A change of language

Devdutt PattanaikWhat does 9/11 mean? Does it mean 11th of September or 9th of November? All our lives, in Indian schools, which followed the British system of dating, the date was written as DDMMYY, and so 9/11 should mean 9th of November. But the American system of dating MMDDYY makes it September 11th and the media accepts it so. So what is the rational system of dating? The British system or the American system? By rejecting the old British or European system of dating, the Americans asserted their autonomy and independence. There was nothing rational about it. It reveals the human need for identity that surpasses the need for rationality.

Yet, when Bombay is renamed Mumbai and Madras is renamed Chennai and Bangalore is renamed Bengaluru, many intellectuals mock this as petty regionalism, not recognising the potent power of asserting identity. Logically we may frown upon it, but humans are not, and have never been, logical creatures. Emotions supersede rationality all the time.

In the same vein, let us ask what does the word ‘gay’ mean? In the 19th century it meant happy. In the 21st century it refers to the homosexual male. What is the right definition? What is the logical definition? When we think about it we realise that meanings of words change over time just as dating systems change over geography. Words have no fixed meaning. People change meanings of old words or create new worlds to create new vocabularies that explain new experiences that cannot be expressed through old words.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

Thus, language is dynamic. And since words create worlds, the world is dynamic. This dynamism is seen in religion too. Religions have changed over time. The earliest form of Christianity was about slaves and included women in senior positions. Later as Christianity became institutionalised, the male order of popes came into being. When the emperor of the Roman Empire became Christian, the church became a major political institution and a new papacy arose in Byzantium challenging the might of Rome. There was a papacy in ancient Alexandria too, but this was wiped out by the rise of Islam. When the crusades ended with the fall of Byzantium, Greek wisdom was rediscovered and this provoked the rise of the Protestant revolution in Europe and the reformation of the Catholic church.

Hinduism too has transformed dramatically from the yagna rituals of the Vedic period to the temple culture of the Puranic period and the worship of formless God celebrated by bhakti saints and the redefinition of Hinduism by Hindu intellectuals such as Dayananda Saraswati and Swami Vivekanand in the face of the British rule. Hinduism that is practised today in different parts of India and in different parts of the world is as different as Christianity as it is practised in different parts of the world.

The same holds true for Islam with the Sunni orders favouring the old tribal egalitarianism of the Arabs and the Shia order favouring the dynastic rules of the Persians.

In such a dynamic world it becomes difficult to answer what is authentic Hinduism or Christianity or Islam. Just as what the word gay really means or what is the correct way to write a date. It is contextual and context always changes with space and time and the people observing the context.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in thisĀ column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paperĀ 

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