Sabda- The Spoken Word – Grammarians’ View

07 Sep

“The three worlds would have merged in darkness had there been no light called Sabda” said Acharya Dandin (6th century) the celebrated author of prose romance and an expounder on poetics.

The ancient Indian philosophers and Grammarians loved elaborate discussions on all aspects of the spoken word: its origin in the mind and body of the speaker; its articulation; its transmission; the grasp of the sound and the essence of the word by the listener; its ultimate reception by the speaker’s intellect and such other related issues.

Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy such as Mimamsa, Tantra, Yoga and Prabhakaras viewed and interpreted the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter and as the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.

Even Gaudapada, Sri Sankara’s parama Guru, in his Karika, dealt at length the sacred syllable OM composed of three maatras : A, U and M, which according to him represented three levels of consciousness. He also came up with his theory of a super consciousness, the turiya, the fourth,para-vak.

The great Indian poetic genius Kalidasa spoke of speech (Vak) and its meaning (Artha) as functional in sustaining the universe and their need to be in unison as Parvathi and Parameshwara the originators of the Universe.

The many-sided genius, the Philosopher Abhinavgupta (10th century) described the word as the incarnation of the divine mother. The Sabda and Artha as shabdartha-brahman  are the embodiment of Shiva and Shakti.

I do not propose to discuss here any of those philosophical or mystical aspects of sound and the spoken word. I would be content to restrict myself to the Grammarians’ point of view of Sabda, its constituents and the related issues.


The Grammar in the ancient Indian context was a highly respected subject. Bhartṛhari in his Vakyapadiya described grammar as the “purifier of all the sciences.” He said the use of correct forms of language makes possible   the philosophic or any other pursuit of knowledge.

The spoken word too enjoyed a premier position. That might be because the speaker and listener are both present to the utterance simultaneously and the communication is almost instantaneous. This immediacy seemed to guarantee the genuineness of the exchange.

It appears to me, the questions, among others, that engaged the attention of the Grammarians such as Panini, Kathyayana, Patanjali and Brthrihari were:

How does a word consisting of a succession of phonemes generate a unique meaning? How does a sentence consisting of a succession of words generate a meaning?

Whether a given element in a sequence carries a self-sufficient meaning or whether the constituent element conveys not only its own independent meaning but also simultaneously an additional qualified meaning determined by the dynamics of the context.


Sabda, in Grammar, is a technical term; and,  is commonly used to denote sound .  Grammatically, Sabda is a masculine term. And ,  it   stands for a vast variety of references that include  “ sound , noise, voice , tone , note , word , speech , language , the sacred symbol  Aum , verbal  communication ,  testimony , oral tradition , verbal authority or verbal evidence”.  Although the term Sabda is used in rather countless ways , in the Indian thought , it basically  relates to theories of sound; and,  it is generally understood as linguistic sound , mostly connoting vocal sound which carries meaning (Artha) , either in the form of an object or a thought.

Here, I have used the word “spoken word” to represent the term ‘Sabda’, rather loosely, for want of a better term.

In Grammar, Sabda stands for word manifested by Dhvani (sound). It has the innate power to convey a certain sense (Artha). Further, in all schools of Indian thought there is an assumed relationship between Sabda (word) and Artha (meaning).

Sabda, it is said, normally, has two aspects: un-lettered sound (Dhvani) and the lettered sound (Varna).

The signifier (Dhvani) is tied to the signified (Artha).It is also said; Dhvani and Artha together make a word (Sabda).

The relation between Sabda and Artha is one of identity. The word, sound, sense and knowledge overlap each other. Generally, Sabda denotes a meaning-bearing word-sound, while Nada signifies ‘voiced’ or vowels or non-linguistic sounds.

Similarly, Vak is another term that has varieties of references.  Vak , grammatically , is a feminine noun meaning – speech , voice , talk , language ( also of animals and birds) , sound ( also of inanimate objects such as stones or of a drum) , a word , saying , phrase , sentence , statement and speech personified.

But, in the ancient texts, Vak is not mere speech. It is something more sacred than ordinary speech; and carries with it a far deeper significance. The Rishis are said to have visualized the sublime form of Vak which is regarded eternal and beyond the ordinary senses.

In Rig Veda there are three kinds of references to Vak: Vak is speech in general; Vak also symbolizes cows; and , Vak is personified as goddess revealing the word.  It also appears that Vak is the energy that is underlying every kind of speech; and it also is the language of nature in which the sounds of cows, animals, frogs , birds , trees and hills find expression  . The extant of Vak is said to be as wide as the earth and fire.

Here, in this post , Vak , in a limited sense, refers to human speech.


A speaker wills to give expression, through intellect, to something that arises in him. For this purpose, he employs a sentence comprising words uttered in a sequence. The word itself comprises letters or syllables (varnas) that follow one after the other.

The spoken word emerges out of one’s mouth, no doubt. However, it needs the assistance of several body parts in order to manifest itself. The throat, head, tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nose, root of the tongue and bosom are the eight places where the sounds of the letters originate.

Generally, a two-fold effort is needed to utter a letter or a syllable: the internal effort (abhyantara prayatna) and the external effort (bahya prayatna). The former is classified into two kinds while the latter (the external) into eleven kinds. The ancient Grammarians obviously went great lengths to trace the origination of each letter, its appropriate sound; the intricacies and efforts involved in producing them.

When a person wills to express a thought orally, the air inside his body spurs and moves up. Sabda then manifests through Dwani – sound, with the assistance of appropriate organs. That Sabda or the Vak, which term roughly translates to speech or utterance, becomes manifest.

Grammarians classify Vak into subtle and gross forms. Of these, Para and Pashyanti are the subtle forms of Vak; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

Para is the highest manifestation of Vak and is often referred to as Sabda Brahma. Para and Pashyanti are inaudible; they are beyond the range of the physical ear. It is said, Sri Dashinamarthy and other sages communicated through these very subtle forms of vak. Pashyanti which also means the visual image of the word, is indivisible and without inner-sequence; meaning that the origin and destination of speech are one.

Madhyama is an intellectual process, during which the speaker becomes aware of the word as it arises and takes form within him; and he grasps it. Madhyama vak is a sequenced but a pre-vocal thought, Here, the sound is nada  and is in a wave or a vibratory (spandana) form .

Vaikhari vak is sequenced and verbalized speech. Vaikhari is the articulated speech, which, in a waveform, reaches the ears and to the intellect of the listener. Vaikhari is the physical form of nada that is heard and apprehended by the listener. It gives expression to subtler forms of vak but is not its ultimate.


[The theological explanation of the manifestation of speech could briefly be as under:

It is explained; the process of manifestation of speech, like that of the Universe, takes place in four stages. First, in the undifferentiated substratum of thought, an intention appears. This first impulse, the self-radiant consciousness is para-vak (the voice beyond).  Gradually, this intention takes a shape .We can visualize the idea (pashyanthi-vak) though it is yet to acquire a verbal form. It is the first sprout of an invisible seed; yet searching for words to give expression to the intention. This is the second stage in the manifestation of the idea. Then the potential sound, the vehicle of the thought, materializes finding   words suitable to express the idea. This transformation of an idea into words, in the silence of the mind, is the third stage .It is the intermediary stage (madhyama-vak) .The fourth stage being manifestation of non-vocal verbalized ideas into perceptible sounds .It is the stage where the ideas are transmitted through articulated  audible syllables (vaikhari-vak).  These four stages are the four forms of the word.

The three lower forms of speech viz. Pashyanthi, madhyama and vaikhari which correspond to intention, formulation and expressionare said to represent iccha-shakthi (power of intent or will),jnana-shakthi (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakthi (power of action).These three are construed as the three sides of the triangle at the center of which is the dot-point (bindu) representing the undifferentiated notion para-vak. The triangle with the Bindu at its centre suggests the idea of Isvara the divinity conceived as Sabda-brahman.

The urge to communicate or the spontaneous evolution of Para-pasyanti into vaikhari epitomizes, in miniature, the act of One becoming Many; and the subtle energy transforming into a less_ subtle matter. Thus the speech, each time, is an enactment in miniature of the involution of the One into Many and the evolution of the Many into One as it merges into the intellect of the listener. ]


The comprehension of the verbalized and sequenced vaikhari vak entails pratibha or “flash of insight” that reveals to the listener the pasyanti vak, in the form it originated within the speaker. A perfect communication is when vak is identical and is sequence less at both the ends. Bhartrhari in hisVakyapadiya contends: “Just as light has two powers, that of being revealed and that of being the revealer, similarly, all words have two distinct powers. No meaning is conveyed by words which by themselves are not the objects of knowledge”

That, roughly, is the Sphota vada of the Grammarian Philosopher Bhartrhari.  Some say it is analogous to the creation theory of Big Bang and the withdrawal.

For more on Sphota vada, please see –Who was Upavarsa ?

[ In his Sarva-darshana-samgraha, 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. Sphota may, thus, be conceived as a two sided coin. On the one side it is manifested by the word-sound; and , on the other it simultaneously reveals word meaning.

In philosophical terms, Sphota may be described as the transcendent ground on which the spoken syllables and conveyed meanings find their unity as word or Sabda.

Nagesha Bhatta identifies this theory with Sage Sphotayana, mentioned by Panini in one of his rules. Bhartrhari, however, considers Audumbarayana (mentioned by Yaska) as having 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.  Perhaps, this claom provided the the model upon which the Vyakarana philosophers based their concept of Sphota. Indeed Sphota is often identified with Pranava.

Patanjali the Grammarian holds that knowledge is the key factor – a word is a word when it has a meaning. Further, he makes a distinction between Sphota and Dhvani. According to him, Sphota is permanent element in the word, and is the essence of it; while Dhvani – the uttered sound – is an fleeting element, and is only an aspect of Sphota. For Patanjali, Sphota may be a singular letter or a fixed pattern of letters. He concludes that Sphota is permanent , unchanging and is manifested by the changing sounds (Dhvani ) uttered by the speaker and heard by the listener.

On the basis of Patanjali’s explanation, 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 ]


The ancient Grammarians used the term Dwani to denote the sound of an utterance that reaches the ears of the listener. Dwani is therefore the physical form or the vehicle of a word. Dwani in turn  is determined by the nature of the varnas (syllables) composing it .

[Later , the medieval Indian aestheticians such as Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta used the term Dwani  to imply the subtle  mood or the rasa evoked by a poem or a gesture in a play or in dance. Here, in this post, let us stick to the meaning of Dwani as termed by the Grammarians.]

Dwani is the auditory aspect   of the Sabda.  The intellect of the listener grasps Dwani as in a flash, Sphota.  The Sphota is therefore the intellectual, subtle and inaudible aspect of the Sabda.

Bhartahari employed the term Sphota to indicate the whole, Artha to refer to the concept or meaning and Dwani to refer to the uttered and heard sound.

The term Sphota does not easily translate into English.  The Sphota is derived from the root ‘sphut’ which means ‘to burst’, but it also describes what ’is revealed’ or ’is made explicit’. Sphota, therefore, means that from which the meaning bursts forth, shines forth etc.  Sphota thus refer to the abstract or conceptual form of a word. Sphota is somewhat similar to the Ancient Greek concept of logos or Word.

For instance, as Patanjali explains, the word ghtata consists letters/syllables gh, a, t and a, uttered in a sequence. The letters as heard are Dwani .Immediately after the last letter is uttered the whole (akhanda), indivisible (not sequential) sense bursts forth in a flash Sphota.

The Grammarians  believed that It was not mere  memory or the past association with the object (jnapaka) , but a unifying higher cognition , superior to  memory ,  termed “pratibha ” that revealed in a “flash” or Sphota the single indivisible sequence less meaning of a word or a sentence .

According to Bhartṛhari, this pratibha or flash of understanding is the insight into the whole meaning of a word or a sentence and it is the light, which removes ignorance. It is indefinable (avicarita) because what it reveals is not some “thing” or an “idea,” but rather the dynamic interrelatedness of all things.


That 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 (Dwani); but it does not alter the content and the sense of the word.

For instance, 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 Sabda or Sphota. The physical aspect of the word that is the quality of its sound (Dwani) might vary but its Sphota remains unchanged. Thus, in effect Sabda too remains unchanged.

Again, Dwani the physical form of the sound could be articulate (like human voice) or inarticulate (like sounds of animals, drums etc.)  Nevertheless, the intellect perceives that Dwani in a flash (Sphota) depending on the listener’s experience (anubhava), reasoning (yukthi) and authority of scriptures (Sastras and Grammar).

The distinction between Sabda and Dwani is basic to the Indian philosophy of language. Thus, in Sanskrit Grammar Sabda stands for the word manifested by Dwani, the articulated sound. While Dwani is variable, Sabda is not. The purpose of the Dwani is to give expression to and to act as a vehicle for Vak. The Dwani as perceived by the intellect of the speaker in a flash is Sphota. The Sphota is the intellectual impression of the audible sound patterns. The Sabda therefore combines in itself the physical form (dwani) of word and its intellectual inaudible from (Sphota).


For a detailed and an intellectual discussion on the above concepts and their relevance in modern times, please check Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernity by Shri A.V. Ashok.

Please also read a highly interesting paper “Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahari “By Harold G. Coward

For a discussion on Sabda, Vak and other concepts in various schools of Indian philosophy, please check The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5  – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja


Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Speculation


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3 responses to “Sabda- The Spoken Word – Grammarians’ View

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