This book started with the realization that I did not know the meaning of my name. All I knew was that Menaka (I spell it Maneka) was the name of an apsara in the
court of Indra. No one I had encountered knew the meaning of their names either. Like me, they had been named after historical or mythological people. I hunted for
a book, but while the libraries are full of information about the gods, I did not come across one book in India which gave the meaning of the name. What does
Sarasvati mean? No, not ‘learning’ even though she is the goddess of that, but ‘full of water’. Chandrashekhar does not mean Shiva but one who bears the moon on
his forehead. I waited for someone to write a book but the two that emerged listed ‘Menaka’ as ‘apsara’. When my sister announced that a baby was on the way, I
decided to compile the dictionary myself.
The Vedic rishis believed that the name defined the child’s character—its face, figure, temper, morals, tastes and profession. The name Anamika or ‘without a name’
for instance, would ensure that the child’s future was what she wanted to make it—since she was not hedged in by any preordained limitations. Most of us look for
phonetically pleasing names without realizing their significance. But Minna means ‘fat’ and Ambika means ‘little mother’, Sita means ‘furrow’, Mina means ‘fish’ and
Draupadi has no meaning other than ‘daughter of Drupada’. A number of names which are very common do not have any meaning at all. Anita, Lina, Rina and Tina
for instance, come from languages other than Indian. If Roma is of Indian origin it means ‘hairy’! The Phul, Sona and Pyar family (Phulvati, Phulrani, Sonalika,
Soriam, Pyari) have no roots in Sanskrit, Pali or any of the classical Indian languages. Rishma and Rashmini simply do not exist. Malvika is a combination name that
has no meaning. (There is however a plant of the Ipomoea family called Malvika.) My mother’s name Amteshwar is a corruption of, I think, Amritesvara or lord of
the amrita. Alternatively it has no meaning at all Names like Bina are distortions of Vina (the musical instrument), Bihari is not from Bihar, for instance, but from Vihari
or roamer. I have left out the local versions of the classical name (Poonam comes from Purnima, Rakhi from Rakshaka, for instance) or the local diminutives or
corruptions (e.g. Lacchman or Lakha for Lakshman, Upinder for Upendra, Vanti for Vari). The only exception I have made is for Rima which is a corruption of
Hrim—since this happened to be my copy editor’s name!
A lot of the names in India are combination names. Two primary names (usually of two gods or of a god and goddess) taken and made into one. For instance
Ramakrishna or Radheshyam and in some cases, the conjoining of two gods produces an entirely new deity. I have tried to give as many combinations as possible,
especially where there is a historical or mythological person with that compound. However the compounds can be infinite—and a lot of distortion of the primary
names takes place in the mixture. Punjab is full of Gurveens, Tarveens, Harleens, Hargurbirinders and Harkirats. Some combinations are unique to certain regions in
the country. The suffixes of Jit, Mita and Inder/Indra to the main name are usually from Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Swamy, Appa, Amma show Tamil Nadu and
Karnataka. The nagas or serpents who formed such an integral part of pre-Vedic and Vedic mythology are now confined to south and east India—e.g. Seshan,
Nagabhushan, Phenamani. Even Manasa, the goddess of serpents, is a name far more common in Bengal than anywhere else in India.
The entries in this dictionary have been designed so that each entry is divided into three categories:
1. The exact or literal meaning. For instance Menaka means ‘daughter of Mena’.
2. The intended meaning or rather, the meaning of the meaning. Menaka’s intended meaning is ‘of the mountains’ because, in Indian mythology, Mena is the consort
of Himavan who is the lord of the Himalayas.
3. This is divided into two sub-categories. The first is the locating of the name in mythology, history, literature, botany or ornithology. If the name denotes a person out
of mythology, history or literature I have tried to give the name of the mythological consort, the children and the name of the dynasty, as well as the names of Sanskrit
Vedic commentators, grammarians and playwrights. I have included the names that come from plants, trees, birds and animals along with their Latin and English
The last sub-category is ‘another name for—’. In Menaka’s case, it is ‘another name for Parvati’ as Parvati was born a daughter of Himavan in her incarnation as
Uma. (The name Parvati also means of the mountains.)
I have read the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Kathasaritsagara, the Panchatantra, the listings of all the Vedas and Upanishads, books on Sanskrit plants and
birds, the catalogues that list the thousand names of each major god, Vedic and Puranic encyclopaedias and the Buddhist and jaina mythologies and histories and, of
course, Sanskrit dictionaries to unearth the meanings of the names in this book. Very often the meaning of the name sounds bizarre unless one knows the context.
Aparna which is another name for Parvati in her incarnation as Hirnavan’s daughter means ‘leafless’. This is explained by the legend of Parvati fasting to marry Shiva.
One result of this search has been new and unexpected perceptions into the traditional Indian way of life. For instance, what is truth? Or again, what is right and what
is wrong? Jaya and Vijaya were the two door—keepers of Vishnu’s palace in Vaikuntha. One day they were cursed by Lakshmi to be reborn on the earth as
mortals. Vishnu modified the curse on his two devoted servants by saying that if they were killed thrice by him, they could come back to Vaikuntha. Jaya and Vijaya
chose to be reborn as the most evil (or what we define as evil within the parameters of morality set by our religion) asuras or anti—gods Hiranyaksha and
Hiranyakashipu, Ravana and Kumbhakarna, Shisupala and Dantavaktra so that their deaths at the hands of Vishnu—in his incarnation of Narasimha, Rama and
Krishna—became quick and inevitable. So were these asuras good or bad? It was inevitable that Sita be separated from Rama for she had imprisoned a pregnant
female parrot and had been cursed by the consort of the parrot to suffer the same fate. So, is Rama to be blamed for listening to the jibes of a washerman or was his
action inevitable? Krishna means dark or black and Arjuna fair or white. They are reborn from Nara and Narayana or man and superman! god. Do they represent
people or the Eastern philosophy of yin and yang, two opposites that fuse to complete? I find my attitude towards people and current affairs, goals and achievements,
and even the pursuit of happiness or rather the diminishing of pain has changed with the unfolding of the history of each mythological character.
I would like to thank all the people who helped me in the preparation of this book. The friends who brought in the odd name in the beginning, those who pitched in to
type the manuscript over and over again, the pandits and Sanskrit teachers who corrected my mistakes, the editors at Penguin who put the work into order and spent
hours proof-reading and inserting new words till the last minute. I have used the Sanskrit classical style of spelling with diacritical marks, to help in the correct
pronunciation of the names.
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