[Advaita-l] Yato vaaco nivartante - limitations of literary criticism as a method of vedanta

Siva Senani Nori sivasenani at yahoo.com
Sun Mar 21 00:53:48 CDT 2010

sarvebhyo namah

The Sruti and smritis say that Brahman is beyond the grasp of vaak, speech.

This is due to the inherent, structural limitations of language - and the whole set of silent assumptions that pre-suppose the use of language. A sentence is supposed to have a subject (karta), an object (karma) and a verb (kriya); one which does not have these distinctions is not correct. However when Brahman - which is all the three - is involved, so the ordinary rules of language break down when dealing with Brahman. Then we have two choices - being silent as Brahman is beyond vaak, or using language, however imperfect it is, to discuss Brahman. Since the first does not help those covered by avidyA to break free, the latter is followed. All the while one is supposed to know the structural limitations of language. 

For instance we take the Sruti vaakya 'tat aikshata bahusyaam iti', meaning 'That desired to be many', that is, Brahman wanted to be many. A literary analysis will start by saying, "a word of action, a verb, is used", and continues "so there ought to be an agent of action or an organ performing the action. Here desire is what manas - mind does, so Brahman has a mind! So Brahman is not nirguna!". There are variations of this theme actually employed by dvaitins and viSishTAdvaitins, with a deliberate refusal to understand that one is using an imperfect tool. 

Now, if there is indeed a brahmapadaartham which is agent, action and object, and if such a padaartham wanted to multiply itself, how exactly can that be described using language? One can be as good a literary critic as the other and demolish all constructs which can purport to convey that sense. Silence - bhaumA - is one resort; the other is to use the less-than- perfect tool that language is, but knowing the limitations all the while.

Another feature to be noticed is that there are a number of silent assumptions. To illustrate, why should many be different from one? We have a certain notion about what the world is, and all of that is supposed to be true. To continue with the above, is an apple, one or many? While 'one' is the intuitive answer, 'many' might be the better answer! It (an apple) definitely has many parts - skin, flesh, seeds etc.; at a deeper level, it is many molecules, many atoms, and so on, ending with, many electromagnetic waves. 'Many' is the more fundamental answer. But, imagine, 'an apple' as a collective noun, and the one being many and the many being one! How are we to communicate, if one party refuses to agree upon the silent assumptions presupposing the use of language? 

Such, then, are the pitfalls of literary criticism. A saadhaka ought to be aware of this danger whenver one encounters literary criticism. The proper way to understand Sruti vaakyas is to follow the six principles set out in poorva meemaamsaa: upakrama-upasamhaara, abhyaasa, apoorvataa, phala, artharvaada, upapatti. By extension, to the extent a sadhaka indulges in literary criticism - of even non-vedic texts, these must be followed. What may specially be avoided are jumping from vibhakti to more fundamental implications ("see dviteeyaa vibhakti is used, so there is a different object"); verbs to organs of action ("oh, he thought, so he has a mind!"); or that usage of a first-person-form means the existence of a body (as if usage of a third-person-form does not mean that).


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