Hindu: The Most Misinterpreted Term

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)

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