Masters of Language

Subhash Kak

Sulekha Columns


The events of September 11 remind us how words can convert ordinary people into mass murderers. But there are good words and bad words. Here we speak of three people whose words have done a lot of good for more than two thousand years. One could even say that these three people transformed the world.


Although most ancient narrative is as myth, a code language intermixing history, psychology, astronomy and metaphysics, three ancient sages wrote about language with great directness. Euclid (c 300 BC) in his Elements describes the language of mathematical ideas, Panini (c 450 BC) in his Ashtadhyayi describes the language of universal grammar, and Bharata Muni (c 450 BC) writes about the languages of gesture, dance and music in his Natya Shastra. Of these three we are reasonably certain of the dates of Panini and Euclid but much less of Bharata.


Euclid, educated in Plato's academy, did his work in Alexandria. He presented Greek mathematics and geometry in terms of axioms and theorems. His approach was so elegant that his book remained the textbook of elementary geometry and logic up to the early twentieth century. Its formal method became the standard to be emulated for every new discipline. The idea of a short constitution to which all pay allegiance may ultimately be traced to Euclid's framework.


Panini described the grammar of Sanskrit algebraically in complete detail, an achievement that has not been matched for any other language until today. Panini's grammar is as intricate in its structure as the most powerful computing machine. The scope of his achievement qualifies Panini as one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. Not only did he influence attitudes in the East for centuries, his ideas led to the development of the subject of philology in the West.


Sadly, good ideas can be used for evil deeds. Philology became the underpinning of a racist attitude to history that was used to justify European colonialism, leading ultimately to Nazism. This racist attitude persists today in many departments of Sanskrit and Indian studies. It was embraced by the left in India, where it remains an ugly underside of the political discourse. Arcane philological controversies can garner headlines in the left's political magazines in India.


Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra not only presents the language of creative expression, it is the world's first book on stagecraft. It is so comprehensive that it lists 108 different postures that can be combined to give the various movements of dance. Bharata's ideas are the key to an understanding of Indian arts, music and sculpture. They provide an insight into how different Indian arts are expressions of a celebratory attitude to the universe.


Five of the thirty-six chapters of the Natya Shastra are devoted to music. Bharata speaks of the 22 shrutis of the octave, the seven notes and the number of shrutis in each of them. He explains how the vina is to be tuned. He also describes the dhruvapada songs that were part of musical performances.


The concept of rasa, enduring sentiment, lies behind the aesthetics of the Natya Shastra. There are eight rasas: heroism, fury, wonder, love, mirth, compassion, disgust and terror. Bharata lists another 33 less permanent sentiments. The artist, through movement, voice, music or any other creative act, attempts to evoke them in the listener and the spectator. This evocation helps to plumb the depths of the soul, thereby facilitating self-knowledge.


Euclid and Panini are well known to scholars and the general public. Euclid's formal system became the exemplar for European science. Panini's algorithmic approach to knowledge was the model for scientific theories in the Indic world, extending from India to the east and Southeast Asia. The ideas of the Natya Shastra make intelligible the sculpture, temple architecture, performance, dance and story telling of the culture of east and Southeast Asia.


Sadly, Bharata's great text lay forgotten in India for almost a thousand years, his ideas remembered mainly through secondary sources. This is surprising considering this work has a sweep broader than that of Euclid or Panini. It is easy to understand success in devising a method of geometrical reasoning or finding the algebra of grammar as they are inherently structured. But imagine the audacity of creating a language for gesture, dance and music! Also, Euclid and Panini wrote for the scholar, whereas Bharata's work influenced millions directly or indirectly. For these reasons alone, the Natya Shastra is one of the most important books ever written.


To appreciate the pervasive influence of the Natya Shastra, just consider music. Bharata's work helps us see that ancient Greek music was similar to Indian music. The comprehensiveness of the Natya Shastra forged a tradition of tremendous pride and resilience that survived the westward movement of Indian musical imagination through the agency of itinerant musicians. Several thousand Indian musicians were invited by the fifth century Persian king Behram Gaur. Turkish armies used Indians as professional musicians.


The large Roma exodus from north India as a consequence of the Ghaznavid invasions gives us a clearer link between Indian music and the West. The Roma in Europe, living as tinkers, craftsmen, horse traders and entertainers -- a despised minority in the fringes of society -- were able to maintain cultural continuity, especially in music.


Their devotion to their ways earned them grudging respect for exemplifying 'freedom' which by the late 18th century had caught the imagination of Europe fighting the suffocation of the Church. Slowly, the Roma (Gypsy) singers began to enjoy the patronage of the middle-class and the aristocracy.


According to Linda Burman-Hall: “Gypsy bands... travelled from village to village accompanying the 'strong' dancing of soldiers who recruited continuously for Nicolas the Magnificent's military operations. The style of this verbunkos (the so-called 'recruiting' music), -- a deliberate fusion of earlier Gypsy music (such as the 16th century works preserved in organ tablature) and elements of the western European tradition, -- influenced Haydn and other classical composers because it was favored by public taste. As a national fashion this style remained popular through the 19th century with composers such as Beethoven, Hummel, Schubert, Brahms, von Weber, Doppler and especially Liszt writing in a 'style Hongrois' influenced by the jagged rhythms and fantastic cadences of the verbunkos style.”


Bharata stresses the transformative power of creative art. He says, “It teaches duty to those who have no sense of duty, love to those who are eager for its fulfillment, and it chastises those who are ill-bred or unruly, promotes self-restraint in those who are disciplined, gives courage to cowards, energy to heroic persons, enlightens men of poor intellect and gives wisdom to the learned.”


Our life is spent learning one language or another. Words in themselves are not enough, we must learn the languages of relationships, ideas, music, games, business, power, and nature. There are some languages that one wishes did not exist, like that of evil. But evil, resulting from ignorance that makes one act like an animal, is a part of nature and it is best to recognize it so that one knows how to confront it. Creative art show us a way to transcend evil because of its ability to transform. This is why religious fanatics hate art.


Modern inquiry began as a search for the language of inanimate nature. Science slowly expanded into living systems and now with investigations into behavior and cognition it has come close to the ancient meaning of the term. The languages of cognition and music may be seen as the pinnacle of this journey of science. Bharata Muni's text is a most useful guide to the weary traveler on this path.


Resources: To understand the milieu in which Panini and Bharata Muni arose, read G. Feuerstein, S. Kak, D. Frawley, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization: New Light on Ancient India. (Quest Books, 2001)


The best translation of the Natya Shastra is by Manomohan Ghosh (Manisha Granthalaya, Calcutta, 1967). Unfortunately, it is out of print. I am hoping this column will inspire some reader to arrange for its reprint.



© Sulekha