The Developing Terminology for the Self
in Vedic India

General Introduction & Overview


Description and Parameters
Sample look at aatman

Revised site note 1/26/10: This was an initial effort to convey to my dissertation committee at The University of Iowa School of Religion that I wasn't just playing on the internet, but was working up a solid study that would lead to a dissertation. You can still access that dissertation here. Additional explanation of how I was using HTML was provided for a Graduate College grant I received at the University of Iowa and can be read here. The original content and composition of the page remains intact as I leave it here for historical purposes. Use your browser's back button for returning to where you last were.


I am mapping the developing terminology with which the idea of self, or identity, was expressed in ancient South Asia. The project will focus upon texts of the Vedic shruti (the sacred literature) from its earliest compilations--e.g. the Rig Veda, c. 1500 b.c.e.--to its more commonly studied texts--e.g. Upanishads, c. 800-150 b.c.e--with respect to traditional and later Western scholarship. My methodology consists of analyzing--in context--13 key words variously referential to words which, in later Vedic literature, are connected with notions of the self. I propose to do this, theoretically and technically, according to the manner of the earliest Vedic commentaries.

This approach has been variously applied in later formulations by scholars such as Jan Gonda, M. Witzel, T. Elizarenkova, and H.W. Bodewitz. A critical innovation in this process is provided by the application of computer technology to foster the use of hypertext mark-up language (HTML) and software innovations for linguistic and comparative study to quickly access a wide variety of textual passages in an efficient framework for analysis and comparison.

There are only two prior (and, of course, "analogue" as opposed to digital) studies which are remotely similar to this project- each of which primarily studies one particular word (H.G. Narahari, aatman in Pre Upanishadic Vedic Literature, and T. Sahota, The Development of the Concept of PuruSa ). In the case of the former, the methodology reflects 19th-century Western standards combined with the conclusions of post Vedic scholarship originating some 2400 years after the texts under study began forming.

In the case of the later, it is unavailable as a single-copy original handwritten dissertation which is now in disrepair beyond accessibility (which makes one wonder, then, just what the National Diet Library of Japan is doing with it). There are no studies addressing the breadth of terminology considered in this study. In addition, there are no studies- other than one by Jan Gonda addressing the word brahman--which employ a methodology that examines the terms in context, rather than in retrospect from later historical interpretations. Finally, no study (though, I anticipate, forthcoming work from George Thompson might reconfigure that generalization) uses the balance of traditional, original commentary with the insights of modern linguistic and comparative theory. It goes almost without saying, as well, that technological limitations--which I seek to overcome with this grant--have left comparative multilingual scholarship vastly behind in its command of and applications for computer technology.

When the great size of researchable literatue is conceived, thoroughness becomes impossible, even with a good concordance. Computer search-and-find mechanisms, HTML coding of discovered links, and LOTS of RAM make these limits liminal. In addition, by making the materials available on the web, a new level of academic dialogue while research is in-process and easily viewable is possible. Indigenous to the atmosphere in which my subject matter, the Early Vedic Literature, evolved--this merging of ancient, modern, and electronic analysis tools enables an electronic brahmodya (debate) on any aspect of any electronic text (e-text, or e-Rig Veda/e-RV, etc.).

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Dissertation Description & Parameters


Vedic South Asia developed a large body of texts which, over the course of several centuries, continued to grow through a process of clarification, reiteration, and substitution. The earliest collections are in the form of hymns to various deities, most which roughly correspond to atmospheric and/or natural forces. Even from the time of the earliest collections, the Rig Veda, there began to develop more abstract concepts. These abstractions continued evolving toward singular, monistic ideas, initially centered, for instance, upon the notion of speech (vaac). The larger array of Vedic deities continued to be a part of Vedic speculation through the sacrificial liturgy and even beyond into the meditative speculations of life renunciation in the later Upanishads. However, these deities became more prone to be identified as aspects of the monistic, singular reality.

Speech, or vaac, of course, had been the original term around which the idea of a singular, undifferentiated, totality of monistic reality had first begun to develop (e.g. the Rig Vedic hymn 1.164.46 where vaac is the 'eka¬ł sat/one real', cf. also Norman Brown, "Agni, Sun, Sacrifice, and Vaac," Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1968). Interestingly, however, brahman was a neuter noun and aatman, its "individual" counterpart, was masculine.

The abstract brahman was associated with an equally abstract concept of individual identity known as aatman during the late-Vedic meditative reflections of the Upanishads. Put simply, many Upanishads suggest that the secret to overcoming the suffering of existence was to recognize that aatman was identical with brahman. Brahman had come to represent the abstract totality of reality. Logistically, this understanding of brahman implied that reality as known or communicated rested upon the linguistic expression of it (cf. Gonda, Notes on Brahman, 1950). This was verifiable in the roots of the term as a word reflecting the power or potency of speech.

Brahman and aatman are hardly the only words for self in the Vedic literature, but they became the most predominantly studied due, in part, to their prolific use in the later literature coupled with their central role in philosophies of later thinkers such as Shankara. The path which lead to this centrality, and the corresponding passing away of vaac and a host of other self-referential or abstract monistic terms, offers an historical analysis of the process of social and linguistic interaction. The means by which that path was traveled--the grammar, etymology, and other interpretive mechanisms which developed along with the various terms for the self--forms the model--informed by approaches like that of Staal in Numen, Elizarenkova, Gonda, and Witzel--for the methodology of this paper.

The predominant developing notions of self in Vedic and post-Vedic philosophy were already evolving at the time of the Rig Veda's compilation around an interest in monism. As indicated above, for instance, one word for speech, vaac, was later subsumed under another speech-based term, brahman. How these changes came about can be tracked, and can only be tracked, by close examination in context of the many occurences of each word studied. I am concentrating upon the Rig Veda (three Chapters), with comparison work to the Yajur and Atharva Veda's (where cross links of verses in question occur), with a chapter each on Rig Veda Braahmana's and aaraNyaka's, and those of the Yajur and, secondarily, Atharva Veda's. A final pair of chapters will outline the trajectories of term usage in the Later Vedic Literature, and the corresponding relationship of these trajectories with later commentaries.

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As I suggested above, this project can only be possible if its methodology can be correlated with both traditional and current perspectives. The 13 "key words" under study will be examined, to use the term coined by Gonda, in context of the "semantic fields" in which they are found ("Notes on the Study of Indian Religious Terminology"). This procedure of associative word study is neither incongruent with the work of early Vedic commentators, such as Yaaska, nor is it inconsistent with the modern theories of language in both the theoretical analysis of Noam Chomsky and the conclusions of neuro-linguistics (for the latter, cf. Attitudes, Chaos, and the Connectionist Mind, Richard J. Eiser).

Yaaska's early semantic study, the Nirukta, uses the principle of perception and association to explain the uses of Vedic words. As a result, it was the first resource accessible to the early Western scholars of Vedic literature such as H.H. Wilson, F. MaxMueller, and others in 19th and early 20th centuries for use as a key to begin translating the Vedas. Yaaska's style of inquiry into the reasoning behind Vedic word usage revolved around simple associations of abstract nouns phonetically related to the verb roots from which they derive their meaning. Speaking of why the earth/pRthivii is so named--based upon the verb root -prath ("to spread")--he explains that this derives from the earth's appearance as spread out. He then clarifies that there are limits to such associative justifications of interpretation. To argue that this meaning for pRthivii does not hold water (no pun intended) because we can't know who spread it is pointless. The earth simply is spread out according the perspective one has when looking at it. Yaaska argues that for easiest universal understanding, association of meaning for a noun should be based upon the verb which is its root (This text will soon be hyperlinked for all citations, when formal academic portions ar posted--remember, this was a draft layman's introduction for a general non-specialist grant committee!- Nirukta, 1.13-14).

Sanskrit word etymologies have long confounded Western scholars because they are more phonetic than historical. In other words, it is not only--or sometimes not even--important which meaning proceeded which, but which meaning most closely and logically follows the phonetics of the verbal root I context, according to the early Rig Veda commentator. This phonetic association then serves as the base upon which the meaning is justified (earth as that which is spread out because pRthivii comes from prath and sounds like it also). Obviously, of course, their are very intricate rules for these derivations, but the rules cannot be taken to the exclusion of a logical association in meaning.

Accordingly, Yaaska's analysis argues that the meaning associated with the root must determine the simple meaning for the noun independent of the context in which it is used. To derive a separate doctrine regarding a noun based upon wider implications of the verb itself is to pursue meaning in the wrong direction ("who did the spreading" is not the primary implication when calling the earth something which is spread). The words themselves are meant to be simple. It is the context of their usage which demands the careful questioning according to grammar, with his etymology as its complement (N 1.15). The resulting meaning of a given passage includes the balance of both avenues of analysis.

Yaaska quite colorfully derides those who know the grammar and the rules for the derivations without examining the context, calling them "blind men running into posts" who then blame the post--the derived word--for their error (N 1.16). Accordingly, he calls for the application of the resulting, relatively simple, verb-based meanings to the subtle complexities of the context in which they are applied (N 1.18). This was the key to understanding the meaning of the Vedic literature which, even by that time, was widely misunderstood (N 1.20).

This can be further correlated with modern linguistic theory of word sub-units as elements of meaning, such as memes (Yaska discusses this principle in N 2.2). The identification of language as an associative instinct of neural and cognitive linguistic behavior by modern researchers such as Chomsky adds further structure to Western inquiries into the internal workings of this ancient science of phonetic semantics (cf. also Pinker, The Language Instinct, and Aitchison, Words in the Mind ).

The challenge of this dissertation will be to perform such associative analysis across the wide array of contexts in even a single text where a complex word, like one for the self, is used. Add this to the collection of four major and five minor texts spanning over 1200 years in composition, the amount of raw data is so imposing that when I initially proposed this project, several on my committee refused to believe it was possible.

This brings me to the third aspect of this dissertation. The analysis and cross-linkage of such a massive base of information is cumbersome when considering that the data to be analyzed is spread, densely, across many detailed volumes. Accordingly, I am using electronic versions of thee texts on disk, where available, and entering my own when they are not available. Using basic hypertext mark-up language (html), words or phrases in a document can be encoded to enable the user to jump immediately to related links in the same document or other documents. Hypertext can also enable more complex functions depending on what commands are embedded in the word or phrase being "marked up."

This procedure serves as an efficient engine for the methodology of semantic field analysis in several ways. In the first case, euphonic rules of combination which operate in Sanskrit texts make the use of simple "search" commands impossible. Considering the size of the database to be studied, it is also essential to be able to quickly link several files containing passages from several texts. Additional features of html enable usage counts (how many genitive or nominative uses occur for a given word), commentary linkage (RV passages that are used as sacred invocations in later texts are explained or reinterpreted and, with html, this aspect of word usage can be easily tracked and identified), and research mapping (html can record a series of activated links, or include additional links enabling other scholars to examine and map texts using previous studies while leaving a record of their own for later studies). The development of this technical application of the methodology depends upon a number limitations in multilingual computing which, as a result, are being addressed and resolved for the benefit of the wider interests of multilingual academic inquiry.

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Sample inquiry re. aatman


aatman is decidedly difficult. Yaaska is inconclusive, suggesting it derives from verbs meaning either "to go constantly" or "to reach, obtain" (N 3.15). The matter is compounded when Western scholarship uses the same principles of phonetic derivation to suggest, instead, that it derives from a word meaning "to breath" (cf. Monier-Williams' Sanskrit-English Dictionary, or H.G. Narahari's aatman in Pre-Upanishadic Vedic Literature). This latter derivation would be consistent in associative meaning with later speculations on the relation of breath or vital force/praaNa to discipline and doctrine for realizing the brahman-aatman unity.

If one were to take Yaaska's argument as an absolute criterion, fault could be found with this Western phonetic derivation on two grounds. In the first place, utilizing the rules of phonetic derivation exclusively, the root meaning "to breath" ("an") is the obvious choice. In addition, this is more consistent with later doctrines associating breath/praaNa with the path of realizing one's interior or ultimate unity with the abstract ultimate concept of brahman. The role of breath in the formation of speech compounds the attractiveness of this association. In the second place, then, the later scholars have gone the rout of those who would ask, regarding pRthivii, "who spread the earth?" To link aatman to the root meaning "to breath" commits the error both of examining the rules of derivation to the exclusion of the context and, subsequently, pursuing the analysis through the root derivation rather than in context of it.

Whether Yaaska, modern scholars, or a combination of both are correct can only be resolved by an in-depth examination of a large collection of aatman passages. Traditional methods emphasize a balance between precision of root derivation, and the relationship of the associated meaning ("that which is spread," "that which breaths") to the context of the passage. Modern methods emphasize the development of sub-units in words and the history of how they were used. This study critiques both positions from the criteria on which they agree: the use of a word across both genres and history.

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Overcoming the major blockade of feasibility entailed in such extensive cross-contextual analysis, the use of html expedites access and allows critical examination of the actual research procedure. Studies done in html allow for full inclusion of all data examined and, by means of the links encoded by the researcher, the very path of that examination. It is not surprising, then, that even in thorough works such as Gonda's, there are only a limited number of full-text examples followed by a footnote with daunting strings of verse citations.

The dissertation will be presented in the traditional analogue format with due pagination and attention the minutia of print protocol. Based upon the discussion above, it is also necessary to include a digital edition. As a result, scholars qualified to understand linguistic analysis and the particularities of its development and application in Sanskrit literature will be able to retrace, with speed and immediacy, the path of the study with the precision of scientific research emulation. Recent studies in journals like Literary and Linguistic Computing, TEXT Technology, and even more mainstream publications like Multilingual Computing have recognized the potential for error in computer-based analyses of purely computational or structural aspects of literature. This is further compounded by the limitations of computing standards which, because they are Roman-text based, complicate software applications due to the short-comings of the medium for adequate representation of non Roman languages.

Considering that in the course of my research I have found an effective--if arduous--way to overcome this limitation, html presents itself as both facilitator of research and path-marker for the critique and augmentation of both process/result. This study of the developing terminology for the self in early Vedic literature will accomplish three objectives: the clarification of the course by which these terms came to be central or abandoned in later philosophy and discourse, some possible implications of this development in literary and linguistic theory in South Asia, and the implementation of a methodology which maximizes the potential of technology while balancing traditional means of inquiry with those of today.

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