The Indians who migrate to western countries or visit them often
find it amusing to see some westerners struggling to pronounce their names. Even
the simplest names are often mispronounced by some, making one wonder
how it can be possible. Interestingly the word "Hindu" came into
existence because of mispronunciation of a Sanskrit word by the
ancient Persians some 3000 to 4000 years ago.
The word "Hindu" is not a Sanskrit word. It is not found in any
of the thousands of native dialects and languages of India. Neither
it is a religious word. It is a secular word whose origin is rooted
in the language of the ancient Persians, who supposedly shared some
common ancestry with the ancient Indians. It was practically unknown
in India till the medieval period, although it was used in several
countries outside the Indian subcontinent from earlier times. It
is said that the Persians who were familiar with the Indian subcontinent,
used to refer to the Indus river as Sindhu, a major river that still
flows in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, partly
in India and partly in Pakistan. However due to linguistic barriers,
they could not pronounce the letter "S" correctly in their native
tongue and mispronounced it as "H." Thus, for the ancient Persians,
the word "Sindhu" became "Hindu."
Probably the Indus people who lived on the banks of the river
Indus were known to the outside world by the same name. The ancient
Persian Cuneiform inscriptions and the Zend Avesta refer to the
word "Hindu" as a geographic name rather than a demographic or religious
name. When the Persian King Darious 1 extended his empire up to
the borders of the Indian subcontinent in 517 BC, some Hindus became
part of his empire and army. Thus for a very long time the ancient
Persians referred to the people of the Indian subcontinent as Hindus.
The ancient Greeks and Armenians followed the same pronunciation.
Gradually the name stuck.
Interestingly the word "India" has the same origin as the Hindus.
Those who feel appalled at the idea of someone referring to all
Indians as Hindus should read this. Just as the ancient Persians
and probably Sumerians mispronounced the word Sindhu, the ancient
Greeks used to mispronounce the river Sindhu as Indos. When Alexander
invaded India, the Macedonian army referred to the river as Indus
and the land east of the river as India. The Greek writers who wrote
about Alexander preferred to use the same name. For the Arabs the
land became Al-Hind. The Muslim rulers and travelers who came to
India during the medieval period referred the Indian subcontinent
as "Hindustan" and the people who lived there as Hindus. The British
continued the practice and referred in the beginning all the natives
as Hindoos. Later they began using the word more as a religious
term to distinguish them from Muslims as well as Christians,. At
the same time they used the word "Indian" in a wider and more secular
context to refer all the people who were native to the land. The
distinction suited them well to lump all natives as Indians to distinguish
them from the rest of their colonial subjects for administrative
purposes, while the word Hindoo served them well to implement their
policy of divide and rule within India.
For a long time for the native Indians, the Indian subcontinent
was Bharata, the land founded by the famous King Bharata, the progenitor
of the Bharata clan. Literally translated, the word "Bharata" meant
lover of knowledge and the people inhabiting the land considered
themselves as such. They believed the religion they followed was
an eternal religion and called it as "sanatana dharma," which meant
It is interesting to note that the word is neither Sanskrit nor
Dravidian and did not originate in India. It was not used by Indians
in their descriptions or writings till the 17th century. If we go
by the original definition of the word Hindu, any one who lives
in the subcontinent is a Hindu and whatever religion he or she practices
is Hinduism. The word Hindu is a secular word and literally translated
it means Indian and the word Hinduism denotes any religion or religions
that are practiced by the multitude of people living in the land
beyond the river Indus.
In today's India, the word Hindu is most misunderstood and misused.
Many people have no idea how the word came into existence. The Indus
river, with which the word is associated, now flows mostly in Pakistan
although it originates in India. It is no more part of the native
pride. It is almost forgotten or overlooked and its place is being
taken over by the river Ganga. The word "Hindutva" has lost its
purity and purpose. Politicians use both the words Hindu and Hindutva
with communal overtones either to promote or oppose some ideology
or party. Many Hindus who proudly proclaim themselves as the swadeshis
(sons of the soil) do not know that the word Hindu is actually videshi
(foreign). People have no problem being referred to as Indians.
But it will be a huge mistake if someone refers to all Indians as
Hindus, because the word "Hindu" is no more viewed as a secular
word by the present day Indians. This is one legacy of divide and
rule policy of the British that Indians cannot do away with. They
may go on changing the street names and place names all over the
country, even the most historical ones, into native names to obliterate
all traces of the colonial past from the country. But they cannot,
as a nation, accept the word "Hindu" as a secular word denoting
the people of India. It will probably live forever, as a communal
word, to identify only those who profess faith in what we today
identify as Hinduism.
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