A Note on Languages

Although the national language of India is Hindi, not everyone speaks this and India today has fourteen other official languages as well as minority languages and local dialects, and beyond the current borders of India, Hindus speak other languages such as Nepali. As a result of British colonialism, and later its increasing use as the international language of science, technology and the media, English has also become important in India, including for the spread of Hindu ideas to the English-speaking world. The language of the oldest sacred texts is Sanskrit which, like Latin in Europe, is no longer anyone’s first language. However, Sanskrit is still used in India and among Hindus more than Latin is today in the UK, particularly by priests as ritual specialists. Thus, Hindus will be at least familiar with the sounds, and know some of the meanings, in the way that Roman Catholics worldwide would recognise the mass before the Church changed to using vernacular languages in the 1960s.

It tends to be the Sanskrit version of Hindu terms that are used in English, including in RE textbooks. Several of these have passed into general English usage beyond Religious Studies, such as karma, guru or yoga. One thing to note is that there may be different spellings. Some of this is because academic texts use diacritics whereas in less specialised use, including in RE textbooks, anglicised versions are used which avoid having to learn the diacritics. So Kṛṣṇa becomes Krishna, and Dīvālī becomes Divali. To complicate things still further, different anglicised spellings are found because there are variations in transliteration such as whether or not to include a final ‘a’ (as in Ganesha or Ganesh), the substitution of letters such as ‘w’ for ‘v’ (Diwali rather than Divali) or ‘oo’ for ‘u’ (for example pooja, not puja) and ‘ee’ for ‘i’, (as in Seeta, not Sita). Sometimes double vowels are used to indicate a long vowel in Sanskrit such as spelling arti as aarti. This essay will use the most common anglicised spellings as found in RE textbooks, in spite of inconsistencies. For example, we use ‘brahmin’ (priest) rather than the more accurate ‘brahman’, which would have had the advantage of showing the connection of priests with both ‘Brahman’ (in the sense of ultimate reality) and ‘Brahmanas’, the ritual commentary layer of the Vedic texts.

Hindu texts began to be written in vernacular languages rather than classical Sanskrit from as early as the seventh century CE, especially in South Indian languages such as Tamil which are not related to Sanskrit as well as later in North Indian languages such as Hindi or Bengali which are. Resources may also use terms from these languages.

A final language issue is that some of the terms that have been used in English to translate key concepts can be misleading or even offensive. For example ‘incarnation’ is used for ‘avatar’, though it does not have quite the same meaning as when used by Christians in relation to Jesus. A worse example is using ‘idol’ for ‘murti’ (image). This tends to have very negative associations as it was used by colonialists and some earlier missionaries to portray Hindus as primitive and superstitious, worshipping ‘idols’ as forbidden in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. To avoid such confusion or offence it is often best to learn the original term where there is no accurate English equivalent.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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