First of all, we have to keep in mind that the notion of ‘Nation-State” is a very recent political system that came into existence after the French Revolution. That was India which never was a single politically governed entity. There never was any need to have a single name to the subcontinent. The different states were known after their regional names or if larger empires comprising of many regions were known after the ruling dynastic name. Maurya, Satvahana, Gupta, Kushana, etc. empires are fine examples to make this point. But there was not a single name to address this subcontinent.
The earliest name for the region of Indus valley (or sub-continent) appears in Sumerian records belonging to the period of Sargon (2323-2279 BCE) which mentions the ships coming from Meluha. In another inscription, the name of the region is spelled as Melukha from where men used to come to sell gold dust. Mythological legend such as "Enki and Ninhursag" also refers Meluha in the following words, "May the foreign land of Meluhha load precious desirable cornelian, perfect mes wood and beautiful aba wood into large ships for you" Besides this there are other inscriptions as well those describes the import of various artifacts, dogs etc. According to the records the traders of Meluha had established their colony in southern Sumer in the City-State of Girsu.
We are not sure whether Meluha was meant for the whole subcontinent or just the region of Indus valley which heavily traded with Sumer. Also, it is not clear whether Indus people had named their region as Meluha or it was the name devised by the Sumerians. Since Indus script is not deciphered so far we may not know what Indus people called their land in their times. However, this is the first reference to the name of the Indus region or subcontinent.
To find the name of the country we have to depend on mythological and epical sources. Indian mythologies are full of contradictions and inconsistent hence it becomes difficult to arrive on any conclusion based on historical proofs. We have to infer logically from the available mythologies of various religions to reach any conclusion.
Names of the country
We will have a quick glance at the various names subcontinent was called with. Some of the names are indigenous and some are given by foreigners. In modern times only two names, India and Bharat, are applied to the republic of India. In popular culture, the name Hindustan also is in vogue.
Hind/Hindustan: After Meluha, ‘Hindave’ or Hind was another name for the subcontinent or just for the region around then known large river ‘Sindhu’ to the western world. It is obvious that the land beyond Sindhu was barely known to the westerners, even close neighbors Iranians. The term Hindave appears in Avesta, religious scripture of Zoroastrians. To which early Rigveda refers as Saptasindhu appears in Avesta as Haptahindu because of the sound change in old Persian language. However, these 7 rivers didn’t belong to the tributaries of the Sindhu river but these were known large seven rivers that surrounded then known world.
May it be whatsoever, the word “Hind” was applied by the westerners in various forms to the land surrounding Sindhu River and beyond. Vedic Aryans coming from Helmand valley of modern Afghanistan also did not know much about the tribes that had occupied various regions beyond Sindhu River and hardly knew anything about the southern regions beyond Vindhya. Manusmriti’s geography evidences the fact that the Vedic’s gradually came to be acquainted with the various regions and tribes of the subcontinent. The lands they were situated in were called either “Aryavarta” or "Brahmavarta". In short, to the early Vedics the name of the nation (land) they were situated in was limited to their area of settlements. Name Bharat does not appear in any early Vedic records as the name of the region or subcontinent.
This would mean that the word Hindave denoted just the land beyond Indus River which was not known to the western world. The term Hindustan acquired larger meaning when the Turks established their political power in the subcontinent. Still, from the records of medieval times, it clearly appears that the name Hindustan was mostly applied to north India and the southern part was still known as “Dakkhan.” In a later era, when the British started to rule the subcontinent they gave larger meaning to the term “Hindustan” as a political unit and under the umbrella term covered almost all the regions of the subcontinent.
The name Indica (Indoi) given by Greek’s also did belong to Sindhu River. The present official name ‘India’ is further development of Indica. This does mean that the Indus River played a significant role in providing regional identity to the people of the subcontinent.
Jambudwipa: Though mythologically a popular term but scarcely used to describe subcontinent, Jambu Dveepa term has occupied almost every Mythological book. Jambudwipa actually is one of the seven islands divided by different 7 kinds of oceans. The descriptions of all these seven islands seem to be a fantasy of ancient mankind. It has no resemblance to any material world. For example, Jambudwipa was full of monstrous Jamun tree. The Purana’s portrays Jambudwipa as being depressed on its south and north and elevated and broad in the middle. The elevated region forms the varsha named Ila-vrutta or Meruvarsha. At the center of Ila-vrta lies the golden Mount Meru, king of mountains. On the top of Mount Meru, is the vast city of Lord Brahma known as Brahmapuri. Surrounding Brahmapuri are 8 cities - the one of Lord Indra and of seven other gods. The city of Brahmapuri is said to be enclosed by a river, known as Akash Ganga which after encircling the Brahmapuri "splits up into four mighty streams", which are said to flow in four opposite directions from the landscape of Mount Meru and irrigate the vast lands of Jambudwipa.
Though the above description does not fit to any land the name Jambudwipa seem to have applied to India at many places in ancient scriptures. The knowledge of geography was so rare in the ancient past that the people used their imaginations to have a picture of the universe they lived in.
As the knowledge of mankind grew the names of the land were given after the name of the ruling dynasty. Nabhivarsha is the first such name which was given to the land where King Nabhi, father of first Tirthankara Rishabhnath, ruled extensively. Nabhivarsha was considered as a part of Jambudwipa. But this name did not gain much popularity as the son of Rishabhnatha, Bharat, gained much more popularity, and the name Nabhivarsha or Ajnabhvarsha was soon replaced with Bharatvarsha. Adipurana gives detailed, but mythical, the account of the era of Nabhi. However, it can be derived that Nabhi was a popular king who ruled over a larger part of the subcontinent.
Of two official names, Bharat is one that has been in the use since millenniums. Also, there has been always a controversy over the issue of who was that Bharat after whom the subcontinent was named?
We have to deal with this issue very carefully.
Rigveda mentions a mighty tribe Bharat who was initially associated with other Vedic tribes as a political alley and sometimes as a leader. King Sudasa, the hero of the celebrated Battle of Ten Kings is supposed to belong with the Bharata clan. He had defeated the Puru tribe as well in this battle. We have to bear in the mind that these Rigvedic tribes dwelled in the basin of Helmand River which earlier was known as Sarasvati to the Vedics and Harhvaiti to the Zoroastrians. The Mahabharata does not mention the battle of Ten Kings at all nor the celebrated Sudasa who brought such a great victory. This only does mean that This Bharata tribe had nothing to do with the Puru/Kuru clan of Mahabharata. In Rigveda Bharatas and the Purus had turned enemies. Also, in Rigveda, Bharata or Puru are the names of the tribes whereas in Mahabharata both are the personal names.
The supposed Bharata clan of Sudasa and Bharata (Son of Dushyanta) of Kuru lineage were two distinct families/persons. The Rig Veda nowhere mentions the famous Kurukshetra through which the Saraswati is supposed to have flowed. Had the Ghaggar been the lost Saraswati and the Bharata clan of Sudasa ruled on the banks of most revered river Saraswati and in whose rein, the most sacred scriptures had been composed; one would expect his mention in Mahabharata. But it is not the case. If th Puru’s of the Rigveda are considered to be same as mentioned in Mahabharata, Puru’s of Rigveda were staunch enemies of Bharata’s who were decisively defeated by Bharata clan. Hence Bharata of Mahabharata has nothing to do with the Bharata clan/tribe of Rigveda hence Bharata clan cannot be associated with the country name.
Hence, India could not have derived the Name Bharata after a tribal name that delved not in the sub-continent but in eastern Iran.
The second claimant is another Bharat, son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala from their pre-matrimonial relations. Mahabharata gives his comparatively very short space. He rules the Kuru kingdom and did not seem to have expanded its boundaries to create an empire. Though his descendants were also called “Bharatas” it nowhere is mentioned that the kingdom was known after him. The kingdom was always known as Kuru-Panchal. “Mahabharata”, name of the epic derives from the tragic war taking place between the Descendents of Bharata.
Mahabharata in Adiparva (69.49) and Anushasan Parva (76.26) clearly indicates that the descendent and predecessors of Bharata will be known as Bharata’s. This does mean that it has no territorial reference as some may want to believe.
However, when Bharata's name for the subcontinent came in the vogue some authors of the past tried to connect Daushyanti Bharata with it. However, though Bharata has shown conducting many fire sacrifices including Rajasuya it is clear that he never brought, forget Subcontinent, even north India under his control. The fact is evident from the various independent kings of the south and north participate in the Bharata war.
The epic name “Mahabharata” does not belong to any territory but to the war fought between the descendants of king Bharata. Hence we cannot connect Daushanti Bharata with the country name.
We know another Bharata, son of Dasharatha of Ramayana. Some believe that the country name belongs to Bharata. However, the link is very weak. Bharata was the younger step-brother of Rama whom his mother Kaikeyi was eager to make crowned king by sending Rama to exile. However, Bharata did not accept the throne; instead, he preferred to rule the kingdom as caretaker king. Since he neither was the crowned king nor did expand the kingdom, remained confined to the traditional boundaries of his ancestral kingdom of Ayodhya, it will be unwise to credit him for the country-name.
Most importantly, there is no scriptural evidence including Ramayana to suggest the country name was given after him.
Rishabhanath’s son Bharata
We have seen that India (or most of its part) was also called as Nabhi Varsha. According to Hindu and Jaina Puranas Nabhi was the father of the first Teerthankar Rshabhanatha. “Varsha” means ‘territory’ so Nabhivarsha would mean the territory of king Nabhi. Though we do not know the boundaries of Nabhi’s territory it is obvious it must have been substantially large to be named after its emperor. The capital of Nabhi’s empire, as per mythology, was Ayodhya.
Whether Rishabhnatha was a historical person or not is a hotly debated issue since what his lifetime’s description we get is too mythical. However, apart from Jaina literature, we find names of three Teerthankara’s, Rishabh, Ajitnatha and Arishtanemi mentioned in Yajur Veda which approximately belongs to 8th century BC. Being Veda’s an independent source, the information can be taken as reliable though the time of all these ford makers has to be speculated.
Bharata (from Sunanda) and Bahubali (from Sumangala) were sons of Rishahnatha. Bharata became all conqueror whereas Bahubali renounced the worldly pleasures and took an ascetic life in South India. Bahubali is till this date showing his presence through his huge statue at Shravanbelgola. If faith and folk traditions are believed Bahubali was indeed a historical person, deified in course of the time. Bharata was all a practical person who established his empire to be known after him.
We have more scriptural proofs that clearly establish that traditionally Rishabha’s son Bharata is responsible for the country name. Apart from Jain Puranas numerous Hindu Puranas like Vishnu Purana (2,1,31), Vayu Purana (33,52), Linga Purana (1,47,23), Brahmanda Purana (14,5,62), Agni Purana (107,11–12), Skanda Purana, Khanda (37,57) and Markandaya Purana (50,41 clearly credit Bharata, son of Rishabhnatha, for the designation Bharata Varsha (territory of Bharata). For example, Vishnu Purana clearly mentions:
ऋषभो मरुदेव्याश्च ऋषभात भरतो भवेत्
भरताद भारतं वर्षं, भरतात सुमतिस्त्वभूत्
Rishabha was born to Marudevi, Bharata was born to Rishabha,
Bharatavarsha (India) arose from Bharata and Sumati arose from Bharata.
—Vishnu Purana (2,1,31)
ततश्च भारतं वर्षमेतल्लोकेषुगीयते
भरताय यत: पित्रा दत्तं प्रतिष्ठिता वनम (विष्णु पुराण, २,१,३२)
This country is known as Bharatavarsha since the times the father entrusted the kingdom to the son Bharata and he himself went to the forest for ascetic practices.
—Vishnu Purana (2,1,32)
This would mean that in popular and mythological culture it was an established fact that Son of Rishabha, Bharat, was credited for the territorial name Bharata. However, it appears that before the second century BC Bharat name was used for the region of Gangetic plains which gradually came into the use for entire subcontinent. Vishnu Purana states,
उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम् ।
वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम भारती यत्र संततिः ।।
"The country (varṣam) that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bharatam; there dwell the descendants of Bharata."
Purana’s final recensions were compiled during the third-fourth century AD, in the Gupta era and Sanskrit had fully developed. The origins of the Purana and Epics are now traced to the Prakrit origins which later were transliterated to Sanskrit with many Vedic additions and deletions. Without going in much detail about this it suffices to say that the designation “Bharata” was initially limited to north India and later on it came to refer the subcontinent.
We have another important proof to establish this fact. The name Bharat (Pr. Bharad) appears the first time in Hathigumpha inscription of Jain emperor Kharvel of Kalinga belonging to the second century BC. The inscription states, “[नगरिय कलिंग] राजनिवासं महाविजय पासादं कारयति अठतिसाय सतसहसेहि [।।] दसमे च वसे दंड संधि साम [मयो] भारदवस पठानं मही जयनं … कारापयति. (Line ten, Hathigumpha Inscription) which can be translated as “… And in the ninth year [His Majesty] caused to be built [in Kalinga Nagari] the Great Victory palace the royal residence at the cost of thirty-eight hundred thousand (coins). Then in the tenth year, [His Majesty] the embodiment of politics, diplomacy, and peace, caused [ the army] to march through Bharatavarsa for conquest.”
This inscription is historically important because this is the first inscription that mentions Bratavarsha. Also, this inscription indicates that to Kharvel, Bharavarsha was a territory through which he marched for his military exploits. So, by Kharvela’s time entire subcontinent was not named after Bharata. Kharavel being a Jain monarch his reference to Bharat is certainly related to the son of Rishabha and none else as in the same inscription Kharvel describes how he won back the image of Jina (Rishabhnatha) that was moved by Nanda king to his capital.
It seems that with growing interactions between the foreign worlds the people of the subcontinent must have felt the need of a single name to refer the whole of the subcontinent and hence Bharata came to refer to the landmass that lay between the Himalayas and the ocean of the south.
Looking at the available scriptural proofs the country name Bharata derives from the legendary Chakravartin King Bharata, son of the first Tirthankara Rishabhnatha. Apart from mythological stories we can trace the origin of the country name to this Bharata as other claimant personalities or tribe of similar names stand weak scriptural as well as inscriptional records. Name “Bharadvas” (Bharatavarsha) was initially must have belonged to the regions controlled by Bharat which terminologically was expanded to apply the whole of the subcontinent to revere the memories of a just and mighty emperor. The Vedic Bharata tribe or Daushyanti Bharat couldn’t have been responsible to name the subcontinent after them as it is not supported by even scriptural proofs.