Folk Religion: The Hindu Mantras and The Origins of Language

(This is a speculative post. NO MORE THINKING ABOUT VIRUSES AND TRUMP! This Post considers the potential connection between the Hindu Mantras and the formation of the basic sounds [the phonemes] of the Indo-European Languages. These are controversial topics and I am just discovering some of the issues involved. Language, and linguistically-based society, are at the core of theories of The Mind as something profoundly different than the scientific hardware of the Brain. A new level of complexity emerges here, and needs its own vocabulary for adequate description and explanation. Roughly, the brain is like the hardware of a computer; the Mind is the software downloaded to it. This post speculates on the transition to language-based, and culture- based, living. The Hindu mantras are a celebration of linguistic sounds, as much as any ideas of gods.)

(Figurines from the Ancient Indus Valley Civilization from about 2500 BCE, Bronze Age. Scholars of religion believe that it was in this valley and at about this time that the earliest Vedas of Hindu religion became evident, though there is no single composer of them or founder of Hinduism as have many other religions.

The Hindu Religion is generally considered to be the oldest of all religions. Islam is one of the youngest of the major religions, with its origin in the life of Mohammed. At about the age of 40 and in the year 610 CE, it is believed by Muslims that Mohammed was fasting and praying in a cave near Mecca, in today’s Saudi Arabia, when he was visited by the Angel Gabriel and came to have the first words of the Qur’an tumble from his mouth.

Yet, major religious change has occurred far more recently. In the early 1500s, various protests against orthodox Catholicism led to a new “wing” of Christianity called Protestantism. Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Today, new forms of Protestantism emerge every day, and the number of its adherents may be as high as 1 billion.

Luther at Erfurt, painting by J.N.Paton 1861. Doing good deeds do not get you to heaven, contended Martin Luther, only Faith in Jesus and then his free gift of grace and salvation do that trick: the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is an orthodoxy.

There are an estimated 1.25 billion Hindus, but elements of Hindu practice such as Yoga and Meditation are more widespread. In fact, Hindu is Not primarily a religious doctrine, not an “ortho-doxy” (right doctrine), but an “ortho-praxi” (right practice); it is in that sense that I have been inspired to discuss it now at The Nature Religion Connection. HINDUISM IS BASICALLY RITUALISTIC: Right sounds/words, right movements, designated ceremonies and celebrations, but a variety of loosely associated and variously emphasized “beliefs” and “interpretations”.

The Indus Valley is often seen as the ancient seat of Indian Culture. Ironically, it is now the center of present-day Pakistan, an “Islamic Republic”. In 1947, the British colony of India was partitioned into two separate and independent states along religious lines. This ‘solution’ was at a great cost in lives, disruption and displacement to these two religious populations.

In previous posts, Folk Religion, The Strange Idea of..., and Folk Religion: Ritual as Memory Device and as Communal R & D, the role of Ritual in religions was discussed especially in ancient religion. Contemporary scholars of religion emphasize the essential role of religious-like rituals in the origination of language, social structure, personal identity, art and human group cooperation in general. These early humans had ideas, but more so these ideas were very vague and incipient; it was the actions, chants, movements, symbolic objects and ceremonies that were concrete and specific to them. Out of this generalized stew, we have today sorted out its more specific departments, ideas and focuses: religion, science, art, morality, politics…

Symbolic Objects from various Ancient Civilizations:

Figurine of Priest King from Indus Valley, 3,000 BCE.
Druidic “Ogham Staves” used in divination in Northern Europe. A variety of woods used in each set.
“Venus” figurine created by Homo sapien Cro-Magnon in Neolithic Europe, 35,000 years ago.

The focus of this post will be on Language. Philosopher Dan Dennett has contended that the origins of language go as far back as the origin of early forms of Religion and Ritual (some 35 to 40 thousand years ago) that he, and other investigators, have called “Folk Religion.” Folk religion lacks official doctrines and priestly hierarchies, but is large on ritual. After all, language is still rudimentary and in development, so there are no “doctrines.” It has been suggested in the posts mentioned previously that what was “taken” by these early humans as “religion” was also language development and many other activities too: art, social role development, and the beginnings of abstract thought.

(Depictions of Civilization in the late Paleolithic Period with the dawn of Agriculture and then in the Neolithic period, with the discovery of metallurgy.)

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) Language

The ancient common ancestor of Greek, Sanskrit, Iranian (Persian), Germanic (includes English), Anatolian (Turkish and Mesopotamian) and Romance languages is the Proto-Indo-European language. Our understanding of PIE is a reconstruction derived from the common elements of the 140 languages (includes the above) that form the Indo-European Family of Languages. This reconstruction is also based on recognized shifts in pronunciation, as in the shift within the Germanic languages from the German “d” as in “ding” and “danke” to the English “th” as in “thing” and “thanks”.

PIE is believed to have been spoken as far back as 5,000 BCE (7,000 years ago) in the Late Neolithic Era and may have continued to about 2,500 BCE, the Early Bronze Age. Ancient Greek and Sanskrit are considered to be two of its most ancient daughter languages. Below are some of the tell-tale similarities in vocabulary.

AN AMAZING FAMILY OF RESEMBLANCES! For the use of this chart, and majority of information on PIE and its people, THANKS to Jared Diamond and his 1992 The Third Chimpanzee; see the excellent chapter entitled “Horses, Hittites, and History”.

PIE is hypothesized to have had a complex structure with “regular vowel variations” as in sing, sang, sung and their noun, song, and pronoun declensions such as “I”, “me”, “mine”. It did lack the definite and indefinite articles (“the” and “a”) and did place the verb at the end of the sentence or clause. It is hypothesized to have invented/discovered all the basic Phonemes of our language group. It seems that the Consonant sounds may have been the ‘easiest’ and earliest to have been agreed upon, with the Vowel sounds only developing — becoming more systematic — more slowly.

The Hindu Mantras as a Discovery and Appreciation of the Phonemes of this Human Language Cooperation

The basic Sounds of human-language cooperation in the Indo-European language tradition may not have originated in the Indus River Valley of Pakistan/India. Maybe the basic Mantras of Hinduism are an early appreciation and affirmation of the place these sounds play in our lives. Chanted sound vibrations, recognized as a huge progressive development, are at the core of Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. Today, we might recognize this birth of language as the shift from simply biological life to cultural-biological life.

Dennett argues forcefully that Language-Based Communication is based in layers of Mutually Recognized and Agreed Upon Intentions. Like when telling a joke, the teller must be understood by the recipient as “joking”, the recipient must “get” the situation as a “joke” to “get” the joke. Often when a joke does not succeed, the recipient pauses and then realizes the intent of the joker, “Oh, you’re joking”, they realize and say, “now I get it!”

Theorists of communication often contend that “the order of intentionality” must go three and four layers deep: the speaker must understand and agree on the context for the speech act with the hearer: to greet, to inform, to request, to convince… Both must recognize that each is aware of the agreed upon expectations and that the speech act must comply with, and — then– be interpreted in that light. As a Teacher, one becomes keenly aware of the mutual expectations of the setting in terms of trust in the method and goal of the interaction shared by teacher and student. The relationship between Salesperson and Customer, also, has mutual expectations, but is far different than Teaching in terms of trust, goal, and appropriate methods of interaction.

Before more complex speech interactions can occur, the most basic one of working out the sounds to be used and the standards of acceptability for the range of vocalization that will “count”, must be established and agreed upon. This is Language as a Digital System, says Dennett, and this is a huge clue to the mechanism of its operation! Maybe the most basic chant of all, “Om”, is most illustrative of this point.

“Om”: The Primal Chant

It is like a phonics lesson. The first thing you read about the “Om”chant is that it is pronounced A-U-M; three separate but related sounds and mouth/throat/tongue placements. The “A” is “ahhh”, mouth round and open wider (please try it), as if ‘accepting the whole of reality,’ we are told. The “ahhh” rolls out from the back of your throat. The “U” is “oooh”, with your mouth closing more, lips pursing but still round. The sound still from the back of your throat, but now more focused and specifically directed. The “M” is the “mmm” sound, with the same “ahhh” and “oooh” sound coming from the back of your throat, but now with your mouth closing and your tongue moving to the top of your palate. With your tongue in this position the vibrations are now palpable and strong. Please try this.

Hindus believe the universe is basically vibration and the “Om” is its first sound. In the “Om”, we have three phonemes, basic Indo-European language sounds; but this is an over simplification because vowel sounds are much more complicated and controversial among linguists than consonant sounds. Some scholars speculate that the initial Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) operated with only two, or even one, of our vowel sounds! Actually, a fourth sound is insisted upon by the Hindu gurus, the modern embodiment of this Oral Tradition; they teach that the eventual Silence after the “mmm” is to be appreciated as important as any other element! Sound ends, and reality goes on beyond our perception of it.

“Om” is used as the introduction to many other Mantras and to the initiation and conclusion of many Yoga and meditational exercises.

Other Simple Mantra Chants

“Om Namo Narayanaya” is considered one of the most sacred of all Mantras; some consider it the most “powerful”. It is contended to penetrate to the basic unity of consciousness underlying all reality. Literally, it means “I bow to and honor Lord Narayana”. Lord Narayana is also known as Vishnu, the protection and preservation of all that exists. This chant is also specifically known for its sounds in the original Sanskrit and is, thus, in keeping with the theme of this post: The Basic Connection of Ritual/Religion to The Origins of Language. This mantra is called “the eight-lettered invocation”.

“Om Neti Neti”: A very short chant.

Also Translated as “Not this, not that”. Its explanation.
The Chant.

The Controversy of The Source of PIE

Hindu Doctrine regards their religion as having No Origin. To them it is eternal and the sounds of its mantras, that they so cherish, are The natural sounds of the universe, and in no way particular to them or their Language Family. But they are. Hindu Nationalists are today the only ‘scholars’ proposing that The Original Source of the Proto-Indo-European Language (PIE) arose in the Indus Valley and its early Aryan civilization. This position gains some credibility from the antiquity of Sanskrit; it is one of PIE’s earliest “daughters”.

The accepted theory of scholars around the world is The Out of The Russian Steppes Theory or The Kurgan hypothesis. The hugely influential geographer, Jared Diamond, explains that one of the leading clues to a language’s origins are words that it now contains that are obviously from a different source (see his The Third Chimpanzee, chapter 15). In American English, we now have words such as “Mississippi”, “Ohio” (which means “good river [or waters]” in the local indigenous language) and “Dakota”. These words indicate that English overtook a pre-established language.

How could a language originating from a culture north of the Black and Caspian Seas in the eastern and middle parts of Europe have such wide-ranging historical impact? We see no great pyramids there; we see no monumental aqueducts or coliseums in that region! We do find what we have called “Kurgans’, burial mounds traditional to this region stretching our in various directions.

The Kurgan Hypothesis argues that PIE originated in this purplish region and spread first eastward toward India and then westward into Europe.

The Horse and the Wheeled Cart

The language of these, the First Indo-Europeans, overran indigenous languages. How? The Horse and Wheeled Charts! These pastoral peoples were the first to domesticate the horse and use them for “Horse Power”! They prospered, and rolled out of Eastern Europe into the east toward India and then to the west. This advantage of the Domesticated Horse and the Wheeled Cart used in both battle and mundane transportation caused an expansion of these Mongolian peoples — Huns, Vandals, Visigoths — that lasted 5,000 years. They overran indigenous languages and replaced them to a telling degree.

(The Mongolian Horse Backed warrior and herder, top right. Burial “Kurgan Mounds“, left and left middle. The envisioned pastoral and herding camp of these Mongolian People, the first Indo-Europeans!)

So, what where these indigenous languages that were overrun? Diamond proposes that it was a situation analogous to recent New Guinea, that isolated Pacific island. This is one of Diamond’s original bases of study, and for which there have been recorded “nearly one thousand mutually unintelligible languages — including dozens with no known relation to each other or to any other language in the world”! It seems that people around the world evolved many different languages but few survived! In our case, a language group that consists of 140 languages, out out of the 5,000 languages that currently survive, is now spoken by half of the world’s population! This is a testament to Horse Power, at least initially.

One More Celebration of Sound and Dance

Krishna Das Music! You gotta give it 5 to 10 minutes; they really start to heat it up! A Celebration of Sound, Dance and Unity.

About two decades ago, when my eldest daughter was in High School, she wanted me to go with her to the local Krishna House, after her encounter with them at a festival in the campus area. I was eager to go; I had never been. We went some Saturday in the summer, late in the morning, as I recall. About 20 of us had gathered that day at the house, along with its eight or so residents. After some cordial greetings, the celebration slowly started in the living and dining rooms of the old brick house. We had been offered simple instruments; I chose a tambourine. Several of the residents were more elaborately equipped, one a hand-organ as shown in this video.

It started slowly and quietly, but soon picked up intensity. The temperature in the house was soon in the mid-eighties, no air con, and I started to pound the tambourine and sway to the chant as did my daughter. I do not remember the particulars of the chant that day but after about an hour, it slowed and then solemnly stopped. We were exhausted and I was wet with sweat. We clapped and smiled and all adjourned to the back patio where we were served a tasty and simple vegetarian meal. It was a lasting memory and a worthy experience, to which this post is testimony.

In Conclusion

Some philosophers and scientists are often mistaken. There are Truths available to us through our Social Interactions that are as Real as the universe presented to us by physics and chemistry. Human Cooperation through Sound and Language and Music and Dance is as real as anything, and in need of our explicit affirmation. That is our insistence on an Ethical Society. Persons work together. Positive human cooperation is the basis of all human interaction at its unique level. For example, Trump and his lies are harmfully parasitic upon our foundation of honest human interactions, which are the overwhelming majority. Science and philosophy—and ethics—are built upon honest linguistic interaction. Hey! Music and Art are the “egg” added to the batter that allowed Culture to Rise!

Rock On!

Focused on THE BIG CONNECTION, the !!!!

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