Spiritual Semantics

Disclaimer: I was thinking about this post on my drive home from school. When I arrived, I had a look on Planet ISKCON and I was quite surprised to see this great post which was sort of along the lines of what I was thinking about. So please excuse me if I’m chewing the cud. Put it down to some kind of divine synchronicity.

At university, I am studying linguistics (amongst other things), and with this being my first week back I have been dutifully cleaning out my ears and getting in the habit of listening once again for interesting linguistic data; in conversations; in writing; anywhere really. As I drove home this Thursday, it struck me suddenly that ISKCON can be a total goldmine for linguistic oddity. I don’t know why I had never considered it before, but it is perhaps this which first sparked my interest in learning about language, and how it varies and develops.

I think every devotee has a story of when they have used ISKCON slang with a non-devotee, and been met with confusion, or just a blank stare. There are several that I’ve noticed more recently. As with all linguistic commentary, once you notice it, you become very self conscious of saying it yourself…oh well.

Haribol: This word has taken on so many meanings depending on context and intonation – it’s amazing. It literally means ‘Chant the names of Hari (Krsna)’ but often becomes –

  • ‘Haribol?’ – Answering the phone, knocking on doors, interrupting conversations.
  • ‘Hariiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii-BOL!’ – Usually only used in kirtan or reserved for special occasions such as festivals, initiations and weddings (normally accompanied by loud banging of mrdangas, djembes, or the temple room floor)
  • ‘Uh-hari-bol?!’ – the ‘uh’ indicates indignation – normally used when apprehending queue jumpers at prasadam time.
  • ‘Haribol! Haribol!’ – (imperative) Can mean, ‘Get out the way! Maha trolley/disabled person/swami/wet mop coming through!’
  • ‘Hari-BOL!’ – How are you?! I haven’t seen you in so long! (could be required after just days, weeks, months, years – depends on the person) Many variations on the intonation of this one.
  • hari-bol‘ (slow, quiet) – When hearing bad news.

Once a devotee called me and I realised how ridiculous the ‘haribols’ can get. It went something like this:

Me: Haribol?

Dasi: Haribol! Jahnavi?

Me: Yep haribol!

Dasi: Haribol this is Dasi! –

Me: – OH! Hari-BOL! (note appropriate usage here)

Dasi: – Haribol! – I wanted to talk to you about next week. We’re……

Others I have noticed are smaller ones. Things like:

  • (House) program: We’ve taken the humble word ‘program’ – which I suppose is valid, in that it can describe a scheduled series of events; but it tends to take on a variety of meanings as to what these activites actually are. From Bhagavad Gita study groups, to kirtans, to birthday parties, movie nights, garba evenings – one things’s for sure – there will be devotees there, and they’ll be doing something. There’s definitely not many better words to describe this mix of kirtan/prasadam/class/socialising – but it gets a little awkward when you’re trying to tell someone not in the know – ‘Yeah I can’t come to your party on Friday. Sorry, I have to go to a….um…program?’ Doesn’t really work.

Others are a little more in-house things that bug me sometimes.

  • Swami abbreviations The practice of abbreviating the titles and names of Swamis, into one, annoying acronym – ‘Yeah, HH RNS is giving class on Sunday, oh, and don’t forget, I want a copy of that SRS kirtan from you!’ I can understand it in email addresses and notetaking, but using it otherwise is like transcendental ‘textspeak’. A related issue is always referring to Krsna Consciousness in speech (and print) as ‘KC’ – ‘Yeah, his KC really took a turn for the better last year when he got initiated.’
  • Tautological phrases – Tautology is when you needlessly repeat a word, phrase or idea. Normally it’s just within one language, but we often inadvertently do it because we’re using English alongside Sanskrit or Bengali. Of course it’s perfectly understandable that we’re all going to do it at some point, but I just think in general we should know what we’re saying. Examples include: ‘The Rath cart will leave at 11′ – ‘Rath’ means ‘cart’; ‘Sage Narada Muni was extremely devotional’ – ‘Muni’ means ‘sage’ ; King Bali Maharaj – you get the point…
  • Kirtan/bhajan – When is a bhajan not a kirtan? If we stand up and sing ‘Jaya Radha Madhava’ is that a kirtan? I know this one doesn’t really matter but I wish I could resolve it somehow. I always grew up thinking that the definition of a ‘bhajan’ was a devotional song (meaning, it has lyrics and a definable beginning and end) and a kirtan was chanting Hare Krsna – in any context. But now the trend seems to be more towards calling anything sitting down a bhajan, and anything standing up, a kirtan. So if you’re sitting down, chanting Hare Krsna, you’re having ‘bhajans’, but if halfway through, everyone gets up and starts dancing, you’re now having a kirtan? Confusing…
  • Nectar – This is just a mini observation I made when I was travelling in America this summer. I noticed that the drink at prasadam time (at the temple) was almost always referred to as ‘nectar – no matter whether it was apple juice and 7up, or caranamrta. I just thought it was interesting as I never hear it in England. I also noticed that devotees just use the word ‘nectar’ there more often – ‘His class this morning was really nectar!’ A related issue to this is the word nectarean, e.g. ‘The nectarean glories of the holy name‘. It’s nectarean, not nectarine. A nectarine is a fruit, not an adjective.

Anyway, I know this is all very insignificant ultimately, but it is interesting (to me at least). If anyone reading has any more they want to share, please do.


Filed under Krishna Consciousness, Linguistics, Uncategorized

13 responses to “Spiritual Semantics

  1. “that the definition of a β€˜bhajan’ was a devotional song (meaning, it has lyrics and a definable beginning and end) and a kirtan was chanting Hare Krsna – in any context”

    ditto – I second this, and support a return to the original meaning! πŸ™‚

  2. satoxi

    I had a good time reading this hehe. Thanks a lot and Haribol! πŸ˜›
    ys, Gopi Kumari dd

  3. Anonymous


  4. haRIIIbol!

    I loved this post. Thanks! And thanks for the mention!

    With swami abbreviations, I think Srila Prabhupada was the first to do that with devotees’ names. Though I’m a big supporter of addressing at least sanyasis by their full name with “maharaja” at the end.

    Loved the “haribol” bit. I’ve thought about this myself quite a lot. It’s really universal. “Prabhu” comes in a close second. πŸ™‚


  5. Madhvi

    i agree with everything you say! wow i never thought about all that untill i read it! now im going to be thinking about what i say before i say it! thanx alot man!! hehe

  6. Kap

    If you want to return Kirtan/Bhajan to their original meanings you have to come up with new terms to describe the difference between contemplative and moody singing/chanting and rip roaring dancing and leaping…

    The difference between these two styles of musical collaboration is more severe than the difference between a bhajan and chanting the holy name in the same tone and mood as a bhajan.

    It does get particularly interesting to listen to, say, Govindam by Kula Shekar or Dhira’s Nsringadev prayers (nsringadev prayers being a sit down bhajan.. always) but totally danceable the way they do it.

    We have a matrix of four and only two words, hence the confusion… ideas for the modifiers?

    rocking vs introspective? but then you have two words for every combination and no one uses two words to say something when it could possibly be expressed in one.. but maybe if we accronym it it could work?

    rk’s and ik’s and rb’s and ib’s?

    needs work I know

  7. Thanks for your comments everyone!

  8. wow, this was an amazing post. i enjoyed the one from Planet Iskcon too. i laughed my heart out!
    i’ve noticed a lota mataji’s referrin to their husbands as ‘Haribol!’, and sometimes the other way round too, in front of other devotees. i thought i shud mention this cause its really prevalent in the congregation i grew up in – dubai.
    n oh yea! there’s ‘congregation’ and iv seen instances where new comers thought tht some of the men were named ‘prabhu’..!

  9. Wow!! I just found a link to this post on facebook through a friends sister who isn’t a devotee, but had seen the Mayapuris recently and was trying to find an explanation for “Haribol” for her friend!! My husband and I joke about this all the time. We see how many “Hare Krishnaisms” we can cram into one sentence. A few we really like: sex life (subtle or not), fried, take rest, pass water, as well as the beloved “program”. This post was hilarious. I’m going to share. PS, love your singing and violin-ing ❀

  10. Hari is one of the thousand names of Acyuta -i.e. the Lord Vishnu. A vaishnava is a devotee of ? Three guesses .

  11. Ahimsa

    Entertaining and insightful. Thank you… πŸ™‚

  12. Ahimsa

    Entertaining and insightful. Thank you… πŸ™‚

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