At multiple times, during multiple periods, India (as in, the Indian Subcontinent) was fractured with multiple kingdoms, principalities etc. It usually came after the fall (or withdrawal) of empires(as happens many a times around the world). India was united (but still colonised) under the British (and there were still autonomous princely states). India was also (sort of) unified under the Mauryas, Alauddin Khalji and The Mughal empire (under Aurangzeb). So my question stands:-

When was the idea of a unified India first conceived?

  • You should perhaps add that to nationalist / modern ideas of a construct called 'self-government' or sth like that? Otherwise it was to be an idea to be unified under the Greeks, then the Muslims, then… And those two examples are quite different from what I guess you aim at. – LаngLаngС Aug 1 '19 at 8:59
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    I would disagree that India was really unified under the British, since it still was divided into many princely states: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Princely_state As far as that goes, it's hardly unified now, given that British India is now India, Pakistan, & Bangladesh. (As well as Burma/Myanmar & Ceylon/Sri Lanka, if I'm not mistaken.) – jamesqf Aug 1 '19 at 18:15
  • @jamesqf: Even if, technically, not fully unified with each other, Indians probably felt more unified with one another than with their European overlords. Perhaps a common enemy was all that was needed, since, individually, no single Indian state would have been powerful enough to overthrow its non-Indian rulers all on its own ? – Lucian Aug 2 '19 at 12:51
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    @Lucian: WRT to being powerful enough to overthrow British rule, remember that India didn't actually overthrow the British. The British chose to leave, for a lot of reasons. And the immediate result was war between two parts of the former Raj. – jamesqf Aug 2 '19 at 17:17
  • Burma and Ceylon were not part of British India. – Mark Johnson Aug 3 '19 at 21:58

I am not an expert on Indian cultural and ideological thought, but a plausible estimate is that the idea or concept of a unified India could back to the era of the Achaemenid Dynasty of the Persian Empire (c. 550 BC-330 BC). And possibly much farther back.

According to Wikipedia:

In Indian religions, a chakravarti (Sanskrit: चक्रवर्तिन्], cakravartin)[a] is a world conqueror and ideal universal ruler1 who rules ethically and benevolently over the entire world.


The first references to a Chakravala Chakravartin appear in monuments from the time of the Maurya Empire (322–185 BCE), dedicated to Chandragupta Maurya and his grandson Ashoka.


The idea of a ruler of the entire world apparently goes back to the Maurya Empire.

Many geographically ignorant Indians probably didn't believe that the entire world could be as big as India actually is, and so would have considered a ruler of India to be the ruler of the world. Some Indians knew how big India is and considered India to be just about the entire world - to them the ruler of all India and the ruler of all the world would have been the same person. And some Indians would have known that the world was much larger than just India and could separate the ideas of being ruler of the world and being ruler of all India.

So when did people in India know that the entire world was much larger than India?

The vast Persian Empire in the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 BC) ruled northwestern India as far as the Indus River. No doubt Persians would sometimes boast to Indians that their ruler "The Great King, the King of Kings, the King of Lands and Peoples, the King of the World", ruled all the world.

If some Indians replied that there were a few kingdoms in India not part of the Persian Empire, the Persians could have said that those kingdoms were tiny realms on the edge of the world. That would have given the Indians an exaggerated idea of the size of the Persian Empire, and a more realistic idea of the size of the Earth.

So some Indians could have believed that the whole world was larger than India, and that a ruler of the whole world was possible, as early as Achaemenid times, and thus they could have conceived that a less successful ruler than that might still manage to conquer and rule all of India.

So the idea that it was possible for someone to rule all of India might have existed as early as Achaemenid times, although that might not mean that the idea that India was a natural united region was common.

I believe there was trade between Mesopotamia and India centuries and millennia before the Achaemenid Dynasty, and any Indians involved in that trade or knowing about it should have known that the world was much larger than India long before the Achaemenid Dynasty.


India currently defines itself as 'India that is Bharat, is a Union of States'. In other words, India sees itself as 'Bharatvarsha'/'Jambudvipa'/'Arya Pradesh' all of which terms are used interchangeably and which have the meaning 'places where it is permissible to settle without loss of caste'. It was not necessary for there to be political union within these territories- cultural union and religious homogeneity was enough. Similarly, the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a collection of States. Even when Germany was unified, the King of Prussia was not described as the Emperor of Germany but as the German Emperor.

Under Muslim rule, the term 'al Hindi' or 'Hindostan' was used to distinguish Muslims born in India who soon developed their own identity. As late as the eighteenth century, a Muslim immigrant- like the famous Reza Khan who held high office in Bengal- refused to accept grants of land because for him Hindostan was 'dar ul harb'.

In other words, there was a scruple re. settling permanently in a less Islamicized country. However, Reza Khan's progeny had no such scruple and described themselves as Hindustani.They would happily move to any place in 'Bharatvarsha' without having the feeling that they were leaving their 'watan'. In other words, both Hindu and Muslims had the same conception of a culturally and religiously unified India, though- no doubt- at the margin these notions might diverge somewhat. The British too adopted Indian ideas re. the unity of the country though there were certain deviations from what had previously obtained.

Ceylon was culturally like South India but for historical reasons was administered separately. However, this chimed with an earlier notion that Ceylon was specially dedicated to the preservation of Buddhism. By contrast, Burma was never previously considered a part of India and Indian did not oppose its desire to separate itself in 1935. It is noteworthy, however, that a Hindu Kingdom which could have chosen to join Burma, preferred to remain in the Indian Union.

The question arises- when did India, in more or less its present form, become a unified cultural and religious topos? This is tricky to answer. Going by Hindu religious texts, it would seem that in the first millennium BC, some orthodox people in the West still were suspicious of settling in the East or South. However, other less orthodox people had already settled there and, with the rise of the Samkhya/Yoga school of Philosophy and the great Shramanic religions- Buddhism and Jainism- the arrow of cultural and religious influence was from East to West. By the Third century BC, the possibility of a politically unified sub-continent was turning into a reality because of a pre-existing cultural and religious Union. The Maurya dynasty, from their base in Bihar, are the most notable example. However, Indian legends and mythology already mentioned 'Universal Emperors'who had existed thousands of years previously. The situation in China was analogous. There were legendary Emperors who, it was believed, ruled over the whole of China. This inspired the creation of an actual Empire which would fit that description.

So far, I have spoken only of the 'Sanskritic' conception of India expressed in Indo-Iranian languages. It is now believed that the pre-Aryan civilization of India was very extensive and thus there may have been a unified conception of India as early as the third millennium BC. In particular, the notion that Dravidian languages were related to those of the Indus Civilization is linked to a pre-Aryan cultural unity of the sub-continent. It was thought that Dravidian influence, in particular with respect to Bhakti (devotional) religion was the Dravidian contribution and that this substratum is what has persisted as the elite sacrificial religion of the Aryans fell into abeyance.

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    Please insert paragraphs. – Denis de Bernardy Oct 6 '19 at 9:20
  • WRT cultural homogeneity, you could say much the same thing about large parts of the English-speaking world. As an American, I'd have no problem settling in Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand &c, and little problem with much of western Europe. But those places are hardly politically unified... – jamesqf Oct 6 '19 at 17:09
  • As an American, you would have a problem settling in Britain if you did not qualify for residence. The reverse is also true. Prior to 1960, migration within the British Commonwealth was unhindered. In some matters the Commonwealth was pretty cohesive- e.g. Tariffs and Defense. India was different because Caste prevailed. India was defined as the territory within which migration involved no loss of caste. One may compare this notion with that of a 'Pale of Settlement'- Normans who were outside this came to be seen as Gaels, those within it as English. – Vivek Iyer Oct 7 '19 at 8:15
  • @VivekIyer I think you mean "The English Pale", aka "the Dublin Pale" or simply "the Pale". "The Pale of Settlement" refers to the part of the Russian Empire in which Jews were permitted to reside. – C Monsour Feb 4 at 3:54
  • @CMonsour- I mean exactly what I have said. It may have escaped your attention that 'Pale of Settlement' is an English, not Russian, collocation. It derives from the English version of the history of Ireland. At a much later point, English speaking historians and analysts used the term to describe a fundamentally different practice in Russia. It is not the case that Jews outside the Pale in Russia came to be seen as Christians. Normans outside the pale came to be seen as Gaels. – Vivek Iyer Feb 4 at 12:40

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