04 July 2008

Non-lexical utterances, stobhas, and mantra

In researching the background to Buddhist mantra I inevitably began to read about Vedic mantra. There is a lot more research on Vedic mantra and on the whole it is more interesting than research on Buddhist mantra, so far. Reading up on the Vedic tradition has given me an appreciation of the Vedic literature which is of surpassing beauty and profundity at times. I think we Buddhists tend to write off the other Indian scriptures but that is our loss. The Vedic tradition stands in relation to Indian culture rather like the Ancient Greeks do to Europe.

If you do read up on Vedic mantras you will find that mantra originally meant one of the hymns to the gods as exemplified and recorded in the Ṛgveda. The date of this text is disputed rather vigorously and sometimes hotly, but it seems likely that it was compiled around 1500-1200 BCE, probably out of an already existing oral literature. As the verses (or ṛk) began to be used ritually two things happened. Firstly an exegetic literature began to be composed to explain how, where, and when to use the verses in the rituals; and secondly the verses themselves were reframed. For my purpose today I want to draw attention to the Sāmaveda which reframes the Ṛgvedic verses by setting them to music. Verses sung or chanted to these rhythms and tunes as called sāman.

One of the key features of sāmans is the insertion of syllables to alter the metre of the original. These syllables are called stobha. Stobha can be one or two syllables. One list of stobha is:
ā (e)re hā-u is phat as hā hṃ iṭ pnya auhovā hahas ho-i kāhvau um bhā hai hum kit up dada hā-i hup mṛ vava (e)bṛ ham hvau nam vo-I (e)rā has ihi om (Staal Vedic Mantras p.61)
Recently I was revisiting some websites about the sounds that people make during conversations - which the researchers call "non-lexical utterances" or "conversational grunts". The interest in these sounds came out of research into human-computer interfaces. Here is a list of non-lexical utterances on one site:
ai hh-aaaah iiyeah okay nuuuuu ukay uam uumm yeahh am hhh m-hm okay-hh nyaa-haao um uh uun yeahuuh neeu ao hhh-uuuh mm ooa nyeah um-hm-uh-hm uh-hn uuuh yegh nuu aoo hhn mm-hm ookay o-w umm uh-hn-uh-hn uuuuuuu yeh-yeah ohh aum hmm mm-mm oooh oa ummum uh-huh wow yei yeah eah hmmmmm mmm ooooh oh unkay uh-mm yah-yeah yo ehh hn myeah oop-ep-oop oh-eh unununu uh-uh ye yyeah achh h-nmm hn-hn nn-hn u-kay oh-kay uu uh-uhmmm yeah ah haah huh nn-nnn u-uh oh-okay uuh uhh yeah-okay ahh hh i nu u-uun oh-yeah uum uhhh yeah-yeah (Reponsive Systems Project)
The list could be supplemented from popular music (think James Brown for instance!), or for that matter from serious vocal music, which also use non-lexical syllables to pad sentences or verses to fit a metre. These non-lexical sounds function as feedback to the speaker, and are uttered in concert with the speaker in order to let them know that they are being heard and understood. A lot (but not all) of the information conveyed by these non-lexical sounds is contained in the prosodic aspects of speech - tone of voice, inflection - along with non-verbal signals such as facial expression, hand gestures, and body posture. These can indicate the attitude of the listener to what is being said, and how they feel about it.

While we cannot confirm this, it seems reasonable to surmise that stobhas were drawn from non-lexical sounds amongst Vedic speakers at the time. This further suggests that stobhas not only help a verse to conform to a metre or rhythm, but may also have served another pragmatic function when chanted in sāmans. They may have been imitating prosodic elements of speakers of the time, incorporating information about responses to the sāman within it. It may be possible for a suitably qualified person to test this idea.

It is the conclusion of some researchers into mantra, Fritz Staal being the leading light, that because mantra contain non-lexical sounds, that they are "meaningless". We would have to agree that sounds like oṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ do not have dictionary definitions, they do not refer to any "thing". However it's clear that Staal et al have been too narrowly focussed on semantics. Languistics may be focussed on words, but human communication involves very much more, and a great deal of communication may take place without any words at all. We can even make words mean the opposite of their dictionary meanin: I can say "I like your new haircut", while implying the exact opposite in an unequivocal way through the use of facial expression and vocal inflection for instance. (This is known technically as conversational implicature)

After the Ṛgvedic period mantras began to make more use of non-lexical sounds. Staal sees this as a persistence of primitive pre-linguistic sounds into the present: they are like bird song, animal noises, or the burbling of infants, and quite meaningless. They are the caveman grunts of popular imagination, retained by Indian religious leaders for ritual purposes. If we for a moment accept Staal's hypothesis his analysis of those kinds of sounds is grossly oversimplified since all three of these phenomena are far from meaningless if one knows how to listen. Worse still Staal appears to be making some unfortunate, rather "orientalist", implications about the subjects of his studies. This inelegant hypothesis is untestable, and does not open the way to further research. It certainly does not chime with the experience of mantra. Kūkai goes to the other extreme and counts every mantric syllable as being infinitely meaningful, and being the starting point for elucidating all knowledge and experience. In this he is adopting a world view which has its basis in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. A full explanation of Kūkai idea deserves it's own essay, and goes beyond what I am suggesting here. Not that I disagree, but I am looking for intermediate steps that make sense in a contemporary context.

Stobhas used in sāmans may well have been the model for the use of non-lexical syllables in mantra although this would be difficult to prove. They do bear a resemblance to non-lexical sounds used meaningfully in conversation by contemporary English speakers (and others). But even if they did not what it suggests to me is that we can look for meaning in ways that might not be obvious, and still not have to stray into metaphysics and mysticism. It may be that no explanation in these terms can fully comprehend mantra. That is not a problem. But in attempting such an explanation I think we can shed a lot more light on this subject, and make it more accessible in the process. The "mantras are meaningless" mantra is a dead end as far as research goes, and as far as elucidating the persistence of mantra over several millennia in Indian religious contexts.

image: The Reading Genie - "Say ah!"
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