Those who call all Indians “Hindus” are not far wrong

Author Jawaharlal Nehru
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Hinduism, as a faith, is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. It is hardly possible to define it, or indeed to say definitely whether it is a religion or not, in the usual sense of the word. In its present form, and even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other. Its essential spirit seems to be to live and let live.

has attempted to define it : 'If I were asked to define the Hindu creed, I should simply say : “Search after truth through nonviolent means. A man may not believe in God and still call himself a Hindu. is a relentless pursuit after truth. Hinduism is the religion of truth. Truth is God. Denial of God we have known. Denial of truth we have not known.” Truth and non-violence, so says Gandhi : but many eminent and undoubted Hindus say that nonviolence, as Gandhi understands it, is no essential part of the Hindu creed. We thus have truth left by itself as the distinguishing mark of Hinduism. That, of course, is no definition at all.

It is, therefore, incorrect and undesirable to use 'Hindu' or 'Hinduism' for Indian culture, even with reference to the distant past, although the various aspects of thought, as embodied in ancient writings, were the dominant expression of that culture. Much more is it incorrect to use those terms, in that sense, today. So long as the old faith and philosophy were chiefly a way of life and an outlook on the world, they were largely synonymous with Indian culture; but when a more rigid religion developed, with all manner of ritual and ceremonial, it became something more and at the same time something much less than that composite culture. A Christian or a Muslim could, and often did, adapt himself to the Indian way of life and culture, and yet remained in faith an orthodox Christian or Muslim. He had Indianized himself and become an Indian without changing his religion.

The correct word for 'Indian', as applied to country or culture or the historical continuity of our varying traditions, is 'Hindi', from 'Hind', a shortened form of Hindustan. Hind is still commonly used for India. In the countries of Western Asia, in Iran and Turkey, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere, has always been referred to, and is still called. Hind; and everything Indian is called 'Hindi'. 'Hindi' has nothing to do with religion, and a Muslim or Christian Indian is as much a Hindi as a person who follows Hinduism as a religion. Americans who call all Indians Hindus are not far wrong; they would be perfectly correct if they used the word 'Hindi'. Unfortunately, the word 'Hindi' has become associated in India with a particular script — the devanagri script of Sanskrit — and so it has become difficult to use it in its larger and more natural significance.

Perhaps when present-day controversies subside, we may revert to its original and more satisfying use. Today, the word 'Hindustani' is used for Indian; it is, of course, derived from Hindustan. But this is too much of a mouthful and it has no such historical and cultural associations as 'Hindi' has. It would certainly appear odd to refer to ancient periods of as 'Hindustani'.

Whatever the word we may use, Indian or Hindi or Hindustani, for our cultural tradition, we see in the past that some inner urge towards synthesis, derived essentially from the Indian philosophic outlook, was the dominant feature of Indian cultural, and even racial, development. Each incursion of foreign elements was a challenge to this culture, but it was met successfully by a new synthesis and a process of absorption. This was also a process of rejuvenation and new blooms of culture arose out of it, the background and essential basis, however, remaining much the same.


[ Excerpts from “The Discovery of India” first published in 1946 ] 
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