Origin of the word “Hindu”

Many scholars and historians have concluded that the word ‘Hindu’ was coined by the ancient invaders who could not accurately pronounce the name of the River Sindhu. According to Sir Monier Williams, the famous Sanskrit lexicographer, the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘India’ evidently do not possess any indigenous roots. Neither these words are found in any Buddhist or Jain texts, nor are they inscribed in any of the 23 official languages of India.

Some sources report that when Alexander-the Great first invaded India around 325 B.C., he renamed the River Sindhu as ‘Indu’. He dropped the first letter ‘S’ from the word, coining a much simpler word for the Greeks to pronounce. Eventually, the river came to be known as ‘Indus’. Alexander’s Macedonian forces thereafter called the land which was east to the river Indus as India, a name mainly recognized by the British. Before this, the land was mostly known as ‘Bharat Varsha’ in the Vedic era and many people still prefer to call the land by this name.

Indian Rishis

Many a scholar claim that the origin of the word ‘Hindu’ cannot be linked to Sanskrit language as there is no mention of it in any of the Vedic literature. But on the contrary, Vedic literature is the core foundation of ‘Hinduism’, while the term ‘Hindu’ formally represents the Vedic path or culture.

However, to do away with such semantically complicated errors, some of the greatest Indian spiritual masters have shunned themselves being quoted only as ‘Hindu’.

Believing that the Vedic path is eternal, many spiritual leaders are relentlessly spreading the philosophy of holy Vedas without giving it any temporary religious designation.

Muslim Invaders

Later, when the Muslim invaders arrived from places such as Afghanistan and Persia, they renamed the River ‘Sindhu’ as ‘Hindu’. Thereafter, the name ‘Hindu’ was used to describe the inhabitants from the northwestern province of India where the Sindhu River is located, and the region itself began to be known as ‘Hindustan’. Because the Sanskrit sound of ‘S’ converts to ‘H’ in the Parsee language, the Muslims pronounced the ‘Sindhu’ as ‘Hindu’. Even though the local habitants continued to call the land ‘Sindhu’, the term faded out with time as ‘Hindu’ became more prevalent. Initially, the world was coined by the Muslim invaders to categorize the local inhabitant of the area. The term was thereafter accepted by the Indians as a standard name set by those in power and continued using the names ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindustan’. Otherwise, the word evidently doesn’t have any etymological background and holds significance only for those who place value on it or use it out of convenience.

Contrary to the above belief, a section of the modern researchers firmly consider the word ‘Hindu’ to have first occurred in the Iranian Avesta – a collection of Zoroastrian texts gathered during the 4th or 6th centuries. The word ‘Hindu’ is mentioned in Avesta in its description of the country of India and its people. But, as the Iranian state religion of Zoroastrianism grew, the word seemed to had taken on an offensive meaning. And certainly as Islam stretched in India, the words ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hindustan’ gained all the more contempt in the Persian arena, mainly in the Arabic and Persian texts from 11th century onward.

It is mentioned in Maharishi Shri Dayanand Saraswati Aur Unka Kaam (Edited by Lala Lajpat Rai, published in Lahore, 1898), that the name ‘Hindu’ is based on a derogatory meaning. To quote the introduction of the book, “Moreover, it is correct that this name [Hindu] has been given to the original Aryan race of the region by Muslim invaders to humiliate them. In Persian, says our author, the word means slave, and according to Islam, all those who did not embrace Islam were termed as slaves.”

Furthermore, a Persian dictionary named Lughet-e-Kishwari, published in Lucknow in the year 1964, defines the word ‘Hindu’ as “chore [thief], dakoo [dacoit], raahzan [waylayer], and ghulam [slave].” In another dictionary, named Urdu-Feroze-ul-Laghat (Part One, p. 615), the Persian interpretation of the word ‘Hindu’ is further defined as “barda (obedient servant), sia faam (black color) and kaalaa (black)”. Indian experts opine that these are all derogatory phrases translated in the Persian language to look down upon the word ‘Hindu’ which is as holy as a sacred text.

The word ‘Hindu’ is found, of course, in Persian literature. ‘Hindu-e-falak’ means ‘the black of the sky’ and ‘Saturn’. In the Arabic language ‘Hind’ not ‘Hindu’ means ‘state’. It is quite absurd and disgraceful to have read all along in the past that the name ‘Hindu’ was first coined by the Persians for the Indians when they infiltrated the sacred land of Sindhu.

So, basically, ‘Hindu’ is merely an extension of a Muslim word that gained international recognition in the past 1300 years.

Political Reasons

There is another view on the name ‘Hindu’ which states that the name ‘Hindu’, in a way, confuses the real essence of the route of Indian spirituality. As scripted by R. N. Suryanarayan in his book Universal Religion (p.1-2, published in Mysore in 1952), “The political situation of our country from centuries past, say 20-25 centuries, has made it very difficult to understand the nature of this nation and its religion. The western scholars, and historians, too, have failed to trace the true name of this Brahman land, a vast continent-like country, and, therefore, they have contented themselves by calling it by that meaningless term ‘Hindu’. This word, which is a foreign innovation, is not made use by any of our Sanskrit writers and revered Acharyas in their works. It seems that political power was responsible for insisting upon continuous use of the word ‘Hindu’.”

British Rules

A great perplexity emerged during the British rule in India as the coined word ‘Hinduism’ became in wide usage. ‘Hinduism’ was indicated as a religion of the ‘Hindus’ and was used for stressing on the religious differences between the ‘Hindus’ and the Muslims. This separate identities successfully created friction amongst the Indian people. The British rule thus succeeded in popularizing the divide and rule policy for its continued dominion over undivided India.

Other Theories

As mentioned in Rig Veda, Bharata is defined as ‘Sapta Sindhu’, i.e. the nation of the seven great rivers. The definition is quite acceptable. However, many experts also opine that term ‘Sindhu’ itself means any river or sea, rather than a specific river called ‘Sindhu’.

Furthermore, as mentioned in ancient dictionaries, it is also said that in Vedic Sanskrit –

  • ‘sa’ was pronounced as ‘ha’,
  • ‘Sapta Sindhu’ was pronounced as ‘Hapta Hindu’, and
  • the term ‘Sindhu’ began to be called ‘Hindu’.

Again as recorded in the ancient classic Bem Riyadh, the ancient Persians first began to refer Bharata as ‘Hapta Hind’. This provides enough evidence for scholars to support the fact that the term ‘Hindu’ has Persian origins.

Therefore, no matter what the scholars perceive in their theories, it is now confirmed that usage of the word ‘Hindu’ started simply to address the bodily and regional designation. The word ‘Hindu’ defines the location and its people, and initially not linked to the religion, philosophies or any culture. It is like calling the people of India as Indians.

Hence, ‘Hindu’ is not the most appropriate name for a spiritual path, but rather the Sanskrit term ‘Sanatana Dharma’ is. The culture of the ancient Indians is Vedic culture and their religion is Vedic Dharma. Thus, it can be concluded that it’s more appropriate to use a name which identifies the culture and religion of the people rather than a name that only refers to the location of people.

Hindu Kings in 1352 A.D.

Many archeologists claim that it was during 1352 A.D. when the Vedic kings of the Vijayanagara Empire increasingly started emphasizing on the word ‘Hindu’ with great pride and honor. Most specific amongst all was king Bukkal who described himself as ‘Hinduraya suratrana’.

But, may scholars claim that in comparison to the word ‘Hindu’, the word ‘Bharat’ was more in vogue amongst the ancient rulers. For instance, in the main Sanskrit texts and even in the rituals being performed in the temples since millennia, the utterance of the word ‘Bharata’ – in reference to the area of present-day India – was more prevalent.

Therefore, it is technically and traditionally more precise to refer to the Indian land as ‘Bharata’ or ‘Bharat Varsha’ instead of ‘Hindustan’.

Sanatan Dharma

The Vedic spiritual path is more precisely called Sanatan Dharma, which defines the eternal connection of the soul with the Supreme Being. The inherent nature of every particle on earth is unchangeable, for instance the dharma of sugar is to remain sweet; and of salt is to remain salty; while of fire is to bring light and warmth. Similarly, the dharma of a soul is to remain eternal or Sanatan, i.e. timeless and ceaseless.

The cycle of birth and death makes us forget our relationship with god. Sanatan Dharma helps us regain our lost spiritual identity. Through Sanatan Dharma one attains the Vedic knowledge and its self-realization method.

Thus, it can be said that the invaluable knowledge and resource stored in the Vedic literature, including Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, and Puranas, are not limited to ‘Hindus’ or the people of India and is indeed open to the whole world, irrespective of caste or creed, race or religion. Every human is a spiritual being, possessing the right to gain the eternal knowledge related to the Sanatan Dharma and knowledge is not limited to any particular sect or group of people, residing in any particular part of the world.

The philosophy of Sanatan Dharma is the philosophy of life and it defines the a ‘universal spiritual truth’ which is open to all living beings. In the existing times of Kali-yuga, there are many other religions which have sprung up and expanded successfully including Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. It is believed that after the deterioration of Kali-yuga even when other religions and beliefs will cease to exist, the Vedic teachings will remain forever. To reestablish these teachings, Lord Krishna may take birth in some other form to restore the lost essence of Vedic teachings and Sanatan Dharma in the future may or may not reinstate the word ‘Hindu’, ‘Hindus’ or ‘Hinduism’.

Current Scenario

Today, the term ‘Hinduism’ describes anything from religious activities to Indian social and nationalistic events. However, not all these events put the Vedic literature at the centre stage as they may remain non-Vedic in their content. Thus, not all the ‘Hindus’ necessarily follow the Vedic path or be a part of Vedic culture. However, experts opine that until the word ‘Sanatan Dharma’ becomes recognized at an international level, the name ‘Hindu’ is a much sensible substitute to the Vedic dharma, to fulfill various political and legal purposes.

Srila Prabhupada

Srila Prabhupada, the founder of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, succinctly explains to Janmanjaya and Taradevi in a letter from which he wrote from Los Angeles on July 9th, 1970. He explains the inbound connection between ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Krishna Consciousness’: “Regarding your questions: ‘Hindu’ means the culture of the Indians. India happens to be situated on the other side of the Indus River which is now in Pakistan which is spelled Indus–in Sanskrit it is called Sindhu. The Sindhu was misspelled by the Europeans as Indus, and from Indus the word ‘Indian’ has come. Similarly, the Arabians used to pronounce ‘Sindhus’ as ‘Hindus’. This [thus] ‘Sindhu’ is spoken as ‘Hindu’. It is neither a Sanskrit word nor is it found in the Vedic literatures. But the culture of the Indians or the ‘Hindus’ is Vedic and beginning with the four varnas and four ashramas. So these varnas and four ashramas are meant for really civilized human race. Therefore, the conclusion is actually when a human being is civilized in the true sense of the term he follows the system of varna and ashrama and then he can be called a ‘Hindu’. Our Krishna Consciousness Movement is preaching these four varnas and four ashramas, so naturally it has got some relationship with the ‘Hindus’. So ‘Hindus’ can be understood from the cultural point of view, not religious point of view. Culture is never religion. Religion is a faith, and culture is educational or advancement of knowledge.”