Books for teachers and students of schools run by Vidya Bharti, the RSS’s formal education wing, offer a distorted history of Asia's ancient geopolitics. Here’s how.
Q: “Which are the countries along our present-day border that were once part of our country?”
A: “Brahmadesh (Myanmar) and Bangladesh to the east, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan to the north, and Sri Lanka to the south.”
This is a question and answer on page 5 of Bodhmala 4, a textbook on cultural knowledge intended for Class 4 students. The book also refers to the Arabian Sea as the “Sindhu Sea”, the Indian Ocean as the “Hindu Ocean”, and calls Tibet a country.
A teachers’ guidebook, part of the same series, makes this amazing claim: “Earlier, Hindu culture prevailed all over Jambudweep...What we call Asia today was the ancient Jambudweep. The whole of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Israel, Russia, Mongolia, China, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Java, Sumatra, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and Afghanistan were part of it.”
In the same section, the book says: “In the aftermath of the war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, it shrunk into Aryavarta, which included Afghanistan and Pakistan, but attacks, religious conversions and wars in between left us with only Hindustan...According to scientific enquiries, Himalaya and its surroundings, having Kailasa at its centre, is the oldest specimen of land on earth. Trivishtapa (Tibet) is the highest part of land on earth. Arguably, it is here that the human race emerged in the aftermath of the catastrophic flood. ”
These are some of the many “facts” expounded in the Bodhmala series – textbooks for Class 4-12 students and three guidebooks for teachers – published by the Haryana-based Vidya Bharti Sanskriti Shiksha Sansthan. The books are taught in schools run by the Vidya Bharti Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, the formal education wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of India's governing Bharatiya Janta Party that enjoys critical influence on the BJP's policies.
As of 2019, Vidya Bharti runs 12,828 schools across India with 34.6 lakh students and about 1.5 lakh teachers. Most of these schools are affiliated to the Central Board of School Education, various state boards, and the National Institute of Open Schooling.
Vidya Bharti describes itself as “the largest educational organisation in the world” on a mission to “develop a National System of Education which would help building a generation of young men and women that it committed to Hindutva and infused with patriotic fervour; physically, vitally, mentally and spiritually fully developed...”
The organisation’s books are published in Hindi and 12 other regional languages, including Bengali, Tamil and Odia, and are taught in addition to the government-approved curriculum. However, they are mandatory for all students and teachers, who also need to take an annual test based on these books. The test, named the All India Cultural Awareness Examination, has been going on since 1980. According to the Vidya Bharti website, as many as 22,32,134 students and 56,373 teachers and parents took part in the exam in 2018-19.
The history that Vidya Bharti teaches in schools is important because the Indian History Congress, in a recent statement, linked the union government’s recent plan to change NCERT’s history textbooks to the attempts initiated by former Vidya Bharti head Dina Nath Batra through a book he edited, The Enemies of Indianisation: The Children of Marx, Macaulay and Madarsa. It was published in 2001 amid the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government’s plan to alter India’s history textbooks.
During a recent online event to celebrate the 90th birthday of historian Irfan Habib, Aditya Mukherjee, a retired Jawaharlal Nehru University professor in contemporary history, described how Hindutva nationalists had focused on indoctrinating young minds by entering the school education system in 1952 – the year Vidya Bharti set up its first Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. Since then, Mukherjee said, they made repeated attempts to distort history to suit their communal agenda.
Disseminating ‘cultural knowledge’
Vidya Bharti publishes three books for teachers: Praveshika, Madhyama and Uttama.
Uttama offers a near-complete view of the RSS-promoted concept of “Akhand Bharat”, or undivided India, sometimes referred to as “Vrihattara Bharat”, or greater India. The RSS observes August 14 as Akhand Bharat Sankalp Divas, where participants pledge their commitment towards restoring Akhand Bharat.
A paragraph on page 33 of Uttama reads: “Foriegn historians like Müller, Weber, Ludwig, Housman, Schroeder have spread wrong conceptions about the Vedas, Rama and Krishna and tried to cut off India’s new generation from the pride of our nation’s antiquity and cultural spread. Unfortunately, several Indian historians too started following them and we ended up considering the real existence of our vast nation as imagination. But new history proves that today’s independent countries like Trivishtapa (Tibet), Upaganasthan (Afghanistan), Brahmadesh (Myanmar), Sinhala (Sri Lanka) and Kingpurush (Nepal) had once been part of undivided India.”
The historians referenced – likely Max Müller, Max Weber, Alfred Ludwig, Lawrence Housman, and Leopold von Schroeder – are all known for their expertise on ancient India.
Bodhmala 5, the textbook for Class 5 students, reiterates in its very first paragraph that Akhand Bharat was divided by “enemies”. “The division of Akhand Bharat engineered by the enemies is getting manifested in our thoughts. We have to make a pledge that we will restore the Akhand Bharat that we worship.”
In the school diary meant for Bengali-medium students, there is a song that, roughly translated to English, reads: “Gandhara to the west is India’s part and Brahmadesh to the east, victory will be ours in Akhand Bharat along with everyone else.”
Bodhmala 4 explains that Indian culture reached many countries due to the hard work of ancient Indian sages. These countries purportedly include Moy (Mexico), Aryan/Parshu-desh (Iran), Upaganasthan (Afghanistan), Lava deep (Laos), Varun Dweep (Borneo), Shyam Desh (Thailand), Champa Desh (Vietnam), Brahma Desh (Myanmar), and Malay Dweep (Malaysia).
Referring to Iran as “Parshu-desh” probably comes from this theory that Hindu mythology’s Parashuram was born in Persia in present-day Iran.
While explaining Hindu influence in Australia, Bodhmala 7 says the boomerang is modelled on Krishna’s sudarshan chakra. It also says that Chin, or China, is a Sanskrit word, that China’s culture is Aryan culture, and that Colonel James Tod, an East India Company officer, had traced the origins of the Chinese race back to the son of Pururava mentioned in the Indian puranas.
Uttama reinforces this theory by saying that ancient China was called Harivarsha.
Page 7 of Bodhmala 8, intended for Class 8 students, claims that the following places once belonged to India: Mansarovar (Tibet), Kailash Parvat (Tibet), Pashupatinath and Mt Everest (Nepal), and Nankana Sahib and Sadhu Belo (Pakistan).
Several Vidya Bharti books describe India as the “world’s oldest nation”. For instance, page 8 of Bodhmala 8 says, “Manushya-matra ki janani adibhumi Bharat.” All human beings originate from India.
Fact or fiction
For starters, names like Sindhu Sea and Hindu Ocean are not used by any geographer or geopolitical expert outside of publications linked to the RSS and its ilk.
On India purportedly being the place of origin of the human race, scientific research shows that the modern human race evolved in Africa.
The Himalayas and its surroundings are not considered the earliest specimens of land on earth; that distinction goes to the 3.6 billion-year-old Barberton Greenstone Belt, also known as the Makhonjwa Mountains, located in Africa. In contrast, according to the Geological Society of London, “The Himalayan mountain range and Tibetan plateau have formed as a result of the collision between the Indian Plate and Eurasian Plate which began 50 million years ago and continues today.”
Did Jambudweep, or Jambudvipa, comprise the whole of Asia across which Hinduism prevailed? According to the Oxford reference, Jambudvipa is the “name of the southernmost of the four great continents of traditional Buddhist mythology, corresponding to the known world at the time and most probably to be identified with the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia (especially when contrasted with Tambapanni-dīpa, or the island of Sri Lanka).”
There is, of course, no historical reference from any credible research to show Hinduism prevailed across Asia at any point of time.
The roots of knowledge of India’s neighbours as provided in these books likely lies in the texts of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, the second sarsanghchalak or head of the RSS who shaped the organisation for over four decades.
In a book titled Bunch of Thoughts, Golwalkar had written: “Afghanistan was our ancient Upaganasthan. Shalya of the Mahabharata came from here. The modern Kabul and Kandahar were Gandhar from where the Kauravas’ mother Gandhari came. Even Iran was originally Aryan. Its previous king Reza Shah Pehlavi was guided more by Aryan values than by Islam. Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Parsis, is mostly Atharva Veda. Coming to the East, Burma is our ancient Brahmadesha. The Mahabharata refers to Iraavat, the modern Irrawady valley, as being involved in that Great War... In the south, Lanka has had the closest links and was never considered as anything different from the mainland.”
In reality, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Tibet and Sri Lanka were never part of India, even in ancient times. The areas belonging to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh were never under the same ruler at the same period of time, except for during the British Raj.
Nepal, which shares an open border with India, was never part of any Indian dynasty’s rule but the Nepali people believe the first Kirata king, Yalumber, is the same character described in the Mahabharata as Barbarika (Barbareek). The Kiratas of Nepal find several mentions in the Mahabharata but the two nationalities being in contact with each other does not necessarily mean they were one. Starting with the Kirata dynasty’s rule between eighth century BC and the second century AD, the landlocked country between India and China has been ruled by Nepali dynasties – the Lichhavi and the Thakuri dynasties (300 AD-1200 AD) and the Malla period (1200 AD -1769 AD) before Prithvi Narayan Shah founded the Shah dynasty, which ruled the country till 2008.
Bhutan, also sharing an open border with India, was never ruled by any Indian dynasty either. India’s ministry of external affairs' note on Bhutan does not hint that the country was ever part of India.
Trivishtapa has been used in Indian puranas but there are different opinions about what it actually meant. Some say it meant Indra’s world, some explained it as the world of heaven. There is no credible historical publication that confirms Trivishtapa was modern day Tibet, or that it was ever part of India.
Sri Lanka’s political history is recorded up to 543 BC, when king Vijaya Singha established his kingdom. Vijaya Singha was possibly from Vanga (Bengal) and made the island country his home but the land was never ruled by any Indian dynasty.
Myanmar came under the same rule as India only when the British annexed it to their Indian empire.
According to the World Atlas, India as a single political unit reached the highest expanse during the Mauryan Empire in around 250 BCE, covering an approximate areas of 5,000,000 square km, while the Mughal empire reached its height of expanse at around 1690 CE, covering approximately 4,000,000 square kilometers. All other empires were smaller in size. In contrast, the British empire in 1911 covered 4,668,860 square km.
The western boundaries of the Mauryan empire covered parts of modern-day Afghanistan and stretched up to Bengal and Assam eastwards. However, it did not include the south, especially areas covered by today’s Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and parts of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It did not include Sikkim, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh either.
As for Gandhara, historians have identified Gandhara proper to have been made of the Peshawar valley region (erstwhile Northwest Frontier Province in British India) in present-day Pakistan and greater Gandhara to have also covered the Swat valley region and the Taxila region (both in Pakistan), and eastern Afghanistan.
Gandhara, which has been mentioned in the Rig Veda and Mahabharata, was under Greek rule before the Mauryans and also after, then followed by the Buddhist Kushan dynaty’s rule from the 2nd century BCE to the 3rd century AD, succeeded by the Kidarites and Huns, before the rule of the Hindu Shahi dynasty from 9th to 11th century AD. But the Kushans ruled only parts of today’s northern and northwestern India and its easternmost boundary reached up to the middle gangetic plains. The Hindu Shahi kingdom had a lesser expanse.
Besides, there is no credible research paper published to say Afghanistan was called Upaganasthan. After the Maurya period, Afghanistan came under the same rule as the rest of India only during the British Raj.
Several Hindutva thinkers later tried to establish Golwalkar’s claim that the modern Kabul and Kandahar were Gandhar” but whether Kandahar got its name from Gandhara has been disputed, more so because Kandahar is quite far away from the region that most historical records refer to as Gandhara.
But for books that claim the whole of Asia was under Hindu influence, historical evidence regarding a minor part of Asia – Gandhara – stands quite immaterial, in fact.
What’s critical to understand in this respect is what “Hindu” means. Swami Vivekandanda had opined that the Hindus should be better called as “either the Vaidikas, followers of the Vedas, or better still, the Vedantists, followers of the Vedanta”, because the word “Hindu” came from the distorted Persian pronunciation of a place, the other side of river Sindhu, whereas all people belonging to the other side of the Sindhu river no longer followed the Vedas.
So, if we consider Hindus as the Vedic people, many scholars and historians worldwide have said that the Indus Valley civilisation comprising the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro predated the Vedic era. In other words, there were civilisations and religions that people followed before the Vedas were written.
Political anthropologist and historian Partha Chatterjee, who teaches at Columbia University, wrote in his recently-published book, The Truths and Lies of Nationalism: As Narrated by Charvak, that recent scholars have concluded that the Aryan people migrated from Central Asia to northern India and largely mingled with the indigenous population. “But the idea of the Vedic Aryans as immigrants unsettles the deep nationalist desire to claim an ancient past for the Indian people,” he wrote.