Using Proper Vocabulary to Describe Vedic Concepts
By Stephen Knapp
Time and time again I see and hear the most improper words used to describe various concepts of the Vedic tradition. The peculiar thing is that this happens not only amongst non-Indians, as you might expect, but also amongst Indian Hindus, even scholars who should know better, and even amongst Indian gurus and teachers. Why should we surrender to the use of words given by foreigners and non-Dharmists that often so inaccurately describe the specific concepts found within the Vedic tradition? Some Vedic writers have written about this before, but it is still an issue that does not seem to be resolved, or people simply do not understand the damage it can do. So let us take a few examples.
MYTH OR MYTHOLOGY: This is a word that I see used on a regular basis when describing what some people call the "Hindu or Vedic mythology." Don’t people understand what they do when they use this word? When you say mythology you immediately remove all reason for taking the Vedic texts seriously, such as the Puranas, Mahabharata and Ramayana. When you describe them as myths, you are indicating that they are just fiction, nothing more. They may convey some ideas or principles in them, but the events that they describe have no other purpose. Or that the stories have nothing to do with history or actual events that have taken place.
The dictionary describes the meaning of the word myth as a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation. This is especially the case when the story is concerned with deities or demigods and includes some practice, rite, or supernatural aspect of nature, all of which are in the realm of myth. Thus, such stories are accepted as invented ideas to include some concept, but is basically imaginary or fictitious. Thus, all places, persons, things, and events in the story have no basis in fact, but is a false collection of mere beliefs.
Even the Sanskrit root of the word "myth" means fiction. So why should we use this word? Or is this all the credit we intend to give to the Itihasas and other Vedic texts?
The fact of the matter is that many scholars of Vedic literature and its traditions have discovered that the stories found therein are filled with historical events and descriptions. They are not necessarily fiction. So, naturally, the point is that the word myth or mythology, when using it in connection with the Vedic stories, is completely incorrect. Therefore, we should simply stop using it in connection with our Vedic tradition and its ancient texts.
IDOLS AND STATUES: Here are another few words that I hear people use all the time in relation to the deities in the temple, even India gurus and spiritual teachers. The Sanskrit word for deities is murti. And when the murtis or deities have undergone the Prani Pratishta ceremony, which calls and invites the Divinity to accept the form of the deity and the service that we can offer to Him or Her, the deities are then accepted as having the life force of the particular Divinity residing within. Thus, they are no longer mere idols or statues, but are indeed worshipable. But as soon as you say idol or statue, you are again taking away all credibility from the image and indicating that it is merely stone, paint, or wood, and nothing more. This is a complete misrepresentation of the true meaning of the deity. Therefore, we should stop using these words in relation to the deities in the temples.
RELIGION: This word is also easily used in connection with Hindu or Vedic Dharma, as if it is just another religion. So why shouldn’t we call it a religion?
The word yoga, based on the root of the word yuj, means to "link up" or "unite." Interestingly enough, the word religion is based on the Latin word religio, which means to "bring back" or "to bind." What is to unite with or to bind to is the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. This involves uniting one’s body, mind, will, emotions, and intellect to God while becoming detached or less attracted to the material world. Thus, the ultimate aim of yoga and religion is the same, which is to spiritualize our consciousness, transcend all forms of temporary material happiness and distress, and increase our understanding and realization of the Supreme.
However, religion is usually accepted to mean that we establish our relationship with God through the church or some institution or church authority, and in that way we attain salvation, or are "saved" from our sinful ways. And if we do not have a proper or approved connection with the church, mosque, or some authority in the religion, then we have no relationship with God. Whereas dharma means to reawaken what is already there, and act according to our duty as a spiritual being. This means that we are not necessarily "saved" from our sins and brought to God, but we merely reawaken our spiritual identity and then, with proper guidance, we learn how to act in that way. In other words, we are already a spiritual being with a connection with God. It only has to be reawakened. This is the path of dharma, which brings us to the state of dharma, or spiritual balance and realization.
The premise is that we are always a spiritual being and are connected with God, and we merely use whatever tools the Vedic tradition provides to act in that way and to realize and perceive our spiritual identity and connection with God. By such guidance, knowledge and realization, we begin to perceive the spiritual dimension and our existence in it. It is not that someone or some institution is the via media between us and God and gives us the means to be "saved," but we have to do the work ourselves but with the assistance of God and the Vedic system. It depends on us. We cannot simply sit back and think we can do whatever we want because we are "saved." But we must still work to spiritualize our consciousness to reach moksha, liberation from material existence by entering the spiritual domain.
Furthermore, when it comes to understanding the meaning of Sanatana-dharma, we have to be aware of its Sanskrit definition. The root of the word dharma comes from dhri, which means to uphold or maintain. The Sanskrit says dharayati iti dharmaha, which translates to explain that dharma is that which upholds. However, not only what is supported is dharma, but that which does the supporting is also dharma, dhriyate iti dharmaha. So dharma consists of both the force that sustains as well as what is sustained. It can also be said that there is the path of dharma as well as its conclusion, the object of dharma, or what we are seeking, the goal of life. So dharma is the means as well as the goal.
Dharma is also said to be the force which maintains the universe. Where there is dharma there is harmony and balance individually, socially, and inter-galactically. So the path of dharma brings about the harmony and contentment that is also another aspect of what we are seeking. In this way, we want harmony inwardly, in our own consciousness, but we also cannot have individual peace unless there is harmony or cooperation socially, amongst the masses. So where there is no dharma, there is disharmony and a state of being that is out of balance. And socially it means that without dharma, there is a lack of cooperation, along with escalating quarrel and fighting. When we act against the law of dharma, we disrupt the very harmony and cooperation that we want.
Doing what should not be done is called vidharma, which is a type of adharma or nondharmic activity. The conclusion, therefore, is that if we want happiness and peace we must learn how to live according to the path of dharma.
The practice of Vedic dharma should be done not out of compulsion but out of love due to the perception of the Supreme in all living beings. With this motivation, dharma can assist in preventing injury to others and treating each other respectfully. Dharma also means righteous conduct. This includes following social laws and proper moral activity and behavior. It encourages truthfulness of thought, word and deed. The point of which is to reach the goal of dharma.
Dharma also means truth. So we follow the path of dharma to free ourselves from illusion and reach the ultimate Truth, which is the topmost reality, the spiritual strata. The Absolute Truth means the final philosophical goal and end of all knowledge, or Vedanta, which is God, the Supreme Being. So when we want to attain liberation from material existence, after realizing the futility of its temporary nature, and wish to reach God, then it becomes much easier to follow the path of dharma and overcome the temptations of the temporary material world. Then we can let go of the illusory objects that are, in fact, hurdles on the path to Truth and God, and happiness in general.
On a national, ethnic, or racial level, dharma is an instrument of unity, not divisiveness. That which helps unite everyone and develop love and universal brotherhood is dharma. That which causes discord or disharmony or provokes hatred is adharma. And we can plainly see that many religions, being based on the idea that they are the only way to God, actually perpetuate differences between us all, especially with such ideas that say some are "saved," and those who are not are going to eternal damnation. Thus, it becomes obvious that the basis for many quarrels in the world is the differences in religions.
That which works against or tries to destroy dharma is adharma. With this understanding we can perceive that certain religions that exist on this planet actually encourage divisiveness between those that are "saved" and those that are supposedly going to hell, or those which primarily focus on differences between their sect and others. This is actually adharmic. Those religions that do not teach that we are all spiritual beings, all children of the same God, all equal in the eyes of God, are adharmic. They may merely be limited in their depth of knowledge and awareness, but until they adopt the dharmic principles they will continue to produce disagreements, restlessness, harsh attitudes and even hatred amongst people in the name of religion. The reason is that they are absent of real transcendental knowledge and deep spiritual insights. Since such religions lack dharma, they will not be able to deliver one to dharma, or to the Absolute Truth. They remain too much absorbed in the bodily condition of life. Thus, lack of peace and harmony amongst various religions will be commonplace until this is remedied. In this way, the path of dharma is more than a religion or belief system. It is the means to directly perceive and live according to that higher reality and spiritual unity between us all. Therefore, the Vedic path is not merely a religion, it is Sanatana-dharma.
HINDU: This is another word that has been given to the people who practice the Vedic tradition by outsiders and which does no justice for expressing any concept or idea about the Vedic tradition. It is odd that in some circles if you use the word Hindu, you are frowned upon, while in other circles if you do not use the word, they feel you are offensive. There is much that has been discussed about this label, and I have fully written about it elsewhere. But for the above reasons in regard toSanatana-dharma, we should also consider how accurate or inaccurate the name Hindu really is, and why we should continue to use it, except due to over-familiarity with it by most people. Otherwise, I would prefer, as a follower of Sanatana-dharma, to be called a Dharmist or something like that. Other people use the word Dharmis, or Dharmics, or Sanatanis, all of which I feel are better than Hindu. At least these names are certainly connected with the actual Sanskrit upon which the Vedic practice is based.
CASTE: This is another word that carries much baggage with it, and as soon as you mention it, you get people who want nothing to do with it, or who require a long explanation about what it really is. Here again is a word that comes from outsiders that give a misconception about what should be called by its proper Sanskrit term varna, and not caste.
Caste is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as "an endogamous and hereditary social group limited to persons of the same rank, occupation, and economic position." The word caste is derived from the Romance word casta (seen in Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian), which (in addition to representing the same concept as English caste) can mean "lineage" or "race." It comes from Romance casto, which can mean "pure" or "chaste." Casto in Latin means "chaste," which is derived from castus, meaning "pure, cut off, separated."
What is also explained is "What remains, however, and is common to many cultures is the ‘outcaste,’ the people considered below the level of common humanity of all the others, ‘untouchable.’ They and their descendants, the dalit in India, the burakumin in Japan, the baekjeong in Korea, all have faced discrimination, and some continue to do so today." [http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Caste_system]
The problem with this is that in the Vedic tradition, no one was considered an untouchable or something sub-human. In the Vedic system, outcastes were those who were so materialistic, or evil, or barbaric that they would not follow any portion of the progressive Vedic principles. So where do you put them?
So this should make the foreign origins of the word obvious, and make us ask again why we have surrendered to using a term that immediately misrepresents the real concept of varna and varnashrama dharma. As we have written elsewhere, the system of Vedic varna was never to restrict the upward progress of a person, but was meant to encourage it as a social design for the growing progress of a individual, the contentment of one in their occupation and contributions to society, while still making proper spiritual advancement. One’s varna as judged by birth alone, which is the way things seem to be in the modern caste system, was never established in the Vedic system. In fact, there are shastric injunctions and rules that establish the direct opposite of that (which we will examine later in this book). However, once one’s varna was established by the person’s talents, abilities, interests, level of intelligence, etc., than that was considered the best classification for an occupation for that person to reach perfection in life. Thus, again, we should use the word varna and not caste to help establish what was really meant by the social design for humanity in the Vedic tradition.
HINDU MONKEY GOD: This is another demeaning label when describing Hanuman. But I have even heard Indian gurus use this term. If you cannot say Hanuman, then it may be better to just keep quiet. The point is that it indicates that Dharmists worship monkeys as gods, without understanding that Hanuman was not merely a monkey. He was part of a specific race of beings that existed and helped Lord Rama in His pastimes of rescuing Sita, as explained in the Ramayana. Hanuman was also known as the son of Vayu, the god of the winds. This is why Hanuman was so strong, could jump fantastic distances, and was able to live so long. He was an extraordinary being, and people still worship him as the most exemplary devotee of Lord Rama, and who can give blessings for us to increase our own devotion to God. So to call him a "monkey god" is a complete disregard and misrepresentation of what and who he really is.
However, this could also be said when we refer to Lord Ganesh as the "elephant god." He was far more than an elephant. Plus, saying that he is "the Hindu elephant god" again creates demeaning and inaccurate impressions in the minds of people that we worship elephants as gods, when the respect and admiration for Lord Ganesh is far more specific than that. Therefore, once again, to more accurately describe who and what they really are, we should use the correct terminology and title for the Divinities in the Vedic tradition.
HINDU TERRORISTS: This is another phrase that is a contradiction in terms. I have always said that Hindus make lousy terrorists, which means they just do not have it in their hearts to do such things. They are generally the most tolerant of all people. And I have seen so many times when there has been some terrorist activity that is blamed on Hindus, it usually comes out, after proper investigation, that someone else was the cause or instigated the situation, yet the media does little to apologize for improper information, or to correct the report, or change public opinion. So whenever Hindus try to provide the proper information, or defend themselves from those who try to demean or criticize them, or who try to defame their culture, they are immediately called "communalists" or "saffronites," as if they are simply trying to "saffronize" the nation, which means make everything a part of Vedic culture.
So when the term Hindu Terrorism, or saffronization, or communalists comes up, you can be pretty sure that it is merely for the convenience of politicians trying to blame an easy target to get the votes of non-Hindus in India. Or it is because of the secular (meaning the non-Hindu) media who try to show their impartiality by being anti-Vedic and anti anyone who is following Vedic Dharma. All this needs to change. But Dharmists / Hindus in general need to be less apathetic when it comes to speaking out against such things, or for voting out the bad officials and voting the good politicians into office in India, if there are any good politicians in India.
For example, I once gave a lecture at a temple in Mumbai to a crowd of about 1500 people. As I was talking about the politicians in India who actually work against the Vedic tradition and Hindu population, I asked how many people voted in the last election. Not one hand went up. This is another of those things that need to change. Politicians will never care about the Hindu people if they will not vote. They will always cater to those who will support them. And, meanwhile, the anti-Vedic people will gain more power and control at the expense of the Dharmists who will become overruled by those who participate in politics and the electoral process. This means that gradually Dharmists will continue to watch as more and more of their freedoms are taken away. Yet, if they do not do anything about it, what else can they expect?
Therefore, it is time for people who follow Sanatana-dharma to unite and make a stand for what they want in their own future. Otherwise, as the generations unfold, the new youth will be increasingly less loyal or interested to participate in or preserve whatever remains of the Vedic tradition. Using the above points and changing our vocabulary in regard to the words that are mentioned herein and many others will help at least a little to change that scenario.
SACRIFICE: This is also a word that is often used when describing the Vedic yajnas (yagyas) or havans and fire rituals that Dharmists may perform. But many Hindus call them fire sacrifices. However, the word sacrifice arouses depictions, especially in the minds of Western people, of someone sacrificing or ritualistically killing some living entity, like a goat, chicken, or other animal, or maybe even a human. This certainly is the wrong impression. The fire in the ritual represents the mouth of Lord Vishnu, and what is offered into the fire is generally nothing but grains and ghee, clarified butter, or fruits or cloth as well, during which many mantras and names of God are chanted. So no living being is killed or sacrificed. Thus, again the more appropriate word to use is merely ritual. It is a fire ritual or ceremony. This helps convey the proper meaning.
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