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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How can Sacred Texts be understood?

The theistic traditions posit that it is possible to understand the Sacred Texts by the will of God, who reveals them. In the atheistic Mīmāṃsā, on the other hand, the possibility of understanding is based on our linguistic expertise: We have to rely on worldly meanings of words when reading the Sacred Texts since we have no other key to their interpretation. Hence, the mastery of worldly meanings is a pre-condition for the understanding of a Sacred Text. But what if that text prescribes a kind of duty which is fully new (apūrva), unprecedented, that is, non-attainable through any other (worldly) kind of knowledge? Should it not remain beyond any possible grasp?

This issue raises thought-provoking questions for all theological discourse. How can the non-human be expressed in terms accessible to human beings?

Let me now sketch the problem and its solution within Tantrarahasya IV.

Rāmānujācārya lets a Prābhākara propose the option that even in worldly sentences prescribing something to be done, what one grasps is the pure ``ought", so that one can grasp the ought in itself even in mundane commands (TR IV 9.6). Rāmānujācārya dissents. According to him, it is only through its link to action, which can be experienced even in this world, that we can understand what an ought means, and, hence, understand it even in its apūrva-garb in the Sacred Texts. Thus, Rāmānujācārya confirms the Mīmāṃsā commitment to our common experience even in regard to the Veda.
This final position of Rāmānujācārya has linguistic roots. According to both the Bhāṭṭa and the Prābhākara school of Mīmāṃsā, the relation betweeen a word and the entity it means is fixed (nitya). Nonetheless, this does not mean that everyone, upon hearing for the first time a word, automatically understands its meaning.
Rather, one needs first to acquire proficiency in language through exposure to the usage of elders and through witnessing the connection of this verbal usage to physical actions (both these aspects may be referred to as vyavahāra). E.g., after having heard one's grandfather ordering:“Bring [the] cow!," one sees one's father bringing a cow. Through many similar instances, one eventually learns the meaning of the words “Bring!” and “cow”.

However, according to the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā, the meaning conveyed by the Veda is a duty (kārya) that is unprecedented (apūrva). Hence, how could it be possible to learn the relation between a word and a meaning in the case of an unprecedented duty (apūrvakārya) through the usage of one's seniors? And if this is not possible, how could one understand the meaning of the Vedic words referring to it?
In fact, the relation between Vedic words and the unprecedented duty is fixed, but a meaning can be grasped only by people who have previously understood, by means of the linguistic usage of senior speakers, the relation between the signifiying word and its meaning. Hence, a relation lying beyond the possibility of being grasped in the usage of senior speakers would be fixed, but unattainable and useless for human beings. Nor can it be said that one can learn the meaning of Vedic words referring to an apūrvakārya through the Veda itself, as in this case there would be a vicious circle (the elders' usage would depend on the Veda, whose understanding depends on the elders' usage).

For some tables on this topic, see here.


Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

This is a very interesting post! I'm struck by parallels to what I've read on pragmatics applied to language: words in both cases are 'speech actions'.

I'm surprised to find Indian philosophers of language saying that meaning is fixed in this way. I understood them to be aware that the spoken language of their time had changed from the language of the Vedas, and that this understanding was central to their inquiry into the nature of language. They must have known that words had changed, surely? And Sanskrit is full of synonyms!

This brings the Nirukta to mind, and the problem of analysing and understanding a unfamiliar (unprecedented!) word form. What did the mīmaṃsakāḥ make of this I wonder?

In Pāli there is a passage (M iii.234) which acknowledges that there can be many local words for the same object, e.g. pāti, patta, vittha, serāva, dhāropa, poṇa or pisīla (all variations on 'bowl'). To insist on one name would be to cause conflict, and in any case one knows the object whatever it is called. "A rose by any other name..." But this is objects not duties I suppose.

With regard to understanding something unprecedented there is an interesting parallel in 9th century Japanese Buddhism. At the time they had a scholastic form of Mahāyāna Buddhism which held that the Dharmakāya Buddha was entirely abstract and completely inaccessible to language or concepts. Kūkai introduced the notion drawn from Tantra that the Dharmakāya Buddha was able to communicate through mudrā, mantra and maṇḍala (and the combinations found in the abhiṣekha and sādhana were passed on directly from the Dharmakāya via quite a short lineage - Kūkai was only 7th in line for instance). One 'understands' the communication by adopting the mudrā, reciting the mantra, and holding some aspect of the maṇḍala in mind (what we call visualising). In doing so one has the same experience as the Dharmakāya Buddha, that is one awakens and becomes a tathāgata 'like that'. So the ineffable and unprecedented is communicated effectively through symbolic actions of body, speech and mind. Kūkai had a hard job getting people to go along with this idea, so his apologetics make interesting reading.

Given that we have reached the point where the meaning of some Vedic passages seems to have been lost forever I wonder whether the Prābhākara Mīmāṃsā is correct - that without someone who already knows, it is impossible to find out?

I wonder if there is a simple example of an apūrva kārya? I'm struggling to relate what I know of the Vedas to this question.

Best Wishes

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarava,
thanks for the comment. I thought it was one of my Mīmāṃsaka (i.e., abstruse) posts.

1. I cannot really see any direct link between Kūkai and the problem of understanding something unprecedented, could you explain further (or link to some other post)?

2. An example of apūrva kārya is "svargakāmo yajeta", that is, "the one who is desirous of heaven should sacrifice". According to the Bhāṭṭas or the Prābhākaras, what is unprecedented is either the link between a worldly action and an over-worldly result, or the very concept of duty. In my opinion, what is unprecedented by direct perception and the other means of knowledge is the very prescriptiveness. Through direct perception, one could know that X is Y, but one would never learn that X *has to be* Y

3. You are right, the distinction between Veda and worldly language is fundamental for Mīmāṃsakas. But the distinction is conceived of horizontally and not temporally. I plan to post about it, but the basic idea is: instead of X, there is Y. The Veda is different than the worldly usage, but not because the former *evolved into* the latter (see Eivind Kahrs, Indian semantic analysis, Cambridge).

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

"I thought it was one of my Mīmāṃsaka (i.e., abstruse) posts."

Well it was, but I'm interested in the issue of how people make sense of sacred texts.

The Kūkai link might be a bit too obscure.

I think I understand what you are saying about apūrva kārya now. It is a dilemma. If something is required, i.e. if the only way to heaven is through sacrifice, then it's important to know this. But the knowledge is not got in the usual way. Hence the value of the Vedas. Yes? But even so understanding them is not possible for the same reason - that reading them and fully understanding them, understanding the prescriptive nature, are two different things.

I had thought that there was some historical consciousness about language change - dating back to Pāṇini. But perhaps that was wishful thinking on my part. I suppose because Vedic was different it was easier to see it as special?

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