncertain geographical connotation. The Vedic texts do not mention it; nor does Panini, though he refers to the jambu (rose apple) tree. The early Buddhist canonical works provide the earliest reference to the continent called Jambudvipa (Pali, Jambudipa), its name being derived from the jambu tree which grew there. Juxtaposed with Sihaladipa (Sans. Simhaladvipa=Sri Lanka), of the inscriptions of Ashoka, Jambudipa stands for the whole of his empire, which covered nearly the entire Indian subcontinent excluding its far southern part. He unified the major part of the Indian subcontinent and called it Jambudipa. But he did not use the word Bharat to denote this vast land mass.
Despite the use of the word Jambudipa for the whole of his empire, the ambiguity about its territorial connotation is borne out by both epigraphic and literary sources during the subsequent centuries. In a sixth-century inscription of Toramana, for instance, Jambudvipa occurs without any precise territorial connotation, and in the Puranic cosmological schema, it appears more as a mythical region than as a geographical entity. According to the Puranas the world consists of “seven concentric dvipas or islands, each of which is encircled by a sea, the central island called Jambu­dvipa…”. This is similar to the cosmological imaginings of the Jains who, however, placed Jambudvipa at the centre of the central land (madhyaloka) of the three-tiered structure of the universe. According to another Puranic conception, which has much in common with the Buddhist cosmological ideas, the earth is divided into four mahadvipas, Jambudvipa being larger than the others. In both these conceptions of the world, Bharatavarsha is at some places said to be a part of Jambudvipa but at others the two are treated as identical. The geographical conception of both Bharat and Jambudvipa are thus factitious and of questionable value.
Abanindranath Tagore/ ‘Banga Mata’ water colour that he later decided to title 'Bharat Mata'.  1905.
Abanindranath Tagore/ ‘Banga Mata’ water colour that he later decided to title 'Bharat Mata'. 1905.
Bharat as Mother
It was only from the late 19th century that Bharatvarsha in the sense of the whole subcontinent, and Bharat as Mother found their way into the popular vocabulary. The anonymous work Unabimsapurana (1866), KC Bandyopadhyaya’s play called Bharat Mata (1873) and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Anandmath (1880) were among the earliest works to popularise the notion of Bharatmata. Its visual evocation came perhaps not earlier than 1905 in a painting by Abanindranath Tagore, who conceived of the image as one of Bangamata but later, “almost as an act of generosity towards the larger cause of Indian nationalism, decided to title it ‘Bharatmata’”.
Far from being eternal, Bharat mata is thus little more than a 100 years old. Insistence on her inhabitants forming a nation in ancient times is sophistry. It legitimatises the Hindutva perception of Indian national identity as located in remote antiquity, accords centrality to the supposed primordiality of Hinduism and spawns Hindu cultu­ral nationalism which prompts the saffron brigade to bully the Indian people into chanting of Bharat Mata Ki Jai.
DN Jha is former Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of Delhi