Till a few decades ago, the concept of India’s cultural unity was so self-evident that few scholars or statesmen would have thought of questioning it. Let us consider the following observation:
This straightforward statement, which few of our intellectuals would dare to make today, is found in the introduction to Vincent Smith’s classic Oxford History of India. Rarely do we find such an agreement between the colonial view of India and that of leading Indian figures of the day. Let us hear one of them:
Today, such a language is disparaged. A steady stream of Marxist and postmodernist literature has sought to establish the now politically correct view that there exists no such underlying unity of “body” for India; and since we are told that the Hindu identity is an “imagined” one, there can be no “United States of a social federation, whose common name is Hinduism.” Tagore’s plain statement would make our postmodernist scholars cringe. Their scholarly “deconstruction” goes farther: not only does it deny a Hindu identity, it brings new myths into play: the myth of Thomas the Apostle’s evangelizing mission to India, so as to retroactively create an antiquity for a Christian identity in this country, and therefore an equal claim to its cultural sphere; the myth of a “liberalizing Islam,” which freed India’s oppressed castes; the myth of a colonial rule bringing “modern” education to India and preparing the country for modernity. But we are not concerned here with such narratives(and any narrative seems acceptable as long as it portrays Hindu society and culture as divisive, oppressive and retrograde). Rather, we must face the central question: Was there or not in ancient India a sense of cultural unity throughout this geographical expanse? And was there a political unity—and if so, when and to what extent?
Cultural Unity: a Sacred Geography
India’s geographical unity, at least, is not questionable. The Vishnu Purana’s definition is unambiguous: The country that lies north of the ocean, and south of the snowy mountains, is called Bharata. (II.3.1) But this Bharata is not an abstract expanse; it is a sacred geography given shape to by dense networks of holy places, tirthas that skilfully criss cross the Indian landmass. Among the many lists of such pilgrimage sites, let us mention:
• 51 (or 52) Shakti peethas covering the whole of India, with some of them inNepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka: in this tradition, the very land becomes the body of the Mother;
• twelve Jyotirlingas, from Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west to Kedarnath in the north, Vaidyanath (Deogarh) in the east, and Rameswaram in the south;
• four Char Dham pilgrimage sites of the Himalayas (Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath & Kedarnath);
• four locations for the Kumbhamela (Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik);
• five sacred confluences (among many more): Vishnuprayag, Nandaprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, Devprayag;
• 108 Divyadesams or Vaishnavite shrines, most of them in the South;
• five important temples of Shiva in the South, each associated with one of the panchabhutas;
• pilgrimage routes established by India’s spiritual figures, from Shankaracharya to Swami Vivekananda, also tended to frame as much of the land as possible,“ from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.”
Such a web created on the map the concept of punyabhumi: one holy land present and living in everyone’s mind. It was constantly recalled to one’s memory through a variety of devices, for instance, the many mantras and prayers listing India’s sacred rivers in various orders (generally starting with Ganga). And of course the impact of the two Epics, which not only mention most regions of India, the Mahabharata especially, but were warmly adopted by every region, to such a point that it is hard to find a place in India through which the Pandavas or Rama did not pass at some time or the other! The unparalleled cultural integration effected by the Epics was so powerful that it extended to much of South East Asia, a fact readily acknowledged by nations such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia or Vietnam.
As far as India is concerned, the result was the creation of one integrated cultural entity: early Greek, Chinese and Arab travellers recognized it as such and referred to India as one country, not several. Islamic invaders too (or their chroniclers, such as Al-Beruni) had no doubt in their mind that Al’hind was one country, not many separate ones.
Tribal communities were not left out in the process; not only was their worldview always close to, or at least compatible with, that of Hinduism, but also the organic interaction between the two was constant, peaceful and far-reaching. A startling illustration can be found in a recent study that found among a few tribal communities of Western India the survival of a most ancient cult to the Vedic god Indra (called “Babo Ind”), while mainstream, “Brahminical” Hinduism rarely if ever worships Indra anymore. Similarly, rural and tribal communities throughout the country, including the North-East, have preserved and continue to enact their own versions of the two Epics through tales, songs, new myths and customs.
In effect, we could empirically define Hinduism as the result of a centuries-old peaceful, organic and decentralized interplay between Vedic and local cultures at all levels of Indian society, including the tribal one. Indeed, a recent study by Sandhya Jain on tribal contributions to Hinduism establishes that “Tribal society constitutes the keynote and the bedrock of Hindu civilization.”
The dominant colonial view of India was that whether or not this cultural unity was conceded, the subcontinent was home to a loose congeries of disparate and often unrelated ethnic groups, regional powers, languages and local cultures, none of which constituted a “nation” in the European sense of the term; it was the British Raj that created the Indian nation, not the Indians. Without going here into the considerable difference between the Indian and European concept of nationhood, we must point out that if the colonial rule did end up in creating a nation in the accepted sense, India had often achieved political unity in the distant past.
Attempts at political integration may be said to begin as early as in the third millennium BCE, with the Indus-Sarasvati civilization (2600-1900 BCE) spreading its remarkable administration and high standards over nearly one million square kilometres, almost a third of modern India. Whatever their protohistoric dates may be, the Vedic samhitas have a rich vocabulary of terms for rulers (raja, adhiraja, samraj, rajadhiraja or “king of kings”), sovereignty (rajya, samrajya,bhaujya, svarajya, vairajya, paramashthya, maharajya, adhipatya ...), and assemblies (sabha, samiti). We see this translated on the ground in the early republics of the Ganges Valley at the start of its urbanization, and on a grander scale with the repeated attempts to unify the whole subcontinent: the Mauryan Empire encompassed most of it (except the far South) and much of Afghanistan. Later empires (especially the Gupta) did not quite match the Mauryan reach but ended up strengthening India’s cultural unity.
However, the term “empire” evokes an absolute monarch heading an oligarchy and thus distracts us from a more important phenomenon: absolute monarchy was unknown in India, as everywhere elaborate systems of assemblies gave a considerable measure of control to communities at various levels. Exploring the growth of a democratic mind in India, historian Steve Muhlberger concluded:
"The experience of Ancient India with republicanism, if better known, would by itself make democracy seem less of a freakish development,and help dispel the common idea that the very concept of democracy is specifically “Western.” ... It is especially remarkable that, during the near-millennium between 500 B.C. and 400 A.D., we find republics almost anywhere in India that our sources allow us to examine society in any detail. ... The republics of India were very likely more extensive and populous than the poleis of the Greeks. The existence of Indian republicanism is a discovery of the twentieth century. The implications of this phenomenon have yet to be fully digested. ...Historians may find, in the Indian past as elsewhere, plenty of raw material for a new history of the development of human government. 
The phrase “almost anywhere in India” points, again, to a political unity, if not in terms of a precise entity, at least of India’s political mind.
The Case of the North-East
The above sketchy musings find an illustration in the case of the North-East, so long the object of separatist propaganda. One of their favourite lines of attack is that the “North-East was never a part of India,” either culturally or politically. Thankfully we have much impeccable evidence to demonstrate the fallacy of the argument. The briefest highlights will do for our present purpose:
• At Bhishmaknagar (Arunachal) excavations revealed a fort of classic type(according to the Arthashastra’s specifications) covering some ten square kilometres; Hindu deities of the 8th -10th centuries were found at the spot.
• At the important site of Vadagokugiri (or Bhaitbari, in the West Garo hills of Meghalaya), partly excavated in 1992 by A. K. Sharma,  a fortified ancient capital town came to light, with many temples, huge tanks, well-laid meta roads and junctions. The brick temples (some of them in Orissa style, facing east) displayed Ganesha figures, Sivalingas with yonis, terracotta plaques of Brahma (or Shiva), Sarasvati, Kali, ascetics, gandharvas, dancing girls, etc. A Buddhist stupa was also unearthed, the first in Meghalaya, as well as a remarkable octagonal Siva temple, the first of its kind, found in North-East India. The pottery of the lowest layers showed an early occupation of the site, on a smaller scale, right from 2nd century BCE.
.• In 1980, a gold mask was recovered from a hillock in Imphal (Manipur), along with bronze and stone statues of Buddha from Kakching, Chandeland Leuthabal.
• Turning to the literature, the Ramayana refers to “Pragjyotisha” as a city built with gold on a seaside mountain (known as Varaha with golden peaks), ruled by Naraka. This king is in fact mentioned in pre-Ahom inscriptions as the founder of the Bhauma-Naraka or Varman dynasty. He is referred to as the father of the first historical ruler, Pushyavarman(4th century CE).
• The Mahabharata mentions “Pragjyotisha” as a great citadel ruled by the valorous Naraka, who stole Aditi’searrings (they were recovered by Krishna). Naraka’s son, Bhagadatta (also mentioned in inscriptions, such as the Nalanda seal of Bhaskaravarman), was a friend of Pandu and fought against Arjuna with an army of Chinas, Kiratas and elephants in the course of Arjuna’s northern expedition. 
• Panini shows his awareness of the region in Ashtadhyayi: “Suramasa” is one of the prachya-janapadas (others include Kosala, Kasi, Magadha, Kalinga)and was probably the Surma valley of Assam, according to Ajay Mitra Shastri.
• Buddhist literature calls the region “Lohichcha” (= Lauhitya, another nname of the Brahmaputra) and connects it to Vedic culture.
•The Arthashastra mentions Kamarupa as the source of various products(including gems and incense) and the Lauhitya.
• Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa also mentions the Lauhitya.
• In Ajay Mitra Shastri’s opinion, Graeco-Roman writers (e.g. Ptolemy) refer to Assam as part of their accounts of India, calling it “Seres.”
• Kamarupa is mentioned in the Allahabad pillar inscription of Samudragupta(4th century CE) as a frontier kingdom whose king paid obedience to Samudragupta. In Nayanjot Lahiri’s words, “That Assam was within the mainstream of events in the Gangetic valley is amply clear from the epic references.” 
• We have about 32 pre-Ahom inscriptions of Assam (5th to 13th century), all in Sanskrit and in a Brahmi script initially identical to the Kausambi style of the 4th century CE. The inscriptions are in an ornate language, with some expressions almost identical to Kalidasa’s and Dandin’s compositions. They comprise three major dynasties tracing their descent to Naraka, described as the “son of the holder of the wheel [i.e. Vishnu] who, in order to lift the earth from under the ocean, assumed the distinguished form of a boar.” Vishnu eventually becomes dominant, but in the 8th century he was often worshipped together with Shiva: the Sankara-Narayana and the Hari-Harainscriptions celebrate both. Indeed, there are also many references to Siva(also named Rudra, Sambhu and Sankara), for instance as “the great dancer.”The inscriptions show a “very deep understanding of the myths which have revolved around the person of Lord Siva,”  observes Nayanjot Lahiri. But they also reveal contacts beyond North India, with Gujarat, Kerala, Karnataka.
• By the 9th century, the spread of the Bhakti cult promoted the integration of tribals within Hinduism over several centuries: villages adopted Sanskritic names, while Sanskrit terms were prakritized, with the addition of Khasi, Bodo and other tribal words.
None of these facts—there are many more—are compatible with a North-East culturally or politically cut off from the rest of India; immigrations from the Thai-Burmese belt did occur, but did not alter the region’s integration with the rest of India. Ajay Mitra Shastri concludes his study of the archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence with these words:
Ancient Pragjyotisha or the North-East had very intimate relationswith the rest of India, of which it was an integral component, geographically and culturally, despite its own distinctive culture and physical elements...
Distinctiveness is not separateness. If we turn to South India in ancient times, we can certainly point to distinctive features and contributions, yet, despite claims of a “separate Dravidian culture,” the most ancient Tamil culture as revealed by archaeology, epigraphy, numismatics and literature reveals a long-standing integration with the rest of India and a happy acceptance of gods, concepts,myths and rituals borrowed from the Vedic stream.
In a stimulating historical study of the concept of India’s unity, Dileep Karanth recently defined India’s cultural oneness in these terms:
We thus see that the concept of Bharatavarsha, even if considered cosmological to begin with, became firmly geographical, and that in “classical” times. The words Jambudvîpe Bhâratavarse chanted bythe Brahmin in countless ceremonies could only have strengthened this geographical concept over the centuries.
The idea of a culturally united India—call it a nation, or a civilization—clearly did not depend upon the Arabs/Muslims. Nor was the idea born out of the labours of the Western Orientalist or the British colonial administrator.
India—the name which launched a thousand ships, and which has fired the imagination of explorers for ages, predates the emergence of Islam and Western Indology, by centuries, if not millennia. 
Yet with the spread of divisive ideologies and agendas, it is easier in India today to nurture what divides and fragments rather than what united—and still has the potential to unite. In a seminal essay entitled The History of Bharatavarsha, Tagore, again, gave a beautiful description of India’s “talent” in the field:
Providence has pulled in diverse people onto the lap of Bharatavarsha. Since antiquity Bharatavarsha has been provided with the opportunity to put into practice the special talent her people were endowed with. Bharatavarsha has forever been engaged in constructing with varied material the foundation of a unifying civilization. And a unified civilization is the highest goal of all human civilizations. She has not driven away anybody as alien, she has not expelled anybody as inferior, she has not scorned anything as odd. Bharatavarsha has adopted all, accepted everybody. And when so much is accepted, it becomes necessary to establish one’s own code and fix regulation over the assorted collections. It is not possible to leave them unrestrained like animals fighting each other. They have to be appropriately distributed into separate autonomous divisions while keeping them bound on a fundamental principle of unity. The component might have come from outside but the arrangement and the fundamental idea behind it were Bharatavarsha’s own. ...It needs talent to make outsiders one’s own. The ability to enter others’ beings and the magic power of making the stranger completely one’s own, these are the qualities native to genius. That genius we find in Bharatavarsha. 
Making the Other “one’s own”—provided he lends himself to the process—is not “composite culture,” which, at best, would result in a formless hodgepodge. It is India’s way, and one day it will have to be the world’s way.
1. Michel Danino has researched many aspects of Indian civilization and history, authoring books in English and French, as well as many papers published in journals of archaeology,history and culture; he lives near Coimbatore. He delivered the Vedanta VachaspatiRadhanath Phukan Memorial Lecture at Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture,Guwahati,
2. The Oxford History of India by Vincent A. Smith, edited by Percival Spear (Delhi:Oxford University Press, 4th ed., p.7 The last sentence goes on: “... the land of the Brahmans, who succeeded by means of peaceful penetration, not by the sword, in carrying their ideas into every corner of India.” But that is a simplistic view of the complex process of cultural integration India underwent; other layers of the society(other “castes”) promoted it quite actively, sometimes as much as the Brahmins.
3. I have not consulted the first editions of the book and do not know whether this observation is made by Smith himself or one of the subsequent contributors.
4. Rabindranath Tagore, “Nationalism in India” (republished New Delhi: Macmillan,1999), p. 69.
5. Sri Aurobindo, The Foundations of Indian Culture (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram,1972), pp.365-367.
6. Jyotindra Jain, “Propitiation of Babo Ind: Survival of the Ancient Cult of India,” in Living Traditions: Studies in the Ethnoarchaeology of South Asia, ed. Bridget Allchin(New Delhi: Oxford & IBH, 1994), pp. 13 ff.
7. A number of illustrations of this can be found in Mahabharata in the Tribal and Folk Traditions of India, ed. K. S. Singh (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1993 and Rama-Katha in Tribal and Folk Traditions of India, eds. K. S. Singh & Birendranath Datta (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1993). See also Painted Words: an Anthology of TribalLiterature , ed. G. N. Devy (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2002), under chapter “Myth.”
8. Sandhya Jain, Adi Deo Arya Devata: a Panoramic View of Tribal-Hindu Cultural Interface(Delhi: Rupa, 2004). See also B.B. Kumar, “Caste-Tribe Continuum in Indian Society,”Questvol. 1, January 2008, pp. 211-240.
9. Sankrant Sanu conducts a fine discussion of the Western and Indian concepts of nationhood in his article “Why India Is a Nation,” online at www.ifih.org/whyindiaisanation.htm
10. See Ragha Kumud Mukherji,Fundamental Unity of India(1914, republished Bombay:Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1954-1991), pp. 63-65.
12. A. K. Sharma’s important archaeological discoveries are summarized in Emergence of Early Culture in North-East India(New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1993), Manipur:The Glorious Past(New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1994), Early Man in EasternHimalayas(New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 1996).
13. Nayanjot Lahiri, Pre-Ahom Assam(New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1991), p. 10-11.
14. Ajay Mitra Shastri, Ancient North-East India: Pragjyotisha(New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2002), pp. 20-21 & 44-45. Some of the literary and historical references to the North-East quoted here are borrowed from this important study.
15. Nayanjot Lahiri, Pre-Ahom Assam, pp. 10-11.
16. Ibid., p. 14.
17. Ibid., p. 126.
18. Ibid., p. 125.
19. Ajay Mitra Shastri, Ancient North-East India: Pragjyotisha, p. 102.
20. Michel Danino, “Vedic Roots of Early Tamil Culture,”
21. Dileep Karanth, “India: One Nation or Many Nationalities? Ancient Sources andModern Analysis,”History Today, No. 7, 2006-07, pp. 1-11 (a slightly revised versionis available online at http://www.ifih.org/TheUnityofIndia.htm).
22. Rabindranath Tagore, The History of Bharatavarsha, Bhadra 1309 Bengal Era (August 1903), translated from the Bengali by Sumita Bhattacharya & Sibesh Bhattacharya;available online at www.ifih.org/The History of Bharatavarsha.htm.