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Limits of Language

October 5, 2021 Authored by: Kapil Kapoor

The total reality of an object is not expressible in words because of (i) the process of imposition of mental concepts on the object; (ii) the intrinsic limitations on the potential of words to denote objects; and (iii) the dependence of verbal usage on the speaker’s perception and the hearer’s reception, governed by their experience. 

We have already noted the process of imposition of a subjective construct on the object in the process of word use. Consider now the intrinsic limitations on the denotative potential of language (Abhidha). 

Verbal knowledge is asymmetrical with the objects talked about because imaginative reconstruction is involved in verbal cognition. So, how valid is the knowledge generated by words? In fact, even visual perception is not reliable and may not give correct or complete knowledge. For instance, ‘The sky is perceived as a surface and the firefly as fire. There is no surface in the sky nor is the firefly fire. Again, ‘the perception of (real) water and of such things as a mirage is the same. In spite of the similarity of perception, a mirage is not water’ (2.287). Moreover, visual perception may give only partial knowledge and may not cover the whole object; ‘It is difficult for anybody to see all the parts of an object. From the few parts which are perceived, the whole object is inferred’ (2.161).

‘This being so, the wise must examine by reasoning even an object apprehend by direct perception’ (2.141). Intellection is clearly necessary to interpret, to cognize accurately, even a perceived object. 

A word does not express as its meaning everything that exists in, or characterizes, an object. For example, a word does not express the color or form associated with the object. ‘The pot broke.’ Was ‘the pot’ brown or black? Again, qualities like ‘whiteness’ are not meant to be conveyed by the noun ‘rice’ (2.69). But the noun ‘milk’ invariably conveys the quality ‘whiteness’, though its ‘richness’ or ‘purity’ is not implicitly conveyed and will have to be articulated independently. However, there are always inherent limits, any number of them, to such implicit connotation. For example, ‘taste’ is not meant to be implicitly conveyed by such nouns as ‘tomato’, ‘tea’, or ‘coffee’.  

The meaning of a word is a general concept, a concept that amounts to saying ‘something exists’ (2.119). No particular form or shape is part of the meaning. When words like apurva (remote consequence of an act), Devata (deity), and Svarga (heaven) are used, we comprehend no particular or definite shapes or forms. What about asva (horse), or gau (cow), however? We do visualize or associate some general forms with these terms. But this perception of form in response to certain words is the result of memory – we recall the form of the object that is repeatedly associated with the word. Bhartrhari says, the external forms conveyed by some words (ghata, pot, pata, cloth, etc.) are based upon distinct reminiscences, residual traces of the actual experience of the corresponding external object possessing a shape. Other words (such as apurva and Svarga) have a meaning in the nature of bare understanding not characterized by any shape (2.133). So the perception of form does not come within the range of effects of words; it is instead the result of a special effort, the experience of the repeated use of a particular word for a corresponding object (2.120). 

Even a word like ghata does not denote a definite shape or form of a pot, but only the general idea common to all Jars, or to the jars we have known, and not all the possible forms and shapes that jars can possible have (2.123). Hence the nebulosity or instability of meaning – each one of us brings his or her memory to the act of constituting an object. We all have our separate, particular pot, which others do not, or cannot, see, and which we cannot possibly make others see; it is a strictly private vision, atmasaksatkara. What happens is that the speaker has a meaning in mind which is externalized by being rested on an object. One may succeed in this process only to a degree. And the listener also may understand only to a degree. In verbal usage, says Bhartrhari, there is another being, a secondary being that is different from the external, perceptible being.  

External Meaning

As against this intrinsic partial denotation, there is excess denotation, samsarga-artha, in that words evoke associated, secondary, and figurative meanings besides the primary connotation: ‘Cognitions of hearers are qualified by all associated things (meanings)’ 93.14.473).

Bhartrhari gives the example of the word Brahmana, which is invariably associated with certain acts and which is understood, through convention, to possess certain qualities (3.14.481). Similarly, the term putra (son) is qualified by actions, such as obedience, that are commonly associated with it (3.14.508). And the adjective ‘black’ may be applied to an object when only a part of it is black (3.14.406). In the same way, words also have, or acquire, secondary or extended meaning on the basis of cognizable resemblances. The use of word Parvata for a reflection of a hill in water and asva for a clay horse are cases in point. Bhartrhari explains the basis of such extended connotations: 

‘Just as a lamp reveals, in an object like a jar, through association (or proximity) things other than that for the illumination of which it was used, in the same way, a word conveys meanings that are different from the one which it is used to convey’. (2.298-9)

Sometimes the meanings so evoked are unintended: “Though the churning of ignition sticks (arani) is meant for producing fire, they also produce unintended smoke. In the same way, a word, though used to convey a particular meaning, denotes by association unintended meanings too. 

Just as (while taking a thing) one cannot abandon something very closely connected to it, in the same way a word cannot but denote what is intimately connected with its primary meaning.’ (2.300-2).

Consider next the figurative meanings evoked by words. In whole utterances the object referred to may actually stand for another, more general concept. ‘When a boy is told, “save the butter from the crows”, he does not refrain from protecting it from dogs etc., knowing that the order refers to destructive agents in general’ (2.312). ‘When an order for feeding somebody is given, the washing of the dishes and plates, though not actually mentioned, is also understood as a part of the act of feeding’ (2.318).

When the boundaries of denotation are so fluid, the focus on some one aspect of meaning is brought about by the speaker’s vivaksa, intention born of a specific perception, and the hearer, in order to grasp the intended meaning, has to reconstruct the speaker’s perception. The same object may be presented differently by different speakers or even by the same speaker on two different occasions. Thus one may use the word ‘horse’ to denote its endurance or its speed or the beauty of its form. In the same way, the speaker may ‘reorder’ reality in his or her representation or expression of that reality: ‘Sometimes objects which are far from one another are presented as being connected and those which are near one another are presented as being part. [There also occurs] separation of what is united and union of what is separated: What are many are represented as one and what is one as many’ (2.431-2).

Fluidity of Meaning             

There is thus great variety and lack of fixity in the way objects are expressed by words. The word ‘water’ may refer to a ‘drop’ or an ‘ocean’ (2.156), depending on what ‘is fashioned by the mind’ (3.3.88). In fact, when a word is used, ‘a remembrance resembling the experience of the object’ figures in the mind of the speaker and also takes place in the hearer’s mind (2.417).

Since each speaker and each hearer brings his or her own ‘remembrance’, there is great relativity in verbal denotation both in comprehension and expression. This has been stated by Bhartrhari through four karikas: ‘Just as our senses perceive the same object in different ways, in the same way, an object is understood from words in different ways’ (2.134): ‘The meaning of words, intended by the speaker to be one thing, is understood by different listeners differently, according to their own background’ (2.135): ‘With regard to the same things, one’s views undergo change. The same person sees the same thing differently at differently times’ (2.136); ‘To one and the same word are attributed many meanings by one and the same person, or by many persons, according to varied circumstances’ (2.137).

Consider the following sentences: (i) ‘You are like yourself (where a person’s appearance is compared with that at another time or place); (ii) ‘Wearing a brown coat and a grey cap, that is Ramesh’ (where Ramesh the person is compared to Ramesh who figures in the mind, thus establishing his identity). Even in these descriptions based on similarity and difference, the standard and the object of comparison are based on what figures in the mind. Both similarity and difference ‘depend upon the mind’ (2.14.567). ‘The object is understood as agreeing with the image produced in the mind’ (3.14.569). ‘Operations based on difference are understood through difference made by the mind. All meanings of words seem to be created by the intention of the speaker’ (3.14.570). ‘Even real difference,’ says Bhartrhari, ‘depends on the mind’ (3.14.567). 

Even totally different objects may be cognized as the same’ (3.14.572); this is the basis of metaphors such as ‘agnina sincati, irrigates with fire’. 

Whole sentences too are propositional images, and the role of mental mediation in the determination of their meaning is equally evident. They have to be interpreted in light of a large number of contextual factors, both internal and external (see note 6). Thus, ‘an enlightened hearer knows that praise and blame, meant to promote action and abstention from action respectively, are actually unreal. Even if at times the truth is told in the form of praise or blame, the object is always to teach action or abstention from action’ (2.319, 324).

In the case of single-word sentences, the process becomes very clear. When someone utters the word ‘door’, depending on the context, one understands either ‘shut’ or ‘give way’ (2.330, 333). Conversely, the process of establishing the meaning of words on the basis of the sentence meaning involves inferential reasoning. For example, the statements ‘fetch a cuckoo’ and ‘fetch firewood from the forest’ give rise to different mental images of ‘fetching’. ‘It is hot in here’ can be understood to mean, depending on the intention and context, either ‘open the windows’ or ‘put on the fan’. At a more subtle level, ‘the sun has set’ as spoken by a thief, a worshipper, and a lover will carry altogether different connotations. In sum, language meaning is intrinsically non-literal, alankarika, figurative.


The Realm of Pure Feeling

Literary language is all the more figural – therein images are pervasively and consciously employed to constitute meaning. This phantasm of literary representation is required so that ‘the realm of pure feeling can find utterance,’ or else, ‘what could we know of the innumerable nuances in the aspects of things?’ The verbal image is the way in which the ideational content of an object is apprehended and expressed. Taking Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as an example, one can cite a number of images that are shifted analogues of what they represent, conceptual constructs to connote the nuances and the fullness of experience. The Indian thinkers call it bhava-abhivyaktiexpress of the Tattva, the essence or core. From these shifted representations, one is able to construct the ‘truth’ of the represented object or experience. Keats speaks of a piece of land that is ‘melodious’ and of a kind of mirth that is ‘sunburnt’. And what kind of going away is the ‘fade away’ of Keats? What are ‘murmurous haunts’ and what the ‘verdurous gloom’? How is a bird ‘immortal’? And what is ‘embalmed darkness’? As we work through these images, we awaken to newer shades of experience. It is in this manner that the changing intensity of the sunshine in the bubbles makes them ‘wink’ and the cool, clear wine become ‘dewy’.

One may also note the juxtaposition and foregrounding of certain images to create patterns or densities of meaning – the repetition of sad, fade and forlorn and the idea of ‘darkness’ foreground the central heartache, and the recurrent opposition of ‘darkness’ and ‘light’ underscores the toggling of joys and sorrows – the tragedy of course is that the ‘light’ merely intersperses the pervasive gloom, and that too through divine grace. Read as such, the poem is a highly inflected statement of a complex state of the self that has been captured in subtle verbal images. 

Verbal Intuition and Secondary Being 

The verbal images that construct objects are centered in the individual consciousness. The listener (or reader), once he or she has understood the meaning of the words separately, has ‘a flash of understanding’ which is termed the meaning of the sentence. 

This individual amalgamation brought about by the meaning is indefinable (avicarita). Though it cannot be ‘explained to others as such and such, it is experienced by everyone within oneself; (but) even the subject (of the experience) is not able to render an account of it to himself’ (2.144). A specific faculty is involved in this flash of understanding, a creative faculty. It is Pratibha; and all living beings have this: ‘Who transforms the voice of the male cuckoo in spring? Who teaches living beings to build nests? (2.149). Bhartrhari is indifferent to the question whether this faculty is inherited or acquired. But it is obvious that as our intuitions about life deepen, the meanings we grasp become richer and more true to life – our cognitions and responses become more vibrant and varied as our citta grows in experience, for ‘the consciousness that is projected on the insentient intellect (acetana citta) as a reflection (pratibimba), is the basis of the use of words.’ 

In Verbal usage, it is the reflection or ‘secondary being’ – the image that is constructed, predicated, and grasped – that is involved (vritti on 3.3.39). ‘When words convey objects [as meaning], the things so conveyed have a being distinct from their external being. It consists in their figuring in the mind. ..Through this being, things are presented as past or yet to come.’ This involvement of secondary being is exemplified in negation as well – ‘not happy’ is the reflex of a unitary, positive, secondary being in the speaker’s mind. The existence of primary objects is not denied; all that is being claimed is that in language, objects, both existent and non-existent, are talked about in terms of their secondary being. The objects denoted by words are conceived in the mind, and the mind can conceive of objects which have no external being; words then convey a purely mental conception, such as, ‘fire-cycle’ (alata-cakra) and ‘hare-horns’ (sasa-visana). 

Bhartrhari expatiates on this idea of secondary being, pravartaka-satta, in several Karikas: ‘Both cognition and words are based on forms existing (in the mind). One does not say “it does not exist” without a basis, and the non-existent does not really differ from the existent in so far as both are mental constructions’ (3.7.109). ‘All worldly usage,’ Bhartrhari says, ‘is carried out with mentally-constructed objects’ (3.3.82). ‘The primary object has no form till it is determined by the mind’ (3.14.350). 

It is in this sense of creating the consciousness centered cognition of ghata-pata-bheda (the difference between a jar and a piece of cloth) that ‘language cuts form in the ocean of reality’. 

Sabda-Brahman: The Source of Language

Being a linguistic (mental) construct, Bhartrhari’s theory of reality is in harmony with his philosophical grounding in the theistic philosophies, as well as in Sankhya, Vaisheshika, and Advaita thought. 

For example, he asserts that the core denotation of any word is the expression of being, satta, and that with reference to objects, words are expressive of both (i) universals (ghatatva, jarness, for instance), and (ii) substance, dravya (Ghata, jar, for instance). 

It is through the particular forms as limiting factors that the ultimate reality (Satta) is expressed. If all objects are transformations (Vivarta) of one ultimate Reality (the sat of Advaita), then each object has a universal aspect and a particular aspect, and both are denoted by words. In this conceptualization of the reality of objects and of how valid knowledge of objects is to be gained, Bhartrhari’s position has affinities with the Yoga system. 

Consider, for example, Bhartrhari’s view that all reality (objects) exists as a form of consciousness; that reality is essentially undifferentiated (a-krama) and that the difference we cognize, the bheda in the form of objects, is a form of avidya, ignorance or impure knowledge (3.3.57); and that the knowledge of form is tainted knowledge. So, since one cannot form a correct idea of objects on the basis of perception or verbal knowledge, one should ‘examine each object by reasoning, yuktitah’ (2.141). The Yoga theory of knowledge talks of complete knowledge as a product of deep mental reflection (dhyana).

Once this complete knowledge is so gained, we are enabled to see that all objects are merely reflexes of forms constituted in one Satta. To grasp this, one has to transcend the Vitarka (non-discrimination) of nama (name/word), rupa (form), and jnana (knowledge). The argument for this view runs as follows in the Vakyapadiya: ‘Some consider the universal to be merely something which figures as a common characteristic in our mind and the particular (dravya) to be that which figures as differentia. This diversity in objects arises only when they are united in some way. Neither identity nor difference, neither existence nor non-existence of objects is possible if they are not linked with one another. The ultimate view is that it is the “one” which has all powers.’ 

It is this universal one that is manifest in all the diverse objects: ‘Just as a face reflected in water is only called so (that is, a face, without any relation to the water), in the same way a word expresses only the universal manifested by the individual’ (3.1.29); and ‘it is being (satta) which being differentiated according to the object in which it is present, is called the universal (Jati). All words are based on that’ (3.1.33).

The theory of Sabda-Brahman is a codification of this theory of meaning. As meaning is an individual cognitive construct and a map of the external, undeniably existing, reality as mediated through individual consciousness, language becomes a construct: ‘Jnanam sarvam sabdena bhasate, all knowledge is illumined by words’ (1.123); and ‘sabdasya parinamo’yam ity-amanayavido viduh, those who know, know this world to be the result of language’ (1.120). The concept of parinama relates Bhartrhari’s thinking to the Buddhists via the Yoga concept of Vikalpa, while his concept of language as the creator of reality makes him a Vedantins via the principle of Brahman. 

This is no mystical conception; it truly expresses both the physical and the linguistic reality. The same word ‘apple’ designates all the millions of empirically diverse realities (apples); a universal ‘apple-ness’ permits this. And in an ascending hierarchy, all universals merge in the one abstract Sabda, the analogue of the physical Satta, the one undifferentiated Reality. This Reality is beyond all appearances, and yet is immanent in all appearances, though limited by particular appearances, ‘One that is not in one’, as John Donne put it in ‘The Storm at Sea’. This reality, says Bhartrhari, ‘does not exist and it does; it is one and it is many; it is constructed and it is separate; it is transformed and it is not’ (3.2.13). In an affirmation of the Sankhya-Advaita position, it is asserted that this reality endures, is anadi (beginning less), Ananta (endless), and a-krama (non-sequential):

‘Just as, when forms (Vikara) disappear, it is the gold which remains as the truth (satya) of the earrings, in the same way, when transformations (Vikara, the physical elements, for instance) disappear, the primordial substance (Prakrti) remains’ (3.2.15). ‘And this Prakrti is the expressed meaning of words.’

Subramania Iyer comments: ‘All words express Brahman (the universal) differentiated on the basis of limiting factors (Dravya, substance). Even words like Atma, Brahman, Tattva express that Prakrtithrough some limiting factor or other’, because, ‘that which is beyond all limiting adjuncts (nirupadhi) is also beyond the range of words.’

The assertion that Pratibimba is the basis of the use of words, and the vital Nirupadhi concept show the deep influence of Buddhist thought on Bhartrhari. Such neat categorization, however, is defied by the Indian tradition, for in this philosophy of language, the Brahmanda (universe) is seen as a pulsating continuum of matter in which forms arise and into which they collapse again. 

Speech is known by the wise knowers of the Vedas to be made up of four parts. Three of these – [Para, the Shabda-Brahman; Pasyanti, unformed language; and Madhyama, mental language] – lie unmanifested in the depths of one’s being. It is only the fourth that people speak.     – Rig Veda, 1.164.45


[Source: Kapil Kapoor, “Philosophy of Language in the Vaiyakarana Tradition“, in Prabuddha Bharata]


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