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A Preface to Four Word Practice
Mokṣa can mean many things
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Over the coming months in this column on Four Words practice, we’ll be focused on the questions of personal language. We’ll look at how we talk to ourselves, what it is we have to say, and the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness of our communication in our relationship with ourselves.
With Four Words, we’ll be trying out meditation as a form of being who we are, and being who we are as a form of meditation, and we’ll do this by investigating the power of the Word.
I’ve had a fascination with language since I was a small girl.
My sister was at school when I was four years old, and I had my mother all to myself. A good time, in my opinion, for asking questions.
I wanted to know whether the thoughts in my head were really words at all. Were they words like I used when my mother and I were talking?
“Do people think in the same words they talk in?” I asked.
“Well, of course,” she answered.
“So if I were Chinese would there be Chinese words in my head?”
This was a mesmerizing idea. It would produce a sensation of revery as I tried to imagine my own thoughts in a different language. In this state, I would fall to asking stranger things.
“Could I still think about the things I think about in English? Wouldn’t my thoughts be different too?”
For my poor teenage mother, these were exceedingly wearying sessions. She would often hand me a a bottle of roll-on polish and a pair of shoes and set me to making scuffed sneakers white again, or drag a chair to the kitchen sink and have me wash dishes.
I think this was an “idle hands do the devil’s work” kind of response from my born-again mom who was sideways concerned I was possessed by demons.
She shouldn’t have worried, though. I was centered in a great Christian tradition of mysticism. The often quoted Gospel of John begins,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
That’s pretty unequivocal.
People much more arcanely involved in thinking about the things I loved to think about had the highest regard for the power of the Word.
Stories hold sway
It remains unclear to those who study language exactly how it exercises its powers in our lives. It’s a big subject and it flows in a lot of directions.
From Walter Ong’s classic work, Literacy and Orality to Lakoff”s and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh, from linguistics to neuroscience, from “mistakes were made” to “truthiness” – language is essential, words have effects, and stories hold sway.
By the time the Christian apostle John began his gospel with the Word, the life-generating potency of language had already been long established.
Andre Padoux, in his book Vāc: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras describes his research “relating to the power or the energy (sakti) of the Word,” especially as it relates to cosmogony, or world making, and “magic power.” Such powers have been the subject of intense ritual and investigation since the time of the Ṛg Veda, dating from somewhere between 1700–1100 BCE.
As in the later Christian tradition, the reverence Padoux encounters for the procreative force of the Word is not a metaphor. The power of language to bring into existence is considered a reality. Padoux points out that Sanskrit evolved in
a land where grammar went so far as to be considered as one of the darśanas – “views” on the world, which are at the same time paths to salvation.
Learn to be a suspicious reader
Let’s pause to examine the lint-trap that accumulates stray concepts whenever a text is translated. In Padoux’s case, from Sanskrit to French, from French to English, from one century and culture to another, a few lost socks straggled along.
Inasmuch as translation of texts turns them into something we can read, translation also causes texts to carry meanings that are not in the original writing.
For example, Padoux’s choice of “salvation” is heavy with connotation of sin and deliverance from the consequences of sin – i.e. hell. It’s a word that comes to us laden with our own contemporary Western wrangling with life, death and morality.
However, it’s well established hell and damnation, in the sense we worry about them today, are not something with which ancient texts on Vāc would have been concerned.
Hell and the hellish, through the ages
Knut Jacobsen, at the University of Bergen, has written about the Hindu concept of liberation or mokṣa.
Hinduism, that is, the Hindu traditions, is primarily a religion of this life.
Religious life is to a large degree about power, auspiciousness and material welfare. Many religious activities are directed at improving one’s conditions in this life.
The world is in the centre on the Hindu traditions. Death is not the end of life, but the end of a rebirth. The next life is also here in this world.
There are no common burial grounds in Hinduism because death is not a permanent condition. The ultimate goal of life according to many of the Hindu traditions, mokṣa, can mean many things.
When mokṣa means final release, as it does in philosophical and theological texts, it is not about escaping a destiny in hell (niraya or naraka), but to gain freedom from the cycle of rebirth in this world.
Knut A. Jacobsen, Three Functions of Hell in the Hindu Traditions
Numen 56 (2009) 385-400
Grappling with meaning, bringing ourselves to the work
Still, I’m inspired. It intrigues me to read in Padoux’s description of Vāc, that the rules and systems of language could be simultaneously a worldview and a path to freedom.
I want to consider that idea, of something being a way of seeing the world around me at the same time it is a path to truth and power in that world. When I practice yoga it’s because I want to engage those “two things being one thing” by the light of Jacobsen’s mokṣa, without the yellow varnish of sin and damnation obscuring its power.
Something about the “magic power” of language catches its fire between these observations.
Why does this keep happening to me?
Whether we regard ourselves as trapped in cycles of rebirth between lifetimes or trapped in cycles of patterns we bring into being repeatedly, the possibility of liberation – in the sense of permanently getting free of that cycle – is attainable through the inherent potentiating capacity of language.
It makes me wonder what we bring into being by the words we use. Not just the words we use with each other – those are not even half the words with which we muster the world, our world view and our path.
What about the abundance of the words we address to ourselves? Would our thoughts be the same if we changed the language in which we think?
(Nota Bene: To this day, I do a lot of thinking while I do housework.)
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.