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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chapter 2:Part 4. Words, Words, and Words

Word is a unit of any language. It consists of a speech sound or a series of sounds, which when put together has meaning. Words are combinations of sounds.

A meaning is assigned to a word. Word is a symbol. It stands for a thing or a thought. Actually, a word stands not for just A thing, but for a class of things.

In Vedic discussions it is said “that objects (physical and mental, I presume) cannot be made evident without words. Without objects there is no use for words. Without light, objects will not be evident. Without objects what can light illuminate? Divine Shakti is the word; the objective support for the meaning conveyed by the word is Shiva”.

Sanskrit which is the language of the Vedas recognizes two aspects of a spoken word. One is called SPOTA and the other is NADA. Nada is the word to denote a sound after it is uttered. Spota is the word for the sound inside of us before it comes out (mentalese). The root word is spu. The sound itself and the meaning are the same as the English word SPEW. Spota is that “which bursts out or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered and the impression produced in the mind on hearing a sound”. Extended into the metaphysical realm, the word spota also stands for “the eternal cosmic sound”.

The Sanskrit term for the individual letter sounds (alphabet) is akshara. This is the opposite of kshara, meaning perishable. Akshara is imperishable. The implication is that when the imperishable letter sounds (alphabets) are put together as words, they become perishable. The basis of this thought is the metaphysical concept in Vedic philosophy that the first evolute in the manifestation of the Universe was Sound.

There are three levels of meaning for words: 1. popularly accepted meaning, conventional meaning; 2. etymological meaning based on the root and derivatives and 3. secondary meaning. Secondary meaning can be by implication as in “house on the river” meaning house on the bank of the river. There are different levels of implication.

The same word (name) may be used with different meanings, like the word “star”. Different words may mean the same thing or the same thing with subtle differences (ice and snow for example).

Words are not useful by themselves for human communication. There has to be an assertion or a statement. That needs a string of words making a sentence. As children learn to speak they start using naming sentences “This …....tree” which stands for a perceived experienced object, linked to a sound that stands for a class of things (tree). Later they make syntactic sentences consisting of noun phrases and verb phrases.

Words, as useful as they are for communication, can create problems in understanding. When we use a word to name a thing, we get a false perception of “knowing” the thing. Indeed, we seem to think that we get control over the thing named. That is why in both the Bible and the Vedas, God refuses to give a “name” or gives an alternate name. Also, when a word is created to name an idea or concept, the idea takes a life of its own even if that idea cannot be supported with evidence. One example is “heaven”.

In his book on “Transformation at the base”, Thich Nhat Hanh summarizes the wisdom of the Buddhist psychology in this area. When we see (perceive) an object, we see its “sign” (called lakshana in Sanskrit). This sign or lakshna or appearance is the image created in our mind by our perception of it. We, then, assign names and words to the objects of these sensory perceptions such as “mountain”, “song”etc. These words and associated appearances are stored like “seeds” in our consciousness. These seeds (words) give rise to other seeds in our minds. These are the “images”. When we hear the name (word) of one of these things, an image arises in our consciousness. We then take that image to be a reality.

This is applicable also to the objects of our mind, which are thoughts. These are the “concepts”, as differentiated from the objects of our sensory system which is perception.

Words are symbols and stand for some thing or some idea or some thought. When man uses words he connects or pairs two things: “the word he speaks or hears and the thing he sees before him”. Words help express what is in our mind and elicit the internal state of another. But the other may not understand at all, misunderstand, partially understand or may react in an unexpected way, even when the speaker and listener speak the same language and mean the same thing. This gets even more problematic in metaphysical discussions since the words are used to deal with “theories of Reality”.

Symbols can stand for something, but cannot prove the existence of things, particularly mental constructs and concepts.

Another problem with words as symbol for a thing or an object is that it freezes the object caught at the moment. Usually we do not think about that object extended in space and time. Let me explain. When I see a piece of paper I see this paper now. Extended into space and time, this paper was a tree at one time. Therefore this tree carries minute particles of the sun and the rain that helped the tree grow. In the future this paper may be carried to another city etc. This concept is well-developed in Buddhist psychology.

A symbol (the word) pointing to something may not be interpreted the way the originator intended because the relationship between the speaker, the listener, the word and the thing named by the word have a complicated relationship as pointed out by Walker Percy and Charles Pierce.


The word -------------------------------------------> The thing named


In this relationship (what Walker Percy calls the quadratic relationship), there are bound to be inter-subjective (you and me) variations. In addition, the relationship between the word and the world is NOT identity but one of “quasi-identity”. The word is our own creation with sounds, phoenemes, and morphemes different in different languages. The world signified is perceived, interpreted, abstracted and segmented by the human mind before it is named.

Symbols can also be used as signs. Signs point to something, and therefore are separate. This is the basis for the Zen Buddhist dictum “When the finger points to the moon, do not look at the finger”. Signs can be studied by stimulus-response models and such tools of objective knowledge. Not so with the symbol and its quasi-identity with the thing named.

Thus, a basic understanding of words and how we use them is essential to think clearly. It is particularly important in critical thinking. You want the other person to define what he means by the words he uses. We are not discussing the semantics aspects yet.

We now move from words to sentences. Words, by themselves, are not of much use without becoming part of a sentence. A sentence has to refer to something (an object) and SAY something about that object.

A sentence carries a message in the form of words. It may be for personal use, as a thought. It may be for another person. The other person hears the words and hopefully receives the intended message. What does he/she do with the message? What are the factors which will influence the receiver of the message as to what he does with it? Walker Percy wrote about this in detail in his book on “The Message in the Bottle”. His sources are many, particularly Charles Pierce. I have read Walker Percy extensively; but not Pierce.

The first condition is the predicament of the “hearer” of the sentence? What are his needs? Is he in a dire predicament and is he looking for an important and urgent message? Is he looking for usable practical knowledge or for a message that will make him feel good ? Is he looking for a message that will lead him to the "ultimate truth"? Is he a skeptic or one who swallows whatever reaches his ears?

The second condition is the content of the message. Is it a piece of news with practical value? Does it demand immediate action? Is it an analytical (as is) or a synthetic statement (as it should be)? Is it just a poetic statement that makes one feel good? Is it metaphysical, one that can neither be refuted nor accepted?

The third question is “Is the sentence a generalization from a concrete situation?” If so, how applicable is it to all and every situation? Specifically, how applicable is that message to this specific “hearer” (me, in my condition)?

Finally, how reliable is the “speaker” of the sentence? What level of verification is needed to accept the sentence? Has that verification to be experimental or experiential? (This will be the topic of another essay on the Means of validating knowledge)

These rules of reasons have to be applied to understand all messages and assertions, particularly metaphysical assertions. How will the message in sentences such as “ Atman is Brahman”, “God will take care” etc be received by the hearer of the statement. For example, let us apply these guidelines to one Vedic statement “I am That Brahman” (Aham brahmasmi).

The sentence talks about the primordial original cause called Brahman. But, that name in Sanskrit was coined in India to symbolize the Unitary Time-Space event from which this universe and all of us came. The sentence says something about that Original Source. It says that the original Force, Brahman is myself (I). In other words, It is in me (in all of life forms) and therefore I am That.

The sentence itself is short and pithy (sutra in Sanskrit, an aphorism, ideas condensed into as few words as possible) that says something about the relationship between the Universal and the Particular; between the original Unitary Force and the universe of objects in this world including the individual self. There is no way anyone can verify this statement since none of us were there at the time the universe started! I am content accepting this mystery, stand in awe and humility in the face of this unanswerable question and meditate on it just as Nasadiya Suktam in Rg Veda (to be discussed in a future essay) asks me to.

I am the hearer of this message. I am receiving this message sent several millennia back. Applying the four questions listed earlier, what is my predicament? What is my need? This is the first question in our list. Personally, I am interested in reflecting on the origin of the Universe. How did it all start? What was there in the beginning? How did something come out of nothing? How did the One become many?

I am not asking for a definitive answer for these questions, because no one can truly answer them. I am looking for inner peace and harmony. I am looking for “experiencing” the unity in diversity, if I am fortunate. Therefore this message is relevant to me. (This answers Question 2 above)

The sentence is an assertion of things as they are, as experienced by great souls. It is an analytical statement (As is) made by the “experiencers”. It is metaphysical. Therefore, one cannot verify by experiments. However, our rishis tell us that each one of us can experience this state of oneness with the Original source. The rishis ask us to believe in these statements not with blind faith, but with reason and experience. These great souls are full of compassion and want to help all of us simple mortals to experience the bliss they had experienced. Also, Nyaya Sastra of Gautama, which accepts “testimony” as one of the four means of obtaining reliable knowledge defines testimony as: “It is the instructive assertion of a reliable person”. Who is a reliable person? It is someone who has lived a life of spirituality and wishes to share out of compassion. This applies to Vedic Texts such as the Upanishads as documented by the sages (rishi) of India.Therefore I believe them. That answers the third question for me.

This statement is a general statement based on concrete experiences. Our rishis say that all of us have the capacity to get there. As pointed out earlier I trust the rishis who made this statement. That answers the fourth question.

In conclusion, I believe in the metaphysical concepts expressed in the statement “Aham Brahmasmi” “I am Brahman” etc. However, there are other words such as Lila, Maya, Karma and Moksha to indicate other concepts. These concepts are used to explain how the One became many, why there is suffering and what happens after death. I went through the same exercise with these words. They may help comfort me at moments of distress. They may make me feel good. However, these words indicate concepts created by the human mind that do not appeal to my reason or experience. They are meant to explain (away) the mysteries which can never be solved by human minds. These words (concepts) only lead to erudition, never-ending discussions and arguments, misunderstandings, difference of opinions, cults and conflicts. Therefore, I do not take too much interest in these words.

You may wish to follow these tools for thinking and find out where they take you. You may end up differently. That is OK, as long as you do not insist that you have the only correct answer.

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