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Decoding the idea of India

It is often said that Indian history is not very different from that of other parts of the world: the same power struggles, the same tales of warfare, treachery or conquest, the same social injustices and exploitation.

The conclusion, explicitly stated or not, is that India’s road to progress lies in the modern “idea” of a “secular” nation built on the democratic structures and principles that post-Enlightenment Europe created for itself. Nothing better can be conceived of, apparently, even though Western democracies are increasingly beset with challenges to their very foundations.

But let us remain with India for now. As a nation, modern India, thus, emerged from the colonial age; there is no dispute on that. But did something identifiable as “India” exist earlier? When the ancient Greeks referred to “India”, the Chinese to “Tianzhu” or the Arabs to “Hind”, they had in mind something more than a mere geographical expanse beyond the Hindu Kush or the Himalayas; what their testimonies express is an underlying cultural unity as a defining factor for “India”.

Said al-Andalusi, a Spanish historian and astronomer, for instance, wrote in 1068,

“The Indians, among all nations, through the centuries and since antiquity, were the source of wisdom, justice and moderation. They were a people endowed with virtues of self-control, creators of sublime thoughts, universal fables, rare inventions and remarkable conceptions.”
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