Why a cultural context is critical for understanding śāstra

There are many sentences in śāstra which at first sight seem impossible. For example, śāstra contains the common example of a swan that can separate milk from water. Is this literally true? There is no mechanism in the swan’s beak to separate milk from water; also milk itself is 87 % water so what does separating milk from water even mean? And yet, many insist that this statement must be literally true as it is in the śāstras.

Such misconceptions arise because these days, śāstra is being studied by people who have no cultural context, and therefore cannot know how such statements were understood in the tradition. The simple answer is that the swan cannot separate milk from water- this is just poetic license intended to convey a deeper contextual meaning. अपारे कविसंसारे कविरेव प्रजापतिः – in the vast world of the poet, the poet alone is the creator. One should not be misled into taking poetry literally!

Definition of a sentence that conveys valid knowledge

Śrī Babaji is currently teaching us Vedānta paribhāṣā, a 17th century book which is standard reading for students of Advaita Vedānta. Advaita Vedānta shares many commonalities with Vaiṣṇavism as both derive their basic theology from the same foundational books. Thus, in addition to helping the student understand Advaita Vedānta, Vedānta paribhāṣā also teaches many valuable lessons. One of them is the following definition of a sentence which is a pramāṇa or valid means of knowledge:

यस्य वाक्यस्य तात्पर्यविषयीभूतसंसर्गो मानान्तरेण न बाध्यते तद्वाक्यं प्रमाणम् – That sentence is a valid means of knowledge, when the relationship between the words in the sentence that is intended (i.e. that its speaker intends to convey), is not contradicted by any other means of valid knowledge.

What confers knowledge in a sentence? There are four causes:

आकांक्षायोग्यताSसत्तयस्तात्पर्यज्ञानञ्चेति चत्वारि कारणानि: expectancy, consistency, contiguity and knowledge of the intention.

Of these, we have seen the first three elsewhere. Vedānta paribhāṣā adds a fourth one which is तात्पर्य ज्ञान or knowledge of the intention (of the speaker). We will discuss that topic elsewhere, but here, we will examine योग्यता or consistency.

योग्यता तात्पर्यविषयसंसर्गाबाधः – consistency is the non-contradiction of the intended relation between the meaning of words of a sentence.

So for example, वह्निना सिञ्चति – he sprinkles [plants] with fire- does not have consistency, because the intended relation between the words ‘sprinkles’ and ‘with fire’ is impossible; one cannot sprinkle with fire. The sentence is grammatically correct but it is not meaningful. One can sprinkle a plant with water – so जलेन सिञ्चति is possible. Therefore, this sentence does not have योग्यता as it is a nonsensical sentence.

Consider the example:

गंगायां घोषः – the hamlet in the Gangā.

Now the hamlet cannot be in the Gangā, so at first sight, this sentence does not have योग्यता. But it can be interpreted to mean:

गंगायाः तटे घोषः – the hamlet on the bank of the Gangā.

When the primary meaning does not make sense, one can resort to a secondary meaning which is related to the primary meaning. Now, we turn to an important rule which is implicit in interpreting śāstra-

Sentences of śāstra are meaningful.

That means, even if the sentences do not appear to have योग्यता at first sight, one must look deeper to understand. Consider the sentence

तत् त्वम् असि – you are that

Here, two vastly different entities- the embodied living being, and Brahman, are being equated. At first sight, this sentence does not have योग्यता, because it is not meaningful to equate two different entities. But because this is a sentence from śāstra, one must go deeper- and in this case, understand that the two are the same when the त्वम् पदार्थ – the embodied being, is shorn of all limiting adjuncts or upādhīs.

The need for a cultural context in understanding sentences

This then begs the question of why the sentence वह्निना सिञ्चति – he sprinkles [plants] with fire, cannot also be interpreted. For example, I could interpret this sentence as उष्णजलेन सिञ्चति – he sprinkles with warm water. This does not really work as the secondary meaning cannot be unrelated to the original word, but let’s assume this for now. There is another reason why this is an incorrect interpretation, and that is, the sentence is not meaningful according to contemporary standards of the culture in which this example is offered. That is, this is a standard example of a meaningless sentence. It would be highly ignorant to try and convince people that this sentence ought to be interpreted in its secondary meaning.

Now imagine that someone starts insisting that it is possible to literally ‘sprinkle with fire’. One would be inclined to dismiss such an assertion as nonsensical. But suppose the above sentence appeared in scripture. Unless one had a proper cultural context, one may be inclined to interpret the sentence as literally true. And that is where things go awry.

So it is that people insist that swans can separate milk from water. Why? Because the statement is in śāstra, the meaning of the sentence is clear, and there is no need to resort to any interpretation. Without a cultural context, in which it is well-known that this is not literally true, one simply cannot ‘prove’ that the statement is false. So it goes with numerous other statements in the scriptures, a partial list is below.

  1. Mountains have wings.
  2. There are mountains that are thousands of miles tall on earth.
  3. The sun is drawn by horses that pull its chariot.
  4. Hundreds of millions of warriors fought in the Kurukṣetra war.
  5. The universe is surrounded by rivers of alcohol, honey, sugar water, milk and so on.
  6. The guru takes the disciples’ karma and suffers for it.

None of these statements are literally true. One has to understand the intended meaning, which requires learning it from the cultural context in which these statements appear.

Nowadays, people additionally try to interpret words that ought not to be interpreted in order to defend false ideas that have been propagated by their teachers. Consider the word ‘anādi’. The simple meaning of this word is beginningless. Some insist that this is the meaning when the word is used for ‘spiritual objects’ but for material objects, it is to be interpreted as ‘from time immemorial’. Unfortunately, this contradicts the basic rule above – only when the primary meaning does not make sense should a secondary meaning be sought, and this secondary meaning must be related directly to the primary meaning. And there is no question in the traditional cultural context where this word appears – that is in India – what the word anādi means.

Cultural context is a must for determining whether a statement in the śāstra should be understood in its direct meaning, or whether it should be interpreted. Too many people waste years of their life trying to navigate śāstra on their own, and so begin and sustain a paramparā of apasiddhāntas.

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