Do we need phonemes to be permanent? —UPDATED

Did Mīmāṃsakas really need to claim that phonemes are permanent (nitya)? Erich Frauwallner argued that the chapter on this topic in the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā Sūtra (PMS 1.1.6–1.1.23) had been interpolated and most contemporary scholars*** agree that the Mīmāṃsā argumentation only needs the relation between signifier and signified to be fixed (nitya), not also the signifiers.The topic did not become an issue in classical Mīmāṃsā, however, since Mīmāṃsakas did not have any reason to deny the permanence of phonemes. The situation changes, however, when one looks at the reception of Mīmāṃsā within theistic schools which agree with the idea that the world has been created and will come to an end. For these schools, phonemes cannot be permanent and, accordingly, a recent commentary on Veṅkaṭanātha’s Seśvaramīmāṃsā argues that this belief does not need to be part of the Mīmāṃsā lore:

The Mīmāṃsā authors explain this chapter as establishing the fixedness of the phonemes. We do not want to accept this, since the phonemes must be produced at each single time. Also the establishment of the fixedness of the phonemes, which has been done by Mīmāṃsakas, it has only the purpose of establishing the intrinsic nature (svābhāvika) of the relation between expresser and expressed. Therefore, that alone should be be done in this (PMS 1.1.6–23) chapter [according to us]. What is the purpose of establishing the fixedness of phonemes, which no instrument of knowledge (apramāṇika) [has established]?
Given that phonemes were not permanent in the way said in the Nayadyumaṇī `The sun of views’, nonetheless, even if all phonemes had been produced at the beginning of creation, out of the tāmasic I-sense (ahaṅkāra) because of the subtle element sound (śabdatanmātra), they would still last until the dissolution (pralaya). They would only be manifested in the middle of creation by this or that utterance of humans, etc. (of further non-human beings such as demons or gods). And accordingly it can be said that there is no contradiction with the sūtra which establishes that the phonemes are manifested [and not produced] (PMS 1.1.6).

Alternatively, [this] chapter (adhikaraṇa) would not be accepted as aiming at  establishing that the phonemes are manifested, since also this topic is debated and since there is nothing** to be realised through this probans (the establishment of the permanence of the phonemes would not play a role in the syllogism leading to the reliability of the Vedic sentences). By contrast, the [PM]sūtras in general do not regard phonemes, but rather linguistic units expressive [of a meaning].
It must be understood that in the case of the expressing elements the investigation on the absence of it (permanence), which is tantamount to the fact of having been produced by human beings, has been done [only] insofar as it is supplementary to the intrinsic nature of [their relation to] dharma, which assumes the form of expressing [it]. In this chapter in general the sūtras have a different meaning than the one said by Mīmāṃsakas.

mīmāṃsakair idam adhikaraṇaṃ varṇānāṃ nityatvasthāpakatayā vyākhyātam. tad asmābhir neṣṭam. varṇānāṃ tadā tadotpadyamānatvāt. tair varṇanityatvasthāpanaṃ kṛtam api vācyavācakasaṃbandhasya svābhāvikatvasthāpanārtham eveti tad evādhikaraṇakṛtyam astu. kim aprāmāṇikavarṇanityatvasthāpanena. yady api nayadyumaṇyuktarītyā varṇānityatve ‘pi sṛṣṭyārambhe śabdatanmātrahetos tāmasāhaṅkārāt sarve varṇāḥ jātā āpralayam avatiṣṭhante. teṣām eva tattatpuruṣoccāraṇādinā abhivyaktimātraṃ sṛṣṭimadhye. tathā ca varṇānāṃ vyaṅgyatvasthāpakasūtrāder na virodha iti vaktuṃ śakyam — athāpi tasyāpi pakṣasya savivādatvāt tatsādhanasaṃpādyasya kasyacihābhāvāc ca varṇavyaṅgyatvasthāpanaparatayādhikaraṇaṃ neṣṭam. sūtrāṇi tu sāmānyato na varṇaviṣayakāṇi, kiṃ tu vācakaśabdaviṣayakāṇi. vācakānāṃ puruṣotpāditatvatadabhāvavicāraḥ vācakatvarūpadharmasvābhāvikatvaśeṣatayā kriyata iti bodhyam, asminn adhikaraṇe prāyaḥ sūtrāṇāṃ mīmāṃsākoktād anyaḥ evārthaḥ (SM 1971, pp. 88–89)

By the way, the Nayadyumaṇī is most probably a work by Meghanadāri Sūri (who was slightly younger than Veṅkaṭanātha), edited in 1956. I have not checked it yet.

*In the Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, like in the Sāṅkhyakārikā (SāKā 25) the ahaṅkāra is generally believed to give origin to the mahābhūtas and the tanmātras  from its tāmasic aspect, and to the indriyas and karmendriyas from its sāttvic aspect, with the rājasic aspect assisting both (see, e.g., Rastelli 1999).
**Read: kasyacid abhāvāc instead of kasyacihābhāvāc.
***UPDATE: See, e.g., Peter Scharf (1996). I will dedicate a separate post on this issue, but I am pretty confident that today’s scholarship is more open to understand the issue of nityatva as different from the preposterous claim that phones exist somewhere in the world (I remember a manual of Indian Philosophy I read around 1997 pointing to the parallel with the music of celestial spheres).

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Do we need phonemes to be permanent? —UPDATED

  1. it is not obvious that you can have a “fixed” relationship between signifiers and signifieds without both of the terms themselves being “fixed,” although it depends on what “fixed” actually means. i would be interested in hearing more about how exactly the commentator thinks the options he mentions actually work: (1) the idea that phonemes are “created” at every pronunciation is an old position and one that kumārila definitively put to rest; (2) the idea that phonemes are only “manifested” at every pronunciation, but exist in some sense prior to their articulation, is a standard mīmāṃsā idea, but the idea that the phonemes themselves were created by god (like everything else) is obviously not, and it solves the problem by brute force; (3) the idea that there can be a “natural” (svābhāvika) connection between signifiers and signifieds that does not depend on the independent existence of stable phonemes seems to imply a sphoṭa-like understanding of language, which kumārila at least took issue with.

    • Andrew, I am only speculating, but I think the commentator might think at something like the misunderstanding which is common in contemporary scholarship (see here) about the physical eternality of sound, which is not needed for the nityatva to work. Further, he needs to accommodate a Mīmāṃsaka standpoint (nityatva, and the consequent svataḥ prāmāṇya of the Vedas) with a “Naiyāyika” one (the existence of God). Thus, he needs to put God outside the picture ruled by Mīmāṃsā principles and further emphasise that śabdanityatva is not the śabdanityatva refuted by Naiyāyikas.