When is a coconut not a coconut?

Using semiotics to harness culture in India

Seema Khanwalkar
Quest, ORG-MARG Research Private Limited,


In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad adhyaya 5 Brahman 2 Lord Prajapati speaks in thunder three times: 'DA DA DA'. When the gods, given to pleasure, hear it, they hear it as the first syllable of damayata, 'control'. The antigods, given as they are to cruelty, hear it as dayadavam, be 'compassionate'. When the humans, given to greed, hear it, they hear it as datta, 'give it to others' (Hume 1931, 150).

Indian philosophers had conceived life as being driven by contexts. Unlike the egalitarian democratic ideals, Protestant Christianity and the post-Renaissance quest for 'universal' laws, India is an intensely context sensitive society. In such a world, systems of meaning are elicited by contexts, by the nature (and substance) of the listener. Each human class had its own logic and its own gunas (qualities) and they all responded to different rules and beckonings. Ramanujan (1986) says that even 'time' and 'space', the universal contexts, have properties and varying specific densities that affect those who dwell in them. Texts, he says, may be historically dateless, but their contexts and uses are explicit. The Ramayana and Mahabharata open with episodes that tell you under what circumstances they were composed. Hegel once noted; 'While we say 'Bravery is a virtue', the Hindus say on the contrary 'Bravery is a virtue of the Kshatriyas'' (Hegel in 1827: Part I, Section 2, India). Life in India even today has a pre-ordained, pre-determined (karmic/dharmic) character.