What’s in A Name?

The latest kerfuffle in India is over a name change. Yes, India might soon become Bharat on the atlas. Is this really important? Does it really mean so much?

Well, to get a perspective, if the Bard were to say “What’s in a name?’ today, he would be totally shouted down. Along with everything else, the concept of a Name continues to evolve. There is a given name, last name, personal name, birth name, legal name, nickname, pseudonym, family name, first name, second name, pet name, maiden name, married name, dead name, new name, and old name, just to name a few. Would a Rose by some other name, still smell as sweet?

Air India vs Bharatiya Rail

I was born in post-independent India and over the years, have often recited the pledge, ‘India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters,’ giggling uncontrollably when someone added ‘except one’ sotto voce. (If you’re judging me, I was just a pimply teenager in a girls-only convent school, okay?)

I’ve also sung ‘Hum sab Bharatiya hai’, a tune that all former NCC cadets will recognize. I have banked with the State Bank of India, traveled on Indian Airlines, guessed that I would never get into an Indian Institute of Technology, and looked enviously at the Indian Administrative Service achievers.

I’ve also traveled on Bharatiya Rail, and used currency notes printed by Bharathiya Reserve Bank (painstakingly but proudly reading the Hindi script). I’ve always known that India was Bharat and Bharat was India.

Changing India’s name

But changing India’s name wholly to Bharat? That’s somewhat different.

When I read somewhere that President Droupadi Murmu’s dinner invitation to the delegates at the G20 conference as ‘President of Bharat’ was a printing error, I laughed outright. Even in a small private school in a tiny pocket of southern India, we proofread our invitations in minute detail. Yeah right! The office of the Indian President ‘overlooked’ this ‘tiny misprint.’

So, obviously, we were being presented with a fait accompli. A controversy must have been expected and it delivered. But the question has to be asked – who began this name change tamasha?

I.N.D.I.A.

In all fairness, I think it was the opposition party. When the National Democratic Alliance or NDA started calling itself the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or I.N.D.I.A., it seemed contrived. It felt like a last-ditch effort to gain some traction in the current political field. Naturally, the other party had to come up with a rebuttal – and it came up with a polarizing one.

That got me thinking.

As one of the markers of identity, a name is pivotal. According to Gordon Allport, one of the founders of personality psychology, “the most important anchorage to our self-identity throughout life remains our own name.’ Moreover, scientists and psychologists have found that the name given to a person affects both the society’s view of them and how they view themselves.

Whether it’s for a job interview or online dating, our names offer clues to our religion, family history, and geographical roots – in short, our ethnicity. It forms the basis for potential positive or negative consequences.

Unsurprisingly, people with unfashionable names and names with negative connotations tend to be rejected more often, have less education, and have lower self-esteem, say psychologists. Even disliking your own name leads to poorer psychological adjustment.

Odd names rock!

These days, there are plenty of exceptions to that rule – Barack Hussein Obama, Kamala Harris, Vivek Ramaswamy, Sundar Pichai, and Sadiq Khan, just to name a few. When Rishi Sunak became the UK PM, the Indian nation rejoiced, because he was ‘both our son and son-in-law’ (makes for a weird family tree, I know!) It didn’t matter to Indians that he hadn’t been born in India. Even I get a warm feeling whenever I think of Sunak though I know nothing of his politics.

Despite these exceptions, often, people decide to change the names given to them at birth. Names anchor one’s self-identity, so individuals may choose an appropriate name once they’ve had a chance to define their identity.

Rebranding countries

Here’s a test. Can remember what these countries used to be? Siam, Persia, Dutch East Indies, Rhodesia, Holland and Burma. They refer to present-day Thailand, Iran, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, and Myanmar respectively.

These countries rebranded for a multitude of reasons. Persia and Siam wanted to embrace modernity, while Holland wanted to transition from geographical misrepresentation (only 2 of its 12 provinces are called Holland). One reason why Turkey changed its official name to Türkiye Cumhuriyeti was to cast off insinuations that they were like turkeys or dupes.

But a far more serious reason was to jettison the colonial yoke of names given by colonizers who were mostly looters and slavers. So the Dutch East Indies no longer exist but Indonesia does, and countries like Rhodesia and Swaziland have transitioned to Zimbabwe and Eswatini respectively.

Ceylon or Sri Lanka?

Interestingly, our close neighbor, the Tear-drop of India or the Granary of the East, was once called Ceylon. It’s a transliteration of ‘Ceilao’ or ‘Seylan,’ bestowed by its Portuguese colonizers. At independence, Ceylon renamed itself Sri Lanka, Lanka being one of the ancient names of the country.

India derived its name from the river Sindh or Indus which flows in Pakistan. The term India can be traced to the year 500 BC when the river Sindhu (Sanskrit name) was referred to as ‘Indos’ by the Greeks. When the conquering invader Alexander arrived, India denoted a region beyond the Indus River. It was referred to as ‘India’ in Latin and old English, became ‘Indie’ in Middle English, and then again in the 17th century, became ‘India’ in modern English. So, the name ‘India’ essentially, did come from outside the country.

Bharat or Jambudweepa?

The name ‘Bharat’ comes from the scriptures of its own land – many of the Puranas, and also the Mahabharata contain references confirming this. So Bharat as a moniker does not seem farfetched or contrived. In fact, it feels more acceptable than ‘Jambudweepa’, the ancient name by which many Southeast Asian countries knew us. (Would we be called Jambus I wonder?)

What seals the deal in my opinion is that ‘Bharat’ as an alternate name is already mentioned in the very first article of the Constitution. So yes, the India to Bharat name change, to me, is acceptable.

What might be a Herculean task is to change the India name brand associated with storied institutions – Air India, Indian Institute of Technology, IAS, and All India Radio, for example, but not impossible. In the end, I’m sure the people of India will, as always, ‘Adjust.’

However, it would have felt good to have been asked …

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Lakshmi worked for ten years in scientific research before becoming a freelance writer. She contributes regularly to publications in India and abroad. Lakshmi is an award winning short story writer who...