Origin and History of Hinduism and Hinduism Related Words

Indus River

by Jayaram V

Those who live in countries other than where they were born and brought up and where the spoken language is different know how their names are misspelled, mispronounced or forgotten by people they meet. They often find it frustrating to know how even simple names people cannot pronounce.

From history, we learn that language barriers sometimes led to interesting developments. One great example is the word Hindu. It came into existence because thousands of years ago the ancient Persians were mispronounced a Sanskrit word and invented a new word of their own to refer to the people of the Indian subcontinent.


The word "Hindu" is not a Sanskrit word. Nor is it found originally in any of the thousands of native dialects and languages of India. It is not a religious word, like Muslim or Christian. In fact, it is a secular word, coined by the people of Persia for their convenience to identify Indians.

The word was practically unknown in India until the arrival of Islam. It was used outside the Indian subcontinent for long before it was used in India to identify the native population.

Long before the invasion of Alexander, the Persian Empire extended all the way up to the Indian subcontinent. The Persian kings ruled a vast empire and practiced Zoroastrianism, founded by Zarathustra, which had similarities with the Vedic religion. They spoke a dialect of Sanskrit and probably shared with the Vedic people a common ancestry and some common beliefs and practices. Because of their proximity, they had contacts the Indian subcontinent and familiar with the land, the people and the river Sindhu (Indus), which still flows in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent. They used the name of the river to refer to the people who lived near the river or in the river basin. However due to linguistic barriers and unfamiliarity with the local names, they mispronounced it as Hindu instead of Sindhu. The Greeks and Armenians followed the same practice. Gradually the name stuck and people who lived in India came to be known as Hindus. This theory is supported by evidence drawn from both linguistic and archaeological sources. Certain cuneiform inscriptions found in Persia confirm that the word Hindu was used in those days to refer to the people of the region near the Indus River. Reference to the word is also found in the Zoroastrian scripture, the Zend Avesta. It is said that when the Persian King Darius 1 extended his empire to the borders of India in 517 BC, he included many native people from the region into his army who were referred to as Hindus. We have therefore reasons to believe that the word Hindu was secular in origin rather than religious.

Although Hinduism went by different names in different times, it has a long history dating back to perhaps the Indus Valley civilization rather than the Vedic civilization that followed it. Unfortunately, we have scant information about the religious beliefs and practices of the Indus people. We do not know how they were known to the outside world, by what name they were referred to, what language they spoke or how extensive their civilization was. Their civilization grew originally along the Indus, but later it extended several hundreds of miles into the Indian subcontinent. It is even possible that the ruins of two ancient cities, which were discovered recently submerged in the Arabian Sea in the Gulf of Khambhat, on the banks of an ancient riverbed, were part of this vast civilization only. The Indus people maintained active trade contacts with the Persians and exchanged goods with them. It is a distant possibility that they might have called the river Sindhu or referred to themselves as Sindhus and the practice was picked up by the Persians.


The word India, like the word Hindu, also originated outside India. Those who may have reservations about the idea that all Indians are Hindus, irrespective of their religion and background, should be aware that historically both words were used to mean the same. Hindu was originally used to represent all people who lived in the Indian subcontinent prior to the arrival of Islam rather than the followers of the tradition that we now recognize as Hinduism. Just as the Persians and probably others like Sumerians pronounced the word Sindhu wrongly as Hindu, the Greeks mispronounced it as Indos. When Alexander invaded India, the Macedonian army referred to the land east of the river as India. The Greek historians who wrote about the exploits of Alexander preferred to use the same name. The Arabs, following the Persian practice, called the land Al-Hind. The Muslim rulers and travelers who visited India during the medieval times referred to the Indian subcontinent as "Hindustan" and the people who lived there as Hindus. The British continued the practice. In the beginning, they called the Indians Hindoos. Subsequently, when they realized that the people in the subcontinent practiced different faiths, they used it to distinguish the Muslims and Christians from the rest who practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. However, they used the word India to refer to the country and Indians to refer to all the people, irrespective of their religion. The usage of both, Hindoo and Indian, suited them well to distinguish the nationality of the people as well as their faiths. It also served their colonial interests well to practice their divide and rule policy and keep the country weak and divided.


Since ancient times the native scholars referred to the land of their birth as Bharata, after the famous King Bharata, who is considered the progenitor of the entire Bharata clan or all the people whose origins could be traced to the subcontinent. Literally translated, "Bharata" means lover of knowledge. The name is well justified considering that since ancient times, India witnessed the birth of exceptional wisdom, great philosophies, scientific discoveries and world religions. India is still officially known as Bharat.

Sanatana Dharma

The practitioners of the ancient faith whose origins can be traced to the Vedas believed that their religion was eternal, with its roots in heaven, and originated directly from God in the very beginning of creation. Therefore they preferred to call it the eternal religion (sanatana dharma), a name, which many Hindus still prefer to use instead of Hinduism because the name Hinduism reminds many of the abuses their ancestors and their religion suffered in the hands of the past invaders like the Delhi Sultans, the Moguls and the British. Besides, as we have seen, the word Hindu was used originally in a secular sense rather than religious. Sanatana means eternal and dharma means duty or obligatory duty. The expression has twin meanings. According to our tradition, duty is not only for humans, but also for everyone, including gods, celestial beings, demons and even God Himself. The duty of each is eternal, in the sense that creation after creation, beings have to perform their duties to keep the world and the world order going. So is the case with God. His duty never ends. He has to wake up at the beginning of each creation and do His duty before He dissolves the worlds and goes to sleep for billions of years. So is the case with us. We have to wake up every day and do our respective daily duties, before we go to sleep. When we die, we return again to complete our unfinished tasks. Our duties are thus eternal and obligatory. If we do not perform them, the worlds will fall into disorder. Since our religion speaks about them and insists that we perform them without fail, it is aptly called eternal religion or a religion that speaks about eternal duties. Secondly, the basis of the religion is the Vedas, which are believed to be eternal. Hence, our religion, which is derived from them, is also known as eternal religion. Creation after creation and in the beginning of each manvantara, God reintroduces the Vedas to the human beings for their welfare so that they know what their duties are and how they should perform them. Hinduism is thus a religion of continuity, a religion that appears in each creation and does its duty as the Voice of God to impart knowledge and liberate people.


Thus, we have seen that the word Hindu did not originate in India and it was not originally meant to refer to a person of a particular faith. It was not used by the Indians until the 17th century. If we go by the original definition of the word Hindu, all the people who live in India qualify as Hindus irrespective of the religion they practice. The word Hindu was coined originally as a secular word and meant to denote people who live in the land beyond the river Indus. Today, the word Hindu is misunderstood mostly than understood. Those who practice other faiths would not like to be identified as Hindus, even if they are aware that once it denoted all the people who lived in the region; and their concern is genuine since the word is now used in a religious sense rather than secular. Many people, even Hindus, have no idea how the word originated and what it actually means. Those who are aware, would not like to talk about it because of the sensitive nature of the subject.

The Indus River, which witnessed the birth of Hinduism and the rise of a great ancient civilization that stretched all the way from northwest to the shores of Arabian Sea, now flows mostly in Pakistan. It has no religious significance in Hinduism and it is hardly ever seen by many Indians. The river Sarasvathi that once flowed in Vedic India now dried up and disappeared. It is also almost forgotten and its place is now taken over by the Ganges. The words Hindu and Hinduism are now understood and interpreted in a very narrow sense. The word "Hindutva" is now used increasingly to denote the religious pride, exclusivity or exceptionalism of a rather intolerant and aggressive group of Hindus who feel wronged by the prejudice and the imperialism of the western world academia that views the world and the human history with the myopic vision of a renaissance historian. Politicians in India nowadays use both the words, Hindu and Hindutva, with communal overtones to promote or oppose some ideology or political agenda.

Many Hindus do not know that the word Hindu by which they are known to the world is actually of foreign origin. The word does not convey the meaning and significance of the religion or its complexity. It does not define it except geographically or in relation to other major religions. In fact, in many ways it degrades the tradition to that of religion, where as in truth it is not a religion but a group of diverse tradition each of which stands as a religion in its own right. This is one legacy of the British Raj and centuries of Islamic rule, which cannot be done away with. Hindus have to live with an identity that is not theirs and which they have inherited from their colonial past. In India people may go on changing their city names, street names, place names and state names, even the names of their historic monuments in their attempt to obliterate traces of their colonial past and assert their national identity. However, it seems that they cannot replace the four identities, which are here to stay: Hindu, Hinduism, India and Indian.

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