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The Foreigner Issue: Historical Analysis


The ongoing debate on the foreign origin of Ms.Sonia Gandhi and the desirability of a foreigner holding the top executive post in the country is being widely discussed in the electioneering campaign for the 13th Lok Sabha elections. In discussing this issue some people have unwittingly tried to compare the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi with those of Sita, Gandhari and Buddha who originally belonged to places which are presently not within the political territory of India. While Sita and Buddha were born in Nepal, Gandhari belonged to Gandhara now part of Afghanistan. This commentary attempts to look at this issue from a historical point of view without prejudice to Sonia Gandhis claims to the topmost executive post of India.

Vedic India:

When the issue of a foreigner is now being freely talked about, one cannot but discuss the historical reality of ancient India, and the political geography of Vedic India, Bharat-Khand, Aryavart or Bharat Varsh A close look at ancient Indian scriptures and literature reveal that ancient India was a union of numerous provinces independently ruled by dynastic Kings. Despite the internal feuds among them for supremacy and administrative hegemony over each other, the system of governance for the whole of Bharat Khand was based on Vedic philosophy.  Due to this common link, and cultural affinity among the people inter state marriages were prevalent either through "swayamvar" or any other prevalent customs. In fact, kings of all provinces were invited by the king organising "swayamvar" for the marriage of his daughter.   The girl was at liberty to choose her husband from any of the kings. It is well known that Ravana the King of Lanka was also an invitee in the swayamvar of Sita organised by her father Janaka the king of Mithila. Thus, Sita, Kaushalya and Kaikeyi belonging to different kingdoms were married to the King and Prince of Avadh. Similarly Gandhari of Afghanistan was married to Dhritrashtra, the king of Indraprastha (present Delhi). But none of these revered Princesses had any problem in being natives of foreign states as those provinces formed part of the then Bharat Khand and they were treated as natural citizens of the land. Gautam Buddha, a prince of Kapilavastu (presently in Nepal) did not need any permission from the then king of Magadh (now Bihar) for his visit to Bodh Gaya where he could attain enlightenment. Since the natives beyond the geographical boundary of Vedic India were called "Mlechchhas" (barbarians) no social interaction with them were permitted. Even the people were not permitted to speak the languages of Mlechchhas and Yavanas –

"Na vadet yavani-vasha pranah kanth gatepi va"

(One should not speak the language of the barbarians even at the cost of death).

According to Manusmriti, the territories beyond the geographical boundary of Vedic India were not auspicious for Vedic rituals or sacrifices.

Geopolitical boundaries:

Besides, the various Puranas, "Kautilya’s Arthashastra" and "Manusmriti" are the two prominent literature of Vedic India with dealings with the geopolitical and administrative set-up of those days. Verses 17 to 24 in chapter 2 of Manusmriti define the geopolitical boundaries of Vedic India. An area known as the cultural centre of Vedic India was known as "Brahmavart" that was situated between the divine rivers (presently invisible) known as Saraswati and Drisadvati. The conduct of the people of this land handed down from one person to another was called the conduct of wise people (Manu-2/18-19). Around Brahmavart there were provinces named as Kurukshetra, Matsyas, Panchalas and Sursenakas. They were collectively known as "Brahmarishi Desh" (country of priestly sages) (Manu-2/21). The territory between Himalaya and Vindhya mountains to the east of the river Vinasana (invisible Saraswati) and to the west of Prayag (present Allahabad) was known as Madhya Desh (Central Province - Manu-2/24). Collectively the boundary of Bharat Khand or "Aryavart" was the area between the mountain ranges from eastern sea (Bay of Bengal) to western sea (Arabian Sea).

Foreigners in Ancient India:

The territories beyond Aryavart were called the land of "Mlechchhas"(Barbarians). The Mlechchhas therefore were never accepted as natural citizens of Vedic India."Mlechchhas," Yavanas were the terms used for Turks, Greeks. Moghuls, Shakas, Kushanas, Mongols and others who invaded the Vedic land time and again. They also tried to impose their cultural ideology on the people in India but could not succeed completely because of stiff resistance from the locals. The Shakas and Kushanas assimilated themselves with the Vedic ideology and hence some of their cultural influence also became part of the Indian cultural milieu..

It could therefore be said, that the countries that presently form South Asia by and large was Vedic India. It was an assimilation of Dravidian and Aryan civilisation which got mingled into one cultural mainstream of "Sanatan Dharm" popularly known as Hinduism. The seven holy rivers namely Sindhu, Ganga, Yamuna, Godawari, Narmada, Cauvery and the invisible Saraswati along with their tributaries flowed through the territories of various kingdoms in ancient India. Due to common ethnic, cultural and linguistic links, the people of this subcontinent were known as the people of Bharat Khand. Therefore, they did not have the concept of foreign origin among themselves as they were all the natural born citizens of the land. The concept of foreign origin emerged once this land was invaded by the natives from the areas beyond the geographical boundary of Vedic India.

Kautilya did not allow the extension of the Mauryan Empire beyond the Hindukush in north because the territories thereafter were beyond the pale of Vedic rituals according to Vedic laws. When Selucus, a commander of Alexander invaded the Indian territory, he was defeated by Chandragupta Maurya. Had he so desired, he could have merged the territory under the occupation of Greeks in India, but he did not do so because those territories were beyond the boundaries of Vedic India.. Kautilya wanted to keep India united with the identity of Indianism and was not in favour of any interaction with Yavanas or Mlechchhas. He was not opposed to Chandragupta marrying the daughter of the defeated Yavan Selucus for diplomatic reasons but laid down that her offspring will not inherit the throne of India. She was given all the honour of a queen but was never given the status of a natural born citizen like Gandhari or Sita.

Since the period of Vedic India, the people of the land had an aversion to Mlechchhas or Yavanas or the likes because of their alien culture. Perhaps that might be the reason why the issue of foreign origin in respect of Sonia Gandhi has not only been raised by the political parties under N.D.A. but also by the parties like N.C.P. and Samajwadi Party who are opposed to N.D.A.

History has its limitations and comparison with ancient and historical figures to present day politics may lead to uncomfortable and embarrassing questions. This commentary is not to embarrass Sonia Gandhi. However a frank discussion of what is meant by the term "foreigner" in ancient India is necessary and useful to understand the issue in its proper perspective.

R.Upadhyay                                                        4.9.99

(Mr. Upadhyay is Regional Adviser to SAAG)