Hindu: The Most Misinterpreted Term
Sudipto Das, an IIT alumnus, is an author, musician and columnist. His debut novel The Ekkos Clan published in 2013. Trained in western classical music, he is the founding member of a music band Kohal. During the day, he works as the VP Engineering in a semiconductor firm in Bangalore.
9 Mar, 201515Cultureculture / HInduism /identity / witzel
Here I stand, a Hindu, with a constant dichotomy within me as to what it really means—my nationality or my religion.
It’s not a very fortunate thing that even the names by which a major religion, or for that matter, the native people who are believed to be its followers and its country of origin are generally designated, both by the natives and foreigners, have been all so much a subject of misinterpretation and politicization. The names, all related though, in consideration, are Hindu and its variants.
“Hindu” has been officially accepted, since quite some time, both as the name of the religion followed by a vast majority of Indians and also the people themselves who are believed to be its followers. So I’m a Hindu and so is my religion, as per the census, though thankfully I don’t have to write my religion in any official identification document like passport, PAN card or AADHAR card.
India is a secular country. So it’s not acceptable to call her a Hindu nation. But, very interestingly, India is still referred to as, though not officially, Hindustan, the land of the Hindus. She is also referred to as Hind—Jai Hind, Victory to Hind, has been the clarion call to arouse a feeling of nationhood and nationalism since long. The people of Hind would be logically called Hindi, like the people of Bangal are called Bangali.
So we’ve India, Hindustan and Hind as various names for India, and also Bharata or Bharatavarsha, which we can keep aside for the time being.
Etymologically India and Hindu are cognates, meaning both have descended from the same source, which in this case is Sindhu, the name of the river which flows through the north western India and Pakistan. The earliest usage of the term Hindu may be in the expression Hapta Hendu, found in the later Avestan Zoroastrian text of Vendidad, dated not later than the 8th century BC, where it refers to the land of the Sapta Sindhu, Seven Sindhus, as one of the sixteen best, vahistem, places created by the prophet Ahura Mazda. The land of the Sapta Sindhu is undoubtedly an epithet for the present day Punjab and the seven sindhus are the seven rivers – Sindhu or Indus, its five tributaries and the mythical river Saraswati.
How and when exactly the land of the Sapta Sindhu or Hapta Hindu came to be known as simply the land of the Hindu is not known. Eventually the geographical area which was initially referred to as the land of the Hindu was expanded by the Persians to include the whole of the Indian subcontinent, or at least the entire northern India which, from time to time, was consolidated under one empire over the past two thousand years under various emperors starting from Ashoka till the Mughals.
Designating a group of people or their native land by the name of a river is not a unique thing. The ancient Greek name of Volga is Rha, a cognate of Indo-Iranian rasa or raha and Latin ros, meaning moisture. There’s a mythical river Rasa in the Rig Veda. The name Volga comes from the Slavic words vlaga and vologa meaning wetness and humidity. Even now a small group of people who speak the Mordvinic languages in the Volga basin refer to Volga as Rav, surely a cognate of rasa. The name Russia may still bear vestiges of Rasa, the ancient name of the Volga.
It may be interesting to note that even during the time of the Rig Veda, not later than 1500 BC, some seven centuries before the first usage of the term Hindu to refer to the people of the Indus valley, the native people were not a homogeneous group. Professor Michael Witzel, an eminent historian of the Harvard University, mentions in his various papers that during the early Rig Vedic age, around 1700 BC, the present day Punjab might have been peopled mainly by the Indo-Aryans speaking Sanskrit. The language of the upper Indus valley might have been para-Munda and that of south Indus Meluhan and proto-Dravidian. Ethnically all these people were different. The diversity increased in the next three millennium. Still the single term Hindu to designate all of them and also the other people of the entire subcontinent remained in vogue.
The reason for designating a diverse group of people speaking different languages and following different rituals and practices by a single name might have been the geographical isolation of the Indian subcontinent from the Central Asia. So even at the very beginning, the term Hindu was the designation of a diverse group of people united perhaps by only one factor—the geographical isolation of their native land. (Here I consider that the Indo-Aryan peoples, the carriers of the Sanskrit language, had already become as good as native by the time the term Hindu was coined).
That the term Hindu was never a designation of a particular religion or its followers is very evident from the fact that even a fanatic Muslim emperor like Aurangzeb was absolutely fine with the term Hindustan, by which the Indian subcontinent, especially the north Indian empires, would be mostly designated. Hindu has been always the single identity of the people of the Indian subcontinent. Hindu and its cognates were the names by which the people of the entire Indian subcontinent were always called by the rest of the world, much before it was actually unified as a single country recently during the British era.
So when did the term Hindu get a ‘communal’ tag? Let us investigate that now.
If Hindu was never the name of any religion then what was the name of the religion followed by the vast majority of the Indians?
To understand that, let us see what has been the Indian word for religion. Dharma, the Indian word nearest to what is meant by religion, etymologically doesn’t mean “religion”. As per the Monier Williams’ Sanskrit dictionary, the meaning which comes close to religion is perhaps “customary observance or prescribed conduct”. The religion which is now designated by the generic term Hindu was never a single dharma. The various schools of religion or “prescribed conduct”, which evolved directly or indirectly from the Vedas, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism included, are sometimes so different and divergent, that clubbing all of them under one religion would be absurd. And that was exactly the reason why all these schools never had any single designation.
In his Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen writes about Charvaka, “the crestgem of the atheistic school” in which, “in addition to the denial of God, there is also a rejection of the soul, and an assertion of the material basis of the mind”. This particular school of religion, very much within the scope of what is now referred to as Hinduism, is perhaps more alien to, say, the Vaishnava school, than is Islam or Christianity.
The Ishopanishad has the famous saying, “tena tyaktena bhunjita”, you should accept only that is set aside for you. It’s the seed concept of “enjoyment in renunciation”, an integral part of most of the religious schools of India. Exactly opposite, as said by Rabindranath Tagore, “bairagyo sadhone mukti, she amar noi”, deliverance is not for me in renunciation, is also an accepted school. The school of Nirakarvadi, who worship the Supreme God as a formless entity, very much like Islam, is totally against the Sakarvadi, who worship idols.
A Vaishnavite and a Shaivite would be as antagonistic to each other as may be a Muslim to a Jew. Worship of Manasa, the snake goddess in West Bengal, surely an indigenous pagan tradition, is as opposed to the worship of Shiva, as would be, say, an Indian to a Pakistani.
These are just few examples of the orthogonally different aspects of the various schools of Indian religion, all of which have been attempted to be clubbed under a single designation of Hinduism. That’s illogical and that was never the case too in the remote or recent past. This also explains why there was never a single name for all these contradicting schools of religion, all of which flourished side by side for millennia. But still, the designation of all the people practicing conflicting “religions” by a single name Hindu has been always in vogue. This only strengthens the reasoning that the term Hindu was never a communal designation. Rather, it has always been the unifying identity of the diverse peoples of India.
The term Hindu, as seen, is of Persian origin and very expectedly it never appeared in any Indian text for a very long time. The Indians, till recently, didn’t have any indigenous single term for its diverse population, though from outside they were always seen as Hindus.
When did then the term appear in Indian text? There’s no concrete answer for this. The 3rd edition of the 93rd volume of the Journal of the American Oriental Society published in 1973 had an interesting article titled “The word ‘Hindu’ in Gaudiya Vaishnava texts”, where it’s said that the Vaishnava texts written in Bengali between 16th and 18th centuries might be among the first Indian texts to have the word Hindu. In the eighty thousand Bengali couplets considered, there are only forty eight occurrences of the word Hindu.
It’s important to note that the Muslim rule had already started in Bengal. It was the first time the native people were being ruled by foreigners. So very expectedly the Muslim people, mainly the ruling class, are mostly referred to as yavana, meaning averting, foreigners, and mlechcha, meaning despised people. The communal term Musalman is rarely used. The Bengali renderings of the ethnic terms like Pathans and Turks are also used sometimes to refer to the Muslim rulers. And the term Hindu is almost always used as the designation of the native people, opposed to the foreigners. It can’t be said that the term Hindu applies only to the Vaishnavites, whose religious texts are under consideration. It’s very likely that the term applies to non Vaishnavites too, to all natives. It’s not clear though whether the term Hindu also includes the converted Muslims and the tribal population. Nevertheless, it’s quite clear that the term has been necessitated just to create a nationalistic identity of the natives against the foreigners. Interestingly the Greeks were also referred to as yavanas in the past. So here too, the term Hindu denotes a unified national identity to a motley mix of people divided in their practices and ethnicities.
It’s important to note the Bengali expression “Hindur dharma”, the religion of the Hindus, or “Hindur achar”, the practices of the Hindus, in these texts. Would you ever refer to Christianity as “Christian’s Religion” or Islam as “Muslim’s Religion”? But you could say “Religion of the Romans” or “Religion of the Turks”.
Another notable observation in these texts is that the term Hindu is mostly used as a designation for the natives in the speech of the people from the Muslim or foreigner ruling class. Only in few instances the term is used in the speech of the natives. So this also implies that this unifying nationalistic identity of the natives was more of a term used by the foreigners, the Muslim ruling class in this case, to designate the natives and that the term as such was still not popular among the natives as their self-designation.
David N. Lorenzen in his paper “Who Invented Hinduism” has pointed out that the Maithili poet Vidyapati in his early fifteenth century historical romance called Kirtilata refers to the term Hindu:
The Hindus and the Turks live close together.
Each makes fun of the other’s religion…
Here too, it should be noted, that Muslims are referred to as the Turks, by their ethnic designation rather than religious. So the reference of the term Hindu in the same line has to be an ethnic designation.
So, Lorenzen’s query, who invented Hinduism, is still not answered. He mentioned in his paper that one of the earliest usage of the term Hindooism in the sense of a religion is perhaps in 1829 by W. C. Smith. He also points out that he noticed the mention of Hindooism in English texts by Ram Mohan Roy published in 1816 and 1817. Though this predates W. C. Smith’s reference to Hindoosim, it’s likely that the usage of the term, referring to a religion, was perhaps already in vogue by the nineteenth century. It’s possible that the colonial British people would have, either mistakenly or with some intention, grossly brought the vast majority of the non-Christian and non-Muslim natives under one umbrella – the Hindus – thus, converting a national unifying enthno-geographic identity of the Indians to a communal one.
It may be argued why this should be an issue now. Secularists may say that whatever might be the reason, once the term Hindu has been associated to a particular community, why rake the history and “polarize” public opinion? It’s not about polarization or politicizing. It’s about totally ignoring an identity of more than two millennium and trying to create a new one, that too for no reason.
Identities are created over a long time and they are foundations of cultures, of nations and of civilizations. Roman culture and history without the term “Roman” is absurd even though most of it is associated with a particular religion. The Hindu civilization or culture, on the contrary, has never been a homogeneous one. Rather, it has been always a series of conflicting cultures, as shown earlier, peacefully coexisting for thousands of years. Compared to that, the modern concept of the Indian nation and culture doesn’t have such a glorious record of secularism or peaceful coexistence.
The very fact that the term Hindustan is still in vogue, and that the terms like India and Hindi are fine, but Hindu is not, seems to be hypocritical – India, Hindi, Hindu are all akin terms. It may be argued that etymology alone hardly captures a word’s full range of connotations in a given time in a given sociocultural context.
Everything may be linguistically correct, but the signifier “Hindustan” or “Hindu” include emotive contents — ranging from pride to paranoia, fairness to fear — that are derived from the lived history of those constructs. “Hindu” as a religious characterization is essentially meaningless but nonetheless it is an extremely powerful marker of Identity to those who believe themselves to be “Hindu” and to those who believe themselves not to be. That demarcation of identity is real, and the word becomes a symbol that represents that demarcation.
So there I stand, a Hindu, with a constant dichotomy within me as to what it really means – my nationality or my religion.
(With inputs from a friend)
When RSS talks of Hinduism it doesn’t refer to what North Indians do to pray God or what South Indians do or how different sects within Hinduism pray to God or whether Hindus pray to God or not.
When RSS talks of Hinduism it talks of all the features and varieties of Hinduism. Nothing can be as diverse as this. Yet ignorants accuse RSS of homogenizing India. Yet ignorants bring fear to Indians saying RSS’s agenda is to finish the diversity and secularism. This is absurd and idiotic statement coming from ‘intellectuals’ of India.
How can RSS impose Hinduism when there is endless ways in which one can be Hindus? What RSS wants is secure, prosperous and self-confident people in India known as Hindus. Beyond that what sect is followed by who or not following anything is not the area of interest to them.
Author can get the clue from RSS : Hinduism represents set of people who do not have one ideology or one philosophy but a set of different ideologies and philosophies and who live within the boundary of India. It is another matter that some 20 centuries ago the region under India was as big as that of Russia and over the time we kept losing our region to invaders/separatist.
When I say Hindu or when any of friends I know say hindu then it’s not necessary for them to also say what Sect of Hindu religion they follow. There is commonality in all those sects and it really doesn’t matter who follows what sect as long as they acknowledge their identity as Hindu.
In modern term Hinduism represents one of the most secular and diverse set of people. And if RSS wants to protect or give strength to Hinduism and Hindus then it automatically means RSS wants very secular and diverse society that is confident and that is strong enough to protect this diversity. So that we don’t see another invasion happening or another part of India being separated from it.
- Pappu Italvi
In Indonesia which too have a ancient Hindu heritage , many of its non-Hindu people still carry Hindu names and they proudly display that even though they practice Islam.
Last time I was there, one of the most popular TV series there was Mahabrata (Mahabharata)
I know. People who don’t live in India and yet have the connection with it know the values of our culture and philosophies. It’s only us ‘secular’ people who are taught to hate our own great things.
We are constantly living under the atmosphere where we are step by step taught to hate the parts of Hinduism and replace it with those of Western.
Education system is gone. They are also writing how pathetic and weird the Indian Family System is. Our cultures are misrepresented and shown to be “NOT MODERN” and “NOT PROGRESSIVE”.
Western = Modern is one of the most evil concept that our people are taught. And these days more and more Indians are helping this concept. Sad state of country like India.
I think that this is a very good topic to research and debate. I believe one line where you write “So we’ve India, Hindustan and Hind as various names for India, and also Bharata or Bharatavarsha, which we can keep aside for the time being.” — is the most important line.
- for once
dharm – putra dharm, patni dharm and like this
for dharm you need ‘vivek’
those not possessing ‘vivek’ , for them wise people set some rules
following those rules … is religion
if you can use your ‘vivek’ then you will not be given any dictates to follow
western religion start with surrendering of ‘vivek’ … just follow rules
in bharat, you are supposed to follow some rules till your ‘vivek’ is developed
and if you go on following rules without developing your own ‘vivek’
we call them ‘lakir ke fakir’ and its not something good
that’s the difference and it makes all the difference
- Shatajit Basu
Please do not quote Witzel who has repeatedly exposed for his biased attitude towards Vedic History and for propagating the false aryan invasion theory ! Nice article otherwise.
- Dhruv Chopra
The word hindu is of persian origin which means people living on the east of the river sindhu, as the article says.
Following is some information that I’ve gathered about the word hindu/hinduism:
In Shekhar Bandhopadhyay’s plassey to partition, it is mentioned that ‘Hindu’ officially came to be associated with the ‘native’, non-muslim non-christian populations during the 1871 census by the British imperial government, when for the sake of framing the 1892 indian council act the british wanted to know the relative strength of the native population in order to make reforms. Most natives answered their caste as their religion indentifying as kayasthas, Khatris, even jains used caste apparently. So in order to homogenise this mind-boggling diversity they called them hindus and muhammadans as muslims, sowing the seeds of ‘communalising’ the word ‘hindu’. It had a huge impact on Indian politics as it led to rise of religious consciousness amongs the ‘hindus’ and they came to know about their relative numerical superiority vis-a-viś muslims. This was the major reason for Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s inferiority complex and insecurity of ‘his’ people. It also led to rise of demand for using Hindi instead of persian as official language in UP and Awadh.
The word hindu further got exclusively identified with “Astiks” (that is, those who hold superiority of Vedas; as opposed to “Nastiks” who reject the authority of vedas) during 1920’s when Sikhs formed Shiromani Akali Dal and it led to maintaining their seperate identity.
In Jan 2014, congress further shrunk the definition of Hindus from official texts by granting jains minority status and so now Hindus are exclusively associated with those who uphold vedas as sacred texts.
Hope this helps, and please keep up the good work!
- Aravind Ganesh V
Rather than going by the term ‘Hindu”Hindustan’ I would advise you to stick to the term ‘Bharatham’ esp when you want to outsmart a commie/ libtard/ sickular/Missionary (or their stooges) trying to promote Dravidian myth. Those folks with an intent to deconstruct the idea of ‘nationalism’ will usually rant that there was no nation called India and the Indian nation itself is an artificial construct.
Long back I happened to come across one such dumbo who argued that India is just an artificial nation created by uniting various princely states. In reply to that my 1st point of defense was a text from Bhagavath Gita in which the term “Bharatham” has been described with appropriate references to the land mass. Next was from Sangam literature in which there were references about King’s clans (Most of the kings of Bharatha khandam had common clans). Final references were from Columbus’ handwritten notes in which he refers natives of his newly discovered landmass as ‘Indios’ (Indians in Spanish).
There is a fundamental difference between Religion and Dharma. Our failure to be conscious of this difference has resulted in the creation of several crucial problems that we, as humans, have faced in this century and continue to face even today.
In modern day language, dharma is equated, quite unfairly with religion. Organized religion demands adherence of the followers to the Book and the Prophet. Anything outside the boundaries of a faith is considered irreligious, if not downright sinful. It is believed that salvation lies only through the body of the Prophet or His words. History of mankind is often a gory testament of destruction wrought by the zealots in pursuit of faith. It is a testament of dividing people and converting them, of persecution, intolerance and subjugation, or of burning at the stakes: of the contest between the ecclesiastical and the temporal, the doctrine of two swords and of intrigues. Religion has been one of the most potent divisive forces in all history.
Dharma, however is different. It is different because it unites. There can never be divisions in dharma. Every interpretation is valid and welcome. No authority is too great to be questioned, too sacred to be touched. Unlimited interpretative freedom through free will is the quintessence of Dharma, for Dharma is as limitless as truth itself. No one can ever be its sole mouthpiece.
The Western cultural traditions, on the other hand, are built around religions. The emergence of the nation-state in the 16th and 17th centuries was the product of religious conflicts of the secular State with the Church. Much of what we call modern political vocabulary emerged and acquired meaning during those turbulent periods. Much of this vocabulary was directed at defining spheres – of the individual, of the State, of the Church, as well as their inter-se relationship. The concepts of identity, ethnicity and autonomy are the products of this separation between the Church and the State. The emergence of science as a discipline made the issue of identity vis-a-vis religion more acute.
Due to the dominance of much of the world by the Western countries, modernity and modernism came to be associated with these divisive concepts that originated in the West. The Western education system forced us to think in Western ways. But more than that Western influence resulted in our resenting our own moorings which were described by the West as backward. We got into the habit of using words and concepts without giving thought to their relevance for the Indian ethos. We attempted to fit ourselves into the strait-jacket of Western ideas and concepts. This resulted in conflicts, chaos and divisions in Indian society.
Our principal error, which we continue to make to this day was in not making the distinction between dharma and organized religion. How can that which is cosmic, and thus, limitless ever be compartmentalized and limited in boundaries? How can something which evolved through interpretation by free-will of millions of people ever be handed down in the form of a limited doctrine ideology or value system? dharma shunned all attempts at strait-jacketing. Western culture, on the other hand, was a universe of many strait-jackets.
The English word “religion” is derived from the Middle English “religioun” which came from the Old French “religion.” It may have been originally derived from the Latin word “religo” which means “good faith,” “ritual,” and other similar meanings. Or it may have come from the Latin “religãre” which means “to tie fast.”
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says that religion is one of the systems of faith that are based on the belief in the existence of a particular god or gods. The New Collins Dictionary gives the meaning of religion as any formal or institutionalized expression of the belief in a supernatural power(s) considered to be divine or to have control of human destiny.
Even though the word “religion” has its roots in the ancient Latin, its meaning and comprehension has changed entirely in recent centuries. Thus, today this word is based on a Christian concept and rooted in a Christian background of affiliation which came into use in the nineteenth century. Contrary to this definition, many spiritual traditions especially the Hindu and most Eastern traditions do not share the same concept of religion and its affiliation. It suffers from a general malady – that of using Western terms, categories, and worldviews to understand an Eastern tradition. Adopting the Western worldviews and nomenclature to interpret the Hindu tradition has distorted the reality, to the extent that the true meaning and concepts of Sanatana Dharma (categorically termed ‘Hinduism’ in the narrow sense ‘religion’) is not understood correctly or often regarded as complicated — not because its teaching and concepts are complex, but due to the incorrect means of understanding.
There is a need to appreciate that there is a difference in which religion is looked at in the Hindu and Christian viewpoint. For a Hindu, religion is not a mere ritual, but a philosophy of life. We know that Hinduism does not have a book, a prophet, or a centralized hierarchy. The correct description of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma. While sanatan has an English equivalent, meaning “timeless”, translating dharma as religion is not proper. Dharma encompasses religion. Confusion prevails when dharma is equated with religion.
When we begin to understand what dharma is and that it has been a very different concept than religion, it follows then that the concept of a “Hindu” religious identity, if understood in the image of Abrahamic religions is not really an original dharmic concept. Neither is “Hinduism” a religion in the same sense that Christianity is a religion. So how did the term “Hindu” become a religious designation? It was in the encounter with the adherents of two major proselytizing Abrahamic religions — first Islam and then Christianity that the idea of “Hinduism” successively took shape in the form of an Abrahamic religion.
Hindus had never known they were “Hindus,” yet they had to be happy with this new designation; They had never called their view of the world a “religion” (a word with no equivalent in Sanskrit), but it had to become one, promptly labeled “Hinduism.” Nor was one label sufficient. ~ Vedic Knowledge Online
- http://about.me/inceptor Inceptor
“…. and the mythical river Saraswati.” “Mythical”, Boss if don’t know something then stick to what you know. Mahanadi Saraswati is NOT ‘Mythical’. She was the 7th river of Sapta Sindhava, if one comes into Hind
from Persia. The modern day Remote Sensing Satellite images and the great work done by scholars like Michel Danino & Others have given more evidence in this regard. Remember at the turn of 19/20 century even ‘Troy’ was thought to be ‘Mythical’. But then archaeological evidence proved otherwise. The same is true with the ‘Raam Setu’
The fact is after independence ‘Establishment Historians’ did not allow proper excavation to take place and evidences documented systematically for their own filthy political reason. But that shouldn’t stop us from going ahead an explore and bring the Truth to the Nation at-least now. Please Investigate/Research and update yourselves so that such cliched Lies don’t go unchallenged in this age of S & T.
N D Senthil Ram
You’re not the One You’re, You’re One,
You’re the One and Only very Unique