"Hinduism"

It should be pointed out that the word "Hindu" is not found in any of the classical writings of India. Nor can it be traced to the classical Indian languages, such as Sanskrit or Tamil. In fact, the word "Hinduism" has absolutely no origins within India itself.

Still, it persists and traditions as diverse as Shaivism and Jainism, Shaktiism and Viashnavism have been described as "Hinduism". This may work as a matter of convenience but ultimately it is inaccurate.

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder and spiritual preceptor of the present day Hare Krishna movement saw the word as a misnomer.

"Sometimes Indians both inside and outside India think that we are preaching Hindu religion, but actually we are not. One will not find the word "Hindu" in the Bhagavad Gita. Indeed there is no such word as "Hindu" in the entire Vedic literature. The word has been introduced by Muslims from provinces next to India, such as Afghanistan, Baluchistan, and Persia. There is a river called Sindhu bordering the northwest provinces of India and since the Muslims there could not pronounce Sindhu properly, they instead called the river "Hindu" and the inhabitants of this tract of land they called "Hindus."

Prabhupad's explanation of the word "Hindu" in not his own construction. Such explanations are well known among scholars of the Indian tradition.

In the Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy, for example, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait writes along similar lines:

"The current popular usage of the term Hinduism does not correspond to it's original meaning. When Alexander the Great invaded the sub continent around 325 B.C.E, he crossed the river Sindhu and renamed it Indus, which was easier for Greek tongue to pronounce. Alexander's Macedonian forces subsequently called the land east of this river India. Later Muslim invaders called the Sindhu River, Hindu River because in their language Parsee, the sanskrit word sound S converts to H. Thus for the invaders, Sindhu became Hindu and the land east of that river became known as Hindustan."

The concept is also articulated by Historian C.J. Fuller who underscores the fact that the word "Hindu" originally meant something geographical, not cultural or religious. In addition, he points out that the convienent usage of the term in separating Muslims from other peoples in India:

"The Persian word "Hindu" derives from Sindhu, the Sanskrit name of the river Indus (in modern Pakistan). It originally meant a native of India, the land beyond the Indus. When "Hindu" or "Hindoo" entered the English Language in the seventeenth century, it was similarly used to denote any native of Hindustan (India) but gradually came to mean someone who retained the indigenous religion and had not converted to Islam. "Hinduism" as a term for that indigenous religion became current in English in the early nineteenth century and was coined to label "ism" that was in itself partly a product of western orientalist thought which  (mis)constructed Hinduism on the model of occidental religion, particularly Christianity. Hinduism in other words came to be seen as a single system of doctrines, beliefs and practices properly equivalent to those that make up Christianity and "Hindu" now clearly specified an Indian's religious affiliation"

Using the overreaching term "Hinduism" for the many religions of India is comparable to ignoring the different religious orientations within each of the Western traditions arbitrarily merging them under a single banner-"Semitism" (which is like "Hinduism" merely denotes a geographical location). Judaism, Christianity, Islam and others constitute the diverse religious traditions of the Western World. Just as the term Semitism is too broad and reductionistic to represent properly the unique religious manifestations of the great Western traditions and just as it would be inappropriate to refer to all of these traditions of one religion, the term Hinduism falls short.

Thus, "Hinduism" is more problematic than "Hindu" since it implies a unified form of Indian religion that can comfortably fit under one banner. Considering the varieties of religion that currently exist in India, such as Vaishnavism and Shivaism, a single term is hardly appropriate.

Notes:

Hidden Glory of India.

A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad. 1977 "Krishna Consciousness, Hindu Cult or Divine Culture ?" In "The science fo self realization" 105 Los Angeles. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait "Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy" (Honesdale, Pennsylvania) The Himalayan Institute of Yoga, 1983, 4-5. See also A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupad 1977 in "The Science of Self Realization" 196 where he too talks about the mispronunciation of the "S" and "H" sound.

C.J. Fuller 1992 "The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and society in India" 10. Princeton University Press.

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Next: The Vedic Literature and Divisions of Scriptures.

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