What’s in a name? – This is a common adage, indicating that the inherent qualities of a person or thing are unaltered, irrespective of what we may choose to call it. While this is certainly true, it is also true that the words we choose to use in our speech influence our thoughts and perceptions to a big extent. Words can create positive or negative emotions or perceptions in those that we speak them to. For instance, research has shown that just hearing sentences about elderly people made the research subjects walk more slowly. So, what does this have to do with names? Names aren’t just words, and it is true that the character of the person would matter much more than what name they are referred to by. However, in some cultures, the names that are given are symbolic of some belief held by the parents. Many ancient cultures, such as traditional Vedic culture, follow the practice of naming children after a preferred god or a virtue; these names are considered indicative of what is desirable in the child. There is an intent to evoke those qualities in the child by addressing them as such.
These names are commonly referred to as “material names”, names that are associated with the material aspect of our existence. They are given by our parents or family, in aspiration of us achieving success in our material lives. They become our identity in this world, quite literally. Everything we achieve, own or create is always linked to us through the name that we possess.
Our real identities are, however, not limited to this body alone. Our true spiritual identity is with the soul, and the process of understanding this identity is the process of bhakti yoga. When a person is desirous of learning more about their true nature, the process recommended in the Bhagavad Gita is to seek out a spiritual master. When the spiritual master finds the disciple to be worthy, he offers a spiritual initiation or ‘diksha’ to initiate the disciple into the spiritual process. This is considered a second birth for the disciple, since it marks the beginning of one’s spiritual life. It is apt to then also offer one a new name to mark this new birth, a name that is reminiscent of one’s true spiritual identity rather than the material identity. Spiritual names offered by the bona fide spiritual master are very carefully considered and meditated upon as they link us to our original identities in the spiritual world. The spiritual name also indicates that we are all parts and parcels of the Lord, but also have an individual existence. We are one in quality with the Lord but differ in quantity, the principle known as ‘achintya bheda-abheda tattva’ which was propagated by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (2.12):
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
This reveals our existence as individual souls for all eternity, and hence we also possess individual names that match our spiritual identity.
Lord Chaitanya also taught us what the eternal position of every living entity is in relation to the Lord when He instructed Sanatana Goswami as follows:
“jivera ‘svarupa’ haya — krnera ‘nitya-dasa’
The constitutional nature of the jiva (soul) is that of an eternal servant of Krishna.”
To reinforce this concept, the terms ‘dasa’ or ‘devi dasi’ is added to the spiritual names for men and women respectively. For instance, being awarded the name ‘Krishna dasa’ refers to one being a servant of Lord Krishna and ‘Radhika devi dasi’ refers to an eternal servant of Srimati Radharani.
Taking the names of the Lord and His devotees, even inadvertently, benefits us immensely, as seen from the story of Ajamila. When we use the spiritual name to address a devotee, we are acknowledging and respecting their spiritual identity, and their commitment to follow the spiritual path. When someone addresses us by our spiritual names, we are reminded of our connection to the spiritual world. In addition, it also serves to remind us about the initiation vows we have taken to pursue spiritual truths. It helps us to develop our consciousness to always remember our guru and our eternal position as a servant of the Lord and His devotees. By addressing each other as such, we are discarding our material designations and seeing the spiritual spark in each and every one of us. It is a way to transcend the material world while still being situated in the material world.
So, what’s in a name? With material names, probably not much other than some sentiment, but with spiritual names, it is a reminder of an eternal life full of bliss that awaits us.