Gentoo studies (details on SR)

Shrisha Rao shrao at IA.NET
Tue Jun 1 03:37:34 UTC 1999

Dear Indologists:

Pursuant to sentiments expressed recently on this list, this will be my
last response on this topic; although I generally would prefer to go for
an extensive point-by-point rebuttal running to several hundred lines if
necessary, in the present instance I have been rather disappointed by the
very low standard of the debate, both in terms of scholarship and
civility, and see no purpose in getting into a long discussion centered
largely on uninformed quibbles about my character or skills (or alleged
lack thereof).  I apologize to the list owner and others for making this
posting longer than a few screens of text, and trust that this will be
forgiven, since I do not intend to repeat this performance.

To be precise, I will address just one issue: whether it is true, as has
been held, that the meaning of `nitya' in the RV's `vAchA virUpa nityayA'
is not consistent, on grounds of philology, with the meaning given to it
by Sayana and others.

Philology is a fairly accurate science insofar as regular phonological
correspondences can be established among languages, which can then be used
to identify individual words in those languages as having a common
historical ancestor.  But that regularity does not extend to semantic
correspondences.  Semantic drift can be documented, but cannot be
predicted precisely enough to say what a particular word in a particular
context at a particular time must have meant without direct evidence of it
-- least of all for technical terms that may depart from contemporary
casual use, and that typically resist normal processes of change.
Referring to related philosophical texts or texts of the period is an
attempt to establish that direct evidence, or at least a number of pieces
of indirect evidence that point to the same conclusion.

Fortunately, ancient India was probably the most literate society of the
ancient IE world; so direct evidence is in relative abundance, at least by
comparison to other early IE languages.  On occasion, semantic drift or
"semantic distance" over a large number of words believed to be "core
terms" or more "basic" to a language's lexicon is tabulated and used to
make an argument about how closely related several languages are, e.g.
whether Hittite separated earlier than Greek did from Sanskrit, etc.

Even then, the results are often contested as being unreliable.

The best method, by far, is to use contextual evidence from texts of
the same language and period in which the word occurs to constrain
its meaning.  Of course, with philosophical or other technical
terms, that can be just as error-prone.

For example, one might try to acquire a better perspective on the early
meaning of "nitya" in Advaita by looking at its use in the Buddhist texts
of the Pali canon, which probably broke off contact before later Indian
commentators on Shankara, etc., appropriated it to their own uses (if you
believe they changed its meaning in doing so).

In the present instance, the question is what the meaning of the Vedic
`nitya' is, and this is certainly a question of *philosophy* more than it
is one of *philology*.  Even to the extent that philology is an aid, it is
not academically useful to simply assert the pedigree of philology as a
science, since this does not automatically show what is desired, to wit,
that the classical commentators have distorted the meaning of `nitya'.

Thus, if one asks if philology could have the strength to overrule the
classical interpretation (which is pretty unanimous across the board, btw)
on this point, then the answer has to be no, philology does not, in
general, have the strength to overrule classical interpretations.  The
only hard exception to this would be if philologists came across an
ancient lexicon (and these did exist) that defines philosophical terms.
If there are an abundance of contemporary or subject-related texts that
gloss the term differently, or seem to use it very differently, this can
also be taken as a very strong suggestion that the classical
interpretation is mistaken.  In the absence of that, philology can point
to documented uses of a term, but normally cannot exclude other uses,
unless they're way off base (the philological evidence strongly suggests,
for example, that `nitya' has never meant "horse").

However, the above is an objection in principle against attempting to
reject the classical interpretations based on philology.  Philology does
not, however, reject the classical understanding in this instance (and in
others).  `nitya' is a nominal derivative of the root ni-, which indicates
"down, back, in, into, within" and in certain compounds, a negation, cf.
"down-hearted."  `nitya' is "something that exists within or in itself,"
from there extending to "innate, native," "one's own" (opp. of,
and also "continual, perpetual or eternal," and from there "ordinary,
usual, invariable, fixed, necessary, or obligatory."  It is even attested
as meaning "sea or ocean," in its aspect as something of seemingly endless
expanse.  It can be compared to nija, also from ni-, compounded with the
root -jan, "to bear or generate," meaning also "innate, native, of one's
own kind," which also extended to "constant or continual."  ni- has a
number of IE cognates: Greek e-ni, a variant of en, 'in', found in early
Greek epic poetry and in eastern Greek dialects, from which come a number
of technical English terms, e.g. en-cyclopaedic, en-demic, etc.  Also,
Slavic ni-zu, German nieder, "low", and English nether- (e.g.
nether-world), and be-neath.  The -tya suffix is perhaps related to Latin
-tio(n-), which, through French, is realised in English as -tion.
Philological evidence thus points to an original meaning more like
"innateness."  This also gels with the word `nitya' as used in other known
Vedic contexts, e.g., `eshha nityo mahimA brahmaNasya', which would
meaning "the Brahman's greatness is innate," i.e., not derivative or
liable to wax and wane.

As it happens in this particular case, the philological evidence I have
presented does not even come close to rejecting "eternal" as the original
Vedic meaning.  The classical interpretation is to be preferred to any
more limited temporal meaning.  The reason is that the association with
temporality is a secondary development, according to the philological
evidence.  "Eternal, perpetual etc." developed by association with
innately sustained existence, not by exaggeration of a more limited
temporal concept.

In general, based purely on philology/linguistics, no worthwhile scholar
would say that horizontal comparisons of words with cognates in Greek,
Avestan, etc., are a necessarily better idea than attempting to derive
meanings based on vertical comparisons with later development in the
Sanskrit classical literature.  Neither is very accurate and neither is
consistently better than the other (there are cases where vertical
comparisons are totally misleading and horizontal ones are spot on, and
vice versa).

Examples:  The Skt. word for 'mist' is miha, megha or something like that.
The closest IE cognate is Latin micturire, "to urinate," i.e., "make a
mist."  The Skt. meaning is better preserved in Indic reflexes (although I
don't recall any off the top of my head).  Conversely, `lady' is a higher
or more respectful term for a woman in Modern English, whereas `woman' has
been more neutral for a very long time.  Comparison with IE cogates,
however, reveals that `woman' must come from OE wif-man, "wife of a man,"
whereas `lady' must come from OE hlaef-dige, "one who kneads dough," i.e.,
a kitchen servant.  Over time, `lady' has switched registers, but the
phonological correspondences with other IE languages reveal its true

This limitation is true of all languages, not just Sanskrit.  If
philologists are unable to determine unequivocally the meaning of a
philosophical term from context, typically they back off to texts of
similar contemporary or descendant schools or genres with whom it is
believed a great deal of that context is shared.  Using IE cognates or
non-technical senses of modern Hindi reflexes would both be methods of
last resort.

Lastly, `vAchA virUpa nityayA' is not the only Vedic statement of
relevance in this context; others have been cited as well where the
meaning of `nitya' is not even called into question because it is not
used.  It is obvious to me that the rejection of the notion that the
concept of apaurushheyatva is of Vedic origin, is not based on deep
understanding of the concept itself, nor of the Vedas, but is only an ad
hoc back-formation of arguments intended to justify a preconception.

It would also not be remiss of me to observe that "Western" scholarship of
the Vedas has put its foot wrong on more than one other instance in
claiming that a certain philosophical concept was not found in the Vedas
(for instance, esteemed Indologists whose names are well-known on this
list and outside have claimed that the concepts of rebirth, and of memory
as a valid source of cognition, are not Vedic in origin; I will not
elaborate on this to spare them a few blushes, and to keep this
already-long posting from growing even longer).


Shrisha Rao

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list