How We Name Our Girls In India – What Does It Say About Us Indians?

The girl names we prefer in India are very telling of how we perceive women. An interesting discussion that is an eye-opener.

In the past few days, I’ve spent some time wondering about the names we’re given.

I’ll start by saying that this articulation is not in any way intended to target any religion or system of religious nomenclature, but is an attempt at a meditative evaluation of what I’m noticing as a pattern, and hope to put enough words to express suitably. I will also preface this with a brief note that this is only an exploratory speculation, and I could be wrong – but the idea is to make room for thought.

In my conversations so far, I’ve gathered that many women and girls are named with one of four categories of names:

  • the name of a goddess or deity in their religion or an aspirational character in history;
  • the name of a quality one must have or aspire to have;
  • the name of something that emanates from a masculine entity
  • and finally, an object.

Let me unpack that a bit. And since my immediate circles / frames of reference have been a largely Hindu demographic with a few non-Hindu groups thrown in, I will start from the Hindu sphere and zoom out to make a larger connection.

The names of a goddess or deity in Hinduism or an aspirational character from history are commonly chosen names for girls (and boys alike) – think Lakshmi, Saraswati and Parvati and the many names of these goddesses.

Second, the name of a quality one must have, or aspire to have: and these are mostly such things as compassion, gentleness, respect, being appreciable, so on and so forth.

The name of something that emanates from a masculine entity, such as the rays of the sun, shadows, light, the dawn sky, and moonbeams, on the one hand, and wife-of-so-and-so or daughter-of-so-and-so, on the other hand (such as Indrani, being the wife of Lord Indra; or Avanti, being the wife of Avantivarman).

The fourth is, an object: such as particular flowers, a poem, knowledge, and such else.

On the other end of the spectrum, I noticed that men were named either after deities, or natural / pagan deities (Varun, Surya, Aditya, Ravi, for instance), or masculine qualities (Veer, Shaurya, etc). I haven’t yet found as many men named after objects, and have not found even one with a name that emanates from a feminine entity.

Smack centre in this are what I’d like to call gender-agnostic names: Kirthi, Santosh, Shakti, Kiran. But we’ll leave that aside for now.

I spent some time thinking, and it struck me that the way we choose to name our girls and women is also telling of the way we treat them as objects.

Now here’s an interesting truth. The Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the Creator, the Sustainer and the Destroyer. At some point in my journey with the gender discourse, I learned and articulated that the Creator cannot create without Knowledge, so Brahma is nothing without Saraswati; that the Sustainer cannot sustain without Wealth, so Vishnu is nothing without Lakshmi; and, that the Destroyer cannot destroy without Power, so Shiva is nothing without Parvati.

BUT.

This is an equality rhetoric that is couched in objectification. I talk of Saraswati as Knowledge, but of Brahma as the Creator; of Lakshmi as Wealth, but of Vishnu as the Sustainer; of Parvati as Power, but of Shiva as the Destroyer. The common thread in this articulation is, The Object, and The Doer. Ergo, in this rhetoric, Saraswati is a tool in Brahma’s hands; Lakshmi, in Vishnu’s hands; Shakti, in Shiva’s hands. And it is this that has, I think, somehow, crept into the way we name our girls. Because, for instance, Saraswathi became Vidya (knowledge), Lakshmi became Dhanam (wealth) and Parvati became Shivani (wife of Shiva).

This brings me to the point I wanted to leave you with. We have a tendency to deify our goddesses but objectify our women.

What if the roots of it lie in this process of nomenclature, in this articulation that subsumes anthropomorphism for the surreal, but excludes the very same thing for the real?

What if we delineated from this axis, and named our girls after legends and deities, rather than as qualities and objects?

What if we named our girls without giving them a name that affiliates itself to a masculine entity – or, what if, we turned tables and named our boys with a name that affiliates itself to a feminine entity, and leveled out the playing field a little?

Image source: By Harsha K R (Flickr: Sam In The Park) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commonsfor representational purposes only.

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