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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

India in Our Minds

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By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial for Penang Monthly, December 2013

Today when we talk about the rise of China and India, we lazily think of them as similar items — as ancient and rich civilizations coming into their own in modern times. We should also remind ourselves though of how deeply they captured the imagination of the world for millennia, and will continue to do so.

This month, let’s take a peek at the idea of “India”.

For starters, no Indian language except Tamil [which uses the term “Inthiya”] refers to the country as India. They generally use “Bharat” instead. Amusingly, “Bharata” in some old contexts denotes the whole world: Emperor Bharata presumptively ruled over all the Earth. This is reminiscent of Chinese emperors governing “Tianxia” [All under Heaven].

Commonly, Indians use “Hindustan” to refer to their country—the place where the Indus flows. [“Hindu” was the Persian name for the province of Sind, which was derived from the Sanskrit word for river, “Sindhu”].

Herodotus the Greek historian wrote in 400 BC: “Indeed, of all the inhabitants of Asia concerning whom anything is known, the Indians dwell nearest to the east, and the rising of the Sun.”

This proposes that the ancient world to the west of India was fascinated by the image of this fantastic place where grains, gold and gurus were in abundance. What a magnet it must have been, as it later would be for Muslim Moguls—and British Beatles.

One has to marvel at how Alexander the Great [356-323 BC] who lived just after Herodotus, adamantly kept his army marching east towards the rising sun. It is understandable that he wished to overwhelm the Persians, but having done that, he seemed unable to stop pursuing the illusive end of the world, until forced to desist by his own men and by Indian armies. He died on his way home, his dream unfulfilled.

India was indeed the place to explore, to exploit and to conquer; the place where one sought enlightenment and searched for gold. From the east journeyed hundreds of ancient Chinese monks such as Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing westward seeking Buddha’s innumerable sutras.

As lonely European seafarers began conquering oceans, they gave places they stumbled upon names like Virginia and Nova Scotia to remind them of home. They also needed to exemplify the mirage-like and hazy worlds found in their minds. India figured prominently there. Christopher Columbus was heading for India, though he ended up in the Caribbean, which soon became the West Indies. In the opposite direction, the East Indies manifested itself, as did “Indonesia”.

“Indonesia” [meaning Indian Archipelago] was interestingly popularized by the Scottish lawyer James Logan [1819-1869] of Penang fame. Logan was editor of the influential Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia throughout its existence [1847-1862]. Needless to say, Penang was part of this archipelago.

As we now know, conquering all of India may have been the crowning triumph of the British Empire but trying to control it was the quagmire that finally overwhelmed it.

The idea of India shimmers on though, and will continue to enthral the world.

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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