These days, the terms ‘Shri’ and ‘Shrimati’ are found printed only in wedding and invitation cards. These terms are more than a title prefix before a person’s name, due to their deeper meaning. Hence it’s no wonder that at least languages in South East Asia use this term ‘Shri’. The author enquires what ‘Shri’ and ‘Shrimati’ really means and why it is not really equivalent to Mr. and Mrs.
The term ‘Shri’ or ‘Sree’ is quite special in India but we tend to use it loosely without understanding its meaning. After the symbol ‘Om’ and ‘Swastika’, ‘Shri’ is the most popular symbol used in the Vedic Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). If 'OM' is spiritual, Shri is considered both spiritual and materialistic. Hence the word ‘Shri’ is very much inherent in the Indian psyche.
Here is a good example of this term’s influence in the languages of Southeast Asia. What is ‘Shri’ in Sanskrit becomes ‘Thiru’ in Tamil, ‘Seri’ in Malay ‘Thiri’ in Burmese. The influence of Shri is also seen in the names of towns like Srinagar and countries like Sri Lanka. Sri Vijaya was a powerful Hindu empire in Indonesia. Thai transliterate the word as ‘Si’ and prefix it before important places like Si Ayutthaya.
Shri is used in most languages of the Indian subcontinent and Seri is used in most of the languages of Southeast Asia. In ancient Java (Indonesia) the rice goddess was called ‘Dewi Sri’. Almost all Indian languages and a number of those not spoken in India like Sinhalese, Indonesian, Malay, Burmese and Thai besides some others use this term.
When do we normally use the term ‘Shri’?
Typically, it is a title to give respect, honour and esteem. In very lay terms it means Mr. sometimes it may mean Sir, and seldom means "The Great". Its usage is also common with Indian ragas, either as a prefix or postfix such as Shree, Bageshree, Dhanashree, Malashree, Jayantashree, Rageshree, Shree Ranjani, etc.
It is used to address gods in the Hindu pantheon, elders, teachers, holy men and any individual. Holiness and divinity are attached to the word when written or spoken. But it is not limited in use only for persons but also Gods, scriptures and divine structures like ‘Shri Yantra’.
Shri, along with the forms Shrimati and SuShri, is often used in the ‘Dharmic’ sense by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains as a respectful affix to the names of venerable persons of high character. When addressing individuals, ‘Shrimaan’ is used to address male members and Shrimati is used address females. It is used in many Indian names like Shrikanth, Shrinath, Shrikanta, Shridevi, Shrividya, Shrinivas, Shrilakshmi, Shrisanth, etc.
So what does that it really mean?
The term is originated from Sanskrit which means richest, highest, supreme and divine. The Sanskrit root word is ‘shrayane’ which means to serve (the Lord). In the Puranic sense it signifies Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and one who is full of infinite qualities. The name ‘Shri’ generally means wealth, peace, plenty, and all-round prosperity.
In the Rig Veda, Shri Sukta also called Sri Suktam reveres and invokes Sri or Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In the Vaishnav traditions, "Shri" is a revered syllable and is used to refer to the Supreme Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who is also known by name Shrinivas (the One where Lakshmi resides).
In the ‘Vishnu Sahasranama’ found in the Mahabharata this word finds mention in many places. Especially, in shloka 65 Lord Vishnu the protecting manifestation of the Supreme is addressed as “Shridah Shrisah Shrinivaasah Shrinidhih Shrivibhavanah Shridharah Shrikarah Shreyah Shrimaan Lokatraasrayah.” Just taking a few words from this shloka, ‘Shridah’ means ‘one who bestows prosperity on devotees and ‘Shrishah’ means ‘one who is Lord of the Goddess Shri.’ Etc.
In Vedic Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), Shri is also the sacred sound of cosmic auspiciousness and stands for abundance, auspiciousness, affluence, grace, wealth, light, luster, splendor, beauty, loveliness and authority. The symbol has been used since Vedic times.
According to Sanskrit grammar, Shri belongs to the feminine gender but nowadays it is used as a masculine name prefix. The related terms Shrimati and Sushri are used for women. It is basically a noun and is also used as an adjective. In North India, this term has been assigned as a male prefix but in the south it is used both ways. May be it is an outcome of the assumed patriarchy in the north that ‘Shri’ is reserved for the male and the holy men.
So the meaning and use of the prefix ‘Shri’ is quite unique in the Indian context. It has no similar-meaning prefixes in other languages especially the term ‘Mister’ which in English originated as a commonly-used title for men under the rank of knighthood.
Even an informal “Are you all right, mister?” doesn’t quite translate as “Are you all right, Shri?” In an authentic sense ‘Shri’ and ‘Shrimati’ does not really match to ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs’. Since there is no equivalent term there is obviously no choice, aye Mister!