Towards Spirituality: Delving into Meaning of Words

This is the first article in a series where I share some simple exercises which help bring clarity to life.

If you have read some of my previous blogs, I am often miffed at the inane conversation that keeps happening around me. Apart from the inanity, I also realized that while people keep using certain words and making a whole drama around them, they often didn’t know, two very basic pieces of information,

  1. what the words they are using, actually mean
  2. and what they were trying to say using those words

This happens a lot with religious stuff too. People want to do so many things but if I ask simple questions like Who is God or What is karma then it gets all weird. People don’t have a clear answer, many a times they don’t even want to think all this. However, the fact of the matter is that while it may be easier to keep going on in routine, life transforms only with a little bit of clarity. Real insight and clarity into life. So this is one exercise that I find helpful at times…


Whenever you are free – maybe you have 1 or 2 hours free. You can take up a word – it can be related to Spirituality or just a normal word from daily life. For eg “Friend” – what does the word Friend mean. And what do you mean when you say “friend”.

Two things to check,

  1. What does the word actually mean
  2. What does it mean for you? Or what are you trying to say…?

You can Google word origins, check dictionary and so on for the first part of the task.

But the second part needs a bit of solitude and quiet to figure… you need to gauge what exactly do you feel and think about the word. You can just start jotting down the various thoughts/emotions you have about the word. Depending on how simple or complex it gets you will get a better idea about your thoughts and emotions. It may not get done in one sitting sometimes, in which case it can be a work in progress.

How does this help?


1) it will make you a little more thoughtful when you are next speaking

2) It will help you ask fundamental questions about life – read more here

3) The impact of speech & words is a lot more than you imagine 

I had earlier read somewhere that karma can be accumulated by thoughts, speech and action. I had found it very curious as to why ‘Speech’ is mentioned as a separate activity. Isn’t ‘speech’ part of ‘action’ ?

Recently I came across a line in the Patanjali Yog Sutra which was very interesting,

शब्दज्ञानानुपाती वस्तुशून्यो विकल्पः

When knowledge that words carry have no real existence it is a Vrutti or mental construction or state of mind called ‘Vikalpa’ loosely translated to ‘Imaginary’. Vivekananda called it ‘verbal delusion’.

There is a direct influence of your speech on your state of mind. And hence clarity of the words you use and inner clarity of what you want to say are important and will go a long way in enhancing your life.

There are lot of instances when simple word re-definitions can change situations – It can change the way you look at things…. because words are not an inconsequential part of language. Memories, concepts, ideas, thoughts – so much is part of a word.

I remember when I went for my first Isha Foundation class, they redefined ‘Responsibility‘.

I had always thought that responsibility means being in charge and having to answer people and basically work. The word was associated with a feeling of guilt and woe-be-gone. People usually want to keep their responsibilities minimum and they avoid it. But in the class they explained the meaning as ‘Response + Ability = your ability to respond’. The fact is we can always respond… whenever something happens around us. We can always respond, either by helping or just smiling or just observing….

This was really simple and such an easier way to look at the word. And it makes a lot more sense as well. So this was really interesting for me. Even now if you see the dictionary meaning of Responsiblity you will find stuff about accountability, being in charge and so on. In certain context yes, such a meaning can be construed, but fundamentally the word talks about your ability to respond.

Another word where the meaning has been lost in common conversation is Brahmacharya – it is so funny when I see it being defined as ‘celibacy’ in a lot of places. It is really bizarre and tragic that in India where renunciation and asceticism is supposed to be highly revered, we find the basic word describing an ascetic lifestyle being defined as ‘celibacy’. Because celibacy means only abstinence from sex but Brahmacharya is so much more. Just a simple word breakup suggests it to be, Brahma + Charya. Conduct as Brahma, who is considered creator of the universe & cosmos.

It is not just about the meaning of the word – when we Indians talks about Brahmacharya and think of the saffron/ochre clad monks and nuns then we know that their lives are about a lot more than just abstaining from sex, isn’t it. Their choice of clothing, dedication to social work, path of renunciation and so on. Yet the word means just Celibacy?! Are you joking?

In case of both the above words, it is not just the colloquial meanings that are missed, but fundamentally even the dictionary meanings lack any real depth. It is like when a human race that is drunk on sex looks at a monk/nun and says “Oh, this person does not indulge in sex. He is a celibate.” Not acknowledging that he wears the same clothes & colors every day, dedicated to social work, abstains from possessions, focused towards spirituality and so on.

Over time social contexts are added to words, so the fundamental meaning is lost…. but the thing is that with times, the social contexts change! So as these contexts change, the words meanings need to be redefined and re-understood otherwise it causes a lot of silliness and misunderstanding.

This is in fact one reason why Reading spiritual stuff can be very misleading because the words that are used need to be redefined for our social times otherwise we can not grasp the right meaning.

Take for example this text from the book of Patanjali Yoga Sutras in sanskrit, the translation adn commentary is by Swami Vivekananda.

Patanjali Yog Sutra

He has used the word ‘Concentration’ for Yog. It is so surprising, this is the first time I have found Yoga being described as Concentration! Clearly since Vivekananda’s time, the meaning of the word Concentration has changed. We use it so lightly in our day to day life. “Concentrate on your work” – a common admonishing line by teachers and parents everywhere. Never considered it a Yogic activity 😉

So, words naturally get redefined at the social level. If they don’t, they need to!

It is important to delve into what words mean – from an etymological, original perspective so you can also understand a little history about the word. And yes, always this may not be possible or you may not have an inclination to do so. In that case, look deeper into the words meanings from a more common sense perspective – the above two words -Responsibility & Brahmacharya – if we just look at the root words that formed them… then their deeper meaning is clear.  Only after you are clear about what any word fundamentally means can you be clear about what you are talking about.

After that you need to be clear about what you are mean to say. Because a lot of times we tend to use words that people around us are using. This is fine if we are talking about the same thing… but it is important to be aware. For eg: When I use the word ‘friend’ I may mean an acquaintance or just a nice person. While someone else may mean someone who is really close.

This exercise really helps bring clarity in your thoughts and speech. I had earlier written about Asking Fundamental Questions – how it is crucial. This exercise augments that ability of asking Fundamental Questions in life.

I know a lot of people have thoughts about what Spirituality is. I bet most of you haven’t looked into it deeper. So ‘What is Spirituality’ – why not start with this. Delve deeper into what Spirituality means for you and what does the word ‘Spirituality’ mean. Remember, this is not an interview or an exam paper. Often I find that I don’t have much clarity about certain words and I just acknowledge that fact. I don’t start delving right away. But just saying that I am not clear about what Spirituality exactly means – this is a strong step towards clarity later on.

BTW if you read this blog, give me some feedback. I would like to know what you think…. 🙂

6 Replies to “Towards Spirituality: Delving into Meaning of Words”

  1. I am reminded of how in a book, famous Sufi, idries Shah defended the origins of the etymology of the word Sufi. While some say that it has come from the the word Sauf which is sheep wool. they said that like the Christian saints who wore the sheep wool instead of regular clothes, the Sufi saints also walked around the spreading knowledge. the results of such an interpretation is that the Sufi saints are nothing but a branch out of the Christian saints. And that Sufism has evolved from Christian knowledge which reached the middle east after colonization. It is disturbing how subtly the western interpretation of the native languages of ancient civilization has led to a misunderstanding of their original teachings and philosophies.

    In fact this applies even to damage done to the understanding of the Hindu philosophies after the Hindu Renaissance. It redefined all the terminologies of our philosophy. Worse yet, they were looked at and translated with a bias to look down upon the Indian way of life and in the interest of the colonizing country.

    P.S. You could use some colour on your blog. 🙂

    1. Hi Soumya,
      It is an interesting example you have given where the meaning of a word becomes important. Subverting the meaning of a word can be a very powerful way of political and cultural power. In fact just the day I was chatting with a few friends on Twitter that the moment ‘Hinduism’ was used as the name of a religion, it laid foundation for a lot of conflict in India.

      🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

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