The meaning of ‘MEANING’- Part One

12 Nov


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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