Reinventing Akhanda Bharat as an Economic Union of South Asian Nations & Why the Narendra Modi govt. should pursue it?
Many thinktanks have been examining the potential economic opportunities in Southeast Asia and its ramifications for global economic prosperity. Considering the ongoing pandemic-inflicted recession, realizing these opportunities is becoming crucial for the future of the global economy. In this context, the ancient Indian idea of Akhanda (undivided) Bharat as a Socio-economic-cultural union of South Asian nations requires serious consideration.
In this in-depth essay U. Mahesh Prabhu with inputs from Dr David Frawley present the past and the future of Bharat as such an economic union, comprising of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with influences into Malayasia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Origins of Bharat
In the ancient Vedas, the Indian subcontinent was called Jambudweepa which in Vedic Sanskrit literally translates to A large Island which can also be interpreted as a Continent. In Vyasa’s Mahabharata, originally called Jaya, the land is referred to as Bharat Varsha after king Bharat who is believed to have been a great emperor and exemplary ruler (Mahantam).
Bharat had three wives and three sons with each one of them: a total of nine sons. When it was time for the king to retire, he began interviewing his sons to find a deserving successor. When he realized that all were bereft of wisdom, he then chose an orphaned but deserving youth named Bhumanyu and installed him on the throne to ensure the welfare of his subjects, rather than the members his own family.
Mahantam is a Vedic Sanskrit term composed of two words, namely Maam or Self and Hantam or End. Mahantam is any person who transcends selfishness; it is also the Vedic Sanskrit word for Greatness. Because Bharat transcended his selfish interest and the interest of his own children for the greater welfare of his people – the Rishis declared him Mahantam and as a mark of their gratitude his subjects called the entire sub-continent as Bharat.
Bharat after Bhumanyu
After the death of Emperor Bharat his adopted successor Bhumanyu completed his mission to integrate the Indian subcontinent under one rule. The land he ruled is described by Vyasa in his Mahabharata as thus:
Uttaram Yat Samudrasya Himadraschaiva cha Dakshinam |
Varsham tat Bharatam naama Bharati Yatra Sanskritihi ||
The land mass which is to the north of oceans and south of Himalayas is the land called Bharat with a Sanskriti (or culture) called Bharati.
After Bhumanyu, the land became divided into multiple kingdoms; yet all these peoples held on to their greater identity as a Bharatiya (i.e., citizens of Bharat.)
Many centuries later, Vikramaditya, one of the towering kings of ancient India had his capital in Ujjain in central India; but his rule spread throughout this land which continued to be called as Bharat.
When the British ruled over the Indian subcontinent, there were over five hundred princely states with independent political systems – yet a citizen of the Maratha Confederacy was free to travel to the State of Mysore or the Sultanate of Hyderabad without any passport.
The Ramakrishna Mission publication “Colombo to Almora” which records the travels of Swami Vivekananda from Sri Lanka in the South to the North of India after his historic lecture at World Religious Congress in 1893, shows this young monk traveling across scores of princely states without permits, passports, or visas. This cultural connection helped the first Home Minister of India – Sardar Vallabhai Patel – integrate more than five hundred princely states into the Indian union except for Pakistan.
Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which was essentially the written constitution of the Maurya Empire in the fourth century BCE, shows the administrative influence of the empire from Gandhara or Afghanistan in the West to Kamboja or Cambodia in the East, from the Himalayas in the North to the Sahyadri Mountains (Maharashtra) in the South.
It is important to note here that Mauryan rule did not include South India. The South was ruled primarily by the large Pandya and Chola kingdoms. Mauryan kings made it a point not to have any conflict with these southern kingdoms. Rather they allowed a free pass for their citizens as a sign of respect for their political and military independence.
The Mauryas exported many products like cotton, wheat, jaggery, and pottery to these southern kingdoms who also were the maritime naval superpowers of the times. The southern kingdoms had trade connections across southeast Asia from China, Japan, and Korea in the East until Greece in the West. The Cholas and Pandyas had the most powerful navy in the Indo-Pacific. Yet recognized themselves as Bharatiya.
Bharat had become a cultural, social, intellectual and economic union that helped the subcontinent prosper for several thousand years. And even though post 1000 AD many Islamic invaders entered the land to plunder and rule over it, they had to recognize the importance of the unitary concept of Bharat, albeit rebranding it as Hindustan, and profit from its older economic connections. Because of this Islamic kingdoms, including the Mughals, prospered economically.
The Dutch, French, Portuguese, and English came to the subcontinent with primarily economic interests. They were happy that they didn’t have to pay taxes for this. Sadly, they chose to play one kingdom against the other for their own economic gains. And against all other pretenses, the British administrative system was purely for economic exploitation, not to help the country or its people.
Bharat in the Twenty-First Century as an Economic Union of South Asian Nations
Post-Independence modern India was divided into three regions: India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). This had detrimental economic consequences. India lost its ability to connect directly with Iran, Afghanistan and South-Asian nations like Myanmar, seamlessly. This ruptured the ability of India to connect with promising economies, particularly Korea and Japan. Poor administration by Indian politicians worsened the national infrastructure and crippled its ability to become once more the South Asian economic power. which it was before the advent of the British.
Today, Pakistan is becoming a failed state. Its economy is hanging by a thread and with reduced American support the country seems willing to become a puppet state of China in exchange for modest loans and extensions of repayments.
India’s government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to reconnect with Afghanistan, but with recent arrival of Taliban the situation has become uncertain. PM Modi has highlighted the importance of a dedicated road link from India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. Yet the project is only in its early stages. Should the scope of this road extended to include Sri Lanka, Pakistan & Afghanistan the possibilities are commensurate.
Today, given the current global economic crisis and the related problems of South Asian nations, it is relevant again to promote the older idea of Akhanda Bharat as an Economic Union of South Asian nations something like European Union, but with a better economic system in place. A union where people could move freely, have a central economic bank with a strong monetary policy, a single currency and an efficient corporate laws and legal systems for boosting spirit of industry as well as entrepreneurship.
Of course, this will not be easy to achieve; but given the global circumstances may not be that difficult either. The rise of China has great many Southeast Asian nations worried, as they continue to make military overtures in the South China Sea and along the border between India and Tibet. These nations have preferred India’s leadership of balance and equanimity to the repressive domination of Mandarin speaking Communists.
Challenges in realizing Akhanda Bharat
Such an economic union can bring many opportunities and usher in an era of sustainable peace and prosperity to the region – better than the Australia, US, and UK pact – AUKUS. The region has the population, resources, and knowhow to create, produce, sell, and become prosperous as an economic zone of its own. Even if Pakistan opposes it, which is likely at least in the initial phases, it can still thrive with the many countries of the region. But if Pakistan does join it could very well learn to live with peace and harmony with other member nations – particularly India.
The important factor to achieve this feat is leadership. Here PM Modi has clearly demonstrated an ability to bring head of states together, both globally and regionally. In 2018, in a unprecedented move he was able to bring Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos, Najib Razak of Malaysia, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and Rodrigo Duterte of Philippines as chief guests for India’s Republic Day celebration to send a clear message to Communist China.
Should Modi’s administration develop this idea of a new Bharat that embraces the entire region from Afghanistan to Vietnam, he is sure to go down in history not just as the leader who rebuilt India but, also as the statemen who brought sustained peace and prosperity to all South Asia, the old realm of Bharat.
Vedic sages have left us in their teachings the know-how to achieve a unity of nations on the foundation of brotherhood, equality and dignity in the Vedic art and science of Rajaneeti and Kootaneeti. These teachings continue to hold the key to solving some of the world’s complex problems – only if we are willing to learn from them. They provide us the knowledge and wisdom to prosper together with the vast resources around us and the new technology, by renewing the vision of Bharatiyata and heritage in India and with its neighbouring countries, which have long shared deep connections. Of course, this is a daunting task but it remains an inspiring vision for the future.