The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 16: Etymologies

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Detail of Language Family Tree, by Minna Sundberg. Poster available hereAlso check out her amazing webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent


I love finding out the meaning and origins of words. Etymology is the study of word origins. When we explore where words come from, we become aware of a couple of things: 1) meanings change over time, and 2) much of our speech is metaphorical.

Think about how often we use metaphors of the body: we talk about the hands of a clock, the legs of a chair, the neck of guitar, and the nose of a rocket. Bakers admire the ear of a loaf of bread, and sewers appreciate the hand of a piece of fabric. Mountains have foothills, and canyons have mouths. We have many body metaphors because we humans all have bodies, and we see the world through our own experience.

It is impossible to speak without metaphors. Metaphor means to carry over. The idea is that a word can carry meaning over from one context into another.

Last week I talked about the origins of two words: yoga, which is related to yoke, and religion, related to ligament. There is another Sanskrit word I should mention: sutra, meaning “thread,” is related to suture and to sew. In Hinduism and Buddhism, a sutra is a teaching or a scripture. You may have heard of the Kama Sutra (love-teaching) or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. (There are also Sutras of Jesus, which are a fascinating glimpse into early Chinese Christianity.)

I love this metaphor because we can follow the thread of a conversation. Teachings from different teachers can be woven together to form a fabric. We use thread to sew things together, to tie them to each other (remember yoke and ligament?)

These metaphors of sewing and tying (sutra, yoga, religion) are so different from our usual way of talking about “institutional religion” and “private spirituality.” Ancient communities had a notion that what they were doing with religion was fundamentally creative. They were weaving stories and lives together, sewing a beautiful garment. Or perhaps they were making something useful: a bag that could carry important treasures with us.

The sewing metaphor had another aspect: a sutra or thread could also be unit of measure. You cut a straight line. You measure a garment to fit. This is where the rule and measuring sense of religion comes from. Garments should not be ill-fitting. Weaving should be done skillfully.

One thing I want for today’s church—and for the world—is for us to reclaim the creativity and skill of our ancestors in their religious and spiritual practice. The idea that “religion” should be a purely private endeavor is contradictory. You learn sewing from teachers. There is a community of practice which shares best practices. You can go off with a needle and thread and learn by trial and error, of course, and there is no substitute for experience. But there is so much we can learn by honoring the wisdom of our ancestors.

God who binds us together, help us attend to the threads of teaching in our lives. Help us weave a way of life that is a good fit for this world.