The history of Hinduism

The term ‘Hindu’ was a Persian expression, derived from the Sanskrit Sindhu, was originally a geographical marker – referring to a people who lived beyond the Indus river.
Ponniyan Selvan poster
Ponniyan Selvan poster

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyan Selvan: Part One has evoked great viewer interest in Tamil Nadu, but its popularity has triggered a somewhat unexpected controversy: was the great Raja Raja Chola a Hindu? In the view of Tamil director Vetrimaaran, filmstar-turned-politician Kamal Haasan and others, the answer is no. If this claim is limited to the etymology of the word ‘Hindu’, then it is unexceptionable.

The term ‘Hindu’ was a Persian expression, derived from the Sanskrit Sindhu, was originally a geographical marker – referring to a people who lived beyond the Indus river. The expression Hindu and Hinduism, as a religious identity, entered common usage only in the early 19th century, though they were used in this sense much earlier. In short, The Cholas under the great king could not have thought of themselves as Hindus in the 10th century.

While this much is plain, those in support of view that the Cholas were not Hindus go much further. They imply that the religious practices that existed at that time were not Hindu at all. It is true that Saivism and Vaishnavism prevailed in those times and that cultural practices were divided on the basis of this. But to withhold the term Hindu on the basis of this is to make a flawed argument. All classification takes place on the basis of similarity and for the purposes of study. Whales were always mammals, well before the term was invented. Similarly, it is possible to study or regard native American Indians as a people even if they did think of themselves as belonging to one tribe or another. As veteran Congress MP Karan Singh has pointed out, even though the word ‘Hindu’ may have come into usage much later, deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Hanuman and Mahakali were all part of the Sanatana Dharma for millennia.

Historians of ancient and medieval India have generally no issue in describing people who follow certain cultural and religious practices as Hindu. But the problem with the current controversy is that it less rooted in history than in politics. What individuals such as Vetrimaaran, Thol Thirumavalavan and Kamal Haasan are essentially attempting to do is resist the subsuming of what they see as pre-modern traditions under a caste-dominant Brahmanical version of Hinduism. According to them, this is what the BJP is attempting to do by allegedly appropriating diverse cultural icons into a unified pan-Hindu pantheon.

This is a political issue that may well deserve to be fought politically. But it is no excuse for ignoring historical facts, the presence of a vast literature that is broadly recognised as Hindu, and using an etymological point to make generalisations about what existed or did not. At a larger level, what we know is that the Cholas were a great Tamil dynasty, mastered the use of naval power, and extended their influence way beyond the shores of the subcontinent. Whether they were Hindus or otherwise does nothing to change this.

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