Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

The Globalization of Popular Culture

The Globalization of Popular Culture and Language
by Yvette Claire Rosser, M.A., Ph.D. – ABD

September 14, 2000

Ideas such as nationalism and globalization are not simply newly coined, neatly defined categories that can be classified as the products of a specific time. Nationalism is not only a post-Enlightenment construct based on the premise of the modern nation-state as a unifying political institution. It is far more complex and yes, even ancient. Who can say what social and political infrastructures maintained the longevity, architectural consistency, and economic viability of the Indus Valley Civilization (Indus/Saraswati Civilization) for dozens of centuries? Were not the concepts of Jambudvipa or Bharatvarsh part of the world-view of the Mauryas, the Guptas, or other historic Rajas of the Rastra? Scholars in this post-postmodern world can scarcely agree what constitutes a state or a nation, nor, in fact, what salient characteristics should be employed in the construction of terms such as nationalism, nationalist, nationhood, nation-state, sub-nationals, etc. The phrase “nationalism problem” means something quite opposite in India than it does in neighboring Pakistan, where it refers to the disintegration of the state by sub-national ethnic secessionists in Sindh, NWFP, or Balouchistan. In India, leftist intellectuals complain about the “nationalism problem” in reference to the rise of what they consider to be too much patriotic and nationalistic fervor in contemporary Indian society.

Globalization, as well, didn’t emerged suddenly at the end of the twentieth century as a threat to cultural diversity imposed by the market-driven forces of hegemonic modernity. Globalizing pressures have always been with us. It comes as no surprise that there is nothing new under the sun. Globalization has come around before. The Indian Subcontinent has been the recipient and dispenser of international influences long before the Internet and stock exchanges tied us all together in an intellectual, perhaps pseudo-intellectual, economic, often ruthlessly greedy, net or mesh, otherwise known in Sanskrit as a jaal. The idea of a World Wide Web is a modern metaphor for the inherent interconnectedness of all sentient beings, the wheels of Samsara continue to turn. It is no wonder that India is in-step with info-technology; the symbols are not alien.

Along with globalization, the spread of popular culture and language has been around for as long as there has been recorded history. Two thousand years ago, the Senate in Rome passed an ordinance forbidding senators from wearing togas made from Indian cloth – a legal effort to slow the flow of gold coins pouring out of Roman coffers into India. A whole New World was discovered because of the European desire for Indian products, particularly spices, scents, and fabrics. One of India’s lasting contributions to Western life was the export of a thick cotton cloth known as “Dungaree” which, in the sixteenth century was sold near the Dongarii Fort in Bombay. Portuguese and Genoan sailors used this durable blue broad cloth, dyed with indigo, for their bellbottom sailing pants. Thus, blue jeans, originating in India, were widely adopted by farmers, cowboys, working-class men, teen-agers, suburban moms; almost everyone in the West has at least one pair of blue jeans. They are the hallmark of American fashion and in vogue across the world.

Traditions and languages reach into one another and exchange words and concepts. The word shampoo is borrowed directly from Hindi into English, taken from chhaapnaa, to press, or massage. . .. “Chhaapuu?” “Shall I rub?” When the British first came to India in the sixteenth century, they were not accustomed to the daily rituals of personal hygiene. Europeans during that period rarely took baths, hence their need for perfumes from India. Current European belief held that bathing weakened the body, inviting bad “humors”. However, in India a morning bath is an integral part of Hindu ritual. The British brought this cleanliness habit, which was initially called a craze, to the West as well as the word shampoo meaning something you rub or press into your hair. The idea that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” which inspired a Christian revivalist movement in early nineteenth century USA, grew out of the revolution in bathing rituals that the Europeans learned from their contact with Hindus.

There are numerous words so common in English that no one remembers they actually came from Hindi. In the following etymology tale there are thirteen Hindi words: “Wearing a khaki hat, his face half covered by a red bandana, the thug took the loot to his cushy bungalow in the jungle. After drinking rum punch he put on silk pajamas and fell asleep on a cot. He thought he was the big cheese, until the juggernaut of the law caught up with that social pariah.” Three of these borrowed words are particularly interesting: “bandana” a red or blue head scarf with small white patterns modeled after “bandhana kapra” or tie-dyed cloth; “cushy,” as in cushy job, taken from “khushii” meaning pleasure or happiness; and, “cheese,” as in the big cheese, a slang expression used sarcastically to refer to an important person, from the common Hindi word, “chiiz”, meaning thing. If your boss thinks he or she is the big cheese, (barii chiiz), it has nothing to do with panir or any other milk product, in Hindi or English. As well, there are, of course, many words that have been borrowed from English into Hindi such as bus, tank, torch, taxi, bomb, pencil, cyber café, etc.

Linguists have known that many English words originated from Sanskrit and/or Hindi, as the following examples illustrate:

Divine – In Sanskrit  – div to shine, also means heaven, resplendent, refers to the sky god.  In Latin, Deus – god.  In Hindi, dev – god / devi  – goddess.  The common root for these words meant  “to shine”, since in heaven divine beings are thought to have bodies of light. Numbers – Numbers in the Indo-European family of languages are often very similar.   In Hindi the number for seven is sat – Sata, eight is aaT, nine is nau.  If you know how to count in French or Spanish, you will notice the similarity between the numbers in these languages as well.   The word for ten in Hindi is Das, whose cognates can be seen in the words for ten in Spanish and French and in the words decimal and decade, which refer to units of ten. Mother and Father  – In Hindi and Sanskrit the word for mother is maataa. This word is etymologically related to the word for mother in almost all Indo-European languages.   The word for father in Hindi and Sanskrit is pita which is also akin to the Latin – patter, the Spanish – padre, the French – pe`re.  The original “p” sound shifts to an  “f” sound in certain languages, such as English and German. Pedal, pedestrian – In Sanskrit pad, means foot.  In Hindi – paidal means “by foot”. Dental – In Hindi, daat, which means, “tooth.” Ignite, ignition, igneous – The Hindi word for fire is Aag.  The name of the ancient Sanskrit god of fire is AgniHand – In Hindi, hathMind – In Hindi, manSerpent – In Hindi, saamp (from Sanskrit, sarp.) Mouth – In Hindi, munh Insomnia, Somnambulate – In Hindi the word for sleep is sonaaService – In Hindi, sevaa means service. Month – In Hindi, mahinaaMortal – Related to the Hindi, marnaa– to die and Sanskrit, mrit  – death. Yoke – Related to the Hindi/Sanskrit word yoga – yoga.   In Hinduism yoga is a discipline that aims to train one’s consciousness through exercises that promote control of the mind and body.  The concept of the joining or union of the mind and body is related to the idea of a yoke, used to join a beast of burden to a plow.

In English the prefix   ‘a’ negates the word to which it is attached, ex: atypical, amoral, asymmetrical.   In Hindi and Sanskrit an ‘a‘ preceding the word also changes it into its opposite such as the word amar which means deathless or immortal,  (a+mar= no+death).

In addition to the words mentioned above, here is a list of other words that were borrowed directly from Hindi into English during the time of the British Raj:

Calico – a cloth usually printed with bright designs, spotted mottled, such a calico cat.   This word is taken from the name of the city, Calcutta. Cashmere – fine, downy wool sweater made from the soft wool of cashmere goats from Kashmir, the state in northwestern India. Chintz – printed cotton of bright colors, from the Hindi word – chhiint, speckled, variegated. Cummerbund– a sash worn around the waist, usually with a tuxedo, from kambar, Hindi for waist, and bandh, Hindi for tie. Mogul – a very rich or powerful person, i.e. a  “movie mogul”.  Taken from the Persian word that refers to the descendants of Babar who conquered parts of India beginning in 1526 and founded an empire that lasted, in name at least, until 1857.   Babar’s ancestors were descended from Genghis Khan, a Mongol, from which Mughal is derived. Monsoon – a wind system that influences large climatic regions and reverses direction seasonally.   Specifically, this refers to the Asiatic monsoon that produces dry and wet seasons in India and Southern Asia, taken from the Hindi, mausam, meaning weather, originally an Arabic word. Pundit – a learned person, i.e. the “pundits of Wall Street”, the “pundits of Capitol Hill”.   From the Hindi and Sanskrit – panDit referring to a Brahmanical Scholar. Shawl – a square or oblong piece of cloth worn by women as a covering for the head and shoulders, from Urdu  – shaul. Sherbet – a sweet flavored ice to which milk, egg white or gelatin has been added.   This word originally came into Hindi from the Arabic word shariba, meaning,  “to drink”.   The word sharbat, a cooling drink, was then borrowed from Hindi into English. Verandah – a porch or balcony usually roofed and often partially enclosed extending on the outside of a building.  This borrowed word is taken from the Hindi word baraamdaa which has a similar meaning.  This word was also borrowed from Arabic into Hindi and then from Hindi into English.

Words are still being borrowed from Hindi and Sanskrit into English.   During the decade of the sixties, many spiritual and philosophical ideas from India became popular in the West and some related terms have come into common usage. For example:

Guru – a spiritual leader or charismatic leader or guide.  From Hindi guru, originally from the Sanskrit, guruh meaning heavy or venerable. This word has recently gained popular usage in modern English outside of its original religious meaning, i.e. “fashion guru”. Karma – the sum and consequences of a person’s actions during the successive phases of his existence, regarded as influencing his destiny.   From the Sanskrit- karma, act, deed, work.   The usage of this term in modern English has been popularized with the phrases  “good karma” and “bad karma” and in song  “Instant Karma’s Gonna’ Get You”. Mantra – a sacred formula of words that are spoken or chanted repetitively and believed to possess magical or spiritual powers, used in prayer and incantation and to invoke the deity by repeating his/her name.   For example: “Om Mani Padme Hum”, from Tibetan Buddhism and“Shri Raam Jaya Raam Jaya Jaya Raam,” from Hinduism or the well known mantra that Tina Turner chanted in the movie What’s Love Got To Do With It:“Namyo Ho Ringe Kyo Ho”, from the Japanese Buddhist tradition. Taken from the Sanskrit word, mantraNirvana – the state of release from the cycles of reincarnation attained through the cessation of individual existence, freedom from pain and care of the external world, supreme bliss.   This word is from the Sanskrit nirvaana – to be extinguished, to be blown out, from nir  – out and vati  – he blows.   Not only was this name of a popular rock band in the nineties but it is commonly used to express a state of sheer delight or satisfaction with a situation, “It was nirvana!”

India has impacted and interacted with the Occidental world since before recorded history.  Western influences have reciprocated.  This civilizational relationship of cultural exchanges continues.   To those who fear that India will one day be subsumed by decadent Western values, I would venture to say it is Indian values that are poised to take over the world during the coming century.  In today’s modern societies, stressed-out corporate executives of multi-national corporations take weekend seminars to learn relaxation and mind control.  For large sums of money they are instructed in variations of yogic and meditative practices adapted from Indian traditions, such as Vipassana.  The vocabulary describing the techniques taught at these expensive retreats is not Sanskrit; terms and concepts are modernized and repackaged–as best-selling Deepak Chopra has done so well.  Hindu and Buddhist ideas have been incorporated into the worldviews of a staggering number of people living in Western countries.  Sometimes these ideas may become warped, and their spiritual context diffused through the resulting synthesis arising from contact with the cult of the individual; or they may be filtered through a cosmic, romantic New Age lens.  Nonetheless, many of the concepts and worldviews articulated by the rishis and the saints of India have become pervasive in the discourse of humanistic thought and intertwined with modern secular society in need of an influx of non-dogmatic spiritual values.  India, the USA and all the nations of the world are always in a state of flux. . . if not, they are doomed, rigidity marks the end of viable, sustainable culture.  Or, like the Taliban, they introduce enforced codified retrograde adaptations in an effort to arrest the changing times.

There are religious conservatives in the USA who are scared of the ubiquitous Asian values entering Western society.  Concerned educators who try to teach techniques of nonviolence and conflict resolution to school children, and propose methods to help students relax their bodies, calm their minds, and focus their attention, are accused of promoting vague, pluralistic, non Christian, or relativistic values. There is a fear among certain groups that Western (read Christian) values are being threatened by the onslaught of Asian (read Hindu/Buddhist) values.  What goes around comes around, as civilizations spin into each other.