The word “Hindu” is now taken to mean a person who follows what is called the Hindu religion, or Hinduism. It was not always so.

In Sanskrit (as in the earlier Indo-Aryan), “sindhu” means a large body of water and its usage is applied to rivers and oceans. The word was turned into the proper name of the largest river in the region, now called the Indus. The terms “Hind” and “al Hind” came to be applied to the Indian sub-continent – the region across the river – by Persians and Arabs starting around the 6th century BCE. The geographic name was applied to ethnicity and culture also. It had nothing to do with religion until much later.

Proponents of the “Hindu” religion, in particular those who follow the ideology of Hindutva, claim that it is the world’s oldest. While it may be that the religious streams now grouped together under the rubric of Hinduism are ancient, the word “Hindu” was not applied to them until relatively recently by those who followed these religious streams or religions. In DN Jha’s essay “Looking for a Hindu identity”, he writes: “No Indians described themselves as Hindus before the fourteenth century” and “Hinduism was a creation of the colonial period and cannot lay claim to any great antiquity”.

In the 18th century, the European merchants and colonists began to refer to the followers of Indian religions collectively as Hindus.

Jha continues: “The British borrowed the word ‘Hindu’ from India, gave it a new meaning and significance, [and] reimported it into India as a reified phenomenon called Hinduism.”

Well before this, Abd al-Malik Isami’s Persian work, Futuhu’s-salatin, composed in the Deccan in 1350, uses the word  ”hindi” to mean Indian in the ethno-geographical sense and the word “hindu” to mean “Hindu” in the sense of a follower of the Hindu religion”. But this usage remained uncommon.

The idea of tolerance

Every religion has always been hostile to other religions. I suggest that the well known hostility between Shaivism and Vaishnavism makes them religions and not “sects”, and that the distinction between these categories is without meaning.

These two dominant streams also showed hostility towards the many other religious streams that are now lumped together in “Hinduism”: and of course the blood-letting between Brahmanical religions on the one hand, and Buddhism and Jainism on the other, is too well known to require a mention.

It is absurd to describe Hinduism – or any other religion – as tolerant. The statement heard throughout the world of “I shall defend my religion to the death” clearly means that if the defender does not die in the fight, the attacker will. What did the various akharas of India do if not fight to the death, and what were they if not religious?

The confounding of the geographical name “Hindostan” or “Hindustan”, which is Persian in origin, with the synthetic compound “Hindu” + “sthana” is an example of how low people can stoop, whether out of ignorance or out of bloody-mindedness. The fact is that “Hindostan” was in use centuries before anyone thought to describe a religion as “Hindu”.

It is a delicious irony that those who seek to defend their “Hindu dharma”, primarily against Muslims, do not have the ghost of an idea that the very name of their religion came originally from a region which is now associated with Islam.