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Metaphor and philosophy: an Indian perspective


-Sergiu Al-George (1922-1981) –

Approaches to metaphor from a philosophical perspective – in both Western and Indian cultural contexts – have provided opportunities for disentangling this symbolical structure from the narrow framework of poetics and rhetoric. Philosophy leaves formal considerations aside and inherently unveils the deep aspects of the metaphoric process, aspects which pertain to epistemic and ontological problems. Thus, the concept of metaphor certainly becomes more comprehensive, and a connection between verbal and non-verbal symbolism is thereby made possible within a unified theory of the symbolic experience.

In Europe, a philosophical approach to metaphor was absent in Greco-Latin antiquity, in spite of Aristotle’s intense preoccupation with poetics and rhetoric. Metaphor became relevant for metaphysics only in the 17th century, in the works of Baroque artists, who were influenced by hermetic esotericism. On the contrary, in India, metaphor and the terms it implies occur in the old philosophical texts.

The reason of this inclusion of metaphor from the very beginning among philosophical problems can be explained, as we shall see, by a certain affinity between symbolic experience and the fundamental themes of Indian metaphysics. There is a definite resemblance between the “leap” involved in the metaphorical process and the paradoxical translation from the phenomenal level of the real into the absolute one. The Indian feeling that the phenomenal world is merely an appearance of a deeper reality was alien to Aristotle.

The references to metaphor and semantic transfer in Indian philosophical texts are in fact due more to this similarity than to a proper concern with metaphor as such. That is why the references in question do not lead to systematic developments; nevertheless, they attest a large consensus among philosophers, in spite of their different epistemic and ontological criteria. This consensus can be illustrated by considering how the words for “metaphor” and “semantic transfer” were employed in various philosophical contexts. For “metaphor”, preference is given to the word upacāra, whereas “semantic transfer” conceived as superimposition is expressed not only by adhyāsa, but by its synonyms as well. To all these terms, abstract and comprehensive meanings were ascribed: they were used to qualify the state of the apparent world as against the real one, a state which nevertheless is not devoid of ambiguity. This epistemic and ontological distinction between two levels which are not however absolutely different is a common view of the major philosophical schools in India, which disagree only on the extent to which these two levels should be considered continuous or non-continuous.

The most relevant philosophical perspective on metaphor seems to have been developed by Bhartṛhari. According to him, metaphor is not so much concerned with figurative language, but is still a matter of language, inasmuch as language and thought are unified in the eternal Logos, śabdabrahman. He qualifies as upacāra or aupacārika, “metaphoric process”, the translation from the multiple or discontinuous to the continuous. The respective translation is located at different levels of the thought-language. The relationship between the universal of the word (śabdajati) and that of the object referred to (arthajati) is a superimposition (adhyāropa), as well as the merging of the word meanings in a compound or in the sentence meaning (vakyārtha); in all these cases it is a question of abstracting and unifying.

In order to grasp the essence of the metaphoric process as conceived by Bhartṛhari, we have to point out the paradoxicality involved in the passage from the discontinuous (multiplicity) to the continuous (unity). On the one hand, the setting up of the continuous on the beings (bhava) and actions (kriya) is a superimposition of our mental patterns (parikalpana), which have the same illusive consistency as a fire-brand circle (alātacakra); on the other hand, the continuous – as perceived in the meaning of the sentence as a whole – is pratibhā, “revelatory intuition” of the eternal Logos, śabdabrahman. Thus, the metaphorical process affords an intuitive knowledge of the highest reality through the mediacy of the illusory; thereby metaphor discloses its paradoxicality. This feature may be found in a similar way, more or less explicitly, in Buddhist and Vedānta philosophy.

In Buddhist metaphysics – both Madhyamika and Yogacara – upacāra is used to qualify the level of phenomenal experience, or saṃvṛtisat, “that which covers up” the supreme reality, or paramārthasat. In Yogacara epistemology, the word upacāra, “metaphor”, is adopted to emphasize the mediatory nature of the discursive thought forms as they are superimposed on the inconceivable supreme reality (paramārthasat). It is worth noticing that the agreement between Madhyamikas and Yogacaras in regarding the saṃvṛtisat as a metaphor is above their opposite views as to the continuous or non-continuous character of the saṃvṛti– and paramārthasat. It is well known that Yogacara epistemology – as opposed to Madhyamika – qualified the paramārthasat as discontinuous and the saṃvṛtisat as continuous. Thus, in Buddhist thought in general, metaphor is a two-way process: from the continuous to the discontinuous and vice versa.

The ambivalence of the phenomenal level, called by Candrakirti upacārabhūmi, “metaphoric level”, in the sense that it is the metaphor of the absolute, is found in Nagarjuna, the author of the famous distinction between saṃvṛti– and paramārthasat. On his view, the saṃvṛtisat, “that which enslaves consciousness by ignorance”, is at the same time a means to obtain liberation, a means to reach the paramārthasat or nirvana. This ambivalence is coessential with that of metaphor, as the semantic value of saṃvṛtisat suggests: derived from saṃ-VṚ, “to cover up”, “to dissimulate”, saṃvṛtisat evokes first of all the idea of “veil”. That the veil might suggest in a figurative way the very idea of metaphor – that it can be taken as a metaphor for metaphor itself – is a conception which has also occurred in the European cultural context. The Romantics especially insisted on the function of the symbol as a concurrence of concealment and revelation, and illustrated this function by the image of the veil; Novalis speaks about the veil of the Goddess which “covers and dresses, yet reveals her”. In fact, Novalis and the Romantics are echoing a very old tradition (St. Dionysius and St. Thomas Aquinas), which evokes the divine ray or light that should be known by the human mind only when covered by the holy veil. To this ancient tradition belong in fact some contemporary theorists of metaphor and symbol such as E.A. Cassirer, P. Ricoeur and M. Eliade, when they speak about revelation in concomitance with concealment.

After this short digression on metaphor and phenomenal reality as veil, we are in a better position to understand the relevance of the Vedānta interpretation of māyā to the problem of symbolic structures.

In Vedānta, the term saṃvṛtisat, of Buddhist origin, becomes synonymous with māyā and thereby expands its antinomic semantics. Moreover, in Vedānta the epistemic aspects of metaphor acquire an ontological and even a mythical significance. When Śaṅkara shared the Buddhist view that the world of phenomenality and ignorance is still a means to reach the Absolute, he perceived in the mythical connotation of māyā a more radical equivalence: in the Vedic texts, māyā is at the same time benefic and malefic, it binds and unbinds. The mythical paradoxicality of māyā is paralleled in the philosophical statements, where māyā is neither being (sat) nor non-being (asat), its relationship with brahman is neither of otherness (anya) nor sameness (ananya, tattva), and as such māyā is ineffable (anirvacanīya). This ontological ambiguity entails an epistemic ambiguity: by its otherness with respect to brahman, māyā is ignorance and concealment, whereas by its sameness, māyā becomes transparency and revelation. Thus, we are encountering the same paradoxical dialectics as that ascribed to metaphor and symbol in Europe, but in Vedānta one can find its ontological reason.

The analogy between māyā and symbolic forms becomes closer when Śaṅkara deals with avidya, “ignorance”, the individual aspect of māyā, as a case of “superimposition” (adhyāsa). The Indian concept of superimposition may be rightly considered an equivalent to our “metaphoric transfer”, but its meaning is more comprehensive: it qualifies the general condition when two things are assimilated in a more or less adequate way. Thus, with Śaṅkara one has to distinguish parallels between superimposition as a pure confusion of the subjective absolute (ātman) with the phenomenal world, on the one hand, and the superimposition as it is to be found in the religious meditation on symbols, on the other hand. Symbols, irrespective of their nature, pertain to the phenomenal level and consequently share the state of māyā. These parallels are the more relevant as the religious symbols referred to are not Viṣṇu’s statues only, but the cosmical symbols (aditya, prāṇa, etc.) of brahman. Therefore, the relation between brahman and its symbols is conceived in the same unilateral way as in the case of māyā: the symbol, the same as māyā, is that which participates in the nature of brahman and not vice versa.

Whereas in Buddhist philosophy saṃvṛtisat falls within the sphere of verbal symbolism, in Vedānta, by becoming māyā, saṃvṛtisat comes under that of non-verbal symbolism. Within the framework of philosophical abstraction, the common function of these two types of symbolism is indirectly made evident. Let us bear in mind that phenomenality – whether it is qualified as saṃvṛtisat or māyā – affords, or is itself, a passage to the Absolute. This fundamental function of the metaphor is confirmed by the semantics of the word upacāra itself.

It is in Vedic ritualism that we encounter the first technical meaning of this word, which precedes both rhetorical and philosophical acceptations. Thus, upacāra denoted the “access” or “passage” to the vihāra, the area of the ritual fires, and therefore a passage from the profane to the sacred. Later, in the ja ritualism, upacāra means “acts or instruments of worship”, and thereby refers to the religious symbolic experience. As such, there is perfect concordance between the employment of the word upacāra in the philosophical context, on the one hand, and its employment in the ritual context, on the other hand.


In conclusion, let us observe that, from an Indian philosophical perspective, metaphor uncovers the very essence of symbolic experience. This relevance is due to the all‑pervasiveness of metaphor – beyond the level of figurative expression – in both language and thought. In this way, the Indian perspective provides invaluable suggestions for revising the Western distinction between rational and symbolic thought, and therefore the relationship between philosophy, art and religion.