Dealing With Language Barriers
A Blog Post
I often come across people who tell me that I should
not use certain English words to express Hindu concepts.
For example, they keep saying that the word soul is not
the same as Atma or meditation is not the same as dhyana.
They also find fault with me for using materialism in contrast
to spiritualism or the word “mythology” to denote our ancient
myths and legends from the Puranas. In a very limited perspective,
they are right. All cultures and languages are not the same.
Everyone who engages in cross-cultural and linguistic communication
understands the problem and uses commonsense approaches
to deal with them.
The truth is that neither language nor religion nor culture
is static. They constantly evolve and acquire new features
and perspectives as the world progresses, and as our knowledge
keeps increasing. Sanskrit is not an exception. Over the
millenniums it acquired many new words, while many original
Sanskrit words disappeared or were forgotten due to lack
of popularity. The Sanskrit that we speak today is very
different from the archaic Sanskrit which was used in Vedic
The same is true with English. English is not the official
language of Christianity. None of the prophets mentioned
in the Bible ever spoke in English. English happened to
be the language of many people who practiced Christianity,
and thereby the language acquired many Christian expressions.
The same is bound to happen in case of Hinduism also.
English has been greatly influenced by India’s culture
and religions, and they will continue to do so in future
also. As more and more Hindus speak in English, it will
acquire a flavor of Hinduism and English words will acquire
more depth, new meanings and connotations to convey the
ideas that are peculiarly Hindu. Words such as Yoga, masala,
bazaar, pundit have acquired a life of their own.
Language is just a means. It will not dispel your ignorance.
Ignorance is better dispelled by study and knowledge, whatever
language one may use. In today’s world, it is difficult
to live with just one language. In multicultural societies,
people do not speak one language only. No one in India speaks
the chaste form of any language except perhaps newsreaders
or people who do it in jest. People mostly use a mixture
of languages in their daily usage to communicate with others.
For example, Hindi people do not speak chaste Hindi. Besides
words from Hindi, they use words from local dialects, local
idioms, Urdu, English, Arabic, Persian, Punjabi, Gujarati,
The English soul and the Sanskrit Atma may not be equivalents,
but with constant use overtime people will understand what
it means when a Hindu speaks about soul or uses it in his
or her writings. Many Sanskrit words found their way into
Pali through Buddhism and Jainism. For example, Atma is
pronounced as Atta, Maitri as Metta, Dukha as Dukka, Karma
as Kamma, Dharma as Dhamma in many Buddhist traditions and
nations. Still, those who practice it and those who are
well versed in Buddhism and Hinduism or Jainism understand
what they mean.
Words are mere clothing to a concept or idea. They are
of this world, and cannot be perfect. Just as every other
thing in the world, they have their own limitations. The
meaning of words changes according to the context or situation
or the mindset of the person who is involved in the communication.
Even if you use the right word, there is no guarantee that
your communication will be effective, because there are
many barriers to communications apart from language.
What is more important is a good understanding of Hinduism,
or whatever religion or faith you practice, besides your
ability to communicate with diverse groups of people according
to the situation and context. Once, your fundamentals are
in place, the words do not matter much, as you will understand
what they truly mean.
Therefore, let us not be too pedantic and arcane about
these issues when we communicate with Hindus who do not
speak Indian languages or live in different parts of the
world. Let people, scholars and writers use their own discretion
and commonsense to communicate with their audience. Let
us not sit in judgment on these issues and tell people how
they should “behave.” If they want to use the word “soul,”
let them, or “Atma” or “Atta,” or whatever their culture
Finally, let us not forget that Hinduism is known for
its tolerance and diversity, and there is no one path or
right way to truth. If you cannot do it, it is better stick
to your native language and be content with your puritanism
and chaste expression.