Mahanth is Editor
At the intersection of modern English lexicon, high technology, and contemporary culture is a small but important vocabulary set that many of us use regularly in our communications without knowing their origins in ancient India and the dead language Sanskrit. Some of these words have been in continuous use for thousands of years and recently repurposed into English, sometimes with a new or expanded meaning. Below are a few of my favorites in the pantheon of Sanskrit to English etymology, at least some of which may be news to you.
Nirvana I was in middle school when I first heard of the revolutionary and wildly successful rock band from Seattle that exploded onto the pop culture scene and led the vanguard of a rugged new rock sub-genre called grunge. But like many Indians I already knew the word nirvana from reading about it in texts before that. Aside from the connection for an Indian-American tween like me linking both my cultural footprints, Nirvana was my very favorite musical act for several years running for its raw power and emotional outbursts. The 1994 suicide of frontman Kurt Cobain was absolutely devastating to me and many others from Generation X. For 99% of Western civilization from the late 1980s till forever, the word will always be associated with the three-piece and its sudden and tragic end. That’s because Nirvana, though short-lived, became one of the all-time great music groups, destined for their work to be played repeatedly on radio stations, on streaming sites, and in restaurants and bars around the world 30 years A.C. (After Cobain), to be continued well beyond today. In particular young people born well after 1994 will continue to love Nirvana’s tracks especially if hearing them in their teens or 20s.
But thousands of years prior to that for many Hindus and their Buddhist cousins, there was a different connotation altogether from the sights and sounds of Seattle grunge. Nirvana referred and still refers to the elusive and ecstatic state of enlightenment or liberation from suffering that comes from escaping the hamster wheel of reincarnation, a core belief of the world’s oldest religion. Nirvana was chosen by Cobain as the band name because he was attracted to the concept of enlightenment, and he was known to have an interest in spirituality and Eastern philosophy like the Beatles and other rockers of the 60s and 70s who were an early influence. It was also a radical departure from the norms of the rock scene at the time. “I wanted a name that was kind of beautiful or nice and pretty instead of a mean, raunchy punk name like the Angry Samoans,” said Cobain. “I heard the word nirvana in a book, and I thought, ‘That’s a cool word.’ I wanted to name the band something that would be a little more powerful than the name of the band.”
We can only hope that Kurt Cobain, who we know suffered great physical and mental pain in life, achieved some semblance of peace for his soul upon exiting the land of the living at age 27 like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, two other American music icons gone too soon. Cobain’s enduring legacy includes having been married to, and having a daughter with rock star Courtney Love, and the talented Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl moving on to have an enduring and notable career as frontman of the Foo Fighters.
Guru. The word “guru” is derived from Sanskrit and means “teacher” or “guide” beyond the realms of just academic, political, or commercial, bleeding into the higher plane of the spiritual. In the modern English lexicon the word is often used to refer to someone who has understanding or expertise in a particular subject or field, especially when it comes to the decidedly non-spiritual world of profit making. In recent years the word has courted controversy as some people believe that the term is overused or even misused in this context. I’m glad Westerners are familiar with the word, but not everyone can be a guru, and throwing it around loosely cheapens the original intent of the word.
Many people argue that the term “guru” implies a level of infallibility or authority that is not always appropriate, and that it can be used to exploit or manipulate people. Others argue that the term has lost its original meaning and is now used too casually, and that it can be used to describe anyone who has a large social media following or who is considered to be popular or influential. Ugh.
In my opinion if you’re using it in a way that implies that someone has all the answers to corporate strategy conundrums or wins a lot at Trivial Pursuit, then we have drifted away from the original intent. I think of a Guru more as a teacher than just a subject matter expert. In the ancient Indian context, the label implies deep respect and spiritual guidance reserved for a select few wise elders in a community. But for a great and altruistic teacher focused on passing on knowledge for future generations, it’s the perfect word. For example, Martin Luther King, Jr. looked to Mahatma Gandhi as his Guru across oceans and also times.
Avatar. Modern technology has brought this ancient Indian word to the forefront of usage by English speakers around the world. James Cameron’s 3D blockbuster film series launched in 2009 is partly responsible for the spread of avatars into the modern Western consciousness. But even before the movies among smaller but growing circles from the 1990s onward it became a catchphrase of Internet life. In both the film context and on the Web, an avatar refers to alternate virtual representations of real people in a digital world. With the potential and unpredictable rise of the Metaverse, avatars may multiply exponentially.
In Hinduism, the word refers to the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form. Avatar is often used to describe the incarnations of the god Vishnu, who is believed to have taken on different animal and human forms throughout history in order to restore balance and righteousness to the world.
The concept of the avatar is rooted in the belief that the divine can take on human form in order to interact with the world and guide humanity. The avatars of Vishnu are seen as powerful and benevolent beings who come to earth to help humanity in times of crisis. They are considered to be fully divine and fully human at the same time, and are seen as perfect examples of dharma, or moral and ethical behavior. The deeply venerated Krishna, Rama, Narasimha, and Parashurama are several such avatars of Vishnu among the 10, with the last avatar Kalki to arrive in the future when everything goes to complete $hit (which just may end up being soon) to help set things right.
Juggernaut. I really love this word. It conveys righteous dominance and power while eliciting fear in opponents. In fact I wish I could find more reason in day to day life to use the word juggernaut in conversation, but that’s not so easy.
The word “juggernaut” originally refers to a massive, overpowering force or object, often one that is difficult to stop or control. It is derived from Hinduism’s Jagannath – a particular form of the God Vishnu, who time and again defeats the most powerful manifestations of evil to arise. The Jagannath temple in Puri, India is famous for its annual Rath Yatra, a festival during which huge, elaborately-decorated chariots are pulled through the streets by devotees. I visited Jagannath once as a kid in 1990 and was nearly smothered to death in a terrifying, massive and dangerous stampede during a religious festival that very nearly sent me straight to my God at age 10 as happened to other nearby visitors that night. Quite a lifetime memory of my pilgrimage to Jagannath of Puri.
Over time in the English language, the term “juggernaut” came to be used more broadly to refer to any large, powerful, and unstoppable force or object, such as a powerful and rapidly growing company, an unstoppable military force, a political movement, or even a sports team. NBA superstar LeBron James while playing for the Cleveland Cavs in 2017 famously referred to upcoming NBA Finals opponent Golden State Warriors as “the juggernaut out West.” And indeed the Warriors were unstoppable that season and stomped their way to the championship.
It is used colloquially to describe something that is difficult to stop or control, such as an addiction, or a trend that is quickly gaining momentum.
Diva. This one went in several directions in the modern English lexicon. A diva could refer to one of the following these days, quite a ways from the original meaning in ancient India.
A diva can be a woman admired and respected for her beauty or skill, especially in music, but could also describe someone who is demanding, arrogant, and difficult to work with, which is the version I hear the most. Both of the meanings got particularly entrenched in hip hop and R&B culture. I’ve also heard gay male friends use the word to describe other gay men who they feel are exceedingly difficult to deal with.
The word “diva” comes from the Italian word “diva” describing female opera singers with a powerful and distinctive voice, derived from the Latin “diva” which in turn comes from the Sanskrit word “devi” meaning “Goddess” to Hindus. For many practicing Hindus divine female manifestations are supremely important, and they can be not only beautiful and graceful, but also fierce and powerful in the relentless pursuit of justice (like Durga Devi, pictured above). Devis are a big deal and in many Hindu households even today, the most worshipped favorites in the pantheon of celestials are as likely to be Goddesses as male Gods. Diva was first used in English in the context of opera, to describe a leading lady with a powerful and distinctive voice. Later on, it was adopted into English to describe a highly talented and celebrated female singer before veering toward the more recent urban culture context. As the hit song by Beyonce titled Diva explains, A Diva is a Female Version of a Hustler. Divas can definitely be funky too- as fabulous girl group En Vogue was in their prime.
Karma. This is another one of my favorite English derivatives from Sanskrit to use in both the Western and Indian meanings of the word, which are related but slightly different. Karma is a concept in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism positing that every action has a reaction, and that the consequences of one’s actions will determine one’s fate in this life and also future lives. The idea is religious and scientific at the same time, matching the laws of physics. Because of this concept, I believe there is a chance for cosmic justice to ultimately manifest, though we may not get to necessarily witness or comprehend it in this world or in this lifetime. Karma in modern English has been distilled to a moral or ethical law of cause and effect, where good actions lead to positive consequences, and bad actions lead to negative consequences.
Ganja. Yes mon, this is actually an ancient Indian word and it has always meant exactly what it means in English slang today. Unlike other words on this list it wasn’t modified to mean anything different. Like other cultures, in India the ganja, aka weed, cannabis, buds, kind bud, kush, or 420 has been a mainstay for the rich and the poor for a long, long time.
Ganja plant varieties are native to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and it has been used for medicinal, religious and recreational purposes for thousands of years. In fact the species Indica is grown the world over and is so named for its Indian origins. The earliest written reference to ganja in India appears in the Vedas, which are ancient Hindu texts dating back to 2000-1400 BCE. In these texts, ganja is referred to as one of the five sacred plants, and is said to have the power to release one from anxiety and to help attain higher states of consciousness. Cannabis has been used in ayurvedic medicine, a traditional system of medicine in India, to help treat a wide variety of ailments, including pain, insomnia and anxiety.
It should be noted that the use of marijuana is nevertheless controversial in India, and the government does not take it lightly. Marijuana is currently illegal to grow, sell or possess in the country, despite its long history of use among the priestly caste, and a thriving bootleg market on the streets.
* * *
This above list of words is by no means exhaustive- I just think their origins and what they became as part of the English language and Western culture are interesting. Latin and Sanskrit in particular made for a very active and long exchange of words and grammar during the Indo-European evolution of languages which became a complex linguistic tree that dozens of modern languages branched off from.
Did you know that words like jungle, cheetah, serpent, and loot also derive from Sanskrit? I myself didn’t until today. Others common words like pundit, mantra, rice, swastika, and shampoo are more well known as obvious Sanskrit derivatives, at least to me.
I am curious what the future holds in this niche area of Sanskrit words being adapted for English and adding some extra flavor to the language with entries that have no equivalents. No other words mean quite the same as diva, karma, guru, rice, or shampoo. I have never been able to wrap my head around how language develops and vocabularies expand over time, and exactly who gets to decide what in dynamic, organic and downright brutally violent environments, but our languages are all the richer for the globalized evolution of tongues. With rapidly advancing science and technology breakthroughs, on earth and in outer space, we are going to need to keep coming up with new words for stuff- and might as well continue to mine the rich and old culture of India for it, especially as an increasing share of the cutting-edge breakthroughs happen on Indian soil itself.