The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven




Two Aspects of the Word

As mentioned earlier in the series, the first two khandas of the Vakyapadiya cover subjects such as grammar as also the philosophy of grammar and linguistics, focusing on the word (Sabda) and meaning (Artha).

The first Khanda (Brahma-khanda) of Vakyapadiya introduces the concept of Sadba-sphota and gives the outline of its general philosophy; and, its distinction from sound (Dhvani, Nada). By Sabda Sphota, Bhartrhari refers to that inner unity of Sabda (word or sentence) which conveys the meaning (Artha).

The text explains a complete sentence as the intent of the speaker, which is unerringly grasped, directly and immediately, by the listener (Sphota). And, that it is not the same as Nada (non-linguistic sound or that which expresses) or Dhvani (intonation) which act as a carrier to convey the intended meaning.  Here, in Grammar (in contrast to Tantra and to the classical theories of Indian music), Nada signifies the gross sound which results from a collection of subtle Dhvani-s.


After establishing , in the opening Karika-s (Shastra-aramba), that Sabda–tattva (Word-principle) is verily the Brahman, the ultimate truth which is beyond space or time; and declaring that Sabda Brahman (Supreme word principle) is One (ekam eva), is imperishable (Akshara)  and is identical with the highest Reality –Para Brahman, Bhartrhari takes up the question of language and  meaning.

(Anadi-nidhanam Brahma sabda-tattvam yad-aksharam / vivartate artha-bhavena prakriya jagato yatah – VP. 1.1)

Bhartrhari begins his discussion on words and meaning (VP: 1.44-49) by stating that in the words which are expressive, Grammarians see two aspects :  one, the cause of all words, and another, the kind of words used to convey a meaning.  These two , though appearing to be separate, are ,in fact, not distant from each other; they, in truth, are one. The Supreme Word principle and the spoken word are in a similar relationship – as that between the fire which is inherent in the firewood, and that which is made manifest through rubbing fire-sticks together.

dvāv upādānaśabdeṣu śabdau śabdavido viduḥ /
eko nimittaṃ śabdānām aparo ‘rthe prayujyate -VP:1.44
avibhakto vibhaktebhyo jāyate ‘rthasya vācakaḥ /
śabdas tatrārtharūpātmā saṃbandham upagacchati – VP: 1.45
ātmabhedaṃ tayoḥ ke cid astīty āhuḥ purāṇagāḥ /
buddhibhedād abhinnasya bhedam eke pracakṣate –  VP:1.46
araṇisthaṃ yathā jyotiḥ prakāśāntarakāraṇam /
tadvac chabdo ‘pi buddhisthaḥ śrutīnāṃ kāraṇaṃ pṛthak – VP: 1.47
vitarkitaḥ purā buddhyā kva cid arthe niveśitaḥ /
karaṇebhyo vivṛttena dhvaninā so ‘nugṛhyate – VP: 1.48
nādasya kramajātatvān na pūrvo na paraś ca saḥ /
akramaḥ kramarūpeṇa bhedavān iva jāyate – VP:1.49

[Translation of Shri K Raghavan Pillai

Words are of two kinds — one, the cause of all words, and another, the kind of words used to convey a meaning.  Some consider that there is an intrinsic difference between them, according to others, the second type is only a manifested form of the first the Supreme Word principle and the spoken word are in a relationship similar to that between the fire which is inherent in the firewood, and that which is made manifest through rubbing fire-sticks together. The potential fire in the kindling wood, once inflamed, illuminates itself as well as other objects. Like the light concealed in the piece of kindling wood is the cause of the manifestation (prakāśa) of another [light].  It is the same way in which the mental word is the cause of every audible word.

The nada or the uttered sound is only the Sphota or the Word-principle in manifest form. But the manifested word has characteristics of its own which are not – of the Sphota (44-49)

In the next kārikās it is claimed that although the distinction between the mental and the audible words may be useful for the description of a verbal communication, from the ontological point of view it is invalid. It is the indivisible word that acquires succession in the phonemes (Varna) as if being differentiated. Modifications, which the mental word is subject to in the course of audible manifestation, have the same character as the changes which the reflection of an object undergoes because of the movement of water.

pratibimbaṃ yathānyatra sthitaṃ toyakriyāvaśāt /
tatpravṛttim ivānveti sa dharmaḥ sphoṭanādayoḥ // VP:1.50 //]


Here, Bhartrhari, just as Patanjali, begins with the observation that the words or sentences (Sabda) can be viewed in two ways or as having two aspects (upādāna-śabdesu): One; as sound patterns (Dhvani); and, the other as its cause and essence (Artha).

[Patanjali had said:  Sphota is both internal and external. The internal form of Sphota is the innate essence of the word-meaning. The external aspect of Sphota is the uttered sound which is perceived by the sense organs. It merely serves to manifest the inner Sphota with its inherent word-meaning. But, for Patanjali, Sphota could be a letter (Varna) or a fixed pattern of letters (Pada).]

 (i) The gross sound pattern, Dhvani or Nada, is a sequence of sounds. Those sounds are employed to convey or to give an audible form to the intent of the speaker.  Those audible sounds through their divisions and time sequence, produced one after another by the speech organs, act as means (upaya) or as vehicles to transport the intent of the speaker. Such quanta of sound-sequences (words) might create an impression as though they are independent; and, the meaning intended to be conveyed by them (Sphota) comprises several parts. But, in truth, the individual words have no separate existence; and, both the sentence and its meaning (Sphota) are part-less.

.[ pade na varna vidyante varnesva avayaya na cha / vakyat padanam atyantam pravibhago na kascha na // VP 174]

According to Bhartrhari, the letter-sounds have a limited range. Each sound helps in gaining a better understanding of its next. The first one could be vague ; and , the next one little more clear and so on, until the last one, aided by the accumulated  impression created by all the preceding perceptions, finally reveals the complete meaning (Sphota)  with precision and distinctness.

(ii) The second; the essence or the meaning-bearing aspect of the language is called the Sphota. It is through that Sphota the meaning (Artha) of the sentence, as a whole, flashes forth.

Bhartrhari envisages Sphota “as that internal aspect, which is a timeless and part-less (avibhakta) linguistic symbol, to which meaning is attached”. Here, Sphota represents the true intent, purpose of the sentence (Sabda), while Dhvani the articulated sound-pattern, in its physical aspect, acts as a carrier to manifest the Sphota.

(ii) These two – Dhvani and Sphota – though appearing to be separate are, in fact, intimately related through a natural process (Yogyata). The former (Dhvani), acts as the outer garment or as an instrument in order to convey the inner essence of the word (Sphota).

Thus, a word has a dual power; one to indicate itself and the other to indicate the thing symbolized by it. It is like the power of fire:  to   reveal itself and at the same time to reveal other things.It is both the revealer and the revealed  (prakasha and prakasyatvam).


Though the Sphota is revealed in stages by each succeeding sound; it is, by itself, ‘one and indivisible’. The sounds uttered (words) are merely parts of a sentence that aid to reveal this Sphota. Bhartrhari asserts that it is the cognition of the Sphota in its entirety that is important in understanding the complete and true meaning of a sentence.

While the audible noise may vary depending on the speaker’s mode of utterance, Sphota as the meaning-unit of speech is not subject to such variations.

[ For instance; the sound of the word Ghata (gh, a, t and a) can be produced in any number of ways, either naturally (prakrta) or in a modified manner (vikruta). That word can be uttered slowly (vilambita), a little more quickly (madhyama) or even very quickly (druta).The variations in speed or in the mode of utterance are called vritti. The vritti might vary the form in which the word is uttered (Dhvani); but , it does not alter the content and the sense (Sphota) of the word.

Again; a pot in bright light can be seen clearly. The pot could be seen for a longer time if clear light continues to fall on it. The visibility of the pot depends on the quality of light that falls on it. The variation in the quality of light does not alter the very nature or the status of the pot.

Similarly, the change in speed or accent or mode of uttering a word (vritti) does not alter its Sphota. The physical aspect of the word that is the quality of its sound (Dhvani) might vary ; but , its Sphota remains unchanged.]

Obviously, Sphota is viewed here as a changeless element of speech, the inner unity which holds together the meaning. But, Bhartrhari does not define the term precisely.

[The commentators surmise that the ancient concept of Pranava (Om-kara) might have provided the inspiration to come up with the Sphota concept. In fact, Sphota is often identified with Pranava; and is taken as the imperishable Vak, the speech-principle (Vak-tattva).]


Bhartrhari explains the relation between the Sphota and Nada through an analogy of reflection of the moon on the surface of water. The relation between the object (moon) and its image (reflection) is because of the reflective surface (water). And the movement of the reflection might not necessarily be because of the movement of the object (moon). He says; just as the reflection on the water might give an impression as though the moon  (object) is rippling and moving, similarly the Sphota takes on the properties of uttered speech ( sequence, loudness or softness and so on) in which it is manifested. According to this view, the reflection acquires the qualities of the object.

According to Bhartrhari, the perfect perception is that in which there is identity between the essence or the thought (Sphota) and the form of its manifestation (Nada or Dhvani  – the letters or sounds). They are the two halves of one entity; and, are not distinct and separable (ekasaivatmano bhedau sabda-artha-vapathak sthitau – VP.2.31) The  realization of this special kind of relation arises  due to the function of mind, rather than of the external senses.

[Some scholars have pointed out that Bhartrhari’s position is closer to the notion of reflection (Abhasa) formulated by the Trika philosophers of Kashmir. In this viewpoint, the Shaktis and their material forms as words are identical with the Absolute. The relationship between the two is described as that between the mirror and its reflection. That is; the latter can have no independent existence without the former. And, yet the latter also has a reality which is somehow identical with the former.]

[Bhartrhari at another place clarifies (VP.1.59): ‘Two aspects of a word (upādānaśabda), distinguished artificially and perceived as separate, indicate different activities, without contradiction’.  It means that all the elements extracted from the word in the course of linguistic analysis are ultimately unreal. But they are valid in their own context. The elements that are relevant in the context of one activity may not be valid in the context of another. That is to say; each kind of activity, i.e. each kind of communicative situation, has its own reality which in some way might differ from the realities of other situations.

bhedenāvagṛhītau dvau śabdadharmāv apoddhṛtau/ bhedakāryeṣu hetutvam avirodhena gacchataḥ  (VP.1.59)  ]



The technical term Sphota does not easily translate into English. Sometimes, the term ‘symbol’ is used for Sphota in the sense of its function as a linguistic sign. Some scholars have tried to equate Sphota with the Greek concept of Logos, which stands for an Idea as well as for word. But such explanations too seem rather inadequate.

The term Sphota is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Sphut’ which means ‘to burst forth’; but, it also describes what ’is revealed’ or ’is made explicit’. Sphota can also refer to the abstract or conceptual form of an audible word. Say, as when the idea or the meaning bursts or flashes on the mind after one hears /grasps the sounds that are uttered.

[Harsha V. Dehejia remarks : translated wrongly as ‘explosion’; Sphota could ideally be understood as ‘blossoming’]

In Grammar and in Indian linguistic theory, the term Sphota is of prime importance. Nageshabhatta in his Sphota-vada describes Sphota as an entity which is manifested by spoken letters or sounds (sphutati prakashate artho asmad iti sphotah). In a similar manner, Sri Madhava in his Sarva-darshana-samgraha, defines Sphota as that which is manifested or revealed by the Varna (phonemes): sphutyate vyajyate varnairiti sphotah’.  Sri Madhava describes Sphota in two ways. The first as: that from which the meaning bursts forth or shines forth. And, the second as: an entity that is manifested by the spoken letters and sounds.

To put it in another way; Sphota, in its linguistic sense, refers to that element which expresses a meaning (word). In its second sense, it is something that is made explicit by letters or sounds (meaning). Thus, the Sphota may be thought of as a kind of two-sided coin. On the one side, it is manifested by the word sound; and on the other side, it simultaneously reveals the word meaning. It is both the word and its meaning.

Bhartrhari also deals with Sphota at two levels: one on the metaphysical plane and the other on the empirical plane. The Sphota here is more than a theory of language.  The principle that is involved here is: the Brahman first manifested itself as Sound and then as form. The Sphota, Sabda-Brahman, the manifester as Logos or Word, is the power through which the Lord manifests in the universe. Liberation is achieved when one attains unity with that ‘supreme word principle’. Within this theory, consciousness and thought are intertwined; and Grammar becomes a path to liberation. This metaphysical Sphota-vada is a monistic philosophy based in Sanskrit grammar.

At the empirical level, Bhartrhari is concerned with the process of communicating meaning. He deals with the word and the sound distinctions; the word meaning; the unitary nature of the whole sentence; the word-object connection; and the levels of speech, etc. His focus is on cognition and on language.

Bhartrhari also says that Sphota is both external (bahya) and internal (abhayantara). And again, in understanding Sphota as an external entity we have to understand it in the form of universal (Jati) and individual or specific (Vyakti).


Communication of thought

If the letters  float away and disappear the instant we utter them and if each sound is replaced by another in quick succession, then one can hardly perceive the sentence as a whole. And the question that comes up is – how does one grasp  a sentence and its meaning in full?

Bhartrhari explains, at first, the sentence exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity or Sphota. In the process of giving a form to a thought, he produces a series of different sounds in a sequence where one sound follows its previous one. It might look as though those word-sounds are separated in time and space. But, they are indeed part and parcel of one and the same single entity – the sentence. The communication of a sentence and its meaning is not complete until the last word is uttered. Thus, though the word-sounds reach the listener in a sequence, eventually they all merge into one ; and, are grasped by the listener as a single unit. The same Sphota which originated in speaker’s mind re-manifests in listener’s mind, conveying the intended meaning.

The listener grasps the intent of the speaker as a whole; and the understanding is like an instantaneous flash of insight (prathibha). Just as the sentence (the symbol – Sphota) is an integral unit, the meaning signified by it is also unitary. That is; the sentence is an integral unit; and, its meaning which is grasped through intuition (pratibha) is also a single unit (Vakya-sphota)). According to Bhartrhari, Sphota is an auditory image of the sentence.  It is indivisible and without inner-sequence.

This, rather crudely put, is the concept called Sphota – the sentence just as its meaning being taken as an integral symbol; and its meaning bursting forth in a flash of understanding.

Bhartrhari held the view that the sentence is not a mere collection (Sabda-samghatah) or an ordered series of words. The sentence with its words is to be taken as single part-less linguistic unit (eko’navayavah s’abdah); and, not as a jumble of fragments. A sentence is a sequence-less, part-less unity that gets expressed or manifested in a sequential and temporal utterance. He maintained that the primary function of the words is to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning – (Arthah sahabhuteshu vartate – VP.2.115). Ultimately, the meaning of the words depend upon the overall meaning of the sentence (rupam sarva-pada-artham vakyartha nibamdhanam-VP.2.324)

[At another place, Bhartrhari observes: All differences presuppose a unity (abheda-purvaka hi bhedah); and, where there are differences and parts, there is an underlying unity. Otherwise the one would not be related to the other; and, each would constitute a world by itself.

Abheda-pūrvakā bhedāḥ kalpitā vākya-vādibhiḥ / bheda-pūrvān abhedāṃs tu manyante pada-darśinaḥ // VP. 2.57// ]

Just as a root or a suffix by itself has no meaning, so also the meanings of individual words have no independent existence. Bhartrhari asserts that a word consisting letters and syllables cannot, on its own, directly convey the meaning/ intent of the speaker. The words are somewhat like intermediate steps to arrive at the meaning of the sentences.

[That does not mean that Bhartrhari denies the validity of individual words or their meaning; but, what is in question is their significance. They are secondary in relation to the Sphota, which is the real object of cognition.

Bhartrhari accepts the fact that a word is vital in a sentence; and, can have multiple meanings. The role and the particular desired meaning of the word depend on the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is employed. He explains this through an analogy: the human eye which has the natural power of seeing many things at a time, but it can see a particular object, clearly,  only when the individual decides and focuses his attention to see that object.]

Bhartrhari argues; in a linguistic analysis, artificial extraction of parts from an integral unit (apoddhāra) – splitting up of a sentence into word and then on into roots, suffixes and syllables, syntaxes etc – might be a useful exercise for study of a language and its grammar; but, such fragmented approach serves hardly any purpose; and, surely it is not suitable in the real world where men and women live, transact (vyāpāra) and communicate verbally (Vyavahara). He says that in a   speech situation, where the speaker communicates her/his ideas and the listener grasps the uttered speech, the communication is always through complete statement. The speaker thinks; communicates; and, the listener grasps and understands those series of word- sounds as a single unit.

Bhartrhari says, those who know the language well, do listen to the sentence. And those who do not know the language may hear words only as sound bites.  Sphota, in essence, is the real experience of listening to a sentence as a whole and grasping its meaning through perception.  It is said; meaning is not something that can be inferred; but, it is actually being perceived.

Bhartrhari compares the communication through language (by use of sentences) to creation of a painting. Bhartrhari describes the painter as going through three stages when he paints a picture : “ when an artist wishes to paint a figure of a man , he first visualizes the object and its spirit as a composite unit  ; then , as of a figure having parts; and, thereafter, gradually, in a sequence , he paints it on the surface of a cloth or whatever”.

Mandana Misra in his Sphota-siddhi (a Vritti, commentary, on Bhatrhari’s Vakyapadiya) offers the example of the viewing-experience of a painting, in order to illustrate the relation that exists between a sentence and its words. He points out that when we view a picture, it is conceived as a whole, over and above its various parts. Similarly, he says, the composite image presented by a piece of cloth is a whole; and, it is quite distinct from the particular threads and colours that have gone into making of it.

That is to say; a painter conceives a picture in his mind; and, thereafter gives its parts a substance on the canvass by using variety of strokes, different colours, varying shades etc. Which means; an artist paints the picture in parts though he visualizes it as a single image. The viewer of the painting, rightly, also takes in, absorbs the picture and its spirit as a whole, as an integral unit; and , he  does not look for individual strokes, shades etc or the permutation of such details that went into making the picture.  

Similar is the case with the sentence and individual words employed to compose it.


For Bhartrhari, Sphota is the real substratum, proper linguistic unit, which is identical with its meaning. Language is not merely the vehicle of meaning or of thought. Thought anchors language; and, the language anchors thought. According to Bhartrhari, the speech and thought are two aspects of the same principle (Vak). In this way, he says, there are no essential differences between a linguistic unit and its meaning or the thought it conveys. That is to say; the perfect communication is when there is complete identity between sentence (or word) and its meaning.

Sphota refers to that ‘non-differentiated language principle’; and, that later gave rise to the theory of Sabda-advaita (word monism).

[Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya recognized and gave credence only to the sentence-Sphota (Vakya-Sphota). But, the latter Grammarians split up the concept into various divisions; and, came up with various sorts of Sphota-s. For instance; Nagesabhatta in his Parama-laghu-manjusha enumerates as many as eight varieties of Sphota, such as: Varna-sphota; Pada-sphota; Vakya-sphota; Varna-jati-sphota; Pada-jati-sphota; Vakya-jati-sphota; Akhanda-pada-sphota; and Akhanda-vakya-sphota.

Of those eightfold varieties of Sphota-s, it is only the last mentioned, the Akhanda-vakya-sphota (sentence as the undivided linguistic unit, the conveyer of meaning), that corresponds to the essential nature of Sphota doctrine as envisioned by Bhartrhari. The rest are mere classroom-exercises. It is said; though the other seven divisions have no real merit of their own, they still serve some practical purpose. They enable the beginner to learn and to know the true nature of Akhanda-vakya-sphota.]


Process of cognition and theories of error

In the traditional Schools of Indian philosophy (say; as in Samkhya, Advaita or even in Buddhism) there is a sharp distinction between the states of ignorance (A-vidya) and enlightenment (kaivalya, Moksha or Nirvana). A person is either bound or is liberated; but, there is no intermediate stage. Similarly, in the Schools of Logic (Nyaya) also, the valid means of knowledge (Pramana) either reveal the object completely or do not reveal at all.

The approach adopted by Bhartrhari in explaining the process of true cognition is significantly different from that of the other Schools. Bhartrhari argues that perception need not always be an ‘all–or-nothing process’. It could very well be a graded one. There could be vagueness initially; but, the perception could improve as one tries to gain clarity of the object. That is to say; the process of revelation could start from the indeterminate stage and progress, in steps, to the determinate stage. At each successive step, it gains increasing clarity. It begins from complete ignorance, passes through partial knowledge and ends up in a complete knowledge.

Thus, the position of Bhartrhari is that the overcoming of error is a perceptual process by progressing through degrees of positive approximations. Even invalid cognitions can sometimes lead to valid knowledge ( say , as in trial-and-error). Initial errors or vagueness could gradually and positively be overcome by an increasingly clearer cognition of the word form or Sphota. That is to say; the true cognition, established by direct perception, could take place , initially, through a series of possible errors; but, finally leading to the truth.

And, that also takes care of the objections raised by the Mimamasa School which accused the Sphota of being a mere guesswork.

[In Advaita, the true–final cognition is achieved through a process of reasoning and inference; and, not by perception. The Grammarians, in contrast, hold the view that the final cognition of Sphota is by perfect perception Prathibha; and, not through inference. Mandana explaining the Sphota point of view says: the revelation of an object clearly or vaguely is by direct perception. In the case of the other means of knowledge there is either apprehension of the object or not at all.]

Mandana in his Sphotasiddhi agrees with Bhartrhari’s stand   that the final and the clear perception of the Sphota could possibly be achieved after rectifying  a series of probable errors.

Bhartrhari’s position is in stark contrast to that of Sri Sankara wherein the overcoming of the error (A-vidya) is a process of inference in which there are no approximations or degrees of errors. In Advaita Vedanta, there can only be a ‘True’ or ‘False’ cognition, with no gradation in between. Here, error is overcome by a single negation. According to Sri Sankara, the error, if it is to be overcome, must be completely and effectively replaced at once by true knowledge.

Thus, Bhartrhari’s stand marks a significant departure from the Vedanta School where the validity of a means of cognition (Pramana) is judged by its ability or otherwise either to provide for a clear apprehension of the object or not at all. And, there is no room for vagueness or for improving upon an error in stages.

That is to say; Advaita usually describes the error in terms of negation (such as when it is said it is not a snake). The Grammarians, on the other hand, explain the error (vagueness of perception), positively, as a step that , if overcome by increasingly clear cognition, could finally lead to true and complete understanding (Sphota).

The nature and process of comprehension of Sphota   is illustrated by Bhartrhari and other grammarians by means of various analogies.

: – A jeweler, examining a jewel or precious stone, has to look it steadily for some time, to enable him to gain a familiarity with its genuineness, its details  and as also its probable value. With his first reading he acquires a knowledge of the general features of the gem. Each subsequent examination thereafter helps him to ascertain the true nature and quality of the gem.  And the final assessment, aided by the results gained through the previous ones, will enable him to evaluate and to determine, with certainty, the true quality and the exact value of the gem, completely and clearly.

: – Bhartrhari   gives the example of a student attempting to learn by-heart a verse or an anuvaka (a passage of a text) by repeated reading/recitation. Each such attempt helps him to retain the text or a part of it in his memory, to an extent.  It is the last reading aided by the impressions left behind by the previous attempts that helps him to commit to his memory the verse or the passage correctly and fully.

: – Bhartrhari offers another example of a tree which when viewed from a distance might appear like an elephant. But, that apparent mistake would be eliminated if one keeps gazing at the object intensely. And, one would eventually recognize it as a tree, which is its true form. In this instance also, the valid cognition is achieved by erasing a series of errors.

Mandana Misra, in his commentary, remarks that such correction – moving from error to the true – might not necessarily be explained away by factors such as change in distance. That is because, he says, even by standing at the same spot and looking at the object intensely one would be able to gain the right perspective of the object. He explains   : ‘it is the previous cognitions (in this case an elephant) leaving progressively clearer residual impressions, which become the cause of clear perception of the tree’.

Similarly, in Bhartrhari’s theory of language, the object of cognition (sentence), at first, is heard in the form of a word. But finally, through further cognitions ; with the subsequent words providing increased clarity; and , with the utterance of the last word, the total import of the sentence is grasped clearly (Sphota).

It is said; the Sphota theory was developed by Bhartrhari as a foil to the Mimamsa. In contrast to Mimamsa, Bhartrhari asserts that ‘primary linguistic unit is the undivided sentence (Vakya-Sphota). The individual words are merely hints or stepping stones to the complete meaning of sentence (Vakya).

: – And there is the much battered case of a coil of rope being mistaken for a snake. The perception of a rope as a snake is an error. But, the true perception results by negating that error through a series of increasingly clearer perceptions (Sphota) – (as in the case of elephant-tree analogy) . 

:- And, Sesa Krsna, a philosopher and commentator belonging to the early part of the sixteenth century, in his Sphota-tattva-nirupana, a treatise on the Sphota doctrine, offers another illustration.

He says that when a person utters a sound ka with the intention of saying Kamalam (a lotus), we know that he is trying to say a word beginning with Ka. And, when he utters the next syllable Ma, we have another clue; and, we can guess the word a little more clearly. Now, that eliminates the possibility of all the words not beginning with Kama.  Still, the word is not quite clear. We do not know whether he is going to say Kamanam or Kamalam. It is only when the last sound lam is uttered that we come to know the word fully and clearly. It is by the perception of the last letter; we reach at a valid cognition. Thus, the function of the letters is to build up the higher unit (in this case, the word).



Bhartrhari in the Karikas (2.143-152) of his Vakyapadiya discusses his concept of Prathibha – intuition or flash of understanding.

The basic principle of Bhartrhari’s theory of language is that the complete utterance of the sentence, as a whole, is a unit of speech; and, it should be considered as a single unity. The words, though meaningful, are fractional parts of a sentence. The complete sentence-meaning might be produced by the combination of such parts; but, the whole is simply not the sum of the parts. The sentence and its meaning is essentially an indivisible unit.

We understand the full meaning of a sentence immediately, only, after the speaker finishes the sentence. Thereafter, the complete meaning of the sentence is grasped, as a unity, instantly (pratyaksha), in a flash of insight (Prathibha).

Viccheda grahane arthanam prathibhanyaiva jayate I vakyartha iti tam aahuh padarthair upapadita II – VP.2.143

That Prathibha or flash is not a mere piece of knowledge. It is the wisdom or flash of understanding which guides a person to right understanding (prajnya) and right conduct (iti-kartavyata). Such instinctive awareness is in everyone’s experience. Even the birds and animals have that basic instinct, acquired directly or through recollection of it (samskara or Vasana).  All beings act upon and depend on that inborn intuition (Prathibha).  Even the language-competence and performance is also an inborn virtue (Pratibha) in Man. It is through the power (Shakthi) of that Pratibha the total meaning of the part-less (avibhakta) sentence (AkhandaVakya-sphota) flashes forth.

And yet, that innate instinctive awareness (Prathibha) possessed by all beings cannot be precisely defined in words (anakhyena); pinpointing ‘this is that’- (idam tad iti sanyesam anakyena katham cha na).

That intuitive wisdom which reveals the dynamic inter-relatedness of all things comes to a person through maturity, experience (anubhava), reasoning (yukthi) and learning ( from Shastras and Grammar). At another place, Bhartrhari remarks: “insight attains clarity through  diverse traditional views (prajna vivekam labhate bhinnair Agama-darshanin -VP: 2.484). Such wisdom, it is said, is derived from six sources (sadvidhā): nature (Svabhava); action (acharana); practice (abhyasa); meditation or contemplation (yoga); invisible causes (adrsta); and, instructions handed down by the wise (upapāditām)

Svabhāva-acharaṇā-abhyāsa- yogā-adṛṣṭa-upapāditām / viśiṣṭopahitāṃ ceti pratibhāṃ ṣaḍvidhāṃ viduḥ (VP : 2.152 )


For and against the Sphota-vada

Over the centuries, the Sphota concept was hotly debated among  various Schools of thought. There were those who supported the Sphota-vada; and, there were many others who criticized and opposed it bitterly.

Among the former (Sphotavadins), the more prominent were: Yaska; Patanjali; Mandana Misra; Nagesabhatta; scholars of the Kashmir-Shaiva School; some Yoga-commentators; and, of course Bhartrhari who was the champion of the Sphota-vada. But, somehow, those who opposed the Sphota-vada not only outnumbered its supporters but also were more influential. The anti-Sphotavadins included such eminent philosophers as: Upavarsha; scholars of Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaiseshika Schools; scholars of Shaiva siddantha; Mimamsakas – Sabaraswamin, Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara; Sri Ramanuja; Sri Madhva; Sri Jiva Goswami; Vachaspathi Misra; and, most notably Sri Sankara.

The early Mimamsa School which strongly defended Varna-vada argued that the individual word or the letter (Varna) is the prime substance of Vak (speech). The School of the Grammarians, on the other hand, advocated Sphota-vada to explain the mysterious manner by which the sentence-meaning is conveyed. They put forward Sphota as a process of cognition which culminates in the intuitive perception (Prathibha) of the Absolute as Sabda –Brahman.

In the later periods, these two points of view became the major platforms for debates and discussion among the various Schools of Indian philosophy as also among the Schools of Grammar and language.


In the earlier part of this series we have seen the objections raised against the Sphota concept  by the Samkhya and the Mimamsa scholars prior to the time of Bhartrhari. Let’s now see few major observations made by both the pro and anti Sphotavadins after the time of Bhartrhari (Ca.450 CE).

 : – Kaumarila Bhatta, a noted Mimamsa Scholar (7th -8th century) attacked the manner in which the Sphota phenomenon was supposed to reveal the meaning of word-sounds (Sabda). Kaumarila argued that the word (Sabda), whether be it individual or be it a part of sentence, is nothing more than a collection of articulated-sounds or spoken words. And, it is with this collection of sounds alone that the meaning is associated. The listener grasps the sounds of the words and their meaning. There is nothing else here, he said, one need not, without reason, assume a mystical process of Sphota etc.

: – Mandana Misra, a contemporary of Kaumarila Bhatta, however, refuted the stand of his senior Mimamsaka; and, said that Kaumarila’s stand was rather frivolous. Mandana, in support of the Sphota doctrine, wrote a brilliant commentary (Sphota-siddhi) based Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. He supported Bhartrhari’s presumption of the whole being prior to the parts; as also the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. He agreed with Bhartrhari that it is not the individual words but the complete thought of the sentence that ultimately matters.

As mentioned earlier, Mandana also offered the example of a painting conceived as a whole, over and above its various parts. And, also of the appreciation of a piece of cloth, as whole; and, not as mere collection of threads and colours that are woven into it. He says: This aspect is brought out clearly by Bhartrhari.

:- The Jain philosopher Prabhachandra in his Prameya-kamala-marthanda attempted  to reconcile the two opposing views; and, came up with his own doctrine of ‘Interminacy’ (syavada, anekantavada), which, essentially, was a principle that encouraged acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given issue as being multiple dimensions of one and the same object.

:- As regards the Buddhists , while Dharmakirti attacked Bhartrhari, another Buddhist scholar Dignaga seemed to be highly influenced by Bhartrhari ; and quoted verses from Vakyapadiya in support of his own arguments concerning grammatical distinctions between two words having different nominal endings and those with identical endings. Finally, Dignaga agreed with Bhartrhari that meaning of a sentence (vakyartha) is grasped through intuition (prathibha

: – Sri Sankara in his commentary on Brahma Sutra (1.3.28) argued against the stand of the Sphotavadins. He adopted the view taken by the highly revered ancient philosopher Upavarsha (Ca.500 BCE) who had earlier rejected the Sphota-vada. While brushing aside the Sphota concept, Upavarsha had remarked: ‘that all this talk of unity of meaning etc. is largely an illusion, for it is the words, it’s articulated elements (Varna) alone that make the unity’.  Upavarsha had in turn come up with his theory of   Varna-vada; according to which, the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phoneme = Varna) alone are real constituents of a word. He said sounds are only Varnas; and, there is no need for assuming a Sphota.

Sri Sankara adopted the statement of Upavarsha “words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varnas)”. He agreed with Upavarsha; and supported Varna- vada while rejecting the Sphota-vada (Sankara Bhashya on Brahma Sutra: 1.3.28).

Sri Sankara did not approve the concept of Sphota-vada; and, said the meaning of a word can be known from its constituent letters, sounds and the context.  Here, he remarks: Bhagavad Upavarsha says ‘but, the words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varna)- varna eva tu sabddh id bhagavan Upavarsah (BS: 1.3.28). And, therefore, he said , there is no need to bring in the concept of Sphota to decide upon the meaning of the word when it can be derived directly from the Varna-s that form the word.

And then, Sri Sankara went on to build his own arguments to oppose the Sphota vada, based on what he called ‘the tradition of the Masters’- (Acharya –sampradayokti-purvakam siddantam aaha varna iti).

According to him, only the individual letters are perceived; and, they are combined through inference of the mind into word aggregate. Because the psychological process is one of inference and not of perception, there can be no degrees of cognition. According to Sri Sankara, the inference Pramana is an all–or-nothing process. The error, if it is to be overcome, must be completely replaced, all at once, by a new inferential construction of mind or by a super-conscious intuition of Brahman.

:-  The other Acharyas and commentators also toed the line of Bhagavan Upavarsha and Sri Sankara; and, supported Varna- vada as against Sphota-vada. Vacaspati Misra, who commented on Sri Sankara’s Vedanta Sutra Bhashya, also rejected the Sphota theory. He came up with his own theory of Abhihitanvaya-vada; and, said the understanding of the meaning of a whole sentence is reached by inferring to it, in a separate act of lakshana or implication, from the individual meanings of the constituent words.

In the recent times, the Sphota doctrine has received much attention from the scholars of linguistics – both in the West and in the East. It has been duly recognized as one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. As the noted scholar Bimal K. Matilal observes: “Even today this theory is widely recognized among modern linguists as the most complete investigation into the profundities of language, making a considerable contribution to the Philosophy of Language, the Psychology of Speech, and especially Semiotics”.


Bhartrhari, while discussing about Sphota, put forth his theory to explain the process and the stages through which the thought in the speaker’s mind gets transformed into audible speech.

In the next part let’s look at those levels of Language


Continued in

Next Part

References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiographyby G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduismby Harold Coward
  4. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarianby Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  5. The Study of Vakyapadiya– Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  6. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartṛhari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510)by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihariby Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahariby Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernityby  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topicsby John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhiby Allen Wright Thrasher
  19. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First… Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  20. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  21. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  22. Studies in the Kāśikāvṛtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras: Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  23. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
  24. Encyclopaedia for the world psychologists 1. A – D ; Edited by H. L. Kalia
  25. Linguistic philosophy of Yaska- Sodhganga
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Seven

Continued from Part Six


The Word and the Sentence

Grammar and the philosophy of language

Grammar (Vyakarana) was recognized from the earliest times in India as a distinct science, a field of knowledge with its own parameters, which distinguished it from other branches of learning/persuasions. It was regarded as the means to secure release from the bondage of ignorance : Vag-yoga ; Sabda-yoga; or Sabdapurva-yoga.

The overall aim of Sanskrit Grammar was not to list out the rules and to standardize the language; but, to aptly bring out the intended meaning of the structure of words. As Yaska puts it in his Nirukta (the oldest available Indian treatise on etymology, philology and semantics) the aim was to get the meaning of the uttered word (arthanityah parikseta-Nir: 2.1.1). Thus, Sanskrit Grammar was an attempt to purify (samskruta), to discipline and to explain the behaviour of the spoken language, so that the inner meaning could shine forth unhindered.

During the periods following the three Great Sages (Munitraya) – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali – the question of perceiving the intended meaning of the spoken word engaged the attention of the Grammarians and the philosophers of the language. The more significant of such Scholar-Grammarians, among others, were: Mandana Misra, Kaumarila Bhatta, Kunda Bhatta, Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari. In particular, Bharthari’s major work, Vakyapadiya, discusses the ways in which the outer word-form could unite with its inner meaning. 

Each of those giants, in his own manner, addressed the question about ‘’the meaning of ‘meaning’ ‘’; debated vigorously on various theories of meaning as being fundamental to linguistic studies.


In the Grammar-traditions of ancient India, protracted debates were carried out on the question: ’what is the basic unit of the language that gives forth a meaning (Artha)?  Is it the alphabet (Varna) or the word (Pada) or the sentence (Vakya)?’ Though the discussions took several routes, it ultimately arrived on the fact that the letters constitute a word; and, the words come together to form a sentence. It was pointed out that just as a word has no separate entity without its constituent letters; similarly, a sentence has no separate entity without words that give it a structure. It was also said; though the words are parts of a sentence, the meaning of the sentence does not independently arise out of them. Meaning is the function of the sentence as a whole. Though the distinction between a sentence and its parts (words and letters) was recognised, it was said to be mainly, for day-to-day purposes (loka-vyavahara) and for analytical studies undertaken by the grammarians.

This position was, in a way, formalized when Yaska mentioned that ‘from the Vedic mantras we come to know that ‘language started with sentences and not with individual words’. He described the sentence as the entity that manifests meaning (vak punah prakasayaty-arthan– Nir.9.l9); and, as a fixed combination of words (niyata-vacoyukti) which is unchangeable (niyata-vacoyuktayo niyata-anupurvya bhavanti – Nir.I.l5).The meaning of a sentence remains un-altered even with a shift in the position of the words.

The Next question was whether the words have an independent existence of their own or whether they are merely segments of a sentence which, in truth, is an indivisible entity producing a definite meaning.

There was a line of argument (Pada-vadin) which asserted that a word though being a part or a segment (Khanda) of a sentence is, indeed, an independent unit of thought and meaning; it enjoys its own existence and characteristics; and, it is only the harmonious unity of such meaning-bearing words that lends a purpose to the sentence. The School which supported this line of argument, upholding the independent nature of the word, came to be known as Khanda-paksha.

The other School , which opposed the above standpoint, emphasized that the sentence is the fundamental, indivisible (A-khanda) linguistic unit; words are just the components of a sentence; and, mere words without reference to a sentence are abstractions and unreal; and do not convey a definite meaning. The thrust of this argument  (Vakya-vadin) was that a sentence is an indivisible, integrated unit; and, in the absence of a structured sentence, the individual words, by themselves, do not communicate a sense or the intent of the speaker. It asserted; the meaning of a sentence, as a whole, is an indivisible entity. The School which advocated this argument   was known as the A-khanda-paksha.

Thus, even at the very early stages in the development of Vyakarana (Grammar) we find two fundamental approaches to the study of the problem of meaning: the khanda-paksha and the A-khanda-paksha.



The Khanda-Paksha is about the primacy of the word (Pada or Sabda). Khanda-paksha treats the word as an autonomous unit of thought and meaning.  Here, the language study is primarily based on words; and the sentence is taken to be an assembly of such words. The Khanda-paksha confined its enquiry to the meaning of the words by treating words as self-contained and self-explaining units. It did not pay much attention to the sentence, its structure and its overall meaning. It simply said that a sentence is nothing more than a group of words; and its meaning is just the sum of the meanings carried by its words.

 In the context of the Vedas, the Pada or Sabda is just not the pronounced or uttered word; it is indeed the Vac the eternal speech itself, existing before creation of the worlds.

Though the riks of the Rig-Veda were expressed in the form of sentences, great importance was paid to its constituent words. It is said; Sakalya (Nir. 6. 28), the earliest known historical figure who dealt with linguistic studies, therefore, took up the task of compiling the Pada-paatha of Rig-Veda, where the sentences of the Samhita Paatha (the original text, as it is) were broken down into words (pada) and arranged in sequential order; and, the process also involved breaking up compound words into their elements.  The intention was to clearly bring forth the meaning (Artha) and the denotive power (Shakthi) of individual words in the sentence. Sakalya’s service to the study of Vedic text is acknowledged by Panini the Great Grammarian. 

Yaska-charya (earlier to 5th century BCE), the great etymologist of the ancient India, believed that every Vedic word has an expressive power to denote a certain sense. And, as a signifier (vacaka), every word is eternal (vyaptimattvat tu sabdasya – Nir.I.2); and, is critical in arriving at an unerring meaning of a statement. Thus, the word, the meaning and their mutual relations are eternal.  In his remarkable work Nirukta (etymology or Nirvacana shastra) – a commentary on Nighantuka, a sort of glossary – Yaska attempts to establish the proper meaning of certain selected Vedic words (including their prepositions and the particles), in the context of ‘how, where, when and why’ it is stated. For the purpose of his study, Yaska chose about 600 stanzas from the Rig-Veda; and created a well organized glossary to understand and to interpret, particularly, the archaic, uncommon words used in the Vedic texts.

His study also included a system of rules for forming words from roots and affixes. According to Yaska, every word is derived from a root; and by analysing the root, its tendency and the suffix, it is possible to establish the relation between word and meaning. In the Nirukta, Yaska has tried to explain those selected Vedic words from the perspective of the various linguistic aspects, parts of speech (padajatani) such as:  noun (naman), verb (akyata), preposition (upasarga), and particle (nipata) – (chatvari padajatani nama-khyate –upasargani-paatascha  …Nir .l.l) ; in additions to taking up  general definitions, special definitions, synonyms, homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but convey different meanings), common and obscure grammatical forms, words and their meanings, and the etymology of these words. Yaska terms such analytical method as samaskara (treatment) or sastrakrto yogah (grammatical combination)

[ Of the four parts of speech (chatvari padajatani) Yaska gives greater importance to nouns and verbs (naman, akyata), which are employed independently , than to prepositions (upasarga) and particles (nipata) which cannot present a clear meaning when detached from nouns or verbs.

When that logic is extended, it leads to say:  the phonemes and syllables are not independent entities conveying their own meaning; nevertheless they are parts of the word; but, the meaning of the word does not solely arise out of them. Meaning is the function of the word as a whole.

Between the noun and the verb, Yaska treats the verb as the nucleus of a sentence. According to him, Verb (Akhyata) is the vital unit of language through which we express our intentions and actions; and, a sentence without a verb serves no purpose (tad yatrobhe bhavaeradhane bhavatah – Nir. l. l).]


It is interesting to note that the ancient Grammarians did not devote as much attention to sentence and its structure as they did to the word. Among the ancient writers, neither Panini nor Gautama defined the sentence and its essential characteristics. Jayanta Bhatta (in his Nyayamanjari) remarks that the absence of such discussion might be because that Mimamsa and Nyaya Schools considered the sentence to be merely a combination or a sequence of words ; the word as  nothing more than a combination of phonemes (Varna) ; and , the syllables as independent units. The syllables (having a vowel)   by themselves may not convey meaning; but, they are capable of conveying meaning when they combine.

[Generally, the ancient Indian Grammarians and Logicians took a word as the unit of speech and considered a sentence as a combination of words for the purpose of communicating a meaning.

 According to abhihita-anvaya-vada (of Bhatta Mimasa), each word in a sentence conveys its primary and individual meaning by virtue  of primary denotation (abhidha). And then the meaning of the sentence arises from the combined construed (anvaya) meanings of its words.

Another view anvita-abhidhana-vada (of Prabhakara Mimamsa), instead, says that individual words do not convey meaning except when they are associated (anvita) with or indicate an action (kriya). And, no word can be understood as having independent meaning when it is isolated from a sentence.

 According to the monist view, the meaning of the sentence is grasped by the listener as a whole, in a flash. The individual word-meanings appear as parts of a sentence; but, the whole is simply not the sum of parts.

The question: how could a series of isolated words uttered one after another could together produce a unity that makes meaning – continued to engage various schools of Grammarians and philosophers alike.]

Among the Grammarians, Katyayana was perhaps the first to define a sentence (Akhyatam savyaya-karaka-visesham vakyam). In his Vartika, he called a sentence (Vakya) as an eka-tin-vakyam; meaning: a cluster of words having a single finite verb together with a noun and a qualifier. Panini, however, seems to have accepted the possibility of a sentence having more than one finite verb (tinn atinah – 8.1.28).  Mimamsa tried to explain the difference between the two positions as that of Akanksha, the intention (Artha) of the speaker (Arthaikyad vakyam ekam vakyam sakanksam ched vibhage syat – Jaimini Sutra: 2.1.46).

According to Dr. Kunjunni Rajah (Indian Theories of Meaning) : Mimamsa put forward their theory of understanding the clear meaning of synthetic units of a sentence mainly based on three norms: Akanksa, Yogyata and Samnidhi.

Akanksa or the mutual expectancy of the words consists in a word not being able to convey a complete sense in the absence of another word. Literally, it is the desire on the part of the listeners to know the other words or their meaning to complete the sense. A word is said to have Akanksa for another, if it cannot, without the latter produces knowledge of its inter-connection in an utterancen.

In a sentence, every word necessarily requires another word to complete the sense. To convey the meaning of noun in a sentence, a verb is always needed.

Yogyata is the logical compatibility of consistency of the words in a sentence for mutual association; and, whether it makes sense. When we utter a sentence, if the meaning of a sentence is not contradicted by experience, there is a Yogyata or consistency between the words.

If the words in a sentence should be contiguous in time, it is known as Samnidhi or asatti of a sentence. Words uttered at long intervals cannot produce the knowledge of any interrelation among them even if Akanksa and Yogyata are present there. If a man utters a word a long interval after the first word, then the connection of the meaning cannot be understood

[The Mimamasa said that a group of words serving a single purpose (artha) forms a sentence, if on analysis the separate words are found to have mutual expectancy (akanksha). It says : “ so long as a single purpose is served by a number of words , which on being separated , are found to be wanting and incapable of effecting the said purpose , they form one syntactical unit – one complete Yajus-mantra”.

Prabhakara explains that in this sentence, ‘artha’ stands both for meaning and purpose; and the two are related. Kaumarila Bhatta says that it is possible to take artha as meaning in order to allow a wider scope to the principle.

[The distinction between Katyayana’s definition and Mimamsa’s explanation was discussed by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadia (2. 3-4).]

Source: The Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 5: The Philosophy of the Grammarians By Harold G. Coward, K. Kunjunni Raja-page 25]


The later Grammarians accepted Panini’s view. But, from Katyayana’s point of view, such a sentence may be considered as a complex sentence made up of two or more sentences; but, fundamentally, forming one single sentence.

The  main concern of Panini the Grammarian (Ca.500 BCE) – who might have been a junior contemporary of Yaska or might have lived within a century after Yaska – was not the sentences but words (Sabda), His celebrated work Astadhyayi (the eight chapters)  – also called  Astaka , Sabda-anushasana  and Vrittisutra –  sought to ensure  correct usage of words by  purifying  (Samskrita)  the  language (bhasha)  – literary and spoken ( vaidika –  laukika) –  that  was in use during his days.

Panini’s  goal (lakshya) was  building up of Sanskrit words (pada) from their root forms (dhatu prakara), affixes (pratyaya), verbal roots; pre-verbs (upasarga); primary and secondary suffixes; nominal and verbal terminations ; and , their function (karya) in a sentence. The underlying principle of Panini’s work is that nouns are derived from verbs.

Patanjali, who in the Grammar-tradition (Vyakarana parampara) is regarded as next only to Panini, also focussed on words.  According to him, the basic linguistic unit is a word – provided it generates a meaning. However, Mimamsa opposes this view; and asserts   that any aggregation of letters with or without meaning could be a word.

Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, a commentary on Panini’s Astadhyayi, commences with the statement ‘atho sabda-anu-shasanam’:  here begins the instruction on words (or, let us now discuss the rule governing the words). The three important subjects that Patanjali deals with are also concerned with words: formation of words; determination of meaning; and, the rela­tion between a word (speech sounds – Sabda) and its meaning. He also stresses about the need to learn Grammar and to use correct words; to understand the nature of words  whether or not the words have fixed or floating meanings and so on.


The Astadhyayi of Panini, as per its working scheme, attempts to produce words and sentences based on their verbal roots (dhatu), nominal themes (prathipadika) and suffixes (pratyaya). These constituent elements are invested with meaning. Derived from these elements, in their various combinations, words and sentences are formed to express collection of meanings as held by these elements.

But, according to Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the basic purpose of a grammar is to account for the words; not by enumerating them; but, by writing a set of general (samanya) rules (lakshana) that govern them and by pointing out to exceptions (visesha).These general rules, according to him, must be derived from the usage, for which the language of the ‘learned’ (shista) is taken as the norm.

[Though both Panini and Patanjali discussed about words and their relevance in Grammar, their approach differed significantly.

For Patanjali, it is the words themselves and not its constituents that produce a meaning.  According to him, the Grammar analyzes the words, thereby arriving at their constituent elements, though such parts may not be the true bearers of the meaning. This perhaps is the reason that many understand Grammar as Vyakarana, in the sense of analysis.

For Panini, on the other hand, Grammar proceeds differently. It is a way of synthesis. His Grammar does not divide the words into stems and suffixes. On the contrary, it combines the constituent elements with a view to form words. So, Grammar here is understood as ‘the word formation’ or as an ‘instrument by which forms are created in various ways’ (vividhena prakarena akrtayah kriyante yena).]



The A-khanda-paksha on the other hand, argued that the sentence is one fundamental linguistic unit (samvit). The sentence is indivisible (A-khanda); and, as a whole expresses a certain meaning; and, its meaning is not reducible to its parts. Thus, the meaning is not in the individual words which are mere parts; but, is in the sentence as a whole, in its entirety (A-khanda). That is to say; the sentence employs certain units in order to arrive at a definite meaning. The meaning so arrived at is because of the unity or integral nature of the sentence; but, not because those units are meaningful in themselves.  The meaning of a sentence remains un-altered even if the positions of the words within it are altered.

As mentioned earlier, the thrust of this argument was that a sentence is an indivisible, integrated unit; and, in the absence of a structured sentence, the individual words, by themselves, do not communicate a sense or the intent of the speaker. Mere words without reference to a sentence are abstractions and unreal; and do not convey a definite meaning. It asserted; the sentence and its meaning, as a whole, is an indivisible entity (A-khanda). The sentence, though it is indivisible (A-khanda), it has the power o£ manifestation through various letters and words.

Bhartrhari’s contribution

The champion of the A-khanda Paksha Vada was none other than Bhartrhari. He assigned a greater priority to sentence. Bhartrhari regarded the sentence as a single ‘integral symbol’ (Sphota); an indivisible unit of communication; an integral sentence the meaning of which is grasped by an instantaneous flash of understanding or perception through of intuition (Prathibha). The complete and true meaning of a sentence is achieved only by means of such ‘intuitive perception’ (VakyaSphota). That according to Bhartrhari is the true and complete communication.

“there is no phonemes (Varna)  in the word; and, nor are there any parts of the phonemes.  It is entirely not possible to separate words from the sentence”.

pade na varṇā vidyante varṇeṣv avayavā na ca /
vākyāt padānām atyantaṃ pravibhāgo na kaś cana // VP:1.74 //

That is to say; a sentence alone is the unit of utterance; a single indivisible entity with a single undivided meaning that is grasped as a whole in a flash of insight (Prathibha).

Sphota in the ordinary conversation, according to Bhartrhari refers to a spontaneous process where a latent idea or thought arising out of the consciousness or the mind of the speaker is manifested by the sounds (Dhvani) of the spoken words employed in the sentence; and, it is directly grasped, through intuition (Prathibha), by the mind (Buddhi) of the listener.

Bharthari’s position has come to be known as Sphota-vada, the doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota derived from the root Shput conveys the meaning of:  ‘to burst forth’ or in the context of Bhartrhari’s text to suggest ‘bursting forth of light or a flash of insight’. For Bhartrhari, the Sphota is an indivisible and changeless unity.

The Sphota concept was developed over long periods; but, it was fully put forward by Bharthrhari. He gave it a substantial credible form; and, provided it a philosophical basis. He maintained that the primary function of the words was to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning. We understand the meaning of a sentence wholly immediately only after the speaker utters the sentence. And, therefore, the sentence is the primary meaningful unit; and, the words extracted from the sentence analytically are only its component parts. Bhartrhari does not decry the value or the validity of words; but, only points out their status of being a part and never a whole.

Thus, Bharthrhari emphasized that the fundamental linguistic unit is indeed the complete utterance of a sentence. Just as a letter or a syllable has no parts, so also the sentence is to be taken as complete integral unit (Vakya-sphota); and, not as a collection of smaller elements.

 Bharthrhari argued that for the purpose of linguistic analysis, study of language and its grammar it might be fine to split the sentence into abstracted pieces, such as: the words, then into the roots and suffixes of the words, syntaxes etc;  and discuss about their position in the sentence. Such analytical splitting is artificial (Vikalpa); does, not have much significance. He said; “it is only those who do not know the language thoroughly that analyze it into words, in order to get a connected meaning.” But, such fragmented approach is surely not suitable in the real world where men and women live, communicate and transact. In a speech-situation where the speaker communicates ones ideas and the listener grasps his/her speech, it is necessary that the utterance has to be complete.  The speaker communicates and the listener understands his/her utterance as a single unit.

Bhartrhari explained that, initially, the thought exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity – Sabda or Sphota – intending a certain meaning. When uttered, ( in an effort to convey that thought through a sequence of sounds (Dhvani) that follow one after the other) , it produces certain specific sound-patterns (Nada). It might look as though the articulated word-sounds are separated in time and space. However, though the word-sounds reach the listener in a sequence, the listener eventually grasps the completed sentence as a single unit, as its meaning bursts forth (Sphota) in a flash of understanding or insight (prathibha). The same Sphota which originated in speaker’s mind re-manifests in listener’s mind, transmitting the meaning. Understanding of the meaning must be the immediate and intuitive grasp of the sentence as a whole. Thus, while the articulated sounds (Dhvani, Nada), apparently having divisions and sequence, are the external forms; Sphota is the inner unity conveying the meaning.

Various other scholars have offered their own interpretations of the Sphota theory in the light of Bhartrhari’s elucidation. The concept of Sphota is one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. As the noted scholar Bimal K. Matilal observes:

”It is rather remarkable that Bhartrihari’s recognition of the theoretical indivisibility of the sentence resonates with the contemporary linguistic view of learning sentences as wholes “;

 “In modern terms Sphoa can be understood as having constant distinctive phonetic features, whereas Dhavni is of a phonic nature. Sphoa is that which is to be manifested (vyagya), and the Dhvani is manifesting (vyañjaka). Sphoa is not uttered but it is perceived by the hearer”;

“The word does not generate the meaning; the word itself is transformed (Vivartate) into meaning. The relation between the word and its meaning is not that of ‘generator – generated’; but, that of ‘signifier-signified’. The word and its meaning, in essence, are identical;

“The Sphoa can be seen as a communication-device based on recognition of the truth of existence through a word/text in the hearer speaker, (sattā). It therefore is of a psychological nature, as any human speech is, for the recognition of the meaning of the text is perceived by a consciousness which lies beyond the analytic capacity of the external mind, and carries in itself all meanings; and as such, its proper understanding requires a psychological experience”;

“Even today this theory is widely recognized among modern linguists as the most complete investigation into the profundities of language, making a considerable contribution to the Philosophy of Language, the Psychology of Speech, and especially Semiotics”.


Development of the concept

It is acknowledged that it was Bharthrhari who fully developed the doctrine of Sphota in all the fields of Grammar, philosophy of Grammar and philosophy. But, it was not his invention – as he himself candidly clarified. The idea had been mentioned in various texts, much before the time of Bhartrhari, though not precisely or technically defined. For instance:

: – Panini mentions one Sphotayana, who spoke about the word and its meaning (Avan sphotanyanasya), as the one who originally came up with Sphota concept.

: – Another sage Sakatayana (a grammarian who perhaps was a contemporary of Panini – ?) is also mentioned by some as the author of the Sphota–theory. And, Sakatayana is also said to have held the view that all words must be derived from verbal roots (Nir. 1 3. 12). Some scholars recognize Sakatayana as the author of Unadisutra (a supplement to Panini’s Grammar, providing additional set of rules to derive nouns from their verbal roots). Though, at the same time, Gargya (descendent of Sage Garga, as mentioned in the Nirukta 1.3.12-13) and others are said to have remarked that all nouns cannot be traced to verbal roots.

[The other ancient Grammarians such as Vyadi (author of the lost text Samgraha Sutra; and a contemporary of Panini) as also  Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashya (Ca. 2nd century BCE,) had all developed certain ideas regarding the concept of Sphota.]

:- Before Panini, Yaska  , the etymologist ( earlier to 500 BCE), had  incidentally mentioned that another ancient authority – Audumbarayana, had put forward a theory which basically said that a sentence or an utterance is a primary and an indivisible unit of language; and,  reaches the faculty of the listener as a whole (Nirukta: 1-2)  . Audumbarayana, it appears, had also not agreed with the four-fold classification of words into: noun (naman), verb (akyata), prepositions (upasarga) and particles (nipata) – (indriyanityam vacanam Audumbarayanah tatra chatustam no papayate -Nir.1.1)

[But, apparently, Yaska himself had not agreed with Audumbarayana’s view of a sentence being  a primary and an indivisible unit; and, had gone on to talk about a totally different concept, Bhava – the being and becoming (Bhu) of verbs from their roots. Yaska, in that context, mentions six modes or forms of transformations (Sad bhava vikarah) of Bhava-s from the indistinct (A-vyakta) to explicit (Vyakta) and then to disappearance (vinasa). These phases are:  coming into existence (jayate); existence (Asti); transformation (viparinamate); growth (vardate); decay or wane (apaksiyate); and, ceasing to exist (vinasyati).

These are the six phases of changes (parinama) do occur in all forms of life or of any entity.

Yaska further explains that a Verb (Akhyata) is mainly concerned with Bhava (action), whereas the Nouns (Naman) have Sattva (substance or existence – Asti) as the chief element in their meaning (Bhava-pradhanam akhyatam; sattva-pradhanani namani – Nir. l.l). Here, Sattva is the static aspect of the meaning (as it exists); and, Bhava, the dynamic aspect, is action (Kriya) as it takes place in temporal sequence – (bhavah karma kriya dhatvartha ityanarthantaram).

Thus, Sattva and Bhava are two aspects of the same existence seen from the static and dynamic points of view. It is said; the six modes of Sattva (static) and Bhava (dynamic) are found in every aspect of creation.

Yaska credits the entire doctrine of Bhava and its classification to a certain Varsayani, another ancient Vedic scholar (Nirukta.1.2). But, nothing much is known to us about this Varsayani [He or She could have been a descendent of Varsa, an adept in Varsa Saman (chant)].

Sad bhava – vikara bhavantiti varsayanih- Jayate-asti-viparinamate- vardhate- apaksiyate- vinasyatiti – Nir.1.2]

: – But, Bhartrhari, in turn, cites Yaska as saying that Audumbarayana outlined the Sphota theory. And, asserts that Audumbarayana and also Varttakas held views similar to his Sphota-vada; and claims that their views support his theory.

: – The later eminent grammarians, such as Nageshabhatta (7th century), the author of Manjusha and Shpota-vada; as also Haradatta the commentator (10th century), however, attribute Sphota-vada to the sage Sphotayana, as mentioned by Panini.

: – Now, going back in time, Patanjali also talked about Sphota-like concept. He said; even though the words uttered follow one after the other and do not co exist in time or space, they do converge in the mind of the listener conveying a meaning. Sphota, he says, is a permanent element in the word; and, in fact is the essence of the word. The permanent unchanging Sphota is manifested by changing sounds (Dhvani). Here, Dhvani is the uttered sound heard by the listener; and, is but an aspect of Sphota. Thus, according to Patanjali, Sphota has an internal and an external aspect. The inner aspect is the innate expression of the word-meaning; while the external aspect is a vehicle to manifest the internal aspect; and is perceived by the sense organs of the listener.

But, for Patanjali, Sphota may be a single letter or structured pattern of letters; not necessarily sentence as a whole (in contrast to the stand taken by Bhartrhari).

:- Much before all these ;  Sage Kapila of the Samkhya School after discussing the concept of Sphota ( described as single, indivisible; as distinct from individual letters, existing in the form of words, and constituting a whole) dismisses it  totally : ‘What necessity is there for this superfluous Sphota? If, on the contrary, it does not appear, and is elusive; then , that unknown Sphota can have no power of disclosing a meaning, and consequently it is useless to suppose that any such thing as Sphota exists’(Sutra .57). All this talk of unity of meaning etc is largely an illusion; for it is the word, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.

Antye tv ajniata-spkotasga nasti artha- pratydyana-saktir iti vyartha sphota-kalpana ity arthah / Pur- vam vedanam nityatvam pratisMddham / idanlffi varna-nityat- vam api pratishedati

: – Similarly, the Mimamsa School had also discussed the Sphota concept; and, had rejected it. Sabaraswamin (Ca. first century BCE) the celebrated Mimamsaka in his comments on Mimamsa sutra (1.1.5) dismisses Sphota-vada, since it is not consistent with the Mimamsa faith in reality of Vedic words. According to Sabara, a word is nothing more than a combination of phonemes (Varna) and the syllables are independent units. The syllables, by themselves, might not convey the meaning; but when they combine they do convey a meaning. He did not see a need for a Sphota.

: – The renowned philosopher Upavarsha (a senor contemporary of Panini – Ca. 500 BCE) had also rejected the Sphota-vada; and, had remarked: all this talk of unity of meaning etc. is largely an illusion, for it is the words, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.

Upavarsha, in turn, had come up with his theory of   Varna-vada; according to which the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phonemes =Varna-s) alone are real constituents of a word.  He said: what is called as a ‘word’ (Sabda) is its individual letters – (for instance the word ‘gauh’ – cow is made of ‘g’, ’au’ and ‘h’). He decaled sounds are only Varna -s; and, there is no need for a Sphota.

[We shall talk more about Upavarsha and of Sri Sankara who followed Upavarsha, later in the series]


In any case, all this was just to   show that even in the ancient Vedic and in little later times the concept of Shpota was widely debated and various types of its interpretations were offered. Some orthodox Schools which recognized Vak or speech as a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman, and Pranava (Aum) as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were deemed to have evolved, acknowledged the need to perceive the sentence as a whole and not merely as a collection of words.

At the same time there were also many others who dismissed the idea of Sphota as being far-fetched, superfluous and useless; and, remarked that such unreal, Sphota can have no power of disclosing a meaning.


In the next part let’s discuss about the Sphota doctrine as expounded by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya; as also the views of its critics and supporters.


Continued in

Next Part

References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiographyby G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduismby Harold Coward
  4. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarianby Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  5. The Study of Vakyapadiya– Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  6. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartṛhari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510)by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihariby Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahariby Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernityby  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topicsby John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhiby Allen Wright Thrasher
  19. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First… Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  20. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  21. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  22. Studies in the Kāśikāvṛtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras: Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  23. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
  24. Encyclopaedia for the world psychologists 1. A – D ; Edited by H. L. Kalia
  25. Linguistic philosophy of Yaska- Sodhganga
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Six

Continued from Part Five

Sabda Brahman and the Power of Time (Kala shkathi)


A. Sabda Brahman

The first four karikas in the First Khanda (Brahmakanda) of Vakyapadiya sum up Bhartrhari’s philosophy of language. It asserts the identification of Sabda-brahman with the Brahman, the Absolute.

1.1 anādinidhanaṃ Brahma śabdatattvaṃ yad akṣaram/ vivartate+arthabhāvena prakriyā jagato yataḥ

1.2 ekam eva yad āmnātaṃ bhinnaśaktivyapāśrayāt/ apṛthaktve+api śaktibhyaḥ pṛthaktveneva vartate

1.3 adhyāhitakalāṃ yasya kālaśaktim upāśritāḥ/ janmādayo vikārāḥ ṣaḍ bhāvabhedasya yonayaḥ

1.4 ekasya sarvabījasya yasya ceyam anekadhā/ bhoktṛbhoktavyarūpeṇa bhogarūpeṇa ca sthitiḥ

[The ultimate reality, Brahman, is the imperishable principle of language, without beginning and end, and the evolution of the entire world occurs from this language-reality in the form of its meaning .

 Though this language-reality is, ultimately, only one and indivisible, it seems as if it is differentiated through its manifold powers 

The indestructible powers of which functioning through the powers of Time become the six transformations, namely, birth and the rest — the sources of all (these) manifold objects,

 Through these powers, this single language reality becomes the seed for all multiplicity and exists in the form of the one who experiences, the experienced and the experience.

 – Translation of Dr. Madhav M. Deshpande]

The Opening stanza (Granta-aaramba or Grantha-mukha) of the Vakyapadiya declares the identity of the Sabda tattva (the Word principle) with the Absolute Reality, the Brahman which is without a beginning (Anadi), without an end (Nidana) and is imperishable (Aksharam), and, which transforms (Vivartate) itself into speech; as words, their meanings (Artha) and objects; and, from which proceeds the universe (jagato yataha)

According to Bhartrhari, Sabda-tattva is anadi-nidana the One having no origin (upadana), no destruction (nasha). It is indestructible (akshara). That Brahman is the essence of Sabda from which the whole of existence is derived. It is through the transformation of the eternal syllable (aksharam) that the world precedes.

Bhartrhari conceives the ultimate Reality as One – without – a second (Ekam Eva). It is of the nature of the Word (Sabda eva tattvam) and from it are manifested all objects and the whole of existence. The world is only an appearance (vivarta) of the Sabda-tattva which is identical with the ultimate Reality, Brahman. Bhartrhari declares that Brahman is Absolute; and is the eternal essence of word and consciousness.  This is the central theme of Vakyapadia.

Bhartrhari asserts that the Sabda-tattva manifests itself as many, as distinct and manifold, each appearing to be independent as it were.  For Bhartrhari, Brahman as Sabda-tattva is an intrinsically dynamic reality. And, due to its infinite powers, “it manifests itself as many in the form of the one who experiences, the object of experience and the experience itself’. That is to say: the whole of existence is to be understood as the manifestation of Its Being; and, as a process of Its Becoming.

At another place Bhartrhari states that those who know (viduh)  the tradition (Agama) have declared that all this is the transformation (pariṇāma) of the word. It is from this Sabda that this universe (Visvam) first (prathamam ) evolved (pravartate)

 śabdasya-pariṇāmo ‘yam ity āmnāyavido viduḥ /
chandobhya eva prathamam etad viśvaṃ pravartate // VP: 1.124//

[Swami Vivekananda explains the concept of Sabda-advaita (word monism) as a theory which asserts that Brahman manifested itself as Sound and then as form. The creative power, the power of Time (kala-shathi) is the power through which the Lord manifests in the universe. Liberation is achieved when one attains unity with that ‘supreme word principle’. Within this theory, consciousness and thought are intertwined; and Grammar becomes a path to liberation. Sphota-vada is a monistic (Advaita) philosophy based in Sanskrit grammar.]

The Sabda, mentioned here is just not the pronounced or uttered word; it is indeed the Vac   the speech, language itself, existing before creation of the worlds. It is the speech that brings the   world into existence. Sabda- which  possesses three sorts of powers: avirbhava (manifestation), tirobhava (withdrawal) and sthithi (maintenance) –  according to Bhartrhari is not merely the creator and sustainer of the universe but is also the sum and substance of it.

Bhartrhari places the word-principle at the very core (Bija) of existence and as the one that gives form to the latent or un-manifest human thoughts and feelings. Sabda is the unexpressed idea at the inner being of the human; and, which gains form through speech. That un-spoken, potent, silent Sabda manifests, in stages, as pashyanti (visual thought), madhyama (intermediate)  and vaikhari ( explicit) speech )- VP: 3.1.142


The Sabda-tattva (Sabdasya tattvam or Sabda eva tattvam) of Bhartrhari is of the nature of the Absolute; and, there is no distinction between Sabda Brahman and Para Brahman the Supreme Principle (Para tattva).  Sabda-tattva is not a lesser Brahman or a mere Upaya (means); but, it is identical with Brahman itself.

That marks his departure from Vedanta, where the supreme consciousness, Para Brahman, is beyond language and thought; and, beyond senses such as sound, touch, smell, taste, form or attributes.

Bhartrhari and Sri Sankara (who came about four hundred years later) both inherited their references from a common source. And, the object of Bhartrhari’s Sabdabrahman was also the ultimate liberation (Apavarga).  Yet; Sri Sankara does not agree with Bhartrhari’s concept and approach. Instead, Sri Sankara prefers to go along with the Mimamsa theory of language. 

Further, the theistic traditions that came later also rejected the ultimate supremacy of Sabda Brahman, as put forward by Bhartrhari. They, instead, chose to idealize the qualified Brahman with most adorable attributes.


Though the concept of Sabdabrahman is one of the highlights of the Vakyapadiya, the traces of Sabda-tattva can be noticed even in the ancient Vedic texts.   Equating language with Brahman was done even much earlier.

For instance: Asya-Vamiya Sukta (Rig Veda: 1.164), ascribed to Rishi Dirghatamas, states that the ultimate abode of language (Vak) is Brahman. Language is described as being at the apex of the Universe. Three quarters of the language remains hidden in the cave, while the fourth part is visible in the created world (Rig Veda: 1.164 – 10, 41, and 45).

As regards the Vedas, the tradition holds that Veda is One , though it is divided into many. Yet, the many Vedas the reality they reveal is One Sabda Brahman.  Vedic language is at once the revealer and the sustainer of the world cycles. Here, languge is believed to be divine origin (Daivi Vak) , as the spirit descending  , assuming various guises and disclosing its truth to the sensitive soul.

The Shatpatha Brahmana (3.12.48; 10.20.43) also equated the sound of the Vedas with the Sabda-brahman.

In the fourth chapter of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, the matchless Yajnavalkya speaking eloquently about the nature of word and its connection with consciousness, at one stage, equated speech with the Brahman (vāg vai brahmeti)  . Then he goes on to say: ” The speech that is referred to here is only a form of expression. It is made possible on account of the operation of the consciousness inside. If the consciousness is not there, there would be no speech. And it is not merely consciousness that is responsible; there is something intermediary between speech and consciousness. Consciousness does not directly act upon the principle of speech. There is a controlling medium which is referred to, here, as the cosmic ether. We do not exactly know what actually it is.” 

Later, in the Mandukya Upanishad (3.3), it was said that the sages (Rishis) envisioned the Vedas as one, as a whole, the eternity, Brahman, which represented by ‘AUM‘.Here, AUM is described as traversing the levels of waking, dreaming and deep sleep; and, also as reaching out to the Absolute.

Bhartrhari echoes this assertion in his Vakyapadiya (1.9) describing AUM as ‘the source of all scriptures that pure and true knowledge; and the common factor oll original cause, beyond all contradicyions’.

satyā visuddhis tatroktā vidyaivekapadāgamā /
yuktā praṇavarūpeṇa sarvavādāvirodhinā // VP: 1.9 //

Further, the Mytrayani Upanishad (4.22) and the Brahma-bindu Upanishad (verse 17) also discussed about Sabda-Brahman. However, the connotation of Sabda-Brahman, in those texts, varied from that of Bhartrhari. Here also, the Sabda-Brahman referred to the words or sounds of the Vedas. And again, these texts made a distinction between Sabda-Brahman and Para Brahman, the ultimate Reality. Thus, the Vedas, in general, were distinguished from the Highest Brahman as the Absolute.

dve vidye veditaye tu sabdabrahma , parm ca yat I sabdabrahmani nisnatah param brahmadigacchathi – Amritabindu Upanishad -17

The distinction between the two would be dissolved once the idea that the words (Vac) which form the essence of the Vedas is none other than the Highest Principle.  Such an interpretation was provided by Bhartrhari who elevated Sabda-Brahman from lesser level to be one with the Highest Brahman.

It is only in the Vakyapadiya that a full and a scholarly discussion on the sublime concepts of Sabda-Brahman or Sabda-tattva was presented; and established as the fundamental principle of speech and of all things in existence.



B. Power of Time – Kala shakthi

The question is: If Real is One, how does it manifest as many? Sri Sankara explained the One transforming as many through Maya. Bhartrhari had explained it earlier through the concept of Shakthi.

According to Sri Sankara, the One appearing as many is illusion (Maya) or a relative existence. But, according to Bhartrhari the transformation (vivarta) of One into many is a reality. For Bhartrhari, the ‘many’ is real and is not illusion. Bhartrhari explained such transformation through the power or the Shakthi of Sabda Brahman.  That Shakthi of the Brahman is expressed through real meaning-bearing- words. Therefore, the Sabda-vada (doctrine of Sabda) is taken as the realistic alternative to Maya-vada.

According to Bhartrhari, the entire universe could be understood as an aggregation of of multiple powers ( shakthi matra samuhasya VP:3.72). The ultimate Reality is One; but, it manifests itself as many through its many powers. It does so without however losing its essential One-ness. It is not different from its powers; but, it appears to be different. Thus, Brahman, he declares, is not different from the power, Shakthi, inherent in Sabda-tattva.

The Shakthi, the power that Bhartrhari talks about is the power of Time, the Kala-shakthi, the creative power (karaka-shakthi) of the One unchanging Absolute (Sabda Brahman) manifesting itself as the dynamic diversity that is experienced as the created world (jagat).  Bhartrhari asserts Time, Kala, is not different from Sabda Brahman; but, it is it’s that aspect which allows it to manifest or to come into being, in sequence.  Through Time, things come to be and pass away. Time is the efficient cause by which Brahman controls the cycles of the Universe.

Bhartrhari devotes an entire chapter – Kālasamuddeśa (3.9) – in the Third Khanda of the Vakyapadiya to analyze and to present his doctrine about   the power of Time.

Bhartrhari discusses in detail the different doctrines of Time (kālasya darśanam). He says, some call it power (Shakthi) , some call it soul ( Atman) and some others call it a deity (Devata). Further it is also said that Time is an independent power of Brahman (Vakyapadiya 3.9.62).

Śakthi-ātma-devatā-pakṣair bhinnaṃ kālasya darśanam /
prathamaṃ tad avidyāyāṃ yad vidyāyāṃ na vidyate // VP. 3. 9.62 //

Bhartrhari treats the theory of Time at three levels:  Brahman; the power of time; and, the diversity of the phenomenal world. For Bhartrhari, the Brahman, the Absolute, without a sequence or diversity, is analogous to Sabda or language.

Bhartrhari takes up a profound discussion of Time in relation to the Absolute, not as a philosophical speculation, but in order to explain how the unitary Sabda Brahman manifests itself as diverse words and sentences that is called as language. As a Grammarian, Bhartrhari also attempts to provide a philosophical basis for experience of the tenses as past, present and future in language. And, it is the past and the future that has the veiling functions of keeping one apart from the present.

[ It should be remembered that Kālasamuddeśa is but a section or a chapter of Vakyapadiya which primarily deals with the language. All the concepts and metaphors presented here are in the context of Time and its relations with the behavior of the language. ]

Bhartrhari’s concept of Time emphasizes the driving (kalayati) power inherent in Sabda Brahman. Of the many powers (Shakthi) of Sabda Brahman, the Time (kala) is an important one. The power of Time is independent of all beings and objects. Time is different from every other element in the Universe.  But yet, it is inherent in every aspect and object of life, pushing them through successive of their existence. On it depend many kinds of changes (sad bhava vikara) causing diversity in Life.  As creative power, Time is responsible for birth, continuity and fading away of everything.

Thus, according to Bhartrhari, Time (Kaala) is not different from Sabda Brahman; but, it is that aspect of Sabda Brahman which allows manifested sequence to come into being (VP. 1.2).

Bhartrhari says; the Time is the governing power of all activities and objects  in the universe . It is Time that pushes or drives objects into action; creating secondary relations of cause-effect, marking their instant of birth, span of existence and moment of decay or withdrawal.


Time (Kala) is indeed One

The processes of production and destruction are regulated by the passage of time (kaala). But, Time itself, which is of the nature of Brahman is neither born nor destroyed, nor is it bound by any conditions. It is ‘purva-para-vivarjita’ free from relative existence of ‘before and after’.  And, Time just as Brahman, is not bound by the divisions in space or directions; it is free from distinctions of fore or hind (purva-para-desha-vibhaga –rahita).

Bhartrhari points out (Vakyapadiya: 2.239) the common man makes the mistake of imposing the norms that are suitable to the limited things of the world on the Absolute which is beyond the limitations of the relative existence. It is futile and misleading, he says.

anyathā pratipadyārthaṃ padagrahaṇapūrvakam /
punar vākye tam evārtham anyathā pratipadyate // VP. 2.239 //

He concludes that the laws of identity and the laws of contradictions are not applicable to Time, the Absolute. In regard to changes that make distinctions possible, he says, it is the events that seem to change, but not the Time itself. Thus, the Time, the true Absolute, transcends change.

Bhartrhari repeatedly declares that Time (Kala) is indeed One; and is an independent power (svatantrya Shakthi) of Brahman. On it depend all the different kinds of changes (sad bhaba-vikarah) which project multiplicity. But due to imposition of each ones’ ideas and notions of division, Time appears as though it is segmented and limited (upadi). When it is associated with events it appears to have sequence. That is to say; kriyopādhi, such divisions or segmented units (past, present, seconds, minutes, hours, and days, weeks etc) are superimposed on Time (VP.3.9.37). We say the night is past; and day has arisen. But, from the absolute point of view, the distinctions of what we name as ‘night or day’ just do not exist. Such labels do not affect the true nature of Time. Similarly, various other qualifications are also attributed to Time, when it has none. The notions of past, present and future are mere assumed notions of Time which verily, is One; and, is sequence-less. Time is continuous.

kriyopādhiś ca san bhūta- bhaviṣyad-vartamānatāḥ /
ekādaśābhir ākārair vibhaktāḥ pratipadyate // VP.3.9.37 //

As a result of the activity of growth and decay, appearance and disappearance of objects, Time, which is one, is seemingly demarcated as past, present and future.

Helaraja, the commentator explains: ‘Time is the cause of birth, existence and decay of everything. We often say that some things are born in spring, while others in autumn etc. The same can be said of their existence and death. Time, though one, differentiates or sequences things through states of birth, existence and decay/death.’

Bhartrhari explains that when we speak of the past, present etc. we are marking our own existence.  When an action is being completed, he says, we call it present; when an action has been completed we call the Time as past; and, when an action is yet to be  completed we call the Time as future. They are devices employed to measure, in convenient units, what is really continuous.  But, truly the Time is sequence-less. When that Time sequence appears as differentiated objects, it might seem to be different from Brahman; but, really it is not (Vakyapadiya 1.2).  From the ultimate point of view, Time, Sabda Brahman or Brahman, is ever present; it is One.  It is not the Time that moves or changes or affected. But, it is the objects and their conditions that might vary. Time is a ground or substratum for all objects and phenomenon.

In Time, the actions which are complete are given the name of ‘past’.  However, what we call as ‘past’ has no real existence. But then, how could something which no longer is here can be given a name? The answer is: objects produced by actions in time gone-by are preserved as present in memory (smriti), and given the name ‘past’. The Past actions are remembered and expressed in appropriate words. Therefore, what are called as past, present and futures are evidence of Time’s existence, but are not the constituents of Time.

The fact that things are remembered is a proof of the existence of Time, Kaala (samkratanta-rupatve udbhavathi vyavaharat kaalasiddhih – VP: 3.2.55). Similarly, the fact that we can speculate and conceive of things that are yet to come (like reflections in a mirror) is also proof of Time’s existence

  bhāvināṃ caiva yad rūpaṃ tasya ca pratibimbakam /
sunirmṛṣṭa ivādarśe kāla evopapadyate – VP. 3, 9.40)

The   assumed segments of the three powers of Time – past, present and future – are mutually contradicting; and yet, they function and bring about changes without causing disorder in the universe. They are like the three paths on which objects move about without any sort of confusion. The users of the path may vary, move up or down; but the path stays unaffected.

To sum up; Bhartrhari repeatedly asserts that the subjective notions of past, present and future – the divisions – and qualifications (slow , fast etc) – are merely attributed to Time – are mere assumed parts (Angas) of Time. These might be taken as signs of its existence; and act as its proof. But, Time verily is Angin (the whole). Bhartrhari works out a scheme, through the Anangi-bhava, the relation of the parts to the whole, the application of which to Time is one his unique contributions.

Here, Time is eternity; but, it is also seen as duration. The durations come and go; but, Time does not vanish. Time is like a road on which durations walk.

 [Bhartrhari attempts to demonstrate how the notions of ‘existence’ and ’non-existence’ are mere logical categories. Bhartrhari states that notions of existence and non-existence are mutually dependent; and are relative. One cannot be without the other. They are not independent. Non-existence cannot become existence; or existence change into non-existence. Yet; Non-existence and existence are not totally unrelated.

Non-existence is nothing but a state of imperceptibility. An object is held to be non-existent when it is conditioned by the states of past and present. An object is believed to be existent when it is delimited by present time; and is cognized as such.(VP: 3.9.49)

According to him, the two states are mere appearances; and, are not the true positions from the Absolute point of view. And,   the difference between existence and non-existence is mostly assumed. He says ‘That does not exist and yet exists; that is one yet many; that unites and yet separates; and, that changes yet is changeless- (VP.3.2.13)

tan nāsti vidyate tac ca tad ekaṃ tat pṛthak pṛthak /
saṃsṛṣṭaṃ ca vibhaktaṃ ca vikṛtaṃ tat tad anyathā // VP. 3. 2.13]

Both the human existence and the duration are entrapped within that eternity. To illustrate such mutual confinement, Bhartrhari compares Time with the air which surrounds and also fills the human body to keep it alive. Air, by itself, has no temporal sequence as ‘before’ or as ‘after’; but, once it enters the body, it becomes one with the body and performs all actions as done by the body. The air, thus, acquires a temporal sequence.

[While Bhartrhari visualizes Time as One and eternal; argues about its dynamic functions (Kala Shakthi); and, presents it as an ongoing experience,  the Buddhist doctrines , on the other hand, take an acute view severely based on the ever changing conditions. According to its theory of Time, there truly is no present time (vartamana-kala). By the time you utter’ present’ it is already past. 

The Sautrantika School of Buddhism which adopted the doctrine ’extreme momentariness’ argued that objects cannot be present at the time they are perceived. It is only a past thing that can be perceived. It explains; the viewing of an object involves a series of momentary images that travel right from the object up to the eye/mind of the viewer. Starting from the object, as it travels in space and time, each impression of the object gives place to its next. The previous member, however, before it disappears, leaves its impression on the percipient mind; and it is from this impression or idea (akara) that we infer the prior existence of the corresponding object. Accordingly, though what is apprehended in perception actually exists, it is not apprehended at the moment when it exists.

This explanation is similar to the one which modern science gives, for example, in the case of our seeing a star. Owing to the vastness of its distance from us, the rays proceeding from a star take a considerable time to reach us; and what we perceive, therefore, is not the star as it is at the moment of perception, but as it was at the moment when the rays left it.

Thus the so-called perception really refers to the past and is in the nature of an inference. The star, for aught we know, may have disappeared in the interval. Analogous is all perception according to the Sautrantika. It is not the object which we directly know, but rather its representation through which we indirectly come to know of it. In modern phraseology, the Sautrantika view of perception involves the doctrine of representative ideas.]


Functions of Time

According to Bhartrhari, the functions of Time, basically, are two. These are the (i) ‘permission’ (abhyanujna) which allows things to be born and continue in existence; and the other is, (ii) ‘prevention’ (pratibhandha), which obstructs the inherent capabilities of other objects   to surface. The notion of the Time, functioning by permitting and preventing activities and events to occur, appears in Vakyapadiya (3.9.4), and frequently even thereafter. 

Bhartrhari illustrates these powers of Time by offering many examples. Bhartrhari compares Time to a ‘regulator’ (Sutradhara) of the world machine (loka-yantra). It regulates the world through prevention (pratibhandha) and permission (abhyanujna). As the Sutradhara of the Universe (loka-yantrasya sūtradhāra), Time allows some things to appear at a particular moment; and prevents (pratibandhā) certain others from appearing at that moment. The occurrence or non-occurrence of a certain thing or an event is because of the power of Time.  Thus, the scheduling of the activities and the events is a crucial function of the Time; for, without such orderly sequencing everything would appear all at once and create confusion.

Tam asya lokayantrasya sūtradhāraṃ pracakṣate /
pratibandhābhyanujñābhyāṃ tena viśvaṃ vibhajyate /VP. 3,9.4 //

Bhartrhari deals, on one hand, with the macro problems of creation, maintenance with continuity and dissolution of the universe; and, on the other speaks of the effects of Time on individuals.  The example he offers for the latter kind is that of the   Old age, the way in which the stages of life and sequence of seasons are ordered. When Time is functioning under its impulse of prevention (pratibhandha), the decay (jara) occurs. When decay is active, further growth is blocked.  But, the underlying substratum of all this activity is the driving impulse of Time.  Thus, Time remains eternal even while the actions of birth, grown and decay come and go.

In this way, the One transcendent reality – Time – is experienced, through the actions of the secondary causes which it releases or restrains, sequentially as past, present and future.

[Avarana Vikshepa

In the Vivarana School of the Advaita, It is said, Maya has two aspects: the obscuring covering or a veil – Avarana ; and, the projective Vikshepa. Maya with these two powers conceals the reality and projects the non reality.  In the later Advaita, the stress is more on Avarana that covers than on VikshepaHere, Maya conceals (Avarana) the truth of Brahman to make it appear in another form as the world (jagat). The often quoted example is that of the rope (Rajju) and the snake (Sarpa). The reality of the rope is concealed by Avarana; and the illusion of the snake is projected by Vikshepa.

But, for Bhartrhari it is Vikshepa the projective power or the driving force of Time that has greater relevance.

 For Advaita the projected world of Maya is neither real nor unreal, but is inexplicable (anirvachaniya).

And for Bhartrhari, the projected world though gross is also a manifestation of the Brahman. For him, the relation between the material world and Brahman is continuous and real.]


Bhartrhari explains the power of Time through a series of analogies

 Bhartrhari employs several analogies to illustrate the regulatory powers of Time.

(i) Bhartrhari (VP. 3.9.14) explains that just as the ever-pushing apparatus for  lifting up of water,  the waterwheel (jala- yantra ), so also the all-pervading Time drives or pushes (kalayati) the beings or objects, releasing them from their causes and making them move. That is why the Time is given the appropriate name of Kaala (sa kalā kalayan sarvā kālākhyā labhate vibhu).

jalayantrabhramāveśa- sadṛśībhiḥ pravṛttibhiḥ /
sa kalāḥ kalayan sarvāḥ kālākhyāṃ labhate vibhuḥ // VP.3.9.14 //

Time is thus the governing power of all activities and of all the objects. It is Time that pushes or drives objects into action to the point at which their own secondary cause-effect relations take hold. It is also the Time, as behind-the-scene operator, that controls the secondary actions of objects, along with their moment of decay or withdrawal.

(ii)  It is in this sense that Time, which exercises control over the secondary actions of objects, is called by Bhartrhari as the Sutradhara (the puppeteer or the operator the yantra-purusha) of the universe. But, these changing sequences do not represent the true nature of Time. These are but super-impositions. The Time in its own nature, as one with Sabda Brahman, is beyond change; and its cause.

[The expression Sutradhara refers to the ‘string puller ‘or behind- the scene – operator who controls the movements of puppets in a puppet-play. The Time, in the context of the creative process, is like a Sutradhara in a puppet play (sūtradhāra pracakate; VP. 3.9.4).  Just as a Sutradhara is in complete control of the movement of the puppets, so also Kaala, the Time has control over running the Universe. The ordinary cause-and–effect process cannot fully operate unless the power of Time (Kaala shakthi) infuses them with life-force (vitality).]

(iii) This concept of exercising control through the means of a string is extended to the analogy of a hunter–bird catcher who uses a captive bird to allure other birds. Bhartrhari explains that the hunter ties a thin (rather invisible) string to the feet of a small bird and lets it fly as a bait to entice bigger birds flying freely in the air . The small bird has a limited scope and freedom. It flies over limited distance; and, cannot go beyond the distance that length of the string allows it. Bhartrhari says: just as the string controls the movement of birds, so also ‘the strings of Time’ control the objects in the world (VP. 3.9.15).

Here, Time is the bird-catcher; and, all human actions are like birds tied to it by an invisible string.

pratibhaddhāś ca yās tena citrā viśvasya vṛttayaḥ /
tāḥ sa evānujānāti yathā tantuḥ śakuntikāḥ // VP.3,9.15 //

(iv)  Again, Bhartrhari says, Time is like a swift flowing river which deposits some things on its bank, while at the same time it takes away some other things.  Similarly, the seasons change according to the changes in the motions of sun and stars.  Helaraja explains: ‘the seasons may be looked upon as the abode of Time, because it appears as seasons. The power called Svatantrya ( freedom ) of Brahman is really the Time ; and , it appears in diverse  seasons  such as spring etc. ‘ Thus , the appearance of the universe , which is truly without sequence , as something which follows a sequence is indeed the work of Time (Kalayati).

 tṛṇaparṇalatādīni yathā sroto ‘nukarṣati /
pravartayati kālo ‘pi mātrā mātrāvatāṃ tathā // VP. 3.9.41 //

(v) He also speaks of Time in the imagery of a water-fountain. He says, depending upon the width of their openings, the two (nozzles) would jet out water at different speeds. And, again, those speeds are also dependent on the force/speed of the main water-flow (supply). Similarly, in regard to Time, the durations, sequences and their transitory nature are caused by each ones’ perception.

yathā jalādibhir vyaktaṃ mukham evābhidhīyate /
tathā dravyair abhivyaktā jātir evābhidhīyate // VP.3.1.29 //

(vi)  In another analogy, the past, present and the future are said to be like three paths on which objects move without any confusion. Here, Bhartrhari connects his conception of Time with the Samkhya doctrine of the three Gunas. The mutual contradictions of the three Guns are also compared with the mutual contradictions of the three assumed segments of time. The notion that objects and mental states do not all occur simultaneously; yet they operate without causing confusion is discussed.

The Gunas – Satva, Rajas and Tamas – are said to be in constant motion on the three paths of being (adhvan).  The mechanism involved is that of inherent tendencies or memory-traces (samskara), which sprout like seeds when conditions created by the ever- changing Gunas are favorable. The object of this explanation is to show how the three apparently conflicting qualities can coexist without coming into conflict.

The past and future hide objects; and, therefore, they are like Tamas or darkness.  The present enables us to see objects; and, therefore, it is like bright light, the Sattva of the Samkhya. Rajas stand for the activity of the Time itself. For the Samkhya-yoga and the Grammarians the harmonious coexistence of objects on three paths of Time makes the ordered sequence of the world possible. Time, like an eternal road, is the substratum on which the objects of the world come and go. The road, like Time, is ever present, unaffected.


To Sum Up

The essence of Bhartrhari’s viewpoint is that Time (Kaala) is not different from Sabda Brahman which is identical with Para Brahman. The power of Time is an independent power (svtantra shakthi) of Sabda Brahman which allows sequences to come into being. Through Time, durations are perceived; the things come to be and pass away. Yet, Time has no divisions. Time is the efficient cause by which Brahman controls the cycles of the Universe.

When that Time sequence appears as differentiated objects, then Time as a power seems to be different from Brahman; but, really it is not so (Vakyapadiya 1.2).  

Bhartrhari considers Sabdatattva or Sabda Brahman as the foundation of the Universe; and, it is eternal. Bhartrhari takes Sabda and Sphota are identical in nature.

 Let’s talk about Sphota in the next part.



Continued in the Next Part 

References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiography by G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduism by Harold Coward
  4. Bharthari, the Grammarian by Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  5. The Study of Vakyapadiya – Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  6. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bharthari and Heidegger by Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound by Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510) by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihari by Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis by Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahari by Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernity by  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgenstein edited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhi by Allen Wright Thrasher
  19. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First … Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  20. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  21. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  22. Studies in the Kāśikāvtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras : Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  23. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 1, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Five

Continued from Part Four



As mentioned in the previous part, Vakyapadiya, without doubt, is a seminal work on: Grammar; the philosophy of language; and philosophy related subjects. It is regarded as the most significant work appearing after the long and the hoary tradition of Tri-Muni or Muni-traya – the revered trio (Trimurti) of sages – Panini (Astadhyayi), Katyayana (Vrttika), and Patanjali (Mahabhashya). Vakyapadiya represents the culmination of several traditions; but is, basically, rooted in the Vedic tradition.  Following Patanjali, Bhartrhari regards Grammar as the most important Vedanga (branch of the Vedas).

Vakyapadiya is certainly the most widely cited text on the subject of ‘philosophy of Grammar’, not only by the various traditional Schools of Sanskrit Grammar, but also among modern scholars of linguistic studies. The distinguished scholar Harold Coward, in the preface to his work on Bhartrhari (1971) writes:

Although Bhartrhari lived in India many centuries ago, his writing has a universal appeal that spans the years and bridges the gulf between East and West. This very timelessness in conjunction with universality strongly suggests that Bhartrhari as a Grammarian, metaphysician, and poet has come close to revealing the fundamental nature of consciousness itself.



The title Vakyapadiya, in general, could be described as a treatise on sentences and words, their meanings; and, their mutual relationship.  The text discusses in great depth, the subjects related to Vakya (sentence); Pada (word) and meaning (Artha); together with their grammatical as well as philosophical implications.  It is said; the text is, therefore, celebrated by the name Vakyapadiya – (Sabda-Artha-Sambandiyam prakaranam Vakyapadiyam) and (Vakya-pade adhikrtya krtah granthah Vakyapadiyam)

Since Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya follows in spirit the rules governing words (sabda-anushasanam) as in the Samgraha of Vyadi, it is also known as Agama Samgraha (compendium of Agama), as received from tradition.

And again, since the text Vakyapadiya is made up of three Khanda-s (Cantos or Chapters or segments) it is also known by the name Trikandi comprising Brahma-khanda (or Agama-samucchaya- aggregation of traditions); Vakya-khanda (discussion on sentence); and, Pada-khanda (prakirna or Prakīraka –miscellaneous).

It is said; under the Trikandi structure, each Khanda was named after the most significant word in the first Karika (statement) of that Khanda: First KhandaBrahma Kanda (Anadi-nidhana Brahma); Second khanda: Vakya Kanda (ākhyāta); and, Third Khanda: Pada Kanda (dvidhā kaiś cit pada)

Though the Vakyapadiya, in the present period, is largely accepted as a text comprising three Khanda-s or Cantos or sections, there were very involved discussions during the middle and the later periods on the question whether what is known as Vakyapadiya is a single text or whether it is, in fact, two texts put together. It was argued by some that the first Khanda (Brahma-khanda) and the second Khanda (Vakya-khanda) alone constituted what is Vakyapadiya. To support that argument, it was pointed out that the explanatory Notes (Tika or Vritti) prepared by Bhartrhari himself covered only the first two Khanda-s related to the key theories of Sabda Brahman and the Sphota.

According to this line of argument, the third segment (Khanda), the Pada-khanda or Prakirnaka, dealing with words (Pada) and having a large number of verses spread over several sub-sections is to be treated as  a separate work  (Vakyapadiya-Prakirnakayoh karta Maha-bhashya-tripadaya vyakyatah).

At the same time, there have also been several learned articles written by scholars  arguing that though the Vakyapadiya could be said to have two parts – ( the first part comprising the First and the Second Khandas; with the Third Khanda forming the latter part ) – it is , in fact , a single text. It is pointed out that Bhartrhari himself mentions (VP II, 488) that in the third chapter he would be discussing  in detail the topics which were briefly mentioned in the earlier two chapters*.  The third Khanda, Prakirnaka-prakasha, in fact, ends with the statement – iti bhartharikta vākyapadīyam samāptam – that concludes the Vakyapadiya written by Bhartrhari.

(*vartmanām atra keṣām cid vastumātram udāhṛtam / kāṇḍe trtīye nyakṣena bhaviṣyati vicāraṇā / VP II, 488)

It is now generally accepted that though Vakyapadiya is composed of two distinct parts, it essentially is a single text having three Cantos (Trikandi).

One of the later commentators pays his respects to Bhartrhari the author of  Vakyapadiya and Mahabhashya by cleverly playing upon ‘Hari’ in his name.  He says: I submit my reverence to Hari the author of Tripadi (commentary on Mahabhashya) who took three steps in the form of Trikandi (Vakyapadiya) that covered the three worlds; and who is the Lord of Sri the embodiment of all knowledge

Trailokya-gamini yena Trikandi Tripadi-krita/tasmai samastha –vidya-sri kanthaya/ Haraye namah//


While the length of text differs slightly according to different published editions, it could  generally be said that the first Khanda (Brahma-khanda) consists about 156 karikas (comments, in metrical verse form); the second (Vakya-khanda) consists about 485 karikas; and, the third khanda (Pada-khanda), the biggest of all, consists about 1325 karikas. The entire book, thus, could be said to have about 1966 Karikas, or comments, in metrical form.

[According to the edition of Vakyapadiya published by Wilhelm Rau in 1977, the first and the second chapters have 183 and 490 verses, respectively. The third chapter, which is divided into 14 sections, has 1325 verses.  Thus the text runs up to 1998 Karikas.  According to Sri K. A. Subramania Iyer and others, the three Khanda-s together contain 1860 Karikas.]


Astaka– Eight topics

The main features of the Vakyapadiya   could, broadly, be grouped under three heads: Prakriya (the word formation process); Parishkara (the analysis and clearly enunciating the concept); and, Darshana (philosophy).  Thus, though Vakyapadiya is basically about Vyakarana (Grammar) and its philosophy, it is accorded the status of Agama (traditional text) – pratyak caitanye sannivesita vak.

Though the first two khanda-s cover subjects such as grammar as also philosophy of grammar and linguistics, Bhartrhari seems to focus, here,  on two types each of the linguistic units (words-Sabda) and meanings (Artha); and four types of their relations (Sambandha). Thus, the book is said to discuss eight kinds of topics.

The verses 24-26* of the first Khanda  indicate that Vakyapadiya deals with eight subjects (Astaka); two kinds of meanings – one by analysis, and the other , natural as fixed by convention;  two kinds of words – one explained by grammar, and the other by its context; two kinds of relations – one by the  cause and effect relation between expressions and meanings,  and the other by its appropriateness to express the meaning ; and, two kinds of objectives – one that is spiritual, and the other whichhas the ability  to understand the meaning.

*Apoddhārapadārthā ye ye cārthāḥ sthitalakṣaṇāḥ /
anvākhyeyāś ca ye śabdā ye cāpi pratipādakāḥ // 1.24 //
kāryakāraṇabhāvena yogyabhāvena ca sthitāḥ /
dharme ye pratyaye cāṅgaṃ saṃbandhāḥ sādhvasādhuṣu // 1.25 //
te liṅgaiś ca svaśabdaiś ca śāstre ‘sminn upavarṇitāḥ /
smṛtyartham anugamyante ke cid eva yathāgamam // 1.26 //

Hence, the commentators Vrsabha and Helaraja describe Vakyapadiya as padartha-astaka-vichara-para– the text concerned with discussions on eight kinds of subjects. Each of these topics   discussed in their respective chapters are grouped under:

Sabda: Anvakhyeya (linguistic units- sentences and words- to be explained) and Pratipadaka (linguistic units which serve to convey the formerstems, suffixes etc)

Artha: Apoddhara-padartha (meanings derived or extracted); and Sthita-lakshana (meanings fixed by convention)

Sambandha: Karta-karana-bhava (relations established through cause-effect); and Yogya-bhava (relations that exist between linguistic units and meanings, and their capability to express a certain desired meaning);

Objective: Pratyayanga (comprehension of meaning); and, Pratyaya-dharmanga (acquisition of merit)


Importance of Tradition

After citing the eight topics (VP: 1.24-26), Bhartrhari talks about the importance of tradition; and the necessity of relying on the inherited knowledge in regard to acquisition of spiritual merit. And, that includes the hoary tradition of Grammar which decides upon the correctness (sadhutva) and incorrectness (a-sadhutva) in the use of language.

[While asserting the value of traditional interpretations, Bhartrhari criticizes other commentators like Vaiji, Saubhava and Haryaka for vainly pursuing ‘dry-logic’ (Shushka-tarka) without much thinking or introspection –vaiji-saubhava-haryakai śuka-tarkānusāribhi– VP.2.484]-

Bhartrhari assures (VP I. 27 – 43) that he will present, through direct statements and indirect indications, only the subjects that have already been accepted in the traditional Grammar (kecid eva yathāgamam)  . Thus, he clarifies, his explanations (smrtyartham) would be in accordance with the accepted traditions of the Grammar.

His commentator Vrsabha explains that by the term yathāgamam, Bhartrhari meant that he did not invent (utprekshya) these eight topics, but was handing them down (smrtyartham) as tradition (agama or paddathi).

Bhartrhari urges all to adhere to Dharma which is an eternal principle. A righteous and wise person must always act in accordance with Dharma, even if the texts perish and even if there are no longer any authors left.

astaṃ yāteṣu vādeṣu kartṛṣv anyeṣv asatsv api /
śrutismṛtyuditaṃ dharmaṃ loko na vyativartate // VP. 1.149 //


Sources of Valid knowledge

After enumerating the eight topics and the importance of following the tradition, Bhartrhari discusses about the relations between the three major sources of valid knowledge (Pramana): (i) direct perception (Pratyaksha); inference (Anumana); and, tradition or traditional texts (Agama or Sabda).

Here, he draws attention to to the fact that perception, at times, could be erroneous because of weakness or improper functioning of sensory organs. As regards inference, he points out that inference, by itself, is an inadequate of source reliable of knowledge (Pramana). He argues that inference alone, without the steadying influence of the scriptures is an improper Pramana.   Vakyapadiya (1.34), remarks : ‘whatever is inferred with great effort through clever reasoning can easily be put aside a much more clever reasoning or argument (kuśalair anumātbhi)’.

And he then asserts, the traditional knowledge (Agama) which consists of the revealed (Sruti) or remembered (Smrti) scriptures cannot be set aside by inference, since they are more dependable than inference.

According to Bhartrhari, it is not justifiable to replace scriptures (Sabda) with inference, particularly in non- empirical matters. He also says that philosophical views (Vada) cannot be independent of the scriptures. In this context, Bhartrhari mentions, the role of Vyakarana (Grammar) is very important, as it helps to safeguard the correct transmission of the scriptural knowledge, and to assist the aspirant in realizing the truth of the revealed knowledge (Sruti).

[For more on valid knowledge in Indian thought – please click here]


Subjects discussed

The treatment of the subjects in the Vakyapadiya is indeed refreshing. It adopts an open approach; and is prepared to review and validate different perspectives on a given issue. Throughout Vakyapadiya, both the viewpoints – supporting and opposing – on a subject are discussed. Sometimes the viewpoints are just enumerated. And, sometimes Bhartrhari adds a comment to the one that is more acceptable  of the two. There are also instances where he develops his own view by reconciling or synthesizing two apparently conflicting views. He, at times, steers a middle course between two extreme positions. In certain ways, Bhartrhari surely is different from most authors of his time who had fallen into the habit of either totally condemning the opposite School or staunchly upholding one’s own system at any cost. (For more, please read Bhartrhari’s perspectivism by Jan E .M. Houben)

Bhartrhari was adopting the approach of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. The Buddha too, earlier, had said that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika).

With such a rather ‘aloof ‘or rational approach, Bhartrhari demonstrates his faith that things appear differently from different points of view.

That does not mean that Bhartrhari does not assert his own position. He is quite candid and assured of his own position. For instance; he opens the Vakyapadiya with a series of well defined statements which he plans to elaborate and defend later in work.


The first two Khandas are closely related. In these two Books, the topics (prakarana) concerning sentence and words are arranged under three broad sections, as: (i) the nature of these constituents, and their mutual relations; (ii) their contents; (iii) meaningful linguistic units and their mutual relations; the nature of creation; the relationship of Brahman, world, language, the individual soul (Jîva); and, the manifestation and comprehension of the meanings of words and sentences.

In first two Chapters, Bhartrhari shows his remarkable understanding of the psychology of communication, which is not restricted by mere structure of words.  Bhartrhari is among the few who have systematically investigated Thought and Language and their interrelationship. According to him, consciousness and thought are intertwined; speech or the spoken language is an outer expression of the inward thought process; and, language is the base of all human activity.

According to this view, there are two levels of language:  the inner speech and the articulated sound. The former he called Sphota, the latter Nada, ‘sound’, ‘noise’. The former is more real; and, it is the cause of the latter.

The basic idea here seems to be that the word is initially conceived as a unity in the mind of the speaker. Thus, the inward form of the word is its thought (intent), while the articulated sound is its outward form. And, both originate from the speaker’s mind as  thought process which later finds words to express itself; and, that verbalized thought is put out through series of word-sounds with the aid of various body-parts and the breath.  Bhartrhari employs a range of terms- such as Nada, Dhvani, Prakata-dhvani, Vaikrata-dhvani etc – in order to indicate the audible spoken word. He also talks, in detail, about the levels of language (we shall talk of this level in fair detail in the later parts).

Thus, a spoken word is but a transformation of a subtle form of un-vocalized thought which originated in the mind of the speaker in a much more subtle form. The inner most impulse is the knower, the person himself, who transforms Vivartate), in stages, to reveal himself.


The first Khanda (Brahma-khanda) introduces the concept of Sadba-sphota  and gives the outline of its general philosophy; and, its distinction from sound (Dhvani, Nada). By Sabda Sphota, Bhartrhari refers to that inner unity Sabda (word) which conveys the meaning (Artha) .

The text explains the real word (Sabda-Sphota) as the intent of the speaker, and that which is unerringly grasped by the listener. And, that is not the same as Nada (non-linguistic sound or that which expresses) or Dhvani (intonation) which acts as a carrier to convey the intended meaning.  Here, in Grammar (in contrast to Tantra and to the classical theories of Indian music ), Nada signifies the gross sound which results from a collection of subtle Dhvani-s.

Thus, Dhvani and Nada are‘external substances’ covering a meaningful content. In other words, they are  the outer garments or the cover of the real word (Sphota).

[Amazingly, in the later periods, the concepts of Nada and Dhwani underwent a thorough change. The terms Nada and Dhwani acquired totally different connotations. Nada in Tantra as also in the theories of Indian music was elevated to the mystical concept of a very high order as Nada Brahman.   Similarly, in the medieval Indian aesthetics (Kavya-Alamkara), the term Dhwani implied the subtle essence or the Rasa evoked by a poem or a gesture in a play or in dance. Anandavardhana regarded Dhwani as the soul of poetry- Kayyasya Atma. ]

Bhartrhari paid considerable attention to the whole sentence and the discussion of word-meaning rather than to constituents of a sentence.

The argument put forth here is that the sentence is an indivisible unit of communication; and, its meaning is grasped in a flash (sphota) through Prathibha (intuition). The complete and true meaning of a sentence is achieved only by means of such ‘intuitive perception’ (VakyaSphota). That according to Bhartrhari is the true and complete communication.

[In the later parts of this series we shall talk in a little detail about the levels of language and the concept of Sphota.]


The focus of the second Khanda (Vakya-khanda) is on the nature of relation between sentence and its meaningful constituents (words). The discussions here might be called as the study of linguistics.  But, in the course of its elaborate treatment the text covers several other topics dealing with the relationship between the Brahman, world, language, and the individual soul (Jiva).


The largest of the three Chapters is the third Khanda, which is divided into fourteen sub-sections (samuddesha-s) or collection of discussions on various grammatical topics in the context of Patanjali’s Mahabhashya. Most of the topics of this Khanda were discussed by Patanjali in his Mahabhashya in one context or another; but, not in a systematic manner. Bhartrhari, in this Khanda, organizes and presents the issues in the form of cogent discussions. He also brings in the arguments from other systems such as Mlmamsa to widen the scope of the discussions.

(1) Jati-samuddesa (concerning universal or genre ) ; (2) Dravya-samuddesa (about substance); (3) Sambandha-samuddesa ( on the concept of mutual  relations);  (4) Bhuyodravya-samuddesa [again concerning  substance); (5) Gunas-amuddesa (on quality); (6) Dik-samuddesa (of direction); (7) Sadhana-samuddesa (about participant producing an action); (8) Kriya-samuddesa (of action) ; (9) Kala-samuddesa (on concepts of time and tense); (10) Purusha-samuddesa (on the notion of grammatical person); (11) Samkhya-samuddesa (concerning numbers); (12) Upagraha-samuddesa (on distinctions between active and middle affixes); (13) Linga-samuddesa (about genders); , and  (14) Vrtti-samuddesa [about  complex formations , such as compounds, secondary nouns etc.)

Of these fourteen sections, some are small in size, while some like the section on complex formations and on participants producing an action etc. are fairly large.

With the aid of these Samuddesha-s , the third Khanda of Vakyapadiya goes into questions concerning the aspects of Pada (word), such as:  the nature of word; its true–spontaneous meaning; role of the verbs, nouns , particles and suffixes in a sentence;  the problems involved in deriving the meaning of individual word and sentence by artificial splitting them; and so on.  

In the last Book, Bhartrhari , among other things, makes a grammatical analysis to show that a sentence expresses a particular action or process, which is directly denoted by its main word, a verb,  He says , the function of most nouns is to show what means or accessories the action or process requires.  As regards the analysis of a sentence by breaking into parts, he insists, it is artificial; but, it might help to explain an indivisible word. Further, he says, the analysis of individual words abstracted from an indivisible sentence is unreal; as unreal as the stem and suffix similarly abstracted from an individual word.


Philosophy of language

The philosophy of language that Bhartrhari presents covers both the factual and the intuitive levels of language.

As regards the factual aspects, Vakyapadiya, presents an analytical study (parishkara) of various aspects and process ( prakriya ) of language (sound, sense, relation between sound and sense, and the purpose); its nature , modes and possibilities of communication (sentence and words); meaning of sentence and meaning of words, and their compatibility; how it is learnt; how languages relate to the world;  whether it can be a valid source of knowledge;  and, logical aspect of language based on the components (syllable) that go to form a word (stems and suffixes; meanings of the stems and suffixes; causes, and knowledge of the correct meaning of words) and other related subjects.

The discussions related to Grammar, Vakyapadiya also covers certain interesting issues that were not dealt in the earlier grammatical text. For instance; there are discussions here about: the distinction between Sabda (word) and Dhvani (sound); the question whether Sabda (word) signifies the general or the particular; and, what constitutes a meaningful-unit of language?

As  regards the philosophical aspects of language, Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya asserts the faith that by using correct speech (Sadhu) composed of apt linguistic units (words – Sabda) a human being can reach the limits of his conventional and spiritual capabilities. It enables, according to him, meditations centred on language: Vak-yoga or Sabda-purva yoga. For him, Grammar in its pristine form represents the efficient means to realise Brahman. Bhartrhari states that ‘the purification of the word is the means to the attainment of Supreme Self – ‘one, who knows the highest essence (paramo rasa) of speech, attains the Brahman’ (1.12). Ultimately, he says, speech is Brahman.

At the commencement of  Vakyapadiya, Bhartrhari declares that Sabda–tattva (Word-principle) is Brahman, the ultimate truth which is beyond space or time. It is: ‘the beginning-less and endless One; the imperishable (Akshara) of which the essential nature is Sabda, which transforms (vivartate) itself into speech, as words and as their meanings and into objects; and  , from which proceeds the creation of the universe’.

(Anadi-nidhanam Brahma sabda-tattvam yad-aksharam / vivartate artha-bhavena prakriya jagato yatahVP. 1.1)

[For Bhartrhari, Sabda Brahman (supreme word principle) is One (ekam eva) and is the highest Reality–Para Brahman. This marks his departure from Vedanta, where the supreme consciousness, Para Brahman, is beyond language.  The theistic traditions that came later also rejected the ultimate supremacy of Sabda Brahman. They, instead, chose to idealize the qualified Brahman with most adorable attributes. ]

Bhartrhari states that the essence of Brahman is the natures of Sabda (word). And, Sabda is identical with its meaning (Artha). According to Bhartrhari, the Sabda (word) expresses itself; and at the same time it also puts forth the meaning suggested by it. That is to say; Sabda is self-expressive; it is at once the subject and the object as well.

Further, Bhartrhari explains, though the word and word-consciousness (Logos- Shabda tattva – the ‘Word principle’, which he identifies with Brahman the Absolute) is unitary in its nature, it manifests itself in the diverse form of words that make possible the speech with its infinite varieties of expressions.

Thus, Sabda according to Bhartrhari is not merely the cause of the universe but also is the sum and substance of it. This is the central theme of Vakyapadiya.

 That fundamental idea is carried forward later in the text:

An absolute beginning of language is untenable. Language is continuous and co-terminus with the human or any sentient being. There is no awareness in this world without its being intertwined with language. All cognitive awareness appears as if it is interpenetrated with language. (VP. 1.123)

If the language impregnated nature went away from it, then a cognition would not manifest (any object), for that (language impregnated nature) is the distinguishing nature of our cognitive awareness. (VP. 1.124)

(Translation of B.M Matilal-  The Word and The World. India’s contribution to the Study of Language – 1990)

Sabda brahman.jpeg

Levels of Language

Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya explores language at two levels. The first deals with linguistic relationships from the point of view of everyday usage; and, the second with the same relationships from the point of view of ultimate reality.

At the empirical level, Bhartrhari is concerned with the process of communicating meaning. He talks about word-meanings and their relationships as in  everyday conversation. 

At another level, his theory of language deals with the metaphysical aspects of speech; and the ultimate purpose of life – the liberation from the bonds of Prakrti (relative existence).

But, reorganization of two levels of language does not imply dualism. Bhartrhari was essentially a Vedantin who viewed the universe as the emanation of the non-dual Brahman. He recognizes unity in diversity; and remarks: “All difference presupposes a unity; where there is a duality there is an identity pervading it. Otherwise one cannot be related to the other; each would constitute a world by itself”.

According to Bhartrhari, the language we speak is the medium of expression of the ultimate reality communicated through meaning-bearing words. It leads us across the external appearances and diversities to the core of the Reality which is the source and the underlying unity beneath everything. Here, the Real is the luminous Truth which needs to be rediscovered by every speaker and in every speech. The Real breaks forth (sphut) through the medium of speech (Sabda). And, Sabda is not mere means to the Reality, but it is the very Truth and Reality (Shabda-Brahman).



Extracting the precise meaning of a sentence in a text has been one of the concerns of most of Indian Schools of thought. Brihad-devata (a secondary Vedic text of 4-5th century BCE attributed Saunala) mentions about the rules that should generally be followed for interpreting a (Vedic) text. According to Brhad-devata, there are six factors that determine the sense or the import of an expression. They are: the objective to be served by the text (Artha); the relevance of subject matter under discussion (Prakarana); a reference to it in another portion of the text (Linga); aptness or its suitability of relevance (Auchitya); the geographical location (Desha); and, the contextual time (Kala).

Generally, it is the context in which a term is used that brings out the sense that it is trying to express. The context, in each case, is circumscribed by various factors. Elaborate sets of rules or guide-lines were drawn up by each School to identify such ‘context’ in each class of texts.  Among the traditional Schools of thought, Mimamsa took special care to lay down the ground rules in that regard. The Mimamsa method is generally followed by the other Schools as well.

According to Mimamsa , there are six means of ascertaining the correct meaning of a text: Sruti direct statement; Linga implication derived from another word or term; Vakya- syntactic connection; Prakarana – context of the situation; Sthana – location; and, Samakhya – meaning derived from etymology .

Mimamsa also laid down six factors for determining the purpose (Artha) of a text are: consistency in the meaning between the introduction and the conclusion; repetition of the main topic; the novelty of the subject matter; the result intended; corroborative and explanatory remarks; and, arguments in favour of the main topic.

Bhartrhari also lists out contextual factors which are similar to those listed in Brihad-devata; but, with slight medications and substituting Vakya   for Linga. His list of determinants or indicators to help determine the specific sense in which the words are used by speakers , broadly , cover the major factors such as : the sentence (vakya), the context (prakarana), the purpose (Artha), the propriety (auchitya), the place (Desha) and the time (kala).

According to him, the relation between the word and its meaning can be characterized in several ways: as the relation of capability to express a certain sense (yogyata); as a cause-and-effect relation (karya-karana-bhava) ; and as one of identification or superimposition (adhyasa or adyaropa). Such relations are permanent (nitya) in Grammar.

He pointed out that in many cases of language behaviour, the literal meaning conveyed by the expression is not the intended meaning and the contextual factors play a vital role in determining the intended sense of the passage. It is by gaining a thorough understanding, in each case, of context, the specific and the grammatical factors that determine the intended sense that one would be able to successfully avoid confusions and misrepresentations in reading a text.

Bhartrhari’s list is more elaborate:

 1.Samsarga (contact) or Sam-yoga (association): the connection known to exist between two things; 2. Viprayoga (dissociation): the absence of such connection; 3. Sahacarya (companionship): mutual association; 4. Virodhita (opposition): Antonym-opposite in meaning;  Artha: the objective or the intended purpose; 6. Prakarana: the context or subject under discussion; 7. Linga: indication from another place; 8. Sabda- syanyasya samnidhih  (nearness to  another word): similar to Samsarga ;  it restricts the meaning to a particular zone;  9. Samarthya  (capacity): capacity to express;  10. Auchitya (propriety or aptness): say, whether to take direct meaning or metaphorical meaning; 11. Desha  (place) the geographical region to which the text belongs; 12. Kala (time) the period in history in which the text is composed; 13. Vyakti (grammatical gender); and, 14.  Svara (accent) the tone and tenor of the text.

Apart from these, abhinaya (gesture) and apadesa (pointing out directly) are also taken as determining the exact meaning of an ambiguous expression.

All these factors discussed above can be classified under three broad groups: (1) Grammatical construction; (2) Verbal context, and, (3) Non-verbal situational- context.

Bhartrhari   emphasizes the importance of contextual factors in determining the meaning of an expression.


According to Bhartrhari, the process of understanding the particular meaning of a word has three aspects:  first , a word has an intrinsic power to convey one or more meanings (abhidha); second, it is the intention of the speaker which determines the particular meaning to be conveyed (abhisamdhana) ; and , third, the actual application (viniyoga  ) of the word and its utterance.

Bhartrhari  also states that Meaning in language is dependent on its usage; on the speaker-listener relationship; as also on their capacities to communicate and to comprehend – Sabdabodha (verbal cognition)- what has been expressed (śabdārthaḥ pravibhajyate).

vaktrānyathaiva prakrānto bhinneṣu pratipattṛṣu / svapratyayānukāreṇa śabdārthaḥ pravibhajyate  // VP:2.135//

The particular meaning of a word which is commonly used (prasiddhi) is considered by Bhartrhari   as its primary meaning. The secondary meaning of a word normally requires a context for its understanding, although sometimes the context may clarify only the primary meaning. Usually, the secondary meaning of a word is implied when a word is used for an object other than it normally denotes, as for example, the metaphorical use of the word

But his commentator Punyaraja dismisses such distinctions of primary and secondary meaning: the content of the speech is nothing but the intention of the speaker (tatparya); and, the classification of the meaning into primary and secondary, etc, is a fictitious analysis; and is meant only for the purpose of teaching the structure of language to ignorant persons.

vakyasya-arthát padarthanám apoddhare prakalpite I sabdantarena sambandhah kasyai kasyopapadyate I! VP.II.269.

upayáh siksamananám Baldnam apalapanah 1 asatye vartmani sthitva tatah satyam saniihate II VP.II.238.


Commentaries on Vakyapadiya

Numerous commentaries have been produced on the Vakyapadiya.

Bhartrhari himself is credited with preparing a detailed explanatory note (Vivarana or Vrtti or Tika) on the first two Khandas (Chapters) of the Vakyapadiya. The Vrtti though, technically, is a commentary, it is often regarded as an integral part or as an appendage of the Vakyapadiya.  At times, the name of a certain Harivrshabha is associated with the Vrtti. But, the scholarly interpretation is that ‘Harivrshabha’ could be a variation or reverse order (Hari +Brhat) of Bhartrhari, both the forms meaning: ‘great or powerful Hari’. The scholars generally tend to agree that Bhartrhari is the author of both the Vakyapadia (Trikandi) and the Vrtti. Bhartrhari’s main contribution to philosophy of grammar and philosophy of language is found in the first two Khandas of Vakyapadiya and their Vrtti.

Among the extant commentaries written in the earlier times the prominent ones are said to be the ones written by: Vrshabha or Vrshabhadeva; Helaraja; Punyaraja;  and, Nageshabhatta.

The early commentators interpreted Vakyapadiya mainly from the Advaita point of view; and, to a certain extent they were also influenced by Kashmir-Shaiva School. The earliest commentary available to us is that of Vrshabhadeva. And, commentaries prior to that are lost.

The earliest surviving commentary on the Vakyapadiya is the one ascribed to Vrsabhadeva, son of Devayasas and an employee in the court of King Vishnugupta of Kashmir. His time is said to be around 650 CE.  At the commencement of his Vakyapadiya-Paddhati, which is a commentary on the first two Khanda-s and the Vrtti, Vrsabhadeva mentions that earlier to him, many scholars had produced lucid commentaries on the Vakyapadiya. But, again, all those commentaries as also Vrsabhadeva’s commentary on the second Khanda are lost. Only his commentary on the first Khanda and on Vrtti has survived.

Helaraja (Ca.980 CE) who comes almost five hundred years after Bhartrhari is identified as the son of Bhutiraja who was a descendent of Laksmana, Minister in the Court of King Muktapida of Kashmir. (Some say that Helaraja was one of the teachers of Abhinavagupta.) Helaraja is said to have written a set of  three separate commentaries, one each on the three Khanda-s of the Vakyapadiya (Sabda-prabha; Vakya-pradipa; and, Prakirnaka-prakasha). However, his commentaries on the first and the second Khanda-s are, sadly, lost; and, only the commentary on the third Khanda (Prakirnaka-Khanda) has come down to us.

And, not much is known about Punyaraja either. His date is surmised as between the 11th and 12th Century. It is said; Punyaraja also hailed from Kashmir; and, was also known by the names Pullharaja or Rajanaka Suravarma. He was said to be disciple of Sasanka-sishya (Sahadeva) who wrote a commentary on Vamana’s KavyaAlankara-sutra-Vrtti, a text on poetics (Kavya-shastra). Punyaraja, it is said, studied Vakyapadiya under the guidance of his teacher; and later wrote a commentary (Vakya-khanda-Tika) on the second Khanda of Vakyapadiya. Some scholars, notably Dr. Ashok Aklujkar, have argued that this commentary is most probably a shortened version of Vakya-pradipa a commentary by Helaraja on the second Khanda, which is believed to have been lost.

There is also a commentary called Vakyapadiya-prameya- sangraha by an unknown author covering the second chapter of the Vakyapadiya. This actually is an abridgment of the commentary usually ascribed to Punyaraja.

Another commentator Nageshabhatta a well known scholar of the 17th century n his Vaiyakarana Siddhanta Manjusa is said to have commented on the Vakyapadiya .


During the last century there has been a remarkable upsurge in the studies on Vakyapadiya, both in the East and in the West. As Jan E.M. Houben, in the chapter on the Vakyapadiya and its interpretation remarks :

‘ One of the reasons for this must be that the subject matter of the Vakyapadiya is strongly consonant with crucial themes in twentieth century Western thought, in spite of the very different background and elaboration of the issues.’

Significant numbers of scholars have produced outstanding works. Just to name a few that I can quickly recall (Not in any particular order) : K A Subramania Iyer; Gaurinath Sastry; Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti; T.R.V. Murty; T K Iyer; Ashok Aklujkar; Jan E .M. Houben ; Harold Coward; K. Raghavan Pillai; Bimal Krishna Matilal; Bishnupada Bhattacharya; K. V. Abhyankar; Rau Wilhelm; Johannes Bronkhorst; Saroja Bhate; Madeleine Biardeau; Hajime Nakamura; K Kunjunni Raja; H.V Dehejia ; Akhiko Akamatasu;   P C Chakravathy; Hideyo Ogawa and many others.

 We all owe a deep debt of gratitude to these savants.

kitus flowers.jpeg

 In the next parts we shall try to know the concept of Sabda Brahman according to Bhartrhari; his theories on errors; his concept of time etc before moving on to Sphota.

 Continued in the next Part

References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Bharthari, the Grammarian by Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  3. The Study of Vakyapadiya – Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  4. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bharthari and Heidegger by Sebastian Alackapally
  5. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound by Guy L. Beck
  6. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510) by Madhav Deshpande
  7. Bhartrihari by Stephanie Theodorou
  8. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis by Harold G. Coward
  9. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahari by Harold G. Coward
  10. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernity by  V. Ashok.
  11. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  12. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  1. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgenstein edited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  2. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  3. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney
  4. Of Many Heroes”: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiography  by N. Dev
  5. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhi by Allen Wright Thrasher
  6. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First … Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  7. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  8. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  9. Studies in the Kāśikāvtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras : Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  10. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 13, 2016 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Four

Continued from Part Three



Bhartrhari perhaps the most eminent Grammarian-Philosopher of ancient India is held in very high esteem in the Sanskrit traditions; and , also in the Grammar and Literary Schools of the West which regard him as an expert in linguistic analysis.  Bhartrhari is recognized as the leader of the Grammarian School of linguistic philosophers, which focused on the problem of language and meaning.

Bhartrhari was a scholar-poet, par excellence, who wrote authoritatively on Grammar, Philosophy of Grammar and Philosophy. He is placed next only to Muni-traya – the revered trio (Trimurti) of sages – Panini (Astadhyayi), Katyayana (Vrttika), and Patanjali (Mahabhashya). He was a brilliant original thinker propounding a system of his own; and, yet he was rooted in the tradition of Panini and Vyadi (Samgraha) as also in the Vedanta (monism) of Badarayana. As a Grammarian (Vyakarana-kara), he presented striking arguments, vividly, on the philosophy of language and on the concept of Sphota, the flash of intuition (Prathibha) through which the meaning or the import of a sentence, as an indivisible unit of communication, is grasped.  As a philosopher, Bhartrhari not only developed but also demonstrated the logical implications of his theories of śabda-advaita which identifies language and cognition with the Sabda-tattva, the essence of the Principle of Word (Logos).  He declared, if this eternal identity of knowledge and Word were to disappear, knowledge would cease to be knowledge (Vak.I.115).

[ na so’ sti pratyayo loke yah Sabdanugamådrate / anuviddham iva jnånam sarvam Sabdena bhåsate (Våk.I.115)]

His doctrine  asserted that  Brahman the ultimate Reality ,which is without beginning or end , is of the nature of Sabda  (Sabda-tattva) ; and , from it are manifested all objects and the whole of existence. Here he raises the question: how the Highest Brahman, devoid of all the attributes and differences is evolved in the creative process of world as Word, meaning, etc? He answers that by saying says it is with the aid of Shakhti, inseparable from Brahman, creation becomes possible. Thus, Sabda-tattva is the cause of creation.

Bhartrhari was a traditional scholar firmly grounded in poetic (Kavya) and scholastic principles of Sanskrit language; and was possibly a great poet as well. He was also a philosopher of merit.   He was well versed in the study of Mimamsa and Vedanta. In the citation to the  later editions of the his texts, Bhartrhari  is celebrated as a great Grammarian ( Maha-vaiyyakarana) , Great poet (Maha-kavi), Yogi (Maha Yogi) , a great warrior  (Maharaja) and the ruler of Avanti (Avantisvara)  who composed Vakyapadiya   (iti Sri Bhartrhari virachitam Vakyapadiyam ). His commentators and critics commonly referred to Bhartrhari by the epithet Vyakarana-kara (Grammarian) or the Sphotavadin (the champion of the doctrine of Sphota-vada).A mangala-verse appearing at the end of the commentary on the second Kanda (ascribed to either of his commentators Punyaraja or Helaraja) reverently submitting respect to Bhartrhari,  addressed him as ‘Guru’; ‘exponent of Sabda-Brahma-doctrine’ Sabda-Brahma vide)

Gurave Bhartrharaye Sabda-bramha vide namah / Sarva-siddantha-sandoha-saramrta-mayaya //

His works cover a wide range of subjects such as Poetics, Grammar, logic, semantics, ontology and philosophy.  In his works, Bhartrhari combines the philosophical insights of Samkhya, Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Advaita-Vedatnta, Yoga, Shaivism, and Madhyamika-Yogachara Buddhism. He presents in one place precious nugget of knowledge that otherwise would have been lost. In his Vakyapadia, Bhartrhari claims to have brought to light the forgotten writings of the ancient Grammarians Vyadi and Patanjali as also of other Grammarians (Anye Vaiyyakaranah) , other Schools of Grammar (Vyakaranatara) and their traditions  ( Smrtyantara) that are lost. In many ways, Bhartrhari is the only credible link to the Vedic tradition of Vac that existed a long time ago; to the earlier forgotten Schools of Grammar; and to the traditions of Panini and Patanjali.

As mentioned, Bhartrhari is credited with reviving the traditions of classical Schools of Grammar that had fallen into disuse for long centuries. It is said; the Astadhyayi of Panini (ca. 400 BCE) for a long time governed the rules of   classical Sanskrit Grammar. It was later slightly revised and supplemented by the annotations and sub-commentaries (Vrittikas) of Katyayana (Ca.300-250BCE); and, thereafter expanded in Mahabhashya, the detailed commentary of Patanjali (ca.200 BCE).  But, in later centuries, the study of language declined. Many scholars of the later day (such as Vajji, Saubhava and Haryaksa) even came to ignore the rules of Panini and Patanjali. It almost extinguished the tradition of Patanjali.

There were several theories of Grammar. Bhartrhari refers to ‘other Grammars (Vyakaranatara) and to other Grammarians (anya vaiyyakaranah).  When he refers to conflicting theories, Bhartrhari says ‘other person’ or ‘theories of others’ (eke varnayanti, anye varnayanti, apare varnayati, anvesham darshanam, apareshu vyakhyanam etc)

For a very long period of time, the study of Sanskrit Grammar had fallen into neglect. By about the 5th century Grammar had lost its premier position. In addition, the study of Prakrt was also gaining attention. As Bhartrhari says, ‘the influence of Prakrt the language of the common people was steadily growing on classical Sanskrit ‘.

Some of the much debated Karika-s that appear towards the end of the Second Kanda of Vakyapadiya rue that before the time of Bhartrhari the tradition of Grammatical studies , based on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya,  had suffered at the hands of incompetent grammarians (bhrasto vyakaranagama).

yaḥ pātañjaliśiṣyebhyo bhraṣṭo vyākaraṇāgamaḥ /
kālena dākṣiṇātyeṣu granthamātro vyavasthitaḥ//2.485//

parvatād āgamaṃ labdhvā bhāṣyabījānusāribhiḥ /
sa nīto bahuśākhatvaṃ cāndrācāryādibhiḥ punaḥ//2.486

[Bhartrhari names (Vakyapadiya.2.486) Chandracharya or Chandragomin (?) – (a Buddhist scholar, grammarian; said to be a contemporary or a teacher of Vasuratha; and author of Chandra-vyakarana, a text of the Chandra school of grammar) – as one of those who contributed to the neglect of Patanjali’s Mahabhashya. Bhartrhari mentions Vaiji, Sauva and Haryaksa, and later Chandracharya, who by their uncritical methods did much to push the Mahabhasya to the background. Quite obviously, Chandracharya, a Buddhist, had scant regard for the rules of Panini’s Grammar; and, is said to have even censured it. His work did not contain any section on Vedic Grammar. That might perhaps be the reason why Chandra-vyakarana disappeared in India (Aryadesha), though it was popular among the Buddhists in Tibet, Nepal and Ceylon. Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India During the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D. by Lal Mani Joshi]

There were, however, still some scholars who tried to preserve the purity of the traditional Grammar. They attempted to formulate a fresh system that would make study of Grammar easier and rational. The well known among such scholars was Sarvavarman (author of Kaatantra) a Buddhist who lived around theFirst century. In his work, Sarvavarman essayed to explain how Sanskrit Grammar could be made to be understood easily and warmly welcomed by common people. His works exerted a remarkable influence on the study of Sanskrit in Tibet as also on Tibetan Grammar itself.

It is, however, Bhartrhari who is considered principally responsible for reviving interest in study of Grammar. It was only when Bhartrhari breathed a fresh life into the study of Grammar; the classical Sanskrit began to flourish once again. Following his efforts, Sanskrit Grammar gained a fresh lease of life.  The appearance of Bhartrhari was, thus, very significant in the development of the tradition of study of Grammar in India. It led to the School of Panini and Patanjali flourishing into philosophy of Grammar. The transition came about because of the initiative of Bhartrhari. The Grammarians of the later period largely followed the lead of Bhartrhari, and revered him as an authority. Even otherwise, Bhartrhari’s influence in the study of Grammar per se was considerably huge. Bhartrhari came to be revered as next only to the three sages (Muni –traya) of Grammar – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali

It is said; the inspiration for Bhartrhari to bring about a transformation in the study of classical Sanskrit Grammar was his teacher (Vasuratha). It was because of the initiative he provided that Bhartrhari took up the task of composing a text based on the traditional vales and principles of Classical Grammar. Bhartrhari states that ‘the summary of the science of language (Grammar) was composed by my teacher (Vasuratha) after going through other systems along with our own system’. Bhartrhari mentions that his teacher was trying to revive classical Sanskrit when it had fallen on lean days. He claims that he extended his teacher’s efforts by composing Vakyapadiya. And, he credits some of his theories in Vâkyapadiya to his teacher. Bhartrhari affirms that he was, thus, carrying forward an ancient tradition kept alive by the long line of his teachers.

[In fact, Bhartrhari went much further. Patanjali’s purpose was to systematise the language and not to establish philosophical theories. Bhartrhari’s  Vakyapadiya is at once a grammatical treatise (Vyakarana-shastra) and a philosophical text (darshana) as well.]

The appearance of Bhartrhari was, therefore, very significant in the development of the tradition of study of Grammar and the philosophy of Grammar. Bhartrhari, though not seen as a successor to Patanjali, is respected as a reviver of the ancient traditions. Some scholars opine that ‘Bhartrhari’s singular contribution was to revive the traditions of classical  Grammar and entwine that into the main stream of Indian philosophy – Darshana, a view of the Reality’.


Supporters and detractors

The Grammarians of the later period largely followed the lead of Bhartrhari, and recognized him as an authority. Even otherwise, Bhartrhari’s influence in the study of Grammar per se was considerably huge. Bhartrhari came to be admired as next only to the three sages (Muni–traya) of Grammar (Vyakarana Shastra) – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali. Bhartrhari is, thus, at the very heart of the development of philosophy related Grammar. Dr. K Raghavan Piliai in his introduction to the Study of Vakyapadiya – Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971) while tracing the development of Grammar from Panini to Patanjali, writes: ‘one can say with certainty that it is in the Vakyapadiya that a first full-fledged statement and discussion of a philosophy of Grammar is given’.

Most Schools, therefore, regard Bhartrhari as the representative of traditional Grammar as also the philosophy of Grammar.

Bhartrhari called himself a ‘monist ‘(ekatva-darshin). He had declared his views as that of ‘one who knows the inner secret of the three Vedas’ (satyatvam ahus traya-anta-vedinah: Vakyapadiya: 3.3.70). He had enormous faith in and reverence for Vedas, the Sruti.  He said ‘the words of Sruti, though their authors and origins are unknown, they go on forever without interruption’.  In his writings, he frequently referred to Vedas.

[At the time of Bhartrhari, the term ‘Advaita’ was not yet in currency. Yet, the scholars who came after 11th century labelled his doctrine as Advaita-vada, Advaita-nyaya.]

Bhartrhari is generally recognized as a Vedantin. And his views are accepted and quoted by the later Vedanta Scholars of repute. His work is  treated by some , virtually, as an Agama-text (pratyak caitanye sannivesita vak).

For instance; Vachaspathi Misra in his Bhamathi (BS: 2.1.11), a commentary on Sri Sankara’s Brahma-sutra-bhashya quotes Bhartrhari (Vakyapadiya: 1.34) as an authority, saying ‘what is inferred by a skilful logician with much labor can be refuted only by another who is more capable’. Yamunacharya the Vishistadvaita scholar of 10-11th century   counts Bhartrhari as an authority on Vedanta. Similarly, Madhava (14th century) in his Sarva-darshana-samgraha discusses Bhartrhari in the context of Panini’s rules (Chapter 13); and, again he quotes Bhartrhari (16th Chapter) in support of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.  And, Yoga Vasista also quotes phrases from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya.

Many of the later Advaita scholars  regarded Bhartrhari as an eminent Vedanta scholar. For instance; Pratyagrupa (author of Nayanaprasadini a commentary on Citsukha’s Tattva-pradipika, a 12th-13th century text which establishes, analyses and offers interpretation  on the fundamentals of Sri Sankara’s Advaita) recognized Bhartrhari as a Vedantin; and, lauded him as a Bramha-vit-prakanda (highly learned in Brahma-vidya). And, Somananda and Utpaladeva of Kashmir Shaivism considered  Bhartrhari as an Advaitin.  Abhinavagupta, of course, was deeply influenced by Bhartrhari.


The flip side of such recognition was that the later scholars of the rival schools whenever they criticized the philosophy of Grammar invariably attacked Bhartrhari and his work Vakyapadiya. That might have been, mainly, because Bhartrhari in his exposition of the philosophy of Grammar fused Vedanta with the study of Grammar. That attracted the ire of followers of the rival philosophies. Just to name a few his critics : the Buddhist philosophers Santarakshita and Kamalasila; the Jain Philosopher Prabhachandra; the Mimamsaka Kumarila Bhatta ; Jayanta of the Nyaya School besides many others.

And again, the Sphota theory developed by Bhartrhari had its supporters as also its opponents. For instance; the Vedanta scholars such as Sri Sankara and others; the Nyaya and Samkhya Schools; as also Kaumarila Bhatta, a noted Mimamsa Scholar (7th -8th century) all attacked Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota. Among the Grammarians, Bhamaha (6th century) did not accept Sphota, while Anandavardhana (9th century) argued in favor of Sphota and Dhvani. And, Abhinavagupta (11th century) after discussing concepts of Rasa, Saundarya in details accepted Sphota; and, went on to establish its theory, abhivyaktivada.

Interestingly, the support to Bhartrhari also came from another Mimamsa Scholar Mandana Misra, a contemporary of Kaumarila Bhatta. Mandana wrote a brilliant book (Sphota-siddhi) based Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. He supported Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota.


Similarly, among the Buddhists, there were those who supported as also those who opposed the views of Bhartrhari.

Bhartrhari’s date comes very close to a time when the Buddhist schools of the Vijnanavada and Madhyamika were flourishing. He was, perhaps, in close contact with the Buddhist tradition.  Bhartrhari was, therefore, familiar with the Buddhist arguments. In turn, the Buddhist scholar Santarakshita and Jnanasribhadra recognized Bhartrhari as an authoritative teacher on ‘Brahma- darshana’ the doctrine of Brahman. Similarly, the Jain scholar Prabhachandra calls Bhartrhari as Sabda-advaitin; while another Jain scholar Abhayadeva lauds Bhartrhari’s doctrine on Sphota as Sabda-advaita –vada.

Among the Buddhist scholars, while Dharmakirti and kamalasila  attacked Bhartrhari, another Buddhist scholar Dinnaga seemed to have been highly influenced by Bhartrhari; and quoted verses from Vakyapadiya in support of his own arguments concerning grammatical distinctions between two words having different nominal endings and those with identical endings.


Who was Bhartrhari?

As it usually happens in the Indian studies, the time or even the identity of Bhartrhari is much debated.

The name ‘Bhartrhari’ is identified with many, such as, the Grammarian (author of Vakyapadiya); the Grammarian associated with other philosophers and grammarians Vasurata, Dinnaga and Chandracharya ; the poet (author of Subhashita-tri-sahati, three sets of hundred stanzas each, grouped under the titles Niti-shataka, Sringara-shataka and Vairajya-shataka); the author of Bhaga-vrtti;  Bhatti the author of Ravan-vadha and the brother of King Vikramaditya;  the follower of the Great Siddha Gorakhnatha from whom he he is said to have learnt Yoga and renounced the world  ; and so on .

That rather complicates the matter. The question of the identity of the authors of the two works – Vakyapadiya and Subhashita-tri-sahati – is widely discussed; but is left unresolved.


There, again, is much debate about the date of Bhartrhari.

Generally, the attempts to surmise or to estimate Bhartrhari’s date have been made by tracing the line of his teachers:  Asaga–> Vasubandhu ->Vasuratha–> Bhartrhari.

: – Asanga who belongs to the early phase of the development of Mahayana Buddhism was a renowned exponent of the Yogachara (Vijñānavāda) School. He along with his half-brother and disciple Vasubandhu are regarded as the founders of this school. They were also the major promoters of Abhidharma teachings. It is believed that they lived during the fifth century.

: – Paramartha (499-569 C.E.) – one of the chief exponents of Yogachara doctrine in China – in his biography of Vasubandhu (written in Chinese) mentions that Vasuratha was a disciple of Vasubandhu.

: – And, Vasuratha was the husband of the younger sister (Brother-in-law) of the crown prince Baladitya, the son of King Vikramaditya.

: – The Buddhist scholar, grammarian Candracarya the author of Chandra-vyakarana, a text of the Chandra school of grammar is said to be a contemporary or a teacher of Vasuratha; his time is estimated to be around 450 CE

 :- and; Simhasurigani, a sixth century Jain writer, in his commentary Nyaya-chakra-tika , a commentary of Mallavadin’s  Nyaya-chakra , mentions that the renowned Grammarian Vasuratha was the ‘upadhyaya’, the teacher of Bhartrhari.

Another Buddhist scholar Dinnaga (480-540 CE) (in his pramana–samucchaya) quotes verses from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. And, therefore Bharhari was either a contemporary or a senior to Dinnaga.

Some say that Sabaraswamin (Ca.400 CE), the Mimamsaka, could also possibly have been a contemporary of Bhartrhari. He could also be earlier to Dinnaga the Buddhist scholar. He perhaps lived during the declining period of the Guptas when India was being invaded by Huns in the North.

Chinese pilgrim-traveller I-tsing (635-713CE), mentions that a grammarian by the name Bhartrhari was a contemporary of Jayaditya (one of the authors of the Kasikavrtti on the Astadhyayi); and, he died in A D 650.

Therefore,   it is generally believed that Vasubandhu lived sometime after 400 CE; Vasurata (430-450 AD) was the teacher (Upadyaya) of Bhartrhari the Grammarian; and that Bhartrhari was a contemporary of Dinnaga (480-510 AD) the Buddhist philosopher.  Bhartrhari is, therefore, generally dated between 450-500 AD. The outer date is about 650 AD   which is mentioned by I-tsing as the year of death of a Grammarian named Bhartrhari.

The noted scholar T.R.V. Murti proposes the following chronology: Vasurata, followed by Bhartrihari (450-510 CE) and Dinnâga (480-540 CE). Most scholars have accepted these dates as plausible.



Bhartrhari the Grammarian is credited with many works dealing with Grammar and linguistics. Apart from Vakyapadiya, Bhartrhari is said to have authored: 1) Mahabhasya-tika (-dipika?); Vritti (explanations or interpretation) on Chapters (Khandas) I and II of Vakyapadiya; and Shabda-dhâtu-samîksha; and, the Bhattikavya.

: – Mahabhashya-tika, also known as Tripadi, is a commentary on the first three Khandas of Patanjali’s Mahabhashya. In its original form, it must have been a voluminous work. The original work is lost.  Only a fragment of this commentary is to be available in a single manuscript. It covers only the first 53 rules of Panini’s Astadhyayi. Those fragments were quoted by later writers. It is said; Kaiyata (11th century) relied upon this work of Bhartrhari in writing his own commentary – Pradipa– on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya.

Bhartrhari’s commentary (tika) on Mahabhashya was written with reference to earlier commentaries that existed before his time. There, he refers to ‘other Grammars’ (Vyakaranatara) and to other Grammarians (Anye Vaiyyakaranah). He also refers to ‘other traditional works’ (Smrtyantara) and ‘other Grammars’ (Vyakaranantara).

: – Vritti (explanations or interpretation) on Cantos or Sections (Khandas) I and II of Vakyapadiya is at times ascribed to one Harivrshabha. But, the scholarly interpretation is that ‘Harivrshabha’ could be a variation or reverse order (Hari +Brhat) of Bhartrhari, both the forms meaning: ’great or powerful Hari’. The scholars generally tend to agree that Bhartrhari is the author of both the Vakyapadia and the Vrtti. Bhartrhari’s main contribution to philosophy of grammar and philosophy of language is found in the Vakyapadiya and its commentary Vrtti (on its first two Khandas).

: – Sabda-atausmika is known from references to it in works of other authors. The text is no longer available; and nothing much is known about it. This work is traditionally attributed to Bhartrhari by the scholars of the Kashmiri Shaivism, notably Somananda (9th century) and Utpalacharya (10th century). It is said to have discussed in fair detail the concept of Pashyanti – a very highly subtle kind of awareness.

 : – the Bhattikavya (also known as Rāvana-vadha) described as an earliest example of Mahakavya and an instructional poem (śhāstra kāvya) recounts the story of Rama and Sita based on the epic Ramayana. At the same time, it illustrates the principal rules of Sanskrit Grammar and poetics that were codified by the grammarian Panini. It is said; the Bhattikavya was written mainly for the purpose of illustrating the rules of grammar as expounded in Panini’s Astadhyayi. But, it is not clear who actually is the author of this work. The opinions are divided between Bhartrihari and Vatsabhatti.

Of the many texts composed in ancient India, on linguistic philosophy, Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya (About sentence and the word), a treatise on sentences and words, is the most respected. Bhartrhari’s fame largely rests upon his celebrated Vakyapadiya, which ranks among the principal authoritative texts in Sanskrit Grammar.

Vakyapadiya is a seminal work on Grammar and philosophy of Grammar; and, it has exerted huge influence, over the centuries, on the development of various Schools of philosophies within Grammar and outside of it.  Its significance among Sanskrit texts is enormous. It is a considerably extensive work, consisting about two thousand verses spread over three Books (or Cantos) called Kandas: Brahma -kanda (or Agama-samucchaya), Vakya-kanda and Pada-kanda. The alternate title of the Book is therefore Tri-Kandi, a book of three Cantos.

Vakyapadiya, which basically is an analytical study of language,  largely deals with various aspects of language (sound, sense, relation between sound and sense, and the purpose); its nature , modes and possibilities of communication (sentence and words); meaning of sentence and meaning of words, and their compatibility; how it is learnt; how languages relate to the world;  whether it can be a valid source of knowledge;  and, analytical aspect of language based on the components (syllable) that go to form a word (stems and suffixes; meanings of the stems and suffixes; causality, and knowledge of the correct meaning of words) and other related on

Vakyapadiya covers all these aspects and more. It provides both a philosophy of language and a darshana of the school of Linguistics.

The text  elaborates on the ancient doctrine of Sphota (that which flashes or bursts forth the meaning). Here, Bhartrhari explaining the relations that exist between the word (pada) and the sentence (Vakya) argues that a sentence is an unbreakable whole , the meaning of which flashes forth only after it is completely uttered (Vakya-sphota). The words are but a part of the whole; and have no independent existence; and, are understood only in the context of a completed sentence. Thus, Bhartrhari asserted that the whole is real while parts are not, for they are constructs or abstracted bits. He demonstrates that the natural home of a word is the sentence in which it occurs.

Bhartrhari also brings into discussion certain philosophical aspects of the Word. He projects the Word as – Shabda tattva-the ‘Word principle’, which he identifies with Brahman the Absolute. He puts forward an hypothesis that the ultimate Reality is expressed in language, the Shabda-brahman, or Verbum Eternum or Supreme Word, which corresponds to the original concept of  the Logos. Thus, for him, language is the manifestation of Brahman; and, it constitutes the world. In his work, the study of language and inquiry of Reality are interwoven.

Let’s talk about Vakyapadiya, its structure, its concepts; and, its arguments in the next part.

Continued in

Next Part


References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Bharthari, the Grammarian by Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  3. The Study of Vakyapadiya – Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  4. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bharthari and Heidegger by Sebastian Alackapally
  5. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound by Guy L. Beck
  6. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510) by Madhav Deshpande
  7. Bhartrihari by Stephanie Theodorou
  8. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis by Harold G. Coward
  9. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahari by Harold G. Coward
  10. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernity by  V. Ashok.
  11. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  12. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  1. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgenstein edited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  2. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  3. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney
  4. Of Many Heroes”: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiography  by N. Dev
  5. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhi by Allen Wright Thrasher
  6. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First … Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  7. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  8. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  9. Studies in the Kāśikāvtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras : Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  10. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 27, 2016 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Discussions on Artha in Kavya- the Indian Poetics

As said earlier, one of the issues that preoccupied the Grammarians, the philosophers and the poetic-scholars alike was the subtle relation between the linguistic element (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha). There have been elaborate discussions in the Indian Poetics about the shades or the layers of meaning that the word is capable of revealing.

: – The Grammarian Patanjali explained the term Sabda as that which when articulated gives out the meaning or the intent of the speaker. 

: – According to Bhamaha and Rudrata:  Poetry is the combination of word and meaning.

 –  Saba- arthau -sahitau Kavyam – (Bhamaha, Kavyalankara 1.6); Nanu Sabda-arthau Kavyam – (Rudrata, Kavyalamkara2.1);

: – Kuntaka says the word (Sabda) and sense (Artha), blended like two friends, creating each other, make Kavya delightful

Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi / parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha //

Such togetherness of the word and sense creates a captivating state poetic delight in the mind of the reader or the listener. And, this is exactly what the poet desires to achieve.

Sahitya manayo shobha shalitam prati kashyasau / Atyunna na athiriktha manoharinya vasthithihi // V.J.1.17

: – Raja Bhoja (1011–1055) in his Srngaraprakasha says that word and meaning when harmoniously composed (sahitau) constitute Kavya. . Thus Kavya is a composition (unity, sahitya) of word and meaning.

:- King Somesvara III (around 1130) of the Kalyana Chalukya dynasty in his Manasollasa, an encyclopaedic work, says: Words make up the body of a literary text, meaning is its life-breath, tropes (Alamkara)  its external form, emotional states and feelings its movements, meter its gait, and the knowledge of language its vital spot. It is in these that the beauty of the deity of literature consists.

: – And, Mandana Misra, the Mimamsaka, in his Sphotasiddhi said: Sabda is the cause that produces the intended meaning.

The position, simply put, is: poetry in any of its forms does need words; and the arrangements of those words, however clever or elegant, do have to convey a sense or meaning. The poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It, in fact, goes beyond regulated regimens. It is only the right or judicious combination of the two – Sabda and Artha- that produces relishing aesthetic expressions and suggestive poetry. The ultimate merit of a Kavya is in its enjoyment (Rasa) by the Sahrudaya the reader endowed with culture and taste. (Rasa)

In fact, the late-tenth-century philosopher and literary theorist Abhinavagupta went a step further. He asserted that that Kavya is not just about meaning, it is something more than that; and , as  he put it: “It is not the mere capacity for producing meaning as such that enables a text to be called Kavya. And that is why we never apply that term to everyday discourse or the Veda.”


The primary sense Vakyartha is the natural (Svabhavokti); and, it is the easily comprehended sense of the word. When the perception of the primary sense is obstructed, the word conveys a sense other than the primary sense; but, the two meanings (somehow) seem related.  Thus, the secondary sense (lakshana) could even be called an unnatural meaning (Vakrokti) of the word.

For instance; when the word Purusha is uttered, one immediately understands it as a reference to a male member of the human race. It is the primary sense of the word. It might refer to an individual or to a generic attribute. In any case; the word Purusha and its meaning are related. It is a signified–signifier relationship; one pointing towards the other. This relationship is termed Abhida.

However, in the world we live, we do not always use a word only in its primary sense. Many times, the word in its primary sense may not be adequate.  Then, we attempt to attribute a sense to the word that is different or distinct from the primary sense. Such process of superimposition (aropita) is called lakshana or indication. This would be secondary sense – lakshanika or lakshyartha – of that word. The relationship between the secondary sense and the word is described as lakshya-lakshya sambandha

In poetry; the obstruction caused due to incompatibility of primary sense; the connection between the primary and the secondary sense; and, the convention (rudi) – are all interrelated. Here, there ought to be some justification for switching over to the un-natural meaning of the word; and, it should be generally acceptable (or should have gained currency in the common usage). 


The use of words, their role and the intended effect are context sensitive. The same word could be employed in any number of ways; each performing its role in its own context. Thus, all the shades of meaning are necessary and relevant in poetry; but, each in its own context. Rajasekhara, therefore, says:  A sentence is an arrangement of words which embodies the content that the speaker wishes to convey (pada-nama-abidhita-arthagrathanakarah sandarbhah vakyam – Kavyamimamasa (22) of Rajasekhara).

For instance; take the word Mother. The word in its primary sense is woman who has given birth to a child. In the specific context when one says ‘Kausalya is the mother of Rama’ you are referring to a specific person. And when one says ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, one is not referring to a physical mother but to suggest the sense of ‘origin’. Here, the primary sense of the term does not work. Similarly, when the Saint Ramaprasad calls out to Devi in anguish as Mother, it suggests the intensity of his devotion and the depth of his longing for her love and protection. Devi is not the physical mother but a projection of the Universal Mother principle or a specific mother deity. The vibrations of the suggested meaning of the word are indeed truly powerful.


Then, there is the most interesting and much debated Vyanjana-artha which is the suggested sense or the essence of the word. This, again, is founded in the principle that   the meaning of word is not limited to its literal sense; the word has the power to reach far beyond the obvious. In poetry, the word acquires another power Vyanjana-vritti the suggestive function. It is that    power (Shakthi) which activates the potential hidden in the word. And, the word acquires a new glow. Through the suggestive function of the word, a new meaning emerges, transcending the obvious literal sense, far more beautiful and sensitive.

The word which connotes the suggested sense (through the suggestive function Vyanjana –vritti) is named Vyanjaka. The relationship between the suggestive word and the suggested meaning (Vyanjana-artha) is described as vyangya-vyanjaka sambandha. It is this mutual relationship, which, virtually, is the lifeblood of Indian poetics.  In fact, this is what that distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature.

The suggested sense Vyanjana-artha, which, though not explicit, becomes the object of awareness, is regarded as the essence of poetry. The Dhvani School put forward by Anandavardhana, brought focus on the potential power of the word in a Kavya. Here, the word (Sabda) together with its literal sense (Vakyartha) is said to form the body of Kavya; it is its cloak.  But, the essence of poetry is elsewhere; it is not directly visible; and, that essence is the suggested sense of the word (Vyanjana-artha).

 To put it in another way: it is not the direct literal and obvious meaning that is very significant  in poetry, but it is the suggested, indirect and emotive meaning that matters.  Hence, though the words of a Kavya and the literal sense must be given their due importance, they are but a medium for emotive and indirect meaning to flash forth. In good poetry, this suggested meaning dominates over the words and their literal meaning. As per Anandavardhana: The latter are compared to a woman’s body and the former to her grace and beauty which is a subtler manifestation and a more profound meaning of the womanhood.

The primary meaning can be understood by all. But, the suggested meaning is understood only by those who are gifted with some imagination and a sort of intuition. Here, the mere knowledge of the word alone is not enough to understand and enjoy the poetic import or the essence of the Kavya. It needs intuition or Prathibha.  Mammatacharya calls Prathibha as – nava-navaonvesha-shalini prajna – the ever inventive and resourceful intellect. Prathibha is also called, at times, as Vasana.  Only those endowed with Prathibha can truly enjoy the essence and beauty of Kavya. That is why, it is remarked; the Grammarians (unlike the goodhearted cultured reader the Sahrudaya) cannot truly appreciate and enjoy the Rasa of good poetry. They are incapable of looking beyond what appears obvious.


The suggested sense of the word designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) is regarded Anandavardhana as the soul of Kavya: Kavyasya Atma Dhvanih.

The concept of Dhvani was said to have been inspired by the ancient doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota signifies:  bursting; opening; expansion; disclosure; the eternal and imperceptible element of sound and words; and, is the real vehicle of the idea which bursts or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered.

Nagesha Bhatta identifies Vedic Sage Sphotayana, mentioned by Panini in one of his rules, as the originator of Sphota theory. Bhartrhari, however, states that Audumbarayana (mentioned by Yaska) had put forth views similar to the Sphota concept. In any case, the original idea of Sphota seems to go back to the Vedic age when Vak or speech was considered to be a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman , and Pranava (Aum) was regarded as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were supposed to have evolved. 

It was Bhartrhari (around 485 AD) in his great work Vakyapadiya (all about sentence and word) elaborated and established the Sphota doctrine in the realm of Grammar and in Philosophy.

According to Bhartrhari, the perfect perception is that in which there is identity between the object (namely, the Sphota) and the form of its cognition (namely, words or the letters of sounds) . This special kind of perception is held to be function of mind, rather than of the external senses.

This is a major subject; and deserves to be discussed separately, when we come to the concepts argued out by Bhartrhari.

In the next part, let us start talk of Bhartrhari and his celebrated work Vakyapadiya.


Continued in next Part

Sources and References

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Satya Deva Caudharī

Indian Poetics (Bharathiya Kavya Mimamse) by Dr. T N Sreekantaiyya

Sahityashastra, the Indian Poetics by Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande

History of Indian Literature by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz

A History of Classical Poetry: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit by Siegfried Lienhard

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Two


Continued from Part One



A. Artha

As mentioned at the commencement of Part One – The most common Sanskrit term for ‘meaning’ is Artha.  Various expressions in English language, such as ‘sense’, ‘reference’, ‘denotation’, ‘connotation’, ‘designatum’ and ‘intention’, have been used to render that Sanskrit term. However, each of those English terms carries its own connotation; and, no single term adequately and comprehensively conveys the various shades of meanings associated with the idea of Artha.

Apart from ‘meaning’, there are at least twenty other connotations to the word Artha; such as : thing; object; purpose; target; extent; interest; property;  wealth; polity; privacy; referent; and so on.


The term Artha figures in Vedic texts too. But, there, it is used in the sense of: aim; purpose; objective; enterprise; or, work. Here, Artha does not explicitly denote ‘meaning’. But, that basic idea is carried into the later texts where the term ‘Vakya-artha’ generally stands for: ’ the purpose of the sentence or the action denoted by the sentence’.

Yaska, the etymologist of the very ancient India, derives the term Artha from two roots (chakarita): Artho’rtem and Aranastha va – ‘to go, to move towards, reach etc’ and Arna+shta ‘to stay apart ‘. The Artha is, thus, derived from roots conveying mutually opposite sense. It is said; Artha, according to this derivation, at once, denotes something that people are moving towards (Arteh) or something from which  they desire to move away (Aranastha).

Some other scholars point out that in Sanskrit, the term ‘Artha’ has no clear derivation from the verb. But, the term itself gives rise to another verb ‘Arthayate’, which means ‘to request, to beg; to strive or to obtain’.

In any event, Artha has been in use as an all-embracing term having a verity of hues and shades of meanings. Almost everything that is understood from a word on the basis of some kind of ‘significance’ is covered by ‘Artha’. It brings into its fold various other terms and expressions such as: ‘Tatparya’ ( the true intent or gist);  Abhi-praya (to intend or to approach); ‘Abhi-daha’ (to express or to denote); or,’Uddishya’ ( to point out or to signify or to refer); ‘Vivaksa’ (intention or what one wishes to express); ‘Sakthi’ (power of expression); ‘Vakyartha’ (the import of the sentence); ‘Vachya’ and ‘Abhideya’ ( both meaning : what is intended to be expressed); ’Padartha’ (the object of the expression); ‘Vishaya’ (subject matter);’Abidha’ ( direct or literal meaning of a term) which is in contrast to lakshana the symbolic sign or metaphoric meaning; and, ‘Vyanjana’ ( suggested meaning ) and so on .

But, in the common usage, Artha, basically, refers to the notion of ‘meaning’ in its widest sense. But, Artha is also used to denote an object or an object signified by a word.

The scope of the term Artha in Sanskrit is not limited to its linguistic sense or to what is usually understood by the word employed. It can be the meaning of the words, sentences and scriptures as well as of the non-linguistic signs and gestures. Its meaning ranges from a real object in the external world referred to by a word to a mere concept of an object which may or may not correspond to anything in the external world. It could also mean Artha (money), the source of all Anartha (troubles); and Anartha could also be nonsense. Artha is one of the pursuits of life – wealth or well being. Artha could also signify economic power and polity. It is said that a virtuous person gives up Svartha (self-interest) for Parartha (for the sake of others). And, finally, Paramartha is the ultimate objective.



The communication of meaning is the main function of words (Pada); and in that sense, Artha is used in various places. In numerous contexts, Artha denotes the aim, purpose, goal or the object of the spoken word (pada). But, at the same time, it also involves other meanings such as –‘the object’ and/or to signify a certain tangible ’object’, ‘purpose or goal’ which could be attained. It is said; Padāt (lit., from word) suggests that every word has the capability to represent a certain object or multiple objects or purposes.

Thus, Padartha (pada+artha) stands for the meaning of the word; for a tangible object (Vastumatra); as also for the meaning (padartha) that is intended to be signified by the word (Abhideya). It is difficult to find an exact English equivalent to Padartha; perhaps category could be its nearest term.

It is argued that each word (Pada) has countless objects; and therefore, Padartha too is countless. It is said; the whole range of Padartha-s could be categorized into two: Bhava-padartha and Abhava-padartha. For instance; the whole of universe is categorized into Sat (existent) and A-sat (nonexistent); Purusha and Prakrti as in Samkhya

Nyaya Darshana (metaphysics) recognizes and categorizes as many as sixteen Padartha-s, elements:

Pramāa (valid means of knowledge); Prameya (objects of valid knowledge); Saśaya (doubt); Prayojana (objective or the aim); Dṛṣṭānta (instances or examples), Siddhānta (conclusion); Avayava (members or elements of syllogism); Tarka (hypothetical reasoning): Niraya (derivation or settlement), Vāda (discussion), Jalpa (wrangling), Vitaṇḍā (quibbling); Hetvābhāsa (fallacy), Chala (hair-splitting);  jāti (sophisticated refutation) and Nigrahasthāna (getting close to defeat).

 For a detailed discussion on these elements – please click here



According to one interpretation, the word itself is also a part of the meaning it signifies. Such a concept of ‘meaning’ is not found in the western semantics. For instance; the Grammarian Patanjali says: ’when a word is pronounced, an Artha ‘object’ is understood. For example; ‘bring a bull’, ‘eat yogurt’ etc.  It is the Artha that is brought in; and it is also Artha that is eaten.

[Sabdeno-uccharitena-artha gamyate gam anya dadhya asana iti / Artha anyate Arthas cha Bhujyate]

Here, the term Artha stands for a tangible object which could be brought in or eaten; and, it is not just a notion. A similar connotation of Artha (as object) is also employed by Nyaya and Mimamsa schools. According to these Schools, the qualities, relations etc associated with the objects are as real as the objects themselves.

Bhartrhari also says that word is an indicator; even when a word expresses reality; it is not expressed in its own form. Often, what is expressed by a word is its properties rather than its form.

There are elaborate discussions on the issues closely related to the concept of understanding. It is argued; no matter whether the things are real or otherwise, people do have ideas and concepts of many things in life. In all such cases, it is essential that people understand those things and be aware of their meaning. Such meanings or the content of a person’s understanding are invariably derived from the language employed by each one.

That gives raise to arguments on questions such as: whether the meaning (Artha) of a word is derived from its function of the word to signify (Vrtti); or through inference derived from the words by the listener (Anumana) ; or  through his presumption (Arthapatti) or imagination.

Grammarians assert that Artha (meaning) as cognized from a word is only a conceptual entity (bauddha-artha). The word might suggest a real object; but, its meaning is only what is projected by the mind (buddhi-prathibhasha) and how it is grasped.

Pundit Gadadharabhatta of the Navya (new) Nyaya School, in his Vyutpattivada, argues that a word is closely linked to the function associated with it. According to him, the term Artha stands for object or content of a verbal cognition (Sabda-bodha-vishaya) which results from understanding of a word (sabda-jnana) as derived from the significance of the function pertaining to that word (pada-nists-vritti-jnana) – Vritya-pada-pratipadya evartha ity abhidayate.


Punyaraja, a commentator on Vakyapadiya of Bhartrhari, detailing the technical and non-technical aspects of the term Artha offers as many as eighteen explanations.

[ Artho asta-dashaad / tatra vastu-matram abhideyash  cha / abhidheyo api dvidha shastriya laukika cha /.. ]

According to Punyaraja, Artha stands for an external real object (Vastu-matra) as also for the meaning intended to be signified by a word (Abhideya). The latter –meaning in linguistic sense- could be technical (Shastriya) of special reference   or it could be the meaning as commonly grasped by people in a conversation (laukika). In either case, there are further differences. The meaning of a word might or might not be literary; and, it could also stand for an expression or a figure of speech (Abhideya). It could also be used to denote something that is not really intended (Nantariyaka) when something else is actually intended.

Bhartrhari also talks of two kinds of meanings – apoddhara-padartha and sthitha-lakshana-padartha.  The latter refers to the meaning as it is actually understood in a conversation. Its meaning is fixed; and, Grammarians cannot alter it abruptly. Bhartrhari also said: here, meaning does not leave the word. Meaning is comprehended by the word itself. The word is eternal and resides within us.

[There was much discussion in the olden days whether a word has a fixed meaning or a floating one. For instance; the Grammarian Patanjali asserted that a word is spoken; and when spoken it brings about the understanding of its meaning. The spoken word is the manifestation of the fixed (dhruva, kutastha) meaning of the word. And, the word (sabda) and its meaning (artha) and their inter-relations (sambandha) are eternal (nitya) – Siddhe sabda-artha-sambandhe–Patanjali Mbh.1.27]

The former, apoddhara-padartha mentioned by Bhartrhari, tries to bring out the abstract or hidden meaning that is extracted from the peculiar use of the word in a given context. In many cases, such abstracted meaning might not denote the actual (linguistic) meaning of the term as it is usually understood. But, such usage does not represent the real nature of the language. The apoddhara-padartha is of some relevance only in technical or theoretical (Shastriya) sense, serving a particular or special purpose. That again, depends on the context in which the term in question is employed.

[In many of these discussions, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between the literal meaning and the concept it represents (Pratyaya).

In the Sanskrit texts, the terms such as ‘Sabda’ (word); ‘Artha’ (object); ‘Pratyaya’ (concept) are horribly mixed up and are used interchangeably.]


There is also a line of discussion on whether Artha is universal or the particular? The Grammarian Vyadi says that the words refer to Dravya (substance) , that is ,  the particular. Vajapyayana on the other hand argues that words, including proper names, refer to Jati or class or universal.

Panini seems to leave the question open-ended.

But, Kumarilabhatta of the Mimamsa School argues when we utter a word we are at once referring to at least seven characteristics (Vastuni) associated with it. Let’s say when one utter ‘Bull’ (Gauh) , that expression  points to : Jati the whole class ; Vyakti – individual or particular; Sambandha– the relation between the two; Samudha– the collection of such elements; Linga-gender; Karaka- the relation that the term has with the verb (kriya-pada) or activity associated with it; and Samkhya– number , singular or plural.

With regard to the nature of the meaning of a word, Bhartrhari speaks in terms of its general or universal (jati) and its relative or specific (vyakti) connotations. Bhartrhari says that every word first of all means the class (jati) of that word. For instance; the word ‘cow’ initially refers to the general class of all that is in the form of cow. Later, it is implied to refer to its particular form (vyakti) . Thus, what is universal is then diversified into relative or a particular form.  Bhartrhari then extends his hypothesis to the field of philosophy- Advaita. He says; the universal (Brahman) appears as relative or specific limited. It is ultimately the Brahman (Sabdatattva) that turns out to be the meaning (Artha) of all words.


The Problem of Multiple Meanings

Generally, the notion of meaning is stratified into three or four types. The first is the primary meaning. If this is inappropriate in the given context, then one moves to a secondary meaning. Beyond this is the suggested meaning, which may or may not be the same as the meaning intended by the speaker. Specific conditions under which these different varieties are understood are discussed by these Schools.

Bhartrhari points out   that a word can carry multiple meanings and that the Grammarian should explain, in some way, how only one of those meanings is conveyed at a time.

According to him, the process of understanding the particular meaning of a word has three aspects: first, a word has an intrinsic power to convey one or more meanings (abhidha); second, it is the intention of the speaker which determines the particular meaning to be conveyed (abhisamdhana) in a given context; and third, the actual application (viniyoga) of the word and its utterance.

In the case of words carrying multiple meanings, the meaning which is in common usage (prasiddhi) is considered by Bhartrhari   as its primary meaning. The secondary meaning of a word normally requires a context for its understanding. Usually, the secondary meaning of a word is implied when the word is used for an object other than it normally denotes, as for example, the metaphorical use of the word.

Now, according to Indian Poetics, a word has three functions: it signifies or denotes (abhida); it indicates (lakshana); and it suggests (vyanjana).

The meaning that is comprehended immediately after the word is uttered is its primary meaning (mukhya-artha). The meaning thus conveyed and its relation to the next word and its own meaning is a mutual relation of the signifier and the signified (vachya-vachaka). The power that creates the relation among words is Abhida-vyapara, the power of denotation or sense. The suggestive power of the word is through Vyanjana-artha.

The meaning of a word or a sentence that is directly grasped in the usual manner is Vakyartha (denotation or literal sense); and, the power of the language which conveys such meaning is called Abidha-vritti (designating function). It is the principal function of the word .The primary sense Vakyartha is the natural (Svabhavokti) and is the easily comprehended sense of the word.

In certain cases where a particular word is not capable of conveying the desired sense, another power which modifies that word to produce the fitting or suitable meaning is called Lakshana-vritti (indicative function). Such secondary sense (lakshana) could even be called an unnatural meaning (Vakrokti) of the word.


There are certain other peculiar situations:

There is the complicated question of words having similar spelling; but having different pronunciations and conveying different meanings (homograph). Such words have been the concern of Grammarian from ancient times onwards.  Some argue such cases should, technically, be treated as different words with similar pronunciation and similar meaning. But, some Grammarians point out that there are, in fact, no true Homonyms. They do differ, at least slightly, either in the way they are pronounced or their usage or relevance.

 [If someone says saindhavam anaya, it might mean the ‘bringing of a horse’ or ‘bringing salt’. The exact meaning of the term saindhava is to be determined according to the intention of the speaker uttered in a given context,]

There is also the issue of Dyotya-artha  (co-signified) as when two entities are jointly referred by using the conjunctive term such as  ‘and’  or ‘or’ (cha; Va). It is said; the particles such as ‘and’, ‘or’ do not, by themselves, carry any sense if they are used independently. They acquire some context and significance when they are able to combine (samucchyaya) two or more entities of the similar character or of dissimilar characters.


Artha in Arthashastra

In the Arthashatra ascribed to Kautilya, the term Artha means more than ‘wealth’ or ‘material well being’ that follows the Dharma. There are numerous interpretations of Artha in the context of Kautilya’s work.

Here, Artha is an all-embracing term having a verity of meanings. It includes many shades and hues of the term : material wellbeing of the people and the State (AS:15.1.1); economy and livelihood of the people ; economic efficiency of the State in all fields of activity including agriculture and commerce(AS:1,4.3) . It also includes Rajanithi; the ‘politics’; and the management of the State. Artha, here, is the art of governance in its widest sense.

But, all those varied meanings aim at a common goal; have faith in the same doctrine; and, their authority is equal or well balanced. The purpose of life was believed to be, four-fold, viz. the pursuit of prosperity, of pleasure and attainment of liberation (Artha, Kama, Moksha); all in accordance with the Dharma prescribed for each stage of life.

That is because; there a fear that the immoderate pursuit of material advantage would lead to undesirable and ruinous excesses. And therefore, Artha must always be regulated by the superior aim of Dharma, or righteousness.


To start with, Artha is interpreted as sustenance, employment or livelihood (Vrtti) of earth-inhabitants. It also is said to refer to means of acquisition and protection of earth.

 [Manusyanam Vrtti –arthaha manushyavathi bhomir-arthyarthah –KA .15.1-2]

Artha is also taken to mean material well-being or wealth. It is one of the goals in human life. Here, it is with reference to the individual, his well being and his prosperity in life. That perhaps is the reason Artha, in the text, is taken as Vrtti or sustenance or occupation or means of livelihood of people (Manushyanam Vrtti).

 It is said; such Vrtti was primarily related to the three-fold means of livelihood – agriculture; animal husbandry and trade – through which men generally earn a living.


Arthashatra is also concerned with the general well-being of the earth and its inhabitants. And, since the State is directly charged with the responsibility of acquiring, protecting and managing the territory and its subjects, the Arthashastra necessarily deals with statecraft, economy and defence of the land and its people.

In the older references, Arthashastra is described as the science of politics and administration. But, in the later times, it came to be referred to as DandaNitishastra or Rajaniti -shastra / Raja -dharma.

But Arthashastra is more comprehensive. It includes all those aspects and more.


In the concluding section of his work, Kautilya says ‘the source of livelihood of the people is wealth’. Here, the wealth of the nation is both the territory of the Sate and its inhabitants who follow a variety of occupations (AS: 15.1.1). The State or the Government has a crucial responsibility in ensuring the stability and the material wellbeing of the nation as a whole as also of its individual citizens. Therefore an important aspect of Arthashastra is the ‘science of economics’, which includes starting of productive ventures, taxation, revenue collection and distribution, budgets and accounts.

The ruler’s responsibilities in the internal administration of the State are threefold: raksha, protection of the Sate from external aggression; Palana, maintenance of law and order within the State; and, Yogakshema, safeguarding the welfare of the people.

Kautilya cautions that a judicious balance has to be maintained between the welfare and comfort of the people on one hand and augmenting the resources of the State on the other. The arrangement for ensuring this objective presupposes – maintenance of law and order and adequate, capable administrative machinery.

It is also said that the statecraft, which maintains the general social order should take adequate measures to prevent anarchy.

Apart from ensuring collection of revenue there have also laws to avoid losses to the State and to prevent abuse of power and embezzlement by the employees of the State. These measures call for enforcement of laws (Dandanithi) by means of fines, punishments etc.

The king was believed to be responsible as much for the correct conduct (achara) of his subjects, and their performing the prescribed rites of expiation (prayaschitta) as for punishing them, when they violated the right of property or committed a crime. The achara and prayaschitta sections of the smrti cannot accordingly be put outside the “secular ” law.


Arthashatra prescribes how the ruler should protect his territory. This aspect of protection (Palana) covers principally, acquisition of territory, its defence, relationship with similar other/rival rulers (foreign-policy), and management of state-economy and administration of state machinery.

Since the safety of the State and its people from aggression by rival states or enemies is of great importance, the King will also have to know how to deal with other Kings using all the four methods (Sama, Dana, Bedha and Danda) ; that is,  by friendly negotiations; by strategies ; as also by war-like deterrents. Thus, to maintain an army and be in preparedness becomes an integral part of ‘science of economics’, the Arthashastra.



B.Tatparya or intention

Tatparya [lit. the about which; Tat (that) +Para (object of intension)] is described as the intention or the desire of the speaker (vak-turiccha); and also as the gist, the substance or the purport of the meaning intended to be conveyed by the speaker. The context plays a very important role in gathering the apt or the correct Tatparya of an utterance (sabdabodha) or a sententence in a text. The contextual factors become particularly relevant when interpreting words or sentences that are ambiguous or carry more than one meaning.

 It is said; in the case of metaphors or the figures-of- speech, the intended meaning (Tatparya) is gathered not by taking the literal meaning of each of its individual words but by grasping the overall intention of the expression in the given context (sabda-bodha).

The Mimamamsa and Nyaya Schools which take the sentence to be a sequence of words, relay on Tatparya to explain how the relevant meaning is obtained from a collection of words having mutual relation. Each word in a sentence carries its own meaning; but a string of unconnected isolated words cannot produce a unified meaning. Tatparya, broadly, is the underlying idea or the intention of a homogeneous sentence, placed in a particular context, that is required to be understood.

The Mimamsa lays down a framework for understanding the correct meaning of a sentence: denotation (Abhida) – purport (Tatparya) – indication (Lakshana), where by the power of denotation one comprehends the general idea of the sentence; by the power of purport one understands its special or apt sense; and, by the power of indication one grasps the suggested meaning (Dhvani) of the sentence.

According to The Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 5: The Philosophy of the Grammarians edited by Harold G. Coward and  K. Kunjunni Raja ;  the meaning of a sentence can be considered from two standpoints: from that of the speaker and from that of the listener. The general approach of the West has been from the speaker’s point of view. The Indian approach has been mainly from the listener’s point of view.

In a normal speech situation there can be five different aspects of the meaning of an utterance: (1) what is in the mind of the speaker when he makes the utterance; (2) what the speaker wants the listener to understand; (3) what the utterance actually conveys ;(3) what the listener understands as the meaning of the utterance; and (5) what is in the mind of the listener on hearing the utterance.

 In a perfect linguistic communication, all the five factors must correspond. But, due to various causes there are bound to be differences that might disturb a perfect communication.

Let’s say that when the speaker is uttering a lie, he clearly intends to misdirect the listener. Here, what is in the mind of the speaker is different from what is conveyed to the listener. Even otherwise, quite   often what the listener understands as the meaning of the utterance might be different from what the speaker intends to convey. The problem could be caused either by the lack of expressive power of the speaker or the inability of the speaker to understand; or it could be both.

Here, what is in the mind of the speaker before he speaks and what is in the mind of the listener after he hears are both intangible. They cannot be objectively ascertained with certainty. It is only what is said explicitly that can be objectively   analyzed into components of syllables, words and sentences. It however does not mean that the other aspects or components of the entire body of communication are less important.


C. Shakthi (power of expression)

The power of word (sabda-shakthi) is that through which it expresses, indicates or suggests its intended meaning. The term Shakthi is also understood as the relation that exists between word (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha) – (sabda-artha-sambandha). This relation is considered to be permanent and stable.

The understanding of the relationship between word and its meaning is called vyutpatti. Salikanatha (Ca.8th century) ,  a Mimamsa philosopher  belonging to the Prabhakra School , in his Prakarana-pancika  lists  eight means for such  comprehension of the meaning of the words. They are: (i) grammar; (ii) comparison;  (iii) dictionary;  (iv) words of a trustworthy person;  (v) action;  (vi) connotation of the sentence; (vii) explanation;  and,  (viii) proximity of a word, the meaning of which is already established.

Sakthi is the primary relationship between a word and its meaning. Unless the listener recognizes or remembers their continuing relationship he cannot understand the purport (Tatparya) of a statement. Shakthi is therefore described as a Vrtti, a function which binds the word and meaning together in order to bring out a particular intended  sense – (Vrtti-jnanadhina –pada-jnana-janya –smrti-vishaya)

It would have been ideal if every word had a single meaning; and every meaning had only one word. That would have helped to avoid plausible confusion and ambiguities. But, in all natural languages that are alive and growing, the words, often, do carry more than one meaning; and, a meaning can be put out in verity of words. Even the borders of the meanings are not always fixed. The meanings or various shades of meaning are context sensitive, depending on the context and usage.

There would be no problems if the meaning and intent of a sentence is direct and clear. But, if there are ambiguities, the direct –meaning of the sentence would become inconsistent with its true intent.  It is here that the power of Shakthi comes into play.

The term Shakthi is often used for Vrtti or the function. Grammarians recognize various types of such Vrtti-s. Among those, the main Vrtti-s employed to explain the various types of meaning conveyed by speech are: Abhidana; Lakshana ; Gauni ; Tatparya ; Vyanjana ; Bhavakatva; and Bhojakatva.

Of these Vrtti-s or Shakthi-s, Lakshana which has the power of suggestion is considered most important.  Three conditions for Lakshana are generally accepted by all schools. The first is the incompatibility or inconsistency of the primary meaning in the given context. Such inconsistency produced by the uncommon usage of the word will force a break in the flow of thought, compelling the listener to ponder over in his attempt to understand what the speaker meant; and,   why he has used the word in an irregular way. Such inconsistency can either be because of the impossibility or of the unsuitability of associating the normal meaning of the word to context at hand.

The second condition is some kind of relation that exists between the primary (normal) meaning of the term and its meaning actually intended in the context. This relation can be one of proximity with the contrary or one of similarity or of common quality. The latter type is called Gauni Lakshana which the Mimamsakas treat as an independent function called Gauni. According to Mimamsakas,  the real Lakshana is only of the first type, a relation of proximity with contrariety (oppositeness) .

The third condition is either acceptance by common usage or a special purpose intended for introducing the Lakshana. All faded metaphors (nirudha lakshana) fall into the former category; and , the metaphorical usages , especially by the poets , fall into the latter.

[Panini, however, did not accept Lakshana as a separate function in language. He did not consider the incompatibility etc on which the Lakshana was based by the Grammarians as quite relevant from the point of view of Grammar. The sentences such as: ‘he is an ass’ and ‘He is a boy ‘are both grammatically correct. His Grammar accounts for some of the popular examples of Lakshana; like ‘the village on the river’  (gangayam ghosah) by considering proximity as one of the meanings of the locative case.  Similarly, Panini does not mention or provide for the condition of yogyata or consistency, which is considered by the later Grammarians as essential for unity of sentence. The expression Agnina sinchati (He sprinkles with fire) is grammatically correct, though from the semantic point of view it may not be quite proper, because sprinkling can be done only with liquid and not with fire.]


In the next part let’s look at the discussions on the relationship  between the word (sabda) and meaning (Artha)  are carried out by the Scholars of Indian Poetics (Kavya-shastra).



Continued in Part Three




 Sources and References

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5; edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Tatparya and its role in verbal understanding by Raghunath Ghosh; University of North Bengal
  3. The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought by David B. Zilberman
  4. The Meaning of Nouns: Semantic Theory in Classical and Medieval India by M.M. Deshpande
  5. Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: Index edited by Edward Craig
  6. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  7. the Emergence of Semantics in Four Linguistic Traditions: Hebrew, Sanskrit…edited by Wout Jac. Van Bekkum
  8. 8 A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant by Ben-Ami Scharfstein
  1. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  2. Indian Philosophy: A Very ShortIntroduction by Sue Hamilton
  3. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  4. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  5. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First International conference on Bharthari held at Pune in 1992 edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  6. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bharthari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Bharthari, the Grammarianby Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  8. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  9. Kautilya’s Arthashastra by RP Kangale

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,