Sunday, May 8, 2011

How to fix the meaning of a technical term, whose prehistory is unknown?

Ritual terminology has been fundamental in influencing the later development of philosophical terms in India. Several ritual terms have a textual origin (e.g., tantra 'warp', tati, from the root tan-, `to expand') and most of them are transparent (i.e., they can be analysed as derived from a certain root and a certain suffix). However, one has often the problem that such analyses are later than the terms themselves. Moreover, all these terms have frequently a pre-history we are not aware of, which might have influenced their historical meaning in an unpredictable way. Consider the case of tati and the following explanation in Gonda 1977, 510:
[…] pūrvā tatiḥ and uttarā tatiḥ "the antecedent and the subsequent series of ceremonies". The standard (ritual) is pūrva tatiḥ, and what one arranges (modifies) is uttarā tatiḥ; (for instance,) the establishment of the ritual fires is pūrvā tatiḥ, the re-establishment uttarā tatiḥ; of the vegetarian sacrifices (iṣṭi) the full and new moon sacrifices are the pūrvā tatiḥ, all the optional rites (kāmyā iṣṭayaḥ) the uttarā tatiḥ.
This seems to frame the uttara tati/pūrva tati distinction within the prakṛti/vikṛti one.

Further posts on Ritual Sūtras and on their world view: this one on the spatial arrangement of sacrifices; this one on tantra.


krishna said...

Hi Elisa.
Very interesting posts (this one and the other two referred to). In general, on the meaning of terms in Vedic literature – of which we sometimes do not know the ancient and real etymology – I would like here to quote an interesting statement of Sylvain Lévi that I red time ago in the Italian translation of his “La Doctrine du sacrifice dans les Brāhmaṇas” (English rendering is mine): «The alleged etymologies in which the Brāhmaṇas please themselves, without being deceived, do have an advantage over the correct etymologies: they convey clearly the idea which is linked to the word in question».
I definitively agree (consider that Lévi wrote this in 1898!). One thing is, indeed, the philological examination of a certain text (which is undoubtedly useful and necessary for scholars, at least from a certain level onwards), a different thing is the philosophical and/or religious examination of the same text (which I assume to be the right means for a correct hermeneutical approach). In this second case it is not said that to have recourse to correct etymologies does necessarily fit to the matter.
:-) k

elisa freschi said...

Dear Krishna,
thanks, I agree about your view on nirvacanas. They are very telling as far as what their authors thought *should* have been the meaning of a given term.

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