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The Origin and Definition of Hindu

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by Jayaram V

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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 the same.

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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