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Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta

Author(s): Edwin Gerow

Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 130, No. 1 (January-March 2010),
pp. 23-34
Published by: American Oriental Society
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Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta
Edwin Gerow
Reed College


In their now classic work, Fundamentals of Language,1 Roman Jakobson and Morris Halle
seek, in a brief second section (pp. 69-96), to extrapolate to a more general level of linguistic
truth certain verities that follow from their important grammatical distinction between syn
tax and paradigm?syntax, the study of words in proximity, never coinciding and therefore
at least two, ordered by a principle of sequence; and paradigm, the study of words never in
proximity, but necessarily exclusive, occupying the same "slot" in the sentence by a principle
of selection.
Jakobson and Halle close their discussion with an examination of two wider "linguistic"
issues, speech pathology and "poetic" language, both of which show the imprint of the dis
tinction referred to above. One might hazard the guess that pathology occupies something of
the level "beneath" language, while "poetics" is clearly "above" it, using its "resources" both
consciously and willfully. However that may be, speech pathologists have long recognized,
according to our authors, that aphasia has two basic aspects, which are realized in different
subjects and constitute two "disorders"?one a "similarity" disorder, the other a "contiguity"
disorder. In the former, words of the same "class" are easily confused or misapplied?but
"word-order" is generally respected; in the latter, words, which may be suitable to the con
text, are "put together" helter-skelter, producing a syntactic jumble?sentences become, in
the extreme case, monosyllabic. Clearly, the patient of the first sort is having trouble with
paradigms, while the latter patient is deficient in "syntax." The two principles of "order"
underlie the two forms of "disorder."
The true import of the contrast is brought out in the few pages devoted to "poetic" lan
guage?where the terms "similarity" and "contiguity" tend to replace "paradigm" and "syn
tagm." Jakobson and Halle here advance the interesting thesis that the two basic "figures" of
speech, metaphor and metonymy, realize at the stylistic level the distinction between the two
types of order?metaphor being a usage that derives its sense from a notion of similarity, that
is, replaceability (or even "identity"); and metonymy, one that derives its sense from connec
tions and relations to things and ideas other than the thing itself. The former tends to apposi
tional utterance (or to word replacement based on such predication), "my love's like a red red
rose," or simply, Abie's "wild Irish rose." The latter tends to verbal predication, for a syntac
tic disjunction is essential to understanding the displacement at the heart of "metonymy"?
"Washington was all agog over it" or "the grandstands are cheering." In both these cases, the
disjunction depends on the perplexing combination of an inanimate subject with an animate
verbal predicate. No "equation" of course is intended, but rather a difference, one that forces a
novel reinterpretation of one of the terms, so as to save the "sentence": "Washington" means
(by a synecdoche of "part" and "whole") "all those in Washington who have some interest
in the government" and "grandstands" means (by a relation of "container-contained") "men
occupying the grandstands."

1. Janua Linguarum, series minor, vol. 1 (The Hague: Mouton, 1966; 4th ed., 1980). The present essay is based
on a lecture given to the Hindu Studies Colloquium at Harvard University, April 2010.

Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010) 23

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24 Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010)

Jakobson and Halle further relate these two basic "figures" to the two principal modes of
figurative discourse, "poetry" and "prose," and even to "styles," such as the "romantic" and
the "realistic," that they see as exploiting one or the other "figure" in demonstrable excess,
or to the quasi-exclusion of the other.
My purpose is not to object to this basic structure, but to call attention to two qualifying
factors, drawn from the Indian traditions of poetics, that, first, establish that Jakobson and
Halle have been largely anticipated by several centuries in the formulation of these param
eters; and secondly, that these same Indian traditions (with their peculiar emphasis on the
significance of language itself) force interesting reexamination of some of the more lapidary
contrasts ("poles") implied by Jakobson and Halle's outline.
Primo, the boundary between their "metonymy" and "metaphor" is not only recognized,
but is even more aptly conceived in the Indian texts; secundo, the preponderance attributed
by Jakobson and Halle to the "metaphorical" pole in Western literary studies is not at all evi
dent in the Indian world, which pays considerable attention to "figures" not based on simile.
The terms metonymy and metaphor have rarely been used carefully. Sometimes one or
the other term is taken as the genus of all figuration, the remaining term being just a vari
ety thereof. Aristotle seems so to privilege "metaphor" (if his Greek may be taken at face
value?after all, his usage is the source of the term itself). A "metaphor" is a term that takes
on (inf., metapherein) another meaning by virtue of its context. This could be based either
on similarity or on contiguity. In my own writings21 tend to use "metonymy" as the generic
term, reserving "metaphor" for substitutions based on similitude. A "metonym" is a term
used "in place of" another, for whatever reason, which, in principle, covers similes. Some
times, as with Jakobson and Halle, an attempt is made to dichotomize the figurative universe
by applying the terms contrastively, and when this is done, "metonymy" is usually reserved
to figuration based on relations of contiguity, "metaphor" to figuration based on relations
of similitude. This contrastive understanding is very likely influenced by the usage of C. S.
Peirce, whose well-known symbolic triad; icon, index, and symbol,3 depends on a radical
disambiguation of "likeness" (in Peirce's terms, "firstness," which precedes or transcends
distinction) from "contact," etc. (in Peirce's terms, "secondness," which depends on distinc
tion, on one "influencing" the other). The weathervane, as an indicator of the weather, is an
"index," whereas the rose, as an indicator of "my luv," is an "icon."
Here, it suffices to point out that the early Mimamsakas, in their theory of word and
sentence signification, insisted on the difference between a transfer of meaning based on
"secondary" {gaunt) qualities and that based on positive "indications" (laksanika). Their
discussion makes it abundantly clear that the issue is the principle of relation involved?in
the former case, it is similitude (merely), while in the latter case, it is, in effect, any other
relation. The reasons for so differentiating similitude among the "relations" are quite par
allel to Peirce's: for a "similitude" to obtain, no requirement of mutual coexistence need
be involved?which amounts to basing the "similitude" on the "eye of the beholder," and
releasing it from all objective measurement. Similitudes are notoriously imponderable?

2. Glossary of Indian Figures of Speech, Publications in Near and Middle East Studies, Columbia University,
series A (The Hague: Mouton, 1971); The Jewel Necklace of Argument: The Vadaratnavali of Visnudasacarya,
American Oriental Society Translation Series, vol. 2 (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1990); On the Func
tions of Words: Vrttivdrttika [of Appaya Diksita], American Oriental Series, vol. 87 (New Haven: American Ori
ental Society, 1991).
3. References to this triad have become ubiquitous in the recent scholarly literature. It forms the foundation of
much of what has come to be known as "semiotic anthropology"?as well as of the modern science of semantics.
See also my article, "Language and Symbol in Indian Semiotics," Philosophy East and West 34 (1984): 245^60.

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Gerow: Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta 25

whereas "cause and effect" or "container-contained" are neither located in the observer nor
are they immeasurable, unspecifiable. This distinction has been defended in various forms
by many later Indian semiologists, though it has also been contested?oddly enough, chiefly
by poeticians, to whom similitude is the relation par excellence.4 The "poetic" version of
any relation?take "cause and effect," for example?involves a "distortion" of some sort?as
when the cry of the peacock is represented as provoking the rains. There is, at this level, little
reason either to privilege or to disparage "similitude."
In this context, I wish to direct your attention to the surprising remark of Jakobson and
Halle that "the study of poetical tropes" has been "directed chiefly toward metaphor" (p. 96).
They add: "nothing comparable to the rich literature on metaphor [a work of Sutterheim is
noted] can be cited for the theory of metonymy" (p. 95). While this might be true of the
Western traditions Jakobson and Halle are concerned with, nothing could be less true of the
Indian poetic and semiological traditions. As mentioned above, Indian semiologists were
very concerned, indeed preoccupied, with the notion termed laksana?that deviation from
the literal and the direct that is both ubiquitous in language and appears to compromise
its objective authority. Whenever an assertion?Vedic assertion most centrally?appears to
depend on the faculty of interpretation brought to it by the hearer, as is the case in any met
onymic usage, its claim to authority is diminished. What are we to make of the Vedic "asser
tions" that "trees came to the sacrifice" or that the "rocks wept Soma"? Can such language
be faultless and immemorial and thus a sure guide to our obligatory actions? That such usage
is parallel in every way to mundane figurative usage ("the grandstands are cheering") does
not add to its stature either. This problem led to an extensive discussion of "figurative" usage
and to its classification, in later treatises, such as Vrttivarttika, into minutely differentiated
subtypes, such as whether the base meaning (to which the figurative refers) of the word or
phrase survives in any way in the resultant understanding, or whether the referent of the
metonymy is subsumed in the metonym or retains at least verbally its separate status, etc.
Nine or more such "types" are discussed?by theorists such as Appaya Diksita, who are also
poeticians of note, and quite aware that such studies are essential precursors to the study
of poetic language itself?where the "figures of speech" and the notion of "indirection" or
"suggestion" (dhvani) occupy center stage. But the original purport of the discussion is never
lost sight of?every attempt is made to link "metonymic" usage to its literal base and there
rationalize it, so that the subjective "interpretive" factor is ruled out.5 Such an "objectifica
tion" of language and its semiosis is unparalleled and deserves to be noted in any account
of theories of language. Not to do so serves to confer an illegitimate aura of novelty on the
work of those who thus ignore the rich pre-modern and Oriental literature on the subject.
On the one hand, the forms of poetic discourse discussed in the Indian treatises fail by far
to support the view that "metaphor" (in the narrow sense of Jakobson and Halle) is the chief
preoccupation of the poet. A glance at Rudrata's classification6 of the figures shows that just
one of his four main sentence-based types is seen as involving simile or its variations. Two
of the other types, accorded an even more elaborate treatment, would probably fall under our
authors' "metonymy": they are figures based on some distortion of a "real" relation between
the terms, such as "cause" and "effect" [kavyahetu], and those based on a distortion of the

4. So, by Appaya. See Vrttivarttika, ch. 2.

5. Doubtless it is for this reason that the MImamsakas insisted on the distinction (as does Peirce) between "simili
tude" and other, "real" relations: the former simply cannot be "objectified" in the same way?similitude depends,
at best, on a "property" common to two otherwise unrelated ("really" unrelated) things, and the discernment of this
"property" is entirely facultative.
6. In his Kavyalamkara. See my Glossary, pp. 50ff.

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26 Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010)

"normal" relation between a subject and its predicate (varieties of "hyperbole"). Rudrata's
fourth type is even more interesting, for with it the lowly "pun" (slesa) is put on a level
coequal with the elevated discourse of both simile and metonymy: the pun?rarely just of
words in the Sanskrit tradition, but of whole sentences or verses?is seen as the culminating
poetic device or form of expression; in its higher forms not only are two meanings expressed
simultaneously, transcending language itself, but those two are apprehended as related and
mutually implicatory, in effect, reducing "metonymy" to "metaphor"! The privileged posi
tion accorded to pun is a feature that not only characterizes the Indian traditions, but is one
that should be incorporated into any general theory of poetics?a task that Joyce and oth
ers have taken up from the practical side, but which leaves most theorists embarrassed or
On the other hand, there is no correlation, even an approximate one, on the Indian side,
between the supposedly incestuous terms "prose" and "narrative." An examination of the
map of genres discussed or in use reveals that the distinction itself between "poetry" and
"prose" is largely without content. The major "narratives" of the Indian tradition, the two
great epics, are composed in metrical verse?as are many treatises of a quasi-scientific nature;
"prose," on the other hand, though relatively rare, reaches its apogee in compositions that
can only be described as belletristic?the prose "novels" of Dandin, Bana, and others. Prose,
far from opposed to the needs of simile, is seen rather as the ideal medium for unleashing it,
unconstrained by metrical and syllabic limitation. In between these two genres, deemed by
Jakobson and Halle to be exhaustive, or at least "polar," lies a third, the sutra, which reveals
a literary potency apparently undreamed of in our modern West: the minimal point?minimal
expression that at the same time implies and realizes a coherent universe. The legend has it
that in uttering the sutras that group the phonemes of Sanskrit into fourteen classes, Lord
Siva implied the entirety of Panini's grammar. The truth thereby revealed is well known to
information theory: compact expression is made possible only by rules that situate it in the
relevant context of utterance?all other brevity is mere sound. It is in the sutra, neither poetry
nor prose, that Indian views of language come closest to modeling themselves on the cos
mos?that mix of universals and instances writ large?the most ancient of Indian passions.


It may well be the sutra and its remarkable powers, though not strictly speaking "poetic,"
that give the impetus to that other striking development of Indian poetics, a development
that seems also to transcend the literary distinction of metaphor and metonymy, and even the
literary mode itself?the notion of "suggestion" (dhvani) as a function inherent in language
itself, with no necessary foundation in formal grammar at all (at least of the types exploited
by metaphor and metonymy)?although it may have such a foundation.7 The notion is in
itself not unusual of course and many theories of poetry assign it a central role. What is
unusual in the Indian traditions is their seemingly counter-intuitive need to attribute this
function to language itself, rather than situate it in the more obvious (to us) and more nebu
lous realm of "context."
Discussions of this third function are nevertheless located in poetics, where it is often
taken to account for those aspects of poetic language that distinguish it from ordinary kinds

7. The sutra is after all a span of language in itself "meaningless"?requiring an external interpreter of its
brevity (which, as we said, is taken to imply a coherent universe of attendant sutras). In the same way, examples of
dhvani are "meaningful" only when a "universe of discourse" is operational.

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Gerow: Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta 27

of speech, as in this passage from Abhinavagupta's commentary on Natyasastra, devoted to

characterizing the views of one of his predecessors, Bhattanayaka:

(Poetic) intuition [viz., rasa] is realized (bhavyamanah) through a function (of language) that
one might call the "realizer" (bhavakatva), (which functions) always in tandem with the literal
meaning (of words and scenes);8 its essence, for drama, is a sort of generalization that operates
in and through the (dramatic) circumstances (vibhava), etc., taking shape via the four types of
representation (gestural, verbal, emotional, and scenic),9 which constitute, so to speak, a narrow
defile through which must pass the spectator's confusions ...10

This hypostatization of language to include its "context" may be an echo of the Bhartrharian
view of utterance as containing or giving access to the core of reality, Brahman. But to follow
this line of thought would be very complicated and well beyond the scope of this article.11
Suffice it to point out that the principle of "suggestion" serves not only to accord in a novel
way language and context but, in the hands of the Kasmira exegetes, also to unify the vari
ous genres of literature under a single dominant principle, the so-called rasa or "flavor" of a
dramatic or literary work.
In many of the examples offered of this "suggestion" the function is superadded to a
more evident "figure"?whether metonymical or metaphorical?and in fact seems to offer
a rationale for the figurative usage itself: why is "my luv like a red, red rose"? Well, either
because she is gentle and sweet smelling or because she is quite prickly?but, of course, this
"common property" is here merely suggested, and its suggestion marks the major difference
between this utterance and a more literal (or truer) version of the claim. But other examples
show suggestion working where no "figure" can be espied?cases of innuendo and irony, for
example, where it is just the misfit with context that gives the key. Anandavardhana offers the
following example, interestingly, not in Sanskrit, but in (Maharastri) Prakrit:

8. abhidhdto dvitiyena 'msena, lit. "as a second element, other than the literal sense" (Bhdrati ad NS, ed. Kavi
[2nd ed.], p. 277; references throughout to this edition). The innovation of Nayaka is that of proposing a "function"
that would anchor the evocation of the rasa more logically in the context of the expressive capacities of the language,
alongside the well-known "functions" of "denotation" (abhidha) and "metonymy" (laksand). But is a bhdvand so
postulated truly a novelty (Abhinava will say) that does not easily reduce to one of the other functions?that would
be, as such, nothing but a terminological variant of the dhvani already set forth as the third function? Abhinava, as
we will see, without abandoning that perspective, prefers to ground less artificially the thrust of Nayaka's remarks.
9. The "four types of representation" (abhinaya) are sdttvika, angika, vdcaka, ahdrya. These four constitute
after a fashion the framework of the internal organization of the text of the N& chs. 6-7 (emotions and sentiments),
8-13 (movements of the body, dance), 14-20 (properties of language and of story), 21 (props and spectacle). Chap
ter 22 inaugurates what has the look of an appendix: it treats of theatrical elements that combine the four all at once,
notably the obligation that impinges on the actors on the stage to integrate the four in order to evoke the intended
sentiment (sdmanydbhinaya); the topic also includes ancillaries such as music and song?which accompany words
and gestures but are intended only to evoke specific sentiments. It is, apparently, to Nayaka that is due the notion of
sddharanikarana, adopted by Abhinava as the keystone of his own system (see below).
10. nibidanijamohasamkatakdrind "that constitutes a difficulty for one's very dense capacity to go astray"
(Bhdrati, p. 277). It is tempting to follow the expansion found in Hemacandra's version:. . . samkatatdnivdranakarana
..."... effecting the evacuation of difficulties (connected with one's own very dense confusion)" (KM 71, p. 73)?
in other words, "that control his response." In either case, the reference appears to be to a capacity of this novel
function to clarify and to organize more pointedly the rather confused ensemble of impressions that the spectacle at
first occasions in us?in the first place, the always lively temptation to confound the spectacle with what it repre
sents, or as a message of some sort.
11. Another possible implication: mantra, as the logical development of such a view of language?a by-prod
uct, assuredly, and not its cause?language directly expressive of reality, without the otherwise constraining media
tion of "signification." Mantra, a kind of siitra at the level of the cosmos? The two differ chiefly in terms of their
universe of discourse?a system of injunctions relating to a certain activity, and an integrated cosmos, in which the
mantra functions as a "seed"?the essential source of the "display" of activity that is for us the universe.

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28 Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010)

atta ettha nimajjai ettha aharh diasaarh paloehi

ma pahia rattiandhaa sejjae maha nimajjahisi

svasrur atra nimajjati atraham divasakam pralokaya

ma pathika ratryandhaka sayyayam avayor mahksih

Here sleeps my mother-in-law; here I. Look well while it's light

Lest you, o traveler, blinded by the dark, happen into our bed!12

These lines take on a different meaning when it is realized that the lady's husband is absent
and that the handsome visitor is "more than welcome." Either the context itself is "sug
gested" or, knowing the context, the words take on a meaning not other than but superadded
to their literal meaning. Probably both, which is why Anandavardhana finds the example so
telling?the language is sui generis. And therefore this property of establishing context at
the same time as establishing its own meaning must be considered a fundamental power of
It is but a short step from this standpoint to a more "metaphysical" view of poetic lan
guage, and this step was taken?at first, it seems, by the theologians of the school of Saivism
native to Kashmir, most notably Abhinavagupta. At this level of discourse, language has a
"meaning" that cannot be expressed through normal linguistic means; that meaning in fact
transcends referential meaning itself. It can never be "referred to." At first this supra-textual
meaning, revealed only by "suggestion," was associated with the emotional response of the
reader or the playgoer to the epiphany that is the poem or the drama, which are themselves
fictions when judged by ordinary standards of referential language. But in the interpretation
of this "emotion" (or "emotions," for there are several) by Abhinavagupta, its affinity with
certain trance-like states induced by meditation on ultimate things is brought out?an inter
pretation that places mere "poetry" on a trajectory that leads to the liberation of the person
from the travails of life in this imperfect world.
Abhinava's argument in defense of this radical notion is a masterpiece of Indian dialec
tics, for he grounds it not only in preceding theories of poetic discourse but in the religious or
metaphysical system he also expounded with great acumen?a system advancing the notion
that the core of reality is a consciousness reflecting on itself?the doctrine of pratyabhijna or
"recognition." This generalized "emotional intuition" transcends even the power of sugges
tion, for it is ever with us, being a component of our personality itself, explaining even the
possibility of experience. It needs only to be "awakened." The function of the work of art is
more to strip away the "obstacles" to its being experienced in this pure form, but of course
it is present in all experience, though modulated through the particulars of time, place, and
personal history. And the work, to this end, functions in much the same way for the playgoer,
as does the external world for the ascetic?both are foils for inducing a recognition that the
world's (or the play's) multifarious content is chiefly significant as expression of one's own
consciousness, which, in this sense, must coincide with all others' consciousness.
Abhinava, speaking through one of his predecessors, Srisankuka, characterizes in the fol
lowing way the commonsense notion that the characters we see before us on the stage are
"counter-realities" that exist alongside of, and, in fact, simply replace in our minds, the "real"
Rama and Sita?that in other words, "someone" is imitating "someone else":

In the drama, as a general rule, we do not understand that the actor is happy, nor that he is really
Rama. On the other hand, we do not understand that the actor is not happy, nor do we ask our

12. Dhv. 1.4.

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Gerow: Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta 29

selves whether he is really Rama or not. Nor do we form the idea that the actor resembles Rama.
What then? The case is parallel to the "portrait of a horse" that one neither understands as the
true horse, nor as a false horse, nor as a dubious horse, nor as something resembling a horse.
What we understand is just that "this is Rama and he is happy."13

Abhinava addresses this commonsense view, which is not so much mistaken as overdeter
mined, as follows:

Let us return to the view often expressed that what we understand in the theater is "this is Rama,
and he is happy"14 [?that is, an "imitation" that in our consciousness is simply substituted for the
"real" Rama]. But in that case, we might ask: if this is really "Rama happy" (that we understand),
then, in the absence of all the misery that Rama is about to undergo, how is it that this understand
ing is not true? And once those miseries arrive [Rama's forced exile, the kidnapping of his wife],
how is it that that understanding is not false? In truth, the understanding that "this is Rama" is
false, whether obstacles are present or not.... And, of course, the notion that "this is Rama"
could apply to another actor (in another play). It follows that the Rama that we understand must
take the form of a general idea (ramatvam samanyarupam).15

Once I overcome the notions that this fellow is Rama, or that he is someone imitating Rama,
or that I am being told something about Rama which I should infer from his actions and
words, I am left only with what I have in common with Rama (and which is ipso facto shared
with all others present?at least those who have also surmounted the same obstacles). We are
both lovers, we are both dutiful sons, etc. The key here of course is the notion of emotional
generalization, and it is the Active quality of the work of art that enables us to reach that
disinterested state. If the work were in any sense real, we would respond to it in particular
terms, with approval or hostility or some other expression of our Ego, as we do vis-a-vis
worldly interruptions in general. To this end, the play is absolutely essential, for it substitutes
fictions for reals, and this (in principle) frees us from the silly need to relate everything we
see or feel to our private concerns. Those plays are best that most challenge our private con
cerns, time-worn stories about characters beyond our ken, but just as importantly, they are so
framed that we do not take Rama for God?which no doubt would produce a very personal
sense of inadequacy, rather than sympathy. This is also a way of affirming that the experience
enabled by the work of art is uniquely pleasurable, for it is always a "recognition," never a
direct cognition?and as Abhinava says, recognition cannot be determined from without and
is therefore expressive of our freedom.
One of the tag terms applied to this strain of Kashmiri Saivism is (as we said) the "doc
trine of recognition"?pratyabhijna. And here is to be found also the link between Abhi
nava's aesthetic theory and his Saivite cosmology or metaphysics. Trika Saivism holds that
a reflexive principle is at the heart of reality?not unlike the Idea at the heart of Hegelian
ism. The real unfolds itself, with itself as condition?obviously, again like Hegel, inherently
dynamic. And this real must in principle be cognitive, for thinking is the only activity we

13. Bharati, p. 273. That is, it concerns a simulacrum in the place of which our mind has substituted its refer
ence?in effect, an imitation, perhaps in the style of Voodoo effigy.
14. Referring to the passage cited above, yah sukhi Ramah asdv ay am iti, where the thesis of a simple identifica
tion, devoid of doubt, etc., of the actor with his role was put forth. Note though that the thesis of "imitation" doesn't
so much concern Rama, the character, as much as it concerns the emotion he feels.
15. Bharati, p. 275. The argument is turned against the adversary. The distress (vaidhurya) that is at issue is the
impending exile of Rama, the kidnapping of his wife, etc. This Rama "who is happy" will be soon plunged into
despair. Such questions, however, deflect the enquiry from its most promising route, begun here itself: the character
is not to be understood as such and such an individual (whoever he may be, whatever he feels), but as an idea,
"generalized," already present in ourselves.

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30 Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010)

know that can have itself for its object. Even computer programs that are "recursive" are so,
in that they are constructed so as to operate on a condition supplied by the program itself?
but as far as I know they have not been constructed so as to operate on themselves: there we
would have Hal and true reflexivity. But let us return to our subject!
At several places in his various commentaries, Abhinava (here he follows certain of his
teachers) likens the aesthetic experience had by the qualified spectator to the experience of
final liberation had by the successful ascetic: brahmasvadasavidhah (rasasvadah).16 And by
this is meant not only that an experience free of worldly obstacles is thereby had, as outlined
above, but that the character of the experience itself is closer to the cosmic experience at
the heart of the real?essentially common to all and nothing but reflexive, even responsible
for its own content. Or rather, reevaluating the real so as to reveal its essential dependence
on the experience itself. For the yogin too, the things of the world (which are not rejected
or obliterated) become vibhava, anubhava, vyabhicaribhava?and his asvada is complete,
permanent (unceasing, not "fixed," lifeless)?and is not dependent, as we are, on the dumb
show of the theater.
The standpoint adopted here has many implications for language?and many of them
have been worked out in more detail by the grammatical non-dualists, Bhartrhari most nota
bly. The topic is well beyond our reach here?but Abhinava's observations on language,
though infrequent, will serve as a possible conclusion to an essay that began with Morris
Halle and Roman Jakobson. We have indeed come a long way from "linguistics" in any
sense recognizable to us, but the thread leads clearly to this conclusion on the Indian side.
Abhinava, following Bharata's fourfold classification of the "manners of representation"
(abhinaya) that must be mastered by the practitioners of the theatrical art, allows a place
especially important to its vacika, or "verbal" aspect, saying that ordinary language contains
within itself the seeds of the transcendence that is at the heart of the theatrical experience
(and, no doubt, of the yogin's):

As regards the dramatic (or poetic) work, there comes to the mind of the spectator (or reader)
an additional idea, beyond or beside the idea occasioned by the words at the heart of the work,
exactly as happens in the case of Vedic rites, when an officiant priest who desires such and such
a result and is authorized to acquire it, hears the words "they have passed the night" and "he has
offered (the omentum) in the fire,"17 etc.?understanding them immediately as the expression
of a pressing obligation?to him then come the additional thoughts, the time mentioned having
"disappeared": "I have passed the night" and "I must offer it myself," which are expressed in the
form of commands, or injunctions, or insights, or motivations, according to the discipline con
cerned, but of which the essence is that a transfer (samkramana) is now to be accomplished.18

16. Locana ad Dhvanydloka 2.4. The passage occurs in a discussion of Nayaka's theories, but like his notion
of "generalization" the analogy there expressed was congenial also to Abhinava's (cf. Ingalls et al., trs. [HOS 49],
p. 222]; see also Masson and Patwardhan, Santarasa, pp. 61,67). It is hard to understand on what basis Ingalls opines
that for Nayaka the bliss of rasa was preferable to that of brahma, and that Abhinava sought here to invert the prefer
ence. Abhinava's characterization of Nayaka's views elsewhere holds only that Nayaka's bhoga is to be taken as "of
the same sort as the bliss attendant upon (experiencing) the supreme Brahman" (. . . parabrahmasvadasavidhena
bhogena . . . [Bharati, p. 277]).
17. According to Kavi, these are phrases taken from the Taittiriya Brahmana, but he gives no references.
18. That is, the offering to the gods that is at the heart of the rite. By this elegant analogy, Abhinava gives us
to understand that the rasa has the same relation to the poetic word as does the bhavana to the Vedic word. In both
cases, the words are destined for a hearer, who adds to them "a supplementary understanding" whose ultimate des
tiny is a kind of realization, effective or affective.

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Gerow: Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta 31

Similarly, the spectator is properly qualified?by a sensibility that has become habituated to
unimpeded intuitions.19 And so, after grasping the literal sense of the words of verses like

The graceful turn of his neck

as he glances back at our speeding car,
the haunches folded into his chest
in fear of my speeding arrow,
the open mouth dropping
half-chewed grass on our path?
watch how he leaps, bounding on air,
barely touching the earth, (tr. Barbara Stoler Miller) [Sakuntala 1.2]

Uma made obeissance to the Lord of Bulls, loosening the lotus bud bright among her dark
tresses, her brow (now obscured) by the sprig fallen from her ear. [Kumarasarhbhava 3.62]

But Siva, his steadiness somewhat shaken, like ocean's surface at the rise of moon,
Cast fleeting glances at the face of Uma, her lips red as the bimba fruit,
(id.) [Kumarasarhbhava 3.67]

... to that spectator (or reader) comes an additional mental image, clear as if it were perceived
directly, from which have been expunged (as it were with contempt) all reference to place and
time. In that image, distilled of specific temporal and spatial reference, there appears only the
extreme fright of the gazelle, which likewise has not been described in terms that would serve
to situate it more precisely, even its tormentor not being mentioned with any emphasis. It is that
very fright (of the gazelle, thus understood) that becomes the (theatrical) sentiment called the
"terrifying" (bhayanaka), which has made a spectacular entry into the heart of the spectator,
comprehended in a consciousness devoid of any obstacle, just as though it were visible before
his very eyes. (Such "fright") is exempt from the many constraints that weigh down our ordi
nary fears, such as "I am afraid," "my enemy is afraid," "my friend is afraid," "this onlooker
is afraid," which operate as contextual limitations causing other ideas to arise, such as "I must
flee," etc., which have to do (ultimately) with my happiness or misfortune. On the contrary, the
atrical "fear" neither hides completely, nor does it reveal explicitly (ullikhita), the consciousness
(atmd, nom.) of the spectator.20

Here Abhinava, following no doubt again Bhattanayaka, adopts the Mimarhsaka view that,
though we may use words in contexts of specific reference (and thus think that their utility
is there so exhausted), the real force of words is expressive of genera and it is that essen
tial force that the maker of plays taps into and that is the first and essential moment in the
construction of a "Active" world, which must then be extended to all the elements of the
"representation"?vibhava, anubhava, etc. But by "Active" is meant only "self-referential"
rather than "contextually specific" or "objective." Even proper names must be subjected to
this discipline?as long as we understand by "Rama" the god whom we adore, we absent
ourselves from the theater; even "Rama" becomes a generalized type?pining lover, faithful
son, elder brother?aided by the force of attendant "generalizations" that similarly situate
the context in ourselves.

As far as those feats are concerned that are not within the purview of everyone (such as those
attributed to Rama), we aver that names such as "Rama" are employed because they are well

19. vimalapratibhanasalihrdayah, scil., ". . . able to understand intuitively (what is before him on the stage) and
not to become involved (personally)" (Bharati, p. 279).
20. Bharati, pp. 278-79.

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32 Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010)

known and appeal to deeply rooted beliefs, founded on an unimpeachable renown. It is for this
reason that in the higher forms of drama (nataka) subjects must be chosen that refer to well
known stories, for it is the vocation of such works to educate (the public) and to inculcate values
that are both exceptional and noble.21

And at this level, there is no real "we" or "they": these are notions we all share, and this
explains the power of the drama (or of literature), for the real drama is played in our own
hearts. The sensitive spectator in ancient India was not a "looker on" but "one who shares
his heart"(sahrdaya).
In giving full force to this ancient commonplace, Abhinava's views on rasa and poetics
generally can be seen to differ most strikingly from those of his predecessor Bhattanayaka,
many of whose ideas seem otherwise to have been appropriated or adapted in Abhinava's
siddhanta. If we may extrapolate from the account Abhinava himself gives of Nayaka's
otherwise forgotten work, it would seem that the latter's theories of "generalization," based
on Mlmarhsa models, though acceptable, did not get at the "heart" of the problem. They
remained anchored in the Mlmarhsa analytical framework of sentence and sentence-meaning.
Nayaka's "functional" bhavana was conceived as an extension of the well-known Mlmarhsa
principle?a procedure within language that permits the disengagement of an intuition wider
or more far-reaching than the intuition derived from the literal reading of the text itself, an
intuition that in that sense is "generalized." For the Mlmarhsa, this amounts to a "prescriptive"
intuition, a "will to act" that emerges from the elements of the words themselves (sabdi), or
simply from the context in which the words are used (arthi). Abhinava, in contrast, proposes
that this species of generalization affects the very seat of sensibility of the hearer (or specta
tor), his "heart," not simply his understanding or his will. Nayaka's bhoga is still a sentential
meaning (yakyarthd)22 In thus engaging the very being of the witness, a true generalization
takes place, a true unification, for that "heart" is shared by all men, thanks to the persistent

21. Bhdrati,p. 280.

22. samsargddi yathd sastra ekatvat phalayogatah I vdkyarthas tadvad evdtra srngarddi raso matah (possibly
a citation from Nayaka's's lost Hrdayadarpana) [Hemacandra (corrected), KM 71, p. 74]. Pollock has devoted a
recent article to discovering "what Bhattanayaka was saying" (Festschrift Goldman, ed. Sheldon Pollock [Delhi:
Manohar, 2010], 143-84), stressing the explicitly "Mimamsa" aspect of his thought. Indeed, Nayaka's vocabulary
has profited from involvement in such ritualism. One might say, in a general way, that "poetic" speculation in
India is never very distant from issues whose source may be traced back to the concerns of Mimamsa concerning
words and phrases whose expressive capacity sometimes gets "out of control"?as when trees are said to attend
the sacrifice, etc. The principal thrust of Pollock's article, nevertheless, namely that "the revolutionary move made
by Bhattanayaka was to put the subjective experience of the reader front and center in his aesthetic analysis" (p.
162), seems to me to apply with even greater justice to the innovations made by Abhinava himself in the doctrine
of the poetic sentiments, and risks obscuring the true significance of those made by Nayaka (at least, according
to Abhinava)! Putting aside for the moment the notion of generalization and the analogy between aesthetic and
ascetic "joys," which Abhinava views as positive contributions, it is the remaining novelty?though, according to
Abhinava, it really isn't one at all?that constitutes for him a problem: namely, Nayaka's attempt to align aesthetic
"delight" (bhoga) along with the other "objective" capacities of language, denotation and "deflected" usage?as one
might expect of a Mimamsaka by trade:

Just as in the Veda, where syntactic construal and the other linguistic operations constitute sentence mean
ing?since sentence meaning is a unity and must bear a relation to some outcome of action?so here in litera
ture does the erotic and every other rasa constitute a kind of sentence meaning. [Passage cited at the beginning
of this note; Pollock's translation, p. 164, and see his n. 88, p. 178]

For Nayaka, the problem of the "subjectivity" of the rasa?a notion that in any case few would greet with sur
prise?is dealt with by according that "affectivity" with the linguistic and ideological givens that govern the public
discourse of the period. In that respect, Nayaka did not differ greatly from his predecessors?again according to
Abhinava, for whom that "subjectivity" becomes in a way the solution, rather than a problem, according it as he

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Gerow: Escaping Language: Roman Jakobson and Abhinavagupta 33

impressions (vasand) that comprise our common psychic heritage?and wherein repose, as
the very ground of possible experiences, the eight (or nine) rasas. And of course, given the
embedded notion of samsara, each one of us has already experienced an infinity of possible
life-forms, and so in effect are all the same person?an insight normally hidden beneath the
fatutous bubbling of mundane life, but revealed to us in art.

This sentiment is thus transcendent. For that very reason, its generality is in no wise limited;
on the contrary, it is extended?it resembles the "inclusivity" (vydpti) that links smoke with
fire.23 The ensemble made up of characters, (scenery, etc.) is designed such that the "fear" and
the (manifest) "fright" (that evoke it) are made "visible" in the same way.24 Once the causes
of these limitations?(specific) times, places, situations communicated by the dramatic work or
(imposed) by the (physical) reality (of the theater), which are in any case in conflict with one
other?are completely swept aside, it is nothing but a generalized intuition (sadharanibhava)
that can possibly result. And from this also, it follows that the consciousness of the spectators,
which has become uniform,25 cannot but lend itself to the development of theatrical sentiments,
for the spectators have in this way been put into contact, all together, with their innate disposi
tions (vasand),26 source of constant amazement to their minds. Such consciousness is without
obstacle. And the amazement (camatkara) that is engendered by it gives rise to (supplementary
physical) manifestations, such as shivering, goose flesh, joyous agitation (of the limbs).27

Great care must be taken not to introduce "reference" into this scene, but mutatis mutandis,
to free language from its objective and "specific" shackles. And this would not be possible,
let us repeat, were not the words we use already free of such shackles, seemingly constitutive
of the universe rather than of "our" world.
In the perspective from which we started, one might say that "metaphor"?far from being
a mere departure from "normal" language?has in effect replaced "normal" language, but in
the peculiar Indian evolution we have sought to trace here, this "higher-level" replacement
cannot be effected save through language, which becomes midwife to its own transcendence.
First in art, says Abhinava, then in meditation?wherein the things of this world lose their
"objective" character entirely, mere tokens useful in revealing the nature of consciousness

does with our immemorial natures, as expressed in the psychic foundation we share with our fellow men, past and
23. Reference to the typical illustration of the successful syllogism. Just as the syllogism does not establish a
relation between this fire and this smoke, but (free of other "obstacles") between every instance of fire and every
instance of smoke, similarly, the rasa bhayanaka is free of any reference to particular "frights" . . . and any particu
lar "fright" (scil., visible manifestation of fear) may evoke it. The success of the syllogism rests on establishing such
a relation of inclusivity (vyapti)?Aristotle's "major proposition."
24. These two are to be understood, I think, as "cause" and "effect," parallel to the case of smoke and fire. See
preceding note.
25. ekaghanatayd, lit. "as a mass internally undifferentiated, uniform"?as though one were dealing with an
indeterminate spiritual mass. The term is a favorite of the Kashmiri Saivas, where it is preferentially applied to the
unconditioned "illumination" (prakasa) that precedes and conditions differentiated creation.
26. vasana?a notion crucial to the theory of transmigration (samsara). Modified, or "perfected" by our acts
(samskara), these habits of a primordial character, in which are "stored up" the consequences of our projects, and
especially of those not yet enjoyed, and which, as motivations, define us, constitute the essential link between this
life and the next (where again will be manifest these same "habits"). Here, Abhinava enrolls this profoundly rooted
idea in the service of his notion of rasa?it is these vasana that somehow provide the matter of our sentiments,
revealed as such in the theater, rather than being simply presumed, as they are in daily life.
27. Bhdrati, p. 279. The reading ullukasana, confirmed by Hemacandra, is foreign to the standard lexica (MW,
B&R mention an ullakasana). The term figures nevertheless in NS 6.76 (GOS ed., p. 330)?where it is glossed by
Abhinava gatrasyordhvam sahlddam dhunanam.

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34 Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1 (2010)

itself. Such stress on language, on expression, should not overmuch surprise, as being per
fectly consonant with the traditional evaluation of the Veda, which is language, and itself
coeval with the cosmos.
What greater contrast could there be with the prevailing Shakespearean "irony" that seeks
rather to confound the world with a dumb show, alas too akin to the theater: "all the world's
a stage, and we the players on it. . ." We may have touched on?and why not end on such
a note?one of those profound cultural differences so dear to Louis Dumont and others: dif
ferences at least as far as Abhinava and Shakespeare are concerned. That existential angst
so prominent in Shakespeare's tragedies (I think of Hamlet?at least Olivier's Hamlet?as
exemplary) seems quite impossible in a world where no unique "individuals" exist. The
heroes of an Indian drama are not confronted with an unpredictable world whose sense
escapes them, a world governed largely by human frailty and chance, and above all, mortal
ity?but with a notion of themselves as encompassing all reality and all experience, back to
the beginning of time (which, of course, does not "begin"). True drama cannot be then but a
rediscovery of what we are already?a sloughing off of just those features of our lives that
make the world impenetrable to Hamlet and Lear.
Abhinava has, it would seem, at least one latter-day acolyte?in the person of Georges
Wilson, the friend and colleague of Jean Vilar at the Theatre national populaire, who died
earlier this year:

Je suis devenu accro du theatre parce que ce n'etait pas la vie. Les gens sur scene etaient imagi
naires, ils avaient des chaussures neuves, mais ils etait inventes. On ne pouvait pas leur parler.
Ils n'allaient pas vous tirer des balles de revolver a bout portant. Pour moi, les acteurs etaient
des gens qui vivaient hors du monde et detenaient le precieux pouvoir de nous extirper de la

28. Le Monde hebdomadaire, 13 fev. 2010.

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