Language matters

(The following article was posted in the “Meditations” column of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest English language daily newspapers, on 07 February 2004.) OF THE Padma Purana’s 8.4 million universal life forms, we’re told that earth-dwelling homo sapiens are in the best position to advance to higher consciousness. According to the Bhagavat, we can attain perfection (11.20.7). That book also says that ancient books of wisdom are like favourable winds propelling the boat of the human body toward its ultimate goal. It further suggests that a guru is like a coxswain, or the steersman of a racing shell, one who guides us to our destination. We’re implored to take advantrage of the human situation to avoid spiritual suicide. Unfortunately, as we ply seemingly smoothly along, there are endless opbstacles. And many hurdles are close to home. For example, the very manner in which we communicate is deeply entrenched in monetary and marketing terminology. Money is often the ultimate measure of success, and the desire to sell goods permeates our lanugage. Corporations sometimes say ‘people are our greatest asset’. But ‘asset’ is a monetary term. The words ‘worth’ and ‘value’ have come to mean little more than cost and and price. Language is reducing our grasp of any real values. The worth of a thing – as in ‘for what it’s worth’ – is not a measure of an item’s intrinsic merit. ‘Value’ today is seldom equated with importance and morality. The Bhagavat is a map, steering people across the ocean of an unpredictable world, where the body — and mind — are vulnerable to hijacking. Today’s ‘economic’ use of language, ‘cheapens’ lives. We’live in an age when a graveyard is called a ‘memorial park’, so that the dead rest easy in our minds. An earplug is a ‘noise filter’, and a bar of soap a ‘skin cleansing system’. Cows are called food products. ‘Bottom line’ is another phrase that’s come to mean a final conclusion or summary statement. When we take advantage of shastric evidence, linguistic morphing can be superseded by wisdom. The technology of spiritual progress guarantees our human craft are guided — in every respect — toward their natural harbour on the most protected route. (The writer is emeritus member of the ISKCON governing body commission)