Skip to main content

A laukika analogy for ūha?

In teaching Mīmāṃsā philosophy of language, I try to find ordinary (laukika) analogies to Vedic examples. Today, I wonder if the new slogan put out by the First Lady of the United States could work as a sort of example of how ūha or Vedic modification works (or, here, fails to work).

Here's the case in the news today: Melania Trump has kicked off a new program with a slogan, shown in the image below.

To a native English speaker, the phrase in isolation, used as an imperative, seems odd. Typically, we say things like "Be your best" or "Be the best" or something like it. I googled "be the best" on an image search and came up with the slogans below.

In contrast, a search for "be best" came up with Ms. Trump's slogan and two other previous uses, one which is a Russian website for a school(?) and the other is a consulting group. Both of them had an exclamation mark, in contrast with the Trump slogan.

The other examples are slogans which say things like "be kind" or "be good," or "be the best you," "be the best," and so on.

What does this have to do with Mīmāṃsā? Well, when performing Vedic rituals, certain members of the ritual were to recite mantras, which according to Kumārila were to remind them of what they should be doing. Basically, these were sayings that would help them perform the intricate rituals in the correct way. Sometimes a mantra from one ritual would be used for another ritual. The idea is that there are certain major rituals which form templates or prototypes for other rituals. One would follow the pattern, changing certain details. For instance, if you were making a ritual offering to Agni in the prototype, you might make the offering to Sūrya in another. In the first case, you might say, "I offer what is pleasing to Agni," but you shouldn't say that when making an offering to Sū you'd have to change the mantra.

This involved some changes in grammar, according to context. You would need to know how to change the words to be grammatically correct.

So, in the case of Ms. Trump's slogan, which is mantra-like in that it is a reminder of how to act, we might think that she took words from one context, perhaps "Be best at your job" or "Be the best" or etc., and in applying them to a new context, she failed to adjust that expression so it would work grammatically.

I wonder if this analogy is illuminating for Mīmāṃsā or not. One runs the risk of doing injustice to the ritual context by emphasizing ordinary cases too much, but on the other hand, even within the Mīmāṃsā texts themselves, there are continual analogies with usual speech.

(Another possible mantra example: "lefty loose-y, righty tight-y" when tightening or loosening a screw. It is also apparently nonsensical in the way that some mantras are, leading to skeptics arguing they have no meaning, but are efficacious only in their sounds.)

*Note 9 May 2018: I edited the blog layout, including removing Google+ comments, and lost a very nice comment from Elisa Freschi expressing skepticism about this case. I summarize what she said, according to my memory: this case doesn't involve changing from particular context to another but is more a matter of creative repurposing, and so she's not sure it's a great analogy. She suggests the example of "I take you for my wife" being changed to "I take you for my partner" when someone prefers a gender-neutral term. In reply, I agreed with her point about the disanalogy, though I wondered about how much creativity is involved in ūha, noting that Kumārila explicitly says that cases where there is a definite grammatical rule are ones that don't count as ūha, in his discussion of mantra in the Tantravārttika. I invite Elisa to correct my memory on this! (Also I removed the image of Melania Trump since the point of the post is not to poke fun at her as an individual, but to reflect on possible analogies using current events.)

For further reading, see:

Alper, Harvey, ed. Mantra. New York: SUNY Press, 1989

Deshpande, Madhav. "Contextualizing the Eternal Language: Features of Priestly Sanskrit" in Ideology and Status of Sanskrit, edited by Jan M. Houben. Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Patton, Laurie. Bringing the Gods to Mind. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.