There’s an absurdity in calling oneself a humanist. The hat, which I’m proud to wear, solicits polarised emotions that are not easily reconciled. Here’s the rub: I loathe humanity, but at the same time I am also her greatest cheerleader. I’d build, without even a moment’s hesitation, an entire museum around a single human hand, and right next door I’d erect a mausoleum to house its pair. My heart beats faster every time I watch a space launch, and it breaks in two every time I turn on the News. I am at once amazed and horrified by our species, and so it should not come as a surprise to learn that what I consider one of the most astounding moments in human history is also the fountainhead of one of its greatest ever blunders; a missed opportunity which I, as a card-holding humanist, lament every time I pass some tax-exempt temple raised to some invisible, magical sky being.
Eyes forward because the astounding part of this double-headed tale is truly quite remarkable, and it begins with an extraordinary champion of the human species; a magnificent uncle who ninety generations ago opened his mind and accidently found himself holding the formative shape of physical reality. It sounds grand, and I’ll admit only a precious few even know his name, but my accolade is by no means an exaggeration. That man was Yāska, the Vedic grammarian and author of the Nirukta; a technical treatise on etymology, lexical categorisation, and the semantics of words.
An unlikely hero, but a hero just the same.
Unawares of what he would soon discover, Yāska’s work began as an urgent response to a very real problem: the spoken language of his day had drifted away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language alive in the ancient Vedas (orally transmitted canonical scriptures, the formative creation myths of Hinduism) rendering entire passages of the hymns obscure at best and unintelligible at worst. In Yāska’s day, as noted by the Buddhist author Jayarava, there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. “One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised.” Yāska’s solution to the problem was beyond brilliant and would go on to form the foundation of contemporary studies in cognitive linguistics and semantics, including phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology. It was Yāska who first categorised nāma (nouns), ākhyāta (verbs), upasarga (prefixes), and nipāta (particles and prepositions). He created ontological categories to describe actions (bhāva) with past, present and future connotations. He formulated grammatical aspect, the murta, which identified perfective and imperfective situations. In all, it was Yāska who first looked at the entire lexicon of language and wrestled it into a system of understanding which we still use today.
An uncommon man to say the least, but his true stroke of genius came in the seemingly elementary conclusion that words, not sentences, were the fundamental carriers of meaning; that is to say, the primary element, or prakṛti, of reality. Words, Yāska saw, were the smallest indivisible unit, where clusters of words arranged in a certain way following strict grammatical systems (laws) formed a sentence whose meaning (although intended) was entirely unique to its constituent parts. It sounds intuitively simple, almost childish, but Yāska had arrived at atomism, and he did it eight generations before the Greek philosopher, Leucippus, asked one of the most important questions ever asked: If you break a piece of matter in half, and then break it in half again, how many breaks will you have to make before you can break it no further? Leucippus called his answer, the Atom. Yāska saw the same thing, but called it the word. Arrange words (like the atomists’ atom) in a certain way and one external meaning is derived. Arranged in another way the same words produced another meaning altogether. Linked to suffixes and prefixes and the meaning of the sentence would change again, and reality with it.
Now, the fact that a 7th Century B.C.E Vedic grammarian almost grasped the nature of the observable universe not only blows my mind in the best possible way, it also fills me with a certain indescribable rage. It makes my skin crawl to know that ninety generations ago our grandfathers were on the right track, asking the right questions and driving headlong toward understandings that (after being dismissed by Aristotle) would not again be tickled until the English Chemist, John Dalton, discovered “lumpy particles” in chemical experiments conducted twenty-seven centuries later. It makes me furious to know that despite the monumental efforts of this giant of proto-science (and the work of the Greek atomists who followed 250 years later) our collective popular culture instead continued on down the wrong path; the path of superstition and supernal promises built upon lies and fabrication. It bends me completely out of shape to know we have wasted ninety generations interpreting and re-interpreting gibberish spoken by mad men masquerading as prophets to forever unseen deities when the foundations of Naturalism were first scratched at one hundred years before Nebuchadnezzar figured Babylon might look a hell of a lot better with some terraced landscaping.