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What is the meaning of "Hindu"?


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What is the meaning of "Hindu"?

- Baldev Singh


In his column “Who is a Hindu? Who is not?†published in the India Tribune (September 28, 2002), Mr. Niranjan Shah made the assertion that like Jains and Buddhists, Sikhs are also Hindus. In my response, I pointed out that Guru Nanak rejected all the essentials of Hinduism; therefore, it is absurd to regard Sikhs as Hindus and Sikhism as a sect or an offshoot of Hinduism. Besides, I made brief comments on the meaning of the word Hindu. But the India Tribune editor published only a small portion of my response and omitted the bulk of the article and the comments on the meaning of the word Hindu. Later, I published the article on SikhSpectrum.com, November 2003 under the heading “ Indian Media and Minorities.†Recently, I received feedback from readers suggesting that I should edit and revise my previous article to further clarify this subject.

It is regrettable that a vast majority of Indians fail to know that the word Hindu is not recorded in any of the so-called Hindu scriptures like Vedas, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana and Puranas etc. However, pseudo-historians as well as the Hindutva zealots claim that the word “Hindu†is a corrupted version of “Sindhuâ€, the ancient name for the river Sindh (Indus) that currently originates in India and flows through Pakistan. And mind boggling, absurd, and convoluted explanations are suggested to account for the phonetic disfiguration of “Sindhu†to “Hindu.â€

Before I discuss this issue allow me to share with you some pertinent comments on this topic by other scholars:

1. Harjot Oberoi, The Construction of Religious Boundaries, Oxford University Press, 1994, p.16

That term was first used by the Achaemenid Persians to describe all those people who lived on or beyond the river Sindhu or Indus. Therefore, at one stage the word Hindu, as an ethno-geographic category, came to englobe all those who lived in India without any distinction.

2. V. Jayaram, “The Meaning, Definition and the Origin of the Word Hindu.†Taken from: www.hinduwebsite.com/hindu/h_meaning.asp

The word “Hindu†is not a Sanskrit word. It is not found in any of the thousands of native dialects and languages of India. Neither is it a religious word. It is a secular word whose origin is rooted in the language of ancient Persians, who supposedly said to have shared common ancestry with ancient Indians. It was practically unknown in India until the medieval period, although it was used in several countries outside the Indian subcontinent from earlier time. It is said that Persians who were familiar with the Indian subcontinent, used to refer to the Indus River as Shindu, a major river that still flows in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, partly in India and partly in Pakistan. However, due to language barrier, they could not pronounce the letter “S†correctly in their native tongue and mispronounced it as “Hâ€. Thus for the ancient Persians the word “Shindu†became “Hinduâ€.

For a long time for the native Indians, the Indian subcontinent was Bharta, the land founded by the famous king Bharta, the progenitor of Bharta clan. Literally translated, the word “Bharta†meant lover of knowledge and the people inhabiting the land considered themselves as such. They believed the religion they followed was an eternal religion and called it as “sanatana dharmaâ€, which meant the same.

It is interesting to know that the word “Hindu†is neither Sanskrit nor Dravidian and it did not originate in India.

3. Sita Ram Goel, “Appendix 3 – Meaning of the Word Hindu.†Taken from: www.voiceofdharma.com/books/htepmles2/app3.htm

A close study of literary and epigraphic sources shows that the word “Hindu†has appeared in our indigenous languages and popular parlance in a comparatively recent period, keeping in view the long span of our history. We do not find this word in any indigenous language prior to the establishment of Islamic rule in the thirteenth century. Even after that, the word was used rather sparsely in the local literature. Monier-Williams who compiled his famous dictionary from a large range of Sanskrit literature, could not find any indigenous root for this word. He says explicitly that the word is derived “from the Persian Hinduâ€. Dictionaries of all indigenous languages say the same. So also the dictionaries of European languages.

The word “Hinduism†has been added to our vocabulary at a still more recent stage. It has been contributed by the discipline of Indology in the modern West. And the word gained wide currency in this country simply because the leaders of our national reawakening in the second half of the nineteenth century espoused it as expressive of our national identity as well as our spiritual and cultural greatness. These leaders, down to Mahatma Gandhi, were not prepared to concede that Hinduism did not include Buddhism, or Jainism, or, for that matter, Sikhism.

Going back to the pre-Islamic period in our own country, we find that our ancestors shared in common a name for their homeland. That was Bhãratavar†which comprised at that time the present-day Seistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. They also shared in common a name for the spiritual-cultural complex to which they subscribed. That was Sanãtana Dharma, which covered Brahmanism, Buddhism, Jainism, and also what is now known as Animism or tribal religion. But there is no evidence, literary or epigraphic, that they shared in common a name for themselves as a people. Some Purãnas say that “Bhãratavar†is the land of the bhãratî santatih. The expression, however, is found nowhere else in the vast literature which has come to us from those times. In any case, this much is quite certain that our ancestors in those times did not use the word “Hindu†for describing themselves collectively. Hiuen Tsang who visited this country between AD 630 and 645 says that while the word “Shin-tu†(Chine-se for “Hinduâ€) could be heard outside our borders, it was unknown within the country.

Of course, some scholars of Hindutva have tried to trace the word “Hindu†to Saptasindhu which is mentioned in the Rigveda on several occasions. They want this word to have an indigenous as well as an ancient ring. The intention is understandable. But the exercise has remained forced, if nor far-fetched. Firstly, it does not notice that the expression used in the Rigveda is not Saptasindhu but Saptasaindhvah. Secondly, it ignores the fact that the Rigveda is not quite clear whether the expression stands for a country, or for a people, or simply for seven rivers in the Punjab. The expression seems to mean different things in different contexts. Thirdly, it does not explain why the change from “Sindhu†to “Hindu†took such a long time to surface in our indigenous languages. Lastly, and more significantly, it has not taken into account the fact that our countrymen were never known as Hindus in Southeast Asia in the pre-Islamic period, although they had a large presence there since centuries before the birth of Christ. There is, therefore, no running away from the fact that the word “Hindu†occurs for the first time in the Avesta of the ancient Iranians who used this word for designating this country as well as its people. They did not have to coin this word out of thin air. It was simply their way of pronouncing the word “Sindhuâ€, the name of the mighty river which has always been a major landmark for travellers to this country from the north and the west. To start with, the word seems to have been used for provinces and the people in the vicinity of the Sindhu. But in due course, it was extended to cover all parts of this country and all its people. The word also spread to countries to the north and west of Iran. The ancient Greeks were quite familiar with the words “Indus†and “Indoi†- their way of pronouncing “Sindhu†and “Sindhîsâ€. The ancient Arabs, Turks (Sakas, KuSãNas, etc.), Mongolian (HûNas, Kirãtas, etc.) and the Chinese were also familiar with the word, sometimes in their own variations on it such as “Shin-tuâ€. It may thus be said that the word “Hindu†had acquired a national connotation, since the days of the Avesta, although in the eyes of only the foreigners. At the same time, it may be noted that the word was oblivious of the fact that “Hindus†were organized in numerous castes, and subscribed to many religious sects.


Harjot Oberoi does not say why the Achaemenid Persians used the word Hindu to describe all people who lived on or beyond the river Sindhu or Indus. But both Jayaram and Goel assert that the Persians used the word Hindu because they mispronounced the word Shindu, as Hindu, due to phonetic difficulty. Further, they claim that the ancient name of the Indian-subcontinent was Bharta or Bhartavar and the religion of it people was eternal religion – “Snatana Dharma.†Notwithstanding the claims of these three authors, there is very little reliable information about the history of Indian subcontinent from ancient times to the Muslim conquest of Indian-subcontinent that started in the eighth century. Moreover, Indians did not write their history and whatever small information we have about ancient India comes from the writings of Greeks, Chinese, Muslims and Europeans.

First, there is no evidence that the Indian subcontinent was ever called Bharta or Bhartavar. Had it been so, its neighbors/foreigners would have called it Bharta or Bhartavar as these words are not difficult to pronounce. However, Bharatvarsha is the name of a mythical land described in an ancient text. Al-Biruni (973-1048/49 CE), the renowned Indologist came to India in the wake of the invading forces of Mahmud of Ghazni in the early eleventh century. He stayed many years in India studying Indian people, their religion, scriptures and culture. He used the word Bharta several times for the Epic Mahabharata and also writes about Bhartavarsha as:

In the book of the Rishi Bhuvnakosa we read that the inhabitable world stretches from Himavant towards the south, and is called Bharatvarsha, so called from a man Bharta, who ruled over them and provided them. The inhabitants of this oikumene [inhabited part of the earth] are those to whom alone reward and punishment in another life is destined. It is divided into nine parts, called Navakhanda-prathma, i. e. the primary nine parts. Between each two parts there is sea, which they traverse from one khanda to another. The breadth of the inhabitable world from north to south is 1000 yojana [Yojana is a Vedic measure of distance used in ancient India. The exact measurement is disputed amongst scholars with distances being given between 6 to 15 km (4 and 9 miles)].

By “Himavant†the author means the northern mountains, where the world, in consequence of the cold, ceases to be inhabitable. Therefore all civilization must of necessity be south of these mountains. His words, that the inhabitants are subject to reward and punishment, indicate that there are other people not subject to it. These beings he must either raise from the degree of man to that of angels, who, in consequence of the simplicity of the elements they are composed of and purity of their nature, never disobey a divine order, being always willing to worship; or must degrade them to the degree of irrational animals. According to him, therefore, there are no human beings outside the oikoumene (i.e. Bhatarvarsha).

Bharatvarsha is not India alone, as Hindus think, according to them their country is the world and their race the only race of mankind; for India is not traversed by an ocean separating one khanda from another. (Qeyamuddin Ahmad, Ed., India by Al-Biruni, National Book Trust , India, third reprint, 1995, pp. 134-35).

Second, it is preposterous for anyone to suggest that Persians could not pronounce the word “Sindhu.†In the Persian-Punjabi Dictionary there are about 58 pages of words that start with “S“ and “SH†in contrast to 33 of “H†words. In Punjabi language there are many Persian words of “S†and “SH†sounds. Moreover, the claim that the Persians pronounced “Sindhu†as “Hindu†or called the river and people who lived around it as “Hindu†does not explain why the river or the people who lived around it did not acquire the name “Hindu.†This river is still called Sindh and the people are called Punjabis and Sindhis. Nobody calls the state of Sindh as Hind or Sindhis as Hindis.

Similarly, the Greeks who explored river Sindh and its five tributaries had no problem pronouncing “H†and yet they chose to call the river and people as Indos or Indus: Indus or Indos (Sindh), Hydaspes (Jehlum), Akesines (Chenab), Hydroatis (Ravi), Hyphasis (Satluj) and Hesidros (Beas). It seems as if these are the names of the explorers. It is the word “Indus/Indos†that later on was used by the Europeans to coin the word “India†for the subcontinent.


It is intriguing that the three authors cited above have not commented on the meaning of the word “Hindu†in spite of the fact that the titles of Jayaram’s and Goel’s articles imply discussion of “origin†as well as “meaning†of Hindu. Why didn’t they explain the meaning of the word “Hindu� Is it because the word Hindu is a derogatory epithet/label? However, a few Hindu writers who have looked at the meaning of “Hindu†with a critical eye have no hesitation in saying that it is indeed a derogatory word. Two examples will suffice here:

1. R. N. Suryanarayan, in Universal Religion, pages 1-2, (published from Mysore in 1952) commented:

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 [brahminland], a vast continent like country, and therefore, they have contended themselves by calling it by that meaningless term “Hindu.â€

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. The word Hindu is found, of course, in Persian literature. Hindu-e-falak means “the black of the sky and Saturn.â€

In the Arabic language Hind not Hindu means nation. It is shameful and ridiculous to have read all along in history that the name Hindu was given by the Persians to the people of our country when they landed on the sacred soil of Sindhu.

2. Lala Lajpat Rai, Ed., in his introduction of Maharishi Shri Dayanand Sarswati Aur Unka Kaam, Lahore, 1898, said:

Some people, according to the author, say that this word Hindu is a corrupt form of Sindhu but this is wrong because Sindhu was the name of the river and not the name of the community. Moreover, it is correct that this name 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.

Further, in addition to “black†and “slaveâ€, Persian and Urdu dictionaries describe other demeaning or contemptuous meaning of “Hinduâ€:

Persian Dictionary - Lughet-e-Kishwari, Lucknow, 1964: chore (thief), dakoo (dacoit), raahzan (waylayer), and ghulam (slave).

Urdu-Feroze-ul-Laghat, part 1, p. 615: Turkish: chore, raahzan and lutera (looter); Persian: ghulam (slave), barda (obedient servant), sia faam (black color) and kaalaa (black).

Persian-Punjabi Dictionary (Punjabi University Patiala): native of Indian subcontinent, dacoit, waylayer, thief, slave, black, idol, beloved.


The word “Hindu†is at least as old as Hindu Kush, the mountain range that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan (Indian subcontinent). Hindu Kush means killers of Hindus. Who were the people who named this mountain range as “killer of Hindu†and who were “Hindus� To understand these questions we have to go back to the times of Indus Valley civilization. Before the conquest and destruction of Indus Valley civilization by the so-called Aryans (nomadic Caucasian tribes from central Asia) around 1500-2000 B.C., the Indian subcontinent was inhabited by various dark complexioned clans/ tribes (Advasis). It is not known what name they used for Indus Valley or the Indian subcontinent or for themselves. However, generally, they are known as Dravar (Dravidians) people. The Indus Valley was inhabited by Dravidians whereas nomadic fair-skinned Caucasians tribes/clans lived on the north side of Hindu Kush. The Caucasians used the word “Hindu†meaning “black†for the Indus Valley people. Northward expansion of Indus Valley people was prevented by Hindu Kush Mountains. Whenever the Indus Valley people (Hindus) attempted to cross these mountains, they met death due to the harsh terrain and heavy snow. This is how these mountains were given the name Hindu Kush by Caucasian tribes.

Now, why is the word “Hindu†missing in the religious texts of the conquerors and destroyers of Indus Valley? The reason is quite obvious: like all conquerors throughout the world, the so-called Aryans did not mention the word (Hindu) in their texts in order to wipe out the history (identity) of their victims. Even in modern India, for the Hindu intelligentsia, especially in north India, the history of the Indian subcontinent begins from the Vedic period after the destruction of Indus Valley civilization, one of the most advanced among ancient civilizations. On the other hand Persians continued to refer to the Indus valley as “Waihindâ€, habitat of Hindus or “Hind Baarâ€, land of Hindus. Moreover, during that time the word “Hindu†was a reference to the skin color of the Indus Valley people, not in any demeaning sense. The word “Hindu†acquired contemptuous meaning after the conquest of India by Muslims.

The so-called Aryans called their victims (Hindus) by contemptuous names like: daasa (slave), dasyu (thief, dacoit, robber, villain, tyrant), dushta (villain, wicked), chandala (outcaste, merciless, untouchable), asura (devil), naga (serpent), raksa (cannibal/monster) and choar (cor, thief). It is noteworthy that choar (chor) in Sanskrit has the same derogatory meaning as Hindu in Persian: thief, thug, robber, dacoit, and waylayer.

Further, to humiliate the native people (Hindus), the Caucasians ridiculed their culture, looks, and their black complexion. It is astonishing that these derogatory expressions have survived through thousands of years of Indian history and are found in modern Indian languages. “Blackness†(or kaala) is used in bad connotation in northern Indian languages. For example, in Punjabi, there are expressions like kaala munh (black mouth, ugly), kaali jeebh (who speaks ill) kaala dhandha (illegal profession), kaala dhan (black money), kaali bhaid (black sheep), kalai laikh (black deeds) and kaala chum (black skinned person). There are also expressions like bandar munhan (monkey face) and rish jeha (bear-like), which the Caucasians used to describe the features of native Indians (Hindus). In Ramayana, the two native devotees of Shri Ram Chandar are depicted as a monkey (Hanuman) and a bear (Jamawant).

Persians and Arabs called the Indian subcontinent “Hindustan†and its people Hindus. In his compositions recorded in the Aad Guru Granth Sahib, Guru Nanak also used the words “Hindustan†and “Hindu†for the Indian subcontinent and its people, respectively. It is only after their conquest of the Indian subcontinent, Muslims started using the word “Hindu†in a demeaning manner.


Persians and other Caucasian tribes called the Indus Valley people “Hindus†and their country “Waihindâ€, or “Hind Baar.†Muslims used the word “Hindu†in a demeaning manner after establishing their rule over Hindus. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Hindu intellectuals, product of British education, invented neo-Hinduism and fabricated history to support the mythical glorious ancient Hindu civilization. The convoluted interpretation of the word “Hindu†by modern Hindus is nothing more than a “fabrication of history.â€

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