How to Become a Hindu

Choosing a Hindu Name

imageF ALL THE ASPECTS OF FULLY EMBRACING the Hindu religion, the legal changing of one’s name is certainly the most public, requiring adjustment on the part of friends, relatives, neighbors and even business acquaintances. A few approach this with trepidation, but the expected negative reaction—particularly from personal and business acquaintances—seldom materializes. If the family becomes genuinely concerned, this will be overcome by the obvious love, sincerity and depth of conviction of the individual. Legally changing one’s name is not unusual. Women do it all the time at marriage. Movie stars rarely use their birth name. Name changes for religious reasons are almost as common. Heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay startled the world in 1967 by proclaiming his conversion to Islam and changing his name to Muhammed Ali. But anyone who has gone through the experience of a religious name-change knows there are real obstacles. Here are a few:§

  1. Grandma’s fears that you are rejecting the family traditions.
  2. Your fears of what business associates might think.
  3. The tendency to use the old name when you are among your non-Hindu friends.
  4. The tendency to use the new first name and the old last name, or to modify the new Hindu name—Deva becomes Dave at work.
  5. Using the name but not having it made legal.
  6. Using the Hindu name with one group and former name with another, a practice of double standard that erodes one’s self-image and encourages others to not take you seriously.

At my Himālayan Academy, we have been involved with hundreds of such name changes since 1957, and our advice is, be strong! Take on the responsibilities of your new way of thinking and accept the karma and dharma of the Hindu community. Yes, there is a gentle departure, a break to a certain degree with your family and non-Hindu friends. But you will also be surprised how well most will understand. Some will even be influenced and encouraged by your strength. You may find that they actually share many of your convictions and that you have more in common in these areas than you had suspected.§

There is probably not a single major religion in the world which does not have a unique system of names for its members, names which identify them as adherents of that particular heritage. This is well known, and there is nothing unusual about changing your name for religious reasons. In fact, it is expected and respected as a sign of genuine conviction and identity. When my monks become US citizens, the INS gives them the boon to take any name they wish, without further court proceedings—yet another example of the fluidity of names in the wider world.§

Naming Customs of the World
People so often change their names in North America, for reasons running from marriage to difficult pronunciation, that a change of name is readily accepted. Society wisely recognizes that there are perfectly good reasons to change one’s name. As I just noted, they occur with every marriage. Most women have to go through all the processes of changing their bank accounts, driver’s license, income tax records, and so on. In eastern Europe, where legislation has changed the basic assumptions concerning the family name, a different and unusual situation has developed. When a Czech woman, Anna Klimova, for instance, marries Josef Novak, both may retain their original family names, or the wife may become Anna Novakova or, more remarkably, the husband may become Josef Klima, accepting his wife’s family name. This is decided by mutual agreement, and their children’s names are decided in the same manner.

Customs and patterns of names are different all over the world. Names have historically been changed in North America to give a more English-sounding name to one that may sound foreign or be difficult to pronounce. Thus, Michael Igor Peschkowski becomes Mike Nichols or Josef Nejezchleba becomes Joe Neez. Name changing is common among actors, singers and performers. Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm, James Garner was James Baumgardner and Arlene Francis was Arlene Kazañjian. Of all the nations in the world, Great Britain and the United States most closely follow the principle of Roman law that a person has the right to use and change his name as he pleases, except for fraudulent purposes.§

Changing one’s name upon changing one’s religion is a common custom. So recognized is it that in the West given names are actually called “Christian names,” referring back to a time when conversion to Christianity was widespread, accompanied by the adoption of Biblical names such as Ruth, Mary, Peter, Paul, Mark, Luke and so forth. A few decades ago in America, the Black Muslims had their members adopt Muslim names. It is quite natural that members of a religion wish to be recognized as a part of that heritage, and the name is one of the most obvious and important signs of their association. The venerable Madurai Aadheenam, a Śaivite religious institution founded in South India more than a thousand years ago, brings Indian Christians and Muslims back into Hinduism, giving them a Hindu name which they legally adopt after publishing it in the local newspaper.§

Most American names are of English origin and are the result of a flurry of name changing and new customs regarding names—such as having two of them—which occurred in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Before the Norman conquest of England in 1066, everyone had a single name like Cuthbeorht, Leofwine, Ethelnoth, Aethelbeorht and Aethelthryth. All are true English names. After the conquest, those names were replaced by Norman names—William and Richard and John. Before 1066 only one percent of the English had a Biblical name, although they were Christians. Two and a half centuries later, nearly everyone boasted a Christian name, again following Norman custom.§

Later in history, an increased social and political organization—particularly with regard to taxes and inheritance—required the addition of last names. That was when William the smith became William Smith. His son was called John Smith even if he was a farmer and not a smith. Or short Albert became Albert Short and his son was named Thomas Short, no matter what his height. Last names, then, are a fairly recent innovation, arising from the need to identify each John or Henry—the one by the bridge, the one in the woods, the short one or the one who owns the mill. The final tally for names of English origin shows one-third to be from localities, such as Brook, Wood, Ford, Lane and Bridges; another third derive from the father’s name, such as Johnson (the son of John), Davidson, Richardson and less obviously Jennings, Hawkin and Hancock—all derivations from John; and the balance can be traced to occupations such as Smith, Taylor and Miller and less obviously Fletcher (arrow featherer), Mylne (variation of Miller) and Sawyer (one who saws). Finally, there are a series which come from nicknames such as Young, Gray, Armstrong and Smart.§

In other parts of the world the use of names is different. Among the Chinese and Hungarians, the family name comes first, followed by the given or forename, for example, Mao Tse-tung, whose family name is Mao, not Tse-tung. The Russians and Icelanders add a patronymic, a name derived from the father, between the given name and the family name. Thus, in Russia if the father’s name is Ivan Krylov, then the son’s name, for example, will be Pyotr (given) Ivanovich (patronymic) Kyrlov (family), and the daughter’s name will be, for example, Varvara Ivanovna Kyrlova. The usual form of address in Russian among acquaintances, neighbors and colleagues at work is by the given name and the patronymic, without the family name, i.e., Pyotr Ivanovich, without the Kyrlov.§

In Africa, one might be named Ayondela, meaning “a little tree that bends and bends as we all bend toward death.” The American Indian name Taipa means, “valley quail spreading its wings as it alights” and Onida means, “the looked-for one.” Alaska’s Eskimos give the name of a recently departed member, as they believe this newborn to be a reincarnation of the recently departed friend or family member. The Muslims make things very simple and religious by adding Mohammed to most male names. The Chinese make up new names for everyone. They also join first and second names in a nice meaning which might carry through the family—Precious Jade’s sisters might be named Precious Jewel and Precious Peace. They also have a tradition of repulsive names, such as “cat vomit,” which are intended to fool the evil spirits into thinking the child is unloved so they will leave him or her alone.§

The Hawaiians use descriptive names now coupled with Christian given names such as David Kekoalauliionapalihauliuliokekoolau Kaapuava-kamehameha (Kekoa Kuapu for short), meaning, “the fine-leafed Koa tree on the beautiful green ridges of the Koolau Mountains.” The Japanese use beautiful names like Umiko, “plum blossom child,” and functional ones such as Taro, “first male,” and Jiro “second male”. German Jews used to have only one name but added surnames in the 19th century. Scandanavians began using surnames at the beginning of this century.§

Hindu Names
The most ancient and common source of Hindu names is from the names of God and the Gods. Each child receives a name selected from those of the family’s Ishṭa Devatā, chosen Deity. Such names are called theophoric. The custom of choosing a name from the Gods is among the most ancient, with examples in Persia, Greece, India and the early Indo-European civilizations. In Vedic times there was a Sanskṛit convention for forming patronymics: if Garga was the father, then Gargi was the son, Gargya the grandson and Gargyāyana the great-grandson.

Hindu names often indicate caste and sect. Iyer is for a certain caste of South Indian Śaivite brahmins. Sharma is for a caste of North Indian brahmins. The God names Venkateśvara or Kṛishṇa indicate a follower of Vishṇu. Common names of Śaivites are Naṭarāja, Mahādevan, Śivaliṅga, Nīlakaṇṭha, Subramaniam, Kandiah and Kumāra. Dās or Dāsa is a frequently used suffix meaning “slave” used by many denominations—hence Śivadas, Kālīdās, Haridās. Often the first name is chosen according to the syllable mystically related to the individual’s nakshatra, birth star. There are 108 such sounds used to begin a name: four for each of the twenty-seven nakshatras. §

Hindus sometimes change their name during their life as a result of a blessing at a temple or when a holy man initiates them. Swāmī Vivekānanda—who said, “Certainly, there is a great deal in a name!”—was originally named Narendranāth Dutt and had several names as a monk. The Tamil Saint Manikkavasagar was originally named Vathavooran. My own beloved Satguru, Śiva Yogaswāmī, was given the name Sadasivan at birth, then the Christian name John when he was sent to Catholic school as a child, then renamed Yoganāthan by the village headman who did not appreciate the Christian influence. Later in his life, Yoganāthan was given the title Yogaswāmī—“Master of Yoga”—and devotees used it so often that it became his name to this day.§

Similarly, Kadaitswāmī, the name of Yogaswāmī’s guru’s guru, simply means the swāmī who frequented the kadai or marketplace. Yogaswāmī gave new names to many of his devotees, and many of those names were made legal. A good example is myself. Yogaswāmī gave me the name Subramuniya in 1949. Returning to the United States, I had it made legal in the courts in 1950. Such changes of name in Hinduism are considered sacred moments, indicative of spiritual changes taking place on the inside. In following this tradition of the Guru Paramparāi, we at Himālayan Academy require adoptives, converts and born Hindus with non-Śaivite names, such as those named in Vaishṇavite traditions, to adopt a Śaivite name, first and last, and have it made legal before entering our Śaiva Siddhānta Church.§

A Sign of Commitment
The change of name, and using it under all circumstances, and this means all circumstances, is an important sign of religious sincerity to the Hindu community. It shows the willingness of the newcomer to stand up and be counted as a Hindu. So significant is the change of name to the Hindu community that an adoptive with a Hindu name on his passport can gain entry to many temples which categorically deny entrance to Westerners on the grounds that they are assumed to be non-Hindus. Proceed with confidence. Be a hundred-percenter. Don’t sit on the fence. It is risky to walk down the middle of the road. Stand up boldly and declare who you are.

Western Hindus have been criticized in India for bearing Hindu names when it suits them in day-to-day circumstances, but maintaining a Christian or Jewish name on their passport, among relatives and for legal matters. Mature Hindus consider such deception noncommittal, immature and unacceptable. Legal name-change on all personal documents is one of the clearest indications of full and honest conversion. In the spring of 1988, after 20 years of dual identity, members of the ISKCON (International Society for Kṛishṇa Consciousness) community began a call for “non-Indian” devotees to adopt Vaishṇava names. Ashok Sarkar voiced the concern well in a letter to the editor published in ISKCON World Review (May 1988): “I would like to bring forth an important issue regarding the name registration of Vaishṇava devotees, an issue which has been overlooked by the ISKCON administration.§

“The non-Indian Vaishṇavas or Neo-Vaishṇavas around the world have not officially changed their ‘karmic’ names yet. Can you imagine that after 22 years of ISKCON’s successful movement, suddenly you find out that officially there are no Vaishṇavas! Therefore, I strongly suggest all Vaishṇavas of ISKCON change their names officially as soon as possible. It is time for the Vaishṇavas to stand up and be counted in the political world and thus have a voice in the administration of every land we live in. Let the phone books show long listings of Vaishṇava names under Das and Dasi.” Unfortunately, this stage of commitment never happened. In fact, ISKCON later officially and ardently declared that they, as an organization and as individuals, are not Hindu and do not align themselves with Hinduism. §

Sadly, today many Hindus relinquish their beautiful Hindu names when then come to the West or alter them to fit into Western society. Thus, Sanmugasundaram may become Sam or Daram. Taking a further step away from the Hindu dharma, parents may even begin giving Christian names to their Hindu children. Alarmed at this trend, the late Swāmī Tilak of the Vishva Hindu Parishad noted, “Westernization is rapidly penetrating the well-to-do urban Hindu families everywhere. Although they assert that Westernization does not mean in any way the acceptance of the non-Hindu values, they are drifting away more and more from their traditional way of life. First, they change their names: Gyani becomes Johney and Mira becomes Mary, on the pretext that non-Hindus find it difficult to follow Hindu names. This contagious disease is not limited to Trinidad or Guyana alone; Hindus all over out of Bharat [India] have begun to follow this obnoxious trend. To some it may look to be simply a business trick, but it is fraught with dire consequences. Lack of self-confidence works in its base way, which may lead one to demoralization. All caution must be taken against this awful tendency” (Hindu Vishva, July/August, 1985).§