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Bhakt, Sanskar, Bhagwa – how meanings are being twisted to malign a culture

While suggesting his preference for the word ‘Reading’ in place of ‘Interpreting’ Karl Popper in his lecture ‘Source of Knowledge and Ignorance’ says:

“I assert that the meaning of ‘interpret’ (though not in the sense of ‘translate’) has changed in exactly the same way, except that the original meaning-perhaps ‘reading aloud for those who cannot read themselves’-has been practically lost. Today even the phrase ‘the judge must interpret the law’ means that he has a certain latitude in interpreting it; while in Bacon’s time it would have meant that the judge had the duty to read the law as it stood, and to expand it and to apply it in the one and the only right way. Interpretation juris (or legis) means either this or else the expounding of the law to the layman. It leaves the legal interpreter no latitude; at any rate, no more than would be allowed to a sworn interpreter translating a legal document.” (Conjectures And Refutations, Source of Knowledge and Ignorance – IX)

Though produced in a dissimilar context, this example underlines a great problem in quoting from the literature of the times when the language and its forms differed from the present time. On the streets of 14th century Europe, if a person would understand you to be nice, your leisurely walk could turn into a troublesome experience. The word ‘Nice’ is derived from the Latin word nescius which means ignorant or foolish. The word changed its course through history, kept moderating in texture through time, and became synonymous with ‘good’ in as late as the 18th century.

In the study of language, this phenomenon is referred to as Semantic Change by Amelioration. However, a more commonplace semantic shift occurs by Pejoration. The word ‘Attitude’ originally meant pose or position. From there to today’s colloquial usage meaning arrogance, the word has undergone pejoration and is used in a negative sense many a time.

Not only is pejoration the most common kind of semantic shift, it is perhaps also the most dangerous one. When applied to words which encompass a phase of human development, pejoration can rob a society of its own history, culture, and the inherited wealth of knowledge because unlike ‘Nice’, there are words that define centuries of growth and achievements of the society. The situation gets disquieting when we look at our own society in India. Words are fast changing their meanings and we are the rats of the pejoration experiments being carried out inside the Indian laboratory. One of the earliest mentions of the term Bhakti appears in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad:

यस्य देवे परा भक्तिः यथा देवे तथा गुरौ ।
तस्यैते कथिता ह्यर्थाः प्रकाशन्ते महात्मनः ॥ २३ ॥

He who has highest Bhakti of Deva (God),
just like his Deva, so for his Guru (teacher),
To him who is high-minded,
these teachings will be illuminating.

(Shvetashvatara Upanishad 6.23)

The word ‘Bhakt’ has found a mainstream acceptance today to call out any supporter of the present Government or Narendra Modi. Modi Bhakt is being employed as an invective against the voters and supporters of Modi. This malicious usage stands on the assumption that ‘Bhakt’ has a negative connotation or more appropriately, as an adjective, is something to be ashamed of. Not that it has had any effect on the blind followers of our Prime Minister, but such a habit has definitely smeared the word itself. Not only any intelligent argument by anyone who likes to think with a certain degree of objectivity is killed by such verbal violence if his objectivism leads to an acknowledgement of any positive step taken by the government but such a usage also demeans the word every time it is used.

Though I am against simple generalizations, the group that honeys this phrase and uses it with great generosity is the left-wing of the country from under the hides of journalism, intellectualism, and elitism. More important than the question of its first usage, is to note that this phrase has been internalised and is being propagated by the social media sniffers of the left, the activists, and the comedians who have one leg in their chosen field and another in politics, to deride anything remotely in support of Mr Modi. The madness has grown to the extent that many of these times, the phrase is used to scoff logic as well. In the epidemic of blindness inflicted by elitism, one forgets that as not all logical people may support Modi, it follows that not all Modi supporters may be illogical.

Swami Vivekananda while describing Bhakti Yoga quotes Narada from his explanation of the Bhakti-aphorisms:

“Bhakti is intense love to God”; “when a man gets it, he loves all, hates none; “he becomes satisfied forever”; “this love cannot be reduced to any earthly benefits”, because so as worldly desires last, that kind of love does not come; “Bhakti is greater than Karma, greater than Yoga, because these are intended for an object in view, while Bhakti is its own fruition, by its own means and its own end.” (Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda Vol 3. Bhakti Yoga)

Bhakti is a function of love – a love for God that transcends to love for everyone. Bhakti doesn’t understand the hate. From Narada, Prahlada, Dhruv to Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Chaitanya, Tulsidas, we have had great souls in the Bhakti tradition who have in one way or the other shaped the cultural heritage of India. It won’t be hyperbolic to say that the idea of India as we know of it today, finds its roots in the philosophy of these spiritual pursuits. Bhakti stands for oneness with God and quite naturally, a true Bhakt realizes the oneness of all beings. Is it surprising then that the Bhakti-Path became a great force against caste system and sectarian disharmony that ailed the 15th century India?

Far from being subservient to the rulers of the day, the 15th-16th-century Bhakti movement broke the status quo of polarised identities, unified the populace irrespective of gender or birth status, and established the potential perfection of every soul. Kabir, through his couplets, criticised the prevailing superstitious practices of the society. Meera who was born in a royal family had Ravidass, from a so-called lower caste as her teacher and renounced her family, fame, and fortune for the love of God. Both these saints and many more stood as a challenge to the existing ills of the country and awakened the self-esteem of the masses through their life and work. Bhakti movement brought about a spiritual enlightenment across the country, first in the South and then in the North. How unfortunate it is then that a word like ‘Bhakt’ has almost taken the form of a slur in common parlance today!

A similar treatment has been meted out to many other words like Sanskar, Sangh, Brahmin, Bhagwa etc. It is difficult to keep a finger on one cause for the pejoration of these words but a symptomatic assessment tells us that the west inflicted urban ignorance of our past has a role to play in this phenomenon. This ignorance was further accentuated by the popular media, including but not limited to news agencies. However, one must look beyond the obvious and take into account the other peoples of India.

Part of my childhood was spent in a village called the Brahmapura in the Darbhanga district of Bihar and I completed my education in a small town called Kathara in the Bokaro district of Jharkhand. These words still held their original meanings till my time in the cultural space of these places while I grew up. It is difficult to translate Sanskar into English but the closest word to mimic the meaning of Sanskar is perhaps Ethics which still finds favour with the urban population and is ‘cool’. The complex of qualities like truthfulness, morality, incorruptible speech and action defined positive sanskar for us. However, as I moved to the cities, I found out to my surprise the deformed word ‘Sanskari’ that meant anything uncool measured against the standard of the status quo.

It is important to remember the vulgar role of our filmmakers in this process. The creation of a patriarch in Hindi movies who was essentially a fascist but hid all of his fascism under the garb of the word Sanskar has an ignoble stake in the deformation of the word. This was mostly a lazy job by people who had no knowledge of the Indian schools of Philosophy and the place of the word Sanskar therein. In Vedanta, all activities lead to the formation of Sanskar. These sanskaras define one’s personality. The concept differs more in syntax than in essence in various schools of Indian thought.

Sanskar is what forms inside us through our present actions and thoughts and this Sanskar, in turn, is manifested in our actions and thoughts in times to come. As such, a snide usage of the term Sanskari holds no meaning because all of us as living beings are Sanskari by virtue of our sensory organs, external and internal. That’s not all, the Nyaya system also takes the non-living world into consideration while discussing Sanskar. Sadly, the term Sanskari has stuck to the uncool human beings of today who should have been born a few centuries back for their Sanskars to do any good to them, not to forget the fascist patriarch of our cinema.

Similarly, Bhagwa meaning Saffron that represented till some time ago, renunciation and service, has all of a sudden found the unholy company of anything communal. The way today’s leftist construct of colours has tried to degenerate the meaning of Bhagwa, I wonder how and why they haven’t yet raised their voices against the Indian flag for its recognition of saffron. Another slur that is thrown at the sympathizers and members of the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the BJP is ‘Sanghi’. The word Sangh in Sanskrit means a ‘congregation’.

Quite naturally, the word has been used from times immemorial to signify a group, so much so that Buddhists and the Jains also found utility for the word. To understand the extent of pejoration deployed here, one has to simply translate it into English – Sanghi would mean Congregational. So, essentially, you are spitefully calling someone congregational just because you happen to hate the ‘Congregation of Water Melons Lovers of La-la Land’ because you happen to hate watermelons!

On a closer look, it appears to me that this is being done more viciously to Sanskrit than to any other language. Indians have to their credit, great achievements in their systems of languages, culture, and philosophy. These fully developed systems are India’s contributions to humanity. By intent or otherwise, such pejoration has pushed Sanskrit to the brink of getting discarded as an irrelevant language. If not so, why is it that a Sanskrit Nishtha (based in Sanskrit) Hindi spoken fluently gets the laughter of the average urban elite but a Hindi suffused with Urdu gets their unconditional adoration?

A language defends itself by its speakers. It cannot be protected or propagated by force, agitation, special language days, groups, or ignorant idolization. It is the speaker and the spoken that can keep a language from dying. On that front, Sanskrit has been rendered poor through confused policies of the establishment, continuous vile attack through decades of the reductionist tendencies of Left, and most of all, our own inaction. Then, I think of the entire phenomenon again and can’t help but remember what Richard C. Trench said of words and people:

“Then further I would bid you to note the many words which men have dragged downward with themselves, and made more or fewer partakers of their own fall. Having once an honourable meaning, they have yet with the deterioration and degeneration of those that used them, or of those about whom they were used, deteriorated and degenerated too.” (On the study of Words – Richard C. Trench)

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Abhishek Jha
Writer and Curator at TheSeer; Poet.


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