What’s in a name? My assessment is that names are pretty heavy things. If names were bags they’d be bursting at the seams.
I grew up in India hearing lots and lots and lots of different names (mostly multi-syllabic, and some very long, too) with a multitude of different meanings. Then, when I travelled abroad to study, I was lucky enough to mingle with a very international crowd, which ended up adding even more names in my mental directory.
As I write this, what I realize is that when I hear a name, I end up associating a certain kind of face with it. It’s usually a very vague face, more like an outline with some colour in it, but there most certainly is a face that comes up for every name I hear. Sometimes my over-active brain also ends up creating a brief character-sketch based on just the name.
In my head, someone with the name ‘Gayatri’ is likely to have long, flowing hair, dark, expressive eyes, a slender frame, and a strong personality, as opposed to someone named ‘Meera’ who I place as a sorrowful, silent sufferer, with a lack-luster life.
If I dig just a little deeper though, it becomes clear why my mind makes such associations. The name Gayatri originates from the Hindu Goddess ‘Gayatri’ who protects her devotees (her mantra is taught to most Hindu children in their childhood, and chanting it is believed to give immense inner strength). The name Meera originates from Mira bai, a Hindu mystic poet and a devotee of Lord Krishna. Mira bai is believed to have lived a sad life full of rejection and little familial happiness.
The mythological Mira bai did not have any children, and I actually personally know a ‘Meera’ who married very late and was unable to conceive a child (most likely just a coincidence, but enough to create a strong, persistent association).
In most Hindu families, naming a child is not limited to the parents’ choices. Apart from suggestions of extended family members and interfering neighbours, we tend to involve the stars and the planets, too. In this multi-coloured culture where astrology is both a science and a way of life, the moon’s position at the exact time of childbirth determines the initials of the child’s name.
In Hindu astrology, each moon-sign is said to be governed by a planet, and 3 or 4 sounds/letters from the ‘Hindi/ Sanskrit’ alphabet are assigned to each moon-sign (‘raashi’ in Hindi). Children named according to their moon-signs are believed to be blessed and benefited by the planets governing their moon signs for their entire lives.
Now this might sound quite far-fetched to many readers, but it’s a wide-spread, still prevalent belief and practice in Hindu households to name babies according to their moon-signs.
So what’s in a name? If you’re born where I am, the answer is – Your native state/region, your gender, sometimes your religion and even your caste, often a reflection of your birth-chart, the blessings/wrath of your planet-lords, mythological associations, and then if there’s any space left in the bag after all of that, your parents’ choices.
Complicated. Funny. Exhausting. Colourful.