Enough with the “eternality of sound” in Mimamsa!

F.X. D’Sa Sabdapramanyam in Sabara and Kumarila (Vienna 1980) is one of the very first books on Mimamsa I read and I am thus very grateful to its author. Further, it is a fascinating book, one that —I thought— shows intriguing hypotheses (e.g., that Sabara meant “Significance” by dharma) which cannot be confounded with a scholarly philological enquire in the texts themselves.

In what was possibly the first review of this book, John Taber (1983) felt nonetheless the need to point out that the chapters on Sabara should not be seen as faithful interpretations of Sabara’s thought. He is less strict in warning readers about the chapters on Kumarila, possibly because after the ones on Sabara, D’Sa seems to draw closer to texts and in this sense he does indeed look more like a “normal” scholar.

Recently, however, I re-read the section by D’Sa on the nature of sabda (pp. 116–122), since a student had based his thesis on it. This made me think that inexpert readers might still need some guidance through it:

  1. varna does not mean “syllable”. k and u are two separate phonemes in the syllable ku
  2. nitya does not mean “eternal”. The Mimamsa theory of communication does not need eternality at all. In fact, it just does not need temporality. All that is at stake is that sabda remains the same throughout each instance of its use, otherwise no communication could be possible. Accordingly, nitya means “fixed”. By the way, readers might remember that nitya does not originally mean “eternal”, although this became its most well-known meaning today. Minoru Hara has shown that nitya originally meant “own” (as sva). Within Mimamsa, it first (diachronically) and foremost (synchronically) means “fixed”, as when discussing the fixedness of nitya sacrifices.
  3. sabda is defined as what is perceived by the ear, and not as what conveys a meaning. Accordingly, varnas are sabda. There is no space for a further sphota-like metaphysical entity called sabda. When Kumarila speaks of sabda as being indivisible, fixed and partless he is speaking of the only sabda he knows of, namely the varna.
  4. Instead, what is different than the sabda-varna and manifests it are the single articulated sounds (dhvani) manifesting the immutable phonemes. All variations between the phoneme a as pronounced by me or by a native speaker of Sanskrit or English only depends on the dhvanis and not on the nature of the varna, which remains the same, as proved by the fact that I can nonetheless communicate with native speakers of English (or Sanskrit).

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5 thoughts on “Enough with the “eternality of sound” in Mimamsa!

  1. nitya could mean obligatory sacrifice.
    “The sacrifices are also classified as nitya (obligatory), naimittika (ocassional) and kāmya (utilitarian). For example agnihotra is obligatory sacrifice.”
    Source: K.T. Pandurangi, Purvamimamsa from an Interdisciplinary point of view, p. 6.

    Just curious – How is Mimamsa theory of communication different from the interpretation concepts?

    • Thanks for your comment.
      Concerning nitya as ‘obligatory’, you are right, but it still belongs to case 2 above. nitya sacrifices are obligatory (or mandatory) because they are fixed, whereas naimittika ones depend on a particular occasion (say, the birth of a son) and kamya ones on one’s desire (say, for rain).

      I am not sure whether I understand your second point, could you elaborate again?

      • Mimamsa theory of communication is listed in the second point as:”nitya does not mean eternal. The Mimamsa theory of communication does not need eternality at all”.

        In general, communication is often related between two persons. Example: Person A communicating to person B. Wheras interpretation is in the way, our mind interprets and understands. I was of the opinion that Mīmāṃsā deals with the interpretation contexts, rather than communication.
        Does it also address communication?

        Thank you

        • Thanks for the clarification. It might be that the Mīmāṃsā school initially only focused on the exegesis of the Veda, but already in its oldest extant text, the (Pūrva) Mīmāṃsā Sūtra (attributed to Jaimini), the initial chapter deals with śabda as a communication event, either when one listens to the Veda or when one listens to a speaker. The initial commitment to the Veda, however, makes Mīmāṃsā authors focus more on the listener’s side (since there is no speaker in the Veda).