In this section, we will periodically post short articles on interesting topics, addressing questions that many of us - young and young at heart - have or are eager to know about.
In a discussion about faith and identity, some words are so central that we must know not just the word’s meaning, but its etymology as well. The term ‘hindu’ is one such word. We sometimes encounter well-meaning but ignorant questions such as “are you Hindi?” or “do you speak Hindu?”. Unfortunately, these simple questions often serve to reveal our own ignorance about something so central to our identity, yet blindly accepted without introspection or further study. Despite the term ‘hindu’ not being mentioned even once in the Vedas, the puranas or other holy texts, it is now the label put on those who follow our faith. In order to understand why, let us explore the root of the term 'hindu'.
The term ‘hindu’ comes from the Sindhu river, a major waterway in the western reaches of Bharat. When the armies of the Persian Achaemenid emperor Darius reached the banks of the Sindhu, they decided to call the inhabitants of that land after this river. Sindhu then became ‘hindu’ in Persian. Soon ‘hindu’ came to refer to not only the people who lived in the Sindhu valley, but also referred to all the other peoples from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, who shared a similar set of beliefs and customs. The Arabs then borrowed from the Persians and called the inhabitants of the subcontinent Hindus; the land where they lived Hindustan; and the language many of them spoke Hindi. The English, in turn, borrowed this label from the Arabs and they coined an additional word - Hinduism, which referred to the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of Hindustan.
Even though the terms ‘hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are foreign in origin, that does not mean the inhabitants of the subcontinent didn’t have a name for themselves and their beliefs. According to the Vishnu Purana, the land between the Himalayas and the Indian ocean is called Bharat and those who live there are called Bharati. The beliefs of the Bharati - the culmination of many thousands of years of knowledge - is called Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Path.
उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम्।
वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम भारती यत्र संततिः।।
Reference: Sharma, Arvind. (2002). On Hindu, Hindustān, Hinduism and Hindutva. Numen: International Review for the History of Religions, 49(1), 1-36.