What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself. —Juliet
Perhaps no one has more famously opined on this matter than William Shakespeare. In his play “Romeo and Juliet,” the star-crossed lovers deeply lament the authority that their family names have over their lives. When Juliet says, “That which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet,” she means to say that a name is an artificial construct, an inherently superficial convention that cannot be tied to the real substance and meaning of something. As a person who has been asked whether he will change his name, I have thought of Juliet’s declaration many times. What’s in my name? Am I more than my name? Does my name mean anything at all?
My name, Praveen Sethupathy, is of Sanskrit origin. Praveen means “skillful.” My family also calls me Raghu, after a great Emperor in Hindu mythology whose line gave rise to Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Sethupathy means “lord of the bridge.” The bridge refers to the former chain of limestone shoals that connected the southern tip of India to the northern coast of Sri Lanka. According to the ancient Hindu epic, “The Ramayana,” the bridge was constructed by lord Rama and his army. Needless to say, my name is steeped in ancient Indian tradition and Hindu lore.
Thirteen years ago I became a Christian. This was a time of refreshing joy for me. It was also a very confusing time for my family. Was I rejecting my Indian culture? Would I change my name? Would I suddenly become John or maybe Peter? Their confusion was not unfounded; many before me in a similar position had done exactly that. But Christ did not come to change names. He came to renew hearts and minds and to bring life where there was death (2 Corinthians 5:17). Jesus spent much of His earthly ministry speaking against the hypocrisy of His community’s religious leaders, who focused on the letter of the law and the shape of piety rather than the true substance of faith and devotion to God. “The Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
So it was my joy to share with my family that I would remain Praveen Sethupathy—that Christ was laying a claim on my heart, not on my name. I explained that becoming Christian had nothing to do with rejecting my Indian heritage, or being called by a different name. Rather, it was about embracing God’s interwoven presence in the history of mankind, Christ’s love and sacrifice for us, and our desperate need for him. Christ was brewing within me a renewed sense of purpose, commitment to others, and passion for justice. Changing my name would be comparatively banal and indeed irrelevant.
But why then did God Himself change some peoples’ names when He called them to a new life of faith? For example, in the Old Testament, Abram was renamed to Abraham (Genesis 17:5), Sarai became Sarah (Genesis 17:15), and Jacob was given the new name Israel (Genesis 32:28). Such name changes usually marked very significant junctures in God’s evolving relationship with His people, such as in the case of Abraham, with whom God established a seminal covenant. However, there is no regular Biblical practice or recommendation for changing one’s name upon adoption of the Christian faith. Rather, there are striking examples to the contrary. Consider Epaphroditus, a gentile (Greek) convert to Christianity, who Paul referred to as his “brother and fellow worker” (Philippians 2:25). In a letter to the Philippian church, Paul presented Epaphroditus as a man whose devotion and commitment to Christ was worthy of the greatest joy, honor and imitation (Philippians 2:29-30). Importantly, Paul seemed utterly unconcerned with the fact that his name derives from the pagan goddess, Aphrodite. The origin of his name did not demean his new life in Christ; it pointed to the glorious truth that the Christian body is a melding of many peoples from diverse nations, striving not for uniformity of outward appearance, but for unity of the heart and spirit for the sake of the Gospel.
But there’s another side to the story. I did not keep my name only to show that Christ was bigger than that, but also to maintain and strengthen my bonds with my heritage and my family. My name is one of the precious few elements of my day-to-day life that serves as a welcome reminder to me of where I come from. My father, who gave me my name, grew up in a small village in South India, where he was raised with age-old traditions, values, and cultural ideals, many of which he passed on to me. When I visit India, the other-worldly smells, flavors, sights, and stories are oddly, but deeply, familiar to me. They are a part of who I am, a part of who God created me to be. I feel blessed to be an Indian American, and as an English-speaking Christian, born and raised in North America, my name is one of the few things that highlight my Indian heritage.
So what’s in a name? I think Juliet was right that a name is but a paltry reflection of the true substance of a person. But what Juliet missed is that a name can also be an important reminder of what makes you who you are and how you came to be. My own children’s names are a reflection of their parents’ Christian faith and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And I pray that they too will find harmony in loving the Lord and embracing their given names.