Education About Asia: Online Archives

Top Ten Things to Know about India in the Twenty-First Century

Download PDF


“The first and most essential thing to learn about India,” declared a famous British administrator in 1888, is “that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious.”(note 1) The statement sounds startlingly silly until one notices the defining clause, “according to European ideas.” Then one can change it to read, “One of the most essential things to learn about India is to not try to fit it into a European idea of what is essential for India.” Confusion arises because the term “India” has been used, by both foreigners and Indians, for four quite different entities. India is, first of all, a geographic term for the subcontinental region demarcated by the great sweep of hills and mountains from the northwest on the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal on the northeast, and bordered on two sides by those seas and the Indian Ocean. The ancient literature makes clear its people were aware of this distinctive, well defined land mass.

But India and Indian refer to another India, to a civilization and its cultural components—religion, philosophy, art, literature—that through the centuries has flourished in the region called Bharat in the ancient literature. It was the civilization of many kingdoms and empires from Kashmir to Tamilnadu, but was not exclusively identified with any particular one. This civilization not only dominated territorial India but was exported throughout Asia, especially Southeast Asia. Then India is used for a third India, best known to the Western world from the empire established in the subcontinent by Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, although the word was not officially used until 1833 when the East India Company official who had been known as Governor-General of Fort William in Bengal was designated Governor-General of India by the British Parliament.

The fourth India is, of course, the modern nation-state which became independent in 1947, making using “India” for the first time the name of a sovereign state. While its geographic inheritance is only part of the territorial India that had been ruled by Britain, it claims as its historical inheritance the civilizations, cultures, and political states that have flourished in the region for millennia. Here is the source of tensions and passions in relations with Pakistan, the other successor state of imperial India, in quarrels over its sovereignty in Kashmir and with China over other border areas in the Northeast. Probably most important for the future, however, is the claim made by powerful groups in contemporary India that Indian nationalism must be defined in terms of the second India, of the culture that was indigenous to the region, which they define as Hindutva, the culture of Hindu India.


1. Sir John Strachey, India (London: Kegan Paul, 1888), 1 –8.