Monthly Archives: November 2016

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)
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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


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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 to signify (Vrtti); or through inference derived by the listener (Anumana) from the words he listned  ; 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 of 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. Another Grammarian 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 is at the root of  all the words  and their  meaning (Artha) .


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 the Schools of Grammar.

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 or is apt in a given context.

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 only 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 is 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 and their future generations.

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 through taxes, levies , cess etc. The arrangement for ensuring this objective presupposes – maintenance of law and order and adequate, capable , transparent  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 Tax payers as also the employees of the state machinery are subject to Dandanithi.

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 sentence 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 homogeneously  knit sentence,  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 listener  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

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The meaning of ‘MEANING’- Part One


The most common Sanskrit term for meaning is Artha.  Various terms, such as ‘sense’, ‘reference’, ‘denotation’, ‘connotation’, ‘designatum’ and ‘intention’, have been used to render that Sanskrit term. Artha, basically, refers to the object signified by a word. Artha is an all-embracing term having a verity of hues and shades of meanings. In numerous contexts, it stands for the meaning of the word  (pada+artha) as also for  an object (padartha)  in the sense of an element of external reality. It could also mean Artha (money), the source of all Anartha (troubles); and Anartha could also be nonsense. Artha is also one of the pursuits of life – wealth or well being. Artha could also signify economic power and polity. And, finally, Paramartha is the ultimate objective.

The Grammar in the ancient Indian context was a highly respected subject. The Vedic traditions such as Nyaya, Mimamsa and Vedanta ; the Buddhist and Jain traditions;  also the various traditions of Grammar and literary schools (Kavya),  each have contributed significantly to the development of numerous  theories regarding Grammar, philosophy of Grammar and semantics. These studies, regarded as specialized branches of learning dealing with language have, within their own ambit, tried to explain the manifold aspects of language behaviour.

The power of the language is one of the oldest themes in Indian thought. The later Grammarians such as Bharthari paid enormous importance to the study of language. According to him, ‘a thought cannot be without language’; ’There is no cognition without the process of words’;   all knowledge is illumined through words, and it is quite not possible to have cognition that is free from words (Vakyapadiya: 1.123). Bhartrhari says the knowledge comes out in the form of words. Speech is an embodiment of thought. That relation is natural; and, is not artificial.

Thus, the spoken aspect of the language gains importance in the process of thinking. Thinking, here, is seen as a sort of internal speaking. Such inaudible speech is the seed or the potent form of explicit speech that is heard by others. 

In a way, a language grows with the thought; or rather the thought grows with language. In the ultimate analysis, they might even be identical. In that sense, the philosophy of language is not a mere academic pursuit, but is the basic foundation for all philosophy.

According to Bhartrhari, language is used for communication of ideas through spoken words. Grammar deals with this communicative language which consists of (a) sentences and words, (b)  appropriate meanings  corresponding to the words  and the sentences ; and, (c) compatibility between word-sound (sabda) and its meaning (Artha).

At the same time, Bhartrhari also says ‘nahi sarvesham sataam shabdo bhidayakyaha (VP: 3.2.38) – ‘a word cannot always fully express the true nature of an object’.  An object is not fully expressed by the word that denotes it. A word , according to him, is an indicator; has limited powers; and, what is intended is more powerful that the word itself.

Bhartrhari says; just as pure knowledge cannot manifest without an object, so also an object cannot exist without its related properties.

But often, the properties expressed by the word are not always real. Let’s take the term, ‘white color of the cloth’ (patasya shukla) which really is non-existent. It means that when a feature of an object is expressed in words it hardly matters whether the feature actually exists or not.

Bhartrhari explains: Let’s say, our perception of a fast revolving fire is called fire-circle (alata-chakra). It is a word that is commonly used. But, that is an illusion. There is no fire-circle as such. Similarly ‘hare’s horn’ (sasa-sringa) , ‘sky-flower’ (kha-pushpa) are just words that refer to non-reality. Thus, the word not only presents an incomplete picture, but it also projects non-reality.

Yet, the word with its limited power, tries to signify a ‘perceived’  reality; and, checks it through ‘speaker’s intention’.

He was perhaps putting forward an argument about the limitations of the language to describe Absolute Reality.

I reckon what Bhartrhari was trying to put across was: Reality transcends language. Further, whatever picture it presents is not always reality. Words of then misrepresent or distort the facts of external life. Thus, the linguistic world and the external do not always perfectly synchronize.

And yet, though the language we use is rather imperfect and is limited to give us a complete picture of the reality,  it is our only window to the world.  We have to make the best use of that unique facility gifted to us as human beings.

It was also said:

Language is the most important human behaviour; and makes communication and interconnectedness possible. With practice, it makes even a child capable to deal with the world (balaanam ca yathatha pratipadane: VP: 2.117)

Language is the limit of the world as we know. All cognition is enlightened only when pierced by the word (sabda).


Study of Grammar

Grammar (Vyakarana) was recognized from the earliest times in India as a distinct science, a field of knowledge with its own parameters that distinguished it from other branches of learning/persuasions.  

The origin of Grammar cannot, of course, be pinpointed. Yaska and Panini are the two known great writers of the earliest times whose works have come down to us. They were perhaps before fifth century BCE; and, Yaska is generally considered to be earlier to Panini. Yaska’s work Nirukta is classified as etymology; and Panini’s work Astadhyayi as Grammar (Vyakarana). Though Panini is recognized as the earliest known Grammarian, it is evident that he was preceded by a long line of distinguished Grammarians. Panini refers to a number of Grammarians previous to his time.  But, very little is known about those ancient Masters.

Panini and Yaska perhaps represent a stage of Grammar that came into being after several centuries of growth. Both these scholars recall a number of ancient Grammarians who worked and preached much before their times. Some scholars speak of an ‘Aindra’ School of Grammar as being the earliest set of Grammarians. Patanjali refers to another tradition said to have originated from Brihaspathi.

Perhaps the earliest historical figure that is said to have dealt with the study of language seems to be Sakalya the author of the Padapatha  ( arrangement of words of a verse in sequence ) of the Rig-Veda; and, he is mentioned by Panini. Again, Panini also mentions one Sphotayana who spoke about the word and its meaning. Bhartrhari also refers to Sphotayana. And, Yaska mentions another ancient authority – Audumbarayana. Further, Bhartrhari, citing Yaska, states that Audumbarayana, as also Varttakas held views similar to his Sphota-vada.  There is also a mention of another sage Sakatayana who is said to have held the view that all words must be derived from verbal roots. But, no authenticated works of any of these authors have come down to us.

It appears there were several theories or Schools of Grammar. Bhartrhari refers to ‘other Grammars (Vyakaranatara), to other Grammarians (anya vaiyyakaranah) as also to ‘other traditional works’ (smatyantara)’; as also to the conflicting theories of other person’ or ‘theories of others’ ( apare) .  He does not specify who those other schools of Grammars etc were. It is surmised that the ‘other Grammars (Vyakaranatara) mentioned by Bhartrhari might refer to ancient Grammarians Apisali and Kasakrtsna. But again, nothing much is known about those ancient scholars and their theories.

  (Eke varnayanti, anye varnayanti; apare varnayati; anvesham darshanam; apareshu vyakhyanam etc)


Thus, the study of Grammar and the philosophy of language, in varied traditions, have always taken an important position in Indian thought. In Grammar, the nature of words, meanings and the relationship between them and their variances are studied. It was said:  “the foremost among the learned are the Grammarians, because Grammar lies at the root of all learning” ( prathame hi vidvamso  vaiyyakarabah , vyakarana mulatvat sarva vidyanam – Anandavardhana ) 

Grammar was not an artificial construct; but, was the very life blood of learning and understanding, developed directly and naturally from the spoken language. Bharthari, in his Vakyapadiya, described Grammar as the ‘purifier of all the sciences’. He believed that  Grammar helps us to cleanse our speech and mind.  Bhartrhari who inherited the traditional attitude towards Grammar called it as the cure to remedy (chikitsitam) sullied (van-malaanam) language. He believed the use of correct forms of language makes possible   the philosophic or any other pursuit of knowledge.

Grammar – Vyakarana also known as Pada –Shastra which  treats the word as the basic unit and  deals with the  study of  the spoken language involving words and sentences ,  is regarded as one of the most important Vedanga (branch of the Vedic studies). The primary object of Vyakarana, in that context, was to study the structure of the Vedic language in order to preserve its purity and to ensure its longevity. Panini asserted that the Grammar should be studied in order to preserve the Vedas (rakshatam Vedanam adhyeyam vyakaranam). 

Thus, safeguarding the purity of its language, its correct usage (sadhutva) meant ensuring the continuity (nitya) of Vedas in their pristine form.

In the Indian traditions, the language is said to be fully alive and is truly experienced in its oral form, when it is spoken as it should be. The spoken word is regarded as its primary form while written word, as a secondary aid,  is only a coded   representation of the spoken word; but , without its nuances. The learning and preserving the Vedas therefore includes the ability to pronounce, to articulate the text with its correct ascent, meter, stress, pauses and so on. . The elaborate network of Pryatshakha-s was devised to ensure the pure and disciplined form of its presentation.

Thus ,the study of Grammar ; and, faithfully following its traditional rules played very important role in that process.

[Of the Vedic Schools, the Mimamsa is particularly interested in correct interpretation of the Vedic passages relating conduct of Yajna. Those are considered as knowledge ‘handed down by tradition – aamnaya. Hence Mimamsa is also known as Vakya-shastra.

Vyakarana which is one of the sub-branches (upanga) of Vedic texts also deals with the study of spoken language involving words (Pada –shastra ) and sentences (Vakya-shastra) .

The Sutras of Jaimini (Mimamsa–sutra) governs the Mimamsa; while the rules of Grammar laid out by Panini ( Astadhyayi) govern the Vyakarana – shastra.

Grammar is applicable to Vedic texts and also to the study of language in general (sarvaveda-parisada). It is the right royal road (ajihma raja-paddathi) which all can tread. ]


But, the study of language went far beyond that; and, Grammar was extended, through linguistic analysis, into philosophical inquiry.

According to Bhartrhari, Grammar is Vak-yoga or Sabda-purva yoga– meditation centered on language.  In Bhartrhari’s vision, the language we speak is the medium of self-expression of the Ultimate Reality communicated through meaning-bearing words. For him, the question of Being is interwoven with the question of language. There is no philosophy of Being without the philosophy of language. He described Grammar as the Royal road to those who seek liberation; and as the efficient means to realise Brahman. Ultimately, he asserts, speech (Sabda) is Brahman.

For Bhartrhari, Sabda Brahman or Sabdatattva or Sabda eva tattvam the undifferentiated Reality   is one with the ultimate Reality – Para Brahman.  Bhartrhari conceives the ultimate Reality as being in the nature of the Word; and from it all of existence is manifested. The world is only a transformation (vivarta) of the Sabdatattva (speech – principle) which is identical with the ultimate Reality, Brahman. The Sabda-tattva of Bhartrhari is the Absolute and there is no distinction between Sabda Brahman and Para Brahman the supreme.

This marks his departure from Vedanta, where the supreme consciousness, Para – Brahman, is beyond language.

[It needs to be mentioned here that the concept of Sabda Brahman was known and discussed even before the time of Bhartrhari. For instance; Mytrayani Upanishad (4.22) and Brahma-bindu Upanishad (verse 17) do discuss about Sabda-Brahman. However, the connotation of Sabda-Brahman, in those texts, varied from that of Bhartrhari.

Those texts made a distinction between Sabda-Brahman and Para (Highest) Brahman.  There, the Sabda-Brahman referred to the words or sounds of the Veda, while the Para Brahman referred to the Ultimate Reality. Thus, the Vedas, in general, was 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 earliest of the known etymology text (Nirukta) known to us is from Sanskrit. And that was composed by Yaska, who in turn cites number of his predecessors in that field. Similarly, the oldest known Grammar is also in Sanskrit; and, it was composed by the Great Grammarian Panini. And, Panini also similarly mentions other renowned Grammarians that lived before his time. And, Patanjali   a Grammarian who came a couple of centuries after Panini wrote an elaborate commentary (Maha Bhashya) on Panini’s work. He was, in turn, followed by many other scholars who wrote glosses on Patanjali. There have also been re-arrangements of Panini’s Sutras and the interpretations arising out of such exercises.

The overall aim of Sanskrit Grammar was not to list out the rules and to standardize the language; but, to bring out the intended meaning of the structure of words. As Yaska puts it (Nirukta: 2.1.1), the aim was to get the real meaning of the spoken word (arthanityah parikseta). 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.

[Panini’s Grammar (Astadhyayi), 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.

However, according to Patanjali (Mahabhashya) the meaning-bearers are not the word-constituents, but the words themselves. Here, Patanjali follows the lead given by his predecessor Katyayana in his annotated commentary (Vrittika) on Panini’s Astadhyayi.

There is obviously a difference in the two attitudes towards Grammar.

For Patanjali, the Grammar analyzes the words, thereby arriving at their constituent elements, though such parts are not 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 rules of the classical Sanskrit had been set by the Sutras of Panini, the Vrattika of Katyayana and the Mahabhashya of Patanjali. The works of these three sages (muni traya) came to be regarded by the later scholars as the highest authority.  During the periods following the three Great Sages  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, Bhartrhari who belonged to the tradition of these classical Grammarians in  his major work, Vakyapadiya, discusses the ways in which the outer word-form could unite with its inner meaning. 

Let’s talk about these stalwarts and their theories of language later in the series

[It appears by about the eleventh century, the Grammar and the  Grammarians had lost their premier position. By then, Kavya (poetry or poetic expressions) that can be subtle and suggestive  had taken the center stage; and grammar which concerned  itself with the arrangement of words into sentence was considered rather pedestrian. The poetic schools argued: ‘What is unsaid in poetry is more evocative than the explicit’. That was to suggest that appreciation of  poetic beauty does not solely dependent on following the strict order of words or other conventions. The true enjoyment of poetic beauty , in fact, goes beyond the regulated regimens. For instance; Anandavardhana who regarded the concept of Rasa-Dhvani as the principal or the ideal element in appreciation of poetry, said that the suggested sense of poetry is not apprehended (na vidyate) by mere knowledge of Grammar (Sabda-artha-shasana-jnana) and dictionary. It is grasped (Vidyate, kevalam) only by those who know how to recognize the essence of poetic meaning (Kavya-artha-tattva-jnana) – Dhv.1.7

It was even said; poetry follows Grammar as far as possible.  But, when it finds the rules of Grammar too constrained or suffocating, it switches over to other means of expressions that are more appropriate or conducive to its natural flow. It might even invent its own means and modes. At times, when those inventive expressions of poetic suggestions are so charming and become so popular, they walk into Grammar per se and take their position as the tail piece or the appendix of Grammar – ‘vyakaranasya puccham’ .

Scholars like Nagesha Bhatta say that Grammarians cannot always afford to be wooden-headed ; but, must necessarily learn to accept (svikara avashyakah) the power of suggestion (Dhvani) – vyakarananamapi etat svikara avashyakah) in poetry .]


What is meaning?

Study of language has been one of the fundamental concerns of Indian philosophy. All Schools of thought began their discussion from the problems of speech, meaning and the language.

And, in particular, extracting the exact meaning of a sentence in a text has been one of the main concerns of all the Indian Schools of thought.

Down the ages, each of the traditions, each School of philosophy, the Grammarians, Scholars and poets have been asking the same set of questions: ‘What is meaning?’;  ‘What is the relationship between word and its meaning?’ The most common term employed to denote ‘meaning’ is Artha, which term was used mostly by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya.

In the English language, the term ‘meaning’ is directly connected with and derived from the verb ‘to mean’; and it is taken to stand for terms such as ‘sense’, ‘reference’, ‘denotation’, ‘connotation’, ‘designatum- that which is named’ and ‘intention’. In the modern academic discussions the term ‘meaning’ is usually understood in the sense of ‘meaning of a word’.

But, in Sanskrit language, though the term ‘Artha’ basically refers to the object signified by a word, it makes room to denote various shades or the distinctions within its specific   context. And yet, the term ‘Artha’ has no clear derivation from any verb or verb-root. And, the term Artha itself gives rise to another term ‘Arthayate’, which means ‘to request, to beg; to strive or to obtain’.


In the Sanskrit language, apart from this general term (Artha) there are host of other terms that bring out varying shades or aspects of what in English is referred to as :’ the ‘meaning’  or ‘to mean’. For instance: ‘Tatparya’ (the that about which) ; ’Abhipraya ‘(intent or what one has in his mind; ‘Abhi-daha’ ( to express or to denote); ‘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 .

In many of these discussions, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between the literal meaning (Artha) 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.

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

Bhartrhari says Sabda, that which when articulated gives out the meaning or intent of the speaker  and Artha, its meaning, is two different aspects of one and the same thing (ekasyva athmano bhedau, sabda-arthau aprathishatau – VP: 2.31).

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. Bhartrhari raises Vak to sublime heights. In his Vakyapadiya, he states that ‘It is Vak which has created all the worlds (vageva visva- bhuvanani jajne;  Vakyapadiya: I.112)

The Rig Veda contains glorious references to the power of speech.  For the Vedic seers who herd and spoke about their experiences, speech was the most wonderful faculty. Speech was also held in great reverence. Many of the later philosophical theories on language have their roots in Vedas.

There are  hymns that specifically refer to the speech (Vak).

 (1) Asya-vamiya –sukta (Rig Veda : 1.164) which is one the most philosophical hymns of Rig Veda places Vak at the peak of the universe. Here , Vak has been divided into four parts ; the three parts are hidden ; and , only the fourth part is spoken by the mortals.  Vak is also identified with the lifegiving Sarasvathi – a source of great delight which causes all the good things of life to flourish.

(2) The hymn 10.71 of Rig Veda which speaks about the origin of language is much discussed by the later Grammarians. Here, two tyes of people are mentioned: those who see Vak and understand her ; and , those who see the form but do not understand her.  That might be because the Rishis were basically the seers that heard or vizualized the eternal impersonal truth.

But, in the ancient texts, Vak is not mere speech. It is something more sacred than ordinary speech; and carries with it a far wider significance. In Rig Veda, there are three kinds of references to Vak: Vak is speech in general; Vak also symbolises cows; and, Vak is personified as goddess revealing the word.  And, Vak is, indeed,  the principle  underlying every kind of speech and  language in  nature. It even includes the sounds of cows, animals, frogs, birds, trees and hills.  It was said; the extant of Vak is said to be as wide as the earth and fire.

In the most celebrated Vagambhari Sukta (Rig Veda: 10.125) , the Vak herself describes her powers and functions. Vak , here , is deity personified. It declares Vak as the highest principle that supports all gods , controls all things and exists universally in all things.

The Brahmanas go further and state that Vak is Brahman ( Brahma vai vak : Ait . Br.4.211) .The tendency to view Vak , speech, as the principle forming all things is prominent throughout the Brahmanas.

But, it was Bhartrhari who expanded on the theory of Sabda-Brahman as the ultimate principle of all things . However, the concept of Sabdabrahman did exist in slightly in the earlier texts, as said before.


Meaning is context-sensitive

Meaning   could be taken as the content carried by the words exchanged by people when communicating through language. In other words, the communication of meaning is the purpose and function of language. A sentence therefore should convey an idea from one person to another. Meanings may take many forms, such as evoking a certain abstract idea, conveying an emotion or denoting a certain object.

But, 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, it was indeed the Mimamsa School, especially the Mimamsa of Prabhakara, that gave  much  thought  to the question of  language (communicating knowledge);  and , it  took special care to lay down the ground rules for deriving the correct or apt meaning of a text. 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 .Of these six, each is stronger than the succeeding one.

Mimamsa  assert that even to understand the purport or to determine the purpose of a text ,  six factors are  necessary : 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. These six Linga-s or indicators are accepted by all Schools of thought.


Panini who gained fame as a Great Grammarian , author of  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 also stressed the importance of the context in deriving the meaning of a word. According to Panini, it is the social context that ultimately recognizes which is the ‘good’ (shista) language.

It is the language employed by those in authority or the sphere of influence forming the crest of a social order that gains authenticity. Such users of the correct language are known as Sista -s ‘elite or cultured’; and the language as used by them is taken as the standard. Thus, an accepted literary form is the result of a process of translating social dominance into medium of exchange among the elite. Eventually, it is the community of the learned (shista) that decides and shapes the form of the good language. The language-ability, in turn, points to who the ‘learned’ are. Therefore, the learned decide what is learning; and, which, in turn, who is learned. It is loop.


And, Brihad-devata a secondary Vedic text of 4-5th century BCE attributed Saunaka, mentions the rules for interpreting a Vedic text should generally cover: 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); its suitability of relevance (auchitya); the geographical location (desha); the contextual time (kala).


Bhartrhari, following the Brihad-devata also lists out contextual factors which are similar to those listed in Brihad-devata. 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 generally follows the six criteria laid down in Brihad-devata, but substitutes Vakya (sentence) in place of Linga (reference to in another place). But, more importantly, Bhartrhari further extends the list of criteria to determine the ‘context’ to fourteen factors.  

Bhartrhari   repeatedly refers to the importance of contextual factors in determining the meaning of an expression.  His elaborate list of contextual factors includes:

  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. Desa (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.


Bhartrhari also underlines the fact that a word can carry multiple meanings; and the grammarian should explain how only one of those meanings would be apt in a given context.

Bhartrhari pointed out that in many cases of language behaviour, the literal meaning conveyed by the word is not its intended meaning. And, it is the contextual factors that play a vital role in determining the intended meaning of a passage. He also laid much importance on the situational context such as the – the speaker, the listener, the time, the place and the tone as well as the social and cultural background.

All these factors discussed above were classified under three headings: 1) Grammatical construction; 2) Verbal context, and, 3) Non-verbal situational- context.

Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya also states that Meaning in language is dependent on usage and on the speaker-listener relationship, as also on their capacities to communicate and to comprehend – Sabdabodha (verbal cognition).

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.


Particular – General

That which is commonly understood and used (prasiddhi) is considered by Bhartrhari   as the primary meaning of the word. 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, when the word is used as a metaphor.

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 for. As in Advaita, 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 fundamental beliefs with regard to sound in the ancient Indian texts are: 1.sound is eternal like space, since both are imperceptible to touch;  2. Sound is eternal and liable to perish immediately after its utterance; and , it could be passed from one to another; Sound is eternal , as there is no cognition of the cause that might destroy it.

[There was also another line of discussion on whether Artha is universal or the particular? Grammarian Vyadi says that the words refer to Dravya (substance) or the particular. Another Grammarian 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.]


In the next part let’s briefly talk about the ‘meaning’ and interpretations of the terms such as Artha, Tatparya and shakthi; and , then concerns of the poets and scholars on the relation between Artha ( meaning) and sabda( word) before we move on the discussions of Bhartrhari’s concepts and theories concerning word, sentence, meaning , Kala (Time) , Sphota  ( intuitional grasping of the intended sense ), theories of error , different stages/ levels of speech (Vak)  and Sabdatattva ( the ultimate Reality ) so on ..


Continued in Part two


Sources and References

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 ; edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. 2. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  3. The Emergence of Semantics in Four Linguistic Traditions: Hebrew, Sanskrit …edited by Wout Jac. Van Bekkum
  4. A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant by Ben-Ami Scharfstein
  5. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound by Guy L. Beck
  6. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
  7. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney
  8. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis by Harold G. Coward
  9. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First International conference on Bharthari held at Pune in 1992 edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  10. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartṛhari and Heidegger by Sebastian Alackapally
  11. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarian by Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  12. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgenstein edited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya

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