"If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard . . . Would you like to know its name?" 
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Wizard of Earthsea

While personal names carry meaning and often influence a life, I wonder how much the power of the name itself, as in branding, impacts a child. In an earlier post on my heritage I’d mentioned that I would write a post on the sanskrit behind some of the names in my family, I guess this is it.

To begin, I interviewed my father on our family name, Gupta. What he told me was that it was but a caste indicator and that traditionally we did not carry it as part of our name. It was the British who insisted on us following the naming convention of the west, first name – middle name – last name, and therefore my grandfather took on the last name Gupta. While implies a more military meaning that could be relevant, the sanskrit word, "gupt" means protected, guarded or preserved. A few famous but unrelated Guptas are Rajat Gupta, former head of McKinsey worldwide [good looking fellow, isn’t he?] and of course, Gupta SQL.

Tracing our naming back to my great grandfather, I found out that my grandfather’s father was named Nainsukh. Direct translation means "eyes happy" but the idiomatic version would be "sight for sore eyes". Great grandfather was a station master for Indian Railways who was transferred all over India. That was when I realised I was a fourth generation nomad since his son, in turn had worked in what is now Pakistan, Nepal and Rangoon, Burma. He was born on 16th October 1856 and died on 5th March 1923. He had 8 children who survived to be adults, of whom my grandfather was the 5th of 6 brothers.

Grandfather’s name was Chandra Bhan, though he added Gupta to it for formal use. Chandra is the lunar diety or the moon, and Bhan means the sun, though I only have my father’s word for it. Bhan shows up elsewhere as "to call or to recite" and also in gaelic. In India, it’s common as a Kashmiri Brahmin surname. Papa’s name is Indra Bhan, where Indra is the son of Dyaus Pita or Sky father, also known as Jupiter or Zeus. Indra is the lord of heaven, god of weather and war.

I asked Papa why they chose to give me the surname Bhan instead of Gupta when I was born. He said that many in his generation had taken this decision to drop the caste names as they believed that one should not be burdened by it now that the British had left, and therefore the decision was taken to give me the last name Bhan.

The choice of my first name is less romantic and is due to my mother’s wish for us to have short names. However, it’s not a simple name.  Niti means strategy, policy or vision. Heh. What I like best about it is that it is common to use it as the "right method" or "commonsense", as in rajniti, meaning the method of ruling or politics. But my favourite is the Niti shastra.

Valpop1_1Written 2300 years ago by Chanakya aka Kautilya, the "Machiavelli" of India better known for his Arthashastra – the Art of Wealth; literally Science of Material Gain (Sanskrit Artha = "material prosperity", shastra = "knowledge"). – the Niti shastra  is the science of governance or the ethics of politics. Heh, or management and strategy. Any wonder I was so enamoured of this journey into the meaning of words?

Chanakya Pandit, the minister of King Chandra Gupta. Chanakya compiled the popular Niti Shastra (also called the Chanakya Shloka). This image is from Amar Chitra Katha. (immortal illustrated stories)

Therefore with an eye to the public good, I shall speak that which, when understood, will lead to an understanding of things in their proper perspective. ~ Chanakya Niti

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