Why We Should All Speak Hindi

Years ago, Gandhi marched from Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea to free India from colonial British rule. Moved by ahimsa, he resorted to a method of peaceful protest that has shaped the modern principles of human rights.

We leave Ahmedabad now, embarking on a two-and-a-half hour bus drive to a rural village. Though headed in the opposite direction, I like to think that we leave Gandhi’s state through the same metaphorical dusty city gates and dirt path, with the same uncertain minds and heavy hearts. [goodbye, Dr. Moore!]

Ahimsa. It brought Gandhi to the sea-swept coast of India and founded Manav Sadhna, an umbrella organization of five [or six?] NGO’s that educate—feed, heal, and teach—children, empower women, and give voice to the marginalized in a country where skyscrapers go up in a day on the backs of the oppressed.


My dictionary gives me a rough translation: the principle of non-violence towards all living things. But mere non-violence doesn’t move strangers to hold hands in prayer, share a meal and join together in service. Mere non-violence can’t explain a candle-lit dinner for 15 loud, sweaty American teenagers in absolute silence or Suresh-bai’s warm hug at the end of four days. It can’t explain the generosity, hospitality and selflessness I have experienced here. Ahimsa embodies much more. It is love, compassion, humility, respect, faith and a host of other untranslatable subtleties.

Ahimsa is a one-word doctrine.

Its existence in Hindi gives me hope.

We have seen difficult things: Construction workers walking barefoot through mud latent with heavy metals. Two men handling a blowtorch with scarred hands and shiny, unprotected faces. A boy scooping up iridescent liquid from a puddle on the side of the road to brush his teeth. A cow eating a plastic bag.

Despite being in closer proximity to poverty than I ever have been, I am struck by an overwhelming sense of optimism. Call me naïve or idealistic, but I am hopeful for the future of India. I have met Jayesh-bai, who founded Manav Sadhna, and sat in a perfect circle on the lawn as he told us to be moved by truth and humility, by ahimsa. I have been welcomed with open arms and hearts by the workers of ESI, an NGO founded on Gandhian principles.  I have visited numerous NGO’s and schools and individuals whose empowering work is motivated by ahimsa.

And the love. Suresh-bai and Jayesh-bai each used the word “love” nearly every other sentence, perhaps a hundred times more than any American I know. They spoke of being moved by love or keeping love in the heart and always, always loving. It was genuine, not the almost derogatorily casual term we use to bond with someone who likes the same movie. Why are these Hindi speakers so intentional and willing to use an English term for affection that is so rarely used formally in our lives? Because they understand that language subconsciously [and consciously] shapes the way we act and think about the world.

And so I am hopeful, because Ancient Sanskrit has given this country the vocabulary, the linguistic tool, for equitable and humane development.

We need that.

We will never get rid of sexual abuse until we stop saying that math test “raped” us. We will never have true marriage equality until we stop using “gay” as an insult. We will never achieve gender equality until both boys and girls can be recognized for forceful and effective leadership [see: Andover prize descriptions]. Language can oppress and liberate.

What do I do now?

I’m the Executive Editor of The Phillipian and the Editor in Chief of Backtracks. I have in my control two outlets for the written word. I know better than most that language is everything.

But Andover and I need to change.

I last wrote about the tension between health and education; how do we make our own wellbeing a priority [or at least not something expendable] in a place where students celebrate working themselves to the bone?

Here’s my proposal: Instead of entertaining ideas of taking away Covenant or cutting electricity after 11 o’ clock, perhaps we just need to stop saying we pulled that all-nighter like we pulled a six minute 2K on an erg. Rather than proudly enumerating the cups of coffee I drink, I should start telling people that I am so utterly drained of energy that I need to pump my veins full of a chemical that stunts my growth.

For the less dramatic, there are smaller linguistic shifts to make that can orchestrate larger cultural changes:

  • Call quizzes and homework “running conversations” and that’s what they will become. [Credit goes to Patrick Farrell, Instructor and Chair in Mathematics.]
  • Make the Community Service Office the office of “Community Partnerships” or “Non Sibi” or “Friendship” or “Goodness” and more volunteers will show up.
  • Call Graham House a wellness center, not a center for mental health or counseling and the stigma will fade.
  • Say that you live off-campus or on-campus and the lines separating day students and boarders will blur.

Language is power. We need to stop abusing it.