Speech According to the Upanishads

Wisdom of the Upanishads

by Jayaram V

Summary: The Upanishads recognize speech as an aspect of the Supreme Brahman. This essay presents the references found in the Upanishads about the significance of speech the ritual and spiritual aspects of Hinduism.

Speech in Sanskrit is known as Vac or Vak. The word represents the two supports for speech, wind and the larynx or the organ of speech. Accordingly, it is made of two letters, ‘va’ + ‘ka’. Va represents Vayu or wind. In the body, breath (wind) is the support for speech. Outside, it is wind (Vayu) and space (akasa) which support the sound vibrations of speech and carry them to distant places. The second letter ‘ka’ or क् is the first letter of the guttural class (क् varg). It is also known as jivhamulya letter since it is produced from the base of the tongue (jihva) where the larynx is located. The letter also represents Brahman (the carrier of sounds), Self (the speaker), wind and sound (support). Thus, the word ‘Vac’ represents the origin as well as the support for human speech and the sound vibrations which arise from it. Speech has great significance in the Vedic tradition, because with speech only, the Vedic mantras are uttered, sacrificial offerings are made and boons are obtained from gods. Through speech humans communicate with one another, and with ancestors and gods. Through the senses, speech connects minds and intellect and brings people together.

The same importance is reflected in the Upanishads. They extol speech as a distinguishing organ of the human body. Speech is considered divine and compared to the Supreme Brahman. A passage in the Chandogya Upanishad (7.2.1) goes to great lengths to describe its importance, acknowledging at the same time that it is inferior to certain other organs in the body. It states that through speech all the knowledge, scriptures and subjects become known. "Speech is verily greater than Name (nama). By speech alone the Rigveda is made known. So also the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, the Atharvaveda as the fourth, the epics and the Puranas as the fifth, the Veda of the Vedas (grammar), the knowledge of making sacrificial offerings to ancestors, the knowledge of numbers and drawing birth carts, the science of predicting divine actions, the knowledge of treasures, logic, ethics, knowledge of gods, knowledge of Brahman, knowledge of spirits, knowledge of weapons, astronomy, knowledge of serpents and poisons, knowledge of celestial beings, heaven, earth, air, ether, water, fire, gods, men, cattle, birds, herbs, trees, all beasts down to worms, flies, and ants; the right and the wrong; the true and the untrue, the good and the bad, the pleasant and the unpleasant. Truly, if there were no speech, neither right nor wrong would be known, neither the true nor the false, neither the good nor the bad, neither the pleasant nor the unpleasant. Speech makes us understand all this. Meditate upon speech." It further states that space (akasa) is the support of speech (Ch.7.12.1). “Through space one extends speech, through space one hears, through space one replies."

Speech is considered an organ of action and source of karma because the most important actions in the world such as the Vedic sacrifices are performed with the help of speech only. Of the five elements (panchabhutas), it is fire which manifests in the human body as speech (Ch.6.5.3). A person is alive so long as his speech does not merge into his mind and his mind into breath (Ch.6.15.1). Two are the ways in which sacrifices are performed, by speech and by mind (Ch.4.16.1). The Hotri, Udgatri and Adharvayu priests perform with speech and the Brahman priest with mind. The body of Brahman has four feet of which speech is one (Ch.3.18.3).

According to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.1.2), speech grasps the names of objects, and with speech we are able to makes sense of them. With the help of speech only one discerns a friend or relation. By speech only one gains the knowledge of the scriptures and sacrificial rituals, and knowledge of this world, the next world, and all beings. Speech is also the source of wealth (Ch.5.1.2). "Truly, he who knows the most prosperous, becomes the most prosperous among his own (people); and speech indeed is the most prosperous." All the diversity in the creation arises from the triple phenomena: name, form and action (nama, rupa, karma). As far as names are concerned, speech is their source (Bri.1.6.1). The Chandogya Upanishad (3.12.1) compares speech to Gayatri. “For speech only sings and protects all this that exists here."

Thus, one can see that In the Vedic tradition speech is central not only to ritual worship and sacrificial ceremonies but also to the worlds, the existence of human beings, the upholding of Dharma and the continuation of life upon earth. Speech is a uniting and binding force. All the Vedas become one in speech (Bri.2.5.11). Speaking of the sacrificial rituals, Yajnavalkya states (Bri.3.1.3), that the host of a sacrifice overcomes death with the help of speech, which is comparable to both the Hotri priest and the sacrificial fire. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6.2.12) extols the importance of speech in the sacrifice of life. " The person, O Gautama, is fire. The open mouth itself is its fuel. Breath is its smoke, speech its flame, the eye its coal, and the ears its sparks. Into this fire gods pour sacrificial food as an oblation. Out of that offering, manifests semen." The Chandogya Upanishad (1.1.2) upholds speech as the essence of man. The essence of Vedic knowledge is also speech. Speech milks the milk of speech for him, who knows the secret knowledge of Samans. He becomes a Rik in food and enjoyer of food (Ch.1.13.4). However, like all other organs in the body, speech is vulnerable to evil, when it is used for selfish  or evil purposes. Therefore, restraint is recommended in the use of speech.

Speech has manifesting powers. Through speech we express our desires and thoughts and make things happen. As the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.2.4) states, speech combined with the mind is responsible for the manifestation of this world and beings. It informs us that the Primal Being produced the mortal world (or body) by joining his mind with speech only. He did the same (Bri.1.2.5) to bring forth "whatever that is here, the hymns of the Rigveda, Yajurveda, and Samaveda, the meters, the sacrifices, humans and animals." Of the seven types of food created by Prajapati, he kept three for himself, namely the mind, the speech and the breath (Bri.1.5.3). They represent the three worlds, bhur, bhuva and suvah, the three Vedas, and the trio of the gods, the ancestors and the humans. In the same section they are described as the father, mother and the offspring, and as the known, the knowable and the unknown. Since speech is the basis for relationships, social order and sacrifices, the Upanishad says that by becoming the known, speech protects. At the time of death, speech from father enters into his son (Bri.1.5.18).

If speech is the support for Vedic sacrifices, silence is the support for spiritual effort. One should restrain speech with mind, the mind with intelligence, and intelligence with the great Self (Katha.1.3.13). None becomes a silent seer, or know the speaker of the speech, without speaking truth and without restraining speech. Brahman personifies silence. Yet, without him no sacrifice can be performed since he is the source and support for all sounds and speech. Hence, in the Vedic sacrifices a Brahman priest silently presides over the sacrifices and keeps a watch on the proceedings. Through speech we secure things and enjoy the blessings of life. The Kausitaki Upanishad (2.3) states that "speech is the obtainer of boons." Through the power of speech only a family is able to maintain its status in society and carry forward its name and reputation. Hence, transmission ritual which is conducted in the last phases of a person’s life, speech is the first organ which he as a father transmits to his son (Kau2.15), so that his son can carry forward his father’s name and reputation. The same Upanishad (Kau. 4.2) declares that speech must be established in truth. If speech is the right eye, truth is the left eye. In the absence of light or eyesight, speech is the only recourse to find one's way through the phenomenal world (Bri.4.3.5).

Speech is the basis of sacrifice. With speech only one is able to perform sacrifices and manifest one's desire. Through speech only one is able to nourish the gods. The Upanishad also recognizes the importance of harmonious speech. Speech must be rooted in truth. It is possible only when the speech and mind are in harmony, and both are in harmony with the knowledge of the Vedas. Speech must be in harmony with the speech of others too. Then even the love between a man and a woman is possible (Kau.2.4). Speech is also an offering in the sacrifice of life. Speech and breath are the "two unending, immortal oblations" a living being pours always as an offering (Kau.2.5). Speech is the support for the gods, humans and ancestors. In the Chandogya Upanishad (5.8.1) speech is compared to a cow. The gods live on two of her teats. Human beings on one, and the ancestors on one. "

The Aitareya Upanishad begins with the invocation, "Aum, may my speech be established in my mind; may my mind be established in my speech." This is the basis of true speech. Truth protects the speaker. The basis of the truth is the knowledge contained in the scriptures. Hence, "By what I have studied day and night, I will speak that which is harmonious; I will speak Truth. May that protect me; may that protect the speaker." The same Upanishad also speaks about how speech manifested. "From the mouth came speech, from speech fire." Speech is important in securing food through sacrifices, but speech by itself cannot satisfy hunger. (1.3.3). Kausitaka Upanishad (2.1) recognizes the importance of speech in earning livelihood by stating that speech is the keeper of breath (life) and he who knows it becomes a housekeeper. The Upanishads such as the Kena (1.1-2), identify Brahman (or the Self) as the source of speech or the speech of the speech. Since He is beyond speech and other than the known, he cannot be known through speech.

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