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How to do things with Sanskrit:

Speech act theory and the oral performance of

sacred texts
McComas Taylor, The Australian National University

Texts by themselves are silent; they become socially relevant through their
enunciation, through citation, through acts of reading, reference, and
interpretation. Therefore, we need to examine how texts are used and by
whom, when recourse is made to textual authority, and what kinds of
entailments such actions bring.(Lambek, 1990, p. 23)

It is now half a century since JL Austin published his seminal work, How to do Things
with Words, in which he first articulated his theory of speech acts. Since then, his core
idea that verbal utterances convey more that what is simply implied by the words
alone has become axiomatic. In this paper, I will describe the use of Sanskrit verses
in an oral tradition known in Hindi as a Bhgavat-kath (Divine narrative or
Stories about God), as practiced by teachers in the International Society for Krishna
Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement. Verses
drawn from the important Hindu text, the Bhgavatapura, form a key component of
these events, yet few if any in the audience are able to understand them directly. As
part of an ongoing inquiry into power and authority within a Hindu episteme, I use
speech act theory to explore the function of these verses. Bhgavata performances
are compared with Quranic recitation in the Comoros and the recitation of certain
Buddhist texts in Mustang, Nepal. I argue that Sanskrit verses in this event have
what Austin terms perlocutionary significance: that is, they have a meaning and a
function other than that conveyed by the words alone. They enable the exponent to
demonstrate publicly his status, to establish his authority and prove his direct access
to the text. The use of Sanskrit verses validates the oral discourse by tying it directly
back to the authority of the original source text.

Bhgavat-kath, Bhgavatapura, speech act theory, ISKCON, oral traditions, ritual
Before JL Austin published his seminal work How to do Things with Words in the early
1960s, it was generally assumed that the function of language was to make
declarative, factual assertions. Austin pointed to the non-literal, non-declarative use
of language: it conveys more than what is communicated by words alone. He
pioneered a proto-structuralist, taxonomic approach to language in which he drew a
distinction between the meaning and the actual use, effect or impact of an
utterance. Austins follower JR Searle re-stated the problem thus:
I cant fix the roof by saying I fix the roof and I cant fry an egg by saying I fry
an egg, but I can promise to come and see you just by saying I promise to
come and see you and I can order you to leave the room just by saying I order
you to leave the room. Now why the one and not the other? (Searle, 2002, p.
Post-Austin, the core idea that verbal utterances do more that what is simply implied
by the semantic import of utterances has been applied to fields as diverse as
philosophy of language, literary criticism, religious studies, performance studies,
artificial intelligence, computer-aided design and narratology. Speech act theory also
attracted the attention of writers such as the phenomenologist Paul Ricoeur and
deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. As Gorman noted, perhaps over-enthusiastically,
speech art theory has been widely hailed and widely utilized in contemporary
literary theory, where it has taken its place as one of the canonical modes of theory
and criticism (Gorman, 1999, p. 93).
Austin distinguished three types of speech acts: 1. those in which the act of
saying something is to do something; 2. those where in saying something we do
something, and 3. those where by saying something we do something (Austin, 1980
[1962], p. 94). He calls these locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary speech
acts respectively. These subtle distinctions become clearer with concrete examples.
The first category, the locutionary speech act, is exemplified by I dub. Here, to
make the utterance is to confer a title on a particular person. The locutionary act is
roughly equivalent to uttering a certain sentence with a certain sense and reference,
which again is roughly equivalent to meaning in the traditional sense (Austin,
1980 [1962], p. 109). Simply, it is the (unproblematised) referential, semantic
meaning of the actual words of the utterance as supposedly created in the minds of
the listener.
Austins second category, the illocutionary speech act, is that in which we
achieve something in saying something. This includes acts of informing, ordering,
warning, undertaking, etc., i.e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force
(Austin, 1980 [1962], p. 109). These speech acts convey the speakers actual intended
meaning, but this may not be explicit at the purely semantic level of the utterance.
For example, as an illocutionary speech act, Its raining, might be a warning to the
interlocutor to take an umbrella, that is, in saying It is raining, the speaker is
achieving a specific goal of warning the listener.
The third category is the perlocutionary speech act: by saying one thing we
achieve another(Austin, 1980 [1962], p. 94). This may be said to be the actual effect of
the speech act, and like the illocutionary act, this may be quite distinct from the
semantic meaning of the utterance. For example, Its raining as a perlocutionary
speech act may be a means of inducing or causing the interlocutor to feel regret at
having forgotten to bring the washing in. Austin defines the perlocutionary act as
Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential
effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker,
or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose
of producing them. We shall call the performance of an act of this kind the
performance of a perlocutionary act.(Austin, 1980 [1962], p. 101)
This third class of speech act is what we achieve by saying something, such as
convincing, persuading, deterring, and even say, surprising or misleading (Austin,
1980 [1962], p. 109).

There are numerous studies in which speech act theory has been applied to literary
texts, for example, Stanley Fishs exploration of Coriolanus entitled How to do things
with Austin and Searle: speech act theory and literary criticism (1976), the many
applications of the theory to Biblical studies listed in Childs (2005) and Bredsdorffs
study of Njals Saga (Bredsdorff, 2007). In the Indic context, Wheelock applied
speech act theory as articulated by Austin or developed by Searle to be useful for
investigating ritual speech in general and Vedic or tantric mantras in particular
(Wheelock, 1982; 1989). In her study of kingly speech in the Vedas, Patton found the
use of indigenous taxonomies to be more a productive way of categorizing mantras
(Patton, 1995). In all these investigations, however, the source language of the text in
question is in general understood the intended audience. I am interested in a more
complex situation in which the language is not known, or is only imperfectly known,
to the audience, as is the case with most Bhgavata-kath events.
Bhgavata-kath: Stories about God
The public narration of stories about the deity Ka, known as Bhgavata-kath, is a
common and popular undertaking throughout India and in the West among the
Indian diaspora and in the broader Hindu faith community. In important pilgrimage
centres such as Vrindavan and Mathura in Northern India dozens of large-scale
events are held each year (Taylor, 2010; 2012; forthcoming). A Bhgavata-kath event
may comprise tens of thousands of disciples in a vast marquee in Mumbai or as few
as ten devotees sitting on a living-room floor in Canberra. It may run for an hour or
two, or may extend over a seven-day period, in which case it is known in Hindi as a
Bhgavat-sapth, or Bhgavata week. Irrespective of their scale, the chief exponent,
known variously as the pait, str, vys or crya, usually an educated man or
some other figure of status or authority in the community is seated before the
audience on a throne or a raised dais. He usually delivers a discourse on any of a
wide range of religious or spiritual subjects in the local vernacular (Hindi in North
India; English in the West). This discourse inevitably includes verses recited, chanted
or sung in Sanskrit. These are drawn from the Bhgavatapura (BhP) and other
foundational texts of the Vaiava tradition such as the Bhagavadgt. The BhP, a
document of 18 000 verses dating from about 1000 CE, is held by proponents of
Vaiava traditions to be the most authoritative source of narratives about Ka.
Some kath sessions open with a single verse from the BhP, and the rest of the event
may be devoted to a discourse more or less loosely based on that verse.
Alternatively, a three- or four-hour session may contain as many as dozen key
Historically, Sanskrit has always been the language of educated, scholarly and
spiritual elites, and this is still largely the case. Few if any in the audience at kath
events are able to understand more than a smattering of Sanskrit, and in some cases
even the exponent himself has only an imperfect grasp of the verses he is chanting.
Setting aside the question of aestheticsthe easily verifiable assumption that people
enjoy listening to Sanskrit verses, that they add colour, variety and beauty to a
performancewhat other functions do these incomprehensible Sanskrit verses
fulfill? Or to rephrase the question: Why recite verses in Sanskrit when no one can
understand them? Or to rephrase the question again in Austinian terms: How do
exponents do things with Sanskrit, and what kinds of things do they do?
This study grows out of a larger inquiry into the mutually constitutive nature
of power and knowledge in the Sanskritic, Hindu episteme. The initial stimulus was
provided by Pollocks article, The theory of practice and the practice of theory in
Indian intellectual history (1985). This led to a preliminary attempt to define a
regime of truth for Sanskrit narrative tales (Taylor, 2007), various textual strategies
which serve to empower textual discourse (Taylor, 2008a; 2008b; 2008c), and
empowerment strategies relating to the BhP and its oral performance in the form of
Bhgavata-sapth (Taylor, 2010; 2011; 2012; forthcoming). The study of the BhP is
particularly interesting as it is one of the few, if not the only, of the great puras
with a contemporary, living tradition. As such, it provides an insight into the ways
in which puric texts may have been performed and received in the past. In the
following sections, I will give an example of the use of Sanskrit verses from the BhP
in an online teaching conducted by a member of the International Society for Krishna
Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement.

ISKCON hosts numerous examples of kath performances on its many websites. A
typical example is a Bhgavata-kath given in English by an ISKCON teacher, Bhakti
Svarupa Damodara Swami, on 18 June 2006.
Internal evidence suggested that the
discourse was given in Mumbai to an English-speaking audience. The recording
begins with 20 minutes of devotion songs (bhajan). In a format which is typical of
many ISKCON kath events, it focuses on a single verse from the BhP. The verse is
interpreted in accordance with the translation and purport of A.C. Bhaktivedanta.
tair daranyvayavair udra-vilsa-hseksita-vma-sktaih |
hrttmano hrta-prn ca bhaktir anicchato me gatim anv prayukte ||
(BhP 3.25.36)

The root-verse which is the focus of this event is an utterance attributed to deity
Like so many verses in the BhP, this is by no means straightforward, but the
following is my own literal translation (Sanskrit equivalents are in round brackets,
and interpolations are in square brackets):
Devotion secures to my subtle state (gati) those whose souls (tman) are
captivated and whose hearts (pra) are captivated by those [forms of me]
whose limbs are charming, whose pastimes are exalted, [which exhibit] smiles
and glances, and whose speech is eloquent, [even though those individuals
who] do not intend it.
To paraphrase this difficult verse in colloquial terms: individuals attain co-indentity
with the divine through devotion.
At the kath event, the exponent chanted the verse one phrase at a time,
leaving an interval for members of the audience to repeat the phrase after him. The
exponent then chanted each half-line (pda) twice, and again the congregation
repeated it. He then chanted the synonymsthe individual semantic units of the
verse translated with reasonable accuracy (with one notable exception to which we
will return) by A.C. Bhaktivedanta, chanting each Sanskrit word with its English
equivalent in turn. Again, the audience did likewise. This entire treatment of the
verse took about four minutes. The synonyms as given by A.C. Bhaktivedanta and
read by the exponent are as follows:

On Bhakti Svarupa Damodara Swami see The entire recording can of this event
can accessed at
taihby those forms; daranyacharming; avayavaihwhose limbs; udra
exalted; vilsapastimes; hsasmiling; ksitaglances; vmapleasing;
sktaihwhose delightful words; hrtacaptivated; tmanahtheir minds;
hrtacaptivated; prnntheir senses; caand; bhaktihdevotional service;
anicchatahunwilling; meMy; gatimabode; anvmsubtle; prayukte
The one notable deviation from literality is in the translation of the word bhakti. As is
well known, bhakti is normally taken to mean spiritual devotion to the divine, but is
translated here as devotional service. The interesting implications of this will
become clear below. Having completed the recitation of the synonyms, the
exponent then proceeded to read aloud the official translation:

Upon seeing the charming forms of the Lord, smiling and attractive, and
hearing His very pleasing words, the pure devotee almost loses all other
consciousness. His senses are freed from all other engagements, and he
becomes absorbed in devotional service. Thus in spite of his unwillingness, he
attains liberation without separate endeavor.
Comparing the literal translation of the verse which I have given above with this
version, it is clear that the latter is an interpretation through a traditional Gauya-
Vaiava lens in the Indic hermeneutic tradition, rather than a strict translation in
the contemporary scholarly sense. Here the shift in the use of the word bhakti from
devotion to devotional service is further emphasized.

After reading this translation word for word, the exponent read aloud the
purport, a commentary and expansion on the text also by A.C. Bhaktivedanta. The
thrust of the purport was: Simply by fixing oneself in Ka consciousness,
engaging the senses in the service of the Lord, one is imperceptibly liberated.
Lord Caitanya, therefore, recommended five important processes in the
discharge of devotional service: (1) to chant the holy names of the Lord, Hare
Ka, Hare Ka, Ka Ka, Hare Hare/Hare Rma, Hare Rma, Rma
Rma, Hare Hare, (2) to associate with devotees and serve them as far as
possible, (3) to hear rmad-Bhgavatam, (4) to see the decorated temple and
the Deity and, if possible, (5) to live in a place like Vndvana or Mathur.
These five items alone can help a devotee achieve the highest perfectional
stage. This is confirmed in Bhagavad-gt and here in the rmad-Bhgavatam.
purport concluded with this interesting passage:

Caitanya (14861534) was a Bengali Vaiava saint and founder of the Gauya
tradition of Ka-bhakti, of which ISKCON is a direct descendant. Of interest here is
the circular relationship that exists between textual authority of the BhP and Ka
discourse: the veracity of the discourse is confirmed by the text, while listening to
the BhP is one of the key devotional activities determined by the discourse. That is,
the text validates the discourse, while the discourse validates the text. A second
interesting point involves the concepts of devotion and devotional service
foreshadowed above. As we have seen, the term bhakti in the root verse was
interpreted as devotional service in the synonyms. In the purport, the first duty in
the performance of devotional service is the chanting the holy names of the Lord,
the mahmantra. This provides a segue into the exponents sermon, the final element
of this Bhgavata-kath, an 45-munite ex tempore lecture on the importance of
perpetuating rla Prabhupadas mission, ie. ISKCON, with a focus on the importance
of reciting the mahmantra in everyday life.
How can we characterise the function of the Sanskrit root-verse in this event?
The verse is notionally central to the whole discourse, its raison dtre, occupying the
prime opening position, and being chanted, analysed word by word, glossed, and
provided with a translation and a purport. In fact the verse provides a launching
pad and a source of legitimation for uniquely Gauya practice of chanting the
mahmantra. The verse passes through three sectarian filters of interpretation, those
of Caitanya, A.C.Bhaktivedanta and the exponent himself. As it passes through each
interpretive lens, it acquires a more distinctive sectarian focus. The verse itself
mentions bhakti, devotion as the path by which to reach Ka. Caitanya lists five
forms of bhakti, A.C.Bhaktivedanta renders bhakti as devotional service which is
itself a semantic stretch, and in the hands of the final commentator, the exponent
himself, this interpretation is even more narrowly focused to become chanting the
holy name. It would be difficult on the first reading to argue that the verse
advocates or requires recitation of the mahmantra, yet this is the interpretation
placed on it in this context. This case is doubly interesting because of the apparent
depth of the analysis and the care taken with each word, and yet the final outcome is
a uniquely sectarian reading.
Case studies from Comoros and Nepal
I will now outline two case studies of ritual utterances in terms of speech acts, in
which the language of performance is unknown or unintelligible to the audience:
Lambeks study of Quranic recitation on the Comoros Islands (Lambek, 1990), and
Sihls observation of tantric rituals in a Tibetan village in Nepal (Sihl, 2010). To
paraphrase Lambek, he explored the relationships among texts, readers, and moral
community in order to understand the dissonance and interplay of personal and
textual authority in local Islamic practice. He conducted this study among Malagasy-
speaking villagers of Mayotte, Comoros Islands, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of
East Africa. Lambek linked the political economy of knowledge approach to an
analysis of recitation as a ritual activity in which illocutionary force exceeded
referential meaning. He explored the relationship between religious knowledge,
power, and action in Islamic societies and the interface between the oral and the
written (Lambek, 1990, p. 23).
Lambek cites the example of the hutuba, an Islamic scholar, who read the
sermon in the village mosque each Friday. The text was in Arabic, which virtually no
one in the village could understand, nor was it translated into the local vernacular.
Yet the sermon had what Lambek term performative force, even though it lacks
referential content. The performance of the recitation was sacred, and the
congregation listened in complete silence (Lambek, 1990, p. 29).
The authority of Islamic scholars in Mayotte comes largely from two avenues
for display of superior knowledge of the texts: their skill and confidence at
public recitation, and their acquaintance with secondary sources or secondary
ways of knowing, such as the ability to interpret rather than merely recite
Koranic passages. But in each case, this authority is socially mediated. While
the specific social factors are largely local and external to Islam in the narrow
religious sense, their relevance comes into play precisely because of the textual
and performative bases of Islamic religious knowledge. (Lambek, 1990, pp. 28-
In the second case study, Sihl documented the recitation of tantric ritual manuals in
a Tibetan community in Lower Mustang, Nepal. His starting point was to ask What
is the local, ethnographic relevance of the ritual manuals and other texts that the
religious specialists intone, sometimes for hours at a stretch? (Sihl, 2010, p. 36). His
case study focuses on Chongkor, a small village and temple community of
moderately literate tantrists or ngagpa (snags pa), nonmonastic, householder tantric
priests (Sihl, 2010, pp. 36-37). He found that there is no was a simple
correspondence between the texts content (a notion that needs to be
problematized) and local religious understandings and practices (Sihl, 2010, p. 37).
He found that:
A large part of the texts is devoid of meaning for the tantrists [and presumably
even more so for the audience]: Sanskrit mantras, or abstruse technical terms,
and tantric symbolism. There is also a certain degree of incoherence or
obscurity in many tantric texts, not to mention the physical degradation of
many of the ritual manuals. To quite an extent, ritual texts and words, over and
above their semantic content, are here primarily instruments for the
mobilization of ritual power. (Sihl, 2010, p. 39)
Sihl described how in ritual practices, the texts of different deities are read
following a technique called pel (spel), or grouping: all the invitations to appear are
read together. Officiants switch back and forth between texts belonging to different
ritual cycles, sometimes without breaking the flow of the chanting, so that the texts
from different cycles merge into one continuous chant (Sihl, 2010, p. 40).
In a particular ritual known as hrinen (sri gnon, sri mnan), the pressing down of
the hri (sri) demons, a tantrist officiates alone, usually in the altar room of a private
house, where he remains reading and reciting for many hours. Sihl notes that the
texts are written in a complex and sometimes obscure literary language that
nonliterature laypeople cannot possible follow in any substantial way (Sihl, 2010,
p. 46).
Both these examples, the Quranic recitals in the Comoros and the reading of
tantric ritual texts in a Tibetan village, lack locutionary, literal meaning (Lambeks
referential content and Sihls semantic content) vis--vis their respective
audiences. However, in both cases the oral performances entail a significant
perlocutionary function. In the case of the Comoros, the Islamic scholars skill and
confidence at public recitation are the means by which his authority is demonstrated
and validated. Despite their lack of content, the Tibetan tantric texts and their
recitation are an indespensible, indeed the the focal, element of ritual practice in this
community. For both tantrist and layperson, what the texts lack in locutionary
meaning, they acquire as perlocutionary speech acts, for, as Sihl states, that are
primarily instruments for the mobilization of ritual power.
In the following paragraphs I will explore the use of Sanskrit verses in various
Bhgavata-kath events and compare these with some of the insights gained by
Lambek and Silh in their respective case studies.
What is the point of chanting verses in Sanskrit? The exponent publicly performs his
identity as a str one who possesses the scriptures, a paita (scholar), and
crya (a teacher) and a vys (a spiritual descendant of, or manifestation of Vysa,
the mythical semi-divine sage to whom many Sanskrit master-texts are attributed).
To qualify as any one of these, the exponent is expected to be able to read,
understand, interpret, recite, chant, sing and expound on original Sanskrit texts. The
actual ability and level of expertise of exponents varies greatly. Some strs have a
great mastery of Sanskrit and may have studied for decades in traditional colleges.
Others have a comparatively passive knowledge, that is, they have learned the
meaning of the specific verses and are able to perform these in public and expound
on them in the vernacular. In these cases, however, they may not necessarily have a
deep knowledge of Sanskrit grammar, nor would they be able to analyse the texts
independently. There is an analogy between their knowledge of Sanskrit and the
way in which most educated Westerners could make an informed guess at the
meaning of In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirits Sancti without knowing any Latin.
There is a deep sense in the Hindu episteme that if a text or utterance is in
Sanskrit, the language of the scriptures and of the gods themselves, then by that very
fact alone, it may be regarded as true. This idea stems from an ancient and
widespread concept in Indic epistemology known as abda prama, literally verbal
authority or written testimony. This, along with evidence derived from perception
and logic, are according to the tradition the main ways of knowing. That is to say,
for a particular epistemic community, such as the audience of ISKON devotees
attending the event described above, the existence of a discursive statement in a root
text such as the Bhgavata-pura is alone enough to constitute proof of its veracity,
as the written word is held to be infallible.
In addition to the authority of the text, there is the authority of the guru. The
concept of the infallibility of the guru is also deeply ingrained in the Indic thought-
world, and is well expressed in the famous verse in which the guru is equated with
the three deities of the trinity and the ultimate form of God incarnate:
guru brahm guru viu | gurur devo mahevara |
guru skt para brahma | tasmai r gurave nama |
The guru is Brahm. The guru is Viu. The guru is the deity iva. The guru is
the Supreme Brahman in corporeal form. Homage to that glorious guru!

There are two points to be made here. First, I suggest that the public utterance of
Sanskrit verses by the exponent in the event described above is one way in which he
expresses, enacts or performs his status as guru. It is not necessarily the case that
every guru knows Sanskrit, but knowledge of the language is one of the attributes
that devotees might expect a guru to possess. Secondly, in the example of the
Bhgavata-kath given by the ISKCON exponent, the words of the guru (A.C.
Bhaktivedanta) occupy a unique and powerful position. One does not have to search
far to find devotees who regard A.C.Bhaktivedantas teachings as perfect, pure, and
. Almost every follower of Srila Prabhupada accepts his statements as
infallible like Vedic injunctions.
Srila Prabhupada is the perfect person and the
infallible master, beyond any doubt and mistake. All misunderstandings are
perfectly resolved by taking shelter of Srila Prabhupadas infallible and
transcendental words, not otherwise.


Srila Prabhupadas translations and (accessed 22 March 2012)
7 (accessed 22 March 2012)
8 (accessed 22 March 2012)
purports are nondifferent from the original instructions delivered 5,000 years ago by
Lord Krsna.
Exponents at these events often repeat that assertion that listening to a
Bhgavata-kath sessionhearing the stories about Godis enough to make the
audiences lives dhanya (blessed, fortunate, auspicious) or dhan dhanya (prosperous
and blessed). The use of Sanskrit and the authority of the str are two of the
contributive factors that produce the authenticity of the event, and effectively
guarantee the desired rewards, i.e. the accumulation of social and religious capital
on the part of the devotee. This is similar to the situation with Quranic recitation
described by Lambek in the Comoros which creates changes in a moral state (1990,
p. 27). What Lambek says about the meaning also applies to Sanskrit texts: the
meaning is always the power, certainty, truth, the reality if Islam itself, of which the
recitation is an exemplification and an affirmation rather than a description (1990, p.
27). Recitation of Sanskrit verses from BhP, and indeed of other texts such as the
Bhagavadgt and the Avadh dialect classic, Rmcaritmanas(Lutgendorf, 1991) plays a
similar role in that is confers a sense of power, certainty, truth and the validity of the
Bhgavata tradition. The recitation exemplifies the tradition and affirms it, but
because the meaning is not generally accessible, it does not describe the tradition.
As a result the recitation creates what Lambek calls a meta-message, and what
Austin would have called perlocutionary function: that hearing the recitation is
effectively the creation, identification and acceptance of oneself as a Muslim, or in
this case, as a Hindu, or more specifically as a Bhgavata: one who accepts the
redemptive power of the BhP.

Lambek uses the semiotic term indexical to describe the meta-message of the
recitation. Indexical signs 'direct the attention to their objects by blind compulsion'
(Peirce, 1985, p. 13). From this are we to infer that recitation of the Quran directs
attention of the audience to the power and truth of Islam by blind compulsion. By
extension, we may say following Lambek that listening to the recitation of the BhP
leads to the creation (representation or re-presentation), identification, and
acceptance of oneself as a Ka devotee within the Bhgavata tradition. I am not
claiming Ka devotee as a unique or exclusive mode of self-identification, but see
it rather as a single facet possible within a multipolar performative Hindu identity.
The text of the Quran and the Tibetan tantric manuals are canonical and fixed,
and indeed as Sihl points out their immutability is an important constituent
element of their authority. There is an interesting parallel here. We might agree the
BhP fits Lambeks description of most sacred texts, as a closed, static (if vibrant)
system of knowledge (Lambek, 1990, p. 27). He states that sacred texts are not
decomposed and recombined to produce new meanings, but only to form new

bhaktivedanta-swami-prabhupada-6/ (accessed 22 March 2012)
orders of recitation (Lambek, 1990, p. 27). To what extent is the BhP decomposed
and recombined? An exponent is able to pluck verses from anywhere in the BhP
and indeed from other Sanskrit and vernacular texts. He has the ability to use verses
without explanation or with oblique or partial explanations, or to make another
point entirely. This affirms Lambecks suggestion that a high degree of
decomposition and recombination to produce new meanings, particularly sectarian
meanings, are common in the Bhgavata tradition.
On a larger scale, what Lambek says of the Quranic texts is also true of the
BhP: the choice of verses is indeed up to the str, but the illocutionary force is
always the same: a blessing for those upon whose heads the words fall. This is a
close parallel to the strs who declare that the lives of those who hear the
Bhvagat-j will become blessed dhanya. and the Bhgavat-j will fulfill all our
wishes, (bhgavat-j hamre samkalp avaya pr kart hai) (Mridul Krishna Shastri,
2008, p. 2.16.18)
Hindu traditions are best viewed in practice as well as in theory (or in
structure, as Lambek puts it). This will give us an idea of how the BhP and other
master texts relate to social organisation and power, how they constitute order,
and create worlds and imaginaries, and how the texts are in turn continuously
regranted the authority to do so. This is another way of asking how texts have the
authority to constitute order in society, and how and why does society regrant
them the authority to do this.
What Lambek says of Islam and the Koran in the Comoros, might just as well
apply to religious texts, specifically the BhP:
Specific texts and specific performers may be appropriate for specific occasions,
but the utterance of the text is of greater consequence than what the text says.
In other words, these texts have no or very little referential, locutionary
meaning; the illocutionary force is specified by the context of the
performance the kind of ritual being enacted. (Lambek, 1990, p. 27)
That the utterance of the text is more important than the meaning also applies to the
use of Sanskrit texts in public performance. This last point is understood within the
framework of the perlocutionary act, where the act of listening to the Bhgavat-kath
results in the experience of blessings and auspiciousness and the other claimed
benefits. This would include the enhancement of the audience members feelings of
devotion (bhakti) for the deity, Ka, and the expression of this perpetuation of the
beliefs and practices of this particular religious tradition.
In the Comoros case-study the text has authority over both of readers and non-
readers. It is less clear whether this also applies in the case of the kath, as the
exponent is free to make selective use of the primary text at will, and to supplement
it with extracts from other authoritative, sectarian sources. Hence, it would be
difficult to argue that the text has authority over the exponent. Indeed the exponent
Comment [J 1]: check Hindi
has authority over the way in which the text is used, in so far he controls the
selection process and may supplement it from external sources. Ironically, his
authority rests on the text and his knowledge of it and his access to it, even while he
exerts control over it.
Like the recital of the Quran in the Comoros and Tibetan ritual manuals in Nepal,
Sanskrit verses in Bhgavata-kath events generally have little or no locutionary
meaning or referential content because the audiences are generally unable to access
the original language. The verses do, however, have value as perlocutionary speech
acts. The inclusion of verses confirms exponents status as an educated, authorized
and authentic vector of true discourse. The verses are one of the ways in which the
exponent is able to perform his authority, as his access to the original Sanskrit text
legitimizes his status and lends him authority to present and interpret the religious
discourse in public. The verses, whether explained in part, in full or even
erroneously, are perlocutionary speech acts which ensure that the audience
experiences the event and the discourse as authentic and transformative.
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