The Semiology of Veda

The Vedas may be approached from diverse perspectives, each adding yet another dimension to our understanding of the Vedas. We present here a semiological perspective on the Veda.

The Veda is a complete sign-system of its own, to borrow a descriptor from Modern Semiology. It is a unique, formal, consistent, comprehensive and interconnected compendium of ancient hymns which has a complex code of hidden messaging. That makes it difficult to understand for the modern mind but also extremely challenging and mysterious, giving us a peep into the mind of our forefathers to whom it was revealed at least 3500 years ago. And yet, demanding as it is, if we can attempt to unravel its secrets, it is an extremely fruitful venture, a journey into humanity’s history, anthropology, development, culture, religion, poetry and languages.

One of the tools to do so, in my opinion, is the growing science of Modern Semiology. Granted that it is not one of the ancient Vedangas, one of the six modes or limbs to understand the Veda. But, in the spirit of exploration and adventure, which, I believe, was the approach and modus operandi of the ancient Rishis who ‘composed’ it and compiled it, we should try new methodologies and modes to help appreciate it. In the process, we may discover some new aspects of Veda in the modern language that the new generation or academia might relate to more readily.

Let us look at what Modern Semiology says about some of the basics of how signs work, whether verbal, auditory, visual, even ritual or gesture. Ferdinand Saussure in the 19th Century, attempted to describe the dynamics of languages, symbols and communication and how it works. His lectures taken down by his pupils in the book, Course in Natural Linguistics, shed a new light on the way language and linguistics might be seen. In the process, he hit upon some insights which helped create a new science of Linguistics in the Western world and helped initiate the new disciplines and philosophies of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism. 

What did he say about language? He described language in several sets of binaries which we shall explore in the context of Veda and see how they configure and arrange themselves to the entirely different mind of the Rishis and their esoteric Riks. One of the first of these is what he called Langue and Parole.

Langue and Parole

Langue according to Saussure was the rules of language that are used by the population or community. It is an abstract order that consists of the conventions of language. These are the standards of communication that have evolved over time, which we learn when we are learning a language. He compared it to the rules of chess that we need to imbibe before we can play the game. Parole according to him was the individual articulate of the language, with its own idiosyncrasies and quirks. 

When we come to the Veda, we see a language complete in itself, with a shared symbolism across the entire compilation of its Riks. We have no other Literature in Vedic Sanskrit to compare it to from the time, since none is available. Interestingly, the entire rules of its phonology have been preserved for several millennia by extremely dedicated teachers and pupils, remarkably so, such that we know how it was pronounced in 1500 BCE and the individual words included in its composition known as the pada patha. This is a feat unheard of in the annals of human history. 

We do not know if Vedic Sanskrit was spoken also by the lay population or only by the Rishis and their esoteric circle. New research in the origin of Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages suggests that it may have originated more than 5500 years ago, putting it as an antecedent to the Indus Valley Civilization. Be that as it may, it seems likely that the Veda was studied only by those who had dedicated their life to it, so vast is its corpus, so intricate its rituals, and methods of training that have preserved it in pristine condition.

We notice that within the system of its language, style of communication and consistent method of symbolism there is much individuality evinced by the individual Rishis, each with his or her own style of composition. Some like Vasishtha are lyrical, others like Vishvamitra are powerful, and yet others like Dirghatamas are profound and mysterious. There is thus a parole to the Langue of Veda. But it is possible that Vedic Sanskrit was a language within a language, restricted only to a select few, and in that case, it would be what in Semiologic parlance is called an Idiolect.

But if we study complex systems of signs such as mass communications, we see not one but multiple subsidiary languages working as a compendium to give messages that may have subliminal, subtle, hidden qualities, even agendas. Veda is such a complex system since it incorporates multiple subsidiary languages such as word meaning, the sound of chanting or singing its verses, the symbolism of its visual elements, the performance of its rituals, and the entire poetic element of prosody, paronomasia and puns and the mantra which are one of its distinct qualities. And it is incumbent on any interpreter to take a holistic approach to this complexity of language rather than just describe its word-meanings taken at their most obvious interpretation. 

The Veda has been translated in modern times almost as if a movie critic saw a movie and described only its dialogs, missing out on its visual and auditory elements, the edition, the special effects, the subliminal narratives, the suspense and the buildup and the mystery. In the modern times, only Sri Aurobindo has pointed out these elements of Veda that are often missed by the interpreters, the resonance and reverberations of sound and the mantra, the symbolism that connects deeply with the phonemes or the sound-units, the shlesha alankara that gives multiple layers of meaning to the verses, and the spiritual and experiential element that is often missed by most. Our goal is to build up on the lines of exploration he opened up for the future generation of scholars and students.

The Signifier and The Signified

The signifier in modern Semiology is the indication in the sign and the signified is what is indicated. Both, according to Saussure, were concepts in the mind, terms that are articulated. In his understanding the relationship between the two is usually arbitrary, i.e., there is no reason for why a particular signifier should hint at a certain signified.    
In Veda, the approach is different. The root sounds or moola dhvani of Vedic Sanskrit have each their own quality, hinting at what the sound means to the psychology of the one chanting or listening. Thus, the signified may be said to be inherent in the signified. For example, the sound ma- gives a sense of finality and completion and its impact is seen even today in the languages of today giving rise to families of words such as Mother, Mater, Matri, Mata, Mom, Matrix, etc., and Mrityu, Mortality, Muerto, etc.

In Veda thus, the binary of Saussure collapses with this inherent unity of the Signifier and the Signified. Also, the mantra creates an inevitability of rhythm, vision and meaning, fused together in an intimate relationship, that the sound creates its own effect, sometimes independent or in association with the word-meaning. This creates a parallelism of languages as discussed in the previous section and this poetry which is untranslatable is often missed in almost all translations.

The Synchrony and the Diachrony

Synchrony is when one considers all elements of a language at a given point in time. Diachrony studies how it evolves over time. With Vedic Sanskrit, this is not possible since we not only do not have another work of literature in the language from that time as discussed earlier. Vedic Sanskrit is different from Classical Sanskrit in several ways.    
Modern interpreters attempt to study the Veda using the hints given in its own verses since there are no external archeological or historical finds from that period available to us from that period. Thus, no outer indicators or corroborative evidence may be used to study the Veda.

But it is my opinion that we can not only use the hints from the Veda itself but also study the evolution of its symbols, its experiential descriptions and its ‘model of the Universe’ along with its spirituality to at least gain some insight into how other human beings have responded to it. Granted, this interpretation of theirs may not be used to clinch the hidden meanings of Veda, but a study of semiology would be incomplete if we did not study the impact its signs and symbols have had on other humans along the millennia.

The Syntagmatic and Paradigmatic Structures

The syntagm is the structure of certain phrases or sentences in the work. Or, as Roland Barthes explains in Elements of Semiology, it is ‘a combination of signs…linear and irreversible (it is the spoken chain) …each linguistic unit is like a like a column in a building of antiquity: this column is in a real relation of contiguity with other parts of the building, for instance the architrave (syntagmatic relation).’ The paradigm goes deeper and wider to understand the entire scope of a work and is equivalent to the langue of Saussure. For example, ‘if the column is Doric, it evokes in us a comparison with other architectural orders, the Ionian or the Corinthian,’ in the words of Barthes. It may be worthwhile studying both with the Veda. The syntagm shows us certain motifs and phrases that recur in a fixed order, certain myths and messages that abound in varying degrees in a circular and spiral manner but with contiguous fixity, that create their own impact and help create the larger paradigm.

The paradigm of the Veda is remarkable in that it consistently returns to the One Reality that underlies all existence and yet is so dynamic that it creates a multitude of worlds (seven at least) and emanations that may express its entire power in their forms that are yet eternally connected to their source, Tad Ekam, and each other. The paradigm helps compare it with other darshanas, theologies, philosophes, worldviews, etc. Thus, the Veda is neither monotheistic the way we understand the term in Abrahamic religions with an external God floating in the atmosphere, giving out citations and meting out punishments for a putative afterlife. Nor is it polytheistic the way Greek or Roman mythology is presently interpreted. Nor is it monistic if we use a term supplied by a Spinozean metaphysics. It is all of these and yet much more, its unity so compact that it can brook an infinite multiplicity and utter freedom to each.

Veda is deeply symbolic, with each ritual, recitation, audition, enactment, and performance, a multi-media event (humanity’s first!). But its symbol is not separate from the Real for its goal is not an abstract signified but a unitary consciousness where there is no separation between the object and the subject, the signifier and the signified. In other words, the Symbol is the Real in Veda and the Real is the Symbol. Every act or human endeavor is imbued with profound reverence and mystery, with significance that is not only personal but also universal. For the individual is not separate from the cosmic, the deva is not apart from the human. The entire Vedic system of symbology is unique in the annals of human history, that makes it extremely difficult for the modern mind to comprehend, as we discussed initially. 

And yet, in a strange way, it helps us return to our own subconscious or collective unconscious, as Jung might have noted. Or to take a Vedantic signifier, it takes us back to ourselves, once we strip away all the layers of mental encrustations we have grown in our life and recover a primal, elemental and innocent way of seeing and perceiving. In any case, it is a document of humanity’s first exploration into the meaning of Life and Death, Truth and Falsehood, Light and Darkness, Bliss and Suffering. And it is a record of how our ancients broke through into an understanding that helped them reconcile these dualities and how they expressed and communicated it to the generations to come, with a clear awareness of how their way of perceiving might be lost.

Denotation and Connotation

In Semiology, to denote means to give a straightforward literal meaning. For example, a rose is a flower, or blue is color. To connote means to hint at subtler or hidden layers of understanding, creating a secondary order of language. Thus, the rose might connote passion and blue sadness. Again, more interpreters in translating the Veda focus on the denotation and miss out on the connotation. And they create a physical literal rendering missing out on the hidden significances, the subtle hints and indications of a deeper life. 

According to Roland Barthes in Elements of Semiology, the plane of connotation is ‘wider’ than the plane of denotation. Or rather, the denoting system becomes a mere element of the connoting system, Or the first system of denotation becomes a signifier to the second system of connotation. We see this happen throughout the Veda with its multiple layers of meaning. TV Kapali Sastry. In Lights on the Veda, has quoted an ancient Puranic phrase, trayortha sarva vedeshu, i.e., there are three layers of meaning throughout the entire Veda. Swami Dayananda has shown in his Rig Veda Bhasha Bhashya that the use of shlesha alankara or the pun or Paronomasia is used extensively in the Veda creating not only layers of sense but also multiple visual and symbolic metaphors and similes. Sri Aurobindo explains in Hymns to the Mystic Fire that the use of these multiple layers of meaning is not intellectual or cognitive alone but also experiential and spiritual.

But the Veda gives us not only multiple planes of connotation but also a metalanguage. Tatyana Elizarenkova in Language and Style of the Vedic Rsis shows that there is not only an intentional approach to create multiple connotations but also that the Vedic Rishis were highly aware of their methods, using varied techniques like Polysemy, Synonymy, Morphology, Vocabulary, Prosody, Syntax and ‘sound-painting.’  

A metalanguage is a language that describes language. The Vedic Rishis were highly conscious practitioners of their art. And they often commented about their own verse in the Rig Veda. For example, they note that their verse is a secret expression, ninya vacamsi, and that only a seer could understand their seer-verse. What a mantra can do is sometimes discussed in the mantra itself describing its own effect. In Rig Veda I.2.3, Vayu Deva grants the power in the mantra that helps establish it in the subtle body of the spiritual aspirant. In the terms of Semiology, the object language, or the ordinary language that is used to describe things or objects in the world, is described by the metalanguage. Or, as Roland Barthes notes in Elements of Semiology, ‘a metalanguage is a system whose plane of content is itself constituted by a signifying system; or else, it is a semiotics which treats of a semiotics.’

Perhaps, the Veda is a first literature which contains within itself a partial metalanguage that describes its own language. This awareness of oneself and one’s own craft, its artefactual nature and literariness, is seen in modern times as metafiction. While the Veda is not metafiction per se, it evinces the self-awareness, the sense of exhilaration and the mastery of the craft in its verse that tells us of the very refined culture of its practitioners.

We can say in this short review that Modern Semiology gives us another way to apprehend or at least approach this mighty compendium or Samhita of our shared ancestry that has had a profound impact on human religions, philosophies and literatures. Further investigations may be attempted in the author’s opinion to help us explore its mysteries using a modern idiom but with empathy to an ancient vision and way of seeing and feeling.

But we must note one caveat: the limitation of semiology is that it is a language about another language, be it sign-language, sound-language or word-language. But Veda moves from language to experience, from symbol to a state of awareness, from ritual to sacredness, from individuality to universality, from sound to mystery, from figures of speech to unity and a worldview.

As long as we are aware of this difference between semiology and the true intent and accomplishment of Veda, we can perhaps look toward a new approach to studying the Veda and semiology itself. This might not only transform our understanding of these ancient hymns but of the science of signs that itself is rapidly evolving.    
Can a symbol transform the beholder? This is the question the Veda poses us. If we understand this, its riks get metamorphosed from regular verse to poetry of a different order, describing experiences and realizations in a language unique and supra-normal to our daily cognition, showing us how semiology has the power to effect a transmutation and radical shift in consciousness. A new order for semiology itself.

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