Blog 3: How Hindi Language Structure Relates to Eastern Philosophies

Understanding actions, कर्म (karma), and their consequences, has been one of the major points of discussion, and investigation, in the various, religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions and schools all over the world.

Humans have long pondered the exact role of the subject in performing an action and to that we owe the concept of ‘free will’ in western philosophy, and the idea of ‘कर्म (karma)’ in the east. In essence, the question boils down to: how much say do we actually have in our own actions?

In this last part of the blog we will explore how some of the ideas of two major Indian spiritual traditions—Bhakti and Sufism—can shed some light on the principle of action centricity that we discussed in the first two parts of this blog.

In Sufi philosophy, the spiritual masters speak of the need to condition the ‘self’ or the ‘ego’ with the knowledge of the the divine or God himself, so that the individual stops considering themselves the centre of the universe.They must constantly strive to diminish the sense of self, or ego, to approach the divine truth. The great Persian poet Rumi said:

The ego is the veil between humans and God.

But what is this ‘ego’ one may ask? The different spiritual traditions of the world were the first to make inroads in the field of psychology and the quest for understanding the human condition.

In Sufism, a human is essentially seen as consisting of

1) An essential self or soul: through which we are all connected to each other and hence, to this infinite cosmos which itself, according to the Sufis, embodies intelligence

2) An ego: a person’s fragmented and mostly false idea of himself–who he is, what he is capable of, what he deserves and does not deserve etc.

3) A heart: the doorway between the two.

When we access the depth of our heart we feel one with the infinite, but we tend to spend most of our time on the surface, which we call our mind,under the influence of our egos.

Thus, according to Sufi philosophy, our ego stops us from accessing our spirit or soul, the source of all creation buried within us. Our unity with the spirit can only be experienced once the veil of this ego is lifted. This requires intense spiritual training.

One of the ways in which we feed our sense of who we are, our self image, is by the things we do or accomplish. But when embarking on the spiritual path of complete devotion, one refrains from taking credit for any actions one performs, even when they are for helping someone else or for the greater good, as that only serves to bind one’s true self to the ego. Instead, the spiritual seeker thanks the divine for creating this opportunity for him to do good.

Thus on the path of devotion, one of the cherished values is modesty and humility: understanding one’s place in the larger scheme of the universe. Could it be that the ubiquitous use of the impersonal/intransitive constructions like “काम हो गया ।, kaam ho gaya. The work is done.” and “खाना बन गया ।, khaana ban gaya. The food is made.” in Hindi where the subject does not take credit for performing an action, are a way to indirectly reinforce this idea in everyday actions?

Interestingly, both the Bhakti and the Sufi movements which embody the idea of devotion, were in vogue in medieval India when modern Indian languages were developing. A lot of spiritual seekers, gurus, and fakirs, across the country were composing hundreds and thousands of couplets, hymns, and songs to reveal to the masses the true nature of reality and one’s position in it.

Here is a couplet by Kabir, the 15th century Indian mystic poet:

जब मैं था तब हरि नहीं, अब हरि हैं मैं नाही

Jab main tha tab Hari nahin, ab Hari hain main naahi.

When there was ‘I’ or ‘ego’ there was no God, now there is God and there is no ego.

सब अंधियारा मिट गया, दीपक देख्या माही ।

Sab andhiyaaraa mit gaya, diipak dekhyaa maahii.

When I saw the light inside myself, all the darkness vanished.

When the seeker attains to this knowledge of God, they start ‘seeing’ the world differently. In the Bhagvat Gita, Krishna famously proclaims that He, the transcendental God, is the creator of the universe and directs its course:

Of this universe I am the father, the mother, the supporter, the grandfather, that what is to be known, that what purifies, the pranava AUM and surely the Rig-, Sâma- and the Yajur-Veda. (18) The goal, the sustainer, the master, the witness, the refuge, the most intimate friend, the origin, the dissolution, the ground of being, the resting place and the imperishable seed [I am]. (19) (source:

In essence, he is everywhere, in every thing, person, and action. The goal of a karmayogi is to become an agent or instrument of God himself on this earth, as eventually it is God who is the ultimate Doer and cause of everything. So instead of thinking, ‘I did this work’, the seeker is instead motivated to think about it as, ‘This work happened through me’.

But this way of looking at the world requires spiritual investigation and training: it does not come naturally to most of us. As Kabir points out: as a spiritual seeker gradually attains the knowledge of God, his ego diminishes. He starts impassionately observing others and his own actions, rather than emotionally and mentally participating in them. As soon as he stops thinking of himself as the doer, he also relinquishes any claim on the result of the action: good or bad.

Thus, a subject’s agency, even while actively engaged in doing something, can be attributed to something outside of him then what then can we say about actions such as liking or feeling where the subject is already reduced to a patient rather than an active doer?

To put it another way: in this cultural and philosophical context, if even for cases where the subject acts with agency, the subject can merely be considered as an instrument of a greater divine will, then for cases where the subject has no agency and where factors outside their control make them feel a certain way, how would this perspective impact the language spoken by the people who are part of this cultural context? In Hindi, and some of the other Indian languages, we see this philosophy embodied in the intransitive and the indirect constructions.

Is it possible that the spiritual masters and seekers who were composing these hymns in medieval times were also laying down foundations of modern Indian languages that were going to be able to express these ideas about the true nature of action and its agent? It would be something to look 

In addition to being egoless and modest, a certain clarity about the idea of one’s agency in performing a certain action also helps in clarifying whether it was intentional or a result of circumstances. Let us look at another example:

मेरी अब तक शादी नहीं हुई । meri ab tak shaadi nahin hui.

I am not married yet. (My marriage has not taken place yet.)


मैंने अब तक शादी नहीं की । maine ab tak shaadi nahin ki.

I haven’t married yet.

In the first sentence, the use of the intransitive शादी होना, shaadi hona, to marry, implies that the marriage has not happened yet probably because of the circumstances in the subject’s life. They did not make a conscious decision to not get married. While in the second sentence, the use of शादी करना means that this was their own deliberate decision.

Here is another example:

मालिक: तुम आज देर से क्यों आए ? maalik: tum aaj der se kyun aaye?

Boss: Why did you come late today?

कर्मचारी: माफ़ कीजिए, बहुत ट्रैफ़िक था । इसलिए देर हो गई ।

karmchaari: maaf kijiye, bahot traffic tha. isliye der ho gayi.

Employee: Sorry, there was a lot of traffic. So “delay happened to me.”

Notice that while the boss uses देर से आना, der se aanaa, to come late, placing the responsibility of coming late on his employee, the latter uses देर होना, der hona, to be late, to distance himself from the action, and point out that while he indeed was late, it was not his intention, it happened because of heavy traffic. Thus, apart from modesty, what a subject ‘intended or intends’ and what actually ‘happened or happens’ can be two different things and in Hindi we use the transitive constructions for the former and intransitive constructions for the latter.

Revisiting the example used earlier, “काम हो गया ।, kaam ho gaya. The work is done.” If, instead of the perfect tense, this construction is used in the future tense, as in, “काम हो जाएगा ।, kaam ho jayega. The work will be done.”, one risks sounding non-committal to doing that particular task—it is not something we would say if we are directly responsible for doing that particular work because it sounds like instead of taking charge, we are leaving the work to the mercy of circumstances. Thus “हो जाएगा, ho jayega” may not be the right thing to say to one’s supervisor!

If our conjecture about the impact of these ideas on the languages of India is true, this would mean that the ego-effacing, action-centric philosophy of different spiritual traditions of India has left an indelible mark on India’s modern languages.

But even if this is not the case, being aware of these philosophies and ideas could help learners appreciate and understand these different indirect and intransitive verb constructions in Hindi by serving as a plausible explanation.

In the end, while grammar rules and the idea of action-centricity can help us understand these usages better, native speakers make the decision about how much agency to give to the subject based on a subconscious assessment of the context. These action-centric rules and principles that we have mentioned above are learnt early in life, so they are very deeply ingrained in the minds of native speakers. It is almost as if the collective psyche of Indians has incorporated certain deep spiritual truths into their everyday language without them even knowing it.

Thus, while it is quite hard to learn all these rules and principles formally, ultimately this is one aspect of Hindi that is only mastered over a period of time as one spends time in India and/or around Hindi speakers and starts seeing the world like Hindi speakers do. So, whenever you get a chance to read or listen to Hindi, look out for these usages and slowly you may find yourself phrasing things this way subconsciously! आपको धीरे-धीरे आ जाएगा! Aapko dhiire dhiire aa jaaega! Don’t worry, it will eventually come to you!

Image Source: World Nomads