24 September 2010

The Linguistic Joys of Popular Religion

As I have a prominent website dealing with Buddhist mantra, I frequently receive requests for help and advice with phrases in Sanskrit, often for tattoos. I tend not to help with tattoos, but I like to help Buddhists trying to understand what they are chanting. Recently, someone wrote asking about this phrase, suggesting that it was something the Buddha had said:
yad bhavam tad bhavati
This is clearly Sanskrit, a simple relative clause sentence (yad 'what, which'; tad 'that, this'). There is some possible ambiguity because of the lack of diacritics - is it bhavam or bhāvam? The former means 'becoming, being'; the latter 'being, origin'. However, there is some crossover - both can mean 'becoming, existence'. I think bhava is a primary derivation from the root bhū, and bhāva is a secondary derivative (of, or connected to, bhava). Either way, the sentence appears to be a tautology:
'what becomes, that is becoming' or 'what is, is'.
One interpretation might be that bhavam is intended in its special meaning of 'truth' - 'that which is true, that is'. This relies on the double meaning of satya 'true, real'; if something exists then it is both true and real. Now compare this with what it is said to mean on the internet. We begin with an article in the Huffington Post by Stacey Lawson, which is where my correspondent found the phrase:
There is a famous yogic teaching: "Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavati." The most literal translation is: "You become as you think." But the Sanskrit language has many layers of meaning. It can also be interpreted as, "The state of mind and the state of matter are one," or "The light of the mind coalesces as matter." Through delving into this single statement, the yogis were able to apprehend the entire structure of creation through the mind.
I'm already puzzled because of the capitalisation. People do this with mantras as well. You'll often see a mantra like 'oṃ maṇipadme hūṃ' written 'Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ'. What does capitalisation indicate in this case? Scholars will often use italics for foreign words, which helps the reader take in the difference, but how does this capitalisation help? I think one need only look in the King James Bible to see why we do this:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." John 1.1
We Buddhists do this as well. We capitalise words live nirvāṇa, enlightenment, buddha, to mark them as special, perhaps we might say 'sacred' (though I wouldn't) on the model of a 17th century English Bible, and in defiance of contemporary English conventions. This doesn't occur in Indic scripts since they lack capitals, and all words and letters are special anyway. I think it suggests an inferiority complex when we have to make sure everyone knows our jargon is 'special'.

What do people mean when they say things like, "But the Sanskrit language has many layers of meaning"? Is Sanskrit any more layered than other languages? No it isn't. But vague statements in a spiritual context lend themselves to meaning whatever you want them to mean. We supply the specifics depending on what we want to believe. In effect, the statement can mean almost anything we want it to. So the phrase gets translated as:

You become as you think
as you think so you become
It will transform as you wish
your feelings define your world
as is the feeling, so is the result
as is the feeling, so is the experience
what you intend, that becomes reality
The light of the mind coalesces as matter
The state of mind and the state of matter are one
what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth
Whatever you have in mind will be reflected back to you as a reality

Clearly, many of these statements are not logically connected to each other, or meaningful in any ordinary sense, and none of them seem to derive from the actual Sanskrit words. Which is more or less the same as saying that the Sanskrit phrase can mean anything you want it to (especially if you don't know Sanskrit!). This is a form of linguistic relativism, which presumably goes nicely with the "all is one" style of popular religion. But vagueness in language usually disguises vagueness of thought. As one website translates the phrase: "what you choose to believe becomes your personal truth." Quite. The sad fact is that people simply believe what they want to believe despite what intellect and experience tell them; and that, very often, what we affirm as true, or True, is merely what we believe, merely our opinion. It's like a belief in a creator god: it's just an opinion.

Although my interlocutor thought this was a Buddhist saying, it clearly isn't. Though compare this fake Buddha quote:
“The mind is everything. What you think you become.” Buddha quotes (Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)
Apart from a spelling mistake and dubious dates, the thing that stands out for me is that the Buddha is described as a Hindu! It may be that the first sentence in this quote is a garbled version of the Pāli verses which begin the Dhammapada, but the phrasing is quite different.
mano pubbaṅgamā dhammā manoseṭṭhā manomayā.
Mind precedes experience, mind is foremost, [experience is] mind-made.
And, in any case, this is an ethical teaching, not an ontological one - it is about how your mental state determines the outcomes of your actions. I've also seen a website where our phrase is associated with Tibetan Buddhism, though the artist/author also says that the statement: "is a truth that transcends religion" . The phrase - yad bhavam, tad bhavati - may simply be a fake Buddha quote. Bodhipakṣa, of Wildmind fame. has been collecting fake Buddha quotes for a while now if anyone is interested in this phenomenon.

Elsewhere, I have seen the phrase attributed to 'the Upaniṣads' and 'The Bhagavadgīta', but not convincingly. The context of the Sanskrit phrase (as opposed to the various translations) always seems to be Hindu, and mostly associated with Sathya Sai Baba, the controversial South Indian 'holy man', not to be confused with Sai Baba of Shirdi (the 19th century saint). Many of the web hits point to a discourse called God is the Indweller, where it is spelt it a little differently:
Yad Bhavam Tad Bhavathi
As you think so you become.
Here bhavati, has become bhavathi, and I'm unsure about what it could be except a spelling mistake. Though he also spells satya as sathya, so it could be a matter of idiosyncratic rather than mistaken spelling. Although the phrase comes in a talk peppered with Sanskrit quotes and translations for which textual sources are cited, no source is given for this particular phrase. He does, however, mention the story of Prahlada (a character from the Puraṇas) and one translation I found suggested that our phrase in the form - "Yad Bhavam tad Bhavati (Whatever you have in mind will be reflected back to you as a reality)" [sic!] - might occur in this connection. I couldn't find any confirmation of this, however.

After a bit of playing around with the Devanāgarī I did find one quote in the form "यद्‌भावम्‌ तद्‌भवती" (i.e., yad bhāvam tad bhavatī) where bhavatī is a spelling mistake for bhavati. Technically, in Sanskrit you'd probably write this यद्भवम्तद्भवति with sandhi and conjuncts obscuring the word breaks. But this did not shed any light on the origins of the phrase.

An email on the subject from Sanskritist Kiran Paranjape, who I often refer people to for tattoo transcriptions, makes me wonder whether Sai Baba hasn't just done a Sanskrit translation of the Spanish/Italian phrase "Que sera, sera" - "What will be, will be." The Sanskrit would be according to Kiran: yad bhāvyam tad bhavati, which is very close to our phrase. I would have gone for something like: 'yad yad bhāvyam tad tad bhaviṣyati', though it lacks the brevity of the original; or perhaps 'yad bhāvyam, bhāvyam' which captures the form but, like the original, is not fully grammatical.

Another possibility is that 'you become what you think' is an example of the so-called Law of Attraction - a form of magical thinking popular in Theosophical circles, and amongst New Age gurus like Deepak Chopra. It forms the basis of the book: Think and Grow Rich. It may be that the phrase has also been picked up on by Sai Baba. It sounds vaguely similar to Hindu religious ideas, so fits in with his rhetoric.

After quite a lot of searching around, I did not find any traditional Indian source - Vedas, major Upaniṣads, Epics and Puraṇas; in either Roman or Devanāgarī. Perhaps I have missed something, but it doesn't seem to be obvious. I should add that the whole thing is redolent of Hindu spirituality, and may well be genuine - the fact that I can't find it may be a failing on my part. The phrase is widely quoted across the internet, and attributed to a range of people or texts. On the face of it, however, the words are a bit of meaningless cant that 'spiritual' people project their ideas onto, the linguistic equivalent of crystals.

I suppose this is how legends get started. Someone, for whatever reason, attributes some saying to the Buddha. Later generations take it seriously, but not finding a source for it, must create a plausible context for the fake quote. So we get drift from the words of the master towards the words of fakers (who may have been well intentioned, I'm not suggesting they are necessarily evil). Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference, especially if we aren't familiar with a wide range of sources. This is one of the most valuable functions of scholars: to take cant like this and explain why it is inauthentic, to slow the drift towards mumbo-jumbo.
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