Blog Post

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 times.

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, etc.

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 calls it.

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.