How India Got Its Name

For a country that has renamed cities and states, the latest “Bharat” debate is about much more than nomenclature.

battle of hydaspes
The Battle of the Hydaspes, in what is now Punjab, between tAlexander the Great and the Indian king Porus, 326 BC; from the Faits du Grand Alexandre, c. 1470

Mehr Singh


September 7, 2023


8 min

“Of all the inhabitants of Asia…the Indians dwell nearest to the east and the rising of the Sun,” Greek historian Herodotus outlined in 440 B.C. in his seminal work, The Histories. “This is a great thing in India, that all are free, not a single Indian being a slave.” Herodotus went on to describe these people’s skin, lifestyle, and dietary practices. 

While some argue that “India” is a colonial conception, the first written record of the word was likely from this curious Greek historian — long before colonialism entered the subcontinent. History also suggests that both Indians and foreigners used some iteration that referenced the Indus River, or Sindhu in Sanskrit, for millennia. Think “Hodu” in the Bible’s Book of Esther, “Indoi” or “Indou” in ancient Rome, “al-Hind” or “Indostān” among 16th-century Italian mathematicians, or “Hindustan” among Mughals. 

Post World War II, about a dozen countries have changed their names — including, memorably, Turkey to Türkiye in 2021. In recent weeks, as a leaked invite to the G20 Summit in Delhi showed that delegates were attending a “Republic of Bharat” event (not Republic of India), onlookers couldn’t help but comment. Now, as the name of the world’s most populous country becomes a topic of controversy, it’s worth examining how India got its name in the first place.

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