Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 1 January 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


S. R. Nishit


For most of the Hindus, their first or personal names are names adopted from the names of their gods, goddesses, spirits, or sages. These names may be derived also from the virtues, functions, and forms of these gods, goddesses, spirits, or sages. However, there are exceptions to this general rule, especially among the Tamils and several other communities, but I do propose to focus only on the major trends. Hindus trace their naming legacy mostly from the ancient realm of literature that includes the Vedas and the Puranas. Therefore most names are religion-based. It is also true that most family names and surnames are taken from the professions, perhaps followed originally by the families.


Let us consider the names of gods. There are three chief gods of the universe - the Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. Then there is a plethora of lesser gods, some of them specific to natural elements like fire, water, rain, etc, These gods may have their wives, sons, daughters, their creations, and courtiers, etc.

Gods came in various 'avatars' (incarnations): births taken on earth to fulfill proclaimed purposes. Names also accrue by events and deeds that these divinities perform. Shiva bears the name Vyaghranatheshwara, because he once had slain a demon that had taken the form of a tiger. Vyaghranatheshwara (Vyaghra means tiger, nath means lord, ishwar mans overlord).

Vyaghraneshwara with the 'a' in the end means the same as without it. It's common to demarcate South Indians as having the vowel /a/ at the end, but many North Indians do it too. So it cannot always be generalized. Jitendra Prasada, a Congress leader from UP in the North wrote his surname with an /a/. Recurrent affixing of forms with identical meanings to create long names is a common practice.

Consider the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Nepal. Pashupatinath is another name of Shiva, and means 'lord of the cattle', and would mean the same as Pashupati or Pashunath separately since pati and nath mean the same, i.e., lord.

Krishna, the most popular avatar of Vishnu alone is said to have 150,000 names. The minor characters in the cosmic drama also have numerous names attached to them.


Most names not derived from the names of the divinities are usually the attributes or qualities that the parents would like to see in their children as great virtues. For example, Subhashit (Su means Wellness, bhashit means talker) means good talker, or good communicator. The connotation of the name Nilotpal (Nil mans blue, Utpal means lotus) is as pure as a blue lotus, or as rare, unprecedented (Apurva). There are also generic names of animals and plants used to name children. For example, Mayur means Peacock, Tulsi means Tulsi plant, and Ikshwaaku, (ikshu means sugarcane, waaku means planter, Sugarcane planter or Indra?). There are names given to the plants and animals such as Kamadhenu means the holy cow of sage Vashishtha, the names of musical instruments and ornaments such as Veena, Shakuntala means ring, are also in use. Of the terms denoting months, there are twelve unigender months as per the lunar or solar calendar. Also there are 6 season-denoting terms used as personal names.


Patronymic associations in a single name (names derived from that of the father or a paternal ancestor usually by the addition of an affix to the first, middle or last name is not entirely non-existent. Consider Meghavati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia. Putri in Sanskrit means daughter; Daughter of Gen. Sukarno. In south India, place names and or the names of grandfather and father may be associated with the name of an individual. For example, H. S. Parikshit might be Parikshit, the son of Hanumanthappa from Shimoga. One may say that this practice of revealing the genealogy and the place of origin of an individual is quite common to all religious groups in south India. It is interesting to note that this custom clung on in sections of the Muslim populace as well. Our President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam is, for instance, the son of Januladabdeen, grandson of Pakir, and great grandson of Avul.

There can be extremely long names among us. M. S. S. R. C. V. L. N. S Chakaravarthy of Karnataka held the record in 1995, with a total of 71 letters, but the Guinness Book Record, if my memory serves me right, is nearer 500-odd.


Inter-religious mixing can give rise to a strange fusion. There was a Rev. Father Michealappa. The former being Christian, the latter affix appa being common in these parts produced a unique allusion.


Teknonymy (where the parent is named after the child, as followed in Arabic) is not followed in Indian society perhaps because of ancestor reverence. Note, however, terms of address and reference may exploit this possibility. Parents may be addressed or referred to as the father or mother of a child.


It is interesting to note the linguistic variations that occur in the northeastern languages, such as Assamese and Manipuri and their naming conventions. These may be derived from Sanskrit and the other Indian languages that developed from Sanskrit.

Moving further south, we find that the names of Sinhalese are all war-related names of the Sanskrit tradition. It could be that Cricketers have an unfair sprinkling of these names, but what I have inferred from viewing such names in the media is that they are mostly war-oriented. Samaraveera (Hero of war), Ranatunga (Stalwart in War), Dharmasena (Soldier of Dharma). There are some names I find very ubiquitous in appearance, some western feminine names like Sheila, Tara, etc., which are actual Indian names as well. I heard recently that Uma Thurman (Hollywood actress), in fact, had been named after Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva.


Surnames, like that of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, are taken sometimes from the location of residence. Toposnomastics (study of place names) and Anthropomastics (study of personal names) are related after all. Nehru or Nehra originally referred to a person or persons who lived near the nehar (beach) (nehar ke rehne waale). Sharma, a very common name among a certain section has its origins in Devo Sharman (Worshipper of God). Taking the surname from the place name is a habit that is found in all parts of the world.

Vedi, Dwivedi, Trivedi and Chaturvedi were originally accorded depending upon the mastery of 1, 2, 3 or 4 of the Vedas respectively. Shastri and Acharya are honorific titles received upon the passing of some Sanskrit examinations, besides being hereditary. Lal Bahadur Shastri is an example of such attainment. Purohit, Rajpurohit, earlier used only by the priests are recently being given to people attaining some ritualistic and sermonizing memorization.

Assamese surnames like Hazarika, Saikia, Barua, Barbarua, Bezbarua, Hatibarua, Phuken, etc. were ranks in the official hierarchy given by the Ahom kings who ruled Assam for 6oo years. A Hazarika was in charge of one thousand soldiers and a Saikia was in charge of one hundred soldiers. Barua was a title given to an officer. The chief officer was Barbarua. The physician was called Bezbarua and the officer in charge of elephants was called Hatibarua. The Phukens were a class of administrative officers. Interestingly these surnames were not restricted to any one religion or community. Whosoever was in royal service was bestowed with these surnames. Thus, it is not an unusual practice for an Assamese Muslim to have these surnames.

Kashmiris have, likewise, common surnames between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists. If a person told you he was Mr. Bhat, he could have Tarun, Tarik or Tathagat in his first name, depending upon his religious pursuit.

Sikhs usually have unigender names distinguishable only by the last names, which are either Singh for males and Kaur for females or is a name derived from their place of residence/origin like Gill or Ahluwalia.

The Parsis who landed on Indian shores seeking refuge eventually took up some of the Gujarati surnames Mehta, etc. Others took up names of the Professions they were employed in by the British. Mistry, Engineer, Doctor, etc. and the Indian word Topiwalla, etc. Shashi Tharoor writes that if Feroze Gandhi's (Indira Gandhi's husband) surname were to have been Toddywaala instead of Gandhi the political history of India might have been different.


The slow Sanskritization of names and the caste relevant nature of nomenclature are political matters but cannot be ignored in our study. A study by a sociologist with the NCERT found that the personal names could be used to trace one's caste with efficacy, though not exactly the name of the caste is attached as last name. While this practice is losing its ground in Southern India among the classes that do not customarily have surnames, the situation is such that everybody knows everybody else's caste anyway, through other means.

Singh as used by the Hindus, Sikhs and others alike is quite probably the single most widespread family name. Certain names come from British military positions. Kaptaan Singh is a corruption of captain Singh, and Jarnail is of general Singh.

The USA boasts 1.2 million surnames according to Social Security rolls. If our census were to be analyzed, there might be more names used by billion people in India.

After the linguistic reorganization of states in India, the naming of states followed their physical features or adoption of their pre-existing names. Assam is the anglicized form of Ahom, or Asom, which means uneven, a reflection of its landscape. Kerala comes perhaps from Cherala, which means land of coconuts. Kashmir gets that term because of a legend that sage Kashyap sliced some hills to make for the valley. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Himachal, simply denote 'Northern Province', 'Land in the middle' and 'Abode of Snow' respectively. Meghalaya is again a fairly simple and beautiful derivation that means 'Abode of Clouds'. Tamil Nadu means the land of Tamil quite like Bangladesh: 'The land of Bangla'. The first sunrays of the day are received in Arunachal because that is the easternmost state of India. Hence it is named 'Land of the sun'. Maharashtra means 'Great state'.

The last thought for today: The Todas do not pronounce their own names. When an individual is introduced to someone, she asks a companion to say her name. In orthodox Hindu societies, a wife cannot pronounce her husband's name, and in gatherings, the husbands do not call out their wives by name. Instead they call them as the mother of their kids, a practice common in north India.

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S. R. Nishit