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Vedic-Harrapan Legacy of the Word ‘Hindu’

Aravindan Neelakandan* —


Harappan stamp


Many often object to using the word “Hindu” because it is a term given to us by outsiders. This supposition about the origin of the identifying moniker has itself been used to make the claim that there was no such thing as a unified “Hinduism” or “Hindu culture.” In this piece, Aravindan Neelakandan argues against both premises in his usual thought-provoking style.

Throughout modern political discourse in India one of the criticisms made on Hindutva or Hindu-ness, has been that the very word Hindu is an alien construct.

But what if the word ‘Hindu’ had Vedic origins?

A Harappan link to Soma ritual uncovered by an eminent Indologist and the writings of a seventh century Chinese pilgrim to India may hold the clue.


Throughout modern political discourse in India one of the criticisms made on Hindutva or Hindu-ness, has been that the very word Hindu is an alien construct. It was initially used by the Persians to refer to those on the other side of the river Indus and simply the Persian version of river Sindhu.

The word India is said to have derived from Indus, which is the Romanized form of the Greek “Indós”. The Greek equivalent, however, comes from “Hindu” which is the Persianized word for Sindhu, the great river in whose banks the Vedic civilization originated and flourished.

Thus the critics of Hindutva in particular and Indian nationalism in general argue that Hinduism and India are artificial constructs created by foreigners either to categorize or manage a vast collection of various ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups which actually merit separate sovereign nations. Colonialists often used this argument to convince Indians that in the absence of Pax-Britannia, the Indian land mass would deteriorate into a killing field of warring nations.

Marxists further actively did propaganda for this view with Stalin declaring that linguistic groups are nationalities by themselves. During the crucial period of India’s independence and partition, Indian Communists did serious propaganda for the complete dismembering of the country. At least one national leader writing under the nom de plume Kautilya saw through their real intentions:

In fact Soviet and Communist policy was in favour of splitting the country into many autonomous units. They deny that there is any such thing as an Indian nation. The Communist plan appears to be for a Balkanisation of India.

Kautilya was none other than Jawaharlal Nehru. He wrote this warning in 1946, in National Herald (NH). Earlier, NH had given a remarkable insight into the Communist game plan. It wrote that before the British had left, the Communists wanted India to “be divided into bits,” which would allow “the Communists free to make a revolutionary conquest of India part by part” and install their leader “the Stalin of Indian Soviet Republic”.

The very same year Communists went on to submit a memorandum to the British to Balkanize India; and Nehru had come out with his Discovery of India in which he spoke almost mystically about “the cultural unity” of India among its diversity and contradictions, “the strong but invisible thread”.

Paradoxically, it is the Hindu nationalists who carry on Nehru’s conviction of the “cultural unity” of India. The colonialist-Communist mantle for Balkanizing India, has been passed onto pseudo-secularists, including Nehruvians, who argue that India has never been one unit and that “Hindu” is an alien label.

What are the strands that make the “strong but invisible thread” of cultural unity that Nehru talks about? The answer may lie in the very words “India” and “Hindu,” which are said to be of foreign origin. And it may very well be a Vedic connection, synchronizing a central Vedic ritual with the sacred geography of India.

Iravatham Mahadevan, Indologist from Tamil Nadu, was the first one to point out the Vedic link while studying the Harappan unicorn and the cult object before it. Being a student of Sanskrit, he was familiar with the Vedic ceremony of the Soma filtering ritual. He says he was “reminded of the two most powerful images in the Soma chapter of the Rig Veda, Pavamana and Indu.” Pavamana means the flowing Soma, and Indu the Soma drops collected at the bottom of the filter.

(Read The Cult Object)

The word Indu in the authoritative Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary represents not only the Soma drop but also the Soma Itself. In the Brahmanas, Indu is used for moon. In the famous River hymns of Rig Veda (Nadistuti Sukta नदिस्तुति सूक्त, X.75) the river Indus is named as “Good Soma” (Su-Soma). So, we have the droplets of Soma – Indu– and the flowing Soma, Sindhu. Both Indu and Sindhu refer to the central Vedic religious ritual – Soma.

In his acclaimed book The Lost River, Michel Danino points out that archaeologist C.L. Fabri (1935) brought out “odd parallels” between depictions of animal motifs in punch-marked coins and Harappan seals. Fabri compared the depictions of “the most frequent ones,” which included “the humped Indian bull, the elephant, the tiger, the crocodile and hare.” Of course, the horse was left out as it was not depicted in the Harappan seals. Interestingly, in most of the coins belonging to the Sangham Age (300 BCE to 300 CE) wherever the horse is shown an object was depicted similar to the cult-object seen in Harappan unicorn seals. This leads one to wonder if the Indu or the Soma was then a connecting strand across the regional principalities ruled by local chieftains.

While Indu and Sindhu are both related to the Soma ritual, the words Soma and Indu are usually interpreted/related to the moon. Interestingly seventh-century Buddhist pilgrim to India, Hieun Tsang, makes an explicit connection to this term and associates it to the name of the nation in a spiritual sense. He says that India was “anciently called Shin-tu, also Hien-tau.” However, “according to the right pronunciation, it is called In-tu,” says the Buddhist monk from China. And then he proceeds to point out that in Chinese the term also refers to the moon. This is appropriate, says the seventh-century pilgrim, because “the bright connected light of holy men and sages, guiding the world as the shining of the moon, have made this country eminent, and so it is called In-tu” (Hieun Tsang in Buddhist Records of the Western World, Book II).

If these connections are true, then both the terms Hindu and India trace their origin to the Vedic and Harappan period. Both the sacred geography and spiritual significance make these terms very much the central strands in the “strong but invisible thread” that Nehru discovered in his quest for his own roots.


* Republished article from Aravindan Neelakandan, Swarajya, 8 July 2016: <>. Some spellings and punctuation edited to fit the conventions of standard American English.