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Sanskrit words in English - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Sanskrit words in English [Oct. 19th, 2005|10:30 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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There are five Hindu/Sanskrit words that have made their way into everyday English - guru, nirvana, karma, avatar and mantra. Unfortunately, none of them retains its original meaning.

In Hinduism, a Guru is a personal spiritual guide. All three of those aspects are significant. The word actually describes a relationship rather than a status of a person. This aspect is lost in all usages of the word in English. In fact the goal of most people considered spiritual gurus in the West is to disseminate their ideas to as many people as possible, quite the opposite of a 1-on-1 relationship. Other usages of the word (department guru, software guru) also lose the second and third aspects of the word's meaning.

Nirvana is more of a Buddhist than a Hindu concept, but one that is again butchered in English, IMHO showing a fundamental inability to comprehend Eastern thought. They key concepts here are nothingness and liberation. There is no joy or bliss or ecstasy in Nirvana. The whole point is to reach a state where you're devoid of those feelings (and also devoid of sadness), liberated from emotion and desire altogether. A typical Westerner might say that you'd have to be nuts if your whole goal in life is to get to a point where you can't feel happiness anymore, and a typical Easterner might respond that that attitude is precisely what is wrong with Western culture. I have no comment.

The concept of Karma evolved in early Hinduism hand in hand with Punarjanma, rebirth. The idea is that your deeds, good or bad, will catch up with you, whether in this birth or in the future. That's quite clever, actually. The karma notion could not have survived on its own. As it was, though, even if the way someone's life turned out was at variance with their karma, you wouldn't lose faith and believe that their future would even things out. According to my IITM history teacher, karma and punarjanma were invented by the ruling classes in the later Vedic precisely to quell discontent and rebellion by the opressed masses who worked hard and yet died poor. That might be a tad on the cynical side though. Karma in Western belief, of course, is divorced from belief in rebirth, which doesn't exist.

Avatar, in Hinduism, is not just incarnation, but descent. Implies wilfulness on the part of the avatari. In English it is roughly manifestation. Perhaps the least corrupted of the five words.

The key property of a Mantra in Hinduism is not repetition but potency. The idea was that you could do magical things by channeling the power of your mind with the aural properties of the mantra. (Mantras are either invocations or spells). The English usage in the sense of chant is vaguely similar in meaning, and catchphrase is pretty much the opposite because Hindu mantras are closely guarded (knowledge of a mantra is supposedly involves much more than just memorizing it, requiring perfect enunciation and awesome mental powers to begin with - a mantra will only channel your powers, not create them for you). The heart of the elaborate ceremony of upanayana, for example, is initiation into knowledge of the gayatri mantra.

Conclusion: two out of five words battered beyond recognition, another two mutilated, and one word merely distorted.

Words mutating in meaning when with time is not very surprising: egregious started out meaning excellent and ended up the exact opposite. But five out of five contemporary Hindu concepts ending up corrupted is perhaps somewhat surprising, and I will leave the implications to whoever wants to make them.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2005-10-21 02:16 am (UTC)

Neat...

post!:)
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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2005-10-21 02:18 am (UTC)

Re: Neat...

Btw, do you know Dr.Veerarajan (alias Dilip) and Dr.Murali from the humanities dept. at IITM?- jus' curious!
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2005-10-21 01:58 pm (UTC)

Re: Neat...

Dilip is his first name, not his alias. And his last name is Veeraraghavan. He was a close friend. He's the IITM prof I was referring to, if you hadn't guessed. I'm looking forward to meeting him this winter. I knew Dr. Murali through him. So how do you know them?
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From: nicertry
2005-10-22 09:40 am (UTC)

Re: Neat...

i was under the impression that his name is actually veeraraghavan .. dilip is a nick -- someone made a mistake when filling out an application on his behalf and the name stuck

not too sure though .. u can ask him in the winter!

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From: (Anonymous)
2008-08-14 10:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Neat...

Let me try and put this to rest:

His official name is D. Veeraraghavan; Please call him Dilip (thats the name used in his home). But the "D" in the "D. Veeraraghavan" does not stand for Dilip! In any case, he has now become "Dilip Veeraraghavan". I doubt he really cares about these details one way or the other. :)
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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2005-10-24 10:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Neat...

Both are real close buddies of dad's (right from his PUC days at Vivekananda)- and actually, he helped Dilip with his Ph.D (it's a long story, maybe later!)- I managed to meet him last summer at some meeting at IITM organised by BNHS (along with Prakriti)!
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[User Picture]From: kadambarid
2005-10-24 10:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Neat...

He's the IITM prof I was referring to, if you hadn't guessed.
Thought as much!:D
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-10-23 11:37 pm (UTC)

A little learning

Hi Arvind,
Mohan, trawled by, Sunday evening. Talking about mangled meanings, consider the five commonest words from Arabic that you see in the mass media - Mullah(barnstormer), Jihad(terror bombing), fatwa(sentence of death), shariah(amputation), Sunni(fundamentalist).
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2005-10-24 04:20 pm (UTC)

Re: A little learning

Yeah. That's interesting too. I'm taking your word for the interpretations of some of these words in the mass media, as I'm happily insulated from it :) Consider crusade vs. jihad - the crusaders were in almost exactly the same position as the jihadis today, yet that word has very positive connotations. Sad.
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From: ext_38131
2007-03-25 06:31 am (UTC)

Distortion of sanskrit.

If you are arguing from religious point of view ( as they are used in religious books and texts ) , yes the current day definition is distorted.

But if you observe word meaning , in simple Sanskrit conversational language the meaning are still the same. for e.g. Karma is "deeds" or "what has been done" or " what is to be done" either good or bad. if you use in a context any of these ( or many more ) it wont be corruption. Its the provision.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-12-17 02:42 am (UTC)

Re: Distortion of sanskrit.

English through its descent from Latin, Greek (which are themselves either derived from Samskrita or had a common ancestor), shares most root words (dhaatus) with it.

Immediate examples:
eg. vid (to see, deriving veda) -> videre (to see, latin) -> video etc.
div (shining, godly) -> divinare (latin) -> divine
rud (one meaning being, to break apart, deriving rudra etc) -> rodere (to gnaw, latin) -> rodent, corrode etc.

Even words like matru -> mater (latin) -> mother , bhraatru -> frater (latin) -> brother etc., numbers thriini -> three, shad -> six, sapta -> seven, ashta -> eight, nava -> nine, dasa -> ten (the beginning syllable is same)

Just about every word in English (derived from Latin, Greek) can be thus traced back.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-02-08 05:34 am (UTC)

Dilip is no more

Dr. Dilip Veeraraghavan passed away few days back. He was fighting cancer for quite some time. I was just searching about him and found your post and thought of sharing this sad news.

Murali Krishnan
Dept. of Civil
IIT Madras
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