Parents wish to give unique Sanskrit names to their children but don’t themselves know Sanskrit. As a result, the child is given a meaningless name or even a name with a terrible meaning.
This financial expert and Sanskrit scholar is fighting this trend of cultural illiteracy his own way.
The lifestyle segment of a news website informs us that 'Aarav' has been the most popular Indian boy name for a decade.
‘Aarav’, which the site claims means ‘in high regard of’, is also the name of actor Akshay Kumar’s son and was the name of the character portrayed by Kumar in his 2009 film Blue. A popular website dedicated to Hindu names, Hindunames.net, informs us that the name ‘Aarav’ means ‘peaceful’.
Well-known Sanskrit scholar and author Nityanand Misra says it means neither. On the contrary, it means 'a noise, a howling cry, or a sound'.
A few months ago, Misra wrote a Facebook post about its origins and mentions in the Hindu texts. "The word [Aarava] is used in various Sanskrit works including the Ramayana for the gibbering of monkeys, croaking of frogs, buzzing of bees, chirping of birds, et cetera: indistinct animal or bird sounds (mostly not pleasant to the ear). In some rare cases, the word is used for the sound of hamsa bird but again the ‘hamsa’ is not famous for the sound it makes. The root of the word ‘aarava’ is ‘ru’ (“to make a sound, to cry, to howl”), which is used for bellowing of a bull in the Rigveda,” the post said.
The revelation is bound to break the hearts of many parents, and Misra knows it. This is why his post offers an alternative - ‘Saarav’, which he says means 'water of the Sarayu river' and is mentioned by the ancient Sanskrit scholar Panini in his work Ashtadhyayi.
Like Aarav, 'Vivaan' is another name that is both highly popular and highly misunderstood. It’s also the name of actors Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak’s younger son.
Far from it, the name refers to 'braiding’ and ‘weaving’ in Sanskrit, says Misra.
He explained in a recent Facebook post, "The word ‘vivāna’ is rare in Sanskrit works. The only major use I am aware of is in the Shrauta Sutras like Katyanana and Latyayana Shrauta Sutras. The Katyanana Shrauta Sutra uses the word twice, both times in the context of braiding or weaving [a chair/stool]. I am not aware of any other major work using this word ‘vivāna’ (sic)."
Bluntly put, it means a woven chair or a stool, says Misra.
If not unpleasant, it is certainly meaningless for a name. The alternative, he offers, is ‘Vivasvaan’ which means ‘brilliant’ and ‘the Sun’ in Sanskrit.
For close to a year now, Misra has dedicated himself to countering the falsehoods around baby names through his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He writes a 'Today’s #SanskritWord’ post almost every day and even tries to reach out to a larger audience through memes. His memes featuring the popular character of Maya Sarabhai from the hit television show Sarabhai Vs Sarabhai particularly draw attention.
His interest in the cause was triggered by an encounter with a parent four years ago when both Misra and he were standing in a queue for their children's school admission. The parent confidently told him that his daughter's name, Saanvi, meant Goddess Lakshmi in Sanskrit.
Skeptical of the claim, Misra looked up the sources and found that the word doesn't exist in any major Sanskrit dictionary. The only word he could parse it from, was the word ‘Saanu’ which means 'a mountain peak'. If not an entirely meaningless name, it certainly doesn’t refer to Goddess Lakshmi.
Misra also stumbled upon a blog that claims ‘Saanvi’ to be the fourth-most popular name for girls in and around New Delhi. If parents reading this still like the sound of ‘Saanvi’, Misra suggests alternatives like Tanvi (slender, delicate), Jahnavi (the river Ganga) or Bhaanavi (sunlight).
Another popular name, ‘Reyansh’, also has no meaning in Sanskrit but several websites claim it is a Sanskrit word for a ‘ray of light’ or ‘a part of Vishnu’.
There are names that mean nothing, and then there are names that mean something no one would want to live with. Misra has heard of girls’ names such as ‘Shleshma’, which he says means phlegm or mucus in Sanskrit.
Misra told Swarajya that professor KS Kannan recently shared experiences of finding a girl named 'Ganika', which means a prostitute, and 'Vandhya', which means a childless woman in Sanskrit.
"The professor found that ‘Vandhya’ was formed as a portmanteau of her parents’ names Vandan and Sandhya. This is a popular way to name children these days but parents must do some fact-checking," he says.
Look around, and one finds Aaravs, Vivaans and Saanvis to be a norm, while Saaravs, Vivasvaans and Bhaanavis are mere exceptions. There is an obvious craze for Sanskrit names, but the many dedicated websites are simply pulling wool over the eyes of new parents. Far from being fact-checked, the sites are promoted by an equally uninformed mainstream media.
Misra has a lot more of such case studies to share, but he also explains how we reached here.
It's all because of dilution of cultural roots, he says. The naming ceremony, naamkarana, has been an important rite since ancient times. It was primarily done in two ways: either the father or the kulaguru named the child (vedachara), or a close relative did it (lokachara).
He says that as per a verse in the Rigveda and Sayana's commentary on it, the Vedic people had up to four names - a name based on the birth star (nakshatra nama), a secret name known only to the parents (guhya nama), a public name (vyavaharika nama), and an epithet based on achievements.
"In the Puranas and the Itihasas, we see that the kulaguru named the children. For instance, Vashistha named the four sons of Dasharatha, and Garga named the two [foster] sons of Nanda. Names of children are still given by erudite Gurus among some devout Hindus today. This is what you can call vedachara. Then there is lokachara in some parts of the country where a newborn is named by a close relative. For example, by the father’s sister," he says.
"In recent years, both these traditions have dwindled," he adds.
Today, most people do not have access to a kulaguru or even a close relative versed in Sanskrit. But they want to give Sanskrit names to their children and turn to the Internet.
These websites not only misguide with wrong meanings but also feature “Sanskrit names” that are not from Sanskrit at all.
'Haroon' is one such name. Websites, including the popular Prokerala.com that ranks among the top 8,000 in the world, tells us it means 'hope' in Sanskrit. However, ‘Haroon’ is an Arabic name. Hugely popular among Muslims, it was also the name of one of the Khalifas (Caliphs).
Misra says that when he told a couple the name's actual origins, they were shocked at being misled and, after looking up various sources, dropped the name for their newborn. Similarly, these websites also erroneously trace modern names such as Kian, Rehan and Miran to Sanskrit.
Thanks to Misra's efforts to fight this misinformation, many parents have changed their children's names. A large number of them now approach him, both for alternatives and new names. Misra laughingly told Swarajya that now, he has begun to charge for the services.
"Recently, I told a US-based parent who contacted me on Facebook that I would charge for such a consultation. To my surprise, he readily agreed," says Misra. "Well, it takes me at least two-three hours of research at times, so it’s justified.”
Misra, an alumnus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore, is a financial expert in his day job and a Sanskrit scholar by passion. He has to his credit several books including The OM Mala: Meanings of the Mystic Sound (2017), which has explanations of meanings of 84 names of Om; and Mahaviri: Hanuman-Chalisa Demystified (2015), a translation of the Mahaviri commentary on the Hanuman Chalisa. Most recently, his book, Kumbha: The Traditionally Modern Mela (2019), was well-received.
The one around names is not the only kind of misinformation Misra fights. He has taken on popular author Devdutt Pattanaik by offering a point-by-point rebuttal to several claims made in his book My Gita. Pattanaik, however, has chosen to keep mum on Misra's invitation for a public debate.
Misra told Swarajya that like some writings of Pattanaik, who claims to reinterpret Hindu texts despite insufficient knowledge or understanding of Sanskrit, the websites on children's names too are fantasy worlds.
The tragedy, in both cases, is that pure lies and falsifications are being generated. As both are popular, the lies are reaching a large audience.
Misra advises parents to discard the various naming websites "if they really care about their children having meaningful names".
"There are pandits and Sanskrit scholars active on social media that one may reach out to," he says and suggests a few names such as Venugopalan Sankaran (@Gopalee67), Balram Shukla (@achyutaanant), Sampadananda Mishra (@Sampadananda) and Sammod Acharya (@sammodacharya).
This effort by parents, he says, is a must. "When we invest so much time and effort in our children’s lives, why should we not do so in naming them?" he says.