26 December 2008

Communicating the Dharma

The experience of bodhi was always going to be difficult to describe and explain. This is dramatised in the well known story from the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta of the Buddha wondering whether it would be possible at all, and then being begged by Brahmā Sahampati to teach the Dharma. Of course any experience is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn't had the same experience, especially if it is something entire new. A simile would be explaining the colour red to someone blind from birth.

Sometimes it seems as though traditional Buddhism considers that the Buddha had a single decisive experience that he then set about teaching about it for 45 years. Clearly this is an over simplification. But what was it like for the Buddha? What kind of process did he go through in order to assimilate his insight? Two suttas in the Saṃyutta Nikāya give a small window into this process. I suppose them to reflect a very early period of the Buddha's career.

The two suttas (SN 45.11 and 45.12) are identical except for a minor detail - the period of seclusion. In each the Buddha tells his companions that he wishes to go into seclusion for either half a month, or for three months, and that no one should approach him except to bring him alms food. When the Buddha returns he announces to the bhkkkhus:
yena svāhaṃ, bhikkhave, vihārena paṭhamābhisambuddho viharāmi, tassa padesena vihāsiṃ
I have been dwelling in the region in which I dwelt when I had newly realised awakening.
Now this is really very interesting. The Buddha is here shown to go back to dwell in the region (padesa) of his insight. Note that the metaphor is spacial - he was going back to the same 'space' as we might say. Now this phrase, as far as I can determine only occurs in these two texts, but is quoted from these texts in the Visuddhimagga (XVII,9 : p.594). Buddhaghosa uses the content of these suttas to argue against simple dependent origination and I don't plan to deal with that here. He does gloss padesa as "one part" suggesting that the Buddha dwelt in or on only some aspect of his immediate post-awakening experience.

The Buddha then attempts to convey something of what he has understood in the process. He begins: So evaṃ pajānāmi - "thus I have understood it", or "I know thus". The Sanskrit verbal root of pajānāmi is one that should be familiar to all Buddhists: jñā, which is related to our words 'know' and 'gnosis' and has much the same sense as the these English words.

In the texts the Buddha talks about the various factors that condition (paccaya) sensations (vedanā). He says that there are sensations associated with the various aspects of the Eightfold path: wrong view (micchādiṭṭhi), and right or perfect view (sammādiṭṭhi) - up to wrong concentration (micchāsamādhi) and perfect concentration (sammāsamādhi). Further there are sensations associated with desire (chanda), thinking (vitakka) and with the perceptions (saññā). Sensations are present in all the combinations of presence or absence of these three. When they are all absent something new arises that is simply described as stretching out for (āyāmaṃ) the attainment of the as-yet unattained (appattassa pattiyā), and finally there are sensations associated with this.

So what can we make of this. Firstly let me say that it is not immediately obvious. There are some inconsistencies here if this text is describing an early period in the Buddha's career. One of the things that happens with texts is that over time they start to become formulaic. Things start to be quoted as lists, and further on when there is an obvious progression the list can be, as it is here, abbreviated by the word 'pe'. Many examples of less formulaic, more spontaneous sounding suttas can be found for example in the Sutta Nipātta, which for that reason, amongst others, is considered to be an earlier strata of the canon. Now, if this was some new insight that the Buddha was bringing back from his revisiting of the immediate post-enlightenment space, I hardly think he'd skip over the details of it. So both the presence of the eight-fold path, and the fact that it is abbreviated suggest that the sutta was composed rather late in the process of the creation of the Canon. Perhaps this passage was inserted at a later time; perhaps it was edited at a later time; perhaps the conjecture that the sutta relates to the Buddha's early career is just wrong.

The linking of "desire, thinking, and perceptions" is a collocation that I am unfamiliar with. In fact it doesn't seem to form a natural list at all. And this may be a sign again, of a poor job of later editing, or of a much less systematic presentation of the Buddha's insights. Notice also that the text says that even in the absence of these three that there is vedanā - sensation.

I begin to suspect that words are being used in way with which I am unfamiliar, so let's check a few definitions. Vedanā is built on the root vid "to know" from which we get many familiar words such as veda, and vidya. The verb form vedeti actually has a two-fold meaning according to the PED: in the intellectual sphere it can mean "to know", and more generally "to experience". I am so used to seeing vedanā used in a technical sense, that it can be easy to forget that it has other connotations! I think vedanā is being used in a more general sense of experience because if we use it in the more traditional sense we find logical inconsistencies.

Vitakka is an interesting choice here. Again it is more familiar as a technical term relating to meditation and the establishment of concentration. More generally it means "reflection, thought, thinking" - the vi- prefix can mean divided or expanding, and in the latter sense is used as an intensifier, and takka means "twisting or turning", and in an applied sense "doubt, a doubtful view, hair-splitting". I think we can take vitakka here as "turning something over in the mind", we might translate this as "reflection" (from Latin: reflex-, pp. stem of reflectere, from re- "back" + flectere "to bend." Online Etymological Dictionary).

Saññā is saṃ- + jñā so means literally "complete knowing". It is used in the senses of: "sense, consciousness, perception; discernment, recognition, assimilation of sensations, awareness; conception, notion, idea; sign, gesture, token, mark". Technically it means the recognition of a vedanā, but it must be being used in a different sense here because it functions as a condition for vedanā, not the other way around! I think its being used in the sense of consciousness or awareness generally.

The Buddha is saying that in the absence of affective responses to experience; the absence of intellectual responses to experience; and the absence of being aware in it's more fundamental sense: there is still experience! Were on the home straight now. I think the Buddha is saying that there is an experience beyond normal everyday experiences, which causes one to stretch out to something as yet unattained. There are a couple of synonyms in the Sāmaññaphala Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya no. 2) where it talks about the Buddha stretching and reaching out (abhinīharati abhininnāmeti) with his mind (citta) towards knowledge of other peoples minds, his own previous existences, and of the passing away and arising of beings; and in the culmination of the Awakening experience his mind stretches out towards knowledge of the destruction of the influxes (āsavas) (D.i 79-84).

This may sound quite jejune to the contemporary Buddhist. But I go back to my original conjecture that this is likely to be an early discourse - edited perhaps but at least based on an actual early occasion. The Buddha is trying to explain something entirely new to his followers, to his new followers. And perhaps they, like us, are caught up in the magic show of sensory experience. The Buddha here is saying something quite profound - that if one looks beyond mundane everyday experiences, if one can put aside desire, intellectual twisting and turning, if one reaches beyond the normal scope of consciousness - then one finds not annihilation, but something as yet unattained. There is an air of mystery in this text. I find it a little difficult to believe that this will have been all the Buddha said on such an occasion. The Buddha usually also set out a method for his disciples to follow, but this is all that has been recorded by the tradition.

I think we may have here a somewhat fragmentary edited version of what it might have been like for the Buddha in the early days of his mission. He dwelt in states that had never been attained before, and therefore never described. He did not set out to create a new vāda or religious dogma, but tried to base his teaching in experience; and tried to devise methods for his disciples to achieve the same thing, and to motivate them to try it. This meant in part that he had to use language in new and interesting ways, and fortunately for us he had some genius in this area!

image: www.travexnet.com

19 December 2008

The Whole of the Spiritual Life

Last week I was exploring the notion of "the spiritual life" - aka brahmacarya. Today I'm going to write about a text that may well be familiar since it is often quoted in the FWBO. This is the famous incident (found at Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.2) when Ānanda, in his innocence, proclaims to the Buddha that:
upaḍḍhamidam, bhante, brahmacariyaṃ, yadidaṃ kalyānamittatā kalyānasahāyatā kalyānasampavaṅkata.

Half of this holy life, bhante, is spiritual friendship, spiritual companionship, spiritual intimacy.
To which the Buddha replies: mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ! Sakalamevidaṃ... "don't say that, Ānanda, don't say that! It is the whole of the spiritual life!" I quite like the old translation (by Woodward?) that is handed down orally in the FWBO: "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so!"

So let's just pause here to look at what these qualities are that Ānanda thinks are half, and the Buddha thinks are the whole of the brahmacariya. Firstly kalyāna is a wonderful word in Pāli which as an adjective means "beautiful, charming; auspicious, helpful, morally good" and as a noun "a good or useful thing; goodness, virtue, merit, meritorious action; kindness, good service; beauty, attraction, perfection. From the same Indo-European root comes the Greek kalos whence comes the English word 'kaleidoscope' - coined in the 19th century and meaning literally "observer of beautiful forms".

Kalyāna is prefixed to three terms in the quote above: mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata. Let's look at these one at a time.

Mitta is friend in Pāli, and mittatā is the abstract noun, friendship. But this word has a very interesting history. In Sanskrit the word is mitra, and in Avestan - the proto-Persian language - mithro. Now Mitra was the name of a Vedic god who played a particular role in the universe. Along with Varuṇa he helped to maintain the harmonious cosmic order ṛta. In particular Mitra was associated with contracts. This sense of a the bond of a contract underlies the concept of friendship in the word mitra. The Persian god Mithra had some of the same functions and this has helped to reinforce the idea that Persians and Vedic speaking Indians had a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Indo-Europeans. So a mitra is someone who shares a common bond.

The concept of mettā is an abstraction from mittatā - that is it describes the qualities of the relationship in mittatā or friendship. In Buddhism it comes to mean the universal loving kindness of the awakened person who is described as constantly pervading the universe in all directions with mettā for all beings (see esp. the Tevijja Sutta DN 13). It occurs to me that this too could be a reference to Mitra the god, who did pervade the universe with his power. It fits the context of what Richard Gombrich considers the first discourse on mettā (ie the Tevijja Sutta) - but there-in lies another story which is too long for this post, but which I touch on in The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor.

Sahāya means companion or friend, and therefore sahāyatā means companionship or friendship. The base here though is saha which means "together", and the connotation is therefore "togetherness". A 'companion' in English is one with whom you share (Latin com, 'with') bread (panis). This world is known as a saha world "because we all suffer together", according to my colleague Sahānanda. In the Upaniṣads the goal of the brahmacarin is (in Sanskrit) 'brahmasahāvyata' or companionship with Brahma - it is this idea that the Buddha is critiquing in the Tevijja Sutta.

Sampavaṅka is perhaps from saṃ + pari + anka. Anka being the hollow above the hip where mothers carry their babies, so the word might literally be "together + encompassed + on the hip" with the sense of sharing the same mother, of being cradle mates. Once again the -tā suffix makes this an abstract known - perhaps 'intimateness'? In any case it is used in the sense of intimacy, or intimate friendship.

We have here, then, three synonymous terms - mittatā, sahāyatā, and sampavaṅkata- which give us a sense of a quality that none alone quite manages to describe: someone we are bound together with in an intimate relationship. And each term is prefixed with kalyāna emphasising that the nature of this relationship is virtuous, beautiful and helpful. Clearly this is a refined ideal and one that we are not going to meet with that often. We have friends, we have intimate friends, but there are not many people in our lives who are going to fulfil all of these criteria. In fact other texts say that the Buddha is the ideal kalyānamitta, the ideal spiritual friend.

Our text then moves on to describe in what way the whole of the spiritual life is bound up in the beautiful friend etc. Firstly the one who has these three qualities will be bound to devote themselves to, and make much of (bahulīkarissati) the Eightfold path of the Noble Ones. Another way of putting it, the text says, is that by relying on the Buddha as a spiritual mentor beings who are subject to birth, old age, death, and to all manner of suffering will be released from these. In this way one we should understand that the spiritual friend, companion, and intimate is the whole of the brahmacarya.

So a kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka is someone, like the Buddha, who is able to help you be free from suffering, someone who can help you to be liberated, to attain nibbāna. It seems to me then that the standard translation as "good friend" is hardly adequate to the job. I have been using the word "spiritual" for kalyāna but it is a bit overused, I used it also for the brahma part of brahmacarya, and generally speaking the word "spiritual" is so over used that it is almost meaningless these days. I wonder whether something like "virtuous mentor" might not give a better sense of what is meant by kalyāna mitta-sahāya-sampavaṅka. The word 'virtue' is etymologically linked to 'vīra', the hero. However our societies don't honour virtuousness, and sometimes see it as a sign of weakness. So even 'virtuous' has lost its punch.

Our contemporary use of the word "mentor" derives from a character in Homer's Odyssey. While Odysseus is on his way home his son Telemachus has a lot to contend with. His house is invaded by men who, thinking his father dead, would marry his mother and take Odysseus's wealth and power for their own. Telemachus is at his wit's end, and actually in danger of being killed by the suitors when the Goddess Athena appears to him in the guise of Mentor, an old family friend. As mentor Athena advises Telemachus so that he not only comes through unscathed, but smooths the way for Odysseus to return. So a mentor is one who embodies virtue or divinity, who gives us guidance and advice, and who has our best interests at heart. In contemporary terms a mentor is someone who shares their life and experience with us, and this chimes with what Sangharakshita has said is the main role of a guru. The Buddha is of course like this - he wants people to be free of suffering. Time and again he reminds people that this is the whole point of his teaching. So he is the mentor par excellence. I think this also fits with the notion of the traditional bond between a master and disciple. On a more cosmic level this relationship corresponds to the later notion of adhiṣṭhāna or in Japanese Kaji, sometimes translated as "grace". I have discussed this in my essay Buddhism as a path of gracefulness, so won't say more here.

To sum up then: the text is saying that a virtuous, even an enlightened, mentor is the whole of the brahmacarya, the spiritual life.

12 December 2008

The spiritual life or Brahmacarya

Linguists study language in one of two basic ways. They look at language through time, how it changes, and the processes that drive and inform that change. This is called a diachronic approach - 'dia-' meaning 'across'. When applied to what a particular word means we usually refer to this kind of study as etymology. The etymology of the word 'etymology' tells us that the two parts mean: true (eteos) word (logia) and the sense of it is that it reveals the true meaning of the word. [Note the parallel with the Japanese word for mantra: shingon = true word] Or linguists study what language does now, what things mean in the context of the present and in a particular place. This approach is called synchronic - 'syn-' meaning 'together'. Ironically the history of a word can be entirely irrelevant to what it means now. Consider the contemporary meaning of the word 'terrific' which originally meant terrifying!

Just as one can study what a word means these way, we can study what an idea means. In this post I plan to do a potted history of an idea which I am representing by the phrase "spiritual life" in English which equates with the Sanskrit word brahmacarya (it is the same in Pāli). We can begin with an etymology. Brahmacarya is a compound combining the elements brahma and carya. 'Brahma' is the uninflected form of the noun, as we expect in a Sanskrit compound. So it can mean either the transcendent principle of the universe, brahman (neuter tense), or the more concrete manifestation of the creator God, Brahmā (masculine tense). It's important to realise that these two are not necessarily synonymous. Carya more literally means "going about, wandering, walking or roaming, visiting, driving", and in its applied sense means "behaviour, conduct; practising, performing, occupation with, engaging in". The word brahmacarya is used in relation to a number of ideas, and how we understand it depends to a large extent on what time and place we are talking about.

In the early days of the Vedic religion the sages often were faced with, or posed each other, puzzles of a metaphysical nature: for instance they wondered on what did the creator stand when he created the world? Answers to these puzzles were known as brahmans. The Ṛgveda contains many puzzles, and many brahmans. The ancient Vedic world view was one in which the world was wondrous and ordered by a mysterious cosmic principle that they called ṛta. Everything in the world was interconnected and participated in this cosmic order, and maintenance of the cosmic order was a joint project between the gods and the priests. So a brahman was like an insight into the cosmic order. The Vedics also believed that such insights, especially insights into the connections (bandhu) between this world and heaven were important for understanding, and therefore maintaining ṛta. The functional aspect of the Vedic religion was the act of sacrifice, with the sacrificial fire (agni) being the medium of exchange between this world and heaven - such commerce being essential for maintaining ṛta.

Perhaps due to the changing social circumstances - for instance the discovery and use of iron that helped to transform the Ganges plain from forest to farmland - priests began to reflect on their function. In particular they began to believe that it was possible to abstract the sacrificial ritual and perform it in imagination. The texts in which these ideas were first composed were commentaries on the Saṃhita portions of the Vedas and were called brāhmaṇa. Confusingly the priests themselves were now also called brāhmaṇas - I use the Anglacized Brahmin to talk about the priests. It was perhaps at this time that the cosmic order ṛta was reconceptualised as dharma - which can mean both 'nature' and 'duty' thus incorporating similar concepts, but moving in a new direction.

Not long before the Buddha this movement to think about things, to create abstractions, and to work in the imagination, took form in the Upaniṣadic or Vedantic traditions (although the latter terms seems to have come along much later). It is in the Upaniṣads that we meet with the two conceptions I mentioned above: brahman the abstract transcendental principle; and Brahmā the creator god. Of course at this time there are also recorded many other religious traditions, indeed if we read history right there was an explosion of new ideas around this time that coincided with similar processes in other parts of the world. The period has been called the Axial Age. The non-Brahmin sectarians were called śramaṇas - from the root śram meaning to work or toil. Incidentally some linguists think this word śramaṇa comes into English, via Asian and Russian intermediaries, as the word shaman (more on this in a future post).

In this early Upaniṣadic period (also known as the "Late Vedic period") a Brahmin man is described as going through several stages in life or āśramas (incidental from the same root śram). Women are not part of this picture. Different texts describe different numbers of stages, and some see them not as a sequence but as different possible lifestyles, however all seem to include brahmacarya. Taken as a sequence in the early stage of life one was unmarried and this, even today in Indian, is synonymous with being celibate. However celibacy was probably initially incidental for unmarried men, and the importance of this phase of life was that it involved learning and study. The ideal was for a son to study with his father. However some students went to live and study with teachers, and some even wandered from place to place and teacher to teacher. The object of study was still considered to be the Vedas and their associated rituals, but may have included the śastric branches of knowledge as well such as grammar, mathematics and astrology. Conformation of this basic set up are found in early Buddhist texts which frequently refer to Brahmins as well versed in the Vedas and other Brahminical studies. After this period of learning the Brahmin youth might stay with his teacher, but more usually was expected to return home and marry, produce more sons and in turn educate them in the Brahminical lore and procedures.

The Buddha was to some extent limited in how he got his ideas across by the language of the day. Sometimes he simply used existing terms unchanged (eg. tapas asceticism) and sometimes he attempted to redefine a word as in the case of dharma and in this case of brahmacarya. In fact the Buddha attempted to totally redefine the concept of what a Brahmin is - linking it to behaviour rather than birthright. Clearly this latter project failed, but we have inherited this word brahmacarya.

In the early Buddhist texts brahmacarya keeps virtually the same reference, but loses the any sense of sequence. Anyone who is undertaking some kind of spiritual or religious training could be referred to as a brahmacarin. It's quite a common usage in the canon. All bhikkhus were undertaking brahmacarya because they undertake religious vows, study sacred texts, and undertake various religious and ascetic practices. However at some point - and I'm not sure when this happened - the word came to have the much narrower meaning of 'chastity' that is the abstention from any kind of sexual activity (and the vinaya is explicit and exhaustive in proscribing forms of sex!). It's ironic that what was originally a mere coincidence because of the rigid social structures which required that there be no sex before marriage, is not the most important feature of the lifestyle.

To some extent the WBO has revalorised the word, broadening it our again to mean one who doesn't indulge the pleasures of the senses. Someone who undertakes a vow of brahmacarya does refrain from sexual activity, but also undertakes to avoid over stimulating themselves in other ways as well. They may also express this by trying to let go of personal preferences. Someone who takes a life vow of brahmacarya is known in our order an an anagarika. This means one (-ka) who does not have (an-) a home (agara). So another feature of their lives is that they try to minimise possessions and this is usually interpreted especially as including not owning real-estate.

image: from a post on celibacy by Shravasti Dhammika on his blog Dhamma Musings.

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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