Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Squeaky birds and secondary meaning

[Image: The Indian ducks and their allies, Published by the Bombay Natural History Society, 1908]

There is much interconnection between Indian philosophical texts and poetry, although it's not necessarily obvious without reading in both genres. For instance, in his discussion of kinds of secondary meaning, which is often cited by later Ālaṅkārikas, Kumārila says that there are three kinds of indication: those that are well-established and so seem like the primary meaning, those that are novel, and those which don't have any capacity at all.

His discussion of these three categories (which occurs at MS 3.1.12) is interesting in itself, but I just want to note the example he uses for the second category, novel, or newly created (kriyante sāṃpratam). He says this is like the word rathâṅganāman, a compound made of three terms, ratha, aṅga, nāman. It means "that which is named for the chariot's wheel'" (aṅga = part, metonymically, the wheel; ratha = chariot; nāman = name) and refers to the cakravāka bird. The compound cakra-vāka is itself indicative of a simile: the bird's call is taken to sound (vāka) like the noise of a wheel (cakra).[1]

So we have (1) a bird whose call sounds like a squeaky wheel being called "sounds-like-a-wheel" and (2) that bird referred to as "named for a chariot's part" where "part" has become narrowed in its sense to "wheel."

This squeaky bird (pictured above) is today known as the "ruddy goose" or sometimes "brahmini duck." It's not only a beautiful bird but it is used for beautiful imagery in Sanskrit poetry. I will quote Dave 2005:
The attachment of a pair to each other, their constant company during the day, conversational contact maintained by both at night as they graze or feed apart on land or water, and their re-union at sun-rise have invested them in popular imagination with the halo of the highest conjugal virtues.
In Kālidāsa's Kumārasaṃbhava (KS), he uses both rathâṅganāman and cakravāka:
dadau rasāt paṅkajareṇugandhi gajāya gaṇḍūṣajalaṃ kareṇuḥ |

ardhôpabhuktena bisena jāyāṃ  saṃbhāvayām āsa rathâṅganāmā ||

The cow elephant lovingly gave her mate a trunkful of water fragrant with lotus pollen
the rathâṅganāmā bird favored his mate with a half-eaten lotus stem [2]
nināya sâtyantahimôktirānilāḥ sahasyarātrīr udavāsatatparā |
parasparārandini cakravākayoḥ puro viyukte mithune kṛpāvatī ||

[Pārvatī] spent the nights of mighty Sahasya, the winter month, when the winds whirled snow,
committed to standing in water, full of pity for a pair of cakravāka birds in her field of view, separated and calling for each other. 
daṣṭatāmarasakesaratyajoḥ krandator viparivṛttakaṇṭhayoḥ |

nighnayoḥ sarasi cakravākayor alpam antaram analpatāṃ gatam ||

Dropping the lotus filaments they'd bitten off the pair of cakravāka birds at a loss on the lake,
the small distance between them having become far from small, turn their necks and honk for each other [3]
There are plenty of other examples (some given in Dave 2005), including the Ramāyāṇa, where Sīta is compared to such a bird, longing for its mate, while held captive by Rāvaṇa. Possibly Kumārila, who elsewhere quotes Kālidāsa (satāṃ hi sandeha-padeṣu vastuṣu pramāṇam antaḥ-karaṇasy pravṛttavaḥ), was thinking of the poet's work when he made this example, though that cannot be known with certainty. At least his work is an example of the two words as synonyms.

[1] K. N. Dave, Description of the birds in Sanskrit literature, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2005. Discussion of this bird starts on page 450.

[2] Transliteration adapted from and translation quoted from The Birth of Kumāra by Kālidāsa. Trans. David Smith. The Clay Sanskrit Library. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Chapter & verse of KS: 3.37, p.106-107. I replaced cakravāka in the translation with rathâṅganāmā, just to be clear.

[3] Smith 2005, 312-313. From KS 8.32.

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