The Brahmanization of the American Lexicon
From 'bungalow' to 'veranda, 'khakis' to 'dungarees,' our language has looted Hindu and Indian culture
Americans might not know it, but their language — the lexicon of the everyday spoken and written word — is changing, a product of America’s diverse ethnicities and large immigrant populations.
American English is getting infused with words from the Hindu religious (or Brahmanical) philosophy and culture, which I refer to as the Brahmanization of the American lexicon. As Professor Henry Higgins said in My Fair Lady, “There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven’t used it for years!”
While the language Americans use in business, politics, and everyday conversation is a blend of the languages immigrants brought with them to the U.S., Professor Higgins might be quite surprised to find that many of the changes in the American lexicon were brought about by the spread of words from practices such as yoga, meditation, and Indian religious philosophy, as well as the increasing adoption of Eastern attitudes and lifestyles in recent years.
In fact, beyond words from Hindu philosophy and culture, American English is replete with words such as chai, khaki, chutney, bungalow, raj, and shampoo from Indian languages. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has these and hundreds of others with Indian roots.
This Brahmanization of the American language gained true momentum in the ’60s when Eastern philosophies took hold among celebrities such as the Beatles, when terms such as karma, mantra, prana, and nirvana became the keywords of New Age bliss. George Harrison embraced the Hindu culture and brought it into mainstream American music, and his sitar-playing collaborator Ravi Shankar brought mellow mysticism into the lounges of Americans brought up on Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley. Boy George and Culture Club imported “Karma Chameleon,” and the avalanche of gurus and yoga schools that ensued mesmerized their followers with promises of attaining a wholesome life, even “nirvana.”
While Brahmanization has cut across the entire American lexicon in various forms, here are seven core terms from Hinduism that are in daily use in America. (Some of the terms have a similar meaning in other religions born in India, namely, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.)
A Brahman (or Brahmin) is an individual belonging to the priestly class in India, the highest of the four castes under Hinduism. Historically, Brahmans often enjoyed prestige, partly because of their position as priests who performed religious rituals and ceremonies in temples and during weddings, funerals, and other meaningful occasions. In contemporary India, while some Brahmans continue to perform religious ceremonies, the caste has lost much of its social significance as a result of the outlawing of the caste system, at least ostensibly, by the nation’s constitution. (The word Brahman also has another meaning in Hindu philosophy that derives from ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas and the Upanishads — representing the ultimate reality or “the ultimate cause, foundation, source, and goal of all existence,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.)
In the U.S., the Brahman has been used in many different contexts, some quite irreverential to its original meaning. For instance, a breed of beef cattle of Indian origin, often raised in the southern United States thanks to its high tolerability of heat and humidity, is named Brahman — but Hindus don’t eat beef. Brahmin is also the name of a luxury brand that makes leather handbags, purses, and other accessories, products made from an animal Hindus revere.
The Boston Brahmins were the moneyed elites of Boston who, along with the other wealthy families from New York City and Philadelphia, played a major role in transforming the United States from an agricultural to an industrial, capitalist economy after the Civil War.
In Hinduism, the word pundit (or pandit) refers to someone who is erudite and performs religious ceremonies. In India, the word pundit is sometimes also used as a respectful title for someone, though pundits are usually Brahmins by caste. For example, Ravi Shankar, a Brahmin and the best-known Indian contemporary musician, was often referred to as Pundit Ravi Shankar. In common usage, a pundit is a learned person, an acknowledged expert in some field of activity, whose views and opinions might appear in newspapers, on television, or online. There are daily references to the word pundit in media, even if the term sometimes now has a less reverential meaning.
Karma is a term that refers to the commonly held belief in Hinduism and Buddhism that what you do on Earth has consequences and that one’s destiny is preordained based on the virtues or wrongdoings accumulated in previous lives. In common usage, karma can be interpreted “As you sow, so shall you reap,” or “What goes around comes around.”
We often see references to “bad karma” or “good karma” in everyday American English referring to accounts of people’s actions and behavior. Good actions (good karma) have a positive influence on an individual’s future life. The reverse is also true; bad karma will have a negative outcome on the individual’s future life.
Karma’s ubiquity has spread to the business world: Credit Karma, Karma Automotive, Career Karma, and The Karma Group, to name a few. And the word regularly finds its way in news headlines, sometimes amusingly in the context of dumb criminals getting their comeuppance: “Instant Karma for Alleged Burglar as Getaway Truck Stolen During Robbery” (CTV News, Aug. 28).
Karma can no longer be considered an unusual name for someone in the U.S. Beginning in the early 2000s there was an upswing in American baby girls named Karma, according to BabyCenter. This year it’s been the 855th most popular name chosen, with 172 babies per million getting the moniker.
The word mantra refers to a phrase that is chanted or sung, repeatedly, as a prayer to the gods. Typically, a mantra is often repeated as a prayer or used to achieve concentration during meditation. In American usage, mantra can refer to a person’s underlying beliefs, principles, or enunciated mission, which he or she talks about frequently. Phrases such as “a designer’s mantra” or “brand mantra” are commonly understood.
It’s another term regularly found in headlines, often referring to a person or organization’s singular focus: “Cisco Chief Executive’s New Mantra: Simplify Computer Networks” (New York Times, July 10, 2018).
Dharma, another key concept in India’s religions and philosophies, means the morally right thing to do, a righteous way of living, or the way of the higher truths. While the word dharma is common among Hindus and Buddhists, it is slowly gaining recognition in the mainstream American lexicon. There’s a 2018 documentary made by the famous film director Errol Morris, “American Dharma,” that features interviews with Steve Bannon, the former advisor to President Donald Trump. In a trailer for the documentary, Morris compares Bannon to Lucifer in Paradise Lost. With that perspective, the documentary could perhaps be better titled “American Adharma” — adharma being the antonym of dharma.
In “The Little King” story about an old pharmaceutical salesman who had become infatuated with a television celebrity, Salman Rushdie wrote, “The old fellow would deteriorate into some sort of dharma bum” — someone not following the righteous way of living — “moving aimlessly from nowhere to nowhere, dreaming his impossible dream of love” (The New Yorker, July 22, 2019).
A number of businesses, such as yoga centers, wellness spas, restaurants, even trading companies, use the word dharma as part of their name (e.g., Dharma Trading), likely hoping to convey a sense of righteousness to their customers.
In Hinduism, a guru is a spiritual teacher who offers advice on a particular way of life, incorporating specific physical or spiritual rituals or practices. In the ’60s and ’70s, guru was associated with transcendental meditation, yoga practice, and sometimes a monastic way of life. Today, a guru can refer to just about anyone who has some form of mastery over a specialized field. For example, a “management guru” is someone who offers advice on how to manage an organization, and other “gurus” in business are noted for their contributions to a specific function, such as a “marketing guru.” And then there are the “lifestyle gurus,” avowed professionals who claim to be able to enhance others’ lives.
Clearly, in the American lexicon guru has deviated sharply from its original meaning. For example, there’s guru.com, a platform on which one can find and hire freelance professionals from a pool of 3 million people. These individuals do specific work, such as creating websites, writing, or translating, rather than offering advice.
Need more convincing that the meaning of guru has devolved from being a life-altering spiritual guide to a convenient helper? Consider the website seatguru.com. It lets you check where and how good your seat is on a commercial flight before you board.
In Hinduism, moksha is the ultimate aim of human life, meaning release from the cycle of death and rebirth or attaining release from the mortal world. Through spiritual living, an individual can attain moksha. This liberation from the cycle of rebirth leads to a state of bliss or release from the material world, described in Western terms with another Sanskrit word, nirvana, which has its origin in Buddhism.
Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, once tried the hallucinogenic drug mescaline and wrote about his transcendent, liberating experience in an essay for The Saturday Evening Post, “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds” (Oct. 18, 1958). The essay eventually appeared in Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s Classic Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience, titled after the Sanskrit word for liberation.
Like many other words from Hinduism, Moksha appears regularly in business names, such as Moksha Yoga, Moksha Living, Moksha Consulting, and Moksha Counselling. In Florida, the names of some 40 corporations begin with the word.
In a review of MokSHA Bellevue, a South Indian restaurant in Bellevue, Wash., Seattle newspaper The Stranger had this to say: “‘Moksha’ is Sanskrit for the attainment of eternal bliss. Moksha the Indian restaurant is in the arguable less-than-blissful Bellevue Square, but is the sister restaurant of Spice Route (nearby, in Overlake), and both are very well-liked.”
Like moksha, its Buddhist equivalent nirvana has also made its way into business names and products, used often to describe success in overcoming a problem or challenge through the use of some nirvana-named product or service.
Of course, that usage is overshadowed by the term’s place in rock ’n’ roll history. The Seattle-based grunge group Nirvana, fronted by the late Kurt Cobain, is one of the more commercially successful bands of all time, having sold more than 75 million records worldwide.
The pervasive spread of Eastern philosophies, religions, and languages in America and around the world has had a considerable influence on local languages. In the process, the original meanings might have been lost, but recognizing their origins and understanding their meaning is a fascinating adventure.