Language of Religion
really knows? Who in this world may speak of it? Whence this
creation, how was it engendered? The gods (were) subsequent
to the (world’s) creation; so who knows whence it arose’ (1)
Power of Language
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
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?
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.
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 former’s
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
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.
the Primordial Speech
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
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 one’s 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 one’s mantra.
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).
and Function of Religious Language
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.
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)
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.
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.
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
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.
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 one’s elders
by announcing one’s 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.
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 Ramakrishna’s
analogy of water and ice, for instance, was enough to silence
the then hot debate about whether or not God had form.
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. Hakuin’s
‘Let me hear the sound of one hand clapping’ or Yeno’s ‘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 Upanishad’s 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.’
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
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
Ramakrishna’s 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
Language and Cognition
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.
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.
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:
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 children’s natures
the Creator, whose pleasure is in interweaving the web of
creation with His own pattern of manycoloured strands.
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 one’s being.
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 Basho’s haiku:
I look carefully,
see the nazima blooming.
’Nasadiya Sukta’, 6.
Taittiriya Brahmana, 126.96.36.199.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.1.2.
Rig Veda, 164.45.
Vaikhari shaktinishpattir madhyama shrutigocara; Dyotitartha
tu pashyanti sukshma vaganapayini. - Mallinatha.
‘Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies’, The Philosophy of
the Grammarians, ed. Harold G Coward and K Kunjunni Raja
(New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1990), 53.
Dharmaraja Adhvarindra, Vedanta Paribhasha, Chapter
See Nirukta, 1.15-6.
Ma himsyat sarva bhutani anyatra tirthebhyo.
Rabindranath Tagore, Creative Unity (London: Macmillan,