The course of Indian history, like that of other countries in the world, is in large measure determined by its geography. Each of the territorial units into which the hand of nature divides the country has a distinct story of its own. The intersection of the land by deep rivers and winding chains flanked by sandy deserts or impenetrable forests, fostered a spirit of isolation and cleft the country asunder into small political and even social units, whose divergences were accentuated by the infinite variety of local conditions. Tendencies towards union and coalescence are most marked only in the vast riparian plain of the north and the extensive plateau in the interior of the peninsula, enriched and regenerated by the life-giving streams that flow from the heights of the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. The stupendous mountain chain which fences this country off from the rest of Asia, while it constituted India a world by itself and favoured the growth of a distinct type of civilisation, never sufficed to shelter the sunny realms of the Indus and the Ganges from the inroads of ambitious potentates or wandering nomads. These invaders stormed one after another through the narrow defiles that break through the great rocky barrier and lead into the plains of the interior. The long coast studded with wealthy ports “lay open to the barks of” intrepid buccaneers and adventurers from far-off climes.
The mountain passes and the sea, however, were not mere gates of invasion and conquest. They fostered also a more pacific intercourse with the outside world. They brought to this country the pious pilgrim and the peaceful trader and constituted highways for the diffusion of Indian culture and civilisation throughout the greater part of the Asiatic continent as well as the islands that lie off the coast of Coromandel and the peninsula of Malaya.
The size of India is enormous. The country is almost as large as the whole of the continent of Europe without Russia, and is almost twenty times as big as Great Britain. Even more remarkable than the immensity of its area is the extreme diversity of its physical features. India embraces within its boundaries lofty mountains steeped in eternal snow, as well as flat plains “salted by every tide,” and deserts almost untouched by the feet of man, as well as fertile river valleys supporting a population of over three thousand persons to the square mile. The greater part of this sub-continent had been knit into one political unit in the nineteenth century. But from August 15, 1947, two self-governing Dominions were carved out of it, known respectively as India and Pakistan, which form parts of the British Commonwealth. There are, however, certain areas, e.g. Nepal and Bhutan, which lie outside the limits of this Commonwealth. There were, moreover, more than five hundred states, ruled by Indian Princes, with a total area of about 1,813,000 square kilometers, which commemorated the vanished glory of defunct kingdoms and empires, and enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy in internal affairs under the aegis of the British Crown. They have now been integrated with either India or Pakistan.
The magnitude of the population of India is quite in keeping with the immensity of its geographical dimensions. As early as the fifth century BC, Herodotus observed that “of all the nations that we know, it is India which has the largest population.” The total number of inhabitants included within the sub-continent, excluding Burma, according to the Census of 1961, amounted to about five hundred and twenty millions, or about one-sixth of that of the whole world. This huge assemblage of human beings is made up of diverse ethnic groups, split up into countless castes, professing numerous creeds, speaking about two hundred different languages and dialects. It represents every phase of social evolution, from that of the primitive tribesman who still lives by hunting and collecting forest produce, to that of the polished inhabitant of cities well equipped with the most up-to-date scientific or humanistic lore.
A close examination of this variegated conglomeration of races, castes and creeds reveals, however, a, deep underlying unity which is apt to be missed by the superficial observer. This unity was undoubtedly nurtured in the nineteenth century by a uniform system of administration, easy means of communication and the spread of education on modern lines. It is a mistake, however, to suppose that it is wholly the outcome of recent events and was quite nonexistent in ages long gone by. The fundamental unity of India is emphasised by the name Bharata-Varsha, or land of Bharata, given to the whole country in the Epics and the Puranas, and the designation Bharati santati, or descendants of Bharata, applied to its people.
Uttaram yat samudrasya
Varsham tad Bharatam nama
Bharati yatra santatih.”
(Vishnu Purana, II, 3.1.)
“The country that lies north of the ocean
and south of the snowy mountains
is called Bharata;
there dwell the descendants of Bharata.”
This sense of unity was ever present before the minds of the theologians, political philosophers and poets who spoke of the “thousand Yojanas (leagues) of land that stretch from the Himalayas to the sea as the proper domain of a single universal emperor” and eulogised monarchs who sought to extend their sway from the snowy mountains in the north to Adam’s Bridge in the south, and from the valley of the Brahmaputra in the east to the land beyond the seven mouths of the Indus in the west. In the third century BC, a single language, Prakrit, sufficed to bring the message of a royal missionary to the doors of his humblest subjects throughout this vast sub-continent. A few centuries later another language, Sanskrit, found its way to the royal archives of the remotest comers of this country. The ancient epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—were studied with as much devotion in the courts of the Tamil and Kanarese countries” in the intellectual circles of Taxila in the western Punjab, and Naimisharanya in the upper Ganges Valley. The old religion of the Vedas and the Puranas still gives solace to the vast majority of the people of this country, and temples in honour of Siva and Vishnu raise their spires on the snowy heights of the Himalayas well as in the flat deltas of the religious communities that do not worship in these shrines have not been altogether unaffected by their Hindu surrounding. Instances are not unknown of friendship and communion between saints and prophets of rival creeds. Since the days of al-Biruni many adherents of Islam, the second great religion of India in point of numbers, have shown a profound interest in the science, philosophy and religion of their Hindu brethren, and to this day Hindu practices are not altogether a negligible factor in the village life of this country for the votaries of a different creed. Islam with its ideals of social democracy and imperialism has, in its turn, done much to counteract the fissiparous tendencies of caste and check the centrifugal forces in Indian politics by keeping alive the ideal of a Pan-Indian State throughout the Middle Ages.