05 December 2008

Yāska and his 'Nirukta'

In an earlier post on sound symbolism I made reference to the Indian grammarian Yāska, and I thought it would be a good idea to flesh out the picture of his method and why it should still be of interest to those interested in mantra.

Despite his subsequent influence, we do not know very much about Yāska. His dates are uncertain but most scholars place him between 700 - 300 BCE. His single surviving work is the Nirukta. The early grammarians were responding to a particular problem which was that the spoken language of the day had drifted substantially away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language of the sacred Vedas. This meant that passages of the sacred Vedas had become obscure or even unintelligible. Many passages in the Ṛgveda remain obscure. This is a natural consequence of language change and I have previously noted the example of the noun vahatu which occurs in the first verse of the Dhammapada, but whose meaning was apparently obscure to the commentators, and does not appear in traditional dictionaries. The response of the ancient Indians was to study and systematise their language - the contemporary studies of phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology owe much to the Sanskrit grammarians. The result was Classical Sanskrit - saṃskṛta means something like "crafted". Yāska was particularly interested in some of the words that had become obscure and systematised a set of principles for determining what they might mean.

The Nirukta, following an existing tradition, treats all words as deriving from verbal roots - these are the notional abstracts which underlie words. So from the root √budh, we get via a regular process the verb bodhati (to know). Similarly the past-participle buddha (one who knows), and nouns buddhi (intelligence) and bodhi (awakening) are treated analytically as deriving from the verbal root through a series of logical transformations. For instance in first class verbs the vowel in the root undergoes guṇa or "strengthening" with √budh become bodh; active present tense stems are formed by adding the vowel 'a', and then suffixes indicate person and number: 1st person singular bodhāmi, 3rd person plural bodhanti. the verbal noun. Historically the process must have worked the other way - through analysing a group of related word. An entire language was subjected to a detailed analysis without the aid of writing! It is a work of collective genius.

Some words are more difficult to trace. The verb tiṣṭhati (to stand) for instance is thought to come from the root √sthā. Other strange examples are √gam > gacchati (to go) > gata (gone), √dṛś > paśyati (to see) > dṛṣṭi (a view). So it is possible to come across a word and find that identifying the underlying concept is quite difficult.

As described in Eivind Kahrs 1998 book Indian semantic analysis, the Nirukta proposes three levels of analysis. Firstly there are obvious examples like √budh where the root and it's transformations are known. Secondly there are examples where the meaning is not obvious but one can use grammatical paradigms to work out what sense of it is - such as √gam. Thirdly there are very obscure examples which defy logical analysis. It is in these extreme cases that one must apply what has become known as a nirukta or nirvacana analysis. (Sadly I don't have a definite example of one of these).

This kind of analysis has been liken to etymology - the contemporary study of the way a word changes its meaning over time. So the word "know" comes into modern English from Old English cnawan, and is related to Greek gno- (as in the word 'gnosis'); and the Sanskrit. jña- "know" and comes ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European base *gno- "to know". This approach has allowed scholars to speculate on the existence of a language which must underlie all Indo-European languages - which they call "Proto-Indo-European" - and to specify what some of it's features must have been in order to give rise to the variations we see.

Yāska's procedure was somewhat different. Where the root of a word could be determined and was still obscure in meaning, Yāska employed a system of sound symbolism. That is to say that he employed the knowledge that words which share phonemes, especially initial phonemes, have a much higher likelihood of overlapping in meaning, than two words which do not share phonemes. If one approaches this systematically then it is possible to make fairly accurate guesses as to what a word might mean. Having narrowed the field, one can then use context get closer to the meaning.

Contemporary linguists are loath to accept that a phoneme can carry meaning, but there is no a priori reason to think this, and there is evidence to suggest that it is true. Meaning is of course a vague term - what does meaning mean? It seems to me that there is always a level of ambiguity in verbal communication - the higher the level of structure the more clearly defined the meaning being conveyed. An idea might be conveyed with a word, but then words can be ambiguous, and individual words can related in different ways to themselves and to their referents. A sentence relieves some of this ambiguity, but a complex idea may take a paragraph to express, and a book or even a series of books to fully explicate. At the other end of the scale as we break down words into their component parts we lose clarity - prefixes, suffixes and roots for instance are less clear on their own. Individual phonemes then represent a level below this and carry information with considerable ambiguity, but are not absolutely arbitrary.

So there is every reason for Yāska to resort to this feature of language when other more sure methods have failed him. Remember that he was highly motivated to find the meaning of words because they occurred in the Vedas and had the status of revealed and eternal truths. The loss of meaning in this context is disastrous! Just leaving the meaning obscure was not an option.

Despite the fact that his Nirukta is the earliest surviving text of this type Yāska was not the originator of this method, he was a systematiser. Evidence for the method emerges in the Brāhmaṇa literature - beginning perhaps 1200-1000 BCE. Eivind Kahrs notes example from thr Ṛgveda: uṣā ucchati - "the dawn dawns", which indicates a perception of the underlying connection between the two words despite being spelled somewhat differently. This search for connections - bandhu - is characteristic of the Brāhmaṇa literature and of the Vedic religion generally (see my Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness). Perhaps given the central important of bandhu in the Vedic religion it is no surprise that it should have been the approach to revealing linguistic mysteries.

Johannes Bronkhorst has drawn attention to parallels between the Nirukta and Plato's Cratylus. The two may well have lived at the same time, although it seems unlikely that they could have known each other. The main parallel of course is that both Yāska and Plato consider that phonemes can and do carry meaning, and can given clues as to what a word means. I covered this in my Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism although there I illustrated Yāska's method with an example I found in Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga. I think now that Buddhaghosa is working at some remove to Yāska, although the sound symbolic aspect is still present and prominent. Buddhaghosa is of course applying the method to very familiar words which would have needed no explanation to Buddhaghosa's audience. Similarly T.P. Kasulis has drawn parallels between the Cratylus and Kūkai's Shōji jissō gi (The Meaning Sound, word reality - see Hakeda, Y. Major Works p. 234 f.).

The reason I think that Yāska is worth knowing about is that the ideas that he helped to systematise and popularise seem related to the way in which words have power in India. We say for instance that mantras are 'sound symbols'. This idea is underpinned by Yāska's theory. The use of sounds which have no apparent semantic content - such as oṃ or hūṃ - may make more sense when we recall that the milieu in which they were used was one in which a systematic study had been made of the way that words that sound alike are frequently related in meaning. I firmly believe that Buddhism is best understood against the background of Indian thought generally, and that to study the history of Buddhist ideas in isolation (which is typical) gives a false impression.

Note: 22 Dec
I didn't say this at the time, but in Yāska's day there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised. Coming upon an unfamiliar form one had very limited resources - probably only one's guru - to consult. It's important to keep this in mind when thinking about this subject.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2001. "Etymology and Magic: Yāska's Nirukta, Plato's Cratylus, and The Riddle of Semantic Etymologies." Numen, Volume 48, Number 2, 2001 , pp. 47-203(57)
  • Hakeda, Y. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).
  • Kahrs, Eivind. 1998 Indian semantic analysis : the nirvacana tradition. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
  • Kasulis, T.P. Reference and Symbol in Plato's Cratylus and Kukai's Shojijissogi. Philosophy East and West, 32 (4), Oct., 1982, p.393-405. Available online: http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-PHIL/kasulis3.htm

Next Week: brahmacarya - the spiritual life.

image: Vedic text from probedeep.blogspot.com
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