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The Sin of Speech


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Wise, of a wisdom far beyond our shallow depth, was that old precept: Watch thy tongue; out of it are the issues of Life! "Man is properly an incarnated word": the word that he speaks is the man himself. Were eyes put into our head, that we might see; or only that we might fancy, and plausibly pretend, we had seen? Was the tongue suspended there, that it might tell truly what we had seen, and make man the soul's brother of man; or only that it might utter vain sounds, jargon, soul-confusing, and so divide man, as by enchanted walls of Darkness, from union with man? Thou who wearest that cunning, heaven-made organ, a Tongue, think well of this. Speak not, I passionately entreat thee, till thy thought hath silently matured itself, thou hast other than mad and mad-making noises to emit: hold thy tongue (thou hast it a-holding) till some meaning lie behind, to set it wagging. Consider the signifiance of SILENCE: it is boundless, never by meditating to be exhausted; unspeakably profitable to thee! Cease that chaotic hubbub, wherein thy own soul runs to waste, to confused suicidal dislocation and stupor: out of Silence comes thy strength. "Speech is silvern, Silence is golden; Speech is human. Silence is divine." Fool! thinkest thou that because no Boswell is there with ass-skin and blacklead to note thy jargon, it therefore dies and is harmless? Nothing dies, nothing can die. No idlest word thou speakest is a seed cast into Time, and grows through all Eternity! The Recording Angel, consider it well, is no fable, but the truest of truths: the paper tablets thou canst burn; of the "iron leaf" there is no burning.

THOMAS CARI.YLE: "Boswell's Life of Johnson,"
Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Vol. III

One of the evils by which modern society is debased is constant misuse of the power of speech. Too many talk for the sake of talking: small and random talk, business talk, often inimical, at home or at office; jests at the expense of friends and especially of foes which may degenerate into gossip; and there are also malice and backbiting; and lies, which in political circles pass under the name of diplomacy and elsewhere under that of courtesy or cleverness or what not.

In all these, there is at work a common factor, which is rarely taken into account – the corruption of the speaker's own mind and morals, character and health. Indulgence in destructive speech poisons the human system and injures it as few types of venom do. Many who indulge in it, however, are not wicked but thoughtless. If only they would listen to the saying that "a single word may ruin a whole city or put the spirit of a lion into a dead fox" they would start thinking. Selden has well said: "Syllables govern the world." The mischief done by words at the U.N.O., in parliaments and through the press begins in clubs andhomes, at lunch counters and around tea tables.

Real knowledge about words and sounds, meanings and tones, is highly important. Our "civilized" people neglect it.

Sound, Word and Speech are regarded as profoundly important by the mystics, the philosophers and the philologists; each values them from his own angle of vision. Gupta Vidya, the Esoteric Philosophy and Occult Science have a special point of view, rooted in the synthetic power of perception. The mystic looks upon words as living; the philosopher uses them as vehicles for his own thoughts and speculations; the philologist is interested mainly in their lineage. The Occultist uses words as living messengers of incommunicable secret and sacred verities, using their sound values and their color tones to reveal the indissoluble relation between the spiritual, the psychic and the material; between the divine, the human and the animal; between

the invisible and the visible; between the good and the evil.

The primal vibration, Sound emanating from the Unmanifest, is named the Word – Shabda Brahman. It is called the Logos by the Greeks, whose wisdom Apostle John used to begin his gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." This is the Pranava, the AUM, of Eastern Esotericism. Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita proclaims It as one of His Vibhutis, Excellences – "Of words I am the monosyllable OM."

The sound values of words and phrases – mantras – are not a matter of serious study by our learned men of today, though the creative and destructive powers of sound are beginning to be accepted by some medical men and by some musicians. But the power of sound, the potencies of words and language, even as ordinarily used – these are terra incognita for men of modern knowledge. The mysterious and mighty magic of speech at which Carlyle hints is desecrated every day and every hour by leaders and the led alike. Even Hindus who believe in their tradition about the power of mantras, speech-sounds, never think of the power brought into play in their daily use of language. A superstition has grown up that mantras belong only to Sanskrit, the language of the Gods. But, whether men curse or bless in English or in Hindi, words and phrases and tones of all tongues have an invisible influence. They soothe or irritate, depress or energize, not only those who hear, but also those who speak.

All this offers the metaphysical and psychological basis for the precept that those who aspire to simple and high living, to feel devotion to the Supreme and to Humanity, should guard their speech. We must learn the place of silence in our daily living. In useless babbling we fritter away soul force. We should cultivate the power to listen. But the modern style of living, laboring, even loving, encourages talk and more talk. Modern society is very suspicious of the silent fellow! "One never knows," it says, "how can bread be earned and how can business be done without proper phrases, suggestive remarks, flattery and threats?" "What would club life be without conversation, salty and peppery, pungent and smart," says the social drone and butterfly. As to love, "What nonsense! How can you make love without endearments?" And yet it is taught that the human devotee receives into his heart the grace of the Divine Lover, which is silent when his own heart and mind and tongue are silent. Is it not said that the Guru speaketh not and yet the pupil learneth?

The misuse of speech results from the mishandling of the mind. Petty mind, petty speech; mean mind, mean speech; wandering mind, rambling speech; seeing mind, sage speech. Without wisdom, speech cannot be true or good or beautiful. Speech is personified as one of the wives of Dharma. Speech that is not properly wedded to the Lord of Law and Duty is compared to a prostitute – unchaste, though she is pretty, false though she is lavish.

Between mind and speech, understanding and words, there is a kinship. Plutarch, introducing his life of two grand orators, Demosthenes and Cicero, refers to himself – "It was not so much by the knowledge of words that I came to the understanding of things, as by my experience of things I was enabled to follow the meaning of words." Wisdom enshrined in words does not come to us by a study of words and idioms, construction of phrases and sentences, and the like.

We are called upon to control wrong speech and to cultivate right speech. Meditation (or Tapas) on Speech, according to the Bhagavad-Gita, is to be on gentleness of words. These are words that causes not excitement or anxiety; on true words; on friendly words; on words of Holy Writ. The Laws of Manu (iv. 138) advocate practice of the rule belonging to Sanatana Dharma, the Immortal Wisdom-Religion: speak true words pleasantly, but never unpleasantly, and avoid falsehood even though it be pleasant to oneself or to another. A sevenfold exercise is recommended to the earnest and sincere aspirant as part of his self-discipline:

(a) Self-imposition of periodic silence.

(b) Abstaining from untruthful or injurious speech.

(c) Guarding against useless talk.

(d) Abstaining from asking questions out of curiosity, or from the weakness of prying into the affairs of others.

(e) Abstaining from egotistic speech, i.e., not making statements about our Divine Soul in terms of our animal nature.

(f) Guarding against airing and enumerating our own faults and weaknesses lest our speech lend strength to these.

(g) Speaking only that which is true, and that only at proper times, to proper people, under proper circumstances.

This or a like discipline will enable us to perceive the truth of the aphorism:

Attain to knowledge and you wilt attain to speech.

From Thus Have I Heard, pages.153-57. Utgiven av Indian Institute of World Culture, 1959.


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