Something I have just been thinking about is the etymology of ‘Guru’.
From PIE ‘Gwrehus’ [‘Heavy’], same place as Latin ‘Gravis’, English ‘Gravitas’ [or ‘Grave’ in the sense of serious]
Effectively, therefore, “One Whose Words Have Weight”
Although it should also be noted that ‘Guru’ has a general sense in Sanskrit to refer not only to a Teacher or an Authority … but to the general quality of ‘seriousness’, ‘importance’, ‘weightiness’, ‘gravitas’, ‘grievous’ [itself a cognate], something with significant gravity, etc.
Now, why I have been thinking about this … is because this indicates that the Sanskrit understanding is very very strongly aligned with the Proto-Indo-European term from whence it descends. It sounds unsurprisingly close – it means the same thing.
That is as we should expect.
Except there is also a folk-etymology for ‘Guru’ within the Hindu tradition that instead seeks to derive this somewhat artificially from a combination of “Gu” and “Ru” to mean “Destroyer of Darkness”. To quote from the Advaya Taraka Upanishad – “16 – the syllable ‘Gu’ [signifies] Darkness. The syllable ‘Ru’ [signifies] the Destroyer of that Darkness. By reason of the ability to destroy Darkness, He is called a Guru”.
Now before going further, I should note that I have no intent to disrespect the wisdom of the scriptural source in question. I most definitely do NOT say that this is a “false” statement contained therein – only that it is ‘true in a different sense’, figuratively true and symbolic. For most certainly, somebody who is hailed as a Guru is accorded this specific honorific, this specifically congealed title precisely because they are able to illuminate our minds and figuratively destroy the darkness of ignorance via the light of the impartment of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and guidance to proper action.
It is, in other words, a completely correct interpretation of what a Guru is. And a very wise one at that – because it, itself, illuminates within the mind of the hearer that that is why the Guru is so important … rather than simply being somebody who is respected just because they may so happen to hold the title of somebody to be respected out-of-hand.
But this figurative rendering has become a ‘folk-etymology’ … wherein it is presumed that that is , in a linguistic sense, where the term has actually derived from. And that is rather unfortunate – because as with an array of such Sanskrit folk-etymologizing … it means that it obscurates something quite resoundingly amazing and important.
You see – the fact is that, once again, the Sanskrit and Vedic concept in question [Guru – Heavy] is seriously coterminous with the Proto-Indo-European one. It is directly the same in its essence – a window back in upon the Urheimat in so many ways. And this is strongly [weightily, in fact] supported via the modern scientific examination of the term and its [general] meaning.
The modern and academic understanding, in other words, tells us something that many of us already know – that the Vedic is irreducibly ancient and a grand, great, grave guide for the beliefs and the world-view of our ancestors as Indo-Europeans even if we are not of Indo-Aryan descent.
Except if we take the folk-etymology approach (and, more to the point, take it exclusively – aggressively suppressing, even outright opposing the more academically inclined etymological analysis) then we don’t see that. We get a good figurative understanding of one shade of the Sanskrit term that is quite prominent – and there is some utility to that, most definitely. But we lose out on this other and also vitally important dimension. The actual etymological-linguistic one and all that is supported and linked to via that in this broader context and world.
Adi Shankara was a very wise man, and he penned one of my favourite principles of Hindu theology – namely, the important distinction between the spheres of symbolic and scientific understanding that meant that strict ‘scriptural literalism’ was not a very good way to approach our sacred texts … and could lead to active miscomprehension on the part of the reader.
At some point I intend to write a more proper examination of this concept, but suffice to say at its crux he observed that even Shruti materials [the highest grade of scriptural canonicity for us] when taken outside of the context of Shruti could say things that are seemingly false in these other spheres.
So, for example, if a line of scripture makes a point about fire not being hot nor burning … then it is one thing to take that as true (for a given value of the word ‘true’) inside the specific context of the scripture – and to understand the point which it is making is a scriptural one, a symbolic one … but not, then, presume that simply because the line of Shruti in question says such a thing that you sticking your hand in a fire is going to lead to a pleasant cooling sensation and a lack of potential damage to your fingers.
To bring all of this back to linguistics – there are quite a few of these sorts of occurrences within the Hindu tradition. Areas wherein a term been given a folk-etymological interpretation by a sage of the past, which don’t line up with what the current understanding as to its origins or meanings ought to be.
A few of these are quite beautiful in their way, and can certainly tell us interesting and useful things about how these concepts were viewed (and therefore what they may have actually contained) at the time. Yavana, for example – which is these days understood to be a calque (or an interpretation of the Persian calque) for “Ionian”, and to have referred in its original usage to the Greeks that came East under Alexander and then settled there about Bactria etc. ; although which then came to more generally designate a far broader array of ‘foreigner’ [and it is interesting to note just how frequently a local language’s term for ‘Greek’ becomes just exactly that: c.f ‘Gringo’, for instance, in the Spanish of the Americas. A parallel of sorts to how ‘Frank’ becomes ‘Firangi’, ‘Firhang’ in Arabic and thence Hindi to refer to ‘Foreigner’ in general]
Now, the folk-etymology for Yavana goes in quite a different direction – instead deriving it from a term that, in effect, means ‘Swift’, ‘Swift Horse’; or alternatively from one meaning ‘Mixed’ [as in a ‘Mixed People’]. Both of which would make some considerable sense given who and where the Ionians, the Yavanas, were relative to the Vedic Hindu sphere – up in the NorthWest, in the convection-zone with the Steppes of Central Asia, mixed in with the horse-rearing and riding Indo-European peoples of that area.
So in this figurative sense – this interpretation of Yavana is not at all false. Indeed, it is probably quite useful for the major contexts in which Yavanas were being talked about in the texts of that archaic Hindu age. Because bound up within the term, therefore, was the adequate descriptor of who and what it was which was being talked about via it.
Except that does not mean that it suddenly becomes linguistically accurate in this other, etymological (rather than symbiological) sense.
Now it may, perhaps, be felt that I am setting up some sort of incipient duality between “religious” and “academic” – with a sort of tut-tutting Westerner’s wry relegation of the former in order to exalt more exclusively the latter as the singular and sole perspective upon truth. This is absolutely not the case – I by now should hardly need to reference my record and standing as a religious fundamentalist zealot, who is quite genuine in his pious zeal and devotional fervor.
I am also most definitely not endeavouring to sketch some sort of hard bifurcation between “Hindu”/”Traditional” on one hand and “Modern”/”Academic” on the other in these matters – and not least because there are most definitely literal litanies of situations wherein the latter is only able to function at all due to the former; and where I quite genuinely do believe that both rather than either (or more especially worrisomely, only the latter) must be drawn upon in order to attain the full perspective on what is actually going on in each sphere.
But perhaps the best way to demonstrate why I am cautious about uncritical acceptance outside of a given context for ‘folk etymologizing’ – is to speak about some of the entirely endogenous Hindu issues which have been caused by same.
Arya Samaj and their ilk are great examples of this. They set out in the late 1800s to lead a “Vedic revival” – although it is not, we might charitably surmise, a “Vedic” revival that would look particularly familiar to an actual Vedic practitioner in many ways. Indeed, I have often stated outright that “Neo-Vedanta” appears to involve far less “Vedanta” than it does “Neo-“.
A more fulsome excoriation / excursion upon Arya Samaj is well beyond the scope of this piece; but suffice to say, they rather radically reinterpret quite a range of things in order to ‘harmonize’ the Sanskrit-language skeins of our scripture with what they would quite like to present to the world as the archaic fundaments of our faith. And, as it may hardly surprise one to find, in the process hopelessly obscurate if not outright suppress what ancient Vedic texts are actually saying.
How do they do this? Well, a fair amount of it is via recourse to folk-etymology. They invoke Yaska’s Nirukta [effectively, an etymological compendium, authored in the first half of the first millennium B.C.] … and then reinterpret various words which may be obscure (or simply – inconvenient) in light of these and other authorities.
This is not to attempt to impugn the honour of Yaska – only to elucidate that the misapplication of the field he had contributed to can lead to the heedless impugning of the Vedas.
So, for example, the Arya Samaj lot point-blank reject various notions of sacrifice as having anything to do with the Vedic religion … and interpret one of the key hymnals for the Asvamedha [the famed Vedic Horse-Sacrifice rite] as instead referring to good digestion.
Another is their willful insistence that Yama and Yami … are not brother and sister (and a range of interrelated matters), due to the implications this would have for RV X 10. Which, again, flies flat in the face of thousands of years of tradition upon the matter [they tend to insist that the great Vedic commentator Sayana had come up with the ‘sibling’ situation out of his own wild and willful imagination – ignoring that it well predates him and from other respected sources].
How do they do these things? Via folk-etymology – especially out of context.
So in summation – it is NOT a situation wherein the enthusiasm for proper etymology and the caution around folk-etymology is innately nor intrinsically hostile to Hinduism. Quite the contrary. It is the scenario whereby even within Hinduism, the incautious use of folk-etymology and folk-explications outside of the contexts they are most adroit for – can lead to fundamental, foundational harm to the Faith.
I also personally maintain that the correct deployment of the (academic) etymology and related spanning spheres of analysis are of a significant utility for the Faith, enabling greater understanding and even substantiating core conceptual explications of the great Rsi-Sages of Old.
Words, you may say – attain greater Weight when we understand Them most comprehensively!
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