Origins of the word Hindu

Author: Gopal Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Among the established languages of the world, mainly four can be considered as the root languages. They are Vedic, Latin, Hebrew and old Chinese. If one examines the derivation of the vocabulary of these languages one will find that their method or process is identical. Only Vedic among these four did not have a grammar because it was a dynamic, living language. At the time when it was a spoken language people had not yet been able to invent written script. A living language never remains bound by the hard and fast rules and fetters of grammar. It should be mentioned here that grammar derives its form from the special characteristics of a language. A language does not depend on grammar to function.

The journey of the Vedic language began approximately fifteen thousand years ago and it attained its full development about ten thousand years ago. In other words, it walked its road for about five thousand years. In very ancient times the pace of language was very slow so Vedic needed five thousand years of dedicated vocal effort to attain its maturity. This five thousand year period is not short in terms of linguistic distortion [evolution to a new language]. A language normally lasts about one thousand years. Hence in modern times five new languages could have evolved in this five thousand years. Still, by examining the different mańd́alas (chapters) of the Vedas you will see that the language of the oldest part is not the same as that of the last part. In other words, although it goes by the same name, Vedic, with the passage of time it became noticeably different.

Mankind appeared on this planet approximately one million years ago. So when human beings appeared on earth they certainly brought language with them. The newborn children of those days certainly learned language from their mothers. We do not, however, have in our hands any examples of the language that existed up until fifteen thousand years ago because the Vedas had not yet been created. And since the Vedas had not been created there was no reason to commit that language to memory in the service of spirituality. But while it is true that the people did not commit that pre-Vedic era language to memory for spiritual purposes, did this mean that they did not have an oral tradition of folk songs, doggerels and lullabies? I would guess that they did and that that language was certainly passed on orally. However since there was no strong motivation for committing it to memory, they abandoned the folk songs, doggerels, lullabies, etc. of the old language when it became transformed through natural linguistic distortion and composed new unwritten songs and doggerels in the new language. In Bengali also, none of the songs and doggerels commonly sung by the people are more than seven or eight hundred years old. The old language has become incomprehensible nowadays so the women-folk had stopped, have stopped and are stopping singing them.

Not only folk songs, doggerels and lullabies, but all types of literature only survive if they possess a richness of idea or feeling. People kept the Vedic language alive orally because it had this imaginative richness. Although Vedic had attained maturity, it did not have a written form because the alphabet or written script had not yet been invented. Old Vedic’s only oral book was the Veda. It has survived till today because it had some relationship with dharma, however what is understood by “dharma” now and what was understood by it during the Vedic era is not exactly the same thing. The intellectuals of those days used to express their realizations for the welfare of the people (although they were not literate they were certainly intellectuals in terms of erudition and wealth of imagination). These intellectuals used to be known as Rśi (Rishi) during the Vedic era. “Rśi” (Rishi) means “cultured person”. The word “rśi” comes from the verbal root “r”. For this reason those who accepted the Vedic doctrine in those days used to call themselves followers of the Vedic or Árśa doctrine (the word “árśa” comes from the word “rśi”).

Clearly, the word “Hindu” did not exist during that era. Hindu is a Farsi word whose fundamental meaning is “Indus River-basin” or the community of people living in the nearby areas. All of them, regardless of what religion they followed, were Hindus. In other words, the word “Hindu” is a completely geographical word. Those whom we call “Hindu” today are indeed Hindus in the geographical sense. In terms of religion they are followers of the Árśa doctrine. However since nowadays the word “Hindu” is used instead of “Árśa” those who are called Hindu today are Hindus both in the geographical sense and in the religious sense. But those who belong to the various other so-called sects in India are Hindus in the geographical sense but not in the religious sense. They have their own religions.But in today’s language, the word “Hindu” refers to all those who practice some aspect of Sanatan Dharma.