The Origin Of The Name Afghan

Akbar the Mughal Emperor

by Jayaram V

tymological view supported by numerous noted scholars is that the name Afghan evidently derives from Sanskrit Ashvaka or Ashvakan (q.v), the Assakenois of Arrian[1]. This view was propounded by scholars like Dr Christian Lassen, J. W. McCrindle [2] etc and has been supported by numerous modern scholars [3] [4] [1]. In Sanskrit, word ashva (Iranian aspa, Prakrit assa) means "horse", and ashvaka (Prakrit assaka) means "horseman". Pre-Christian times knew the people of eastern Afghanistan as Ashvakas (horsemen), since they raised a fine breed of horses and had a reputation for providing expert cavalrymen.

E The fifth-century-BCE Indian grammarian Panini calls them Ashvakayana [5] and Ashvayana [6] respectively [7]. Classical writers use the respective equivalents Aspasios (or Aspasii, Hippasii) and Assakenois (or Assaceni/Assacani, Asscenus) etc. The Aspasios/Assakenois (Ashvakas = Cavalrymen) is stated to be another name for the Kambojas of Ancient texts because of their equestrian characteristics. In ancient Pali texts, the Kamboja land is described as the land of horses [8] [9] [10] [11]. The relics of the name Assakenoi are still seen in the Aspin of Chitral and the Yashkun of Gilgit, according to Dr J. W. McCrindle [12] [13].

In this regard, the Encyclopædia Iranica states[14]: “ From a more limited, ethnological point of view, "Afghan" is the term by which the Persian-speakers of Afghanistan (and the non-Pašto-speaking ethnic groups generally) designate the Paštun. The equation [of] Afghan [and] Paštun has been propagated all the more, both in and beyond Afghanistan, because the Paštun tribal confederation is by far the most important in the country, numerically and politically. ”

It further explains: “ The term "Afghan" has probably designated the Paštun since ancient times. Under the form Avagana, this ethnic group is first mentioned by the Indian astronomer Varaha Mihira in the beginning of the 6th century A.D. in his Brahat-samahita. ”

This information is supported by traditional Pashto literature, for example in the writings of the 17th century Pashto poet Khushal Khan Khattak[15]:

“ Pull out your sword and slay any one, that says Pashton and Afghan are not one! Arabs know this and so do Romans: Afghans are Pashtons, Pashtons are Afghans! ”

The last part of the name "-stan" is an Indo-Iranian suffix for "place", prominent in many languages of the region. The term "Afghanistan", meaning the "Land of Afghans", was mentioned by the 16th century Mughal Emperor Babur in his memoirs, referring to the territories south of Kabul that were inhabited by Pashtuns (called "Afghans" by Babur)[16].

Regarding the modern nation or country "Afghanistan", the Encyclopædia Of Islam[17] states:

“ Afghanistan has borne that name only since the middle of the 18th century, when the supremacy of the Afghan race (Pashtuns) became assured: previously various districts bore distinct apellations, but the country was not a definite political unit, and its component parts were not bound together by any identity of race or language. The earlier meaning of the word was simply “the land of the Afghans”, a limited territory which did not include many parts of the present state but did comprise large districts now either independent or within the boundary of Pakistan. ”

This information is supported by Frederick Engels, who wrote in the year 1857:

“ Afghanistan, an extensive country of Asia, north-west of India. It lies between Persia and the Indies, and in the other direction between the Hindu Kush and the Indian Ocean. It formerly included the Persian provinces of Khorassan and Kohistan, together with Herat, Beluchistan, Cashmere, and Sinde, and a considerable part of the Punjab.[18] ”

The information from the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Frederick Engels are further supported by the CIA world factbook, Encyclopedia Britannica, Columbia Enclyclopedia and many others.[19][20][21][22][23][24][25]

Until the 19th century, the name was only used for the traditional lands of the Pashtuns, while the kingdom as a whole was known as the Kingdom of Kabul, as mentioned by the British statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone[26]. Later, Afghan authorities adopted and extended the name "Afghanistan" to the entire kingdom, after its English translation, "Afghanland", had already appeared in various treaties between British Raj and Qajarid Persia, referring to the lands that were subject to the Pashtun Barakzai Dynasty of Kabul[citation needed].

Afghanistan became fully recognized by the world community in 1919, after the country re-gained independence over its foreign affairs from the British,[27] and was confirmed as such in the nation's 1923 constitution.[28]

Earlier references to the region

Before being called Afghanistan, the region had gone through several name changes in its long history of over 5,000 years.

One of the most ancient names, according to historians and scholars, was Aryana - the Greek pronunciation of the ancient Avestan Aryanam Vaeja, Old Persian Aryanam Xša?ra or the Sanskrit "Aryavarta", Realm of the Aryans. Today this Old-Persian, and Avestan expression is preserved in the name Iran and it is noted in the name of the Afghan national airlines, Ariana Airlines. The term Aryana Afghanistan is still popular amongst Persian speakers in the country. Many centuries later, large parts of the region were known as Khorasan, and hence present-day Afghanistan was recognized with this name (Persian: - Khoraan; along with regions centered around Merv and Neishabur), which in Pahlavi means "Land of the Rising Sun" (Persian:).[29]

Other theories

There are various other theories about the origins of the name Afghanistan. However, they are not accepted by mainstream scholars.

Pashtun legend places Afghana, the professed eponymous ancestor of the Afghans or Pushtuns, as a contemporary of Muslim, Prophet Mohammad. On hearing about the new faith of Islam, Qais from Aryana travelled to Medina to see the Muslim, Prophet Muhammad, and returned to Aryana as a Muslim. Qais Abdur Rashid purportedly had many sons, one of whom was Afghana. Afghana, in turn, had four sons who set out to the east to establish their separate lineages. The first son went to Swat, the second to Lahore and India, the third to Multan, and the last one to Quetta. This legend is one of many traditional tales amongst the Pashtuns regarding their disparate origins. Again, it was this legendary Afghana who is stated to have given the Pushtuns their current name. It is notable that the Afghan of this legend is separated from the Afghana of Solomon's times by at least 11 centuries.

"Makhzan-e Afghan" by Nematullah, written in 1612 CE at the Mughal court in India, traces the Afghan or Pakhtun origin from Abraham down to one named King Talut or Saul. It states that Saul had a son Irmia (Jeremia), who had a son called Afghana. Upon the death of King Saul, Afghana was raised by David, and was later promoted to the chief command of the army during the reign of King Solomon. The progeny of this Afghana multiplied numerously, and came to be called Bani-Israel. In the sixth century BCE, Bakhtunnasar, or Nebuchadnezzar king of Babil, attacked Judah and exiled the progeny of Afghana to Ghor located in the center of what is now Afghanistan. In course of time, the exiled community came to be addressed as Afghan after the name of their ancestor, and the country got its name as Afghanistan. This traditional view has some critics who refer to insufficient historical records.

Dr H.W. Bellew, in his book An Enquiry into the Ethnography of Afghanistan, believes that the name Afghan derives from the Latin term Alban, used by Armenians as Alvan or Alwan, which refers to mountaineers, and in the case of transliterated Armenian characters, would be pronounced as Aghvan or Aghwan. To the Persians, this would further be altered to Aoghan, Avghan, and Afghan as a reference to the highlanders or "mountaineers" of the eastern Iranian plateau.

There are also a few people who tend to link "Afghan" to an Uzbek word "Avagan" said to mean "original".[30]
By another authority, the name Afghan is said to mean wailing [31] which the Persians are said to have contemptuously used for their plaintive eastern neighbors.

Modern usage

Between the fall of the Taliban after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 Loya jirga, Afghanistan was referred to by the Government of the United States as the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan. Under its new constitution, the country is now officially named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Arrian writes them Assakenois. Strabo also calls them Assakanois, but Curtius calls them Assacani.

2. The name Afghan has evidently been derived from Asvakan, the Assakenoi of Arrian... (Megasthenes and Arrian, p 180; see also: Alexander's Invasion of India, p 38; J. W. McCrindle)

3. This includes S. Martin, L. Bishop, W. Crooke, J. C. Vidyalnar, Dr M. R. Singh, P. Smith, N. L. Dey, Henry Yule, A. C. Burnell, Dr J. L. Kamboj, S. Kirpal Singh and several others. cf: “The name represents Sanskrit Asvaka in the sense of a cavalier, and this reappears scarcely modified in the Assakani or Assakeni of the historians of the expedition of Alexander” (Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, Henry Yule, A. C. Burnell).

4. Ashtadhyayi, Nadadi gana IV-1, 99

5. Ashtadhyayi Sutra IV-1, 110

6. History and Culture of Indian People, the Age of Imperial Unity, Vol II, p 45, Dr A. D. Pusalkar, Dr R. C. Majumdar, Dr Munshi etc; Panjab Past and Present, pp 9-10, Dr Buddha Parkash; See also: History of Porus, pp 12, 38; Ancient India, 2003, pp 260-61, Dr V. D. Mahajan; India as Known to Panini, pp 456-57, Dr V. S. Aggarwala; Preliminary Notes on the Excavation of the Necropolises found in Western Pakistan and The Tombs of the Asvakayana-Assakenoi, Antonini, Chiara Silvi & Tucci, Giuseppe, pp 13 to 28; 'Asvakayana-Assakenoi', East and West, NS,. 14 (Roma, t963), pp 27-28.

7. Kambojo assa.nam ayata.nam i.e Kamboja the birthplace of horse......(|| Samangalavilasini, Vol I, p 124||).

8. Aruppa-Niddesa of Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa describes the Kamboja land as the base of horses (10/28)

9. In the Anushasnaparava section of Mahabharata, the Kambojas are specifically designated as Ashava.yuddha.kushalah (expert cavalrymen).tatha Yavana Kamboja Mathuram.abhitash cha ye |ete 'ashava.yuddha.kushalahdasinatyasi charminah. || 5 ||

10. Political History of Ancient India, 1996, p 133 fn 6, pp 216-20, (Also Commentary p 576 fn 22), Dr H. C. Raychaudhury, Dr B. N. Mukerjee; Historie du bouddhisme Indien, p110, Dr E. Lammotte; Panjab Past and Present, pp 9-10, Dr Buddha Parkash. J. W. McCrindle says that the modern Afghanistan -- the Kaofu (Kambu) of Hiun Tsang was ancient Kamboja, and the name Afghan evidently derives from the Ashavakan, the Assakenoi of Arrian (Alexandra's Invasion of India, p 38; Megasthenes and Arrian, p 180, J. McCrindle); Ancient Kamboja, People and Country, 1981, pp 271-72, 278, Dr J. L. Kamboj; These Kamboj People, 1979, pp 119, 192, K. S. Dardi; Kambojas, Through the Ages, 2005, pp 129, 218-19, S Kirpal Singh; Sir Thomas H. Holdich, in the his classic book, (The Gates of India, p 102-03), writes that the Aspasians (Aspasios) represent the modern Kafirs. But the modern Kafirs, especially the Siah-Posh Kafirs (Kamoz/Camoje, Kamtoz) etc are considered to be modern representatives of the ancient Kambojas. Other noted scholars supporting this view are Dr Romilla Thapar, Dr R. C. Majumdar etc. The Invasion Of India By Alexander The Great As Described By Arrian, Q. Curtius, Diodorus, Plutarch And Justin, Dr J. W. McCrindle.

11. Other scholars like Dr N. K. Shastri, Dr Buddha Parkash, Dr L. M. Joshi, Dr Fauja Singh, Dr J. L. Kamboj and many others also hold the same view.

12. Ch.M. Kieffer, "Afghan" (with ref. to "Afghanistan: iv. Ethnography"), in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Online Edition 2006, (LINK)

13. extract from "Passion of the Afghan" by Khushal Khan Khattak; translated by C. Biddulph in "Afghan Poetry Of The 17th Century: Selections from the Poems of Khushal Khan Khattak", London, 1890

14. Zahir ud-Din Mohammad Babur in Baburnama, "Transactions of the year 908", translated by John Leyden, Oxford University Press 1921 (LINK)

15. M. Longworth Dames/G. Morgenstierne/R. Ghirshman, "Afghanistan", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Online Edition MECW Volume 18, p. 40; The New American Cyclopaedia - Vol. I, 1858;...Link

16. CIA World Factbook - Afghanistan...Link

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica - Ahmad Shah Durrani...Link

18. Nancy Hatch Dupree - An Historical Guide To Afghanistan - The South (Chapter 16)...Link

19. Columbia Encyclopedia - Afghanistan: History...Link

20. History Of Nations - History of Afghanistan...Link

21. Afghanistan Online - Biography (Ahmad Shah Abdali)...Link

22. Britannica Student Encyclopedia - Government and History (from Afghanistan)...Link

23. Elphinstone, M., "Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its Dependencies in Persia and India", London 1815; published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme & Brown

24. M. Ali, "Afghanistan: The War of Independence, 1919", Kabul [s.n.], 1960

25. Afghanistan's Constitution of 1923, under King Amanullah Khan, English translation...Link

26. A.A. Dehkhoda, Dehkhoda Dictionary, p. 8457

27. Gankovsky, Yu. V., et al "A History of Afghanistan." Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982. 8vo. Cloth. 359 p. USD 22.50

28. Persia, p 142, Samuel G. Benjamin. Retrieved from ""


Source: This article except the links has been reproduced from the Wikipedia article "Origin of the name Afghan" under the TGNU Free Documentation License

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