Mantras: Songs Fooled By Randomness?

A couple of weeks back, I happened to read Frits Staal’s Discovering the Vedas. I was initially skeptical of the book since it has been blurbed by Romila Thapar, thinking it might be some commie propaganda, but those fears were laid to rest after I read Staal’s interpretation of the so-called “Aryan Invasion Theory” and found it quite logical. I enjoyed the first half of the book, and then lost him. I couldn’t understand anything at all in the second half of the book.

The precise moment where I lost interest in the book was when Staal gave his theory as to why mantras and rituals have no meaning. I found his reasoning of the same quite weak, and since he kept referring back to that later in the book, it became tough to follow. Staal states the following three reasons to claim that mantras precede language, and they are more like bird calls.

  • Mantras are language independent: Anything in language can be translated whereas mantras remain the same in all languages.
  • Mantras, even though they seem to be in a language like Sanskrit, are not used for their meaning.
  • Mantras follow patterns, like refrain, which is not seen in language.

While I find the hypothesis interesting, the proof that Staal gives is hopelessly inadequate. The Beatles might have translated their songs into German, but songs are normally not translated, right? You don’t translate songs, and sing  them into the same tune, unless you are doing some MTV Fully Faltoo or some such thing. On the other hand, what if the songs are in a language that is completely alien to you? There is no way you can translate them, but since you like them you sing them anyway. Without bothering to know their meaning. And songs can definitely have refrain, right? It clearly seems like Staal is trying to force-fit something here. Hopefully he is force-fitting this here so as to prove some other theory of his. But you can never say.

As I had expected, Staal’s theory has caught the attention of the right-wing blogosphere. JK at Varnam writes

This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.”

Sandeep at sandeepweb goes one step further, and says:

Even a Hindu not well-versed with the nuances of Mantra intuitively senses that something “divine” or “other-worldly” is associated with every Mantra. In a very crude sense, a Mantra is to some people, a cost-benefit equation: you chant the Gayatri Mantra for spiritual upliftment, the Maha Mrityunajaya to ward off the fear of death, the Surya Mantras for health, and so on. Why, you chant just the “primordial sound(sic),” “OM” to get yet another benefit. Whether these benefits really accrue or or not is not the point. What is immediately discernible is that every mantra is associated with some God or principle. In other words, it has a very specific meaning.

I think mantras are simply songs, in an ancient language, fooled by randomness. As I had explained before I quoted JK and Sandeep, going by Staal’s hypothesis, and the precise reasons that he gives, it is not inconceivable that mantras were composed as songs, in a language that hasn’t survived. In fact, Staal’s “proof” can better explain the song hypothesis rather than a no-language hypothesis. I don’t know why those songs were composed, and I definitely won’t rule out the possibility that they were meant to be devotional (after all, a large amount of later Indian music (including all of Carnatic music) is fundamentally devotional). Anyways the exact reasons for composition may not matter.

So what might have happened is this. I suppose chanting of mantras and conducting rituals was a fairly common event in the Vedic age. I believe that we started off with a much larger repository of mantras and rituals compared to what survive today. And the ones that survive are the ones that were lucky enough to have been associated with certain good events. A chieftan happened to do a certain ritual before going to battle, which he happened to win. And this ritual came to become the “pre-war” ritual. Of course it wouldn’t have been one single event that would have established this as “the” pre-war ritual, but after a couple of “successive trials”, this would have become the definitive pre-war ritual.

Once a particular ritual or mantra got associated with a particular event, then reinforcement bias kicked in. Since it was now “established”, any adverse results were seen as being “in spite of”. Suppose a king dutifully did the pre-war ritual before he got thrashed in battle, people would say “poor guy. in spite of religiously doing his rituals he has lost”. The establishment meant that no one would question the supposed effectiveness of the ritual. And so forth for other mantras and rituals.

To summarize, we started off with a significantly larger number of mantras than we have today. Association of certain mantras with certain “good events” meant two things. One, they got instantly associated with such good events, and two, they got preference in propagation – limited bandwidth of oral tradition meant only a certain number could be passed on sustainably, and these “lucky mantras” (notice the pun – they brought luck, and they survived) became the “chosen ones”.

The sad part in the whole deal is that mantras were taught without explaining the meaning (similarly wiht rituals). Maybe the oral tradition didn’t permit too much bandwidth, and in their quest to learn the maximum number of mantras possible, people gave short shrift to the meanings. And by the time writing was established, the language had changed and the meaning of the mantras lost forever. In fact, this practice of mugging up mantras also gets reflected in the way education happens in India today, with an emphasis on knowledge rather than understanding. I suppose I’ll cover that in a separate blog post.