“What’s in a name?...”
It is an oft-quoted question. Taken from Shakespeare’s famous play Romeo and Juliet, this quote suggests, at least as far as the great bard himself is concerned, that a name means very little in the grand scheme of things. It is the character of an individual or an object, believes Shakespeare, that counts the most. A rose, as the next lines from the play explain, if called something entirely different, would still smell as sweet as it does with the name ‘rose'.
But as we know, a name isn’t such a trivial concept at all.
A name defines the character, is the other side of the argument. A rose is called such because of its smell. We cannot call a chameli a rose — and expect it to smell like a rose. No other flower can potentially smell like a rose.
Names matter. Each flower is distinct, down to its own iconic fragrance (Photo: India Today)
Names are very important across all cultures. Naming is one of the most ancient things in the history of the entire human civilisation. We name everything around us, both things we see and things we don’t see. We name things that are imagined and may or may not even exist. We name things — animate and inanimate, ideas and concepts, abstract and manifest. We even name the names.
After all, language is nothing more than just naming.
In just one garden, everything has its own name. Even the sky above has precisely that (Photo: Reuters)
Naming is an essential function of a language. We not only name subjects and objects, we also name actions (or verbs). Even sounds have their own names.
Can you imagine a world devoid of names?
Can you imagine a world of objective realities without language that facilitates this naming of objects around us?
These are important questions, questions that have intrigued Vedic scholars and modern-day linguists and philosophers alike. We in India are familiar with the role of language itself in our life. From the transmission of knowledge over generations (the Indic Knowledge Tradition is primarily an oral tradition) to the recitation of mantras during yajnas (rituals) for desired results, language has played a very significant role in the lives of Indians from times immemorial. The Vedic scholars, the Rishis and Acharyas, believed that a universe of objective realities exists solely because human beings can express this through language. The Shatpatha Brahmana mentions that the supreme consciousness Brahman enters into this world with rupa (form) and nama (name), and the world extends as far as rupa and nama extend.
This, in a sense, is what Ferdinand de Saussure, the 19th century Swiss linguist and semiotician, would call the ‘signified’ and the ‘signifier’ — the signifier represents a mental image of the signified, which facilitates effective communication. For example, when I write ‘table’ and the mental image a reader gets is of a toy car, no communication can take place.
Keeping the above discussion in mind, we must recognise that the name 'Prayag' has a very specific meaning in Indian consciousness. It always has. It derives its meaning through the shared memory of a 5,000 year-plus civilisation. The memory of what Diana Eck calls 'A Sacred Geography' is etched into Indian nation’s consciousness. Each and every element of this sacred geography is divine. As Eck puts it, “…mountains, rivers, forests and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of the gods and heroes. The land bears traces of the gods and the footprints of the heroes. Every place has its own story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place.”
Book cover of Diana Eck's India: A Sacred Geography (Photo: Amazon)
So does the legend of Prayag.
This is where the triveni is, the sacred confluence of the three rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati. This is where the fabled amrit had fallen. For the longest time, others kept telling us that Saraswati was a mythical river. But there was never a doubt in the collective consciousness of the sea of humanity that gathered here day after day, year after year, generation after generation, to take a holy dip at the confluence. This is where those who bathe rise straight up to heaven, declare the legends.
The location of the mingling of three sacred rivers has been a holy spot for centuries (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Prayag is the also known as the Tirtharaja, the king of the tirthas. Hence, it is also called Prayagraja. According to the Skandpurana, Prayagraja is a great sacred place where all desires get fulfilled and devotees attain moksha. Prayag is also the site of the Kumbha Mela where millions from all corners gather every 12 years to take a holy dip in the triveni and perform many of the rituals of mundan (shaving one’s head), snan (holy dip in the sacred rivers), tarpan (offerings to ancestors) and daan (charity).
Those who renamed Prayag to Allahabad must have had their reasons. But whatever their reason, Prayag never ceased to exist. Not from memory, nor physically.
Millions have gathered at the Kumbh over milleniums (Photo: AajTak)
At the same time, the name Allahabad never evoked any of those civilizational memories. Additionally, it couldn’t erase those memories either. Allahabad and Prayag stood side by side for many years, much like some of the holiest of Hindu sites still share space with others.
However, it is only of a matter of time that these encroached-on spaces would eventually be reclaimed again as well. For this is not just a quest for identity, it is much deeper than that. It is a journey of ‘self-realisation’.