by Robin Smith
I had a math teacher once who, rather than getting us ready for algebra, spent most of his time explaining why Americans would never fully embrace the metric system. His argument was that the words didn’t fit our culture. How in the world could a people who wore “ten gallon hats,” encouraged others to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” or complained about having a “ton of work” ever accept the metric system? There was too much to clean up, he argued. Our language itself would have to change in order for us to go metric, and so he didn’t think Americans would ever fully switch.
No, he wasn’t a very good math teacher, but his argument fascinated me. Language and culture are inexorably linked. Want to know about a people? Learn their language. Their language will tell you what they consider important. Hindi is no different. Recently, Steve and I made a list of different Hindi words for god. We quickly came up with eight. We weren’t trying to write down different titles for God. All the words on our list had the same meaning: god. There are probably more. Then, we wrote down all the Hindi words we could think of for worship. There were seven. They weren’t words describing different types of worship. Each one simply meant worship. Gives you an idea of what most Indians consider important, doesn’t it?
What about Americans? What do we consider so important that we’ve come up with 7, 8 or 100 ways of saying it? You’ll think I’m crazy, but have you ever thought of the many different phrases we have so we can ask where the bathroom is without ever actually using the word toilet (gasp)? We sometimes ask for the restroom. We ask for the men’s room, the ladies’ room, the little girls’ room, or the little boys’ room. We enquire where we can “wash our hands,” or “powder our nose.” We might say we need to “walk down the hall,” or even that we need to “freshen up.” What does it say about us that we go to such great lengths to mask the obvious? What are we so embarrassed about? Here in India, people very simply ask, “Toilet kaha hai?” (Where is the toilet?)
Sometimes the opposite is true, that instead of many words for something, there is no word for something in a language. This can be just as insightful. For instance, consider the word righteous. The Hebrew word for righteousness means integrity, equity, justice, straightness. For the Hebrews, righteous people were people that had been judged as lives pleasing to God. Noah and Abraham were described as righteous men. What made them righteous? How did they lead lives which pleased God? Habakkuk (and later, the Apostle Paul) made it very clear when he said, “…the just [righteous one] shall live by faith.” In other words, Noah and Abraham were considered righteous, not because of anything they ever did, but because they believed. They believed God, and He counted their belief to them as righteousness. Today, we who follow Christ believe the same. God judges us as righteous, not because of anything we do, but because of what (in Whom) we believe (trust).
By contrast, the Hindi word for righteous is dharmee. This is a word based on the idea of dharma. Dharma, in a nutshell, is one’s caste duty. How does one become dharmee? Only by doing one’s duty. There is no other way. It is not a way of faith or belief, but of duty and requirement. For instance, if someone is born a brahmin, then that person must put caste duty (dharma) above all else. That person must never break caste by doing any work of another caste. The brahmin must never clean up after himself, sweep the floor, carry out the garbage, or touch a dead body. If he sticks to his own dharma, he is considered dharmee. Likewise, if one is born into a low caste, then that person may only observe the duty of that caste. The lowly sweeper must never aspire to anything higher or better. If he does, then he is denying his dharma and can never be dharmee.
This word, dharmee, is the accepted Hindi word for righteous. In the Hindi version of the Bible, Noah is dharmee. So is Abraham. But, that’s not correct. The translation is wrong! They weren’t dharmee men. They were righteous men. They were men of faith. They were not bound by lists of do’s and don’ts. Rather, they were men who believed. Indians who want to break out of the caste system, need a new word for righteous. They need to be free from the slavery of dharma. They long to be free to live righteous lives of faith, not dharmee lives, bound by obligation and subjugation.
For more information about Truthseekers’ efforts to provide a translation of the Bible that truly communicates to the lowered-castes, read The Bible in India’s Spiritual Language. Robin & her husband, Steve, are ministry partners with Truthseekers in New Delhi.