India: what does Bharat mean, name change explained, meaning, pronunciation - is country changing its name?

A pedestrian walks past a G20 summit logo installed along a street in New Delhi 6 September 6 2023 (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)A pedestrian walks past a G20 summit logo installed along a street in New Delhi 6 September 6 2023 (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)
A pedestrian walks past a G20 summit logo installed along a street in New Delhi 6 September 6 2023 (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images) | Getty Images
The debate over 'India' or 'Bharat' has become a divisive political issue in the country

In dinner invitations sent to guests attending this week's Group of 20 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration substituted the name India for a Sanskrit word.

In the invitation sent to G20 attendees, Droupadi Murmu, the president of India, is referred to as the "President of Bharat" rather than the "President of India."

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The move reflects his Hindu nationalist party's efforts to get rid of names that it considers to be from the colonial era.

The nation of more than 1.4 billion people is officially known by two names, India and Bharat, but the former is most commonly used, both domestically and internationally.

What does Bharat mean?

Bharat - approximately pronounced "buh-ruht" - is an ancient Sanskrit word which also means India in Hindi. The term is derived from the ancient Sanskrit name for the Indian subcontinent - "Bharata Varsha" or "Bharata Khanda" - which is mentioned in ancient Indian texts like the Mahabharata and the Puranas.

In these texts, "Bharat" is associated with a legendary king named Bharata, who is said to be an ancestor of the Pandavas, the central characters in the Mahabharata.

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Over time, the "Bharat" became synonymous with the Indian subcontinent and has been used as a name for the country of India in various Indian languages.

Why might India want to change its name?

The change in nomenclature is backed by officials of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. They argue that the name India was introduced by British colonials and is a “symbol of slavery”. The British ruled India for about 200 years until the country gained independence in 1947.

“Another blow to slavery mentality,” the top elected official of Uttarakhand state, Pushkar Singh Dhami, said on X, formerly known as Twitter. Dhami, who is a leader of Modi’s governing party, shared the dinner invitation sent to G20 guests in his post.

Prior to British colonisation, the Indian subcontinent consisted of a vast and diverse array of kingdoms, regions and territories, each with its own names and identities, and there was no single unified political entity that corresponded to the modern nation of India.

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The name is derived from the Indus River, which flows through parts of present-day Pakistan and India. The Greeks, under Alexander the Great, referred to the region as "Indika" in ancient times. However, it was during British rule that "India" was widely adopted and used to describe the entire subcontinent.

After gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947, the newly formed nation adopted the name India as its official name, and despite its colonial origins, India has continued to be the name of the country to the present day.

Modi’s party has long tried to erase names related to India’s Mughal and colonial past. In 2015, New Delhi’s famous Aurangzeb Road, named after a Mughal king, was changed to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road after protests from Modi’s party leaders.

Last year, the government also renamed a colonial-era avenue in the heart of New Delhi that is used for ceremonial military parades. Modi’s government says the name changes are an effort to reclaim India’s Hindu past.

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Is everyone on board?

Despite its roots in colonialism, the name "India" holds significant historical, cultural and geographical relevance for the people of the Indian subcontinent, and India’s opposition parties have criticised the recent dinner invitation move.

The name is widely recognised and accepted internationally, and simplifies communication and international relations, making it easier for the country to engage with the global community.

“While there is no constitutional objection to calling India ‘Bharat’, which is one of the country’s two official names, I hope the government will not be so foolish as to completely dispense with ‘India’, which has incalculable brand value built up over centuries,” opposition lawmaker Shashi Tharoor tweeted.

Tharoor said Indians should “continue to use both words rather than relinquish our claim to a name redolent of history, a name that is recognised around the world”.

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Disputes over “India” versus “Bharat” have gained ground since opposition parties in July announced a new alliance - called INDIA - to unseat Modi and defeat his party ahead of national elections in 2024. The acronym stands for Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.

Since then, some officials in Modi’s party have demanded that the country be called Bharat instead of India.

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