Birdsong Prayers

What came before language? The answer to this question can be found near the colorful southern coast of India. It seems that before humans had a way to communicate with each other, we had a way to communicate with the gods. A group of Brahmin priests have been passing down mantras orally for thousands of years, originating so far back that there does not seem to be any language structure within them. However, after closer evaluation, it has been discovered that these mantras tie closely to the patterns and structure of birdsong.

According to the “Out of Africa theory”, humans migrated 70,000 years ago; starting in Africa, continuing along the coasts of the Arabian Sea, and ending up in South India. The theory also includes that all non-African humans are descendants of these Indians. Living among the animals, it is not preposterous that these first Indians picked up the patterns of the birds’ melodic tongue and re-appropriated it in their own religious ceremonies. It is even less preposterous because mantras are language independent, meaning that they stay the same no matter what language one is speaking, and because mantras follow patterns, which is not seen in language. Frits Staal, of UC Berkeley, could not believe that mantras were older than language until he compared the patterns of a certain mantra to the patterns of birdsong. (Jaimintya Gramageyagana (45.2.1)):

“vo no ha bu / idam idam pura ha bu / pra va pra

vas ia ia ha yi / nina ninava tarn u vo ha bu / stiisa vi

sakhtaia Ya ha vi / dramutalyayi / o vi la/”

The mantra was split into patterns, such as AB / CB / DE / FB / GE / H / J / / which were inherently similar to patterns in birdsong, and not present anywhere else, in any language. Mantras and birdsong are performed for similar reasons as well; mantras could be performed for rain while birdsong is sung for building nests; both are also performed for pleasure. The parallels between the two are surprisingly abundant.

It is astonishing that the Brahmins have been able to preserve Bronze Age language almost impeccably, and it lends us insight into the ways of our ancestors. The fact that humans were praying before they were communicating through language also gives us insight into our psyche and provokes the question of where our faith is sourced from. India has been the beginning for so much and holds many secrets about our past that will only be discovered through ingenuity and exploration.

Links for further learning:

The Story of India (documentary)

Rituals and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning by Frits Staal

Madeline Schwartz


One response to “Birdsong Prayers

  1. This blog post was incredibly interesting. But I’m slightly skeptical that the Brahmins managed to preserve the Bronze age language perfectly. How do we know that the entire mantra isn’t just a traditional language that’s been garbled over time?

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