Vedic Words: brahma sUtra bhaShya (I.iii.28)
There may be a truth in the mythic idea that the word itself is a real thing. I mean that it is more than just articulated air. Ancient theories of magic hold that the name and that which it names, i.e. the object, are connected non-adventitiously. We find this in Hebrew, Greek and Arabic and the theory of the Vedic word is treated most seriously by the Advaitic philosopher, Shankara.
It is curious that this should be so when one considers that Sanskrit is a declined language like Latin, Turkish or Gaelic, etc., and the body of the word can change its shape quite radically in the various cases. So then, it is not the shape of the word that is significant; it is the meaning of the word, what it signifies, connotes, denotes, its extension, intension, take your pick. The word as articulated air has a nimbus about it. The word ‘scian’ has a sharpness about it, it has a piercing nature.
In ancient taboos some words are forbidden, they call up that to which they mention or refer. Fairies (air spirits) are not called such but are known as ‘the good people’; the Furies are the Eumenides (well wishers). Euphemism is commonplace and surely has its origins in the idea that to mention something is to call it up.
There is a difference between saying that there is a relationship between the word and the ‘thing’ and the word as the ‘thing’. What does Shankara have to say on this point? What, in short, are Vedic words?
‘It is on the basis of the inborn, relationship between words and their meanings from the very beginning that the validity of the veda-s has been established by saying… the vedAntin holds that “because the universe, consisting of the gods and others, originates verily from the vedic words.”’
The objection to this seems cogent at first sight. If something has an origin then it is non-eternal. So are we to take it that the gods are non-eternal? No, says Shankara, it is the relationship that is eternal and not the event of the word giving rise to the existence of the thing.
Is this an acceptable answer? Let us go on to consider the rest of his thoughts on the subject. He makes the obvious point that there cannot be a connection between each instance referred to by a word and the Vedic word. It is the generic word that is eternal, a notion, very similar to that of the ‘ideas’ of Plato. There is, besides, no imputation of a birth from words in the same sense as birth from a material cause.
Is this theory subject to the same difficulties as that of Plato’s? Can generality precede instantiation? Can the meaning exist separately from the instantiation of the meaning? This puts us in mind of the Cheshire Cat and its smile. Can there be equivalence without things we discover to be equivalent? Can there be identity, which precedes things which are identical or exactly similar? This seems to be a paradoxical doctrine. How, again, is it known that the universe originates from words? ‘From direct revelation and inference.’
Essentially he means from the veda-s and smriti. An intuitive rationale of Shankara’s is: ‘Besides it is a matter of experience to us all that when one has to accomplish some desired thing, one remembers first the word denoting it and then accomplishes it. He uttered the syllable bhuh, He created the earth.’ (Taittiriya Brahmana (II.ii.4.2))
How is this meant to happen? ‘Sphota’ is the answer of the grammarians. There is an impression created by the words, which are themselves created by the letters which constitute them. Shankara is capable of activating his critical intelligence on this notion which had been in abeyance, owing to his acceptance of a literal understanding of the Vedas. His judgement is that the unit of intelligibility, to coin a phrase, is the word: ‘And this sphota has no beginning, since its identity is recognizable at every utterance (of the word).’ This then is the intuitive core of the Vedic word. It corresponds to the problem of the origin of universals. How can you find them unless you have them already?
His final considered opinion is that the single concept ‘cow’ emerges on the basis of the letters as a whole and not any other thing (called sphota): ‘Of these, secular sentences are of the nature of restatements, since their meanings are primarily apprehended through other means of knowledge; but with regard to the Vedas, since the meaning of Vedic sentences are known at first hand, they are not of the nature of restatements.’ (Vedanta Paribhasha, p111)