|Sanskrit words in English
||[Oct. 19th, 2005|10:30 pm]
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.