Rituals | Recursion | Mantras | Meaning : Language and Recursion

Rituals | Recursion | Mantras | Meaning : Language and Recursion


Key Terms

  • Rituals
  • Recursion
  • Mantras
  • Japa
  • Puja
  • Prayer
  • Psychological Development
  • Meaning
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Vedas
  • Tantra
  • Hindu Vedic Rituals
  • Hindu Tantric Rituals
  • Language and Recursion
  • Speech
  • Communication
  • Organizing principle
  • Cognitive science
  • Linguistics
  • Panini
  • Pingala
  • Sanskrit
  • Act of walking and Talking
  • Take a walk
  • Vedic Meters
  • Gayatri Mantra
  • Grammer
  • Panini’s Asthadhyayi
  • Univarsal Grammer
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Frits Staal
  • Subhash Kak
  • Word and World
  • Structure of a Mantra
  • Structure of a Ritual
  • Prose and Poetry
  • Gadya and Padya
  • Fractals
  • Holarchy
  • Holons

Why Language and Thought Resemble Russian Dolls

Michael Corballis is a professor emeritus at the University of Auckland, who has written extensively on the evolution of language and the origins of thought.


Michael Corballis is a professor emeritus at the University of Auckland, who has written extensively on the evolution of language and the origins of thought. In his 2011 book The Recursive Mind, he wrote about how the structure of human language allows for recursion—in which ideas are nested within each other: “He thinks that I think that he thinks.” Recursion allows the construction of sentences of of theoretically unlimited complexity

The main argument of The Recursive Mind is that recursion applies to thought processes and actions that are not limited to language itself, but characterize other aspects of human thought, such as our ability to imagine ourselves in the past or future. I queried Corballis on some of these ideas. An edited transcript follows:

You wrote a book in the last few years called The Recursive Mind. What is recursion and why is it important?

Recursion can refer to a procedure that references itself or similar procedures, or to a structure that contains an embedded structure of the same type. It is important because it allows one to build entities of theoretically unlimited complexity by progressively embedding structures within structures.

Some scholars think that language may be built on the use of recursive building blocks. Isn’t that a fundamental tenet of the modern linguistics pioneered by Noam Chomsky.

Yes, Chomsky’s view of language is that it is recursive, and this gives language its potential for infinite complexity—or what he has also called “discrete infinity.” In recent formulations, this is achieved through an “unbounded Merge,” in which elements are merged, and the merged elements can then themselves be merged—a process that can be repeated without bounds. To Chomsky, though, language is essentially internal thought, a mental monologue, known as I-language, and not a means of communication. The structure of language is therefore a by-product of internal thought. This implies a common structure, called “universal grammar,” that underlies all languages. But there is growing doubt as to whether such a structure exists.

Wasn’t one of the flaws of Chomsky’s work that he thought that the recursion as found in internal self-talk was not linked in any way to natural selection and evolution

Yes, I think so. In Chomsky‘s view, the recursive principle emerged in a single step—a “great leap forward”—at some particular point in human evolution, probably within the time span of our own species. This is contrary to Darwinian evolution, which postulates that change occurs in small, incremental steps, implying that something as complex as language could not have occurred in a single step. Chomsky also argues that language could not have evolved through natural selection because the elements of language are fundamentally symbolic, with no direct reference to the external world, and could not have been “selected” by natural events.

I think these are flawed arguments. The idea of a single step is based in part on evidence of a sudden appearance of symbolic thought in the archeological record, but one can just as easily make a case for a gradual rise. Apes and dogs can fairly easily learn to respond meaningfully to spoken words, suggesting that they, like humans, have innate, mental concepts, to which words are easily attached. Even in humans, the apparently abstract nature of language might well have arisen from more iconic or even pantomimimed representations used as forms of communication that have become “conventionalized” through the generations, sustained through culture rather than biological endowment

I would argue instead that recursive thought may have origins in our ape-like forebears over 6 million years ago, but gained increasing complexity during the Pleistocene, dating from over 2 million years ago, largely as an adaptation toward increasing social complexity. Language depended on this broader recursive capacity, but also owed its earlier origins to manual gesture, perhaps developing a more complex structure through pantomime, with the iconic structure eventually replaced by vocal gestures (speech) or the more arbitrary signs of signed languages.

Hasn’t more recent work extended the idea of recursion? Isn’t it thought that recursive behaviors may actually precede language—and may have led to the emergence of language?

To some extent Chomsky’s view can be seen as consistent with this, since recursion applies to what he calls I-language, which is the language of thought rather than of communication. Communicative language can then regarded as a means of externalizing thought so that we can share our thoughts with others. It may have emerged after the “great leap forward” that gave us I-language, although Chomsky does not, as far as I know, suggest that thought and communicative language arose in sequence.

My own view is that recursive thoughts preceded language in broader ways. So-called theory of mind (“I know what you’re thinking”) or mental time travel (mentally reliving what I did yesterday, or foreseeing what I will do tomorrow) involve the embedding of thoughts within thoughts, and otherwise seem quite independent of what we understand as language. Navigation may be another example, as we embed maps within maps (my office in my house in my city in my country in the world). As I understand it, I-language is based on the structuring of internal symbols, whereas the extended examples I have given are more spatial or iconic than abstract, and therefore have a more direct relation with the external world. It is entirely plausible that they could have emerged through natural selection, which rescues language evolution from the “miracle” of a sudden great leap forward.

Since writing the book, I have moved further from the Chomskyan notion that language is uniquely human to finding the basis of mental time travel even in the ability of rats to “replay” and perhaps “preplay” trajectories in spatial environments. The aim of researchers should be to develop an account of the evolution of thought and language through natural selection, and not through some miraculous event within the past 100,000 years. .

Why are the origins of human language, considered to be one of the hardest problems in science?

The reason is that grammatical language, with its recursive structure, is considered unlike any other form of animal communication, and is restricted to our own species. Part of the difficulty is that we have no historical evidence to go on, since we are the only remaining species among the 20 or so hominins that split from the line leading to the great apes, and even the great apes closest to us do not appear to have grammatical language.

My sense is that we now have enough information from fossil evidence, primate communication, ancient DNA, and the structure of human cognition to begin to construct plausible Darwinian scenarios of how language might have evolved over the past 6 million or so years, and perhaps even earlier, without having to postulate a one-off miracle within the past 100,000.

From Art and Cosmology in India


General equivalences

The view that the arts belong to the domain of the sacred and that there is a connection between them is given most clearly in a famous passage in the Vishnudharmottara Purana in which the sage Markandeya instructs the king Vajra in the art of sculpture, teaching that to learn it one must first learn painting, dance, and music:

Vajra: How should I make the forms of gods so that the image may always manifest the deity?

Markandeya: He who does not know the canon of painting (citrasutram) can never know the canon of image-making (pratima lakshanam).

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of painting as one who knows the canon of painting knows the canon of image-making.

Markandeya: It is very difficult to know the canon of painting without the canon of dance (nritta shastra), for in both the world is to be represented.

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of dance and then you will speak about the canon of painting, for one who knows the practice of the canon of dance knows painting.

Markandeya: Dance is difficult to understand by one who is not acquainted with instrumental music (atodya).

Vajra: Speak about instrumental music and then you will speak about the canon of dance, because when the instrumental music is properly understood, one understands dance.

Markandeya: Without vocal music (gita) it is not possible to know instrumental music.

Vajra: Explain to me the canon of vocal music, because he, who knows the canon of vocal music, is the best of men who knows everything.

Markandeya: Vocal music is to be understood as subject to recitation that may be done in two ways, prose (gadya) and verse (padya). Verse is in many meters.

Please see my related posts

Sounds True: Speech, Language, and Communication

Reflexivity, Recursion, and Self Reference

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann

Consciousness of Cosmos: A Fractal, Recursive, Holographic Universe

On Holons and Holarchy

Indra’s Net: On Interconnectedness

The Great Chain of Being


Key Sources of Research

God in the Fractals: Recursiveness as a Key to Religious Behavior

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion



Eternal Recursion, the Emergence of Metaconsciousness, and the Imperative for Closure

Narrative Psychology: Language, Meaning, and Self

Narrative Psychology: Language, Meaning, and Self


Key Terms

  • Connections
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Language
  • Social Psychology
  • Social Constructivism
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Phenomenology
  • Postmodernism
  • Post Postmodernism
  • Humanistic Psychology
  • Self as Interactional Process
  • Hermenutics
  • Self and Social Structures
  • I and We
  • AQAL model of Ken Wilber
  • Integral Theory
  • Meta Integral Theories
  • Cyber Semiotics



Introducing Narrative Psychology


Narrative Psychology and the Study of Self/Identity

Much of what is said in this article derives from my recent book, Introducing Narrative Psychology: Self, Trauma and the Construction of Meaning (Crossley, 2000a). In that book, I began with the age-old, perennial question. What is a self? Who am I? C.S. Lewis once commented: ‘There is one thing, and only one in the whole universe which we know more about than that we could learn from external observation. That one thing is ourselves. We have, so to speak, inside information, we are in the know’ (Lewis, 1952). But how true is this? Are we ‘in the know’ about ourselves?

It may seem obvious to turn towards psychology in order to throw light on these complex questions regarding self and identity. After all, most people are drawn towards the study of psychology because they are interested in the ‘human condition’, what makes us human, our loves, passions, hates and desires. But most of us find ourselves only a few months into a psychology degree when we realise that we are dealing with very little of this. Instead, you are enmeshed in statistics, principles of learning, cognition, abstract theories and theoretical models, all of which bear very little resemblance to anything you were originally interested in studying. Somewhat ironically, a great deal of contemporary psychology, supposedly an area devoted to the study of human beings, has become a totally ‘lifeless’ discipline. So where do we look, in the discipline of psychology, if we want to examine these questions of self and identity?

In Introducing Narrative Psychology, I suggested four main areas of psychology which address these issues. These included: i) experimentally based social psychology; ii)humanistic psychology; iii) psychoanalytic/ psychodynamic psychology; and iv) social constructivist approaches. Highlighting the limitations associated with each of these four areas, I opened the way for a new narrative psychology approach which, although influenced by these approaches (especially humanistic and social constructivist), had the potential to avoid the pitfalls endemic within them.

The Central Role of Language and Stories

Of particular importance to the formulation of a narrative psychology approach is recognition, derived from social constructivist approaches, of the central role played by language and stories in the process of self construction. As Crites (1986), wrote: ‘A self without a story contracts into the thinness of its personal pronoun.’ And Mair:

Stories are the womb of personhood. Stories make and break us. Stories sustain us in times of trouble and encourage us towards ends we would not otherwise envision. The more we shrink and harden our ways of telling, the more starved and constipated we become (Mair, 1989: 2)

‘Always in emergencies’, argued Broyard (1992: 21), ‘we invent narratives’:

We describe what is happening as if to confine the catastrophe. When people heard that I was ill, they inundated me with stories of their own illnesses, as well as the cases of friends. Storytelling seems to be a natural reaction to illness. People bleed stories and I’ve become a bloodbank of them (Broyard, 1992: 21)

Narrative as an ‘Organising Principle’ for Human Life

But it is not just the fact that people tell stories in making sense of themselves and others. A narrative psychological approach goes far deeper than that. For, central to this approach, is the development of a phenomenological understanding of the unique ‘order of meaning’ constitutive of human consciousness (see Crossley, 2000a; Polkinghorne, 1988). One of the main features of this ‘order of meaning’ is the experience of time and temporality. An understanding of temporality associated with the human realm of meaning is entirely different to that encountered in the natural sciences. This is because the human realm of meaning it is not related to a ‘thing’ or a ‘substance’ but to an ‘activity’ (Polkinghorne, 1988: 4). Everything experienced by human beings is made meaningful, understood and interpreted in relation to the primary dimension of ‘activity’ which incorporates both ‘time’ and ‘sequence’. In order to define and interpret ‘what’ exactly has happened on any particular occasion, the sequence of events is of extreme importance. Hence, a valid portrayal of the experience of selfhood necessitates an understanding of the inextricable connection between temporality and identity.

It is in accordance with these basic principles of temporality and connection that numerous authors such as MacIntyre (1981), Carr (1986) and Sarbin (1986) have put forward the idea that human psychology has an essentially narrative structure. Sarbin, for instance, proposes what he calls the ‘narratory principle’; this is the idea that human beings think, perceive, imagine, interact and make moral choices according to narrative structures. Sarbin uses the word narrative as coterminous with ‘story’:

A story is a symbolised account of actions of human beings that has a temporal dimension. The story has a beginning, middle, and an ending (or as Kermode (1967) suggests, the sense of an ending). The story is held together by recognisable patterns of events called plots. Central to the plot structure are human predicaments and attempted resolutions. (Sarbin, 1986: 3)

Sarbin treats narrative as the ‘organising principle for human action’. By this, he means that the concept of narrative can be used to help account for the observation that human beings always seek to impose structure on the flow of experience. Such a narrative principle invokes a humanisitic image of the self as a teller of stories, of heroes and villains, plots, and images of actors performing and engaging in dialogue with other actors.

Charles Taylor’s (1989) work is particularly important to the development of an understanding of self as intrinsically connected to temporality, interactions with others, and ultimately, morality. It is Taylor’s main contention that concepts of self and morality are inextricably intertwined – we are selves only in that certain issues matter for us. What I am as a self, my identity, is essentially defined by the way things have significance for me. To ask what I am in abstraction from self-interpretation makes no sense (Taylor, 1989: 34). Moreover, my self-interpretation can only be defined in relation to other people, an ‘interchange of speakers’. I cannot be a self on my own but only in relation to certain ‘interlocutors’ who are crucial to my language of self-understanding. In this sense, the self is constituted through ‘webs of interlocution’ in a ‘defining community’ (Taylor ibid, 39; see also Crossley, N., 1996). This connection between our sense of morality and sense of self, according to Taylor, means that one of our basic aspirations is the need to feel connected with what we see as ‘good’ or of crucial importance to us and our community. We have certain fundamental values which lead us to basic questions such as ‘what kind of life is worth living?’; ‘What constitutes a rich, meaningful life, as against an empty, meaningless one’? (Taylor ibid, 42).

A vision of ‘the good’ becomes available for people in any given culture by being given expression or articulation in some form or another. This articulation most often occurs through language and symbolic systems such as custom and ritual which reverberate with knowledge of connections and relationships across the generations. (Taylor ibid, 91). Such articulation brings us closer to the good as a moral source and gives it further power and potency. Stories have a tremendous force in this process insofar as they have the capacity to confer meaning and substance on peoples’ lives, to subtly influence their progression and orientation towards a particular ‘good’ (ibid, 97).

For example, cultures transmit to children knowledge of typical patterns of relationships, meanings and moralities in their myths, fairytales, histories and stories (see Bettelheim, 1976; Howard, 1991; Polkinghorne, 1988). And we are inculcated from a very early age to seeing connections between events, people and the world in a certain way through the stories and narratives told within our families (Langellier and Peterson, 1993; McAdams, 1993). Moreover, this process does not stop during childhood. As adolescents and adults we are exposed on a daily basis to TV dramas, soap operas, movie blockbusters and talk-shows, all of which play out, in the same way as the fairytale does for the child, eternal moral conflicts (see McLeod, 1997; Priest, 1996).


One of the central premises of a narrative psychological approach then, is of the essential and fundamental link between experiences of self, temporality, relationships with others and morality. We have a sense of who we are through a sense of where we stand in relation to ‘the good’. Hence, connections between notions of ‘the good’, understandings of the self, the kinds of stories and narratives through which we make sense of our lives, and conceptions of society, evolve together in ‘loose packages’ (Taylor ibid, 105).

Human Experience and Narrative Structure

Carr (1986) argues that the reality of human experience can be characterised as one which has a narrative or story-telling character (ibid, p.18). What would it be, he asks, to experience life as a ‘mere’ or ‘pure’ sequence of isolated events, one thing after another? In order to illustrate his thesis Carr draws upon phenomenological approaches such as Husserl’s theory of time consciousness which depicts the way in which humans ordinarily experience time. He basically makes a distinction between three levels of human experience: passive experience, active experience and experience of self/life. At each of these levels, human experience can be characterised by a complex temporal structure akin to the configuration of the storied form (see also Bruner, 1990; 1991). In the following exploration of human time consciousness, we will look at each of these experiential levels in turn.

According to Husserl, even as we encounter events at the most passive level (that is, when we are not consciously aware that we are encountering them), they are charged with the significance they derive from our anticipation of the future (‘protention’) and our memory of things past (‘retention’). His point is not that we have the capacity to project and remember but that we cannot even experience anything as happening, as present, except against the background of what it succeeds and what we anticipate will succeed it. Hence, when we experience time, we have no option but to experience it as an interrelated ‘configuration’ of past-present-future. Our experience automatically assumes temporally extended forms in which future, present and past mutually determine one another as parts of a whole. Husserl gives the example of a note in a melody. When we are listening to a melody we do not encounter notes in that melody as isolated elements or components. Rather, the note is encountered and ‘understood’ as part of a sequence as a whole. It only takes on ‘meaning’ in relation to the note that has preceded it and in anticipation of that which will succeed it. Hence the ‘presence’ of the note can only be encountered in relation to a mutually determined retentional- protentional structure. This kind of temporal experience is analogous to the Gestalt phenomena often discussed in relation to spatial perception.


Carr proceeds to argue that if this ‘configurational’ dimension is true of our most passive experiences, it is even more so true of our active lives in which we ‘explicitly consult past experience, envisage the future and view the present as a passage between the two’. Carr argues that the ‘means-end’ structure of action that we experience in everyday life is akin to the beginning-middle-end plot structure of narrative and thus, ‘the structure of action … is common to art and life’. This idea is also central to literary theorist Paul Ricouer’s notion that ‘time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode’ (Ricoeur, 1984: 85). According to Ricoeur there are two sorts of time in every story told: on the one hand a discrete succession that is open and theoretically indefinite, for example, a series of incidents for which we can always pose the question, ‘and then? and then?’, much like a chronicle of events. The other sort of time is characterised by integration, culmination and closure owing to which the story receives a particular configuration. In this sense, composing a story involves drawing together a series of events in order that they make sense in relation to one another (Ricoeur, 1991: 121). We tend to experience activities, both short and long term, in relation to this latter mode, sometimes referred to by Ricoeur as the process of emplotment. The point is, our present activity only makes sense, and is framed in terms of, a vast array of interrelated memories from times past and anticipations of and for the future. Hence, the temporal configuration characteristic of narrative structure is akin not only to passive but also to active human experience.

If we can talk of narrative structure in connection with individual passive and active experiences, then the notion of a ‘life-story’ requires yet a further, more comprehensive grasp which brings separate ‘stories’ together, takes them all as ‘mine’ and establishes connections among them (Carr, 1986: 75). Although we have argued that there is a past-present-future temporal configuration (a narrative structure) at the level of passive and active experience, it is not difficult too see that at this more complex level (life as a whole), something special is required in the way of a reflexive (looking back) temporal grasp, to hold together the phases of these longer-term phenomena and preserve their coherence. This, of course, is the classic process of autobiography in which there is an attempt to envisage the coherence of a life through selection, organisation and presentation of its component parts. Some authors such as Kierkegaard (1987) have argued that it is through this process of autobiographical selection that we become ethical beings; in the telling of our life stories, we become responsible for our lives. Literary theorist Paul Ricoeur makes such responsibility central to his concept of ‘narrative identity’, arguing that the self only comes into being in the process of telling a life story (Ricoeur, 1986: 132).


It is important to point out here that we may be in danger of suggesting that in order to help us understand ourselves and our lives we actually need literary creations such as works of fiction, biography and autobiography. Indeed, Ricoeur, has been accused of placing too much emphasis on the role of ‘story’ as the instance where meaning is created, at the expense of ‘human life’ (Widdershoven, 1993). However, if we bring forth the conception of the narrative structure of human experience and action developed by Carr, we can see that the meaning created in the autobiographical act of reflection and that found within everyday experience and action, actually exist on a continuum rather than being radically discontinuous. In Carr’s terms ‘lives are told in being lived and lived in being told’ (ibid, p.61). The actions and sufferings of life can be viewed as a process of telling ourselves stories, listening to those stories and acting them out or living through them. Hence:

It is not the case that we first live and act and then afterward, seated around the fire as it were, tell about what we have done … The retrospective view of the narrator, with its capacity for seeing the whole in all its irony, is not an irreconcilable opposition to the agent’s view but is an extension and refinement of a viewpoint inherent in action itself … narration, intertwined as it is with action, (creates meaning) in the course of life itself, not merely after the fact, at the hands of authors, in the pages of books. (ibid, p.61)

When Carr refers to narration here, he is not just referring to the fact that a great deal of our everyday conversations are devoted to telling stories (although this is true). His point about narrative is more to do with its role in constituting the sense of the actions we engage in and the events we live through, its role in organising temporally and giving shape and coherence to the sequence of experiences we have as we are in the process of having them (ibid, p.62). Hence, the notion of narrative structure or the act of narrative structuring does not necessarily take on the form of explicit verbalisation. It refers more to the fact that, as the agent or subject of experience, I am constantly attempting to:

surmount time in exactly the way the storyteller does’. I constantly ‘attempt to dominate the flow of events by gathering them together in the forward-backward grasp of the narrative act … (ibid, p.62)

Carr further argues that our constant attempt to achieve a sense of structure and order in the course of our everyday activities and lives is firmly based on our practical orientation within the world. In order to get on in everyday life we need things to hang together, to make sense, to have some sense of connection. If, for instance, I found myself writing this paper and it bore very little resemblance to anything I had ever done before, I would have great difficulty pursuing it because I would be unable to see the point – why am I doing this? Where will it take me? Where do I go from here? And for the most part it is ‘normal’ for us to experience such narrative coherence in the sense that for most of us, for most of the time ‘things do, after all, make sense, hang together’ (ibid, p.90).


It is in this sense that Carr insists that everyday reality is permeated with narrative and that the human experience of time is one of configured time. ‘The narrative grasp of the story-teller’, he claims, ‘is not a leap beyond time but a way of being in time. It is no more alien to time than the curving banks are alien to the river or the potter’s hands to the clay’ (ibid, p.89). According to this perspective, literary stories such as fiction and autobiography do not in any sense ‘impose’ a structure and order on human action and life. Instead, they tend to reinforce and make more explicit the symbolisation that is already at work within a culture at the level of practical human action. The function of narratives such as autobiographies then, is simply to reveal structures or meanings that previously remained implicit or unrecognised, and thus to transform life and elevate it to another level.

But is Human Life Narratively Configured?

In characterising psychological life through the concept of narrative, however, are we not overplaying the significance played by the storied form in human experience? At the level of ‘personal’ experience, some researchers have argued that although human experience may bear some resemblance to the story, the idea that it takes on a narrative structure is mistaken. The core of this argument is that the coherent temporal unity lying at the heart of stories (the connection between beginning, middle and end) is something that is not at all intrinsic to real human events, real selves and real life. As literary theorist Frank Kermode argues, such ‘narrative properties cannot be ascribed to the real’ (cited in Wood, 1991: 160). The historian Louis Mink argues a similar point: ‘Stories are not lived but told … Life has no beginnings, middles and ends…Narrative qualities are transferred from art to life’ (cited in Wood, 1991: 161).

A related point is made by literary theorist Roland Barthes with regard to the selective capacity of the author of the story and his/her ability to create and determine coherence and order within the text. The literary text has a sense of structure and order because the elements and events making up the story have been ‘put there’ by the author. Disruptive elements have been ‘eliminated’. Life, in contrast to the careful manipulation of the story, cannot possibly have such a structure. Thus, it has been argued, whereas the story has an ‘implicit contract’ towards order, life has no such contract. (Bell, 1990: 174). In this sense, it is claimed, the story differs radically from ‘life’ insofar as in the latter, everything is ‘scrambled messages’, ‘chaos rather than order’ (see Carr cited in Wood, 1991: 161).


There is some truth to this argument. However, is it the case that life admits of no selection, that everything is ‘left in’, a vast array of ‘scrambled messages’? For example, Carr argues that our most basic capacity for attention and following through various activities or projects is premised on our capacity for selection. Hence, just like the author of the literary text, we partially determine the course of our own lives by selecting and omitting certain elements and events. As Carr argues:

Extraneous details are not left out but they are pushed into the background, saved for later, ranked in importance. And whose narrative voice is accomplishing all this? None but our own, of course. In planning our days and our lives we are composing the stories or the dramas we will act out and which will determine the focus of our attention and our endeavours, which will provide the principles for distinguishing foreground from background. (Carr cited in Wood, 1991: 165)

This may be story planning or plotting, but is it story-telling? ‘Most assuredly it is, quite literally, since we are constantly explaining ourselves to others. And finally each of us must count himself among his own audience since in explaining ourselves to others we are often trying to convince ourselves as well’ (Carr cited in Wood, 1991: 165). Hence, through the interrelated processes of story-plotting and story-telling we partially determine the stories of our lives.

The word ‘partial’ is important here, however, because we should not take this point – the self as a teller of her own story – too far. The critical arguments of theorists who dispute the analogy between ‘life’ and ‘narrative’ are important insofar as they emphasise the fact that, unlike the author of fiction, we do not totally create the materials we are to form. To a certain degree, we are stuck with what we have in the way of characters, capacities and circumstances. For instance, if a woman is married to a man who batters her every night when he comes in drunk from the pub, the fact that she secretly harbours fantasies of a white knight in shining armour coming to rescue her one day and that everything will turn out OK in the end, will have very little influence on her real life which is likely to be characterised by repeated abuse, dependency and further victimisation.

Likewise, just as we are unable to control the beginnings of our stories, so too are we unable, unlike the fictional author, to describe our already completed lives. Instead, we are in the middle of our lives and we cannot be sure how they will end. Hence, although I may have a plan to write my next book, I do not have any idea what may await me around the corner. As the old proverb goes, ‘There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip’ (Crites, 1986: 166). All manner of things could happen to forestall my plan and render it irrelevant. For example, I may be made redundant, in which case I would probably feel there is little point in continuing to write a book. I may fall seriously ill and be rendered incapable of completing the project; or even if I remained capable, my goals and values may change in the face of confrontation with the possibility of death. I may have to rethink my aims and projects, change direction, and start a new story. Hence, the fact that we cannot wholly determine either the beginning or the end of our lives, suggests that our activities and projects do lack the formal order and coherence of literary stories. Life, unlike the story, does not have an ‘implicit contract’ towards order.


However, one of the main aims of a narrative psychological approach is to provide an alternative to certain social constructionist and postmodernist approaches which have considerably overplayed the disorderly, chaotic and variable nature of contemporary human experience (Crossley, 2000c). On a routine, daily basis, there is more order and coherence than such accounts suggest. This is nowhere more apparent than when we examine traumatising experiences, which have the capacity to painfully highlight the ‘normal’ state of narrative coherence which is routinely taken-for-granted and thus remains ‘unseen’ within the active experiencing of everyday existence.

Narrative Incoherence and the Breach of Trauma

One good example of disruptive traumatising experiences is that of chronic or serious illness. In recent years numerous studies of chronic illness have illustrated the potentially devastating impact they can have on a person’s life. This has been characterised as an ‘ontological assault’ in which some of the most basic, underlying existential assumptions that people hold about themselves and the world are thrown into disarray (Crossley, 2000b; Janoff Bulman, 1992; Kleinman, 1988; Taylor, S., 1989).

One of the most fundamental building blocks of the perceived world to be destroyed in the experience of chronic illness, is one’s basic sense of time. Many phenomenologically and existentially oriented writers have highlighted that time is basic and fundamental to an understanding of contemporary human existence insofar as our normal, routine temporal orientation is one of projecting into the future. It is important to make clear, however, that we are not necessarily consciously aware of the fact that we project into the future in this way. Our taken-for-granted assumptions about and towards time, are only made visible when a ‘shock’ or a ‘disruption’ occurs, throwing them into sharp relief (see Schutz, 1962; Garfinkel, 1984). The experience of chronic illness constitutes such a disruption. When a person receives a serious illness diagnosis, they are immediately shocked out of the complacency of the assumed futurity of their existence and their whole conception of themselves, their life and their world is likely to undergo radical changes. Frank (1995) uses the metaphor of ‘narrative wreckage’ to characterise such experiences.


In previous research, I have shown how much of the traumatic emotional and psychological impact of living with a HIV positive diagnosis can be traced back to the disturbance and disruption of this fundamentally experienced sense of ‘lived time’ (Davies, 1997). The threat of chaos, of meaninglessness, is evident in the following quote from Paula, a HIV positive woman I interviewed, whose husband, a haemophiliac had recently died from HIV infection. When I asked her about her plans for the future she said:

I don’t think of the future as in what is going to happen in a year’s time or whatever. My future seems to have stopped when Mark (her husband) died because I am on my own and I just live from day to day … I am only 28 and I feel as if I have been put in a shop and left there … It is as if I am stuck in a sort of bubble and nothing seems to, I can’t get out of it … it’s frightening to think that I am going to be like that until I die … It’s terrible when you have got no-one to talk to … that’s a large part of it now for me, it is the loneliness, especially of a night-time when the kids are in bed … I often keep the baby up just to keep me company, it is horrible, I shouldn’t because he needs his rest … but … if I do send him to bed, it is so silent, it is just me. Often I go to bed early because I can’t stand being on my own …

Paula’s comments make abundantly clear the ‘unmaking’ of her world, and highlight her previous taken-for-granted sense of identity and projection into the future.

Adapting to Trauma: Stories and Narrative Coherence

Research into the experience of chronic and serious illness illustrates the way in which our routine, ‘lived’ sense of time and identity is one of implicit connection and coherence. This sense is severely disrupted in the face of trauma and it is in such contexts that stories become important as a way of re- building a sense of connection and coherence. As the recent proliferation of autobiographies (especially in relation to diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS) and self-help groups suggests, for people suffering the trauma of illness, storytelling takes on a ‘renewed urgency’ (Mathieson and Stam, 1995: 284). Of course, such a narrative understanding bears a strong affinity with Freud’s work, which equated mental ill health with an ‘incoherent story’ and narrative breakdown. From this perspective, psychotherapy constituted an exercise in ‘story repair’ and, as Spence (1982) argued:


Freud made us aware of the persuasive power of a coherent narrative – in particular of the ways in which an aptly chosen reconstruction can fill the gap between two apparently unrelated events, and in the process, make sense out of nonsense. There seems no doubt but that a well constructed story possesses a kind of narrative truth that is real and immediate and carries an important significance for the process of therapeutic change.


This paper has aimed to introduce some of the main themes underpinning a narrative approach towards psychology. Drawing on some of dominant theories in this area, it has argued that human life carries within it a narrative structure to the extent that the the individual, at the level of tacit, phenomenological experience, is constantly projecting backwards and forwards in a manner that maintains a sense of coherence, unity, meaningfulness and identity. From this perspective, the characterisation of human experience as one of constant flux, variability and incoherence, as manifest in many discursive and postmodern approaches, fails to take sufficient account of the essential unity and integrity of everyday lived experience. In accordance with this theoretical perspective, it has been argued that the experience of traumatic events such as serious illness are instrumental in facilitating an appreciation of the way in which human life is routinely narratively configured. This is because the experience of traumatisation often serves to fundamentally disrupt the routine and orderly sense of existence, throwing into radical doubt our taken-for-granted assumptions about time, identity, meaning, and life itself. When this happens, it is possible to examine the way in which narratives become important in another sense. This is in terms of the way in which they are used to restore a sense of order and connection, and thus to re-establish a semblance of meaning in the life of the individual. Accordingly, narratives of illness are useful because they help to reveal structures or meanings that typically remain implicit or unrecognised, thus potentiating a transformation of life and elevation to another level.


Bell, M. (1990) ‘How Primordial is Narrative?’, in (ed) Nash, C. Narrative in culture: The uses of storytelling in the sciences, philosophy and literature, Routledge, London.

Bettelheim, B. (1976). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales, Knopf, NY.

Broyard, A. (1992) Intoxicated by my illness, and other writings on life and death, Clarkson, Patter, New York.


Bruner, J. (1991) The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18: 1-21.

Bruner, J. (1990) Acts of meaning, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts. Carr, D. (1986). Time, narrative and history, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Crites, S. (1986) Storytime: recollecting the past and projecting the future, in (ed) Sarbin, T. Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct, Praeger, New York.

Crossley, M.L. (2000a) Introducing narrative psychology: Self, trauma and the construction of meaning, Open University Press, Buckinghamshire.

Crossley, M. (2000b) Rethinking health psychology, Open University Press, Buckinghamshire.

Crossley, M. (2000c) Narrative psychology, trauma, and the study of self/ identity, Theory and Psychology, Vol.10, No.4: 527-46.

Crossley, N. (1996) Intersubjectivity: The fabric of social becoming, Sage, London.

Davies M.L. (1997) Shattered assumptions: Time and the experience of long- term HIV positivity, Social Science and Medicine, 44, 5: 561-571.

del Vecchio Good, M., Munakata, T., Kobayashi, Y., Mattingly, C., Good, B. (1994) Oncology and narrative time, Social Science and Medicine. 38: 855-62.

Frank, A. (1995) The wounded storyteller: Body, illness and ethics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Garfinkel H. (1984) Studies in ethnomethodology, Polity, Cambridge. Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and time, Blackwell, Oxford.

Howard, G. (1991) Culture Tales: A Narrative Approach to Thinking, Cross- Cultural Psychology and Psychotherapy, American Psychologist, 46, 3: 187-197.

Janoff-Bulman R. (1992) Shattered assumptions: Towards a new psychology of trauma, Free Press, New York.

Kierkegaard, S. (1987) Either/or, part 2, Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Kleinman, A. (1988) The illness narratives: Suffering, healing and the human condition, Basic Books, New York.

Langellier, K. and Peterson, E. (1996) Family storytelling as a strategy of social control, in Mumby, D. (ed) Narrative and social control, Vol.21, Sage Annual Review of Communication Research, London.

Lewis, C.S. (1952) Mere Christianity, Macmillan, New York.

MacIntyre, A. (1981) After virtue, Notre Dame University Press, Notre Dame.

Mair, M. (1989) Between Psychology and Psychotherapy, Routledge, London.

Mathieson, C. and Stam, H. (1995) Renogotiating identity: cancer narratives, Sociology of Health and Illness, 17, 3: 283-306.

McAdams, D. (1993) The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self, Morrow, New York.

McLeod, J. (1997) Narrative and Psychotherapy, Sage, London.

Polkinghorne, D.P. (1988) Narrative knowing and the human sciences, SUNY Press, Albany.

Priest, P. (1996) ‘“Gilt By Association”: Talk Show Participants Televisually Enhanced Status And Self-Esteem’, in Grodin, D. and Lindlof, T. (eds) Constructing The Self In A Mediated World, Sage, London.

Ricoeur, P. (1991) Life in quest of narrative’, in (ed) Wood, D. Paul Ricoeur: narrative and interpretation (pp.20-33), Routledge, London.

Sarbin, T.R. (eds) (1986) Narrative psychology: The storied nature of human conduct, Praeger, New York.

Schutz, A. (1962) Collected papers, I. Martin Nijhoff, The Hague.

Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the self: The making of modern identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Taylor S. (1989) Positive illusions: Creative self deception and the healthy mind, Basic Books, New York.

Widdershoven, G. (1993) ‘The story of life: Hermeneutic perspective on the relationship between narrative and history’, in (eds) Josseleson, R. and Lieblich, A. The narrative study of lives, Vol.1, Sage, London.


Please see my related posts

Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics

Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Socio-Cybernetics and Constructivist Approaches

Sounds True: Speech, Language, and Communication

Cyber-Semiotics: Why Information is not enough

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann



Key Sources of Research

Introduction to Narrative Psychology

Click to access Chapter_1_Michelle_Crossley.pdf


Narrative psychology and narrative analysis


Integral Philosophy of the Rg Veda: Four Dimensional Man

Integral Philosophy of the Rg Veda: Four Dimensional Man


Meditations Through the Rg veda:  Four Dimensional man was published in 1976.  In 1999, Antonio de Nicholas published a review of his work.  See below.


From Forward to the book.


From Infinity Foundations website

Meditations Through The Rg Veda: A Retrospective
(Philosophy East and West. Vol.49. Number 2. April 1999)
by Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD

Paradigm, Theory, Ritual

It is now twenty five years since Meditations Through the Rg Veda: Four-Dimensional Man was first published in the United States. My earlier work on the Rg Veda was published in 1971 in Bangalore, India. Though the structures of the book were born during my twelve years of consecutive living in India, these structures did not become a paradigm until later. The structures I refer to are the word things and the order of their arrangement I was embodying as I lived there, a context at a time. It was the way the sun rose or the dawn arrived, the slow-motion for the sun to set and the sudden night; the lines of movement, of people, animals, wind or rain; the sudden appearance of forms, by the river, a well, in the sky; the dissolution of familiar and unfamiliar names, in the rhythm of language, Gujarati, Sanskrit, even English or Spanish names; but above all, the new habit of listening with my eyes to the movements in the sky, the forest, the streets, the homes; for the world, and my body, were a musical string plucked at every turn, in every silence , in every sight, sound, smell, touch and movement. Hidden geometries became human flesh, unnoticed. It was a silent world longing to become language, but can a multiplicity of embodied languages be expressed as one? After a while it was life in the twilight; which was the shadow, which the real object? One has to gain distance, and none farthest than an American Ph.D. Nonetheless, dispite the distance, and dispite the academic language, a new paradigm was born, in the Bronx, of all places. The structures I embodied gave way to an experienced, embodied geometry, sustaining all the structures, texts and statements I silently learned in India. Of course, when I set down this paradigm in writing, be it the Rg Veda or the Gita, the actual written text was already a theory, no longer a paradigm, though perhaps the most accurate translation of the paradigm. Those who disagreed kept silent and those who agreed, the majority, repeated my theory as participants in a ritual. In short, the acts by which the paradigm was born in me, or is born in any one giving birth to an original text like the Rg Veda, is not the written text. The act of creation is silent. The text of the Rg Veda, however, as written down is only a theory of itself, an invitation to a ritual. It is not even one text, or one language, but several and can only be expressed in plural linguistic wholes. Paradigms may be tested; they leave invariant epistemologies, but they can never be taught; they are sheer creation. Theories, as short hand of possible paradigms, on the other hand, we learn in the classroom. They are the easy ones to repeat. Those who follow the path of creation, of embodied-vision, follow the path of the gods. The others follow the path of the fathers, the path of pro-creation, the path of ritual, as the Rg Veda indicates. One leads to immortality, the other to rebirth. On which of these two paths stands the author of the text, rsi, commentator, priest or scholar? Besides, the Rg Veda is the sruti (revelation) tradition of India. As such, it is earlier than any other claim of revelation from any of the canonical texts, from the East, Middle East or West. The paradigm of the interpreter, if it coincides with that of the Rg Veda, should also give birth to those gods that gave humans sensation, inspiration and immortality, not just life to a priesthood that changes ritual as the mood strikes, bent on the act of pro-creation for, after all, the immortality of the ritual is more important than the immortality of the soul. Nor is it legitimate while interpreting to disband these earlier gods in the name of a later one, nor the heart-ethics of these original people for the head-ethics of those who came later, and if done it should be made evident. And this is how the “written” Rg Veda began. The priests wrote it down thousands of years later (depending on which initial date you choose). Ideographic language gave way to alphabetic writing, criteria of sound to those of sight, the path of the gods to that of the fathers, the structures of immortality to those of reincarnation, paradigm to theory repeated in ritual. Which Rg Vedic text are we talking about? What is recoverable from such a text? In the end, all we are left with are the technologies by which we recreate either text. Which path do they open for us? Now, once this is said, however, the modern interpreter cannot be blamed for not being a rsi. Let the reader be free to decide between the two paths, and let the interpreter be aware of both.

The Myth of Invariance

The first scholar to find my 1971 edition of the Rg Vedic world “captivating” was Ernest McClain. His interest was my claim that every statement in the oral/aural Rg Veda was tied to a language grounded on musical criteria. Music was once, at the origin of human language, the epistemology of oral cultures. This was all Ernest McClain needed to make a life and a project of his training as a musicologist. We started collaborating, getting together for brunch at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, in 1974. His first book appeared in 1976, The Myth of Invariance: The Origin of the Gods, Mathematics and Music from the Rg Veda to Plato (Nicolas-Hays, N.Y.) In 1978 he brought out with the same publisher, The Pythagorean Plato: Prelude to the Song Itself, and in 1981 Meditations Through the Quran: Tonal Images in an Oral Culture. When we last spoke he had already found confirmation of his work and mine, not only in Greece, but also in Chinese and Biblical texts. In his words: The Rg Veda is the original epistemology upon which humans built knowledge and also immortality. And thus by the hand of music the Rg Veda re-entered human consciousness.

The Artful Universe

At first glance this book is a most welcome addition to Vedic studies. It covers a territory in Indian Studies few dare to tread, and in doing so the author brings to the discussion almost everyone, ancient or modern, who has written anything on the Vedas. The writing style is beautiful and the translations from the Sanskrit have a modern ring that makes the original less intimidating. There is a definitive purpose by the author in the writing and interpreting of these texts! On the one hand, and this is the thesis of the book, the Vedas are the product of the imagination, and on the other this imagination expresses itself as ritual, as the religious imagination of the Vedic religion. Professor William K. Mahoney takes six chapters to develop this thesis. The first two are a preparation to understanding the religious imagination, the third and fourth chapters cover the Rg Veda and the last two the Upanishads. The book, however, does not end here. The Notes that follow these six chapters are yet another book within the book which allow the reader to follow the inner footsteps of Prof. Mahoney in the composition of his book. It is easy here to admire his delicate scholarship and his flare for the happy phrase in translating or interpreting the work of others. While my intention in writing this essay is a celebration of the human effort carried out in getting to the origins of our species, I wish also to sharpen the debate in the hope that “embodied structures” take over where simple or simplistic statements become the origin of the dialogue.

The modern scholar dealing with the Vedic period has several options: Translations of individual hymns under arbitrary categories, as it has been done and can be found in the Bibliography of The Artful Universe; or corrections, very important, as to the date of the Vedas, as In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, as G. Feuerstein, S. Kak and D. Frawley have successfully done, or he/she may try to uncover for us the paradigm and mental faculty through which the Vedic seers “composed” the original hymns. This is what Prof. Mahoney promises us:

“To Vedic visionary poets, the world is – or could be – an integrated whole, a unified structure and process of being in which there are no unbridgeable distances separating the divine, natural, and human worlds” (p.2).

And this world is held together by ” mental abilities or processes associated with what I will call the imagination” (p.5), ” the divine imagination… and the human imagination – especially the poetic, sacerdotal, and contemplative imagination… (and) whether divine or human, it is precisely the imagination that fashions and recognizes the universe as meaningful, abiding, and valuable, that is to say, real” (p. 7).

Here are my first questions. When we take, say the Rg Veda, for examination or commentary, which “text” are we recreating? The oral text the rsis chanted, the written text the priests codified in ten mandalas and became a ritual, or a new mongrel text that repeats a lot of names and quotes but can be used, at most, as the weekend comfort of New Age Evangelicals? And if so, where are the priests in the Upanishads when the Ksatriya instruct them? But above all, if the imagination is the faculty used by the seers in the composition (creation) of the oral, original hymns, which is the faculty that the priests use when they write down the text and when they repeat the same written text in ritual after ritual? But above all, if the imagination is a faculty, how does it work, which are its movements besides naming it, which are its structures, and are these structures the same or different from our own, and if the same why, and if different, how can we understand the Vedic imagination? How many priests does the author know with imagination? Isn’t their job to repeat a ritual imagined by others, deadening thus not only their senses but their faculties too? An imaginative priest is known as a heretic!

These remarks are not to be answered by Prof. Mahoney. He has written his beautiful text. But is this text the Rg Veda, or is it the case that any attempt at writing down one Rg Veda will give us of necessity several texts? It is obvious that this study fluctuates between the “creation” text of the original rsis and the “pro-creation” text of the later, codifying priests. Where once we had sheer power of creation, through an active imagination, giving birth to gods, powers and continuities, very soon we descend to the repetitive ritual of procreation through human semen, and the danger is that this becomes the ritual we celebrate today:

O holy drop!
You are the master of ecstasies!
You are the immortal god’s favorite drink!
Show us the way to success,
as a friend to a friend. (p. 85)

But it is the Rg Veda itself which admonishes us a few hymns later than the one quoted above by Prof. Mahoney (R.V.9.112) to be weary of one single text, be it rituals or anything else:

l. Our thoughts wander in all directions
And various are the ways of men:
The cartwright looks for accidents,
The physician for the sick,
And the brahman for a rich patron.
For the sake of Indra,
Flow, Indra, flow.

4. The horse draws a swift carriage,
The generous host an easy laugh and play.
The penis seeks a hairy slot
And the frog (brahman) hankers for a flood.
For the sake of Indra,
Flow, Indra, flow.

(My translation in Meditations through the Rg Veda).

How does this effort in all of us at producing “one single” text fail when dealing with Indian classical texts, particularly the Rg Veda?

As regards the Notes of this book I have only admiration. It is almost heroic the effort of Prof. Mahoney to footnote his conclusions. It is as if footnoting he were building a path for others to follow. The way he does it, however, may raise serious questions. Is not this the “path of the fathers” leading to the re-incarnation of all ritual, including the ritual of scholarship? Take, for example, part of the footnote he dedicates to my book Meditations through the Rg Veda:

” …The “four dimensions” of the Vedic intentional life outlined by de Nicolas are similar in some ways to the poetic and ritual aspects of the Vedic World I discuss in Chapters Three and Four, below. We overlap most in regards to what de Nicolas calls the “language of embodied vision.” My approach is different from his, however, in that, whereas he concentrates on the linguistic nature of visionary knowledge, I focus my intention on the visionary background of linguistic expression.” (Emphasis mine) (p.238). Does Prof. Mahoney understand that no matter how he “overlaps” me, (ritualizes my writing?) my work antedates his by twenty five years, and supplies him not only with the pertinent Rg Vedic hymns he quotes but also with the secondary sources he needs to gather the community of scholars that will testify to his thesis? Furthermore, was not my book the one to establish not only the “imagination” as a rational intelligence of oral cultures, but also the “moves” it must make to be an imagination in movement, able to keep a diverse society in continuity within the discontinuity of sensation? If this is my thesis where is his? In the ritual of repetition of the original text? I would most probably let this point go were it not for the fact that this “tracing” over other people’s work seems to count these days as scholarship. It seems to be a mind-set of the times. But is this the “text” that gave birth to the Rg Veda? Scholarship is not a ritual, and more so, a thesis is not a ritual. Where is the imagination to get out of other people’s rituals, to rise to ” the path of the gods”? Let’s go on with our conversation. Prof. Mahoney will rejoin us later in the dialogue.

The New Theogony And The Heresy Of Oedipus

” Let us with tuneful skill
Proclaim the origin of the gods,
So that in future generations these origins
May be seen, when these songs are sung.” (R.V. l0.72.1)

Dr. Colavito, in The New Theogony, perhaps the best book on myth written in English, universalizes the “languages” of the Rg Veda, Asat, Sat, Yajna and Rta, to cover the study of all myth.

“What we call “myth”,” she writes “is a fourfold cluster of actions and mental properties that individually and together account for the necessary and sufficient conditions of the mythopoetic worldview, of the nature and workings of the cosmos, and of the individuals and groups of individuals within this cosmos.” For the sake of clarity she summarizes these languages thus: ” These four fundamental acts defining myth are: maia, mythos, mimesis and logos. Each act is a single focus or mental habit; together the four account for the totality of human and divine acts, or mental habits, that have guided the human species to the present shores. Though strictly speaking myth is merely one of the (four) acts in myth making, even this act is incomprehensible unless the other three mental operations are included in the narratives of myth…” She then goes on outline the four “languages”:

“Maia (Gr. midwife) is the term used to signify the bringing forth of action from inaction, cosmos out of chaos, the initial spark that kindles the mind to transform from nothig to something. It is the midwife between the divine realm of immortality and potentiality and the human realm of temporality and human existence. The aspect of maia in the human sphere is represented by the human faculty of imagining. It is the expression of the creative experience; it cannot be described,, it has no form, its proper abode is the midregion between the human and the immortal. Once an individual begins to interpret or reflect upon the experience, maia disappears and the experience receives an existence of its own, outside the real of potentiality, and it is given a form, name, boundary. In short, the reflective act heralds in the aspect of mythos. And with mythos the world moves from chaos to cosmos.

Mythos (from the Gr. delivered by word of mouth) primarily describes the initial reflection of the creative experience. It is the oral transmission of the experience… The first “scream of individuation,” to quote Nietzsche… Mythos, also, represents the original fall from grace, the first act that breaks from the unity of the beginning, from the glory of immortality; for the telling of the experience now has another element, an experiencer, a self, through whom the experience flowed. Thus… the telling of the experience is not the experience… and only those who have had the same experience may truly understand the full import of the teller’s tale…so that communities of experiencers can share common revelations.

Mimesis (Gr. to make a copy) is the aspect that describes the mythopoetic action of re-membering or re-creating… In this manner the story is told with an intent, a moral… What becomes important now is the story not so much as it relates to the original creative experience of individuals, but as it relates to the desire to make a point… The mimetic phase is … the first frozen form: the pictographic mode… geared toward establishing the social mores of the collective group.

Finally, logos, (Gr. the word by which the inward thought is expressed), taking as its origins these mores, completely eradicates the level of personal experience and uses the rules derived from the mimetic to create theories about human action. These mores are founded on human experience, but only on hypothetically universal experience – in other words, experience filtered through the sieve of a collective interpretation. As such, then , no origin in logos has the certainty of an origin in maia… Logos ceases to be a pictographic representation; it transforms into a symbolic or alphabetic system that has only its own correlatives within its own framework, with no derivative capacity from the experiential realm of the individual… Logos has always been the shadow of maia in the mythopoetic world.

This fourfold division is neither a convenient devise for classification, nor an arbitrary tool for interpretation; it is the fabric itself of myth… an abstraction, that, though distinguishable, is inseparable from myth. From a biological perspective this fourfold division is the neurophysiological equipment of the species, its mental habits accumulated through the repetition of the past: imagining, fantasizing, narrating, following the discursive path of logic… )(Thus) while maia stands for an original experience… mythos, mimesis and logos stand for different ways (languages) of making this experience public, either through narrative (mythos), visual forms (mimesis), or… theory…alphabetic substitutions, or conceptual analyses (logos)… Finally, this fourfold system of acts corresponds to the scientific operations functioning within the oral/aural worldview, which has as its verification the ancient science of acoustics.” (pp.6-8)

Using the model of the one dismembering itself or the model of the zero as an addition of objects, Dr. Colavito makes evident the model through which dialogue and understand of myth is possible, and this not in just a few cases, Classical India, Rg Veda, Upanishads, but also the Greek gods and goddesses ending with the education of Pythagoras as imparted on his students, and the acoustic verification in Plato. A breathless trip that ends in the frustrating realization that while simple acts may lead to overwhelming “oceanic” experiences, the unity of maia, once broken, can never be recovered in one single language, but we must learn to move with of plurality of at least four irreconcilable and irreducible languages. Or is this a frustration or a temptation, the temptation to be the shadow of a god, if not god him/her self?

These are very strong claims. If true they may lead to the mobility of the Rta to perform the good act (sukrta), the original act of creation. Can they also lead to reconstructing the original Rg Veda? Where do we find the verification? Dr. Colavito took it upon herself to get to the bottom of the issue. Equipped with two Ph.Ds – one in Comparative Literature and the other in Psychology, her next book, The Heresy of Oedipus and the Mind/Mind Split, introduces us to her “Biocultural Paradigm.” She starts with the Nature/nurture controversy raging in the biological sciences to conclude that neither one nor the other works in isolation, but that nurture opens Nature, and Nature is not activated without nurture. In other words, the neural passages of the brains are open or forever shut if there is not a mutual fecundation. This interaction is limited, and almost chronologically developed in every child from conception to the age of l2; after that, what nurture has not activated in the right hemisphere of the neocortex is forever destroyed, though the left hemisphere, the seat of logic and discourse and the place of the “interpreter module,” keep developing abstract substitutions based on information received by these other brains or by its own conceptual loops, forever. What in her first book was called maia, in the second is the reptilian brain; mythos becomes the limbic brain; mimesis she divides into two: the visual, right hemisphere and the conceptual left hemisphere; and logos is the interpreter module located in the left hemisphere of the neocortex. In this she follows MacLean and Gazzaniga and the latest discoveries in neurobiology. But for the purpose of our discussion, in what way is this relevant to the Vedas and Prof. Mahoney’s or McClain’s books?

Revelation, individual experience, is an affair of the right side of the brains. The left hemisphere can only interpret, translate what the right hemisphere presents as sensation. Thus, while we have five different brains, (not one as Descartes thought and we presume,) only the three of the right hemisphere deal with original experience. And this in different ways. While maia ( the Asat) is the origin, maia is also wired with a geometry capable of letting forms appear, while mythos, the place of gods and heroes, is already a world of forms. However, and this is the point of our discussion, when these two original and originating brains are translated by the right hemisphere of the neocortex they are translated as “visual images;” they are seen as images even if originally they were waves and movement and tactility. In other words, by the time the ritual priests take on the “visual images” to the sacrifice and the ritual, these visual images, originally, were neither images nor visual. Thus by constituting these images as the original text, the followers are removed from the origin, from the source of sensation and are led into a repetition of acts that may crystallize either in a crisis of faith or in a crisis of dogma. The believers may either end up losing faith,( also sensation) or becoming dogmatic preachers in a game of endless logomachy. And the same with any other “text” bound by single language-games, like Western Theology. Thus, according to the Rg Veda it is precisely because of this tendency that the culture calls for cyclical returns to the Asat: to lose all forms, verbal, audial, or visual and break the dragon Vrta open, again. And that excerise, in the Rg Veda, is the true meaning of sacrifice (yajna). The sacrifice is necessary because these languages are invariant biological epistemologies, irreducible to one another.

Dr. Colavito follows up her neurobiocultural bases with studies on myth, Rg Vedic and principally the Oedipus cycle and the whole history of the House of Cadmus, after the mind/mind split took place in the species with the repetition of the technologies developed to introduce alphabetic writing in our mental habits. The paradigm is so explosive that Time magazine (Feb. 1997) could not avoid making a full use of it to describe the early development of the different brains in children, the contrary pole of Dr. Colavito’s thesis as she verified it through earlier cultures, in the infancy of the species. Of special interest in our discussion is her Appendix 2.3 making visible the hidden geometries of the Asat and the two ways of reading those texts: as from the “path of the fathers” or as from the “path of the gods.” How can we overcome the temptation of one single language, and how do we learn to be open to a plurality of four?

The Human Potential

“We can’t put it together; it is together.”

“What we need to understand may only be expressible in a language that we do not know.”

The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, is a mammoth ongoing enterprise to cover all human problems ( l2,000 profiles with 120,000 hyperlinks), strategies and solutions (29,500 profiles with 91,000 hyperlinks), human development (4,400 profiles with l5,000 hyperlinks) and human values (1,900 profiles with 23.000 hyperlinks). The Encyclopedia hypertexts are currently edited at the Union of International Associations (UIA) by Nadia McLaren. It is now in its fourth hardback edition, first CD-ROM edition, and is available in demo version on the Web (http://www.uiaorg/homeency.htm/), although all texts have been accessible since l998. Profiles on the Web can be translated through Alta Vista into a variety of major languages.

It is in this global environment that the paradigm of “languages” in the Rg Veda has found a home. The Director of the Union of International Associations, Dr. Anthony J.N. Judge, in article after article, profile after profile, conference after conference has articulated, and compiled in the Encyclopedia, the modern consequences of academic attempts at synthesis when these attempts are expressed in one common language, namely the one engendering the problems in the first place. Dr. Judge’s point of departure is the need to start from the experiential human origins as described in the Rg Veda and then articulate the ensuing insights in the plurality of languages available for their manifestation in the Rg Vedic model. Thus, the model or paradigm, is part of the “answer” proposed by the Editors of the Encyclopedia. Contrary to the position academics take of locating themselves within the “web” of a discipline, research, culture, department or, at times, a simple desk, Dr. Judge travels with ease the “lines of the webs” linking the totality of squares, within which the rest of us seem to be trapped, to a knowledge that seems to come only to those who are able to travel in his manner. He is at home in the East and in the West, in music and in science, in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism or the Tao, and he seems to know a “knowledge” that comes only to those who travel the “lines” of the “web,” never squeezed by the particular generalizations of the cubicles within each “web’s square.” His summary of the “languages” of the Rg Veda for contemporary guidance to those looking to solve the problems, individual, communal or global, or contemporary life is appealing to him because it takes into account: ” The interrelated formal languages based on tone; (they lead ) toward reintegrating the individual in action; (make ) this integration embodied: re-imagining man; (take care) of the pluralism through an integration of community dialogue; (guarantee) this integrative renewal through sacrifice (of perspectives); (account) for an integrative vision that is encountered in the movement.” ( ” Liberation of Integration, Universality and Concord through pattern, oscillation, harmony and embodiment.” Originally delivered for the 5th Network Meeting of the United Nations University, project of Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (Montreal) as a contribution to the discussion on integration of the findings of the Project.) And he includes in his remarks the fact that:

” Integration modelled on sound may be inherently more comprehensible to more people than integration modelled on sight.” (Ibid.) In view of Dr. Colavito’s previous discussed work, this conclusion is not so far fetched since the structures of the Rg Veda are the original embodied structures of the humanity that gave us birth, and as such they are embodied structures, bio-culturally invariant, not only in each of us but also in the earlier cultures that preceeded us.

Conclusion: Regathering The Fragments

The Artful Universe provided the occasion for a round discussion of the earliest structures of human “languages” we carry in our genes.

Any one particular language joining the discussion does not only show us the empirical grounding of their speech, experience, academic construction, but also the imperialistic tendency of such mono-linguistic speech universalizing itself. Contemporary discoveries in neurobiology and the paradigm based on them of Dr. Colavito make it clear that life, that is, human life, is life in community. This community is formed through interaction or dismemberment of a sensorium that is plural by its very bio-culture base and becomes integrated through dialogue. All dialogue, all language carries with it the possibility of sharing in the embodied vision of a paradigm that has been with us from the beginning, since through it we had to break through the “experience of separating earth and sky.” In this manner there is no need, as Prof. Mahoney does in one of his initial footnotes with a humility rarely present in Sanskrit scholars, to apologize for not being ethnically Indian while interpreting the Vedas. Interpretation, like everything else, is biocultural not ethnical. We are dealing with neural equipment, genes, receptors and transmitters, not the color of one’s skin, or the geography of one’s birth. And finally, if there is any hope in preserving the integrity of the University or returning it to its original call, especially in the humanities, this hope resides in the work of scholars like Profs. Mahony, Colavito and Judge who through their work in the classical myths were able to avoid the “empiricist languages” of the present Academic fashion and return to us the memories of our distant progenitors with the structures that made them live in innovation and continuity in the company of the gods. If we form the communities to carry these traditions forward, we might be able to share in the glory and celebration of life that once was ours. I am glad and grateful that Meditations Through the Rg Veda was an inspiration to them. But even more so the reiteration that our human makeup is larger, deeper and more full of sensation in the plurality we are than in the oppression of one single language-community-creed.

This is what William Irwin Thompson called, commenting on my work: “the planetization of the esoteric.”


The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination.
by William K. Mahoney , Ph.D.
SUNY Press, Albany N.Y. l998

The New Theogony: Mythology for the Real World.
by Maria M. Colavito, PhD
SUNY Press, Albany, N.Y. l992

The Heresy of Oedipus and The Mind/Mind Split: A Study of the Biocultural Origins of Civilization.
by Maria M. Colavito, PhD
The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston,N.Y. l995

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.
Edited by The Union of International Associations
4th. Edition, K.G. Saur Verlag, Munchen, New Providence,
London, Paris l994-95

The Myth of Invariance: The Origin of the Gods, Mathematics and Music from the Rg Veda to Plato.
by Ernest McClain, Ph.D.
Nicolas-Hays Ltd. N.Y. 1976

The Pythagorean Plato: Prelude to the Song Itself.
by Ernest McClain
Nicolas-Hays Ltd. N.Y. 1978

Meditations Through the Quran: Tonal Images in an Oral Culture.
by Ernest McClain
Nicolas-Hays Ltd. N.Y. 1981

Coming Into Being: Artifacs and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness
by William Irwin Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, New York , 1996. (p.187)

Antonio T. de Nicolas was educated in Spain, India and the United States, and received his Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University in New York. He is Professor Emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dr. de Nicolas is the author of some twenty- seven books, including Avatara: The Humanization of Philosophy through the Bhagavad Gita,a classic in the field of Indic studies; and Habits of Mind, a criticism of higher education, whose framework has recently been adopted as the educational system for the new Russia. He is also known for his acclaimed translations of the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning author,Juan Ramon Jimenez, and of the mystical writings of St. Ignatius de Loyola and St. John of the Cross.

A philosopher by profession, Dr. de Nicolas confesses that his most abiding philosophical concern is the act of imagining, which he has pursued in his studies of the Spanish mystics, Eastern classical texts, and most recently, in his own poetry.

His books of poetry: Remembering the God to Come, The Sea Tug Elegies, Of Angels and Women, Mostly, and Moksha Smith: Agni’s Warrior-Sage. An Epic of the Immortal Fire, have received wide acclaim. Critical reviewers of these works have offered the following insights:

from, Choice: “…these poems could not have been produced by a mainstream American. They are illuminated from within by a gift, a skill, a mission…unlike the critico-prosaic American norm…”

from The Baltimore Sun: “Steeped as they are in mythology and philosophy these are not easy poems. Nor is de Nicolas an easy poet. He confronts us with the necessity to remake our lives…his poems …show us that we are not bound by rules. Nor are we bound by mysteries. We are bound by love. And therefore, we are boundless”

from William Packard, editor of the New York Quarterly: ” This is the kind of poetry that Plato was describing in his dialogues, and the kind of poetry that Nietzsche was calling for in Zarathustra.”

Professor de Nicolas is presently a Director of the Biocultural Research Institute, located in Florida.


Please see my related posts:


Meta Integral Theories: Integral Theory, Critical Realism, and Complex Thought

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Myth of Invariance: Sound, Music, and Recurrent Events and Structures

Sounds True: Speech, Language, and Communication

Mind, Consciousness and Quantum Entanglement

Semiotics, Bio-Semiotics and Cyber Semiotics

Systems and Organizational Cybernetics

Society as Communication: Social Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann


Key sources of Research:



Meditations Through The Rg Veda: A Retrospective

(Philosophy East and West. Vol.49. Number 2. April 1999)

by Antonio T. de Nicolas, PhD









Antonio de  Nicolás



Sounds True: Speech, Language, and Communication

Sounds True:  Speech, Language, and Communication


At the end of the cosmic dance Lord Shiva the Lord of dance, sounded his damaru fourteen times.

For the sake of the upliftment of sages like sanaka.

According to legend, these sutras were written by Panini upon mystically hearing the beats of Siva-Nataraja’s damaru (hourglass-shaped drum). It has been said that the mantra is God in the form of sound. Therefore, words are an extension of that power. The tantra stresses the importance of sound as a divine substance and vehicle for salvation. And hence, entire cosmos is in the form of these sutras.

The Fourteen Verses Of Maheswara Sutra.

“The Maheshwara Sutra is the most ancient known Sanskrit alphabet sequence. This alphabet sequence is at the same time a powerful Mantra and the vibrations of its sound has healing powers.

1. अ इ उ ण् |
2. ऋ ऌ क् |
3. ए ओ ङ् |
4. ऐ औ च् |
5. ह य व र ट् |
6. ल ण् |
7. ञ म ङ ण न म् |
8. झ भ ञ् |
9. घ ढ ध ष् |
10. ज ब ग ड द श् |
11. ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् |
12. क प य् |
13.श ष स र् |
14. ह ल् |

The fourteen sutras contain all the letters of the Sanskrit varnamala- the svaras (vowels) a, i, u, R^i, lR^i, e, ai, o, au and all the vyanjanas (consonants). As per the Rig Veda Lord Shiva brought this Sanskrit alphabet sequence, and the Sanskrit language to earth. The sounds of the alphabet originated from Lord Shiva’s ‘damru’, probably some kind of a sound device.


Among those present at Nataraja’s dance was Panini. For him these 14 sounds meant the fourteen cardinal sutras of Grammer and on them he based his “Ashtadhyayi”. Given are the 16 vowels and 33 consonants that are evolved from these 14 Shiva Sutras.

16 vowels (a – ch)

a, Aa, i, Ii, u, Uu, ri, rii, lri, lrii, e, ai, o au, am, ah

33 consonants (ha l)

ka, kha, ga, gha, gna
ca, cha, ja, jha, jna
ta, ttha, da ddha, nna
ta, tha, da, dha, na
pa, pha, ba, bha, ma
ya, ra, la, va
sa, sha, sa


Key People:

  • Yaska
  • Panini
  • Pingala
  • Patanjali
  • Katyayana
  • Bhartrhari
  • Leonard Bloomfield
  • Ferdinand de Saussure
  • Harold G Coward
  • Harvey Alper
  • Jan Gonda
  • George Cardona
  • Frits Staal
  • Johannes Bronkhorst
  • Ashok Aklujkar
  • Paul Kiparsky
  • Subhash Kak


Key Contributions:

  • Yaska wrote Nirukta
  • Panini wrote Ashta-adhyayi
  • Pingala wrote Chhandashastra
  • Katyayana wrote Varttikas
  • Patanjali wrote Vyakaran-Mahabhashya
  • Bhartrhari wrote Vakyapadiyas



Key Sources of Research:


Karakatattva of Sesacakrapani an edition and study

Leela, K N



Indian Linguistics

Click to access Indian_Linguistics-1.pdf


Old ideas of language


Click to access oldideasoflanguage.pdf


Alper, Harvey P., ed.

Understanding mantras.

Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1991.


The word is the world: Nondualism in Indian philosophy of language

By Ashok Aklujkar



LANGUAGE AND REALITY On an episode in Indian thought

Johannes Bronkhorst

Click to access Language%20and%20Reality_On%20an%20Episode%20in%20Indian%20Thought_Bronkhorst.pdf


Coward, Harold G.

The sphota theory of language: a philosophical analysis.


Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1980.


Coward, Harold.

“The meaning and power of mantras in Bhartrhari’s Vãkyapadiya.”

Studies in Religion Toronto 11.4 (1982): 365-375.


Coward, Harold.

“Derrida and Bhartrhari’s Vākyapadīya on the Origin of Language.”

Philosophy East and West 40.1 (1990): 3-16.


Coward, Harold G.

The philosophy of the grammarians.

Vol. 5. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1990.






Pånini’s grammar: from meaning to utterance




Johannes Bronkhorst

Click to access 02e7e53a1c07adb71d000000.pdf



Staal, Frits.

Universals: Studies in Indian logic and linguistics.

University of Chicago Press, 1988.


Staal, Frits.

“Oriental ideas on the origin of language.”

Journal of the American Oriental Society (1979): 1-14.


Staal, Frits.

Discovering the Vedas: Origins, Mantras, Rituals, Insights.

Penguin Books India, 2008.


Staal, Frits.

“The science of language.”

The Blackwell companion to Hinduism (2003): 348-359.


Cardona, George.

“Some principles of Pānini’s grammar.”

Journal of Indian Philosophy 1.1 (1970): 40-74.


On the structure of Pånini’s system

George Cardona


Click to access Cardona.pdf



Marco Ferrante


On movements of language−−within self, of self, about self, and between selves: Commentary on language and self

Lakshmi Bandlamudi


Staal, J. F.

“Sanskrit philosophy of language.”

History of linguistic thought and contemporary linguistics (1976): 102-136.


Sabda-Pramana: The Written and Spoken Word as Means for Right Knowledge.
An Issue of Nyaya Epistemology

Augustine Thottakara


Click to access P%20Pl%206%20Sabda-Pramana.Library%20Seminar.pdf


Language and Grammar

Click to access 334_03_05_09_KTPI_XII-Language.pdf


Economy and the Construction of the Sivasutras

Paul Kiparsky



Paul Kiparsky




Singh, Jaideva.

Spanda Karikas.

Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1980.


Dyczkowski, Mark SG.

“The Stanzas on Vibration.”

State of NY Press, Albany (1992).



“The Relationships Between Music and Language According to Hindu Theory.”

The World of Music 17.1 (1975): 14-23.


A Mathematical Analysis of Panini’s Sivasutras



Click to access petersen_jolli_proof.pdf