Monday, March 16, 2009

Of Hinduism & Indians

The word 'Hindu' does not occur at all in the Indian ancient culture. The first reference to it in an Indian book is, i am told, in a Tantrik work of the 8th century A.C., where 'Hindu' means a people and not the followers of a particular religion. But it is clear that the word is a very old one, as it occurs in the Avesta and in old Persian. It was used then and for a thousand years or more later by the people of western and central Asia, or rather for the people living on the other side of the Indus river. The word is clearly derived from Sindhu, the old, as well as the present, Indian name for the Indus. From this Sindhu came the word Hindu and Hindustan, as well as Indus and India.

Map of the ancient Indus civilization (also shown here is the Saraswathy river that is believed to have dried up, forming the Thar desert)

Map of modern civilization surrounding the Indus and the Thar desert

The famous Chinese pilgrim I-tsing, who came to India in the 7th century A.C., writes in his record of travels that the 'northern tribes', that is the people of Central Asia, called India 'Hindu' (Hsin-tu) but , he adds, 'this is not at all a common name...and the most suitable name for India is the Noble Land (Aryadesha).' The use of the word 'Hindu' in connection with a particular religion is of very late occurrence.

An artist impression of I-Tsing

The old inclusive term for religion in India was Arya dharma. Dharma really means something more than religion. It is from a root word which means to hold together: it is the inmost constitution of a thing, the law of its inner being. It is an ethical concept which includes the moral code, righteousness, and the whole range of man's duties and responsibilities. Arya dharma would include all the faiths (Vedic and non-Vedic) that originated in India; it was used by Buddhists and Jains as well as by those who accepted the Vedas. Buddha always called his way to salvation the 'Aryan Path'.


The phrase 'Vedic dharma' was also used in ancient times to signify more particularly and exclusively all those philosophies, moral teachings, ritual and practices, which were supposed to derive from the Vedas. Thus all those who acknowledged the general authority of the Vedas could be said to belong to the Vedic dharma.
Sanatana dharma, meaning the ancient religion, could be applied to any of the ancient Indian faiths (including Buddhism and Jainism), but the expression has been more or less monipolized to-day by some orthodox sections among the Hindus who claim to follow the ancient faith.

The symbol of Jainism

Buddhism and Jainism were certainly not Hinduism or even the Vedic dharma. Yet they arose in India and were integral parts of Indian life, culture and philosophy. A Buddhist or Jain in India is a hundred per cent product of Indian thought and culture, yet neither is a Hindu by Faith. It is, therefore, entirely misleading to refer to Indian culture as Hindu culture. In later ages this culture was greatly influenced by the impact of Islam, and yet it remained basically and distinctively Indian. To-day it is experiencing in a hundred ways the powerful effect of the industrial civilization, which rose in the west, and it is difficult to say with any precision what the outcome will be.

Hinduism as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word. In its present form, and even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other. Its essential spirit seems to be to live and let live. Mahatma Gandhi has attempted to define it: 'If i were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say: Search after truth through non-violent means. A man may not believe in god and still call himself Hindu. Hinduism is a relentless pursuit after truth...Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known.' Truth and non-violence, so says Gandhi: but many eminent and undoubted Hindus say that non-violence, as Gandhi understands it, is no essential part of the Hindu creed. We thus have truth left by itself as the distinguishing mark of Hinduism. That, of course, is no definition at all.

It is, therefore, incorrect and undesirable to use 'Hindu' or 'Hinduism' for Indian culture, even with reference to the distant past, although the various aspects of thought, as embodied in ancient writings, were the dominant expression of that culture. Much more is it incorrect to use those terms, in that sense, today. So long as the old faith and philosophy were chiefly a way of life and an outlook on the world, they were largely synonymous with Indian culture; but when a more rigid religion developed, with all manner of ritual and ceremonial, it became something more and at the same time something much less than that composite culture. A Christian or a Moslem could, and often did, adapt himself to the Indian way of life and culture, and yet remained in faith an orthodox Christian or Moslem. He had Indianized himself and become an Indian without changing his religion.
The correct word for 'Indian', as applied to country or culture or the historical continuity of our varying traditions, is 'Hindi', from 'Hind', a shortened form of Hindustan. Hind is still commonly used for India. In the countries of Western Asia, in Iran and Turkey, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, India has always been referred to, and still called, Hind; and everything Indian is called 'Hindi'. 'Hindi' has nothing to do with religion, and Moslem or Christian Indian is as much a Hindi as a person who follows Hinduism as a religion. Americans who call all Indians Hindus are not far wrong; they would be perfectly correct if they used the word 'Hindi'. Unfortunately, the word 'Hindi' has become associated in India with a particular script - the devanagari script of Sanskrit - and so it has become difficult to use it in its larger and more natural significance. Perhaps when present-day controversies subside we may revert to its original and more satisfying use. To-day, the word 'Hindustani' is used for Indian; it is, or course, derived from Hindustan. But this is too much of a mouthful and it has no such historical and cultural associations as 'Hindi' has. It would certainly appear odd to refer to ancient periods of Indian culture as 'Hindustani'.

Whatever the word we may use, Indian or Hindi or Hindustani, for our cultural tradition, we see in the past that same inner urge towards synthesis, derived essentially from the Indian philosophies outlook, was the dominant feature of Indian cultural, and even racial, development. Each incursion of foreign elements was a challenge to this culture, but it was met successfully by a new synthesis and a process of absorption. This was also a process of rejuvenation and new blooms of culture arose out of it, the background and essential basis, however, remaining much the same.

-Taken from The Discovery of India written by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1944 during his incarceration in Ahmadnagar Fort Prison Camp. Images and captions were added by the owner of this blog and is not part of the book-


masterwordsmith said...

Hi Dr. Saravanan,

What a sociological and etymological post! Brings back fond memories of my childhood because I read up on all this as a Year 5 girl due to my interest in myths, folklore and origins of nations.

So if the word has been used wrongly, why is it that few have attempted to put it right?

At least your post explains to me why some of my Indian students call themselves Indian while some choose to be Hindu.

Interestingly, I notice you did not mention the Aryans and their influence of Indian culture ;)...

Ah - now I know - this is the philosophical thingy you were talking about and not Facebook ;). Just pulling your leg...

Thanks for a very informative post! Take care and have a great week!


Year 5? Please tell me that it was during your fifth year in uni or you got it mixed up with form 5.:o

Why oh! why did i put up that god's face book post. And why oh! why did i tell Paula Khoo of my affinity to subjects of philosophy. Hahahaha! Thanks for the laugh. Nothing like a good laugh after a long day's work.

On the matter of the Aryans, i do not wish to dwell into it as it remains a controversial subject till today. There is the arguable Aryan invasion theory (Aryans invaded North India and pushed the native dravidians down south), then there are the arguments regarding the origin and the race of the Aryans, etc.
Slip of an alaphabet might just put me in unwanted soup as i'm not exactly an expert in the field Indian Ancient history.

masterwordsmith said...

Hi Dr. Saravanan,

Sorry I did not keep my promise to you know what this evening cos of a hiccup :-(.

It was in Primary 5 lah...actually Primary 4 cos I skipped a year in school :-). My classmates were all insane over myths and history and we had a project to publish Chinese folklore, Greek myths, Indian tales and a summarised version of Ramayana and Mahabharata...using the old printing machine and ribbons to tie the stenciled newsprint! Wish I kept a copy of the booklet.

Yes, we also did Aryan history and origin of Sanskrit. In my younger days I wanted to be an archaeologist haha...and would probably be so poor boiling dinosaur bones for a historical version of bak kuk teh LOL!!!

Take care and warmest wishes to you and your lovely and elegant madam of the house :-)
Have you read Albert Camus' "The Outsider"? If you have, would love to hear your views and if you have not...grab it!!! I have read it three times and I get a different message each time I read it :-).

Kaveri Yamuna said...

Dr. Saravanan,
This article has removed the obscurity veil of Indian and its religio concept. Thank you.

ocho-onda said...

It is a shame that religion and nationalistic politics had separated the Indians from their cultural roots that ended up with the secession of Pakistan.
It appears that Hinduism, unlike Islam, as a "religion" is more accommodating and tolerant.
A clear manifestation to this is the interesting fact that only in India, both Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan are equally idolized by their Hindu fans and not less or more because of the actor's religion.
And it is even more amazing to know that only in India,Shah Rukh, a Muslim is able to marry a Hindu and have their children raised in both Hindu and Muslim traditions !


Paula, you skipped std 4? Like mother, like son...genius. You read the Ramayana & Mahabaratha?

Oh dear! Paula, the next time you you use the phrase 'in my younger days', you should aslo specify which part exactly. You read all those stuff at 11? You wouldn't wanna know what i was doing when i was 11! Hahaha!

Just read the previews on The Outsider. Will try to get it. But with my current busy schedule, reading is a luxury.

Maybe one day we shall both sit and talk about the Aryans ok.

You take care.



Hi Mr.Sundaramoorthy,
how are you getting on? Thanks for dropping by.

I think Malaysians in general are taking race, religion and culture to new heights and this is a very worrying development.

So this actually makes Hindraf a watchdog that represents all Indians, not just Tamils.

You have a good day.



Hi Ocho-Onda,
I agree with you all the way. In fact, why India, take a look at our immediate neighbours and the largest Muslim nation in the world...Indonesia. You can find mix marriages everywhere and people there don't seems to have a problem with it.

Well, the end is around the corner for the BN regime as it seems. They've been free falling since March 8th and there seems to be no sign of recovery.

You take care.


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