I am continually fascinated by the greatest anomaly of our times, the Republic of India. In an age dominated by ethnonationalist states, India’s existence is a modern mystery. It is a hundred nations contained in one, a crucible of religions, cultures, and peoples whose history is as old as recorded history itself. That such a disparate state exists is nothing short of miraculous.
Oft times those of us not living in South Asia have trouble comprehending the level of diversity or the sheer number of people found on the Indian subcontinent. In such situations, I call often on a clever phrase to help me along:
If the entirety of Europe was one country, it would almost be as impressive as India.
The analogy of a united Europe and the Republic of India is apt. Consider a few statistics:
The population of Europe is approximately 830,000,000 people. The population of India is approximately 1,170,000,000 people.
Europe’s populace can be divided among more 80 ethnic groups. India’s populace can be divided among more than 1,000.
83 different languages are spoken in Europe, 30 of which have at least one million speakers. 415 languages are spoken in India, 29 of which have at least one million native speakers.
Europe’s religious diversity is sourced in the schisms of the Christian tradition. The most practiced religion in India – Hinduism – is likewise fractured and divided. More telling are those outside of the Hindu tradition; India has the third largest number of adherents to Islam in the world, and the largest population of Sikhs, Jains, and Bahá’i.
This comparison prompts a question: with all of these similarities, why is it that Europe and India are treated so differently in the American mind?
That Europe is composed of 50 states and India one* plays a factor, I am sure. But this is insufficient to explain the vastly different perceptions we have of the region.
An easy example is the Western grouping of continents. Any school child can tell you there are seven continents: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, the two Americas, and Europe. Unlike the other six continents, Europe does not gain its special status because it is a landmass set asunder. Europe is simply a peninsula of the larger Eurasian landmass. Europe’s continental character is defined not by geography, but by culture. Because the people of Europe are believed to be culturally and politically distinct from the rest of Eurasia, everything between the Iberian penisula and the Ural mountains is labeled a separate continent.
This is all fine and good, but it causes me to wonder why India, another Eurasian peninsula, is not provided the same distinction. Those living in the subcontinent share a common history and heritage that is distinct from other Eurasians. Comparable to the cultural spheres of the Western and Chinese traditions, the common assumptions, values, and social structures of Bharata provide, as in Europe, social glue for diverse peoples. And for what it is worth, India has a better geophysical claim to continenthood than Europe could ever dream of having.
The way Americans talk of both Europe and India further betrays a simplistic view of the latter. While the adjective European is used rather sparingly in discussions of the cultures found across the pond, we are quite comfortable labeling anything of the subcontinent Indian.
Food provides a perfect example of such. We do not speak of European cuisine, but of French, Italian, or Greek dishes. In contrast, a dish may be eaten and produced in Tamil Nadu, Bengal, or Punjab, but we never think of it as anything more than Indian.
Why is this so? What is it about India that makes it near impossible for Americans to grasp the full range of diversity found in the subcontinent? Is it simple cultural ignorance, or are there broader structural forces at work?
I am particularly interested hearing from readers who have experience living in India, as I know a few of you do.
*If you include the entire subcontinent, this number can be enlarged to five.