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REVIEW ESSAY

ARE MANTRAS MEANINGFUL?
Understanding Mantras. Ed. Harvey P. Alper. SUNY Series in Religious
Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. ν + 530 $69.50
(hardcover) ISBN 0-88706-598-8.
According to Harvey P. Alper, ' The reader will find no methodological
manifesto in this volume,...no unanimity among the contributors'
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(8).
Alper is too modest. There is no unanimity, but "understanding mantras"
has generated several methodological manifestos, notably in the essays
by Alper, Frits Staal, and Wade T. Wheelock, each of which engages the
others. Moreover, several other contributors—above all John Taber,
Harold Coward, Gerhard Oberhammer, and Sanjukta Gupta—bring
careful methodological reflection to their discussions of mantra in specific
contexts. And André Padoux, probably the world's foremost mantra
scholar, provides a thoughtful overview and response. But it is really
Alper's three-part contribution, totaling 177 pages, that is not only a
methodological manifesto on its own, but, woven with the other
contributions, a magisterial proclamation that mantras pervade
Hinduism, and that there is not only the need to understand them, but
improving possibilities for doing so.
Alper's contribution lies not only in his essays (his "Introduction,"
essay on mantra as treated by the medieval Kashmir Saiva scholiast
Ksemaraja, and 117-page "working bibliography"), but in his editorship,
which has enlisted him, and most of the others with him, in responding to
Staal's essay, and wider posture, on the "meaninglessness" of mantras. For
Alper, Staal is the purvapaksin (11), the one who (in Indian philosophy)
supplies the primary counter-argument. Taking the book as a whole, I
would say that Staal's position is an astute piece of gamesmanship: a
spirited and entertaining defense of a weak position. Vulnerable from all
sides, he holds it well enough to set the protocols, stay in the game,
protect every vulnerable point with clever feints, and, from all
appearances, win a draw. What are the issues that he raises? They are
broad ones that all the others have to take up: mantra and language,
mantra and ritual, and mantra and religion (95).
While most of the authors (most explicitly, Findly, Alper, Wheelock,
Coward, Taber, and Padoux) argue one way or another for the
linguisticality and meaning of mantras, for Staal, mantra is not like
language. For him, it is false to assume that mantra is a special kind of
language. He thinks Wittgenstein's notion of "language game," which
Alper applies to mantra, is too "hazy" for this purpose, an explanation
"obscurum per obscurius" (70). Likewise, he contests applications of
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Austin's and Searle's "speech act analyses" by Wheelock, Alper, Findly,
and Taber (66-70). Staal argues against speech act theory's presumptions
of "intention" and "communication" (66). Moreover, "in the Indian view, a
mantra is not even an act, viz., a ritual act (karman)" in the Srauta Sutras
and Mimamsa, "which distinguish between mantras and acts" (67). This
is a clever point, but only if we accept commentarial traditions as capable
of interpreting mantras, which Staal does not. Wheelock, on the contrary,
speaks of mantras as acts (118). Likewise, Alper tries to show that
Ksemaraja "understands the utterance of mantra to be an activity"; one
"designed to elicit a response from a reality toward which the action is
directed" (260, 261). Staal, however, wants to keep his categories
separate and pure, arguing further that mantras "predate language in the
development of man in a chronological sense" (71). Whereas it is "difficult
to explain" the development of mantras from language, "the development
of language from mantras...can be explained by assuming that constraints
of a syntactic and semantic nature were imposed on mantras in their course
of evolution" (72). While "most people take it for granted that language
originated with meaning," Staal thinks it "equally possible that meaning
was introduced or attached last" (72). Toward the end, he says that he
regards the evidence (see below) for this hypothesis "as extremely strong,
if not unassailable" (81).
Regarding mantra and ritual, Coward notes: "Since, in Staal's view,
ritual activities are self-contained, self-absorbed, and do not refer to other
realities, the ritual (and its mantra) are meaningless...Indeed, if meaning
can only be in terms of something other and at the same time consciousness
is self-enclosed, as Bhartrhari maintains, then, of course, the logical
result will be to conclude, as Staal does, that ritual, mantra, and life itself
may be meaningless" (169). So far, Staal's position is similar to Dan
Sperber's argument (in Rethinking Symbolism) that, from the
implications of structuralism, ritual symbols are meaningless or empty,
and that meaning is a "native concept." But Staal has far more in mind.
As Alper says, in tying his interpretation of mantra to his theory of the
meaninglessness of ritual, Staal "largely...assimilates" the two (10). The
"largely" is important, for, as with language, Staal also argues that
mantras are older than rituals. Toward the end of his article, Staal says
he has "come almost as far as the evidence allows us to go, but poses one
more question: if mantras and ritual are both archaic and closely related,
"what is their chronological relationship?" (81). Since, he asserts,
mantras are more scrupulously preserved and survive in and beyond Vedic
ritual better than its other elements, "this fact can be accounted for if we
assume that mantras, in general, are older than rites"; they "came before
rites in the history of evolution" (81). On the issue of the "archaic"
character of mantras, however, Padoux remarks that although Staal
quotes him to this effect, he used the term in an attempt to "set forth the
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Kashmir Saiva conception of mantras" (304), and not as a general
statement about them.
As to mantras and religion, Staal's basic position is that, with
mantras older than rituals and rituals older than religion, what religious
thinkers construe as meanings for mantras or rituals can only be
"rationalizations" (51-52, 59, 64). Moreover, there are, he says, "cases
outside religion where people use language entirely or almost entirely [my
italics] in the manner in which mantras are used," as with the babblings
and presleep monologues of a two-and-a-half-year-old child" (78) or a
German mental patient's prayers (whose religious dimension Staal
dismisses: "Though these writings are pervaded by religious notions, no
one would regard them as religiously inspired writing. It is likely that we
have here a case of regression to an earlier stage of development" [78]).
Staal links mantras and religion by the "always archaic" character of the
former and the "generally conservative and...archaic features" of the
latter (80). The connection is crude, and serves simply to underscore the
alleged primacy of mantras. Staal counts this as "evidence."
More generally, according to Staal, it is best to assume that since
mantras are not used like ordinary language, "the best we can do is try to
explain such uses by assuming that they represent a remnant, vestige, or
rudiment of something that existed before language" (74). This is
preferable, he argues, to ad hoc hypotheses that compare mantras to
something else. They are "similar...to sounds animals make, bird songs,
for example"; "birds, like humans, have neural lateralization" (72). "It is
especially in this area that we need more empirical data, on the songs of
birds, on growling, miauling, barking, and chirping not only of birds but—
who knows—of grasshoppers as well" (81-82). Which ones? I think that
Alper bends too far to try to accommodate Staal in this. Citing, for
instance, Jan Gonda's remarks on a Dharma Sutra text—"the sound of
samans and musical instruments was, like the barking of dogs and the cries
of wolves, jackals, and owls, a reason for discontinuing the study of the
Veda"—Alper comments: "The implication, I think, is that the ritual
(that is, the mantras) unleash a competing but similar potency. If so, this
tends to corroborate Staal's argument that one of the models for mantras
was the songs or sounds of animals" (344). But the comparison with such
inauspicious animals' sounds does not seem to be meant as favorably as
Alper suggests. In any case, Staal is not saying that the sounds of birds,
etc., were a "model," but an archaic prototype or source of mantras. When
Alper says he suspects that the "most fruitful approach...will emerge
from Staal's work in which mantra is analyzed in light of ethology"
(435), he does not tell us why, or relate this suspicion to views he expresses
elsewhere.
There are two points at which a majority of the book's authors seem
uncomfortable with Staal's concept of meaninglessness: the issues of
context, and of levels of meaning. That of context cannot be separated from
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different views of the origins and history of mantras. Many of the authors
have something to say on this point. Findly: In the "Rgvedic context..., at
least in this period, a mantra must have meaning" (27); mantra has its
antecedents "in the earlier insight structures where empowerment comes
primarily from meaningful communication with the divine" (44). Taber:
In terms of the Mimamsa concern over pramanas, or means to knowledge,
the question is, not are mantras meaningful, "but, roughly, are the
meanings of mantras intended? are mantras meant?" (145); "we see that
the Mimamsa organizes a text, assigning different roles to the sentences in
it, by asking essentially what contextual conditions have to be fulfilled
for injunctions to work" (156). Alper: "In a redemptive context, mantric
utterance does not appear to be either empty nor ineffable" (268). Padoux:
Mantras "can be properly explained and understood only within the
Indian tradition, with its metaphysical and mythical notions about
speech" (296-297); they "function and have a 'meaning' within a certain
universe of discourse, within an articulated and systematized whole, that
imposed by a particular use of language in the Indian context, outside of
which they can no more exist than a fish out of water" (300).
The articles of Wheelock, Oberhammer, Rocher, and Gupta are
likewise excellent studies of mantra and meaning in different contexts.
Staal's attempt to say that "so-called Puranic mantras" to Siva,
Narayana, Rama, etc., are not distinguished from each other (as Western
scholars are likely to assume) by the different deities to which they refer
or by their translatory meanings," but by their number of syllables, is a
sleight-of-hand. Even Staal has to say that they are "treated as if their
main characteristic were their number of syllables" (63). As Gupta's study
makes clear in the case of the Narayana and other Pancaratra mantras
(241), Staal's statement is simply context-preemptive. The related issues
of "mantras for the West" (Padoux 308; Alper 441-443), Tamil mantras
(Alper 366), and mantras beyond India (in Sinhala, Tibetan, Chinese,
Japanese) (Alper 439-440) do not take us beyond an indically influenced
conceptual context. Staal provides little to substantiate his claims that
there are "purely Chinese mantras in Taoism," that OM may originally
have been Dravidian, or that HUM is a "universal mantra" (61-62). Issues
of context, origins, and universality should not, however, be confused with
the search for legitimate cross-cultural comparisons, as with "the ancient
belief in the intrinsically 'magical' efficacy of speech" (Padoux 310), or
analogous practices such as the Muslim dhikr and the "Jesus prayer" of
Christian Hesychasm (Alper 441).
Staal has a hard time circumventing the fact that mantras follow the
phonological rules of Sanskrit while for him also being at the source of
language (61, 73-74). To put it simply, Findly offers better evidence for
Vedic origins of mantra than Staal does for the birds and the bees (Alper
indicates nothing solid to demonstrate a prior mantric tradition among
Indo-Europeans [435]). Sanskrit has onomatopoetic words for the sounds of
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animals. As in any language, they are "figures of speech." They do not
seem to be used as mantras. Moreover, as Padoux points out,
Abhinavagupta's description of certain mantras being like "the sound
uttered by a woman during coition or at the moment of orgasm" is a
"context" in which Abhinavagupta says something is like a mantra, and
not a mantra itself (304). It is an interpretation, or what Staal calls a
"translatory meaning" (50, 59,63), just like Staal's. Coward also points out
that Staal's view is an interpretation analogous to Indian ones, his primal
pre-linguistic sounds having some analogy to Bhartrhari's "unmanifested
meaning-consciousness" (169). As to the points where Alper and the
Sivasamhita compare mantra to the hum of bees (430), this is likewise an
interpretation, no less for the Indian tradition than for Staal.
Moreover, the issue of context is central to one of the book's chief con-
cerns: the relation between Vedic and Tantric mantras. Staal's position,
predictable in its decontextualization, is that there are no significant
differences between Vedic and Tantric mantras (59-66, 84-85). Wheelock,
on the other hand, stresses that Vedic and Tantric mantra usages have
"differing world views and ritual goals" (118; cf. Padoux, 297-298, 300),
and carefully demonstrates at least twelve of these.
As to levels of meaning, the point is made by Coward: "Probably, a
good amount of the argument over the meaningfulness of mantras arises
from a lack of awareness of the different levels of language" (171).
Coward makes this point in terms of Bhartrhari's three levels of mantric
experience, with mantra being "meaningful" at all three in different
ways, and "meaningless" only for those who, uninitiated, are obstructed by
avidya (171-172). While this tantric analysis of meaning levels (also
discussed by Gupta as it is developed in the Pancaratra [229-34] and
similar to the one discussed by Oberhammer among the Pasupatas [208
316]) would not apply to Vedic mantras, the simple point to be made again
is that meaning goes hand in hand with context.
Staal did not, of course, invent the issue of the meaninglessness of
mantras. There is the so-called Kautsa controversy: the "doctrine of
Kautsa" that "mantras are meaningless" (anarthaka mantrah) (Staal 64;
Taber, 146, 152; Coward 166; Alper 386-387, favoring Staal's view
regarding "mantras qua mantras"). There is also what Alper calls "the
flamboyant meaninglessness" of Pasupata mantra (370). But all that
emerges from these considerations is that one must also determine what is
"meant" (in Taber's sense) by "meaninglessness."
On the affirmative side, space does not allow discussion of the many
keys to understanding mantras that the different essays provide. To put it
simply, Alper provides the guiding hand by delineating the different
contexts in which mantras can be interpreted. One is a four-sided grid for
placing mantras along two axes: from the linguistic to the alinguistic, and
from the quotidian to the redemptive (7, 396, 422-423, 430). As Padoux
points out, more of the volume's essays are concerned with the redemptive
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than with the quotidian (305-306). Second, along with Coward, Gupta,
Oberhammer, and Padoux, is Alper's emphasis on cosmological and even
mythic (272-275) contexts. And third, rather on his own, is his insistence
on "the social context of mantric utterance" (257). In brief, with the focus
on caste, renunciation, and the institution of the guru, "one may understand
mantric utterance as a 'mechanism' for thinking a certain privileged class
of thoughts" (268), and a discipline (sadhana) that "presupposes the
sometimes tacit, but always vital support of the complex, fissiparous,
highly segmented hierarchical social world we call Hindu" (261). His
pioneering work makes it clear that the social history of mantra is a
desideratum.
As the back cover indicates, Alper "died suddenly on April 4, 1987
after completing the editorial work on the present volume."
Unfortunately, this is probably the reason that the book lacks an index.
With its overlapping concerns and discussions of obscure terms in different
contexts, it is a book that a good index would have greatly enriched. Only
the informed and thorough reader will be likely to discover that both
Coward and Gupta are talking about pasyanti vac, the highest level of
"seeing" the unmanifest nature of mantric speech (172, 228-229); that
Wheelock's discussion of "mental worship" and Gupta's treatment of "the
internal sacrifice" (113, 233) are about the same thing, antaryaga in
Sanskrit; or be able to compare Wheelock's and Gupta's discussions of
nasalized mantra endings (120, 237). An index would also help those who
might take up the need for a more systematic and theoretical treatment of
japa, "muttering" (see Rocher, 180-1; Oberhammer 204, 207-208; Gupta 240;
Padoux 311; Alper 282, 349, 364-365,425, 435 ["an open field to explore"]),
and of the relation between tantra and bhakti (see Alper 7, 360, 422-423,
430; Oberhammer 215-217; Gupta 243). Alper himself sounds the call for
further work on what he calls "popular mantrasastra"\ for fieldwork on
folk sorcery, witchcraft, healing, men's and women's uses of mantra, and
use of mantra among Indian Muslims and Sikhs (358,366,374-375,401-402,
437). This reviewer is certainly armed with new questions to ask regarding
the Tamil goddess Draupadi's Muslim guardian, the "mantra-speaker"
(mantiravatt) Muttal Ravuttan. Quibbles and future possibilities aside,
this is a landmark book.
Alf Hiltebeitel
George Washington University
^ s
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