Words are arrows piercing lotus leaves

I recently received a thoughtful email from Satyanarayana Hegde, who is a Civil Attorney by profession and characterizes himself as an autodidact interested in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian and Urdu languages and literary cultures who ccasionally perpetrates random acts of literary criticism. He wrote in reference to an older post, in which I meditated on the comparison between arrows and words in Sanskrit texts, and the range of ways it appears. I included a tentative translation of Vācaspatimiśra’s Nyāyavārttikatātparyaṭīkā:

प्रयोगप्राचुर्याद अत्यन्ताभ्यासेनातिशीघ्रतया सन्न् अपि प्रत्ययक्रमो न लक्ष्यते शीघ्रतरबाणहेतुकशतपत्रशतव्यतिभेदवद् इति चेत । न ।

Suppose you say: due to the profuse number of such uses, since they are very common and occur so fast, [secondary meaning understood from the primary meaning], although it is a sequential awareness, it is not recognized as such–just like the explosive appearance of hundreds of feathers caused by hundreds of the fastest arrows (bāṇa). (We reply) no…

In my post, I puzzled over the image of being “like the explosive appearance of hundreds of feathers caused by hundreds of the fastest arrows” (śīghratara-bāna-hetuka-śata-patra-śata-vyatibhedavad). The imagery is clearly intended to illustrate a view which Vācaspati will deny, namely that certain cases of primary meaning are actually secondary meaning, but they just occur so rapidly that we aren’t aware of the sequence. However, I wasn’t sure what the image was meant to be.

Mr. Hegde wrote to share not only his translation of that compound, but some thoughts on other places where the words-as-arrows image appears, not limited to Sanskrit literature. What follows from this point are his comments:


I’m afraid, data venia, that Vācaspati isn’t talking here about a very large bow from which many arrows could be shot at a single time and in fact, there are no bows here! This image is that of a hundred lotus leaves being pierced by a needle or as in this case, an arrow. The translation (ad sensum rather than ad verbum) should read, I suppose something like this:

Suppose you say: due to sheer usage and their being customary, they are so rapid that although there is sequential cognition, the temporal gap isn’t noticed, as when an arrow pierces through a stack of a hundred lotus-leaves

This very vivid image is that of a hundred leaves (patraśata) of a lotus (śatapatra) stacked one on top of the other and a needle (or an arrow) piercing the first through the last, which seems to be immediate and non-sequential, despite being temporal and sequential. I suppose this is due to the bisemy of the word patra-it means both “leaf” (of a flower or a lotus) as well as “the feather of an arrow.”

Kumārila uses a variant of this simile in the Śūnyavāda chapter of the Ślokavārttika, verse 157 to refute the contention that the example of a lamp and the light emitted by it illustrates the simultaneity of cause and effect by arguing that there’s a minute uncognizable temporal gap between a lamp and its emitted light, just like there is when a hundred lotus petals are being pierced: yatpradīpaprabhādyuktam sūkmakālo’asti tatra na/durlakastu yathā vedha padmapatraśate yathā//

Viśvanātha, commenting on asaṃlakṣyakramavyaṅgya at Sāhityadarpaa 4.5 uses this simile to illustrate that though this variety of dhvani is called as “sequenceless,” there nevertheless is a temporal sequence between the presentation of the textual elements and the cognition of suggestion: atra vyaṅgyapratītervibhāvādipratītikāraṇakatvātkramo’vaśyamasti kintūtpalapatraśatavyatibhedavallāghavānna saṃlakṣyate. Jagannātha in the first ānana of the Rasagagādhara also uses this simile for a similar point, though he mentions a needle: ete cāsalakyakramavyagyāḥ sahdayena rasavyaktau jhagiti jāyamānāyām vibhāvānubhāvavyabhicārivimarśakramasya sato’api, sūcīśatapatrapatraśatavedhakramasyevālakaāt

This is an ancient simile. In the sūkta addressed to Brahmagavī, the poet tells us symbolically how Braḥman pierces the cavilers of the gods using his speech as an arrow: jihvā jyā bhávati kúlmalaṃ vān nāḍikā dantās tápasābhídigdhāḥ/tébhir brahmā vidhyati devapīyūn hṛdbalaír dhánubhir devájūtaiḥ (Atharvaveda 5.18.8; Atharvaveda Paippalāda Saṃhita 9.18.3)-

His tongue a bow-string, His speech an arrow-neck,
His teeth heat-anointed arrows-
With these Braḥman pierces the cavilers of the gods,
With god-speedened bows strengthened by the heart

This simile is used in kavya too: kiṃ kavestasya kāvyena kiṃ kāṇḍena dhanuṣmataḥ/parasya hṛdaye lagnaṃ na ghūrṇayatiyacchiraḥ// (Subhāsịtāvali 134, kavikāvyapraśaṃsā, Subhāṣitratnabhānḍāgāra, kukaviniṃdā)-

The poet’s poem, the archer’s arrow, which strikes the heart, but doesn’t make the head sway:roll, is no poem, is no arrow

A variant:

yallagnaṃ hṛdi puṃsām bhūyo bhūyaḥ śiro na ghūrṇayati/tadapi kaveḥ kimu Kāvyaṃ kāṇḍo vā dhanvinām kimasau// (Subhāṣitaratnakoṣā, Kavistutivrajyā no. 1721)

This is, as you note, frequently used in the Mahābhārata

Karṇinālīkanārācān nirharanti śarīrataḥ/vākśalyastu na nirhantum śakyo hṛdiśayo hi saḥ// (Mahābhārata, Anuśāsanaparva Ch. 13/Viduranīti)

One can pull out any arrow lodged in the body
Word-arrows, however, can’t be pulled out
For they lodge deep in the heart

This is a classical simile too:

exaudi orationem ad te omnis caro veniet qui exacuerunt quasi gladium linguam suam tetenderunt sagittam suam verbum amarissimum ut sagittarent in absconditis simplicem (Psalm 64:3-4)

They sharpen their tongues like swords and aim harsh words like deadly arrows. They shoot suddenly and fearlessly from ambush at the innocent.

Pindar has famously used this simile:

polla moi hyp’ agkōnos ōkea belē endon enti pharetras phōnanta synetoisin: es de to pan hermēneōn chatizei. sophos ho polla eidōs phyai: mathontes de labroi pagglōssiai, korakes hōs, akranta garyeton Dios pros ornicha theion. epeche nyn skopōi toxon, age thyme, tina ballomen ek malthakas aute phrenos eukleas oïstous hientes; epi toi Akraganti tanysais audasomai enorkion logon alathei noōi tekein mē tin’ hekaton ge eteōn polin philois andra mallon euergetan prapisin aphthonesteron te chera Thērōnos (Pindar, Olympian Ode 2.91-105)

I have many swift arrows in the quiver under my arm, arrows that speak to the initiated. But the masses need interpreters. The man who knows a great deal by nature is truly skillful, while those who have only learned chatter with raucous and indiscriminate tongues in vain like crows against the divine bird of Zeus. Now, bend your bow toward the mark; tell me, my mind, whom are we trying to hit as we shoot arrows of fame from a gentle mind? I will aim at Akragas, and speak with true intent a word sworn by oath: no city for a hundred years has given birth to a man more beneficent in his mind or more generous with his hand than Theron.

This was composed for Theron of Akragas for his chariot victory at Olympia in 476 B.C.E. Aeschylus, Suppliant Women 446; Eumenides 676; Eurypides, Suppliants 456 use the image of human utterance as arrows. Language and arrows have been linked since the time of Homer: epea pteroenta prosēuda, “He spoke winged words”; Iliad 1.201; 8.101-words are said to be “winged”: epea pteroenta. Etymologically pteron is “feather” and pterux is “wing.” The metaphor is that of a “winged” bird escaping through the “barrier of the teeth” of the speaker, like a bird escaping from a cage, and flying swiftly to the eager ears of the hearer. In Sanskrit, patatrin is both “a bird” and “an arrow” (or in contexts of the Rājasūya “a horse”). An arrow is a winged shaft or metaphorically a “winged word,” the tertium comparitionis between bird’s wings and arrows being swift flight.

(Cross-posted at my personal blog.)

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

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