"Those who are devoted to the Imperishable (the Impersonal Absolute) - who is the firm support of the world and is also undefinable, unmanifested, transcendent, motionless, eternal and all-pervading, - even they reach Me alone, striving with their senses controlled, and with mind tranquillised and set on the welfare of all". - Gita 12-3













PRABUDDHA BHARATAThe Language of Religion| Swami Satyaswarupananda  





            The Language of Religion







            Swami Satyaswarupananda









     Who really knows? Who in this world may speak of it? Whence this creation, how was it engendered? The gods (were) subsequent to the (worlds) creation; so who knows whence it arose (1)




     The Power of Language




     The search for a unified theory of physical forces has lead contemporary physicists to explore high-energy states, for it has been found that under extremely high energy conditions that are presently obtainable only in specialized particle accelerators, these forces tend to lose their distinctive identity. It is therefore conceivable that under the extreme conditions that prevailed when the universe came into existence (conditions that one cannot, at present, even think of replicating experimentally), the forces that we now talk of as distinct entities - gravitation, electromagnetism, and the two nuclear forces - were all seething indistinguishably in a ferment of intense energy. As the baby universe expanded and cooled, these forces distilled out as distinct entities as did the material particles associated with them.


     These speculations about the early life of the universe, though backed by empirical data, do raise some interesting philosophical questions. What does this distillation of forces mean? Can we say that the law of gravity appeared at a point in time? What metalaw governs this process? Is it prior to time?


     We will not be exploring the answers to these questions here but raise them only to highlight the process of conceptualization, for though physics is associated with concrete objects in the popular mind, theoretical physics is largely about concepts (as is all the mathematics that underpins it), albeit concepts that can be shown to work in the material world.


     Now, concepts are inextricably linked with language and it is in and through language that the power of concepts is manifest. What distinguishes the speculations of modern physicists from those of their forefathers of ancient times is the formers ability to formulate their conceptions in precise mathematical expressions - the language of theoretical physics - and then generate specific and verifiable predictions from these formulations. The power of mathematics, in turn, lies in the fact that it works; even purely abstract mathematical concepts are found to be effective in describing and predicting subtle and complex physical phenomena.


     But why should mathematics be any more efficacious than ordinary language (and thought) in apprehending the universe? If the physical universe is somehow mathematically underpinned, there is no reason why other forms of language should not prove equally potent in sizing it up. Religious language, for one, certainly lays claim to this potential.




     Vak: the Primordial Speech




     The Vedic rishis traced the source of language to Vak, the quintessential speech. From the causal state devoid of all cognitions (apraketam salilam) the primal volition manifested (kamastadagre samavartata) as rita, the cosmic law, that gave rise to Vak - Vagaksharam prathamaja ritasya vedanam mata amritasya nabhih; Vak is imperishable, the first-born of rita, mother of the Vedas, the source of immortality. (2) Vak is thus identified with the manifest Brahman and mediates all knowledge - 'Vachaiva samrad prajnayante, vag vai samrad paramam brahma. (3)


     Vak is not to be equated with empirical speech or language (vaikhari vak), for Vak is quadripartite: three of these parts lie unmanifested within the depth of ones being; it is only the fourth that is spoken forth - Guha trini nihita nenggayanti turiyam vaco manushya vadanti. (4) So the primal Vak is also termed Para Vak or Shabda Brahman, at which state of evolution the distinction between substantive material objects (artha), their denominations (nama as word, or shabda), and the mental concepts and cognitions relating to these (pratyaya) are all indistinguishably intertwined in the primordial soup, the apraketa salila. This Para Vak evolves through the stages of pashyanti and madhyama before manifesting as audible sound (dhvani) and the phonemes (varnas) that go to build language. Pashyanti is unformed (nirakara) language, where forms of objects and the sequences of words have still not crystallized; yet this is the very language and insight of the heart (dhi) that the rishis visualize as mantras. Madhyama corresponds to our mental language that is linked to our thoughts, of which we become aware while ruminating in quiet and which is resorted to actively during mental japa of ones mantra. (5)


     In this cosmocentric view of language and its referents, shabda, artha and pratyaya are all derived from one common source that is linguistically designated Para Vak. It is this link that accounts for the veridical efficacy of our thoughts and language. The Vaiyakaranas (Indian grammarians), Mimamsakas, and Vedantins take this link to suggest that the relation between shabda and its meaning (artha) is eternal, underived, and impersonal. They argue that this relation cannot be based on convention (as is asserted by the Buddhist, Jaina and Charvaka thinkers, and also by modern linguists) for the notion of convention presupposes language - the very thing claimed to be derived from convention. Language is therefore taken to be beginningless and ever-existent (nitya). (6)




     Meaning and Function of Religious Language




     If words are ontologically linked to their referents, are all forms of vocalization meaningful? The pragmatic answer, on which all Indian philosophical schools agree, is no, not at the vyavaharika level of conventional usage. The practical test of meaning is the ability of language to produce valid knowledge (prama). The smallest unit of language conveying unitary meaning (ekartha) is a sentence (vakya). The words comprising a sentence must have logical interdependence (akangksha), contiguity (asatti), and consistency of meaning (yogyata). These, along with the capacity of the sentence as a whole to give rise to a cognition in the listener (tatparya), are the determining factors of semantic validity. If any of these is missing, then the sentence is unlikely to be comprehensible. Moreover, for a verbal testimony to be valid, it must not be contradicted by other means of knowledge like perception and inference. (7)


     Religious language, however, differs from the language of ordinary use in dealing with transcendental subjects and issues of ultimate concern (the paramarthika level). Even when put to pragmatic use, as for instance in the mantras one utters during puja offerings, the meanings and connotations derived by the user may be very different from what is revealed by the syntax or what is obtained by ordinary grammatical analysis. Most mantras are, in fact, meaningful only to the initiate. This problem of meaning and function of religious language, especially in the context of Vedic mantras, has been discussed by Yaskacharya in his Nirukta, an etymological commentary on the Vedic lexicon, Nighantu. (8)


     The issue is argued persuasively by Kautsa, who puts forward the prima facie view that Vedic mantras are meaningless for the following reasons: 1) Vedic texts are considered syntactically fixed and unalterable, but in ordinary language a single idea may be expressed in a variety of ways. 2) The use of Vedic mantras in yajnas is directed by the Brahmana texts. If the mantras were intrinsically meaningful, they would not be dependent on other texts. 3) The Brahmanas contain passages like Agnaye samidhyamanaya hotaranubruhiti; To the agni that has been lighted should the hota (sacrificial priest) address thus. The use of such mantras by the adhvaryu (the officiating priest) is meaningless, for the hota himself, being versed in the Vedas, knows what needs to be done. 4) Then there are mantras that contradict each other. For instance, one mantra says: Eka eva rudro avatasthe na dvitiyah; Rudra is one alone, there being no other, plainly in contradiction to another: Asangkhyata sahasrani ye rudra adhibhumyam; Innumerable thousands are the Rudras that are over the earth. Or again, in one mantra Indra is described as ashatruh, without enemies, while another says: Shatam sena ajayatsakamindrah; Indra defeated a hundred standing armies. Such speech is not unlike that of the mad. 5) Some mantras are self-contradictory: Aditirdyaur aditirantariksham aditirmata sa pita sa putrah; Aditi is heaven, Aditi is the firmament, Aditi is the mother, the father, the son. One individual cannot possibly be all these simultaneously. 6) The meaning of many mantras is patently inconsistent with facts. For instance, in the pashu-yaga (Vedic animal sacrifice) a mantra is addressed to the sacrificial sword: Svadhite mainam himsih; O Sword, do not hurt this (sacrificial animal). The animal is then sacrificed using the same sword! 7) Finally, there are Vedic words like amyag, yadrishmin, jarayayi, and kanuka that make no etymological sense.


     Yaskacharya opens his refutation of these charges with the assertion that Vedic words are no different from those used for secular purposes. Hence, if the latter are meaningful, so are the former. If there are rules for preservation of the integrity of Vedic texts (the prohibition against syntactical alteration being one such rule), secular language too is framed within a set of grammatical rules for it to be comprehensible. The very fact that the Brahmana texts endorse the use of these mantras during rituals, argues Yaskacharya, is evidence of their validity. The ritual function of the mantras must needs be evident for them to be so prescribed. In fact the Brahmana texts only help in choosing from a whole range of mantras the ones they recommend for a particular ritual.


     As an example of the intrinsic meaningfulness of mantras, the Nirukta cites a marriage mantra: Ihaiva stam ma viyaushtam vishvamayurvyashnutam, krioantau putrair naptribhir modamanau sve grihe; May both of you, remaining unseparated in your own house, attain fullness of age, rejoicing with children and grandchildren.


     The benedictive function that this mantra subserves is one of the commonest uses that religious language is ordinarily put to. Benediction is, of course, an indispensable component of most religious ceremonies and sacraments. Another related function of religious language is evocation. The Vedic hymns comprising shastra and stoma, stuti and stotra and the category of Vedic texts termed arthavada (eulogy) - all serve to invoke and praise the Divine and to evoke feelings of the sacred.


     The directions of the adhvaryu to the hota are an example of the normative use of religious language. Yaskacharya draws a parallel to the common norm of greeting ones elders by announcing ones name and gotra (lineage or surname) even when these are known to the former. Such injunctions form the basis of personal and social discipline although they may at times be misused as tools for extracting privilege and exercising control.


     The mantra pertaining to Aditi is an example of the multiple levels of meaning inherent in language use. When the constitutive clauses are so plainly contradictory that a denotative meaning (shakyartha) is impossible, secondary meanings have to be derived by implication (lakshana). Metaphorical language (upacara) is, in fact, a very potent tool for religious expression since the transcendental elements of religion are beyond our ordinary cognitive experiences, and hence not very amenable to direct denotation. The metaphor subsumes both symbolic expression and analogy. The injunctions for upasana and worship are, of necessity, framed in symbolic language like adityo brahma ityadeshah; the sun is Brahman - this is the instruction, or shalagrama girir vishnu; the shalagrama stone is Vishnu. The stories of Sri Ramakrishna and biblical parables have a powerful effect on the mind because of their illuminative analogies. Sri Ramakrishnas analogy of water and ice, for instance, was enough to silence the then hot debate about whether or not God had form.


     The paradox is a singularly powerful metaphor for expressing the inexpressible. Brahman is beyond all conceptual and verbal categories. Expressions like Asino duram vrajati shayano yati sarvatah; Though sitting still, It travels far; though lying down, It goes everywhere are meditative tools for breaking our conceptual barriers and directly apprehending the ineffable Reality that is our own Being. The koans used by Zen masters also fall in this category and serve a similar purpose. Hakuins Let me hear the sound of one hand clapping or Yenos Show me your original face before you were born are instances of such impossible commands whose resolution can occur in enlightenment alone. A series of negations is another comparable contrivance. The Mandukya Upanishads description of the fourth state of consciousness (turiya) is an apposite example: Nantah prajnam na bahishprajnam nobhayatah prajnam na prajnanaghanam na prajnam naprajnam; (Turiya is) not that which is conscious of the inner world, nor that which is conscious of the external world, nor that which is conscious of both, nor that which is a mass of consciousness. It is not simple consciousness, nor is It unconsciousness.


     Then there is the category of technical terms that calls for specialized knowledge. The meaning of terms like amyag that Kautsa cites as obscure can be obtained only from specialized texts like the Nirukta. The apparent ambiguity about the number of Rudras can be resolved, says Yaskacharya, if we know about the special capacity of the devas to transform themselves into multiple forms. The allusions to Indra waging wars also cannot be taken literally if we know that, having identified themselves with the source of all power, the devas can have no enemies. The allegory of the conflict, then, is a simile for the interaction between water and sunlight that results in rain.


     Finally, the mantra for the sacrificial sword has a sacramental role. Ahimsa, or non-injury, is an unequivocally spiritual imperative. Thus yajnas like the pashu-yaga that call for animal sacrifice in order to obtain some less than ultimate gains need to be appropriately sacralized if the sacrificer is not to suffer from guilt. It is for this reason that Hindu scriptures allow the killing of animals only for religious purposes. (9) That the process of sacralization acts as a strong deterrent to morally questionable behaviour is well highlighted by Sri Ramakrishnas advice to his disciple Surendranath Mitra to offer to the Divine Mother the wine that he consumed regularly. This simple act was enough to gradually lead Surendra to total abstinence.




     Religious Language and Cognition




     The profound psychological effects of religious language are evidence of its inherent power. The fact that it is often non-rational does not detract from this inherent potency, for much of our routine behaviour - determined by our instincts, emotions, and intuitions - is non-rational. These aspects of our personality cannot be reduced to discrete logical categories.


     In her article on the Western Philosophical View of Religious Language Dr Lekshmi Ramakrishnaiyer, following John Hick and some other recent theorists, suggests that religious language is non-cognitive; it serves to express emotions and feelings or project ethical views and behavioural orientations, but does not lead to any verifiable knowledge. The Vedantic theory of knowledge controverts this view by accepting verbal testimony as a valid means of knowledge. It agrees with Hick that for cognition to be valid it must not be contradicted by any other means of knowledge. It therefore makes bold to apply the same criterion to religious language too. In fact, we are perpetually testing, often unconsciously, all linguistic inputs that enter our minds throughout the day against the testimony of our senses and of our reason based on past experience. We suspend judgement on the many things that we cannot immediately verify, but we often need to act on uncertain factual claims, if only to prove them false.


     Our emotions are not perceived as mental constructs (antahkarana vrittis), but Vedanta reminds us that they still are objects of immediate perception (sakshi pratyaksha). If language did not possess the ability to evoke replicable perceptions poetry, for one, would lose its universal appeal. When Blake talks about seeing the world in a grain of sand he is trying to convey what is, in essence, an ineffable perception. Rabindranath Tagore writes:


     I remember, when I was a child, that a row of cocoanut trees by our garden wall, with their branches beckoning the rising sun on the horizon, gave me a companionship as living as I was myself. I know it was my imagination which transmuted the world around me into my own world - the imagination which seeks unity, which deals with it. But we have to consider that this companionship was true; that the universe in which I was born had in it an element profoundly akin to my own imaginative mind, one which wakens in all childrens natures the Creator, whose pleasure is in interweaving the web of creation with His own pattern of manycoloured strands. (10)


     Spiritual language explores territories deeper than that of poetic emotions. It deals with insight (and this includes the insight of the poets) and intuition - levels that correspond to pashyanti Vak - that are only poorly expressible through the medium of verbal vaikhari, and which need to be explored in the subjective depths of ones being.


     Granting cognitive status to religious language must not, however, be equated with validity. If religious language points to supersensual verities, we need great mental discipline to correctly apprehend this meaning. The subjective nature of these meanings also calls for uncompromising intellectual honesty if we are not to deceive ourselves into erroneous interpretations. The lack of spiritual discipline and honest intellectual rigour is a major cause of theological conflicts. These are the major tools for revealing the import of the language of religion just as mathematical rigour is indispensable for theoretical physics to make valid predictions about physical phenomena. Without them religion turns into meaningless dogma that is then made meaningful through inane conflict. Chiselled with these, religious language opens up our insight into the profound and uncluttered simplicity of our being, a simplicity so eloquently expressed in Bashos haiku:


                    When I look carefully,
                    I see the nazima blooming.
                    By the hedge!








     1. Nasadiya Sukta, 6.
     2. Taittiriya Brahmana,
     3. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.1.2.
     4. Rig Veda, 164.45.
     5. Vaikhari shaktinishpattir madhyama shrutigocara; Dyotitartha tu pashyanti sukshma vaganapayini. - Mallinatha.
     6. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, The Philosophy of the Grammarians, ed. Harold G Coward and K Kunjunni Raja (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990), 53.
     7. Dharmaraja Adhvarindra, Vedanta Paribhasha, Chapter 4.
     8. See Nirukta, 1.15-6.
     9. Ma himsyat sarva bhutani anyatra tirthebhyo.
     10. Rabindranath Tagore, Creative Unity (London: Macmillan, 1925), 8-9.



International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015








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