Luis Arnold Gonzalez-Reimann reimann at
Sun May 19 21:35:31 UTC 1996


On Sun, 19 May 1996, Madhav Deshpande wrote:

> 	It is true that there are a lot of pre-Paninian fanciful 
> etymologies and that the Paninian tradition attempted to bring some 
> methodological sophistication.  However, we should not brush aside 
> 'fanciful' etymologies, except when they are offered as jokes.  For 
> example, the Prakrit word 'arihanta' is indeed accountable as a transform 
> of Skt. arhant with an epenthetic vowel.  However, the Jains and the 
> Buddhists interpreted, in all seriousness, this word as ari+hanta 
> "destroyer of enemies", where these enemies are the unwholesome states of 
> mind, etc.  Such linguistically fanciful etymologies are critical for our 
> understanding of the synchronic comprehension of those terms and concepts 
> by the respective communities.  Similarly, while the historical origins 
> of the name Hindu is clearly connected with the river Sindhu, and the 
> Persian pronunciation of this name, one need not throw out the midieval 
> etymology of the word 'hindu' with 'himsaam duuzayati'.  Such an 
> etymology reflects what is seen by large segments of Hindus as a 
> prominent feature of their religious identity.
> 	Madhav Deshpande

No doubt fanciful etymologies are important for understanding the 
synchronic comprehension of certain terms, as long as it is made clear 
what what considers as the historical etymology, and what is a 
culture-context explanation of the term.  There are other good examples 
in yoga, where hatha is interpreted as a combination of "ha," the Sun, 
and "tha," the Moon, thereby superimposing on the word the tantric 
dualism of Shiva-Shakti, Sun-Moon, etc.  Likewise, guru is explained as a 
combination of "gu" and "ru," said to mean light and darkness, thereby 
meaning that the guru is the one that dispels darkness and gives light.
These etymologies are definitely important in terms of what the words 
meant -and mean- to many followers of hatha yoga and tantrism, but it is 
also important to understand what the historical meaning of the terms is, 
and why they came to be so explained.
We must not forget that these etymological exercises very often pretend 
to be given as  historical explanation, one that is linked to the origins 
of a tradition.  They are are a way of apropriating a term and, 
sometimes, asimilating and transforming a belief.
These kinds of etymologies are very common in occult and esoteric 
traditions all over the world.  Take, for example, the etymology of 
Solomon (the king) as Sol (the Sun, in Latin), Om (the sacred Sanskrit 
syllable), and Mon (the Moon), thereby symbolizing the union of the 
opposites with the help of OM. This mishmash of languages ignores the 
fact that Solomon comes from the Hebrew Shlomo, derived from the root 
Sh-L-M, which means full, complete, and also gives rise to shalom, peace.
I have also heard that Solomon comes from Solo, meaning that he attained 
his spiritual status by himself, i.e. "solo."

Sometimes these folk etymologies are simply based on a confusion, like 
the typical linguistic example of the term bikini, which many believes 
comes from bi plus kini, because it is a two-piece bathing suit, while 
the meaning is derived from the fact that it was worn by people from the 
Bikini islands.

Luis Gonzalez-Reimann
University of California, Berkeley

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list