It’s All In a Name – Indian Names

India is such a huge country that there are many different naming practices and traditions and the main influences are region and religion. Indeed many people in India bear several names – a personal name, a patronymic, a village name, a caste name, and so on. These occur in a different order in different parts of the sub-continent, so identifying the personal name may not always be easy for non-Indians. In all cases, however, each name has a special meaning or possibly more than one meaning (unlike English names whose meaning is usually opaque), so that it is not uncommon for one Indian to ask another what his or her name means.

The most common religion in India is Hinduism and Hindus believe in reincarnation or rebirth. Therefore Hindu families will often name a child after an ancestor such as a grandparent so that, in a sense, the child becomes the ancestor reborn. Whereas most religions have one holy book which influences naming traditions – the Torah (Judaism), the Bible (Christianity), the Koran (Islam) – Hinduism has several venerated texts whch date from different periods and in turn inspire personal names even today.

The Vedic period (up to c.800 BC) gave rise to a collection of hymns called the Rig-Veda. The names of many of the deities of the Rig-Veda are still in use as personal names – for example, Saraswati and Vishnu. Also many vocabulary words from this period have been used as personal names – such as, Arun (reddish-brown), Jyoti (light), Madhu (sweet), Mani (jewel), Tarun (young), Uttam (highest). The late Vedic period (c.800 – c.400 BC) gave rise to the Artharva-Veda and modern Hindu names probably having their source in this work include Anuradha, Kishore, Nanda, Samant and Sharaada.

The epic period (c.300 BC – c.300 AD) was dominated by two famous Hindu epics. The first, the Mahabharata, has given rise to modern names such as Baldev, Damodar, Karan and Sanjay. This epic contains the famous religous text called the Bhagavad Gita which has made the names Krishna (the godhead in the story) and Arjun (the prince in the story) among the most frequency used names by Hindus in modern times. The second epic of this period, the Ramayana, contains characters whose names are still in very common use, such as Rama, Sita, Janaki and Lakshman.

The classical period (c.100 – c. 880 AD) includes many religous texts with an influence on naming practices, the most famous being the text complied by Manu who laid down rules for caste names. The priestly caste of Brahmins should bear auspicous names that connote spiritual prosperity, such as Kalyan (‘beautiful’ or ‘auspicous’); the warrior caste of Ksatriyas should have names which are full of power and connote safeguard, such as Ajit (‘invincible’); the merchant caste of Vaisyas should have names implying wealth, such as Shripati (‘lord of fortune’); and the peasant and labourer caste of Sudras should have names denoting servitude, such as one ending in ‘-das’ (‘servant’). Women’s names are not subject to caste rules, but are supposed to be pleasant-sounding and end in long vowels, such as Asha, Radha and Shanta.

The Puranic period (c.500 – c.1,000 AD) gave rise to many Hindu female names that are still used today, including Sushila, Shyama, Shakti, Parvati, Mohini, Meena and Kanti. Finally, the medieval period (c.1000 – c.1600 AD) promoted many compound names of sectarian origin derived from works called Namastotras, such as Devdan, Harish, Jayakrishna, Nataraj, Raghuvir, Ramakrishna, Ramnarayan, Sriram, Umashankar and Vishwanath.

Parents often name their children with words, the qualities of they would like the child to adopt. For instance, parents may name their child Vivek which means ‘intellect’. The idea behind naming him Vivek would also be that hopefully he becomes an intellectual in his life. It also is very common for children to be named after one of the many Hindu gods – for instance, Siva (the God of Destruction), Saraswathi (the Goddess of Wisdom) or Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth). An example of a combination of these two naming traditions would be Mansi which is derived from the goddess Mansa Devi, but also means ‘from the heart’.

Indians in big cities, however, are now willing to use international names for their children. These may be Spanish, French, or Italian names. But, even then, every word used as a name usually has a meaning and very rarely does one come across a child in India whose name does not have a specific meaning.

Various parts of India have varied systems for names. For example. in the states of Punjab and Haryana, the word ‘kaur’ depicts a female and the word ‘singh’ depicts a male. So, if we take the name Deepak (which means a lantern made of mud), Deepak Kaur would indicate that it is a female name, while Deepak Singh would indicate that it is a male name.

In some parts of India, surnames were based on the caste to which one belonged. However, with modernisation taking hold, many urban area dwellers have done away with the distinction of such surnames. Indeed some of the low caste population have adopted upper castes surnames, just to assert they belong to the upper caste.

In some Indian states, the middle name is essential. For instance, in the state of Maharshtra, the middle name is necessary. In case of males, the middle name is his father’s name; for females, the middle name is the husband’s name. However, in commom parlance, one rarely addresses colleagues with a middle name.

In southern India, it is very common to name a children after the child’s grandparent as a sign of respect and affection. The south of India does not have surnames. Men write their father’s names instead of a surname, while women write their husband’s name. Unmarried girls also write their father’s names. The practice in some South Indian states is that people write their surnames as the place to which they belong.

Indians name their children through a special “naming ceremony”. A naming ceremony is the day when the priest visits the house, invites the Gods to bless the child, and names the child in presence of the Gods. It is believed that naming a child through this fashion will bring him or her good luck, joy and prosperity throughout life.

However, in India there is much less use of first names than in the West – it is considered disrespectful, even rude. When addressing someone a few years older, one will frequently use the term ‘brother’ or ‘sister’; when addressing someone rather older, one will often use the term ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie’.

Although Hinduism is the main religion in India, there are many others, each of which has its own naming traditions.

Buddhism is still an important religion in the country. However, it is often hard these days to distinguish Buddhist names from Hindu ones, partly because Hinduism eventually incorporated the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu and partly because names in both religions ultimately derive from the same Sanskrit forms. Names which are distinctly from Buddhist sources include Siddhartha (from siddhartha meaning ‘one who has achieved the goal of enlightenment’) and Amitabh (from amitabha meaning ‘of immeasurable splendour’) plus Gautam (from Gautama, the clan name of the Buddha).

Sikhs in India – most of whom inhabit the Punjab in the north-west – have their own special naming traditions. Modern Sikh names are most commonly compound names and often end in ‘-inder’ from the Vedic deity Indra whom the Indo-Aryans invoked in aid for battle. Typical names formed in this tradition are Surinder, Jitinder and Harinder. This suffix is even found in some female names such as Rupinder and Jaswinder. Common names beginning with ‘bal’ (from the Sanskrit word bala meaning ‘strength’) are also common – Baldev is one case.

In Sikhism, the naming of a child is a very significant event. Children are named by consulting the local priest who opens at random the holy book of Sikhism, the Guru Granth Sahib, and the first syllable of the opened page determines the intial syllable of the child’s name.

All Sikhs take the same second name: Singh meaning ‘lions’. In the case of males, the third or last name is a caste name. In the case of females, the third name is often Kaur which identifies her gender.

The most common surname in India is Aggarwal.

© 2000 John Cooke Fraud Report

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