Hindu, Hinduism and Hindutva
Twists of the Hindu Identity through the Ages

Rajen Barua

Part I: Hindu & Hinduism
Etymologically, the word Hindu has a twisted history; it had different meanings in different times. It is a foreign word, coined by foreigners, and the word is not be found in any Indian language. We do not find its reference in any of the Vedas or in any other ancient Hindu scriptures. What we find, nearest to the modern word Hindu, is the term Hapta Hendu in the Avesta of Persia that recorded the teachings of the Zoroastrianism religion of ancient Persia; Hapta Hendu was the name of the land described to be the fifteenth land created by the Zoroastrianism God, Ahura Mazda. This Hapta Hendu is preemptively equated with the Vedic Sapte Sindhu. (meaning the land of the seven rivers). Both these terms, Sindhu and Hendu, are derived from the name of the river Sindhu, ('The Indus river' - the word 'sindhu' literally means 'river' in Sanskrit). It is most probable that originally the name of the river was Xindhu in pre-Vedic language, the way it is still pronounced in the Assamese language; the sound /x/ pronounced as /ch/ in the Scottish word 'Loch' or German word 'Bach'. That way Hapta Hendu may be equated to Xopto Xindhu in Assamese. It may be noted that the Assamese language still retain some correspondences of pre Vedic and Indo European languages which are not found in later Sanskrit language. Assamese culture also bears some strange correspondence with the Persian culture which indicates its ancient pre Vedic ties. It was most likely that the original Xindhu sound shifted to Sindhu in the later Vedic Sanskrit language. According to the linguist Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, the /x/ sound was there in the pre-Vedic Sanskrit language. This /x/ was probably lost with Panini’s ‘Sanskritization' (5th BCE) process of the pre-Vedic language. There was sound shift in the Persian language too. While the original /x/ sound shifted to /s/ in Sanskrit, in the the Persians language /x/ shifted to /h/. and thus the Persians called the river Hindhu.

When Darius of Persia conquered the Indus valley in 515 BCE, he mentioned the land as Hi-in-tu. This shows the gradual evolution of the word Hindu. The word Hindu was sometime used by the Persians for the river and sometime for the territory. Gradually, the term Hindu was used by all foreigners for the people living on the east of the Indus river, Xindhu/ Hindhu / Sindhu.  

Although both these words, Hindu and Hinduism, were coined and given by foreigners, the Hindus have taken both these words very passionately as their own. Since that time, the Hindus have been trying not only to define but also to defend the meanings of these two words for the last two hundreds and more years to the world audience. In the process the meanings of these two words have gone through various changes.

There were various problems in defining what Hinduism or its analogues, especially Hindu Dharma was. The word Hinduism is an English word. When the word Hinduism was first coined and used by the British around 1830 CE, they used it to describe specifically the beliefs and practices of those residents of India who had not been converted to Islam or Christianity and did not practice Judaism or Zoroastrianism.  Thus the word Hinduism, as was first used, would mean to include all other religions of India including Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism etc. However, defining an overarching term 'Hinduism' was not easy.

So the Hindus tried to debate, define and redefine the term Hinduism for what it would or should mean, and defend the same. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who is rightly called the Father of Indian renaissance, was one of the earliest Indians who tried to define and defend Hinduism. He tried it by forming a new religious organization called Brahmo Samaj. His definition of Hinduism obviously did not include Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and others. Following Raja Ram Mohan Roy, others tried to define and defend Hinduism by forming various other organizations such as the 'Back-to-the-Vedas', the Arya Samaj by Dayanand Saraswati and others. Swami Vivekananda who is credited with not only of raising the awareness of Hinduism to the western world but also of bringing it to the status of a major world religion during the late 19th century, did not actually like the term Hinduism, and used to call it as the Vedantists.

All these definitions were rather high level philosophical definitions of Hinduism that tried to define what Hinduism ‘should be’,and disregarded what ‘it is’ in reality, and did not include the various practices of the common people of the street. To the outsiders, and outside of philosophy, Hinduism remains as a confusing and allusive array of gods, mystics, gurus, sadhus, holy cows, temples and beggars. What was needed an overarching definition of Hinduism if it is to cover all.

The great Indian scholar, philosopher, statesman and former president of India, Sarvepalli Dr. Radhakrishnan, tried to explain for the Westerners, in easily understandable terms, the classical Hindu thought. He came up with an overarching definition of Hinduism, as described in his popular work, “The Hindu View of Life”. He tried to define Hinduism broadly thus:

“Hinduism is not a definite dogmatic creed, but a vast, complex, a subtly unified mass of spiritual thought and realization. Its tradition of the godward endeavor of the human spirit has been continuously expanding through the ages.” ……“Hinduism does not believe in bringing about a mechanical uniformity of belief and worship by a forcible elimination of all that is not in agreement with a particular creed. It does not believe in any statutory methods of salvation. Its scheme of salvation is not limited to those who hold a particular view of God’s nature and worship.”.. ”The theist and the atheist, the skeptic and the agnostic may all be Hindus if they accept the Hindu system of culture and life.” In essence, what he said was that Hinduism is not one religion but an umbrella of many religions. Thus his view is quite opposite to those of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Arya Samaj, Vivekananda and others.

We find similar view of Hinduism by that of the eminent Sanskrit scholar J.A.B. van Bitten in the 1986 Encyclopedia Britannica: "In principle, Hinduism incorporates all forms of belief and worship without necessitating the selection or elimination of any. The Hindu is inclined to revere the divinity in every manifestation, whatever it may be, and is doctrinally tolerant ... Hinduism is, then, both a civilization and a conglomeration of religions, with neither a beginning, a founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization.”

However, the arguments continued since such broad definitions of Hinduism was not acceptable to many of the reformed religions such as Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism and many other sects of Hinduism such as the Bhakti movement and the Ramakrishna Mission. The later, in fact, preferred to isolate itself from Hinduism, and recently declared itself as a non-Hindu minority religion. So basically, the Hindus (Indians) could not come up with a single definition of term Hinduism that could include at least Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism  as well. So when the dusts settled, we have these religions (Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism) separated from Hinduism.

Part II: Hindutva
Up to this time, Hinduism was being defined based on ideologies. And in spite of the different ideologies of India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and others, nobody saw any problem in building India as a secular nation based on the Indian constitution. That was what the founding leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Patel and others believed. Nehru wrote in his 'Discovery of India', (written in prison) “Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune had befallen us. The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual conception for me: It was an emotional experience which overpowered me. The essential unity had been so powerful that no political division, no disaster or catastrophe had been able to overcome it.…This cultural inheritance of the ancient Indian past, as well as what followed it in later years, is not confined to any one race that inhabited India or came to it. It is the common heritage of all of us, to which every race in India contributed...” In this, Nehru truly expressed the voice of the Indians and millions of Indians still passionately support the views of Nehru and other liberal leaders.

However, in the early twentieth century, some Hindus decided to think otherwise and decided to give Hinduism a new political and martial twist. For this they coined a new word Hindutva. In 1923, V. D. Sarvakar, a revolutionary Hindu, the originator of Hindutva ideology, wrote a paper titled ‘Hindutva: Who is a Hindu’ (written in prison) where he tried to define what Hindutva would be.The paper investigated the causes of the downfall of the political powers of the Hindus since the downfall of the Maurya empire, and tried to seek remedial measures. It was this paper that set the ideas and objectives of Hindutva in motion.

For the causes, Sarvakar plainly declared that it was Buddhism which was the culprit for India's political downfall. It was as if the Hindus have suddenly woke up, one thousand years after the disappearance of Buddhism in India, and suddenly realized that it was Buddhism which was the cause of all the past and present calamities of India. So the Hindutva ideology that evolved, was basically an anti Buddhist martial ideology where the Hindutva propose to build a new political and military Hindu nation opposed to Buddhist ideas and values. It was as if Hindutva was trying to oust Buddhism one more time from the land of its birth that already ousted it more than 1000 years ago. In this new Hindutva nation Buddhists would, obviously, be second class citizens. For contradictory reasons, the new Hindutva nation would also be devoid of the Muslims and Christians in nation building. Thus the Hindutva India would not be a secular India.

There were many other contradictions and distortions of facts, and one does not need to be scholar to see that the Sarvakar's paper was written not only with obvious distorted views of history but also with distorted views of Buddhism and its impact in India. Three major Indian kings, Asoka (3rd BCE), Kaniska (2nd CE) and Harsa (7th CE) who were able to unite a major part of India and build big Indian empires, were also those who predominantly patronized Buddhism and ruled India through the Buddhist law of universal brotherhood. It was primarily with the disappearance of Buddhism from India that the country could not stand united, and fell prey to foreign invasions.

The scholarly view of the impact of Buddhism in India is very positive, quite opposed from what Hindutva is proposing now as can be seen from the quote below from a prominent Buddhist scholar and historian, D. C. Ahir: “Buddhism dominated the Indian scene for more than 1000 years, from Asoka (3rd BCE) to Harsha 7th CE). And those 1000 years were the greatest in Indian history. The name and fame of India rose to the highest peaks in those centuries, and in the realm of of art and literature, learning and piety, Indian achievement reached heights still unsurpassed. But, alas, later Buddhism declined in India, and ultimately disappeared from the land of its birth.”

Regarding, Sarvarkar, it may be mentioned here that his political career was quite eventful and colorful. In 1948, he was arrested and placed on trial for the murder of Gandhi. Despite numerous and damning ties that were revealed between himself and Nathuram Godse, the assassin, Sarvarkar was acquitted in 1949. With the fresh rise of Hindutva movement in recent times, Sarvakar's fame has also rose posthumously. In 2003, BJP prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee unveiled a portrait of Sarvarkar in the Central Hall of Parliament. The portrait now sits directly across from that of Gandhi as if raising Sarvarkar to the equal status of Gandhi.

All this shows that the popularity of the Hindutva ideology although it was based of distorted views. The original paper written by Sarvakar was read just prior to starting of the RSS, and as such this paper is considered the founding document of the RSS that trains the youth to understand the Hindutva ideology, the predominant form of Hindu nationalism in India today. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) adopted it as its official ideology in 1989. It is championed by the Hindu nationalist volunteer organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliate organizations, notably the Vishva Hindu Parishad, along with the older term Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation).

Regarding the disappearance of Buddhism in India, the country of its birth, many scholars were puzzled and many tried to explain the possible reasons. Lin Yutang, the eminent Chinese scholar, writer and the author of the famous classic 'The Wisdom of China and India' spent some time on the subject and commented, “One cannot help being curious about the fact that the Hindus have rejected Buddhism as the Jews have rejected Christianity. One should have thought that a nation would have embraced the teachings which seem to other nations their most important contribution to the world and the highest manifestation of their spirit. Yet this is not the case. The only clue I can find seem to lie in the fact Jesus attacked the established priestcraft of His time, as Buddha rebelled against the teachings and the sacerdotalism of the Brahmans”....”It seems that the established priesthood was too strong for the revolutionary teachings and the Brahmans felt an injured pride in the presence of Buddha. ….Yet this cannot be the whole explanation.” …. “Probably both Judaism and Hinduism had older, truer and deeper roots in their racial consciousness, and that Buddhism and Christianity had those universal, idealistic qualities which detracted from their national character.”

Sarvakar's comment on Buddhism seems to support this view of Hindutva nationalism. Regarding Buddhism, he commented, “The (Hindu) leaders of thought and action grew sick of repeating the mambos and jumbos of universal brotherhood....So the leaders of thought and action of our race had to rekindle their Sacrificial Fire to oppose the sacrilegious one and to re-open the Vedic fields for steel, to get it sharpened on the altar of Kali.”

While these comments are unfortunate and surprising, yet it is not fully understood why the Hindutva is opposed to Buddha's teachings of universal brotherhood which were similar to those of Jesus Christ based on which the whole west is immensely benefited in their progress in the modern world civilization and in conquering the world. But that was not the case. In contrast, the Hindus have characteristically rejected Buddhist principle of universal brotherhood and apparently accepted the Laws of Kautilya (enemy of thy enemy is your friend). Along with that the Hindus also have accepted varnasrmadharma, the caste system.

Thus the dominant reason for the demise of Buddhism was the constant and persistent opposition to Buddhism by the Brahmanical system armed with its varnasrmadharma, the caste system, and many a times with violence. Believing in universal brotherhood, Buddhism refused to recognize the superiority of the Brahmin caste, and as a result by the 12th CE, Buddhism has completely been wiped out of mainland India. It was in the absence of Buddhism that the subsequent downfall of India and dominance by foreign power of the country occurred; it was mostly due to India's lack of unity caused by the re-emergent caste system in India since the Gupta age which has been playing havoc in India making it the only country in the world with a caste system based on religion.

1. Hindu View of Life – Dr. S. Radhakrishnan
2. Discovery of India – Jawaharlal Nehru
3. The Wisdom of China and India – Lin Yutang
4. Himalayan Buddhism – Dr. D.C. Ahir (1993)
5. Hindutva – Who is a Hindu? - (Article) V.D. Sarvakar (1923)
6. Essentials of Hindutva – (Book) V. D. Satvakar (1921)
7. The Significance of the X Sound in Assamese Language – Dr. Rajen Barua


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Jan 10, 2021

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