27 March 2015

Further Problems in Karma Theory: Continuity and Discontinuity.

Vasubandhu 世親 (via IEP)
Emerging from early attempts at systematisation of Buddhism, sectarian Buddhists, especially those who developed Abhidharma, continued to think carefully about the theories they had inherited they discovered more and more problems. In my recent essays I've discussed a number of problems that these Buddhists inherited and some of the different approaches to the problems.

The picture that we have of Buddhist history was heavily skewed by the destruction of Buddhism in India with the lost of the larger proportion of Buddhist texts. For example we presume there was a Canon of early writings in Sanskrit and one in Gāndhārī and we have lost the bulk of both of them. This sometimes means that we know only a little about the various sects and what we think we know is often from polemics written by their opponents (who were far from scrupulous in representing each other). One result is that we can mistakenly see historical Buddhism as more homogeneous than it in fact was. It's common for modern writers on Buddhism to minimise the heterogeneity of early Buddhism and emphasise the commonality rather than the disputes. I'm interested in exploring just how disparate Buddhist sects were from each other. In some cases the disagreements were extreme. 

The quirks of history can also mean that a text that includes polemic like Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāṣya can be over-represented in discussions of sectarian Buddhism, or treated as an authoritative account of some long dead sect, simply because it survives in Sanskrit. The Bhāṣya only records one side of a multi-sided argument, and where we do have  more than one side, as for some of the disputes recorded in the Theravāda Kathāvatthu, they often disagree on details. However with care we can get some idea of the issues that Buddhists disputed amongst themselves and some of the parameters of these disputes. Chief amongst these issues was karma. I've already shown that early Buddhist karma theory was incoherent, in the sense that it did not work with pratītyasamutpāda: I've characterised this as the problem of Action at a Temporal Distance. This is not simply my conclusion, it was also the conclusion of one of the founding fathers of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Nāgārjuna in his magnum opus, Mūlamadhyamakārikā (see MMK Chp 17).

In this essay we will see once again that the preconceived metaphysical commitments that Buddhists bring to the dispute circumscribe how the respond to the challenges. Although some authors make a great deal of the Vinaya convention that a schism or sanghabheda is technically a dispute over interpretation of Vinaya, it's clear that doctrinal disputes also caused divisions amongst Buddhists. 

Continuity Problem

Most Buddhist sects agreed that experience consists of a series of mental events (citta) with associated mental concomitants (cetasika). A particular problem is that in the succession of cittas it's hypothetically possible that a kuśala citta might follow akuśala citta or vice versa. One of the important features of karma theory is that results are appropriate to actions. Having good follow directly from evil or vice versa seems on face value to contradict this. Thus it is generally forbidden, axiomatically, for a kuśala citta to follow an akuśala citta and vice versa. Different sects proposed different solutions to this problem.

In order to deal with this problem the Theravādins stipulated that two cittas which are different with respect to kuśala/akuśala cannot directly follow each other. As well as kuśala and akuśala the Theravādins acknowledged that some cittas were indeterminate (avyākṛta). These are cittas that are not associated directly with karma (action) but are either a vipāka (a result from a previous karma) or completely independent of karma (kiriya-citta). The latter category includes some mental states in an arahant such as any accompanied by with two or three of arāga, adveṣa or amoha; and functions such as āvajjana or advertence (turning towards) a sense object. So between two cittas which are different (kuśala/akuśala) a bhavaṅgacitta must intervene. 

Jaini (1959) notes that the Sautrāntikas reject the Theravāda solution because it makes no more sense for a kuśalacitta to be followed by an avyākṛtacitta, because how would an avyākṛtacitta act as a condition for an akuśalacitta? Axiomatically, like must follow like. Indeterminacy is only a fudge, not a solution to this problem. The axiom in fact prevents change, and since we perceive change, the axiom itself must be flawed. And the flaw comes because it is trying to extent continuity beyond the present moment to account for karma. 

Discontinuity Problem

Another problem that concerned later Buddhists is a problem of discontinuity. In the early Buddhist texts there is a state of attainment called 'cessation of mental activity and experience' (sañña-vedayita-nirodha). This state is said, in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, to occur after one has master all the jhānas and the arūpāyatanas (sometimes called the arūpajhānas). Not a great deal is said about this state, but if all experience has ceased then it would appear that there is an interruption in the flow of mental events.

In the two essays on Action at a Temporal Distance I covered the basic Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda responses to the problem. The former proposed a series of very short lived cittas which acted as conditions for the next, in up to 24 distinct ways (the 24 paccayas). And they filled the gap between sense-based experiences with the bhavaṅgacitta - a kind of resting state mental activity, the object of which is set at the beginning of one's life by the death moment mental activity (cuticitta) in the dying being and the subsequent relinking mental activity (paṭisandhicitta) in the new being. So a definite discontinuity would be impossible in the Theravāda view.

The Sarvāstivāda response to Action at a Temporal Distance was to propose that if the present vipāka was conditioned by a karma in the past, then the karma must still exist (in some sense) in the past. And if we expect a present karma to have a vipāka in the future then the present karma must still exist (in some sense) in the future. What 'exists' (asti) means here is uncertain, except that we need the karma to be capable of acting as a condition. Karma here explicitly implies the mental activity that motivates the action (cetanā) and thus is used almost synonymously with citta or dharma. If the dharma exists now, in the past and in the future, then it always exists (sarva-asti) hence the name of this sect is sarva-asti-vāda or 'the doctrine of always existing'.

Hence, despite creating two completely distinct metaphysics to explain karma, neither can allow for any kind of discontinuity. A discontinuity in the mental life of the being contradicts the worldview or belief system. And yet on face value sañña-vedayita-nirodha constitutes a discontinuity. And in bridging that conceptual discontinuity, Buddhists seem to be trapped in one or both of two fallacies: they end up creating a continuity with eternalist overtones; or the solution is not internally consistent. In fact there seems to be no way to connect impermanent conditions with effects that manifest long after the conditions have ceased without introducing some incoherence. Either we can have experience arising and passing away in the moment, or we can have actions connected to consequences, but not both. 


Anacker, Stefan (1972) 'Vasubandhu's Karmasiddhiprakaraṇa and the problem of the highest meditations.' Philosophy East & West. 22(3): 247-258.
Jaini, Padmanabh. (1959) 'The Sautrāntika Theory of Bīja.' BSOAS 22(2): 236-249.

20 March 2015

Convert Buddhism

Sharon Stone being "blessed"
by a priest.
In a forthcoming article posted in draft form on academic.edu, 'The Forest Hypothesis', David Drewes considers the question of the origins of Mahāyāna, in the process critiquing recent scholarship by some of the biggest names in this area: Greg Schopen, Paul Harrison, Reggie Ray and Jan Nattier.

This is an important article because it exposes the rather flimsy foundations on which some of the authors have rested some of their conclusions. It's good to see a scholar willing to write and publish critical scholarship at a time when academic journals seem to be reluctant to publish this kind of critique. Perhaps it's because all of the players are long established professors that this is possible. Their reputations are solid enough to withstand a little constructive criticism. In a target culture a critical article would have a disproportionate impact on a scholar's career prospects - and this is bad news for scholarship generally.

This essay will highlight and discuss some particular comments made within the article that are to some extent peripheral to its main point. These thoughts emerge from reflecting on Drewes critique of the way that Buddhists and Buddhologists do history. In particular this paragraph stood out:
"The idea that Buddhism focused on meditation and the transformation of experience was first presented by D.T. Suzuki in the nineteen-twenties in an attempt to claim legitimacy for Japanese Zen Buddhism. Though Suzuki conceded to Pāli scholars that early texts provide little evidence for this, others soon read his perspective back into Pāli texts and it quickly became established as the primary apologetic strategy for depicting Buddhism in general as having special relevance to the modern world." (16-17; my emphasis).
My decad of Buddhist converts, from the 1990s, tend to take the idea that Buddhism was primarily about meditation producing a revolution in consciousness at face value. Sure, we acknowledge the role of other practices and facets of Buddhism, but we see meditation as the most important and most significant Buddhist practice. I've certainly heard colleagues of mine disparage those who do not meditate in terms that suggest they believe that one can scarcely even be a Buddhist if one does not meditate. Clearly this was an idea that appealed to earlier decads as well, particularly those who converted to Buddhist in the 1960s and 1970s. The baby-boomer generation were particularly interested in revolutions of consciousness, at least partly because they were under the influence of psychedelic drugs. Especially in the UK, where most of my teachers come from, they had grown up and come of age in drab, post-war, austerity Britain. They can often remember rationing and bomb craters. American hippies rebelled against a different kind culture. So, with the end of the war the questioning of authority and society that had begun to flower after WWI could get into full swing, though sadly it ended with the capitulation to Neoliberalism and a virtual abdication of power to large, conservative business interests. As Frank Zappa insightfully quipped: "Government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex." It also reminds us that counterculture was always a minority sport.

The Romanticism of Suzuki and his presentation of Buddhism as about seeking radical transformation of consciousness fitted precisely what many of my older colleagues were searching for. Even now they can easily be induced to reminisce about the old days of free love and cheap, but potent, LSD. And Suzuki's writing was at the forefront of popularising Buddhism in the 20th century, especially in the USA where Zen had a much greater presence.

Those of us who were teens in the 1980s had a different experience from the baby-boomers. I grew up in New Zealand. From the year of my birth (1966), France conducted a total of 193 atmospheric and underground nuclear weapon tests (CTBTO) in the Pacific. There were very real concerns about nuclear fallout and there is still the possibility of massive nuclear-radiotide leaks into the ocean from Mururoa Atoll. The Cold War and its arms race were in full swing. We knew that the life on earth could be destroyed 1000s of times over by the stockpiles of nuclear weapons that world powers constructed and aimed at each other, and that Northern Hemisphere leaders seemed to be in love with brinkmanship. Would New Zealand be spared? Or would the fall out mean slow death rather than fast? In my view, the X in Generation X stands for "Cold War" or "annihilation by nuclear weapons". In the same period the UK joined the European Community and began to dismantle remaining ties with former colonies, such as New Zealand.

I suspect my generation took the same recreational drugs as our parents generation, but for different reasons, primarily as an escapist response to the anxiety of a world full of threat. Our counter-culture was not hippies and "free love", but punk and "anger is an energy". We also saw the abandoning of content for style (the triumph of Andy Warhol's fascination with the superficial and banal), the rise of the yuppy, and the collapse of Western Socialism (along with powerful labour unions and generous welfare). I watched my conditions of employment be radically undermined by Neoliberalism. Rewards for being a loyal employee for example were eradicated during my professional life as a librarian. Old values were replaced by a relentless drive for productivity and target culture. As a result we now work more hours for less pay. It's hard not to view this with an element of cynicism for the world of politics and business. Unfortunately the propaganda of Neoliberalism is powerful, and many of my cohort simply fatalistically embrace this 'every man for himself' culture.

The attraction of Buddhism to my generation, then, is far less idealistic on the whole. We don't seek Romantic transcendence so much as nihilistic escape from a hostile world that does not value life or the environment except in Utilitarian terms. Romanticism in this view is a failure, comprehensively triumphed over by Utilitarianism and profit seeking. Romanticism was a decadent, aristocratic movement with no relevance to our lives. It was blind to the realpolitik and, in our time, crushed by businessmen bent on accumulating obscene amounts of wealth at any cost. Far fewer of us were interested in pursuing religion and numbers of Buddhist converts began to drop off.

However our ancient Buddhist predecessors were after something different again. Drewes concludes:
"The Buddhahood Mahāyānists sought was not the thin, this-worldly, religious experience of modern apologists, but a state of omniscience and nearly infinite power and glory to be attained in another world after death. Though they remain largely unexplored, the primary methods that Mahāyāna sūtras recommend for pursuing this goal are magical or supernatural means of generating merit (puṇya) that would be very difficult to construe as having any special value in secular discourse. Until we put aside the attempt to depict ancient Buddhists as being focused on something that has special relevance to modern life, an understanding of their religious world will remain beyond our reach." [Emphasis added]
This captures in a nutshell some of the misgivings that I have developed in my years of studying Buddhist texts. The stated or implied goals of the texts are often very different from what we say we are pursuing, and radically at odds with how we pursue them. The more secular the orientation, the less in common with Buddhism that Buddhists seem to have. On the other hand I was a participant recently in a discussion about "merit". It was very difficult to get my colleagues to acknowledge the ancient pattern of the puṇya economy, and the discussion was resolutely steered towards redefining merit in secular terms without the willingness to acknowledge that this redefinition had little to do with the traditional understanding. Merit is one of many inconvenient truths about traditional Buddhism. 

One of the big complaints about the popularity of Mindfulness Therapies is that they commercialise the Dharma. The complaint appears valid on face value because part of the narrative of Western Buddhism is of "spiritual" monks unconcerned with temporal matters (temporal contrasts with eternal here). But this complaint simply does not stand against the history of monks and monasteries. For as long as we have history of Buddhist institutions we see them involved in commerce. Not just using money, but at times coining it. Not just trading in products, but in usury. Buddhists have often enjoyed and ruthlessly exploited tax exemptions. Buddhists, or the demands of the Buddhist religion, have bankrupted more than one state. Notably the Tang Dynasty in China which ended up sacking the monasteries in 845 CE to recover solvency (rather like Henry VIII had to do in the 16th century). At other times Buddhists have virtually or actually taken over the executive arm of government, with Tibet being the most egregious example of this. Most of the wealth of Tibet, up to 1959, was tied up in and controlled by monks living in monasteries. The clergy doubled as a civil service. And senior positions in government were occupied by "reincarnated" men. The Chinese were not wrong about how oppressive this form of government was. Had there been a drop of oil in Tibet there is no doubt in my mind that the West would also have been keen to introduce democracy to the backward and oppressive Tibetan state. The pattern is repeated across Asia. Where we perceive Buddhism as a bulwark against Merchantilism, in fact historically the Buddhist establishment has typically exemplified what we seek to escape from. In countries with a large established Buddhist clergy it still does. Buddhist organisations tend to be rigidly hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian and acquisitive. 

We idealise Buddhism in terms of legendary times and places where motivations were clear and monks were "pure". Amongst my Buddhist colleagues and contemporaries I constantly scent the matter/spirit duality that seems to define Western notions of spirituality, even, or perhaps especially amongst Buddhists. It's not that they proclaim this dualism, but that the beliefs they do proclaim seem inextricably bound up in rejection of matter and attempts to embrace "spirit". We see it negatively in the anti-science and anti-intellectual stances that are common amongst Buddhists, which confusingly lives alongside claims that Buddhism is compatible with a rationalist worldview. We see it positively in the yearning for transcendence (of the material) and the search for the "true nature of reality".

Meanwhile the vast majority of Buddhists are really only dabbling in techniques that do not lead to any great revolution in consciousness. For most Buddhists these days the demands of work and family leave very little time for concerted practice. The business culture means that more is demanded from workers, while as consumers the war for our attention means we are constantly bombarded with intense sensory stimulation. Precious few attain anything like nirvāṇa, and those who do generally make the point that it's nothing like the idealised narratives in the texts. Most Buddhists are simply aiming to pad out saṃsāra and make life in the kāmadhatu more bearable. There's really no problem with this lifestyle. Historically this is how the vast majority of Buddhists have lived. But we presently lie to ourselves about how effective our practice is and what we might achieve. We may as well fess up about this. We may as well tailor our offering to the reality of the situation.

For example very little of what the Triratna Buddhist Order offers is aimed at families. We talk mainly to individuals and still treat people as separate from their familial context. We no longer, I think, actively encourage people to abandon their present context and dive into a religious life. We no longer encourage (particularly men) to leave partners and families and become fulltime practitioners. In any case the full-immersion experience is more difficult to find and sustain in these days of aging Buddhists. Changes to the welfare system in the UK since the 1980s have been devastating to our ability to live without doing productive work for example. The collapse of profits from our premier right-livelihood business some 10 years ago, and the demise of that business as I write, has reduced the amount of money we have available for supporting experimentation. That said, more and more of us are married, with kids, working, and concerned about surviving retirement, but we still aim our programs at single adults and design our centres for them.

Certainly anyone interested in the history of Buddhism and in the study of that history, especially in what is these days called the Early Mahāyāna, should read Drewes article. It is a very concise smackdown of a number of preconceptions about history that have been prominent. But that aside the implications are huge for how we understand the present, how we come to terms with our modern Buddhism, with the secularist trends and the reasonable doubts that arise from the clash with a modern worldview. The whole presentation of modern Buddhism is an apologetic, by which we mean an attempt at justification. We don't see it because most of us don't have the time and skills to delve deeper. One of the nice things about the move towards open access publishing and a website like academia.edu is that it gives the general reader access to literature that 10 years ago would have remained out of reach.

I've said before that in the battle between traditional religion and modernity, and it really is a battle, it's not science that is really devastating, but history. When we understand quite how much history has been distorted in order to make Buddhism attractive to modern Westerners it is salutary. It's not really a lie as such. The intention was, I'm sure, to make Buddhism accessible. But we too often lose sight of what is done to achieve this goal. We don't get to see the translators at work. They don't footnote their changes. This may be because they are largely working unconsciously. But we then base our apologetics on a form of Buddhism that only ever existed in myth and argue that we are blessed with authenticity because we conform to a distorted history. The irony is that we follow a religion which is vehemently critical of views, when we cannot help but relate to our views rather than the Dharma because we don't even see that we have views. All too many of us are convinced that our view is the Dharma.


13 March 2015

Yama and Hell

Japanese Yama (Enma)
as a Confucian administrator.
Yama is a fascinating figure. He rules over the afterlife, but is not one of the devas. Vedic myth names him as the first man to find his way to the realm of the ancestors (pitṛloka). He is thus a culture hero who opens the possibility of rebirth for Brahmin ritualists. The realm of ancestors starts off on the same level of the devas, and is progressively demoted until it becomes a place of torment and punishment. In parallel, the departed (preta) are transformed from the fortunate ones going to their ancestors, to a tortured group of ghosts stuck in limbo.

As we saw in an earlier essay, Yama has a twin sister Yamī. In fact the most likely meaning of the name Yama is 'twin'. Yama has a counterpart in Iranian myth called Yima and, in Avestan myth, the incest of the twins helps to found the human race. In the Ṛgveda the brother resists incest with his sister. I've written about the curious fact that the Pali suttas record that the Śākyas claim descent from a sibling incest mating, which I take to be evidence of their connection to Iran (see Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism). Brother-sister incest was common amongst ancient Iranian royalty, a practice I believe them to have adopted on the Egyptian model. Some scholars have tried to link Yama to the Norse Ymir, but this is disputed.

Yama in RV 10.14 has two messengers which are brindle-coloured, four-eyed dogs (sārameyaú śuvā́nau caturakṣaú śabálau) with flared nostrils (urūṇasā́v). They wander among men, satisfying themselves on the breath of life (asu). However they are also keepers of the path (pathirákṣī)  and watch over men (nṛcákṣasau). Note that some authorities think that śabala (brindle) is cognate with Greek ḱerberos (spotted), the name of the Hades's 3-headed watchdog. Hades named his dog "Spot". The Buddhist Yama also two messengers though their form as dogs seems not to be mentioned.

Yama as we know him in early Buddhist texts is the ruler (rājan) of the rebirth destinations known as Niraya (Pali) or Naraka (Pāḷi & Sanskrit). PED derives niraya from nis+√i 'to go down' (nis- followed by a vowel become nir-). PED also cites a parallel in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, though this is not listed in Edgerton's BHSD. However relating this to Classical and Vedic naraka is not straight forward. The vowels a and i are not interchangeable and the prefix nis or nir cannot simply become nar. It might work if there was an ancestral term such as nṛ or nara a real word meaning 'man, hero, person'. In secondary formations the vowel is strengthened to ra or ar. The word nṛ derives from an Indo-European root *ner and via Greek (a-nēr > andr) is the source of words such as androgynous, polyandrous, and philander. It comes into Sanskrit again as √nṛt 'to dance' (from the connotation of vigour). A naraka would then be something belonging to men or people, or heroic. And we can imagine Prakrit representing this as niraka. The substitution of -ya for -ka is conceivable as both can be adjectival. But this doesn't explain the nature of niraya/naraka. PED lists the etymology of naraka as "doubtful". I'll come back to this question after surveying the literature on Yama and Hell.

Yama in the Ṛgveda.

As a place of extreme suffering, the levels of Naraka are often referred to as "hell realms". One of the key early sources for the story of Yama as king of the afterlife is Ṛgveda 10.14.2:
yamó no gātúm prathamó viveda 
naíṣā́ gávyūtir ápabhartavā́ u |
yátrā naḥ pū́rve pitáraḥ pareyúr
enā́ jajñānā́ḥ pathíyā ánu svā́ḥ || 10.14.2 ||
Yama was first to discover this pasture that cannot be taken away.
Where our ancestor crossed over, all the born follow, by their own path.
As described here Yama seems to have been a man (or perhaps an earthly king) who was the first to discover the pitṛloka and be reborn (in heaven) along with his ancestors. Later in the Upaniṣads this is described as 'the world won by the ancestors' (pitṝṇāṃ jitaloka BU 4.3.33). Whether we should take this literally as representing the introduction of the idea of rebirth into Vedic cosmology or as a cosmogonical myth is not clear. Rebirth, though not absent as previously thought, is far from prominent in the Ṛgveda. Since rebirth is not a feature of Indo-European eschatology generally, it may be that as Indic speakers moved into the sub-continent they adopted a rebirth eschatology based on indigenous models. Rebirth does seem to be a regional feature of India thought. So taking this as a myth based on historical events is not entirely far-fetched.

There is a description of Yama's realm in a hymn to Soma (Ṛgveda 9.113.7-11). There an inextinguishable light (jyótir ájasraṃ) shines. It is a realm that is deathless and imperishable (amŕ̥te loké ákṣita). There heaven or the sky is bounded (avaródhanaṃ diváḥ) or perhaps "the inner apartment". It is the place where the dead are satisfied with sacrificial offerings (svadhā́ ca yátra tŕ̥ptiś ca). The refrain prayer of the Kavi in the deathless realm (amŕ̥te loké) is mā́m amŕ̥taṃ kr̥dhi "make me deathless". Which seems to be a prayer to be allowed to stay in Yama's realm instead of being reborn. As we will see in a subsequent essay the Ṛgveda is ambiguous on the question of the afterlife. This description is consistent with Vedic conceptions of heaven more generally. Thus the ancestors (pū́rve pitáraḥ), in this sūkta, seem to live in heaven.

We do find hell in the White or Śukla Yajurveda (30.5).
bráhmaṇe brāhmaṇáṃ kṣatrā́ya rājanyàṃ marúdbhyo váiśyaṃ tápase śūdráṃ támase táskaraṃ nārakā́ya vīraháṇaṃ pāpmáne klībám ākrayā́yā ayogū́ṃ kā́māya pum̐ścalū́m átikruṣṭāya māgadhám ||
For Brahman (Priesthood) he binds a Brahman to the stake; for Kshatra (Royalty) a Râjanya; for the Maruts a Vaisya; for Penance a Sûdra; for Darkness a robber; for Hell a homicide or a man who has lost his consecrated fire; for Misfortune a eunuch; for Venality an Ayogû; for Kâma a harlot; for Excessive Noise a Mâgadha. The Texts of the White Yajurveda, tr. Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1899], at sacred-texts.com
In the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (8th-6th century BCE?), as in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (sometimes considered to be an extra chapter of the ŚB), the dead are rewarded or punished according to their performance of the rituals. (Cuevas 271). By the time of the early Upaniṣads however the performance of rituals was seen as inferior to the performance of seeking ātman in one's heart (sometimes referred to as an internalised ritual). Ritual only leads to continued rebirth, whereas realisation of identity with ātman/brahman allowed the practitioner to escape birth and death all together. However there is still no sign of an afterlife destination in which wrong-doers are punished.

Yama in the Garuḍa Purāṇa (4th century CE?) is more like the Buddhist king of Hell as we find him in the Buddhist texts. The dead person is taken by the "High Way" and assumes a body formed from the funeral offerings (piṇḍa) and "feels hungry by day and night". The messengers of Yama are now torturers (Cuevas 271).

Is there Hell in the Ṛgveda Veda? 

Accounts of the afterlife in the Ṛgveda are far from unambiguous. Scholars have identified five Ṛgveda passages that might be a reference to hell: 2.29.6, 7.104.3, 9.73.8-9. 10.14.10-11, and 10.152.4 (Stausberg 2000: 219). The most suggestive passage is in sūkta 7.104 which calls on Indra and Soma to destroy an evil sorcerer (yātu) also called demon (rakṣa). In gāthā 3 the poet called on Indra and Soma:
índrāsomā duṣkŕ̥to vavré antár
anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam |
yáthā nā́taḥ púnar ékaś canódáyat
tád vām astu sáhase manyumác chávaḥ || 7.104.3 ||
O Indra and Soma, the evil doers were hurled into a pit which is beginningless darkness.
Not one returns from there, may your rage overpower them. [My translation]
Understanding this requires us to look at the context (a series of curses wishing harm and ill on an enemy) and the grammar of the sequence vavré antár anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam. The various translators produce similar translations:
  • Stausberg "... throw them forth the evil doers into the enclosure, into the anchorless darkness."
  • Doniger "... pierce the evil-doers and hurl them into the pit, the bottomless darkness."
  • Griffiths " plunge the wicked in the depth, yea, cast them into darkness that hath no support,"
It seems Stausberg is struggling with the vocab: 'anchorless' as a reading of anārambhaṇa is peculiar. Ārambhaṇa means 'take hold of, seize; beginning, commencement'. As an adjective anārambhaṇa must mean something like 'beginningless', or as we would say "bottomless". Also vavra is a place of hiding or concealment, a cavern, cave or hole (from √vṛ 'to conceal') so enclosure also seems peculiar. Doniger is trying too hard here, she elects to use both meanings of pra√vyadh, i.e. 'pierce' and 'hurl' (293), where 'hurl' seems sufficient. Griffiths seems to grasp the phrase, but his pseudo-Biblical language is anachronistic. If we step through the structure of padas a & b:
índrāsomā duṣkŕ̥to vavré antár anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam |
The verbal form, prá vidhyata, is a passive past participle. Note that in Vedic the pre-verb is not always directly connected to the root. In Classical Sanskrit this would be pravidhyata. Indra and Soma are addressed using the vocative case. They are being asked to do the action of hurling (pra√vyadh) [verbal form] the patient, i.e. evil doers (duṣkṛta), into (antar) a hole/pit (vivra) which is darkness (tamas). It is ambiguous on the face of it whether it is a pit which is bottomless or the darkness which is beginningless (and presumably endless). However in RV 1.182.6 (below) we find anārambhaṇé támasi and 'pit' substituted by waters (apsu) suggesting that 'beginningless darkness' was intended.

I don't see why any translators might have chosen to refer to vivra with the definite article. Why "the pit"? It makes this seem like a reference to a known entity. Which pit is the text referring to? In fact no such pit exists in the text. It makes a great deal more sense, given that we have no definite referent, to use the indefinite article 'a pit'.

So the poet is simply asking his gods to bury his enemies in a dark bottomless hole so that they cannot return. This perhaps leaves open the possibility that this poet believed in rebirth and he wanted his gods not only to kill his enemies, but to prevent them from being reborn (a more comprehensive curse! He also requests that the gods burn, crush, shatter, scorch, kill, exile, cut down the same enemies. This does not seem to be a reference to Hell, the poet wishes the gods to punish his enemy in the here and now rather than in the afterlife; if anything he wants to deny them an afterlife. The poet is saying "O Lord, smite my enemies." It's a common theme in these ancient tribal scriptures. We find similar curses in the Old Testament of the Bible and the Avestan Hymn to Mithra.

In his discussion Stausberg highlights RV 1.182.6 which uses some of the same terminology:
ávaviddhaṃ taugriyám apsú antár anārambhaṇé támasi práviddham |
cátasro nā́vo jáṭhalasya júṣṭā úd aśvíbhyām iṣitā́ḥ pārayanti || 
Four ships most welcome in the midst of ocean,
Urged by the Asvins, save the son of Tugra,
Him who was cast down headlong in the waters,
Plunged in the thick inevitable darkness. [Griffiths]
However the context is very different. Tugra is rescued after being "cast into the bottomless darkness of the waters" (apsú antár anārambhaṇé támasi práviddham). Our conclusion is the complete opposite of Stausberg's. The two passages are linguistically similar in describing a hole and the deep ocean as bottomless and dark, but there's still no hint of a post-mortem destination.

RV 10.14 is a key sūkta for Yama and also contains some references that have been read as referring to Hell. However they don't mention any of the usual ideas associated with Hell. Indeed the suggested passages end with "grant him good-fortune and health, O King." (rājan svastí cāsmā anamīváṃ ca dhehi) Which doesn't sound much like Hell.

RV 2.29.6 makes a request to several pairs of gods—the twin Ādityas, Varuṇa & Mitra, Indra & Maruts—to be forgiven failings and to be saved the destruction of wolves (nijúro vŕ̥kasya), and from a pit (kartā́d) and from falling (avapada). The later two don't seem to be construed together, the request is phrases as "from a pit" (in the ablative singular). Note that this is a different word for a pit and it has absolutely no context that might relate it to hell.

RV 9.73.8-9 looks more promising. In this sūkta Varuṇa, guardian of the cosmic order, (r̥tásya gopā́) is asked to drive the hated ones, who don't perform the rites, into a pit (ávā́juṣṭān vidhyati karté avratā́n 8d) and those who are incompetent with fall into a pit (átrā kartám áva padāti áprabhuḥ 9d), unlike the wise (dhī́rāś). The word for pit is karta as in RV 2.29. However is the pit anything supernatural here, or is it a pit? 

Finally 10.152.4 In pada b Griffiths reads ádharaṃ gamayā támaḥ as "Send [him] down to nether darkness" but adharaṃ and tamaḥ are not in the same case. If tamaḥ here is a noun, and the verb is √gam 'to go' then (as in the Life of Brian) the verbs of motion take the accusative: tamam. Here tamaḥ is a nominative singular. "Nether Darkness would translate" adharam tamam, but not adharam tamaḥ. If we take the pada as a whole:
yó asmā́m̐ abhidā́sati ádharaṃ gamayā támaḥ  
He who is dark (yo tamaḥ), treating us as inferior (asmā́m̐ abhidā́sati ádharaṃ) should be made to go (gamayā). 
Thus again the relationship to Hell is less than tenuous. And this sums up all of the evidence for Hell in the Ṛgveda. We can be fairly certain that the Ṛgveda has no conception of a afterlife realm of punishment that corresponds to Hell. We need to look more closely at what kind of afterlife the Ṛgveda does know: i.e. the pitṛloka, discovered by Yama, and the devaloka.

Pitṛloka & Devaloka. 

Initially the pitṛloka and the devaloka were more or less on the same level even when they were distinguished. It seems that the devaloka was not initially thought of as an afterlife destination. Humans were not reborn as gods. This may be a Buddhist innovation. Cuevas notes that the pitṛloka came to be demoted in height and status, becoming associated with the antarīkṣa (for the significance of vertical spatial metaphors see Metaphors and Materialism). By the time of the early Upaniṣads the pitṛloka is associated with "the moon, darkness, sacrificial activity and rebirth" whereas the devaloka is associated with "the sun, light, knowledge and immortality" (Cuevas 272). This is particularly seen in the passages regarding the five fire knowledge (pañcāgnividyā) that describe a number of after-life paths and destinations. By contrast going to the devas becomes the first step on a journey out of saṃsāra that culminates in going to Brahman.

click to embiggen

For a culture which sees the performance of ritual as determining one's afterlife destination there appears to be little or no need for a concept of Hell. The Vedas hint at a bad destination for enemies of the Brahmins, but it's not until the world is ethicised that an afterlife which punishes wrong doing is needed. And by punishment I mean something beyond the withholding of paradise from the inept ritualist. How and when Hell becomes part of Vedic cosmology and eschatology is not entirely clear and I have only a few scattered references to work from. There's not much to indicate that one could return to the human realm having been in Hell.

If we do not see hell as an afterlife destination in the Ṛgveda, then the obvious question is when do we see it in Indian literature? This is not a question I can answer yet.

We can now come back to the question of the meaning of niraya/naraka. In seeking to understand the word, such etymology as there is has sought a connection to Hell. However as we see originally Yama's loka was original not an underworld place of suffering at all. Indeed it was a place in the sky where one experienced (presumably joyful) reuniting with one's ancestors. It became the destination for men (nṛ) who performed the correct rituals. As such a name which was a collective adjective based on nṛ i.e. naraka or nāraka would make sense. We could then explain niraya as a dialectical variation. Against this explanation is the lack of any parallels. All the words starting with nir- in PED are derived from the suffix nis-. This fact suggests that niraya and naraka are two unrelated words. My hunch, however, is that they are related.

Hell in Zoroastrianism

Based on ideas first put forward by Michael Witzel I've speculated that the impetus to escape from a once happy rebirth eschatology was also influenced by Iranian (i.e. Zoroastrian) ideas. The vector for these ideas being an influx of Iranian tribes, including the Śākyas, whose culture gave rise to śrāmaṇa religions. Since we do not see Hell in Vedic, it's possible that the idea of Hell came from this same source. In order for this to be true the Vedic speaking people's had to leave Iran before the advent of Zoroastrianism which is difficult to date, but generally placed at about 1000 BCE.

However Hell is barely mentioned in the oldest Zoroastrian scriptures. As the Encyclopedia Iranica (EI) says:
Hell is not explicitly mentioned in the Gathas. There are only allusions made to it, if not in Yasna 31.20, at least in Yasna 46.11, where it is said that the soul and the daēnā of the wicked arriving at the Činwad Bridge (Av. činuuatō pərətu) will be guests in the “house of falsehood” (Av. drūjō dəmānā-), and in Yasna 51.13.The word hell, literally bad existence (Av. daožaŋᵛha-, Pahl. dušox, Pers. duzaḵ) only occurs in the later Avesta. 
When Hell is mentioned it is a place of torture in recompense for bad thoughts, words and deeds. Unfortunately for my conjecture the time-line is not yet clear, but the indications are that Hell developed at around the same time in Iran as it did in India.

The Iranian twin of Yama is a mythic King called Jamšid aka Yima. He is a culture hero, a king who ruled the world in a Golden Age. "Yima is said to be like the sun to look at among men (huuarə.darəsō maṧiiānąm; Yasna 9.4) and his life is immortal and “sun-filled” (xᵛanuuaṇt, Yasna 9.1)," (EI). As with Yama, the Iranian Yima is the son of a solar figure (Skt. Vivasvant, Av. Vīuuaŋᵛhant, “the one who shines far and wide”, and in this aspect he "made the world immortal",. How Yima bequeathed immortality and why humans are no longer immortal are not told in older texts and several versions of the story exist in later texts. Stories which connect Yima to Hell come rather late in the piece.
There are three references in the narratives above to Yima going to Hell: for his sins, in order to close the door to Hell so that death would be kept out, and in order to bring the paymān(ag) [right measure] out of Hell. (EI)
Paymān "is characteristic of Zoroastrian ethics and is discussed at length in the Middle Persian texts" (EI). So while the connection to Hell is not entirely clear, Yama is a figure common to both Indian and Iranian myth, giving him considerable antiquity. And in both mythic systems he is associated with extending the lives of humans: Yama through rebirth, and Yima through immortality. However both meet with a downfall: Yama becomes the ruler of Hell, and Yima sins and is sent to Hell as punishment. That there should be commonality in the earlier versions of the myth is not unexpected since we already know of parallels between the Ṛgveda and the Avesta, but that that developments of the myth should continue to follow parallel paths is intriguing. 

Yama in Buddhist Texts

Yama is mentioned in only a few texts. In an earlier essay on the history of Kamma I wrote:
Consider the Devadūta Sutta (MN 130, M iii.178) which explains how after death a being who has behaved badly might be reborn in hell (niraya); there they will be seized by the guardians of hell (nirayapālā), dragged before King Yama and cross-examined about their evil conduct of body, speech and mind. Unable to account for themselves, they are then condemned to horrific tortures which are graphically described. It is emphasised that "as long as that evil action is not destroyed, he does not die" (na ca tāva kālaṅkaroti yāva na taṃ pāpakammaṃ byantīhoti).
This is one of the most important occurrences. Another slightly different version of the story is found at AN 3.36, showing once again that the Pāḷi Canon is an incompletely merged anthology drawing on multiple retellings of the source material.

At SN 1.49 those who are stingy or hinder alms gathering are said to be reborn in Hell, as an animal or in Yama's realm (Nirayaṃ tiracchānayoniṃ, yamalokaṃ upapajjare), which is interesting. Recall that the departed (preta) where originally on their way to Yama's realm (yamaloka) to live with their ancestors (pitṛ), but the pretas became a kind of being in purgatory. Thus yamaloka here, as distinguished from niraya, might refer to the pretas. Bodhi also concludes this, but we don't know. Buddhaghosa's commentary is silent at this point.

At SN 1.33 we find Yama mentioned in an udāna uttered by a devatā:
Yo dhammaladdhassa dadāti dānaṃ,
Uṭṭhānavīriyādhigatassa jantu;
Atikkamma so vetaraṇiṃ yamassa,
Dibbāni ṭhānāni upeti macco ti.
The one who gives the gift of the received Dharma
Obtained though exertion and devotion
He crosses over Yama's river Vetaraṇī
That mortal one approaches the heavenly regions. 
The river Vetaraṇī is mentioned only one other time in the Suttanipata, Sn 674. It appears to be a river in Hell itself that the evil-doers fall into, and thus not much like the Styx, contra Bodhi in his translations notes on SN (2000: 364-5 n.67).

Finally Yama receives a passing mention: DN 13 (i.246) in a list of Vedic devas. This is not much to go on. Yama is a rāja, who rules over Hell, questions the souls of the dead, and has some messengers. This is broadly speaking the Vedic Yama.

Thus despite his later prominence in Buddhist myth, Yama is actually quite a marginal figure in the Nikāyas. Anālayo notes in his study of the Majjhimanikāya that Yama's role in the Buddhist texts has been reduced from active to passive so as to avoid a conflict with the doctrine of karma (2011: 748 n.303). Most of the later stories and images seem to depend on the Devadūta Sutta. This text was translated into Chinese five separate times (EA 32.4, T 86, T 42, T 43, MA 64) and there are a number of partial parallels ( T 24*, T 25*, T 212.9*, T 741*, DA 30*). The variations are discussed by Anālayo (2011: 747-53). A translation of MĀ 64 can be found in Bingenheimer, Anālayo and Bucknell (2013: 407).


It's worth saying a few words about Māra here, though he deserves his own essay. In contrast to Yama who presides over Naraka, Māra is an unrelated figure apparently emerging from non-Vedic tradition, along with Yakṣas and a goddess of good fortune known as Sirī (Skt. Śrī). The name derives from the causative form of the verb √mṛ 'die'; present verb mṛyate, causative mārayati. Thus māra is literally 'causing to die', or 'killing'. He's also known by the epithet pāpima 'evil one'. Māra is sometimes said to preside or rule over saṃsāra, and one of his biggest concerns is that people will escape saṃsāra. In this sense he stands for the repeated deaths that one must undergo in saṃsāra and all the associated grief. Māra uses the weapons of saṃsāra (desire, aversion, confusion), often in personified forms (his daughters represent desire and his army aversion). However though it might seem obvious to link Māra with Yama, there seems to be no connection between the two in practice. Yama is not evil in the way that Māra is. However Yama is sometimes written of as a personification of death, where he is called Mṛtyu 'Death'.


Ṛgveda texts taken from the metrically restored text by Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum. 
Anālayo (2011) A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Volume 2 (Studies of Discourses 91 to 152, Conclusion, Abbreviations, References, Appendix). Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation.
Bingenheimer, Marcus. Anālayo & Bucknell, Roderick S. (eds) (2013) The Madhyama Āgama (Middle Length Discourses) Vol. 1. (Taishō Vol. 2, no. 26). Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America.
Cuevas, Bryan Jaré. (1996) 'Predecessors and Prototypes: Towards a Conceptual History of the Buddhist Antarabhava.' Numen 43(3): 263-302.
Doniger O'Flaherty, Wendy. (1981) The Rig Veda: An Anthology. Penguin
Jurewicz, Joanna. (2008) 'Rebirth eschatology in the Rgveda. In search for roots of transmigration.'  Indologica Taurinensia: The Journal of the International Association of Sanskrit Studies. 34: 183-
Skjaervo, Prods Oktor. (2012) 'Jamšid i. Myth of Jamšid.' Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. XIV, Fasc. 5, pp. 501-522. http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/jamsid-i
Stausberg, Michael (2000). “Hell in Zoroastrian History.” Numen 56: 217-253. http://michaelstausberg.net/old_site/Texts/Stausberg%20Hell%20Numen%2056.pdf

06 March 2015

Seeing Blue.

Where does blue begin and end?
There's a meme that seems to come around again and again on the internet. It is that if a language has no word for a concept then that concept must be absent in that language. This naive reading has been applied to the colour blue for example. Some people noticed that ancient European writers, particularly the ancient Greeks, had a limited colour palette in their writing. Indeed many modern languages are rather lacking in colour terms. Until the 1540s there was no word for the colour orange in English, which is why we call people with ginger hair "red heads". This does not mean that we could not distinguish the colour of blood from the colour of ginger hair. It only means that they were in the same colour category. And when we did name the colour orange, we named it after the fruit, not the other way around. However, it seems journalists love this idea that the Ancient Greeks could not see blue and the idea lumbers around like a zombie eating brains: it gets knocked down, but is quite difficult to kill and reduces IQs. 

Colour words do not correspond to objects or entities. Colours are broadly defined categories of perception. Categories are mental and linguistic structures that help us to organise how we perceive the world. We can use the category name to talk about all the members of a category at once without having to use tedious lists of inclusions and exclusions. This is usually possible because we interact with all members of a category in the same way. 

In George Lakoff's powerful model of thinking about categories we define categories towards the middle of a taxonomical hierarchy and by relationship to a prototype. So dog seems like a "natural" category, whereas for every day use: mammal is too broad and includes too many non-dog examples that need to be excluded; while spaniel is too narrow because it leaves out too many dog examples like terrier. Dog as a category works because there are consistent ways that we interact with dogs that are common to all dogs and different from other common pets or wild animals.  And also because this interaction is not something personal, but common to other people in our language group. Sometimes pet is a more convenient category: when renting out a house for example. Though we think of categories defined by forms or functions, one of the most important defining properties is how we interact either in fact or potentially with the entities.

When we think of 'dog' as a category we will have an internalised prototype that defines the category. And we judge other entities to be a member of our category to the extent that they resemble our prototype (this is an extension of Wittgenstein's family resemblances'). By definition some members may be more central and others more peripheral. Say our prototype is something like a German shepherd (left). we can acknowledge, as dogs themselves usually do, that both a chihuahua and a great dane are members of the category dog, despite their size. Similarly though a long muzzle is typical, we can acknowledge that dogs with mutated skulls that give them a squashed look (boxers, pugs) are still dogs. On the other hand despite being furry, carnivorous, quadrupeds, no kind of cat is is a member of the category dog. In Cambridge there is a couple who take their cat out on a lead. But even a cat on a lead is not a dog.

However, the prototype is not fixed or absolute. It is relative to many things, not least of which is how we interact with the category. With respect to dogs, a farmer or a hunter may think in terms of a working animal, a pet owner in terms of companionship, and so on. On the other hand in India dogs are often semi-domesticated urban scavengers - neither pets nor workers, but barely tolerable vermin. In some cultures dogs are seen as food. 

It's possible for there to be doubt about membership at the periphery. Is a wolf a member of the dog category? Is a fox? The wild dog is another peripheral case: it looks like a dog, but we interact with it as a wild animal (to which category it belongs with wolf and fox) rather than as pet or worker. There is no upper or lower limit on how many categories we employ or the extent to which they overlap. 

Our terms for colours are categories also. Typically for an English speaker the prototype for blue is the sky. This can get complicated because in England the sky is more often grey than blue, and when it is blue, it's often a very pale and washed out blue compared to where I grew up (about 15 degrees of latitude closer to the equator, about 1000ft above sea level, and with much less pollution). In some cultures lapis lazuli or the throat of a peacock are prototypes (the latter is important in India for example).

Other languages, including many living languages define their categories differently. And research has shown patterns in how languages categorise colours. Many languages for example put blue and green in one category. In ancient Chinese the word 青 qīng meant both blue and green, but also black. In this sense it appears to be similar to the Sanskrit śyāma which can mean black, dark, dark shades of blue or green. Used of people it refers to a dark complexion. So in fact, Śyāma Tārā is not Green Tārā, but Dark or Swarthy Tārā despite the fact that she is routinely depicted in bright hues.

Does this mean that those languages which lump blue in with other colours lack a concept of blue? Not necessarily. Because even blue is a broad category. I can distinguish many shades of blue, from cyan to navy, but I don't have words for all these colours. Similarly I can distinguish many shades of green from the almost yellow green of new spring leaves, to the dark blue-green of New Zealand jade. Think about all the distinctions of colours on a typical paint sampler that we have no words for, but for which arbitrary names have to be invented for marketing purposes. We also have at least one word for a colour that is made up, indigo. When Newton was describing the colours of the rainbows he created with prisms he wanted their to be seven colours to fit in with an alchemical scheme and so invented the colour indigo. What Newton called blue is what today we'd call cyan, and what he called indigo is deep blue like ultramarine or cobalt blue. In fact most English speakers shown swatches of these colours would call them both blue. 

As Lakoff explains in his book on categorisation, Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, those languages that have four colour terms will have black, white, red and one of either yellow, blue or green (p.25). Now it seems that Ancient Greek was a four colour language.
"Empedocles, one of the earliest Ancient Greek color theorists, described color as falling into four areas, light or white, black or dark, red and yellow; Xenophanes described the rainbow as having three bands of color: purple, green/yellow, and red." (Ancient Greek Color Vision)
This fits the pattern noticed by colour perception research. The Greeks used four colour terms, roughly, white, black, red and yellow. So when Homer uses the phrase "wine dark sea" or describes the sky as "bronze", he is employing categories that are much broader than we currently use in English. In fact modern English has eleven basic colour categories:
"black, white, red, yellow, green, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange and gray."
This does not stop us seeing blueish green, yellowish red, reddish purple and other colours for which we have no name or category. Categories are as broad as are useful to us. And often colours are difficult to categorise. Blue-green colours for example may appear to be in different categories to different people. But there is no evidence to suggest any anatomical differences between speakers of languages with four or less colour terms and those with eleven.

Now colour perception is a feature of our particular sensory apparatus. We've seen recently with the example of "that dress" how the background against which we see something and the colour of the light illuminating it, affect how we perceive it. But vision does have an objective component because the physiology of it is the same for everyone. Light of particular wavelengths hits our retina and activates patterns of the three (sometimes four) kinds of colour sensing cone cells. Each of the cells responds to different frequencies of light.

The peaks of these curves are the same in all humans. This means that where languages have the same colour terms they tend to agree on where in the spectrum the prototype for that category lies. I presume this has applied at least since anatomically modern humans. Now of course turning the signals from our cone cells into the experience of colour is a process that happens in our brains. But it's not arbitrary. For people who are not colour blind the brain is set up for blue cone cells to respond to the same frequency of light. If I shine light with a frequency of 500 nm in your eyes, you'll perceive this in more or less the same way as every other human being regardless of language and culture. Linking the experience to a word is a function of language, but the ability of the language to translate the experience into words is always limited. People with four cones describe a far more vivid palette of colours (What it's like to see 100 times the colors you see). Some animals have cones sensitive to different wavelengths. In particular bees can see much shorter wavelengths - well into what we call the ultraviolet. While snakes can detect much longer wavelengths in the infrared (though not with their eyes)

Now, the story goes that because some languages lack a word that corresponds to the English word blue, and they treat what we call blue as a member of broader colour category, that this means that the speakers of that language could not see blue. This is like saying that because the English lack a word for schadenfreude that they do not enjoy the misfortunes of others, whereas in fact the laughing at the misfortunes of others is very popular here (it is perhaps the most important theme of English humour). So why does this suggestion keep surfacing?

The idea about the Greeks not being able to see blue can be traced to the 19th century British Prime Minister and amateur philologist William Gladstone. He published a long and highly regarded study of Homer's epics and noticed that Homer's colours did not match ours, the "wine-dark sea" being one of the well known examples (wine being reddish-purple in our language, a colour we never associate with the sea). Others joined in. More recently the idea that how we use language reflects how we perceive the world is called Linguistic Relativism.  It is also known as the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis because theories about it were postulated (separately) in the early 20th Century by linguistic Benjamin Lee Whorf and his teacher Edward Sapir (amongst others). Whorf in particular was interested in the way that grammar divided the world up into entities and activities. He discovered that some Indigenous American languages seem to not make the same kinds of distinctions. On the basis of this he hypothesised that these differences in grammar might affect how we see the world at a very deep level. How would the world appear to us, for example, if we did not divide it up into nouns and verbs. What if we only had verbs for example, if everything was seen as a process? Whorf asked is the world really is divided up into objects

Linguistic relativism comes and goes in the media. Every few years some journalist comes across Whorf or some other author and writes a piece about it. I should add that Whorf's essays make very good reading (they were collected into a book, Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, 1956). The "Greeks couldn't see blue" meme is a popular version of this and one can find many variations on the theme, on the internet, including a few other attempts to debunk it. 

However, quite a bit of research has shown that because of the physical apparatus of seeing there is no room for relativistic effects in colour perception. All humans see colour in the same way, even though different languages categorise colours in different ways. Every (normally sighted) human being is capable of seeing millions of colours, most of which we don't have names for (which is where categories come in handy). And all this commonality is true of subsets with variations on the the normal pattern: people with four cones see similarly to each other; people who are red-green colour blind all see the same shades of grey and so on. In other words the research disproves idea that having no word for blue means one cannot see the colour blue. So basically the whole "can't see blue" thing comes down to a failure to read the research on colour vision.

Ironically if you do a simple image search on "Greece" the predominant colours in the results are white and blue, the colours of the modern Greek flag.


16 Feb 2016. See also, Bogushevskaya, Victoria. (2015). Qīng (青) in Chinese: when and why it means ‘green’, ‘blue’ or ‘dark’/‘black’, in Thinking Colours Perception, Translation and Representation [Edited by Victoria Bogushevskaya and Elisabetta Colla]. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 26-44.
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