Category Archives: Sanskrit

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Six

Continued from Part Five

Sabda Brahman and the Power of Time (Kala shkathi)


A. Sabda Brahman

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

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

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

1.3 adhyāhitakalāṃ yasya kālaśaktim upāśritāḥ/ janmādayo vikārāḥ ṣaḍ bhāvabhedasya yonayaḥ

1.4 ekasya sarvabījasya yasya ceyam anekadhā/ bhoktṛbhoktavyarūpeṇa bhogarūpeṇa ca sthitiḥ

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

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

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

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

 – Translation of Dr. Madhav M. Deshpande]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

catvāri vāk parimitā padāni tāni vidur brāhmaṇā ye manīṣiṇaḥ |  guhā trīṇi nihitā neṅgayanti turīyaṃ vāco manuṣyā vadanti ||RV_1,164.45||

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

The Satapatha Brahmana (; also equated the sound of the Vedas with the Sabda-brahman – taddvyakṣaraṃ vai brahma .

In the fourth chapter of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, the matchless Yajnavalkya speaking eloquently about the nature of word and its connection with consciousness, at one stage, equated speech with the Brahman (vāg vai brahmeti) .

Then he goes on to say: ” The speech that is referred to here is only a form of expression. It is made possible on account of the operation of the consciousness inside. If the consciousness is not there, there would be no speech. And it is not merely consciousness that is responsible; there is something intermediary between speech and consciousness. Consciousness does not directly act upon the principle of speech. There is a controlling medium which is referred to, here, as the cosmic ether. We do not exactly know what actually it is.” 

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

ajāti brahmakārpaṇyaṃ vakṣyāmīti pratijñātam / tatsiddhyarthaṃ hetuṃ dṛṣṭāntaṃ ca vakṣyāmītyāha (MU.3.3)

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

satyā visuddhis tatroktā vidyaiveka padā agamā / yuktā praṇava rūpeṇa sarvavādāvirodhinā // VP: 1.9 //

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

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

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

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



B. Power of Time – Kala shakthi

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

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

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

The Shakthi, the power that Bhartrhari talks about is the power of Time, the Kala-shakthi, the creative power (karaka-shakthi) of the One unchanging Absolute (Sabda Brahman) manifesting itself as the dynamic diversity that is experienced as the created world (jagat).

Bhartrhari asserts Time, Kala, is not different from Sabda Brahman; but, it is it’s that aspect which allows it to manifest or to come into being, in sequence.  Through Time, things come to be and pass away. Time is the efficient cause by which Brahman controls the cycles of the Universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Time (Kala) is indeed One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly, what is called as action is something which has a collection of parts (avayavai samūha) produced in a sequence (kramāt), mentally conceived as one – buddhyā prakalpitā-abheda (3.8.4).  The parts, which occur in a sequence , are partly existent and partly not. They are not directly perceived by the senses (say, the eyes), whose objects are always the existent (3.8.6). For instance; the action of ‘cooking’ involves a number of subordinate actions. One may, however, ask whether ‘cooking‘ consists of the entire sequence of parts of actions perceived as a whole or only the moment of transformation of raw rice into the cooked (soft) state. Bhartrhari seems to prefer to regard ‘cooking‘ as an entire sequence of parts of actions perceived as a whole.

According to Bhartrhari, time is sequence-less.

guṇabhūtair avayavaiḥ samūhaḥ kramajanmanām / buddhyā prakalpitābhedaḥ kriyeti vyapadiśyate  (3.8.4 )
kramāt sadasatāṃ teṣām ātmāno na samūhinām/ sadvastuviṣayair yānti saṃbandhaṃ cakṣurādibhiḥ (3.8.6)

Bhartrhari explains that when we speak of the past, present etc. we are marking our own existence.  When an action is being completed, he says, we call it present; when an action has been completed we call the Time as past; and, when an action is yet to be  completed we call the Time as future. They are devices employed to measure, in convenient units, what is really continuous.

But, truly , the Time is sequence-less. When that Time sequence appears as differentiated objects, it might seem to be different from Brahman; but, really it is not (Vakyapadiya 1.2). 

From the ultimate point of view, Time, Sabda Brahman or Brahman, is ever present; it is One.  It is not the Time that moves or changes or is affected. But, it is the objects and their conditions that might vary. Time is a ground or substratum for all objects and phenomenon.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

ekasya śaktayas tisraḥ kālasya samavasthitāḥyatsaṃbandhena bhāvānāṃ darśanādarśane satām-VP: 3.9.49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Functions of Time

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

Bhartrhari illustrates these powers of Time by offering many examples.

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

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

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

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

[Avarana Vikshepa

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

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

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

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


Bhartrhari explains the power of Time through a series of analogies

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

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

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

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

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

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

tam asya lokayantrasya sūtradhāraṃ pracakṣate / pratibandhā abhyanujñābhyāṃ tena viśvaṃ vibhajyate – VP.3.9.4]

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


Interestingly, the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 to 180 AD), in his very famous philosophical work Meditations, explains his concept of time and of life in a very similar manner :

Never forget that the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place; and, this will be carried away too.

In short, know this: Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash .

Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.

Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present — and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.


To Sum Up

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

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

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

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

 Let’s talk about Sphota in the next part.



Continued in the Next Part 

References and Sources

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

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


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

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Five

Continued from Part Four



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Brahma-khanda dwells primarily on the following relations: (a) between word in the intellect and the spoken word; (b) between the sequence-less and the sequential in language; (c) between the universal and the particular; and, (d) between the word and the world .

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


Astaka– Eight topics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Importance of Tradition

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sources of Valid knowledge

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

Here, he draws attention to to the fact that perception, at times, could be erroneous because of weakness or improper functioning of sensory organs. As regards inference, he points out that inference, by itself, is an inadequate of source reliable of knowledge (Pramana). He argues that inference alone, without the steadying influence of the scriptures is an improper Pramana.   Vakyapadiya (1.34), remarks : ‘whatever is inferred with great effort through clever reasoning can easily be put aside by a much more clever reasoning or argument (kuśalair anumātbhi)’. [This stanza of Bhartrhari became so well known that almost every commentator  (e.g., Jiva Goswami – Bhaktirasāmṛtasindhu and Jayanta – Nyayamanjari) effectively reused it, to put aside the rival argument]

yatnenānumito yo ’rthaḥ kuśalair anumātṛbhiḥ | abhiyuktatarair anyair anyathaivopapādyate || (Vākyapādīya 1.34)

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

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

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


Subjects discussed

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[Amazingly, in the later periods, the concepts of Nada and Dhwani underwent a thorough change. The terms Nada and Dhwani acquired totally different connotations. Nada in Tantra as also in the theories of Indian music was elevated to the mystical concept of a very high order as Nada Brahman.

Similarly, in the medieval Indian aesthetics (Kavya-Alamkara), the term Dhwani implied the subtle essence or the Rasa evoked by a poem or a gesture in a play or in dance. Anandavardhana regarded Dhwani as the soul of poetry- Kayyasya Atma. ]

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


Philosophy of language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 That fundamental idea is carried forward later in the text:

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

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

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

Sabda brahman.jpeg

Levels of Language

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bhartrihari’s list is more elaborate:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dr. Émilie Aussant , in her scholarly paper – Sanskrit Grammarians and the ’Speaking Subjectivity“- writes :

Indian grammarians of Sanskrit, in fact, paid very close attention to human subjectivity in language; they clearly perceived its omnipresence, the speaking subject being involved in all of his linguistic choices (phonetic, morphological, syntactical, semantic).

In the Aṣṭādhyāyī, the speaking subjectivity manifests itself through the existence of options or choices within the derivations. In the Vārttikas and the Mahābhāya, the idea of choice is still there, but human subjectivity also begins to become the sign of unpredictability in the — individual or collective — use of language.

In late commentaries, the intention to speak will be a well-known grammatical device introducing new linguistic forms. The language user is undeniably present in the grammatical discourse of the Mahābhāya, but the majority of terms denoting him as such concern his authoritativeness regarding speech.

This tendency hardens in the Vākyapadīya. But it is also Bharthari who first brings the hearer into existence, as a knowing subject.

A last point. As far as I know, speech was never considered by ancient Indian grammarians from a dialogical perspective. The ordinary domain of what we call the token-reflexivity (semantic functioning of personal pronouns, demonstratives and time indices) was a matter of no interest to them (with a few exceptions) the notions of paro’ka “invisible” and pratyaka “visible”, prakaraa “situational context”, mainly referred to in cases of ambiguity; and ūha “modification”, which denotes the linguistic adaptation of a hymn or of a prayer to a ritual different from the original one; each of these notions deserves a separate study .

This is surprising, when one thinks about the importance of orality in India, all through its history. But the orality, in traditional India, is restricted to texts recitation and to standard discourses or intercourses (scholarship, literature, education, politics). It is not, therefore, the oral language of spontaneous daily intercourses: the speaking subject is only a spokesman who conveys an eternal truth.


Commentaries on Vakyapadiya

Numerous commentaries have been produced on the Vakyapadiya.

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

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

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

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

Prof. Marco Ferrante (Austrian Academy of Sciences) in his Vṛṣabhadeva’s Sphuākarā on Bharthari’s Metaphysics: Commentarial Strategy and New Interpretations, talks about Vṛṣabhadeva’s commentary on Bhartrhari’s Vākya-padīya.

In the Abstract to his article, Prof. Ferrante summarizes:

Although somewhat neglected in the scholarly debate, Vṛṣabhadeva’s commentary (known as Sphuākarā or Paddhati, possibly 8th c. CE) on Vākya-padīya’s first chapter, offers a remarkable analysis of Bhartrhari’s views on metaphysics and philosophy of language. Vākyapadīya’s first four kārikās deals with ontological issues, defining the key elements of Bhartrhari’s non-dualistic edifice  such as the properties of the unitary principle, its powers, the role of time and the  ontological status of worldly objects.

Vrsabhadeva’s interpretation of the kārikās in question is intriguing and seems to be guided by the urgency to find a solution to the  riddle which every non-dualistic theory has to face: how is it possible to postulate a unitary principle of reality when reality is cognized as multiple?

In accomplishing  the task Vrsabhadeva proposes various solutions (some of which are based on  concepts which are hardly detectable in Vākyapadīya and appear close to the ones propounded in certain trends of Advaita Vedanta), finally suggesting an explanation  which, being based on the pragmatic aspect of language, is altogether consistent with Bhartrhari’s theoretical picture.


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


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


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

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

And, during the later period, the commentary Ambakartri by Raghunatha Sarma, covering the entire Vakyapadiya , is said to be quite important.


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

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

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

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

kitus flowers.jpeg

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

 Continued in the next Part

References and Sources

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

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


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

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Four

Continued from Part Three



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

Bhartrhari was a scholar-poet, par excellence, who wrote authoritatively on Grammar, Philosophy of Grammar and Philosophy. He is placed next only to Muni-traya – the revered trio (Trimurti) of sages – Panini (Astadhyayi), Katyayana (Vrttika), and Patanjali (Mahabhashya). He was a brilliant original thinker propounding a system of his own; and, yet he was rooted in the tradition of Panini and Vyadi (Samgraha) as also in the Vedanta (monism) of Badarayana.

As a Grammarian (Vyakarana-kara), he presented striking arguments, vividly, on the philosophy of language and on the concept of Sphota, the flash of intuition (Prathibha) through which the meaning or the import of a sentence, as an indivisible unit of communication, is grasped.  

As a philosopher, Bhartrhari not only developed but also demonstrated the logical implications of his theories of śabda-advaita which identifies language and cognition with the Sabda-tattva, the essence of the Principle of Word (Logos).  He declared, if this eternal identity of knowledge and Word were to disappear, knowledge would cease to be knowledge (Vak.I.115).

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

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

Bhartrhari was a traditional scholar firmly grounded in poetic (Kavya) and scholastic principles of Sanskrit language; and was possibly a great poet as well. He was also a philosopher of merit.   He was well versed in the study of Mimamsa and Vedanta.

In the citation to the  later editions of the his texts, Bhartrhari  is celebrated as a great Grammarian (Maha-vaiyyakarana), Great poet (Maha-kavi), Great 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

[As per the tradition, nine Schools or systems of Grammar (Vyakarana) are recounted , as being those compiled by :  Indra; Chandra; Kasakritsna; Kumara; Sakatayana; Sarasvati Anubhuti Svarupa acharya;  Apisali and Panini.

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.


Chandragomin (7th century CE) was a Buddhist scholar at Nalanda; and, he always dressed in the white robes of the Yogic tradition. It is said; Chandragomin challenged Chandrakirti (c.600 c.650) another Buddhist scholar at Nalanda and a commentator on the works of Nagarjuna (c.150–c. 250 CE) to a debate held in Nalanda Mahavihara. Chandrakirti would immediately reply to any statements made by Chandragomin. But, Chandragomin, on the other hand, would take his time to answer – sometimes he would wait until the next day. His answers, nevertheless, were very precise and clear. The debate, it appears, lasted for many years.

Chandragomin’s work on Sanskrit grammar became popular in Tibet. And, scores of his works were translated into Tibetan; and, many scholars were , in fact , engaged in translation work.

Cāndra-vyākaraa  of Candragomin  diers in many respects from both Panini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī  as also from  the Jainendra-vyākaraof Devadandin (mid-5th cent) of the Jain tradition . And, it holds a place of particular importance in the early history of Sanskrit grammar.

 The Cāndra-vyākaradiffers  significantly from the  Jainendra-vyākaraa , in that,  it does not make use of  sajñās, (technical-lterms);  and, it  is even labelled as ‘ a-sajñaka vyākaraam’ (grammar without technical terms) . Further; it makes no effort to follow Panini’s   order of  presentation of  the topics.

And , the primary domain of the Cāndra-vyākaraa  remained in Buddhist communities; especially in Sri Lanka. Further,  the commentators of the Pāinian school hardly refer to Cāndra-vyākaraa . In contrast; the Buddhists made use of the Cāndra-vyākaraa  when commenting on Sanskrit works ; say, as did Ratnaśrījñāna on DaṇḍinKāvyādarśa ;  and Vasubandhu on the  Abhidharmakośa .


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 Prof. Lal Mani Joshi;Publishede by Motilala and Banarsidass ;1967


Sādhanamālā (composed perhaps between the 5th and the 11th century) is a text of the Vajrayana Tantric Buddhism. It, essentially, is a collection of Sadhanas (Dhyana slokas)  detailing meditative practices ;  and,  imparting  instructions on how  the images  of each of the 312  Buddhist deities  are to be visualized , including their detailed iconography ,  by invoking  their appropriate  Mantra . The text is widely used by the Buddhist Schools of Tibet and Nepal.

The Sādhanamālā, for all intents and purposes, is written in Sanskrit; but, the Sanskrit used here is far from the Grammar of Panini. It is the Sanskrit of the Buddhists, perhaps devised by Chandracharya. The language of the Sadhanamala is extremely flexible, with great laxity as regards grammatical rules. For instance; in the matter of Sandhi (conjunctions), the language is very loose, especially where the Visarga (:) is concerned. Moreover, the narration is interspersed with Mantras and Dharanis composed in  Prakrit  languages such as Pali and Apabhramsha .

 — The Indian Buddhist Iconography – mainly based on Sadhanamala by Prof. Benoytosh Bhattacharya ; Published by Firma K L Mukhopadhyay , Calcutta , 1958]


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 by another who is more capable’.

yatnenānumito+apy arthaḥ kuśalair anumātṛbhiḥ/ abhiyuktatarair anyair anyathaivopapādyate //(VP: 1.34)

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 and Trikalyapariksha ) quotes verses from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya- (Yatha visuddam akasham;  and , tathedam amrtam brahma from his Vritti ).  And, therefore Bharhari was either a contemporary or a senior to Dinnaga.


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued in

Next Part


References and Sources

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

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


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

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Natya Sastra

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 encyclopedic 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.

Manasollasa vol 2-page 171 ( 225) verses 205-206

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

The Great Poet Kalidasa, commences his Classic Raghuvamsa by submitting a prayer to Parvati and Parameshvara, the parents of the world, who are united like word and meaning. And, he prays, for the gift of speech fit with appropriate meaning.

वागर्थाविव संपृक्तौ वागर्थप्रतिपत्तये / जगतः पितरौ वन्दे पार्वतीपरमेश्वरौ 

vāgarthāviva sapktau vāgarthapratipattaye/ jagata pitarau vande pārvatīparameśvarau || 1-1 ||


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.”


[ Let me digress here, for a while:     About the word and the meaning :

Similar ideas appear in the poetics of the ancient West as also during the Renaissance period. In their ancient treatises – Aristotle (384-322 BCE – Poetics); and, Horace (65-8 BCE Ars Poetica) – talk about the art of poetry.  Horace, in particular, in a discussion of poetics, elaborates on the idea of beauty in poetry. He observes that poetry should contain both beauty and meaning. He comes up with the dictum:  non satis est pulchra esse poemata (it is not enough for a poem to be beautiful), which became a major theme in Renaissance art theory.  And, the Renaissance critics readily accepted the idea of beauty supplementing meaning in art and poetry.

Horace also theorized that the poet’s ability to empathize with his characters; and, express man’s most profound concerns helped build civilization. The Renaissance period also embraced Horace’s idea that the artist should experience an emotion in order to depict it.

Horace writes that poets should apply appropriate styles to their poems based on the subject; and, not force an artificial relationship between subject and style. Horace observes that the poet should use appropriate language relevant to a character’s age, occupation, and personality.

He observes that successful poets know their subjects by observing them, as an artist would observe a live model, and/or experiencing them, as a poet experiences the spoken word.

Yet you cannot draw except from the living model /and the poet must learn to write from the spoken word.”

He asserted that the poet has a responsibility to know his subject intimately; and, to learn of the ways in which past and contemporary scholars approached similar subjects.

Horace, therefore, emphasizes the importance of studying the techniques of successful poets. While he feels that the poets should not restrict themselves to established form, he supports the idea that one could use the classical structures, styles and techniques of established poets when the subject calls for it. He observed that a successful poet becomes wise by reading the philosophies of “better men”.

Horace also feet that both poets and painters should have the freedom, or poetic license, to create from their imagination. He said; for any artist, either as a musician or a painter or poet, there is an inexhaustible richness and diversity in the world we live in. And, there is also abundant freedom to experience and to express in countless innovative ways. Without such artistic freedom, the human civilization comes to a virtual end.

Further, Horace also believes the arts should promote virtuous characters and ideas, because of their ability to influence humanity. At the same time, he cautions that the poet need not omit beauty in order to do this.

Another interesting feature of the treatises on poetry of Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica is the direct correlations between the sister arts – poetry and painting. From their comparison of these two arts emerged the art theory ut pictura poesis: as is painting so is poetry. Thus, the poet’s ability to paint images of nature in the mind’s eye; and, the painter’s ability to paint the same images on canvas, linked the two arts. The relation between poetry and painting was seen as that between two forms of poetry. And, of course, there is the much quoted saying, attributed to Simonides (556-468 BCE), by Plutarch in his De Gloria Atheniensium: Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is the painting that speaks.

It was said; the painter and the poet have much in common.  Conventionally the painter deals with forms, moods and their representations in lines and colours .And, the poet is more immersed in the world of concepts, ideas, doubts and queries often tending to be philosophical. Both symbolize their emotions, sensations and ideas through concrete images and words; each in his own manner.

 Renaissance artists, like Alberti and others, also drew a relationship between the formal elements of poetry and painting in that geometry and arithmetic were the theoretical basis for both arts. Further, they pursued similar goals.

It was said; the most relevant relationships between poetry and painting in the Renaissance’s theory of art were the imitation of nature; content and harmony between parts; beauty and meaning; formal elements and scholarship, and expression, action and decorum..

The impact of the dictum: ut pictura poesis during Renaissance was that it contributed, in a large measure, for introducing several layers of symbolisms and the elements of poetic imagery; forging relations with within certain parameters of literary contexts; and, raising painting to the status of a liberal art. Renaissance critics encouraged the painters to study past and contemporary poetry, history, theology, and philosophy. The ideal painting in the Renaissance contained subject matter from classical sources and the imitation of nature.

Source: Horace, Ars Poetica, trans. C. H. Sisson (Great Britain: Carcanet Press, 1975) ]


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.

Lotus blossoms

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


Posted by on November 19, 2016 in Artha-Meaning, General Interest, Sanskrit


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

The meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Two

Continued from Part One



A. Artha

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

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


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

Yaska, the etymologist of the very ancient India, derives the term Artha from two roots (chakarita): Artho’rtem and Aranastha va – (artho.arter.araṇastho.vā -1,18)  ‘ 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 or the innermost truth.



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:

  1. Pramāa (valid means of knowledge);
  2. Prameya (objects of valid knowledge);
  3. Saśaya (doubt);
  4. Prayojana (objective or the aim);
  5. Dṛṣṭānta (instances or examples);
  6. Siddhānta (conclusion);
  7. Avayava (members or elements of syllogism);
  8. Tarka (hypothetical reasoning):
  9. Niraya (derivation or settlement);
  10. Vāda (discussion)
  11. Jalpa (wrangling);
  12. Vitaṇḍā (quibbling);
  13. Hetvābhāsa (fallacy);
  14. Chala (hair-splitting); 
  15. jāti (sophisticated refutation) ;and
  16. 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  (vrtti) pertaining to that word (pada-nists-vritti-jnana) – Vritya-pada-pratipadya evartha ity abhidayate.

[According to him:

:- If a word is understood through its primary function (shakthi or aphids-vrtti or mukhya -vrtti) then such derived primary meaning is called sakyarta or vachyartha or abhidheya.

:- If a word is understood on the basis of its secondary function (lakshana-vrtti or guna-vrtti) then such derived secondary meaning is called lakshyartha

:- If a word is understood on the basis of its suggestive function (vyanjana-vrtti) then such derived suggested meaning is called vyanjanartha or dhvani-artha.

:- And, if a word is understood on the basis of its intellectual significance (tatparya-artha) then such derived intended meaning is called tatparyartha.

However, Prof. M M  Deshpande adds a word of caution: Not all the Schools of Indian Philosophy  of Grammar accept the above classification  , although these seem to be the general explanations ]


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 (samuchchaya) two or more entities of the similar character or of dissimilar characters.


Artha in art

The concept of Artha also appears in the theories of Art-appreciation. There, the understanding of art is said to be through two distinctive processes – Sakshartha, the direct visual appreciation of the art-work; and, Paroksharta, delving into its inner or hidden meanings or realms (guhyeshu-varteshu). The one concerns the appreciation of the appealing form (rupa) of the art object (vastu); and, the other the enjoyment of the emotion or the essence (rasa) of its aesthetic principle (guna vishesha).  Artha, in the context of art, is, thus, essentially the objective and property of art-work; as also the proper, deep subjective aesthetic art-experience.

In the traditions of Indian art, the artist uses artistic forms and techniques to embody an idea, a vision; and, it is the cultured viewer with an  understanding  heart  (sah-hrudaya), the aesthete (rasika) that partakes that vision.

It is said; an artistic creation  is not a mere inert object, but it is truly  rich in meaning (Artha). And, it is capable of evoking manifold emotions , transforming the aesthete. As for a connoisseur , it is not only a source of beauty; but is also an invitation to explore and enjoy the reason (Artha) of that beauty. Thus, Artha, understood in its wider sense as experience,  is the dynamic process of art-enjoyment  that bridges the art-object and the connoisseur.


Artha in Arthashastra

arthashastra manuscript

In the Arthashastra 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 well-being 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.

 [manuṣyāṇāṃ vṛttir arthaḥ, manuṣyavatī bhūmir ity arthaḥ //–KAZ15.1.01]

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.

Artha sastra

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 – tasyāḥ pṛthivyā lābha.pālana.upāyaḥ śāstram artha.śāstram iti /.

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.


[Prof. Hermann Kulke and Prof. Dietmar Rothermund in their A History of India (Rutledge, London, Third Edition 1998-Page61) write:

The central idea of Kautalya’s precept (shastra) was the prosperity (Artha) of king and country. The king who strove for victory (vijigishu) was at the centre of a circle of states (Mandala) in which the neighbor was the natural enemy (Ari) and the more distant neighbor of this neighbor (enemy of the enemy) was the natural friend (Mitra). ..

The main aim of the Arthashastra was to instruct the king on how to improve the qualities of these power factors; and, to weaken those of his enemy even before an open confrontation took place. He was told to strengthen his fortifications, extend facilities for irrigation, encourage trade, cultivate wasteland, open mines, look after the forest and build enclosures for elephants and, of course, try to prevent the enemy from doing likewise. For this purpose he was to send spies and secret agents into his enemy’s kingdom. The very detailed instructions for such spies and agents, which Kautalya gives with great psychological insight into the weakness of human nature, have earned him the doubtful reputation of having even surpassed Machiavelli’s cunning advice in Il Principe.

But actually Kautalya paid less attention to clandestine activities in the enemy’s territory than to the elimination of ‘thorns’ in the king’s own country.

Since Kautalya believed that political power was a direct function of economic prosperity, his treatise contained detailed information on the improvement of the economy by state intervention in all spheres of activity, including mining, trade, crafts and agriculture. He also outlined the structure of royal administration and set a salary scale starting with 48,000 Panas for the royal high priest, down to 60 Panas for a petty inspector.

All this gives the impression of a very efficiently administered centralized state which appropriated as much of the surplus produced in the country as possible. There were no moral limits to this exploitation but there were limits of political feasibility. It was recognized that high taxes and forced labour would drive the population into the arms of the enemy and, therefore, the king had to consider the welfare and contentment of his people as a necessary political requirement for his own success. ]


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Continued in Part Three



 Sources and References

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

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

The meaning of ‘MEANING’- Part One

The most common Sanskrit term for meaning is Artha.  Various phrases, 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 , meaningless or  purposeless (nish-prayojanam)  . 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.

[Jan E.M. Houben, “Part II: The Sanskrit Tradition.” In: The Emergence of Semantics in Four Linguistic Tradition (W. van Bekkum, Jan E.M. Houben, Ineke Sluiter, Kees Versteegh), pp. 49-145. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1997)” , writes :

The literature in the Sanskrit tradition dealing with semantic problems is very extensive. The Sanskrit tradition is the dynamic product of the interactions of different philosophical, religious and cultural currents. Even within the  Brahminical,  Buddhist or Jaina traditions, numerous disciplines, doctrines, and branches of learning-are continuously interacting with each other. That is why a discussion of semantics in the Sanskrit tradition should not be limited to one specialized discipline, e.g. Päninian grammar. Rather, an attempt should be made to introduce to the reader the major participants and the major issues in the dialogues which continue over centuries.]

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.

śabdādibhedaḥ śabdena vyākhyāto rūpyate yataḥ / tasmād arthavidhāḥ sarvāḥ śabdamātrāsu niśritāḥ

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 abhidayakyaha (VP: 2.2.68) – ‘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.

 na ca sāmānyavat sarve kriyāśabdena lakṣitāḥ /viśeṣā na hi sarveṣāṃ satāṃ śabdo+abhidhāyakaḥ

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 often 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)

abhyāsāt pratibhāhetuḥ sarvaḥ śabdo+aparaiḥ smṛtaḥ/ bālānāṃ ca tiraścāṃ ca yathārthapratipādane

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


Study of Grammar

There are many words in the Vedas which convey multiple meanings. And, at times, a few words from other languages that were in proximity during its days also crept in.

There were also attempts to systematize not merely the Vedic texts, but also its precise rendering. Towards that end, the original text, Samhita-patha, meant continuous recitation, was re-cast into Pada-patha, the word for word arrangement of the text. This helped to produce a full analysis of the phonetic content of text.

That led to the development of the Pratisakhyas, a set of rules for regulating the combination of letters and their pronunciations as per the requirements that are specific to each Shakha or the branch a Veda. These Pratisakhyas are considered to be the earliest formulations of Sanskrit grammar.

Along with the Pratisakhyas, the Brahmanas; the Nighantu (glossaries); Nirvachana (clear explanation of words/terms listed in the Nighantu); and Nirukta (a branch of etymology offering explanations about the derivation of certain chosen words of the Vedas) all contributed to refining the Sanskrit Grammar (Vyakarana).

In due course, linguistic analyses developed from Vedic utterances (Chandas) towards the spoken language (Bhasha). Through all these writings, the Sanskrit language was growing along with its grammar.

Grammar- Vyakarana also known as  Pada-Shastra  (the science of words)  which treats  the word as the basic unit ; and , deals with the  study of  the spoken language involving words and sentences ,  came to regarded as one of the most important Vedanga (branch of the Vedic studies).

For the these reason, Sanskrit grammar was never an artificial construct; but , was a naturally developed system. Another salient feature of Sanskrit grammar is its philosophical thrust. No language other than Sanskrit has such a developed philosophy 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.  

In the linguistic traditions of ancient India, Vyakarana, of course, occupied a preeminent position. But, at the same time, there existed a parallel system of linguistic analysis- Nirvachana shastra or Nirukta – which served a different purpose. Both these traditions are classed among the six Vedangas, the disciplines or branches of knowledge, which are auxiliary to the study of Vedas and which are designed to preserve the Vedas in their purity.

The Vyakarana (Grammar) tradition is universally well known, through a number of treatises, but, mainly through Panini’s famous text Astadhyayi. However, in regard to Nirvachana-shastra, of the several works of that class which were said to be in existence before sixth century B C E, only one work, the Nirukta of Yascacharya,  has survived . His Nirukta is looked upon as the oldest authoritative treatise regarding derivation of Vedic words.

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.

floral design2

Before we proceed further, let us briefly go over the outline of the course of Sanskrit Grammar during the ancient times.

The history of Sanskrit grammar is generally classified into three broad segments: the Grammars that were in use prior to the time of Panini (Pre-Panian); the Grammars that follow the system devised by Panini (Panian); and, those Grammars whose systems and methods vary from that of Panini (Non- Panian).

In any case, whatever be the type or the School  of Sanskrit Grammar that is discussed, it , invariably,  is  carried out with reference to the  classic tradition promulgated by Panini and, enriched by three  celebrated works : Astadhyayi (of Panini);  Vrttikas (of Katyayana) ; and, Mahabhashya  (of Patanjali) .  The three authors, the Trinity (Muni traya) , are revered as the Sages of Sanskrit Grammar .

The system of Panini, looked upon as a Great Science concerning words – Paniniyam Mahashastram (Paniniyam mahashastram pada sadhu yukta lakshanam) is always at the center of vast and varied traditions of Sanskrit Grammar. Of all the ancient Schools of Grammar, it is  only the system of Panini that is acknowledged as  being complete , comprehensive and thoroughly logical ; and, that which has survived to this day, in its entirety.

Panini, doubtless, inherited a rich and vibrant tradition of Sanskrit Grammar. There , surely , were many treatises on Grammar and Etymology; but now, all of those are lost for ever.  It is reasonable to presume that it was on the basis of the works of his predecessors that Panini could develop a grand system that is now universally accepted; and, is hailed as the perfect and profound exposition of linguistic science But, one cannot say, with certainty, to what extent Panini was indebted to each of his predecessors.

Panini , in his Astadhyayi , specifically refers to ten Grammarians (Vaiyyakaranah) and linguists , who flourished prior to his time (Ca.500 BCE)  : Sakatayana; Gargya; Galava; Sakalya; Senaka; Sphotayana; Bhardvaja; Apisapi; Kashyapa ; and, Cakra-varmana.

In addition, Panini also mentions Yaska, the Etymologist Ca. 650 BCE) – yaska-ādibhyo gotre PS_2, 4.63. And, Yaska, in his Nirukta, also mentions the four Grammarians referred to by Panini:  Sakatayayana; Gargya; Galava; and, Sakalya. However, the works cited by both the scholars are lost; but, we find reference to their ideas in the commentaries by the later authors.

All this indicates that Vyākaraa as a science of language was well established even prior to the times of Yaska and Panini. That seems quite possible; because the studies concerning Grammar and the structure of language can be   traced back to Rigveda. And, there is enough evidence to demonstrate that the science of Vyākaraa was well developed in Vedic times; and , in the Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad periods.

Of the Grammarians mentioned by Panini and Yaska , some  belonging  to Vedic  times, were, perhaps,  the prominent ones . In addition,  there are references to the Schools of Grammar associated with some other Scholars.

 Let’s, for instance, just take a quick look at some of the ancient Grammarians.


Brhaspathi, the son of Angirasa, was an exponent of the Sanskrit grammar. According to Patanjali‘s Mahabhashya, Brhaspathi is said to have taught Grammar to Indra (Bhaspati Indrāya divyam varasahasram, pratipada-uktānām śabdānām śabda-pārāyaam provāca na antam). And, Indra taught it to Bharadvaja, who, in turn, instructed the other sages (Brhaspatir Indraya; Indro Bharadvajaya; Bharadvaja rshibhya).


The Sanskrit grammar written by Indra was called Aindra. The Aindra or Aindri was referred to in the Pratisakhyas, Katantra; and was also quoted by Panini and other Grammarians. It appears, the technical terms used by the Aindra Grammar were simpler and archaic as compared to those in the work of Panini.

Aindra is traditionally considered to be one among the older Schools of Grammar. And, some scholars claim that Aindra was known to Panini; and, was quoted by others as well.

[Arthur Coke Burnell, in his work On the Aindra School of Sanskrit Grammarians, Their Place in the Sanskrit and Subordinate Literatures (Basel Mission Book & Tract Depository, 1875) states that the two Non-Panian Schools of Grammar, viz., Aindra and Katantra were  in use  in South India ; and, that the Tamil grammatical work Tolkappiyam  was described as aindiram nirainda Tolkappiyam  (comprising Aindra).

Fragments of the Kātantra-grammar with a commentary; and, a seemingly earlier version named  Kaumāralāta , have come to light in the Turfan region (modern Turkestan); and, are dated to the 4th–5th cent. CE..  Although the Kātantra was studied throughout most of India and beyond, the grammar had a close aliation with Buddhists , as its presence in the Turfan, Tibetan translations, and the commentary by Durgasiha, a Buddhist, attest  to.  As is typical of almost all the non-Pāinian grammars, the Kātantra does not formulate rules for Vedic usage or for the pitch accent.

Further, Burnell compares the Tokappiyam with two Non-Pāinian schools of Grammar, namely, the Katantra school of Sanskrit grammar and the Kaccayana, a Pali school of Southern India. Based on the comparisons, Burnell concludes that the Tolkappiyam corresponds to the Katantra School closely. He also demonstrates that many of the technical terms of the Tolkappiyam and of later Tamil Grammars were merely simple translations of Sanskrit terms, which he attributes to the Aindra School or the other pre-Pāinian texts.

Please also read Indigenous grammatical traditions Tamil and the Dravidian, – -Grammatical concepts in Traditional Tamil grammars and in other Dravidian languages by Dr. E. Annamalai, the University of Chicago ]


Bharadvaja, the son of Brhaspathi, was also a great Grammarian.   He authored Bharadvaja Shiksha; and instructed many sages. Bharadvaja was also said to be well versed in medical sciences.

There is a mention of another Bharadvaja, who wrote several Varttikas (explanatory notes). These were said to be similar to Kashyapa’s Varttikas. And, according to Patanjali, they were comparatively, more comprehensive and clear than those of Katyayana (Katyayanam:-  ghusañjñāyām prakti grahaam śidarthamMhBh. Panini, in his Astadhyayi, mentions Bharadvaja – to Bhāradvājasya – PS_7, 2.63 .


There is also a mention of Pauskarasadi a great Grammarian, who, it is believed, was a contemporary of Krishna-dvaipayana Vyasa. Patanjali in his Mahabashya quotes an opinion offered by Pauskarasadi – caya dvitīyā bhavanti śari parata paukarasāde ācāryasya matena – (P_8,4.48) KA_III,465.1-3


Galava was said to another great Grammarian. He is credited with   introducing Krama-patha  (step-by-step recitation) and Shiksha as related to Grammar. Panini mentions Galava four times; twice along with Gargya; and once with Kashyapa.

iko hrasvo ‘yo Gālavasya | PS_6,3.61 |  a Gārgya-Gālavayo | PS_7,3.99 | ttīyādiu bhāitapuska puvad Gālavasya |  PS_7,1.74| na +udātta svaritodayam  a-Gārghya-Kāśyapa-Gālavānām | PS_8,4.67 |

Patanjali  mentions Babhravya (also associated with Krama-patha) along with Mandavya:  sa yathā iha bhavati Bābhravya, Māṇḍavya iti evam suśrut , sauśruta iti atra api prāpnoti na ea doa  – P_1,1.3.2


Bhaguri was a great grammarian. He is said to have prepared the explanatory notes (Varnikā; Vartika) based on the roots of the words (Dhatu-patha). He, perhaps, belonged to the Lokayata School. Patanjali mentions him as: Vartikā Bhāgurī Lokāyatasya – P_7,3.45.


Cakravarmana was a great Sanskrit grammarian. Panini mentions his name in the Astadhyayi. He must have been earlier to Apisali; because , both the authors  (Panini and Apisali ) quote his views ( Esa Cakravarmanasya6.1.130)


Kasakrtsna was a respected Grammarian, who explained the rules of the ancient Grammar. Towards the end of his Mahabhashya, Patanjali mentions Kasakrtsna along with Apisali and Panini were highly reputed Grammarians (Paninina proktam Paniniyam, Apisalim Kasakrtsnam iti Pas_14 )


Sakalya was a popular Grammarian.  He is respected as the author of the padapatha of the Rigveda , where the sentences of the Samhita Paatha (the original text, as it is) were broken down into words (pada) and arranged in sequential order (a word-by-word pronunciation scheme).  Śākalya is said to have composed four works relating to Grammar – Salakyatantra; Veda-mitra-Sakalaya; Sakalacharana; and, Pada samhita.

Yaska also mentions Sakalya:āra.śākalyah (Nir.6.28)

Panini quotes Sakalya at least four times in his Astadhyayi:

sambuddhau śākalyasya-itāv anāre || PS_1,1.16 || iko ‘savare śākalyasya hrasvaś ca || PS_6,1.127 || lopa śākalyasya || PS_8,3.19 || sarvatra śākalyasya || PS_8,4.51 ||

Patanjali also quotes the opinions of Sakalya; and, respectfully addresses him as Acharya: uña Sākalyasya Acāryasya matena praghya-sañjñā bhavati P_1,1.17-18.2


Apisali was a great Grammarian, who systematically constructed a work on Grammar in eight chapters. His rules covered not only the Vedic words (vaidlka) ; but also the words in common usage.   Panini quoted the opinion of Apisali (vā supyāpiśalePS_6, 1.92 .)

Patanjali mentions Apisali along with other great Grammarians : proktādaya ca taddhitā na upapadyante Pāininā proktam Pāinīyam, Apiśalam, Kāśaktsnam itiPas_14;   Apiśala-Pāinīya-Vyāīya-Gautam-īyāP_6,2.36


Kasyapa was another grammarian.  Panini, in his Astadhyayi, often cites Kasyapa’s views, along with those of other reputed Grammarians such as Gargya, Galava and others.

tṛṣi-mṛṣi-kśe Kāśyapasya |PS_1, 2.25| na+udāttasvaritodayam a-Gārghya-Kāśyapa-Gālavānām |PS_8,4.67| vikara-kuītakāt kāyape|PS_4,1.124Kāśyapa-kauśikā bhyām ṛṣibhyā ini |PS_4,3.103|

And, Patanjali quotes Kashyapa as many as twelve times kāśyapa grahaam kimartham. kāśyapa grahaam pūjārtham – P_1,2.25


The name of Gargya is mentioned along with that of Sakalya in the Pratisakhya.  Panini in his grammar also mentions Sakalya and Gargya (along with Galava): a Gārgya-Gālava yo |PS_7, 3.99| Oto Gargyasya |PS_8, 3.20|

Patanjali mentions Gargya almost countless times: Gārgyāyaa Vātsyāyana parama Gārgyāyaa parama Vātsyāyana – P_1, 1.72.5


It appears; there were two Sanskrit Grammarians who went by the name  Śākaāyana  . The later Sakatayana (who perhaps was a contemporary of Panini –?) is also mentioned by some , as the author of the Sphota–theory, later championed by Brthrhari.

Some scholars recognize Sakatayana as the author of Unadi Sutra (a supplement to Panini’s Grammar Astadhyayi, providing additional set of rules to derive nouns from their verbal roots; and, saying that all wordscanbeanalysed by the addition of affixes to verbal roots)

The elder Śākaāyana was said to be an early Etymologist (Nairukta).  Even though his works are lost, his views are made known indirectly through references by Yaska and Panini.

This Sakatayana was also a celebrated Grammarian – Anu Sakatayanam Vaikaranah. And, his Grammar is, of course, no longer in existence; and, therefore, it is not clear what type or School of Grammar it represented.  Panini refers to Sakatayana at least three times

Laṅaḥ śākaṭāyanasya+eva –PS_3, 4.111 | V-yor laghuprayatnataraḥ śākaṭāyanasya –PS_8, 3.18 | Riprabhṛtiṣu śākaṭāyanasya – PS_8, 4.50 |

Sakatayana is said to have held the view that all nouns are essentially derived from verbal roots.

Atha ananvite arthe aprādeśike vikāre padebhya / pada itara Ardhānt sañcaskāra śākaāyana  Nir.1.13.

Patanjali, in his Mahabashya mentioned Sakatayana at least seven times; and, also spoke of Sakatayana’s theoryLaṅaḥ śākaṭāyanasya +eva-  PS_3, 4.111 .

Yāska defends Śākaāyana’s view that the etymological derivation of all nouns are from verbal root.   However, he also mentions; Gargya (descendant of Sage Garga, as mentioned in the Nirukta (1.3.12-13); and, others opposed Sakatayana’s views; and, remarked that all nouns  cannot be traced to verbal roots :  na sarvāi iti gārgyo vaiyākaraānāś caeke- 1.12 .

They argued that some words which are derived from custom or through common usage (Rudi) are, in any case, a part of the living language. And, such word cannot be derived only from verbal roots.

Nāma Ākhyātayo tu karm upasamyoga dyotakā.bhavanty ucca avacā pada Arthā bhavanti iti.Gārgyas – Nr.1,3:

Prof. Bimal Krishna Matilal in his The word and the world refers to the debate of Nirkutavs.  Vyakarana as an interesting philosophical discussion between the Nairuktas  (Etymologists) and the inīyas(Grammarians).

The ancient Grammarian Sakatayana says  that prepositions when not attached (to nouns or verbs) do not express meanings; but, Gargya says that they illustrate (or modify) the action which is expressed by a noun or verb, and that their senses are various (even when detached). This view was challenged by Gargya. This debate goes to the heart of the compositionality debate among ancient Indian Mimamsakas and Vyakarana / Grammarians.


Panini mentions one Sphotayana, who spoke about the word and its meaning (ava sphoāyanasya – PS_6,1.123),; and, as the one who originally came up with Sphota concept (Sphota-tattva) . Yaska had also said to have cited Sphotayana. Later Patanjali also commented upon the theory of Sphota (Sphota vada) – evam tarhi sphoa śabda dhvani śabdaguaḥ – P_1,1.70.2

Later, the central theme of Brthrhari’s remarkable work Vakyapadiya was the theory of Sphota concept (Sphota vada), now commonly understood as ‘ meaningful   linguistic unit, revealed by sounds’.


In the later times, Vyakarana came to be divided into Pracheena-vyakarana (प्राचीनव्याकरणम्) – pre-Panini ; and Navya vyakarana (नव्यव्याकरणम्)- post Panini. Later age Grammarians recognize the eight Grammarians of merit,  Vyakarana-shastra-pravartakas (व्याकरणशास्त्रप्रवर्तकाः) :

इन्द्रश्चन्द्रः काशकृत्स्नापिशली शाकटायनः । पाणिन्यमरजैनेन्द्राः जयन्त्यष्टौ च शाब्दिकाः ॥

Indra (इन्द्रः), Chandra (चन्द्रः), Kasha (काशः), Krtsnapishali (कृत्स्नापिशली), Shakatayana (शाकटायनः), Panini (पाणिनिः), Amarajainendra (अमरजैनेन्द्रः), Jayanti (जयन्तिः) are the eight Masters of shabda (word) or grammar.]

floral design2

As can be seen from the foregoing; Panini and Yaska 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   

(indriya.nityam.vacanam.audumbarāyaṇaḥ – 1,1).

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.

na.nirbaddhā.upasargā.arthān.nirāhur.iti.śākaṭāyanaḥ1,3: pada itara  ardhānt  sañcaskāra śākaṭāyanaḥ – 1,13

There were several theories or Schools of Grammar in use even during the time of Bhartrhari. He  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


[The Kannada grammatical tradition begins in the 12th century with two treatises written by Nagavarma (who mentions earlier grammatical works, which have not survived): the  Sabda-smrti, which is in Old Kannada ; and which constitutes a part of the Kavya-avalokana,  a poetical work, and the Karnataka-basha-bushana , which is an independant work in Sanskrit Sutras

Other works would follow, some composed in (Old) Kannada, such as Kesiraja’s Sabda-mani-darpana (13th century) ; and Krishnamacharya’s Hosagannada-nudi-gannadi (19th century), which studies the links between Kannada, Sanskrit , Tamil and other languages ; and, another work Karnataka-sabda-anusasana of Bhattakalanka Deva (17th century) was composed in Sanskrit ; and, was  influenced by Jainendra’s grammar .]


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’. Bhartrhari compared the science of Grammar to the medical science; and, said that just as the medicines remove the impurities of the body, so does Grammar removes the impurities of speech (chikitsitam van-malaanam) and of the mind.  Bhartrhari who inherited the traditional attitude towards Grammar, regarded it as the holiest branch of learning; and, elevated Grammar to the status of Agama and Sruti, leading the way to liberation (dvāram apavargasya) . He believed the use of correct forms of language enables clear thinking; and, makes it possible to gain philosophic wisdom or to pursue other branches of valid knowledge.

Tad dvāram apavargasya vāmalānā cikitsitam / pavitra sarva-vidyānām adhividya prakāśate – BVaky. 1.14

Prajñā  viveka labhate bhinnair āgama-darśanai / kiyad vā śakyam unnetu svatarkam anudhāvatā- BVaky. 2.489

Sādhutva jñāna viṭayā seyaṃ vyākaraṇa-smṛtiḥ / avicchedena śiṣṭānām idaṃ smṛti –nibandhanam – BVaky. 1.158


Grammar – Vyakarana also known as Pada –Shastra  (the science of words) 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.

[Sri Sankara , commenting on the Sutra concerning the symbols and reality  (तदनन्यत्वमारम्भणशब्दादिभ्यः ॥ १४ ॥ tadananyatvam ārambhaṇa-śabdādibhyaḥ || 14 ||),  remarks, “ We see that the knowledge of the real sounds  a, aa, e, ee  etc., is reached by means of the unreal written letters.”(B.S. He perhaps was suggesting that the spoken language is the real language.]

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 , that of becoming . 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 realize 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 , thus, the Absolute; and, there is no distinction between Sabda Brahman and Para Brahman the supreme.

That 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; Maitrayani Upanishad (4.2.2) 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 brahmadi gacchathi – Brahmabindu Upanishad -17)]


Dr. Victor Bartholomew D’avella writes  in his well researched  very scholarly Doctoral Thesis : Creating the perfect language : Sanskrit grammarians, poetry, and the exegetical tradition

The history of Sanskrit grammar extends beyond strict grammatical texts; and, that many important debates are first noted in the works of Bhāmaha and Vāmana, who, in turn, were seeking to both account for, and establish, the grammar for poetry.

The poetic diction formed a particular subset of the Sanskrit language, not only in so far as it was ornamented, but also as being devoid of a range faults (doṣhas);  some of which are other wise acceptable (excessive complexity, technical words, vulgarity, etc.). Among these ,grammatical incorrectness blemishes the body of a poem to the core.

For this reason Bhāmaha   and Vāmana must have felt compelled to compose their respective chapters on  śabdaśuddhi , “purification of language.” Such guidelines could only have been necessary in the first place if poets took occasional license that warranted either justification or repudiation, and if the rules them-selves were not always so clear-cut.

The motivatingforces behind these decisions varied, and it has been dicult to state one single guiding principle.

 In the case of Bhāmaha, he appears to have particularly disfavored excessive complexity in derivations and reading more into a sūtra than what was readily apparent or already accepted asa necessary addenda to the Astadyayi  (upasakhyānas and  iṣṭis). 

Vāmana, on the other hand, was more willing to exploit the available interpretive stratagems in the grammatical tradition.  Earlier, Daṇḍin had labelled  those readers fools (kudhī ) who are unable to derive forms that rely on a more subtle understanding of Pāinis rules in light of the commentaries, much like the grammarian in the dialog. For Vāmana ,though, it seems that only those devices with general acceptance were valid. 


The earliest of the known text of etymology (Nirukta) that has come down  to us is that from Sanskrit. And that was composed by Yaska, who in turn cites number of his predecessors in that field. Similarly, the oldest known Grammar  Astadhyayi 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 (artha.nityaḥ.parīkṣeta.kenacid.vṛtti.sāmānyena). Thus, Sanskrit Grammar was an attempt to purify (samskruta), to discipline and to explain the behaviour of the spoken language, so that its  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).]

Panini and others

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’ .

And, before all these, way back in the sixth century B C E, Yaska , in his Nirukta had instructed : while deriving the meaning of a word , in its own context, one should try to stick to the rules of the Grammar (Vyakarana) as far as possible; but, if this is of no avail in bringing out the hidden meaning of the term in question , then one should abandon such rules – na saṃskāram ādriyeta / viśaya-hi vṛttayo bhavanti (Nir.2.1). 

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); ‘Uddeshya’ (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 .

[Even the Vedic sages recognized the fact that the literal meaning of an utterance is  , often,  only a part of its total meaning ; and, those who try to analyze the literal meaning  run the risk of losing sight of the intended or the signifying meaning of the speech (Vāk). Rig-Veda (10.71.2-4) does, in fact, distinguish between a person who takes in only the literal meaning of a verse; and, a wise person who grasps the inner meaning and its true significance. The former: ‘sees, but does not see; hears, but does not hear. But, it is to the latter that speech reveals itself completely, as does a loving wife to her husband’ 

4 One man hath ne’er seen Vāk, and yet he seeth: one man hath hearing but hath never heard her. But to another hath she shown her beauty as a fond well-dressed woman to her by Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1896]

Further, it is said; the great poets select their words , winnowing away the chaff from the grain; and, only the persons of equal scholarship and literary taste can truly appreciate  good poetry.

atrā sakhāyaḥ sakhyāni jānate bhadraiṣāṃ lakṣmīr nihitādhi vāci || yajñena vācaḥ padavīyam āyan tām anv avindann ṛṣiṣu praviṣṭām |tām ābhṛtyā vy adadhuḥ purutrā tāṃ sapta rebhā abhi saṃ navante |uta tvaḥ paśyan na dadarśa vācam uta tvaḥ śṛṇvan na śṛṇoty enām |uto tvasmai tanvaṃ vi sasre jāyeva patyauśatī suvāsāḥ |uto tvasmai tanvaṃ vi sasre jāyeva patya uśatī suvāsāḥ ||(10.71.2-4)

Anandavardhana does not attack the usual divisions of speech into sentences and words; into stems and suffixes; as also the distinction between the primary and the transferred or metaphorical sense of the words (Abidha; Lakshana). He accepts all such divisions; but, in addition, he puts forward a third potential or capacity of language. He calls that as ‘the capacity to suggest a meaning other than the literal meaning. Such suggestive power of language is named as ‘Vyanjana’.

It is said; Anandavardhana adopted and improved upon the idea of Vyanjana; and, also adopted Bhartrhari’s concept of Sphota; and, thereupon  he developed his theory of suggestion (Dhvani)   and its value in appreciation of in poetry (Kavya).]


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 , the  Artha, its meaning, are  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, Bhartrhari  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 symbolizes  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  includes even the sounds of cows, animals, frogs, birds, trees and hills.  It was said; the extant of Vak is  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 Brahmana-texts.

But, it was Bhartrhari who expanded on the theory of Sabda-Brahman as the ultimate principle of all things . However, the concept of Sabda-brahman 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  asserts 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 , as the 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 a loop.


And, Brihad-devata , a secondary Vedic text of 4-5th century BCE attributed Saunaka, mentions that 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 also lists out contextual factors which are similar to those listed in Brihad-devata. He pointed out that in many cases of language behavior, the literal meaning conveyed by the expression may not be the intended meaning. Here, in such cases, 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 – along with the specific and the grammatical factors that determine the intended sense – 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:

  • 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;
  • 5.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 have  left  the question rather 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 Sabda Tattva (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
  13. Vedic Grammar For Students by Prof. A A Macdonell (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1916)

Posted by on November 12, 2016 in Artha-Meaning, General Interest, Sanskrit


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

Discussions, Debates and Arguments: Ancient India – Part Two

 Continued from Part One

 Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda


Vaada is a debate between two persons of equal standing. The term Vaada by itself means a theory, doctrine or thesis. In the debate, the proponent who puts forward arguments in support of his doctrine (Vaada) is termed as Vadin. The opponent who refutes that theory through his counter-arguments is termed as Prati-vadin. Unlike in Samvada, there is no teacher-taught relationship here; nor is it a discourse. 

Ideally, both the parties to the Vaada should have mutual regard, respecting each other’s learning and status; and should participate with an open mind in order to explore various dimensions of the subject on hand; to examine it thoroughly by applying the accepted norms of logic and reasoning (Tarka), supported by passages from  texts of undisputed authority (Sabda Pramana). The principal aim of a wholesome Vaada is to resolve the conflict; and, to establish ‘what is true’. The proceedings of the Vaada should be characterized by politeness, courtesy and fair means of presenting the arguments. You might call it a healthy discussion. 

Vatsayana in his commentary Nyāya Bhāya, says that congenial debate (Anuloma Sambasha) takes place when the opponent is not wrathful or malicious; but, is learned , wise, eloquent and patient  ; is well versed in the art of persuasion ; and, is gifted with sweet speech. 

As regards the benefits (Sambasha prashamsa or prayojana)  of such peaceful and congenial debates  : If a learned person debates with another scholar, both versed in the same subject, it would increase the depth of their knowledge, clear misapprehensions, if any, and lead them to  find certain minor details which hitherto might have escaped their attention . It was said: Vade Vade jayate tattvabodhah – Truth emerges out of debates – Besides, it would heighten their zeal to study further; and bring happiness to both.   

But, in cases where two scholars hold contrary views, the Vadin and Prati-vadin will each try very hard to establish the doctrine which he believes is true; and to convince the other to accept its veracity through fair and effective presentation and arguments. At the same time, each is willing to understand and appreciate the arguments of the other; and accept any merit they might find in it. In case, one is in doubt or unable to respond  satisfactorily , one can take a break to re-group his position or to re-examine the issue to see whether he can refute the opponent’s argument more effectively or put up a sounder defense.

And, if one is convinced that the doctrine and the argument presented by the opponent is valid, he adopts it with grace.   And, at the end, one of the two might be proven wrong; or both could be right.  In any case, they accept the outcome of the debate, whatever be it; and, part their ways without rancor. 


The Buddhist text Milinda Panha (The Questions of King Milinda) dated between second and first century BCE is said to be a record of the conversations that took place between the Indo-Greek king Menander I Soter  (who is said to have ruled over the regions of Kabul and Punjab) and the Buddhist monk Nagasena. 

[Menander (Milinda), originally a general of Demetrius, is probably the most successful Indo-Greek king, and the conqueror of a vast territory. The finds of his coins are the most numerous and the most widespread of all the Indo-Greek kings. From at least the 1st century AD, the “Menander Mons“, or “Mountains of Menander”, came to designate the mountain chain at the extreme east of the Indian subcontinent, today’s Naga Hills and Arakan, as indicated in the Ptolemy world map of the 1st century.  

Minander had expanded his kingdom into Gangetic plains, where Buddhism was flourishing. He is reputed to have been a secular King , who protected the beliefs of his Greek and Buddhist subjects.

Menander is remembered in Buddhist literature (the Milinda Panha) for his conversations with the Buddhist elder Monk Nagasena. According to Milinda –panha, the King Milinda carefully listens to Nagasena’s teachings; and, at the end of each discourse exclaims ‘Very good, Bhante* Nagasena’.

[*Bhante (Sanskrit: Bhavanta) is a respectful title used to address elder Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition. The term literally means “Venerable Sir’.]

Sagala , the city in which King Milinda met the Bhikku Nagasena is identified with Sialkot . The Jatakas  mention : There is , in the country of the Yonakas , a great center of trade , a city that is called Sagala, situated in a delightful country, abounding in parks , groves , lakes and tanks ; a paradise of rivers, woods and mountains.

Wise architects have laid out the Sâgala city; and its people know of no oppression, since all their enemies and adversaries have been put down. Brave is its defense, with many and various strong towers and ramparts, with superb gates and entrance archways; and with the royal citadel in its midst, white walled and deeply moated. Well laid out are its streets, squares, cross roads, and market places. Well displayed are the innumerable sorts of costly merchandise with which its shops are filled. It is richly adorned with hundreds of alms-halls of various kinds; and splendid with hundreds of thousands of magnificent mansions, which rise aloft like the mountain peaks of the Himalayas. Its streets are filled with elephants, horses, carriages, and foot-passengers, frequented by groups of handsome men and beautiful women, and crowded by men of all sorts and conditions, Brahmans, nobles, artificers, and servants. They resound with cries of welcome to the teachers of every creed, and the city is the resort of the leading men of each of the differing sects. So full is the city of money, and of gold and silver ware, of copper and stone ware, that it is a very mine of dazzling treasures. And there is laid up there much store of property and corn and things of value in warehouses-foods and drinks of every sort, syrups and sweetmeats of every kind. In wealth it rivals Uttara-kuru, and in glory it is as Âlakamandâ, the city of the gods. (The Questions of King Milinda, translated by T. W.Rhys Davids, 1890)

Source : Greeks and Buddhism: Historical Contacts in the Development of a Universal Religion by Demetrios Th. Vassiliades ]

Milinda panha

At the outset, Nagasena remarks that the debate they would be having would be one between two wise men; and it would not be a debate for the King.

Then, King Menander enquirers as to the distinction between the two. 

Monk Nagasena explains:   

When scholars debate, your Majesty, there is summing up and unraveling of a theory, convincing and conceding; there is also defeat, and yet the scholars do not get angry at all.   

When the Kings debate, your Majesty, they state their thesis, and if anyone differs from them, they order him punished, saying ‘Inflict punishment upon him’. 

Thus, in a good debate there could be defeat or censure or clincher (Nigraha-sthana) but no animosity.

[This debate is justly praised for the incisive questions asked by Menander; and, it is regarded by the Buddhists as equal in value to their canonical scriptures.

It is not certain whether Menander was  converted to Buddhism; but, he seemed to have taken a deep interest in it. Some of his coins show a wheel, similar to the Buddhist Chakra. Plutarch reports that after Menander’s death his ashes were distributed to all cities of his kingdom where monuments were then constructed to contain them—a kind of commemoration which was in tune with Buddhist practice.]

milinda nagasena

 [Dr. Sangeetha Menon, in her scholarly article, though she writes about Savāda, she is actually referring to Vada:

(Sa)vāda, is meant to lead to transforming experiences, in the process of which attempts are made jointly to (i) ascertain what is true knowledge, (ii) to understand new ideas, and,  (iii) to understand the nature of the inquirer herself/himself.

(Sa) vāda plays a central role in understanding Indian philosophy as well as Indian psychology. It has references not only to logical and epistemological methods but also to states of mind which are important in the discussion about the primal nature of self. Hence, the discussions on metaphysical and ontological issues are always interrelated to understanding ethical, axiological, aesthetic and spiritual issues. There is a constant attempt to reconcile and integrate different experiences, and the existence of contradictions so as to generate worldviews based on an understanding of life with answers for fundamental questions about self-identity, nature of world, creation, purpose of life, nature of knowledge, value systems etc.

Apart from the content of the dialogue, the process of dialogue plays an important role in contributing to the well-being of the partners involved. It gives total and one-time attention to how world views are formed, how mental and physical discipline are significant to conceive an idea, how way of living is connected with the self-identity of the inquirer.

Being and Wellbeing In Upanishadic Literature  by Dr. Sangeetha Menon ]



Nyaya Sutra in its First Book enumerates the steps or the categories (padartha) of the methods (Vadopaya) for structuring the argument and for presentation of the subject under debate, while the rest of the four Books expand on these steps. The Vada-marga (the stages in the course of a debate) is classified under sixteen steps: 

  • 1) Pramana (the means of knowledge);
  • 2) Prameya (the object of right knowledge);
  • 3)  Samsaya (creating doubt or misjudgment );
  • 4) Prayojana (purpose);
  • 5) Drshtanta  (familiar example);
  • 6) Sidhanta (established  tenet or principle);
  • 7) Avayava (an element of syllogism);
  • 8) Tarka ( reasoned argument);
  • 9) Niranaya (deduction or determination of the question); 
  • 10) Vada (discussion to defend or to arrive at the truth);
  • 11) Jalpa (wrangling or dispute to secure a win );
  • 12) Vitanda (quibble or mere attack);
  • 13) Hetvabhasa (fallacy, erratic  contrary , ill-timed challenges);
  • 14) Chala (misleading or willfully misinterpreting the words);
  • 15) Jati (futile objections founded on similarities or otherwise) ;and
  • 16) Nigrahaslhana (disagreement in principle or  no purpose in arguing further or the point nearing  defeat). 


These sixteen steps are meant to ascertain and establish ‘what is true’ (yathartha).The first four steps deal, mainly, with logic; while the latter seven perform the function of preventing and eliminating the errors. Among the first fou; Pramana with its four reliable means of obtaining knowledge is of cardinal importance [Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison) and Sabda (reliable verbal testimony)].

As said earlier, these sixteen categories are discussed in detail in four sections of the Nyaya Sutra.  The Nyāya Sūtra (verse 1.1.2) declares that its goal is to study and describe the attainment of liberation from wrong knowledge, faults and sorrow, through the application of above sixteen categories of perfecting knowledge.

duḥkha-janma-pravṛttidoṣa-mithyājñānānām uttarottarāpāye tadanantarā pāyāt apavargaḥ (1.1.2: )


Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) – (vāda-lakṣaṇam) states that Vaada, the good or honest debate, is constituted by the following characteristics:

 1. Establishment of the thesis and refutation of the counter thesis should be based upon adequate evidence or means of knowledge (pramana) as well as upon proper reasoning (tarka). Pramana, the valid knowledge, is defined as the cognition of the objects as they actually are, free from misapprehension (tatha bhuta rtha jnanam hi pramanam uchyate); and, anything other than that is invalid A-pramana or Bhrama – the cognition of objects as they are not (atha bhuta rtha jnanam hi apramanam). Pramana stands both for the valid -knowledge, and for the instrument or the means by which such valid knowledge is obtained.

2. The conclusion should not entail contradiction with analytical or ‘accepted doctrine’; 

3.  Each side should use the well-known five steps (syllogism) of the demonstration (Sthapana) explicitly.

4.  They should clearly recognize a thesis to be defended and a counter thesis to be refuted.

(pramāṇa-tarka-sādhanopālambhaḥ siddhāntāviruddhaḥ pañcāvayavopapannaḥ pakṣapratipakṣaparigrahaḥ vādaḥ 1.21 )


Nyaya Sutra (1.1.32- avayava-uddeśasūtram; and 1.1.39- nigamana-lakṣaṇam) lays down a five-part syllogism for proper presentation of the elements of the arguments (Vaada).  It states that any valid argument must include the following five factors, as they help to establish the object of right knowledge. These five steps also combine in themselves the four means of cognition: viz., Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison) and Sabda (reliable verbal testimony):

1. Pratijna – the proposition or the enunciation of the object – that needs to be proved in the light of the approved texts (Sabda)

2. Hetu – the reason or evidence through the vehicle of inference (Anumana); it furnishes a means to prove the proposition;

3. Udaharana – the citation of examples (well recognized, universally acceptable and independently verifiable) that illustrates (Pratyaksha) the  common principle underlying the subject in question and the example  . It provides the supporting reason or evidence;

4. Upanaya – the application (validity of the example cited- Upamana) evidencing that present thesis is essentially similar to example cited.


5. Niranaya – the conclusion eliminates all plausible contrary conclusions against the proposition; and re-states the proposition or the thesis as proved and established beyond doubt – derived by bringing together all the four means of right knowledge (proposition, reason, example and application)

 ( pratijñā-hetū-udāharaṇa-upanaya-nigaman āni avayavāḥ -1.1.32)

 ( hetvapadeśāt pratijñāyāḥ punarvacanam nigamanam- 1.1.39)

Pratijna is enunciation of the thesis that is sought to be proved – (e.g. Purusha is eternal).

Sthapana is establishing the thesis through a process employing reason (hetu), example (drstantha) , application of the example( upanaya)  and conclusion (nigamana) — (e.g. the statement – Purusha is eternal- has to be supported by valid reasoning (hetu)- because he is uncreated; by examples (drstantha) – just as the sky (Akasha ) is uncreated and it is eternal ;  by showing similarity between the subject of the example and the subject of the thesis (Upanaya) – just as Akasha is uncreated a , so the Purusha is uncreated and eternal : finally establishing the thesis (Nigamana) – therefore Purusha is eternal.

Prativada is refuting the proposition or thesis put forth by the proponent. Thus when the proposition of the thesis Sthapana is Purusha is eternal, the   Prati-stapana, the counter proposition, would be Purusha is non-eternal; because it is perceivable by senses and the jug which is perceivable by senses is non-eternal; Purusha is like the jug; therefore Purusha is non-eternal


At the commencement of the Vaada, the Judge or the arbiter (Madhyastha) lays down rules of the Vaada. The disputants are required to honor those norms and regulations. They are also required to adhere to permissible devices; and not to breach certain agreed limits (Vada maryada).

For instance; in the case of debates where the Vadin and Prati-vadin both belong to Vedic tradition it was not permissible to question the validity of the Vedas or the existence of  God and the Soul. And, any position taken during the course of Vaada should not contradict the Vedic injunctions.

In the case of the Vada where one belongs to Vedic tradition and the other to Non-Vedic traditions (say, Jaina or Bauddha) they had to abide by the rules and discipline specifically laid down by the Madyastha.

As mentioned earlier, according to Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) Vaada comprises defense and attack (Sadhana and Upalambha). One’s own thesis is defended by means of genuine criteria of knowledge (Pramana) and the antithesis (opponent’s theory) is refuted by negative dialectics of Tarka (logic). But, when defense or attack is employed excessively, merely for the sake of scoring a win, then there is the risk of the debate degenerating into Jalpa.

It is said; Vaada and Jalpa are contrasting counterparts. In Vaada, the thesis is established by Pramana-s; and the anti-thesis is disproved by Tarka or different set of Pramana-s. Whereas in Jalpa, the main function is negation; the Pramana-s do not have much use here.  Jalpa tries to win the argument by resorting to quibbling, such as Chala, Jati and Nigrahasthana. None of these can establish the thesis directly, because their function is negation. But, indirectly , they help to disprove anti-thesis. Thus, Jalpa in general is the dialectical aid for Vada (Nyaya Sutra: 4.2.50-51

[It is said; at times, the Madhyastha might allow or overlook ‘Jalpa-like’ tactics ‘for safeguarding the interests of truth, ‘just as a fence of thorny hedges is used to protect the farms’.]

It is at this stage in the Vaada that the Madyastha might  intervene  to ensure that the participants, especially the one who is at the verge of defeat (Nigraha-sthana) do not resort to tricks such as quibbling (Chala) , false rejoinder (Jati)  etc. 

The Madyastha may even call off the Vada; and award to the candidate who in his view performed better. 

The Vada could be also treated as inconclusive (savyabhicara) and  brought to an end if there is no possibility of reaching a fair decision; or the very subject to be discussed is disputed (Viruddha); or when arguments stray away from the subject that is slated for discussion (prakarana-atita) ; or when the debate prolongs beyond a reasonable (Kalatita).

In this context, it is said the debate could be treated as concluded and one side declared defeated: a) When a proponent misunderstands his own premises and their implications; b) when the opponent cannot understand the proponent’s argument; c) when either party is confused and becomes helpless; d) when either is guilty of faulty reasoning or pseudo-reasoning (hetva-bhasa); because, no one should be allowed to win using a pseudo-reason; or e) when one cannot reply within a reasonable time. 

When one party is silenced in the process, the thesis stays as proven.  Hence, in Vaada, there is no explicit ‘defeat’ as such. The sense of defeat (Nigraha-sthana) becomes apparent when there are contradictions in logical reasoning (hetvabhasa); and the debate falls silent.

And, at the end, one of the two might be proven wrong; or both could be right.  In any case, when one is convinced that the doctrine and the argument presented by the opponent are valid, he adopts it with grace. Ideally, whatever might be the outcome of a Vaada, it should be accepted; and, both – Vadin and Prati-vadin  should part their ways without rancor.

Shankara Mandana Misra 2

[The most celebrated Vaada is said to be the one that took place between the young monk Sri Sankara and the distinguished Mimamsa scholar, householder, Mandana Misra.  Considering the young age of the opponent, Mandana Misra generously offered Sri Sankara the option to select the Madyastha (Judge) for the ensuing debate. Sri Sankara, who had great respect for the righteousness of Mandana Misra, chose his wife Bharathi Devi, a wise and learned person.  

During the course of the lengthy debate when Mandana Misra seemed to be nearing Nigrahasthana (clincher) Bharathi Devi raised questions about marital obligations.  Sri Sankara being a monk had, of course, no knowledge in such matters. He requested for and obtained a ‘break’ to study and to understand the issue. It is said; he returned after some time equipped with the newly acquired knowledge, renewed the Vaada and won it. Thereafter, Mandana Misra and Bharathi Devi accepted Sri Sankara as their teacher, with grace and respect.] 


[Please click here for a writing about Vada-vidhi (method of argumentation), a treatise about the methods to mould flawless logic, ascribed to the celebrated Buddhist scholar Vasubandhu (4th to 5th century CE). Vāda-vidhi is the only work of Vasubandhu on logic which has survived. Vasubandhu contributed to Buddhist logic and is held to have been the origin of formal logic in the Indian tradition. His text paved the way for the later Buddhist scholars like Dignaga and Dharmakirti, in the field of logic.

Vasubandhu’s methods for distinguishing fallacious arguments from valid ones rely heavily on his theory of cognition.

He describes a number of logical fallacies, which he classifies into three types: reversed, incorrect or unreal, and contradictory. He then moves on from the trivial examples to complex ones. Vasubandhu’s formal system of argumentation is simple and practical, and especially well-suited for the quick back-and-forth of the verbal debates that were very much in vogue in Vasubandhu’s day. He had a reputation for being an experienced, ferocious debater, with a sharp mind.

His ideas on cognition are quite interesting. The underlying principle in Vasubandhu’s treatise on logic is an unstated premise seemed to be that the objects in the argument structure have no independent existence. Instead, they only come into existence provisionally, when cognized. He further breaks down our process of cognition into direct perception, such as perceptions of pleasure, pain, sound, or sight, and inferred perception, such as the perception of a mountain as fire-possessing when it is observed to be smoke-possessing.

According to him : Knowledge through inference can be specified as an observation coming when the means-of-evidence is directly observed, and the invariable concomitance between it and what can be inferred is remembered. One does not occur unless something else is directly known. Otherwise there is no inference.

Vasubandhu points out, we can never be absolutely certain about anything, because we can only make inferences based upon our perceptions, which can be misleading, and memory, which is unreliable. He goes on to give examples of problems with cognition, such as a false cognition-of-silver arising from looking at mother-of-pearl, and cognition of objects that do not exist, such as a luminous circle that is perceived when a torch is hurled in an arc.

This method makes the example and counter-example so vital to the argument. Any thesis can be disproved by showing that the proposed invariable concomitance is not, in fact, invariable.

 The last part of Vāda-vidhi is devoted to methods that can be used to distinguish logical fallacies from valid arguments.

For more , please read, ]



As per the classification made by Akshapada Gautama in his Nyaya Sutra (1.2.2- jalpa-lakṣaṇam), while Vaada is a ‘good’  or congenial debate (anuloma sambasha or Sandhya sambasha), Jalpa along with Vitanda is treated as ‘bad’ or hostile  argument (Vigrahya sambasha).

Jalpa is described as debate between two rivals who are desperate to win, by fair or foul means. It is characterized as clever or tricky disputation and a quarrelsome verbal fight that is often noisy.

Unlike Vaada which is an honest debate aiming to ascertain ‘what is true’, Jalpa is an argument where each strives to impose his thesis on the other. The question of ascertaining the ‘truth’ does not arise here. Each party to the Jalap is already convinced that his thesis is true and perfect; while that of the opponent is false and totally wrong. Each is not prepared to understand and appreciate the rival argument; but, is over anxious to ensure the opponent is ‘defeated’ and is made to accept his thesis. Even while it   becomes apparent  that one might be on the verge of defeat , he will not accept the position;  instead , he will  try to  devise a strategy or  will take a ‘break’  to gather  some material or to  concoct  a fallacious argument  to evade defeat and , if possible, to prove the other wrong.

Both the Vadin and the Prati-vadin work hard to establish their thesis through direct and indirect proofs. In Jalpa, the Pramana-s, the means of valid knowledge do not have much role to play. The arguments in Jalpa relay more on negation or negative tactics, such as: discrediting the rival argument, misleading the opponent or willfully misinterpreting rival’s explanations. The main thrust of the arguments in Jalpa is not so much as to establish the thesis directly, as to disprove or refute the rival’s thesis, through circumvention.

The reason why Jalpa is labeled as tricky is that apart from traditional means of proving one’s thesis and for refuting the opponent’s thesis, the debater can use elusive and distracting devices such as: quibbling or hair-splitting (Chala); inappropriate rejoinders (Jati), and any kind of ruse that tries to outwit and disqualify the opponent (nigrahasthana),    circumvention, false generalization and showing the unfitness of the opponent to argue; without, however, establishing his own thesis.

 (yathoktopapannaḥ chala-jāti-nigrahasthāna-sādhanopālambhaḥ jalpaḥ -1.2.2)

Nyaya Sutra gives a fairly detailed treatment to the negative tactics of Jalpa. Nyaya Sutra (1.2.11-14; 5.1.1- 39; and 5.2.1-25) enumerates three kinds of quibbling (Chala); twenty-four kinds of inappropriate rejoinders (Jati); and twenty-two kinds of clinchers or censure-situations (Nigrahasthana).

 (jāti-lakṣaṇam —  sādharmyavaidharmyābhyām pratyavasthānaṃ jātiḥ -1.2.18)

(nigrahasthāna-lakṣaṇamn – vipratipattiḥ apratipattiḥ ca nigrahasthānam-1.2.19)

 (nigrahasthānabahutva-sūtram — tadvikalpāt jātinigrahasthānabahutvam-1.2.20)

It is said; such measures or tricks to outwit the opponent are allowed in Jalpa arguments, since the aim of the debate is to score a victory. However, those maneuvers are like double-edged swords; they cut both ways. Over-indulgence with such tactics is, therefore, rather dangerous.    One runs the risk of being censured, decaled unfit and treated as defeated, if the opponent catches him at his own game.


Quibbling (Chala) is basically an attempt to misinterpret the meaning of an expression (Vak-chala); or, improperly generalize its meaning (samanya-chala); or by conflation of an ordinary use of a word with its metaphorical use (upacara-chala), with a view to derange the argument.

(chala-lakṣaṇam —  vacana-vighātaḥ artha-vikalpopapattyā chalam – 1.2.10)

(chala-bheda-uddeśa-sūtram – – tat trividham – vākchalam sāmānyacchalam upacāracchalam ca iti- 1.2.11)

For instance; when one says: the boy has a nava kambala (= new) blanket; the other would look horrified and exclaim:  why would a little boy need nava (=nine) blankets !

And, when one says: he is a hungry man (= purusha) , the other would generalize Man – Purusha as ‘ humans’ , and ask why are all the human beings hungry? and, all at the same time?

Similarly, term ‘mancha’ ordinarily means a cot; but, its metaphorical meaning could be platform or dais or the people sitting on it. The opponent would wonder ‘why on earth , would the couple choose to sleep on a public platform , while many persons are already seated on it ?’.

There are many other similar words, such as:  Mantapa which normally is understood as an open-hall; but, its etymological meaning could be ‘one who drinks scum of boiled rice (Ganji)’. And, the term Kushala is generally used to denote an expert or a highly skilled person (pravina); but, its etymology analysis would lead to one who is ‘good at cutting grass (kush). And, similarly, Ashva-gandha is literally ‘smell of the horse; but in common usage it refers to a medicinal herb.

A mischievous quibbler would deliberately twist the meaning of such words; take them out of the context; and, try to distract and confuse the his rival 

Improper rejoinder or futile rejoinder (Jati) is generally through falsifying the analogy given; and ridiculing it.

For instance; when one says: sound is impermanent because it is a product, such as a pot; the other would ignore the ‘impermanent’ property of the analogy (pot), but would pick up a totally un-related property of the analogy (say, the hollow space or emptiness in the pot) and say that a pot is filled with space (akasha) which is eternal, then how could you say that a pot is impermanent? And, further pot is not audible either.

Censures or the point at which the Jalpa could be force-closed (Nigrahasthana)  by pointing out that the opponent is arguing against his own thesis  ; or , that he is willfully abstracting the debate; or to his inappropriate ways. 


There are also some statements that defend the Jalpa-way of arguments.

One reason adduced for allowing in the debate the diverse interpretations of the terms is said to be the flexibility that the Sanskrit language has, where compound-words can be split in ways to suit one’s argument; where words carry multiple meanings; and, where varieties of contextual meanings can be read into with change in structure of phrases, sentences and context of topics.   

And, the other is that the ancient texts in Sutra format – terse, rigid and ambiguous – can be read and interpreted in any number of ways. Each interpretation can be supported by one or the other authoritative text. There is therefore, plenty of scope for legitimate disputation.

It is said; that Jalpa way of arguments is at times useful as a defensive measure to safeguard the real debate (Vada),just as the thorns and branches are used for the protection of the (tender) sprout of the seed’.

The other reason is that it would be in the interest of an aspiring debater to be familiar with divisive tactics; and, also the ways and means of deflecting them.

It is also said that Jalpa-tactics might come in handy to a novice or an inexperienced debater, as a ploy . If such a person, without adequate skills,   enters into a debate, he might not be able to come up with proper rejoinder at the right time to safeguard his thesis. In such a crisis, he may get away with such tricky debate. In any case, if the opponent is not quick witted, the (novice) debater may gain some time to think of the proper reason. Thus, he may even win the debate and the sprout of his knowledge would be protected.

However, this justification was not altogether acceptable.


The next question would be why would a debater resort to such tactics as quibbling and dishonest rejoinder?  Or why would anyone waste his time and effort in learning those tactics?

Bimal Krishna Matilal in his The Character of Logic in India explains:

‘ Uddyotakara, in the beginning of his commentary on chapter five of the Nyaya Sutra explains that it is always useful to learn about these bad tricks, for at least one should try to avoid them in one’s own debate and identify them in the opponent’s presentation in order to defeat him. Besides, when faced with sure defeat, one may use a trick, and if the opponent by chance is confused by the trick, the debater will at least have the satisfaction of creating a doubt instead of courting sure defeat.

This last point was, however, a very weak defense; and not convincing at all , as the Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti (c. 600-660) elaborately pointed out in his book on debate, Vada-nyaya.’


The crucial difference between Vada and Jalpa  appears to be that in the case of Vada the ‘truth’ is established by positive evidence; and, the invalid knowledge (A-pramana) masquerading as a good reason (that is, a hetvabhasa) is detected and eliminated. No one is really defeated and the truth is established.

In the case of Jalpa, it mainly depends on negation (which is non-committal) and on effective refutation of the proponent’s argument. There is no earnest effort to build positive irrefutable proof. And, the fear of defeat overhangs the whole proceedings.

 The scholarly opinion is that the rejection or refutation of a position may not always amount to the assertion of a counter-position. And, determination and establishment of truth depends upon positive evidence; and not merely on refutation.




In Akshapada’s Nyaya-Sutra (1.2.3), Vitanda is classified as a ’bad’ or hostile argument (Vigrahya sambasha) or wrangling, which does not allow the opponent to establish his  argument . In terms of merit; it is the worst; it is rated inferior to Jalpa, which also employs such trickery as quibbling and illegitimate rejoinder. While Jalpa tries to argue for the success of its thesis by whatever means, Vitanda does not seriously attempt to put up any counter-thesis. That is because, its debater has no thesis of his own to put forward.

In other words, the debater here tries to ensure his victory simply by refuting or demolishing the thesis put forward by the other side, by browbeating or misleading or ridiculing the opponent. The whole purpose of its exercise seems to be to prove the opponent wrong and incompetent; and to confuse and humiliate him.  Vitanda is therefore termed as a destructive debate.

(vitaṇḍā-lakṣaṇam — saḥ pratipakṣa-sthāpanā-hīnaḥ vitaṇḍā- 1.2.3 )

Vitanda is a ruthless debate, the major part of which is spent in denying the opponent’s views, in discrediting him or in quarrelling. Vaitandika, the one who adopts Vitanda style of argument, might at times pick up the opponent’s thesis (though he himself might not believe in it) and argue in its favor just to demonstrate that the opponent is not doing a ‘good job’; and rebuke him saying that his thesis might not be after all so bad, but he made it look worse by making a terrible mess of it.

Vaitandika makes it a point to disagree with the other, no matter what the other says. It is a way of saying: you are wrong, not because your statement by itself is wrong; but, it is wrong because you said it. He tries to effectively undermine the credibility of the opponent; and demonstrate to him that he is neither competent nor qualified to discuss the subtleties of the logic. Then he would shout:” go back and study for one more year at the feet of your teacher; you have done enough for today”.

What the Vaitandika says might be irrational or illogical; but, he tries to effectively silence the opponent. In such type of debates either ‘valid knowledge’ or ‘truth’ has no place.

[ please also read about : How to Win Arguments with Stupid, Stubborn People]


Nilakanta Dikshita (16th-17th century), minister, poet and theologian of Nayaka-period, known for his incisive satirical wit , in his work, the Kala-vidambana (A Travesty of Time), avers:

If you want to triumph, do not be afraid; do not pay attention; do not listen to the opponent’s arguments— just immediately contradict him.  Unflappability; shamelessness; contempt for the adversary; derision, and, praise of the king – these are the five grounds of victory … If the opponent  is not learned, you win by shouting at him. If he is a taught one, then you have only to insinuate bias, such as: greed for money; thirst for fame; anxiety to be in the good-books of the King; or advance oneself in the society. You have to unsettle and insult the opponent. Such is the correct and effective syllogistic procedure.


In a Vitanda, where both the parties employ similar tactics, the debate would invariably get noisy and ugly. The Madhyastha or the Judge plays a crucial role in regulating a Vitanda. He has the hard and unenviable task of not merely controlling the two warring debaters and their noisy supporters, but also to rule on what is ‘Sadhu’ (permissible) or ‘A-sadhu’ (not permissible) and what is true (Sat) what is just a bluff (A-sat). And, when one debater repeatedly oversteps and breaches the accepted code of conduct, the Madyastha might have to disqualify him and award the debate to the other; or, he may even disqualify both the parties and scrap the event declaring it  null and void.


Vatsayana, the commentator of the Nyaya Sutra finds the Vitanda debate irrational and rather pointless. He observes that it is unfair that a debater is simply allowed to get away with irresponsible statements, particularly when he is neither putting forward a thesis nor is defending one. In fact, most of the times, he has no position of his own, but attacks rabidly whatever the other debater utters. This is a travesty and abuse of the platform.

According to Vatsayana, the format of Vitanda is totally wrong. Vatsayana insists, whatever might be the tactics adopted by Vaitandika, he must be forced to specify his stand. And, when the opponent states his thesis, the Vaitandika must be asked either to accept it or oppose it.  If he concedes, the debate is virtually over. And, if he argues against the thesis, he must argue logically, in which case he gives up his status of Vaitandika (refuter). And, if he does not choose either of the options then, his rationale should be questioned; or, the debate be brought to an end, if need be, by disqualifying him.

Vatsayana’s observations and recommendations are sound and healthy. But, sadly, they were hardly acted upon.


Sources and References:

A History of Indian Logic: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Schools

By Mahamahopadyaya Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana

The Character of Logic in India Edited  by Bimal Krishna Matilal, Jonardon Ganeri, Heeraman Tiwari

The Nyâya Sûtras of Gotama by Nandalal Sinha

Hindu Philosophy  by Theos Bernard

Categories of Cognition and Proof – Shodhganga

A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 By Surendranath Dasgupta

The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought  by  David B. Zilberman

History of Indian philosophy: The philosophy of the Veda and of …, Volume 1 By Erich Frauwallner


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

Discussions, Debates and Arguments: Ancient India- Part One

Discussions, Debates    and Arguments:  Samvada – Vaada – Jalpa and Vitanda

 Part One

In the Indian traditions, including the Buddhist and Jain traditions, four formats of discussions, debates and arguments are described. These are named as:  Samvada, Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda.

The merit and esteem of each of these types of discussions is graded in terms of the honesty of their purpose, the quality of debate, the decorum and the mutual regard of the participants.

Of these four forms of discussions, Samvada is regarded the noblest type of dialogue that takes place, in all earnestness, between an ardent seeker of truth and an enlightened teacher. Most of the ancient Indian texts are in this format.

While Samvada is a discourse or imparting of teaching, the other three – Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda – are clever and structured (Tantrayukthi) debates and arguments between rivals.  

Let’s talk of  Nyaya (well-organized logical ways of ascertaining the true nature of the objects and subjects of human knowledge) and Samvada on one part; and, the debates/arguments on the other. 


Nyaya Sutra

As is well known, there was a long and a time-honored tradition in ancient India where philosophers and thinkers met to discuss metaphysical issues over which there were multiple views. There are detailed narrations of such discussions, debates and dialogues recorded in Chandogya-Upanishad, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Prashna-Upanishad.

The other early texts such as Aitareya Brahmana , Kathopanishad  and others  use terms  like : tarka (reasoning); Vada (debate); Yukti (sustained arguments), Prameya (object of knowledge); Pramana (proof); Nirnaya (ascertainment)  etc. which later became the principal terminologies of the Nyaya School. It is also said that the idioms of inquiry (Anveshiki) dealing with the theory of reasons (Hetu-vidya or Hetu-shastra) were mentioned in Manu-samhita and Panini’s Astadhyayi.

Although the intellectual debates were quite common during the Upanishad-times, and even later, there was perhaps no well laid out theory or an approved structure for conduct of various types of debates.   It is said; it was during the Sramana and the Buddhist period that debates became really very serious.

As Bimal Krishna Matilal observes (in The Character of Logic in India):

.. The intellectual climate in India was bristling with controversy and criticism. At the center of controversy were certain dominant religious and ethical issues. Nothing was too sacred for criticism. Such questions as: “Is there a soul different from body?”; “Is the world (loka) eternal?”; ”What is the meaning, goal, or purpose of life?”; and, “Is renunciation preferable to enjoyment?” etc. were of major concern. 

While teachers and thinkers argued about such matters, there arose a gradual awareness of the characteristics or patterns of correct, acceptable and sound reasoning. There were    also concerns to evolve the norms to distinguish sound reasoning from pseudo-reasoning (hetvabhasa) which is unacceptable. 

According to Dr. Benimadhab Barua, even among the Sramanas, the wandering monks, there were famed debaters who were “clever, subtle, and experienced in projecting controversies; hair-splitters who ruthlessly splintered into pieces the arguments of their adversaries”.

The debates tended to get more passionate, animated and even noisy.  Gradually, the notions of ‘good’ and acceptable debates took shape as distinct from wrong and ugly arguments. That gave rise to the development of a branch of study dealing with theories of reasoning and logic (Hetu-vidya or Hetu shastra). It was perhaps around the fifth century BCE that manuals came to be written for conduct of proper and successful debates (Tarka vidya or Vada vidya).

Such manuals included instructions and learning methods for the guidance of aspiring debaters. The earliest known text of that genre was Tantra-yukti (structured argument) compiled perhaps in the sixth-fifth century BCE to systematize debates conducted in learned councils (Parishad). 

Debates and arguments then came to be recognized both as art of logical reasoning (Tarka-vidya) and science of causes (Hetu-shastra) following the path of a well-disciplined method of inquiry (ânvikŝiki) testing scriptural knowledge by further scrutiny. 

The monks and priests belonging to various Schools and sects were imparted training in Tarka–vidya: the art and skills of conducting impressive successful debates and disputations (Sambasha or Vada vidhi) in learned assemblies (parishad).

Apart from  methods of presenting arguments as per a logically structured format, the training modules included ways to stoutly defend ones thesis  by means of genuine criteria of knowledge (Pramana) and to attack the opponent’s thesis by means of indirect arguments (Tarka); estimating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments of either side; establishing one’s own points while setting aside those of the opponent.

They were also trained for handling different types of challenges, such as: how to vanquish a person of blazing fame; how to behave with a senior opponent; how to handle an aggressive and troublesome opponent; and,  how to conduct oneself in prestigious Parishads, to influence the flow of debate and to impress the judges and the onlookers  etc.

These types of debates and arguments broadly came under the purview of Nyaya or Nyaya Shastra.

[The Charaka Samhita , a principal Ayurveda Text (dated around the second century), in its  third part, called Vimanasthana, along with other topics like training of a physician, ethics of medical practice, pathology, diet and nourishment, taste of medicines, etc.,  also  contains a discussion on the principles of debate

The related doctrines are treated in Caraka-samhita under three heads, namely:

    • 1) Karyabhinirvrtti, the aggregate of resources for the accomplishment of an action
    • (2) Pariksa, the standard of examination, and
    • (3) Sambhasha-vidhi, or vada-vidhi, the method of debate.

 This is followed by detailed discussions on these three topics. For example, there is a discussion on the various resources that are to be examined to accomplish an action.

These resources include Karana (the actor, or agent who accomplishes an action), Karya (the action), Karya-phala (the effect), Desha (the place of the action), Kala (the time of the action), Pravrtti (the activity or exertion put forth for achieving the action), etc. The second head, Pariksa, deals with the standard of examination.

These standards are: aptopadesa (reliable assertion); Pratyaksa (perception); anumana (inference); yukti (reasoning). The discussion under the third head is much more elaborate.[

The examination of vada-vidhi begins by dividing debates into two classes, namely, anuloma sambhasha (peaceful debate) and vigrihya sambhasha (hostile debate).

The respondents are then classified as superior, equal and inferior. Also, the assembly witnessing the debate is classified as learned and ignorant. Each of these is then further classified as friendly, indifferent or hostile. There are suggestions as to how to handle the debate depending on the nature of the respondents and of the assembly. The treatise then goes on to give a list of 44 items a thorough knowledge of which is essential for the successful conduct of a debate.]


Nyaya, as a system,  is one among the six Darshanas (systems of Indian philosophy). It deals with well-organized logical ways of ascertaining the true nature of the objects and subjects of human knowledge (Pramana-Sastra).  Nyaya is also called Tarka-vidya (logic) and Vada-vidya or Vada’rtha (reasoned argument); and, is included among the fourteen principal branches of learning. 

Nyaya is founded on the belief that knowledge is not self-revealing; man must make effort to gain correct knowledge ; and, to abandon incorrect knowledge, through a systematic process. It asserts that the analytical way of Nyaya is the greatest protection to a young person whose intellect is still in the process of growth and is yet to attain equanimity. And, it is only by thorough examination of the modes and sources of correct knowledge that a thinking person can gain a clearer perspective of life. It asks each one to think for himself; and, not to tacitly accept beliefs handed down by the older generation. And, therefore, it instructs, the teachings that have come down to us through traditions must be critically examined before accepting them.

Vatsayana in his Nyāya Bhāya , Commentary on Nyaya Sutra (1.1.1) , asserts that the analytical investigation and examination (Anveshiki) of issues which bring clarity into the intellectual aspects of man’s life help him to attain freedom (moksha) from delusions and confusions in life. Nyaya which enables us to discern the true from the false is therefore regarded as Moksha-Sadhana the way to absolute freedom or liberation.

nirdeśe yathāvacanaṃ vigrahaḥ|
cārthe dvandvaḥ samāsaḥ|
pramāṇādīnāṃ tatvamiti śaiṣikī ṣaṣṭhī|
tatvasya jñānaṃ niḥśreyasasyādhigama iti ca karmaṇi ṣaṣṭhyau|
ta etāvanto vidyamānārthāḥ|
so ‘yamanavayavena tantrārtha uddiṣṭo veditavyaḥ/ NyS_1,1.1 /


Nyaya, in particular, also denotes a method or a scheme of logic employed to prove or to disprove a proposition through proper evidence (pramana). The employment of a Nyaya would become necessary when the subject discussed was either vague or was disputed; and when the other methods of reasoning were ineffective.

The Nyaya School was essentially logistic in its orientation. It tried to examine the sources and contents of valid knowledge. It built a logical link between the subject, the knower (pramata); the means or method of obtaining knowledge (pramana) ; and the object , the knowable (prameya) . In addition, it put forth analogy (Upama) as the fourth method.

Analogy (Upama), it is said, comprehensively includes in itself the other three methods. However, the main purpose of Upama is to illustrate. This  models attempts to represent something that which cannot be perceived. However, this Nyaya is like the finger; and, it is not the moon. Therefore , Analogy, the Upama has its own limitations; it could be brittle at times; and , if pressed too hard it might even crumble .

In its working method; Upama employs something that is already familiar , in order to explain certain concepts that are at once abstract and real. But, an analogy cannot be perfect; as there cannot be complete identity between the  subject and the object.  Therefore, there  cannot be a perfect analogy; and, mere  argument is not evidence.

Which is to say; while the analogy or illustration is important, the more important than that is the validity of the argument, its  precision and its import. Therefore, there is always an element of inadequacy in the Upama . One has to strive to extract from the model what is called “a positive analogy”; or Samanya-guna a relevant factor that is common to both the subject and the object . The notion of transformation (Vivarta) is thus what one could call a logical construction.

Nonetheless, the value of these Nyayas consists in that they facilitate a passage from the observable to the actual ; and,  from the factual to the theoretical .

[ Prof. Surendranath Dasgupta explains in A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 (p.406):

Pramana in Sanskrit signifies the means and movement by which valid knowledge is acquired Pramata means the subject or the knower who cognizes, Prama – the result of pramana i.e., right knowledge, knowledge of reality or valid cognition, prameya – the object of knowledge and pramanya – the validity of knowledge acquired. 

The verbal root ma of these terms derived with the prefix pra, means also to measure (apart from meaning to cognize) . Thus, what is to be measured is the prameya; and, that by which to measure is pramana.]

[In Sanskrit, the term Jnana stands for all kinds of knowledge – whether be it of truth or of falsehood. The term Prama, however, is used to designate only a true cognition (yatartha-jnana) as distinct from a false one (mithya-jnana). A Pramana is an active and a unique cause of Prama or knowledge. Pramā means ‘knowing an object as it is’: tadvati tat prakārā-anubhavaḥ  pramā.  The term  pramāṇis also  understood as the actual experience is pramā. 

pramāyāḥ karaṇam, pramāṇam. Alternatively, yathārthā-anubhavah pramā –

To see a rope as rope is pramā. If we see a snake instead of the rope, it is apramā-ayathārtha-anubhavaḥ apramā.

The Samkhya and Yoga Schools of Indian philosophy accept three means of cognition, Pramanas: 

Pratyaksha : direct perception generated through sense organs – indriyārtha – sannikarṣajanya . That is,   when there is a contact between the senses and the object – jñānamakam pratyakṣam. Gautama defines Pratyakṣa as meaning – ‘knowledge born of sensory perception, such as eyes is pratyakṣa

– akṣam akṣam pratityutpadyate iti pratyakṣam 

And. Pratyaksha is regarded as the basic (Mula) Pramana; because, the other pramānas such as Anumāna, Arthāpatti, Upamāna and śabda are dependent on it.

Anumana (inference) literally means knowledge gained  afterwards ; i.e. knowledge that ‘follows other knowledge’ –  jñāna-kāraka-jñānam.). In Anumāna, first the liṅga (minor primise) is seen, then by liṅga or hetu, the sādhya-sambandha-jñāna  or vyāpti-jñāna (invariable concomitant) takes place. This Sādhya (major primise) is known as anumiti. Thus, since this knowledge takes place after liṅga-darśana, this is known as Anumāna

And Sabda is verbal testimony , through scriptures. Bhartrhari asserts, the traditional knowledge (Agamawhich consists of the revealed (Sruti) or remembered (Smrti) scriptures cannot be set aside by inference, since they are more dependable than inference.


The Mimamsa School accepts six types of Pramanas: Pratyaksha, Anumana, Sabda, Upamana (analogy), Arthapatti (presumption) and Abhava (non-apprehension). 

The same set of six Pramanas is also stated by Vedanta. There are, of course, variations among these Schools regarding the specific understang of each of the Pramans.


Within Vyakarana, Bhartrhari in his Maha-bhashya-tika accepts three Pramanas: Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference) and Agama or Sabda (scriptures). He argues that perception, at times, could be erroneous because of weakness or improper functioning of sensory organs. Some even think, he says, that inference is superior to perception. But he asserts that Agama or Sabda which consists of the revealed (Sruti) or remembered (Smrti) scriptures is a strong Pramana; and, it is more dependable than inference.

According to Bhartrhari, it is not justifiable to replace scriptures (Sabda) with inference particularly in non-empirical matters. He also says that philosophical views (Vada) cannot be independent of the scriptures. He argues that inference alone, without the steadying influence of the scriptures is an inadequate means of valid knowledge. In his Vakyapadiya (1.34), it is said: ‘whatever is inferred with great effort through clever reasoning can easily be put aside  by a much more clever reasoning or argument’.

yatnenānumito+apy arthaḥ kuśalair anumātṛbhiḥ / abhiyuktatarair anyair anyathaivopapādyate -VP.1.34

The words of the Rishis convey super-sensory knowledge that cannot be set aside by inference. Thus, Bhartrhari asserts that Dharma or right conduct cannot be determined by reasoning alone, without the guidance of the scriptural traditions. Even the knowledge which the sages possess has the scriptures for its reference (Vakyapadiya: 1.30). Thus, tor true knowledge, the support of the scriptures (Sabda) is essential.

na jāgamād ṛte dharmas tarkeṇa vyavatiṣṭhate /  ṛṣīṇām api yaj jñānaṃ tad apy āgamapūrvakam – VP.1.30

In this context, Bharthari says that the role of Vyakarana (Grammar) is very important,  as it helps  to safeguard the correct  transmission of the scriptural knowledge , and to assist the aspirant in realizing the the truth of the  revealed knowledge of  Sabda.]


The Sutra text attached to Nyaya School is the Nyaya Sutra ascribed to Akapāda Gautama (variously estimated between 6th-century BCE and 2nd-century CE). Nyaya Sutra treats mainly five subjects: Pramana (instruments or means of right knowledge); Prameya (the object of right knowledge); Vaada (debate or discussion); Avayava (the elements or steps of syllogism); and, Anya-matha-pariksha (review or examination of the doctrines of other Schools).

[Please click here for The Nyaya Sutras of Gotama; Translated by Mahamahopadhyaya Satish Chandra Vidyabhushan; Published by The Panini Office, Bhuvaneshvari Ashram, Bahadurganj, Allahabad – 1913 ]


While discussing Vaada, Nyaya Sutra talks about sixteen padarthas  (topics or categories ) involved in the development of the debate (Vada marga);  the four reliable means of obtaining valid knowledge (pramāa) viz.:

    • Pratyaksha (perception),
    • Anumana (inference),
    • Upamana (comparison) and
    • Sabda (reliable testimony);

the five-part syllogism (Nyaya):

    • the structure (vada vidhi);
    • the ways of developing sound evidence (pramana);
    • the logical reasoning (tarka) to support ones thesis which needs to be proved (Pratijna) and its object (nirnaya);
    • the disciplined (anusasana) mode of presentation (vadopaya); and
    • the exceptions (prthaka-prasthana), as also the limits or the ‘dos and don’ts’ (vada-maryada) of three formats of such debates.

(vāda-lakṣaṇam : pramāṇa-tarka-sādhanopālambhaḥ siddhāntā-viruddhaḥ pañcā-vayavopapannaḥ pakṣa-pratipakṣa-parigrahaḥ vādaḥNyS_1,2.1)

Gautama’s text was followed by commentaries; the first of which being Nyāya Bhāya by Vātsyāyana (c. 450–500 CE). The commentary by Vatsayana was followed the ones by the Nyāya-vārttika of Uddyotakāra (c. 6th–7th century); Tātparya-tīkā by Vācaspati Miśra (9th century); Tātparya-pariśuddhi by Udayana (10th century); Nyāya-mañjarī by Jayanta (10th century); Nyaya-sara by Bhasarvajna (10th century); and Tatva-chintamani by Gangesa (12th  century). These commentaries further developed the Nyaya Sutra expanding upon Gautama’s work.

As per these texts, the debates and arguments are grouped under a broad head titled ‘Katha’. In Sanskrit, the term ‘Katha’, in general, translates as ‘to inform’, ‘to narrate’, ‘to address or to refer to somebody’. In the context of Nyaya Shatra, which provides the knowledge (Vako-Vakya or Vada-vidya) about the methods for presenting arguments as also the rules governing the debates, the term ‘Katha’ implies formal conversation (Sambasha) as in a debate. The conversation here is not in the casual manner as in day-to-day life. But, it is articulate, precise and well thought out utterances.

The Katha is described as ‘polemical conversation’, meaning that it is passionate and strongly worded , but a well balanced  argument against or in favor of somebody or something. That is why; the discussions (Vaada) are never simple. A Katha, in essence, is a reasoned and a well-structured philosophical discussion.

Vatsayana at the beginning of his commentary on Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) mentions that Katha is classified into two kinds of debates (Dvi-vidha sambasha):  Vaada (the good-Sandhya sambasha) on one hand; and Jalpa and Vitanda (the bad- Vigrahya sambasha) on the other.

Uddyotakara in his Nyāya Vārttika further explains that this threefold classification is according to the nature of the debate and  the status of the persons taking part in the debate.

(padārtha-uddeśa-sūtram:pramāṇa-prameya-saṃśaya-prayojana-dṛṣṭānta-siddhāntāvayava-tarka-nirṇaya-vāda-jalpa-vitaṇḍāhetvābhāsa-cchala-jāti-nigrahasthānānāmtattvajñānāt niḥśreyasādhigamaḥ- NyS_1,1.1 )

The first variety ,  Vaada is an honest , peaceful  and congenial (sandhaya) debate that takes place between two persons of equal merit or standing, trying to explore the various dimensions of a subject with a view to ascertain and establish ‘what is true’.  The Vaada, at its best, is a candid friendly discussion (anuloma sambasha or sandhya sambasha) or debate in the spirit of: ’let’s sit-down and talk’.

The other two are hostile arguments (vigrhya sambasha) between rivals who desperately want to win. Thus, by implication, while the goal of a Vaada is establishment of truth or an accepted doctrine; and that of the other two hostile debates (Jalpa and Vitanda) is seeking victory.

Of the two types of hostile debates, Jalpa is described (in Nyaya Sutra 1.2.2) as a disputation or wrangling or a ’tricky’ debate between two rivals , where each is thoroughly convinced that he is absolutely right and the other (termed as the opponent – Prativadin) is hopelessly wrong. The first party to the debate is dogmatically committed to his own thesis, while the other party takes a rigid contrary position (Prati-paksha) on a given subject; and, sometimes at the cost of truth. Each is prepared to employ various deceptive or sophistic devices, such as quibbling (Chala); unreasonable (A-hetu) responses; shifting the reason or the topics (Hetvantara or Arthantara); irrelevant rejoinders provoking the opponent to lose focus , to get perturbed and yet continue with the dispute (Jati) somehow; and , such other devices to outwit the opponent.

(jalpa-lakṣaṇam :  yathoktopapannaḥ chalajātinigrahasthānasādhanopālambhaḥ jalpaḥ-NyS_1,2.2)

Unlike in Vaada, the purpose of Jalpa is not so much as to ascertain the truth, as to establish one’s own position or thesis, and to prove the opponent wrong; and, make him accept defeat. What is at stake here is the ‘prestige and honor’ of one’s School (Matha). And, therefore, each will try to win the debate by fair or foul means.   And, when one senses that he might be losing the argument (nigrahasthāna), he will try to invent every sort of face-saving device or ruse to wriggle out of a bad situation that is quickly turning worse , like being trapped on quicksand sinking down each moment . Jalpa, predictably, could therefore be noisy , unpleasant and even be desperate.

And, Vitanda is the worst type of argument or squabbling descending to the level of quarrel and trickery. It is  described as a destructive type of argument; the sole aim of each party being not only to inflict defeat on the opponent but also to demolish and humiliate him .

The Vaitandika , the debater who employs Vitanda, is basically a refuter; he relentlessly goes on refuting whatever  the proponent says. He has no thesis of his  own – either to put forward or to defend.  Sometimes he might pick up a thesis  just for argument’s sake, even though he may have no faith in the truth of his own argument. The aggressive Vaitandika goes on picking holes in the rival’s arguments  and destabilizes his position , without any attempt to offer an alternate thesis.

Both the participants in a Vitanda are prepared to resort to mean tactics in order to mislead, browbeat the opponent by fallacies (hetv-abhasa); by attacking the opponents statement by willful misrepresentation (Chala) ; ill-timed rejoinders (Atita-kala) and, make the opponent ‘bite the dust’. It is virtually akin to a ‘no-holds-barred’ sort of street fight. The ethereal values such as: truth, honesty, mutual respect and such others are conspicuously absent here.

(vitaṇḍā-lakṣaṇam : saḥ pratipakṣa-sthāpanā-hīnaḥ vitaṇḍā –NyS_1,2.3)

It is said; in the case of Jalpa the contending parties have a position of their own, fight hard to defend it, and aim to make the rival accept it, by whatever means.  However, in the Vitanda, the disputant has neither a position of his own nor is he trying to defend any specific thesis.  He is merely trying to derange and humiliate the other party to the debate. Vatsayana in his Nyaya-sutra Bhashya calls one who resorts to Vitanda (Vaitandika) as self-destructive.

Even in the case of Jalpa and Vitanda, the disputants had to agree, beforehand, to certain rules, norms and devices, so that the defeat could be forced by the judge (Madyastha) on one or the other party.

A debate with the mere aim of win or humiliation of the other is looked down. Therefore, Jalpa and Vitanda are deemed contrary to the overall aim of the Nyaya Shastra which is oriented towards determination of the true nature of objects.

[The skills in waging debates and arguments (Vada-vidya) of the Jalpa and Vitanda might have been relevant during the medieval times when the inter–religious or intra-religious debates (Shastrartha) were held among the rival traditions (Sampradaya) or sects, each trying hard to prove the superiority of its Matha (thesis or sect) over the others. In the present context, such beliefs and arguments have become obsolete in India, though their techniques are very well preserved and practiced in Tibetan Buddhist debates.

Having said that , Prof. A L Basham remarks : ” Modern logicians might make short work of these rather pedantic systems of ontological and epistemological relativity, but they have a fundamental quality of breadth and realism, implying a full realization that the world is more complex and subtle than we think it, and that what is true of a thing in one of its aspects may at the same time be false in another.”

Further . the syllogism, logical structure and methods of presenting reasoned arguments as described in the ancient texts  are still of great interest. Its methodology based on a system of logic is the same for us today in our lecture halls and programming desks as it was for the medieval scholars.]

vada samvada

 Let’s look at each of these types of discussions and arguments in a little more detail. 

lotus design



Samvada is a dialogue that takes between the teacher and the taught in all earnestness.  The one who approaches the teacher could be a disciple; student; friend (as in Krishna-Arjuna or Krishna-Uddhava) ; son (as in Shiva-Skanda or Uddalaka-Swetaketu); or spouse (as in Shiva-Prvathi or Yajnavalkya-Maitreyi);  or parent (as Sage Kapila teaching his mother);  or anyone else seeking knowledge (as in Nachiketa -Yama or the six persons who approach Sage Pippalada in Prashna Upanishad).

What characterizes the Samvada in such cases is the sincerity and eagerness of the learner; the humility in his/her approach; and the absolute trust in the teacher.  The wise teacher , in turn , with full of grace , imparts instructions out of enormous love for the ardent seeker of truth.

kapila teaching his motherUhdava  Krishna.JPGUddalaka Swetaketu -samvadaSatyakama

(siddhānta-sūtra : jñāna-grahaṇā-abhyāsas tad-vidyaiśca saha saṃvādaḥ- 4.2.47vidhya-artha-vādā-anuvāda-vacanaviniyogāt;vidhiḥ-vidhāyakaḥ;stutiḥ-nindā-parakṛtiḥ-purākalpaḥ itiarthavādaḥ; na-anuvādapunaruktayoḥ-viśeṣaḥ,-śabdābhyāsopapatteḥ ; śīghra-tara-gamanopa-deśavat abhyāsāt na aviśeṣaḥ; mantrā-yurveda-prāmāṇyavat ca tatprāmāṇyam, āpta-prāmāṇyāt (2.1.63-69)

shiva skanda

Another remarkable text of this genre is The Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra (a component of Rudrayamala Tantra), a principal text of the Trika school of Pratyabhijna (KashmiraShaiva Siddantha). It is composed as a discourse (Samvada) between the Lord Bhairava and his consort Bhairavi.  Here, Bhairava imparts instructions to the Devi; teaching her as many as 112 Tantric meditation methods or centering techniques (Dharana or types of Yoga). The Vijñāna Bhairava utilizes all the traditional techniques of Yoga (such as Mudra, Pranaskthi, mantra-japa, awakening of Kundalini, bhakthi, jnana etc.). These include several variants of breathawareness, concentration on various centers in the body, non-dualawareness, mantrachanting, imagination and visualization and contemplation through each of the senses. These techniques are said to help / guide the aspirant along the path to realize her/his identity with the highest reality – recognized here as Bhairava, the Absolute.

The Devi listens to the Lord with rapt attention : Shrutam deva maya sarvam rudrayamala  sambhavam.


Similarly, the Svacchanda-bhairava-tantra, belonging to the Śāktāgama (or Śākta-tantra) division of the Āgama tradition, is rendered as a Devī-Deva-saṃvāda, where Lord Bhairava is drawn forward to teach the Goddess Bhairavi. The Devi implores ,  O Parameśvara, you taught the  Svacchanda Tantra  a profound Tantra  (mahā-tantraṃ) having  four parts (catuṣpīṭhaṃ ) and leading to the four types of attainments (catuṣṭaya-phalodayam)

mudita Bhairava dṛṣṭvā Devī vacanam abravīt || yat tvayā kathitaṃ mahyaṃ svacchandaṃ Parameśvara || śata-koṭi-pravistīrṇaṃ bhedā-anantyavisarpitam | catuṣpīṭhaṃ mahā-tantraṃ catuṣṭaya-phalodayam ||

Then the Devi requests : Teach me, O Maheśvara, how this Tantra will be successful now that the Kali Age is upon us (kalim āsādya siddhyanti tathā brūhi maheśvara). |

The Lord responds : That was really good, O blessed Goddess. Now I will teach what you have requested in order to bestow grace upon mortal beings.

sādhu sādhu Mahābhāge yat tvayā parichoditam || anugrahāya martyānāṃ sāmprataṃ kathayāmi te

Svacchanda Bhairava

Another well known text , in the form of a Samvada, is the  Siddha Kunjika Stotra , a Tanric stotra, which occurs in the Gauri Tantra (section) of Rudra-yamala Tantra. Here, Lord Shiva, the Adi Guru, imparts instructions to his consort Parvathi; and, extols the virtues of the Kunjika Stotra.

It is said; the  Kunjika is the Key ,which  unlocks the powers of the Chandi Paatha. And, its prefix ‘Siddha’ implies that the stotra leads to the attainment of the  ideal state. 

It is also said; Kunjika, here, is in form of the Devi Chamunda, the Supreme Goddess; and, there is nothing beyond Her (Anuttara).

While invoking the Devi Chamunda, the Kunjika Stotra  explains the meaning  of the syllables (Bija mantras) in the Navarna Mantra – Om̃ ai hrī klī cāmuṇḍāyai  viccey.


A Samvada is thus a discourse or a dialogue that teaches, imparts instructions or passes on knowledge to a sincere seeker of Truth. 

The bulk of the Upanishad teachings have come down to us in the form of Samvada, which took place in varieties of contexts. Apart from intimate sessions where an illumined teacher imparts instructions to an aspirant , there are instances of varied kind, say, as when : a wife is curious  to learn from her husband  the secrets of immortality; a teenage boy approaches Death itself to learn the truth of life and death; a king seeks instruction from an recluse sage who speaks from his experience ; Brahmans advanced in age and wisdom sit at the feet of a Kshatriya prince seeking instructions as also inspiration ; and , when sometimes the sages are women who are approached by kings .There are other sorts of dialogues , say, when Jabala is taught by bulls and birds (Ch. Up 4.4-9) , Upakosala by the sacred fires (Ch. Up. 4.10-15), and Baka is by a dog (Ch. Up 1.12). 

Nothing in the Upanishads is more vital than the relationship between a student and his guide. The teacher talks, out his experience, about his ideas of the nature of the world, of truth etc. or about particular array of phenomena visualized through mental images that stay etched in memory. 

An Upanishad-teacher ignites in the heart of the boy a spark that sets ablaze his desire to learn and to know the central principles which make sense of the world we live in. The guide inflames the sense of challenge, the urge to reach beyond the boy’s grasp and to know the unknown. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad calls upon :

‘You are what your deep, driving desire is; as your desire is, so is your will (sa yathā-kāmo bhavati tat-kratur-bhavati); as your will is, so is your deed (yat-kratur-bhavati tat-karma kurute) ; as your deed is, so is your destiny (yat-karma kurute tad-abhi-sapadyate”- (Brhu. Up. 4.4.5).

sa yathākāmo bhavati tat-kratur bhavati | yat-kratur bhavati tat karma kurute | yat karma kurute tad abhi-saṃpadyate || BrhUp_4,4.5 |

In the end, all achievement is fueled by burning desire. 

The Bhagavad-Gita suggests that an ardent seeker of truth should approach a learned teacher in humility and seek instructions from him; question him repeatedly: 

Tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya I Upadeksyanti te jnanam jnaninas tattva-darsinah II (B G.; Ch.4; verse 34) 

The student questions the teacher not because he doubts (samshaya) the wisdom or the understanding of the teacher; nor is he / she questioning the authenticity of the teaching . The questions are asked with open mind and guileless heart; and, are meant to clear doubts, and to gain a flawless understanding of the teaching.

The teacher is neither annoyed nor does he discourage the student from asking questions.  On the other hand, he encourages the learner to examine, enquire and test the teaching handed down to him.  A true teacher, in a Samvada does not prescribe or proscribe. He lets the student the freedom to think, to ponder over and to find out for himself the answers to his questions. A student needs humility, persistence, and honesty of purpose to go further and to arrive at his own understanding. 

lotus design

Yaska  tenders sage-like counsel. Yaska instructs (Nir.1.18): what is taken from teacher’s mouth, but not understood and, is merely repeated, never flares up. It is like dry firewood flung on something that is not fire.

  • Don’t memorize, seek the meaning
  • What has been taken from the teacher’s mouth  but not understood,
  • Is uttered by mere memory  recitation,
  • It never flares up, like dry firewood without fire.
  • Many a one, although seeing, do not see Speech,
  • Many a one, although hearing, do not hear her,
  • And many a one, she spreads out Her body, like a wife desiring her husband.
  • The meaning of Speech is its fruit and flower.

yad ghītam avijñāta nigadena eva śabdyate/  anagnāv iva śuka edho na taj jvalatikarhicit/  sthāus tiṣṭhater artho arter araastho vā / Nir. 1.18 /

lotus design


The Buddha, the best of the teachers, also adopted a similar approach. He insisted that his followers should not try borrowing ideas or experiences from him; but they should arrive at their own.  In the first sermon he delivered (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) in the Deer-park (Miga-daya) at Isipatana (Saranath), soon after attaining enlightenment, he asked his listeners:

O monks and wise men, do not accept my Dharma merely out of respect for me, but analyze and test it the way a goldsmith examines a pieces of gold by  burning , cutting and rubbing it on a touchstone.(please  see the note below)

A teaching would not be true, valid or trustworthy merely because it was uttered by an eminent person of great renown. It would be so only in case it is thoroughly tested, clearly understood and truthfully brought into one’s own experience.  

The Buddha guides the aspirant on the path that leads to right-understanding. But he disclaims any personal authority; and asks the follower to work it out himself. The follower when he succeeds in attaining the enlightenment will not become a second Buddha or a replica of the Buddha. In the final analysis, both the Buddha and his follower free themselves from the bonds of samsara; yet, each retains his individuality.


[This often quoted analogy of testing a piece of gold  appears in many texts ; such as :  Jnanasara-samuccaya (31) a Sanskrit text of a later period (perhaps a translation of the Tibetan text – sTug-po bkod-pa’i-mdo); in  Nyāya-bindu-pūrvapakṣa-saṃkṣipti, a commentary on Dharmakīrti’s,  Nyāyabindu  (1.18–1.21) and also  in Śāntarakṣita’s Tattva-saṁgraha (verse 3588) .

It reads in Sanskrit as :

Tāpāc chedāc ca nikasat svarnam iva panditaih / Parikshya blikshavo grāhyam madvaco na tu gauravāt

However, the kalama Sutta  (or Kesamutti Suta) – delivered to the Kālāmas of Kesamutti – appearing in Aṅguttara Nikaya (III.653), which is a part of Tipitaka, merely lays down the principle of taking an objective view after a thorough examination (charter of free inquiry); but, it does not specifically mention the instance of ” jewel-testing” :

“Come, O Kālāmas, Do not accept anything thinking that thus have we heard it from a long time (anussava). Do not accept anything thinking that it has thus been handed down through many generations (paramparā). Do not accept anything on account of rumours (itikirā). Do not accept anything just because it accords with your scriptures (piṭaka-sampadāna). Do not accept anything by mere surmise (takka-hetu); nor upon an axiom (naya-hetu). Do not accept anything by mere inference (ākāra-parivitakka). Do not accept anything by merely upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over (diṭṭhi-nijjhān-akkh-antiyā). Do not accept anything by coming under another’s seems ability (bhabba-rūpatāya). Do not accept anything merely because the monk-teacher says so (samaṇo no garū). Do not accept anything thinking that the ascetic is respected by us (and therefore it is right to accept his word.)

“Kalamas, when you know for yourselves —these things are immoral, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the wise, these things when performed and undertaken, conduce to ruin and sorrow – then indeed you do  reject them.

“But Kalamas, when you know for yourselves –  these things are good; these things are blameless, these things are praised by the wise; these things when undertaken and observed, lead to well-being and happiness- enter upon and abide in them. ]



Continued in Part Two

.. Vada, Jalpa and Vitanda

Sources and References:

A History of Indian Logic: Ancient, Mediaeval, and Modern Schools By Mahamahopadyaya  Satis Chandra Vidyabhusana

The Character of Logic in India Edited by Bimal Krishna Matilal, Jonardon Ganeri, Heeraman Tiwari

The Nyâya Sûtras of Gotama by Nandalal Sinha

Hindu Philosophy by Theos Bernard

Categories of Cognition and Proof – Shodhganga

A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 1 By  Prof. Surendranath Dasgupta

The Birth of Meaning in Hindu Thought by David B. Zilberman

History of Indian philosophy: The philosophy of the Veda and of …, Volume 1 by Erich Frauwallner

All images are taken from Internet


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

Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Eleven

Continued from Part Ten

[I could not arrange the topics in a sequential order (krama). You may take these as random collection of discussions; and, read it for whatever it is worth. Thank you.]


The  Court Poet

So far in the series we have talked about Poetry (Kavya) and the Poetics (Kavya Shastra), let us round up the discussion with a few words about the Poet (Kavi) himself.

Poetry in India, of course, is very ancient; and has been in vogue even from the Vedic times. In the context of Rig Veda, Kavi refers to one who through his intuitional perception (prathibha), sees the unseen (kavihi-krantha-darshano- bhavathi) and gives expression to his vision (Darshana), spontaneously, through words. He is the wise Seer. It was said: one cannot be a Kavi unless one is a Rishi (naan rishir kuruthe kavyam). However, not all Rishis are Kavi-s. A Kavi is a class by himself.

But, the Kavi, the Poet, we are referring to in the series and here is not the Vedic Kavi. He is far different from the Vedic Kavi in almost every aspect; and, is vastly removed from him in space, time, environment, attitude, objective etc.  And, his poetry is neither a Rik nor a mantra; but, is a cultivated art , ornate with brilliance and flashing elegance.

The Sanskrit poet who creates Kavya is neither a Rishi nor a seer; but, he is very much a person of the world who has taken up writing as a profession to earn his living. He usually sprang from a class that possessed considerable cultural refinement. And, Sanskrit being the language of the academia and the medium of his work, he was well versed in handling it.  

He is urbane, educated and is usually employed in the service of a King. Apart from writing classy poetry, his other main concern is to please and entertain his patron. He is very much a part of the inner circle of the Court; and, is surrounded by other poets and scholars who invariable are his close rivals in grabbing the King’s attention and favors.

During those times, a Great King would usually have in his service a number of poet-scholars who vied with each other to keep the King happy and pleased. Their main task was to entertain the King. Apart from such Court poets, there were a large number of wandering bards who   sang for the common people. They walked through towns and villages singing songs of love and war. Of course, their recitations were not classy or of the standard of the court poet-singers.

Court poet

As Vatsayana (in his Kama sutra) describes, the Court poet, generally:  is an educated suave gentleman of leisure having refined taste and versatility; fairly well-off; lives in urban surroundings (Naagara or Nagarika); loves to dress well (bit of a dandy, indeed- smearing himself with sandal paste, fragranting  his dress with Agaru smoke fumes, and wearing flowers); appreciates art, music and good food; and, loves his occasional drink in the  company of friends and courtesans.

A Court poet, sometimes, is also portrayed as rather vain, nursing a king-sized ego; and, desperately yearning to be recognized and honored as the best, over and above  all the poets in the Royal Court.

Thus, his attitudes find expressions in various ways – outwardly or otherwise. The dress, polished manners and cosmetics all seemed to matter. But, more importantly, it seemed necessary to have  a sound educational foundation, idioms of  social etiquette , and a devotion to classical literature (Sahitya)  , music (Samgita) and other fine arts (lalita kala).  Though his Poetry was developed in the court, its background was in the society at large.


The Poet

Rajasekhara an eminent scholar, critic and poet, was the Court poet of the Gurjara – Prathihara King Mahendrapala (Ca.880 to 920 AD) who ruled over Magadha. In his Kavyamimamsa, which is virtually an Handbook guiding aspiring poets, Rajasekhara outlines the desirable or the recommended  environment, life-style, daily routine, dispositions etc for a poet,     as also the training and preparations that go to make a good poet.

Sanskrit Kavya, in middle and the later periods, grew under the patronage of Royal courts. And, sometime the King himself would be an accomplished scholar or a renowned poet.

According to Rajasekhara, many of the poets depended on the patronage of local rulers and kings. Among them, the more eminent ones were honored as Court-poets (Asthana Kavi).  Those who performed brilliantly  endeared themselves to the king; and, were richly rewarded.There was, therefore, a fierce rivalry among the poets in the King’s court to perform better than the next poet;  and , somehow,   be the  king’s favorite.

A successful poet would usually be a good speaker with a clear voice; would understand the language of gestures and movements of the body; and would be familiar with other languages  , arts as well.

An archetypical picture of a poet that Rajasekhara presents is very interesting. The Kavi, here, usually, lives in upper middle class society that is culturally sensitive. His house is kept clean and comfortable for living. He moves from places – changing his residence – about three times in an year, according to the seasons. His country residence has private resting places, surrounded by antelopes, peacocks and birds such as doves, Chakora, Krauncha and such other. The poet usually has a lover (apart from his wedded wife) to whom he addresses his love lyrics.

As regards the daily life of the poet, Rajasekhara mentions the Kavi would usually be a householder following a regulated way of life such as worshipping at the beginning of each day, followed by study of works on poetics or other subjects or works of other poets. All these activities are, however, preparatory; they stimulate his innate power of creativity and imagination (prathibha). His creative work proper (Kavya-kriya) takes part in the second part of the day.

Towards the afternoon, after lunch, he joins his other poet-friends,seated comfortably  (tatra yathāsukhamāsīnaḥ kāvyagoṣṭīṃ pravarttayed) where they indulge in verse-riddle games structured around question-answers (Prashna-uttata). Sometimes, the poet discusses with close friends the work he is presently engaged with – antarāntarā ca kāvyagoṣṭhīṃ śāstra-vādā-nanujānīyāt.

In the evening, the poet spends time socializing with women and other friends, listening to music or going to the theater.   The second and the third parts of the night are  for relaxation, pleasure and sleep.

Of course, not all poets followed a similar routine; each had his own priorities.  Yet; they all seemed to be hard-working; valuing peace, quiet and the right working conditions. They were of four kinds:

 catur-vidhaś-cāsau/asūryampaśyo,niṣaṇṇo, dattāvasaraḥ, prāyojanikaśca /

There were also those who chose to write when moved or inspired or during  their leisure . They were, as Rajasekhara calls them, occasional poets (data-vasara). Among them was a class who wrote only on occasions (prayojanika) to celebrate certain events – dattāvasaraḥ, prāyojanikaśca.

Rajasekhara also mentions of those poets who were totally devoted to their poetic work. They invariably shut themselves from daylight (asūryampaśyo), dwelling in caves or remote private homes away from sundry noises and other disturbances

As regards the poet’s writing materials and other tools, Rajasekhara mentions that the writing materials are almost always within the reach of the poet; and, are contained in a box. The contents of the box were generally:  a slate and chalk; a stand for brushes and ink-wells; dried palm leaves (tāḍipatrāṇi) or birch bark (bhūrjatvaco); and an iron stylus (kaṇṭakāni). The common writing materials were palm leaves on which letters were sketched with metal stylus. The alternate writing surface was the birch bark cut into broad strips. The slate and chalk was for preparatory  or draft work.

tasya sampuṭikā saphalakakhaṭikā, samudgakaḥ, salekhanīkamaṣībhājanāni tāḍipatrāṇi bhūrjatvaco vā, salohakaṇṭakāni tāladalāni susabhmṛṣṭā bhittayaḥ, satatasannihitāḥ syuḥ /


What does it take to make one a ‘good’ poet

There is an extended debate interspersed across the theories of Indian Poetics speculating on what does it take to make one a good poet.

Dandin mentions the requisites of a good poet as:  Naisargika Prathibha natural or inborn genius; Nirmala-shastra – jnana clear understanding of the Shastras; Amanda Abhiyoga ceaseless application and honing ones faculties.

Bhatta-tauta   explained Prathibha   as the genius of the intellect which creates new and innovative modes of expressions in art poetry – Nava-navonvesha –shalini prajna prathibha mathah

Rudrata and Kuntaka add to that Utpatti, the accomplished knowledge of the texts and literary works; and, Abhyasa, constant practice of composing poetic works.

According to Vamana, Utpatti includes in itself awareness of worldly matters (Loka-jnana); study of various disciplines (Vidya) ; and , miscellaneous information (Prakirna).

Vamana also mentions: Vrddha seva – instructions from the learned experienced persons;   Avekshana– the   use of appropriate words avoiding blemishes by through study of Grammar; and ; Avadhana – concentration or single pointed devotion to learning and composing as other the other areas of study and learning.

Thus, to sum up, most seem to agree that the natural inborn genius is the seed out of which poetry sprouts (Kavitva-bijam prathibhanam – Vamana. K.S.13.6); and that talent needs to be nurtured and developed through training Utpatti (detailed study of  Grammar, the literarily works and scriptures as also of  knowledge of worldly matters) ; and  Abhyasa , Abhiyoga, Prayatna (constant practice of composing poetry) .

An aspiring poet gifted with natural talent would do well to sincerely  follow the prescribed regimen either on his own or , better still, under the guidance of a well-informed teacher who himself is a poet or a learned scholar.


The great scholar Abhinavagupta (Ca.950-1020 AD) in his Lochana (a commentary on Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka) says that Prathibha the intuition might be essential for creation of good poetry. But, that flash of flourish alone is not sufficient. Abhinavagupta explains that Prathibha is inspirational in nature; and, it does not last long; and it also, by itself or   automatically, does not transform into a work of art or poetry. There definitely is a need of a medium  that obeys  objective laws (which he calls unmeelana –shakthi) ; and, which sustains, harnesses and gives form and substance to those fleeting moments of inspiration. Apart from that, the aspiring poet has to study hard, broaden his intellect, hone his skills and practice his craft diligently.  It is only then, he says, a poetic work can bring forth refined, lively and forceful expressions that delight all.



Rajasekhara, just prior to Abhinavagupta, had also emphasized the importance of training and preparation in the making of a poet.  He treats the subject in a little more detail.

He mentions that the cultivator of Sanskrit poetry, variously known as Kavi, Budha or Vidwan, is not born as poet; nor is he self taught. Anyone gifted with talent (Prathibha) to create poetry and determined to become a poet should be prepared for detailed education (Utpatti)  spread over long years of hard work (abhiyoga, prayatna), study (Abhyasa) with  ceaseless dedication (Shraddha) . He should have the strength of mind not to be enticed away from his chosen path; and should pursue the study of Kavya in all its forms and layers with single-pointed (Ekagra) devotion.

Rajasekhara remarks there is no merit in becoming a half-baked poet. If one is truly sincere to his intention, then one should strive to become a professional poet of  true class . He should make that as his life-ambition, the ultimate goal in his life; and, should be prepared to make whatever sacrifices it demands.

The ardent learner is advised to seek guidance from a professional, learned teacher (Upadhyaya) and study under him the basic subjects of phonetics such as Vyakarana (Grammar) , Nirukta (Etymology) , Kosha (lexicon) , Alamkara (ornamentation) and Chhandas ( poetic meters) along with standard works on Kavya Shastra (Poetics).  Apart from studying these subjects individually, they should be studied with special reference to classic works of Kavya that have been written according to the formats and disciplines prescribed in texts of Kavya Shastra.

The study of the works of the Master would help the student to gain wholesome appreciation of the poetic process, the techniques of various forms of poetry and their components, such as meter (Chhandas), grammar (Vyakarana) , embellishments (Alamkara) etc. He should try out the principles he learnt by applying them to practice-poems (Abhyasa kriti) to be crafted as a part of his learning process.

The training included exercises to improve the student’s literary and the non-literary vocabulary, use of right words, picking the apt terms among the various synonyms; developing metrical skill; finding the most appropriate expression for each attribute, the most suitable simile, etc; and, creating verbal structure according to syntax within the rhythmic framework.

The preparation and the training would also include gaining familiarity with various branches of learning, such as: art (Kala), music (samgita), erotic’s (kamasastra), logic (nyaya), state craft (arthasastra) as also of the  natural world of mountains, oceans, trees , birds  and animals etc . He could also gain an understanding of sciences, astronomy, gemology etc. And, of course, familiarity with such important sources of literary material as the Epics Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as with the Puranas was also essential

The object of such elaborate training was to ensure that the student learnt to work at his text in a deliberate manner respecting the host of rules and norms that govern Kavya; and also to ensure that his poetic compositions grow out of a clear thought process based on a free but carefully made choice of all the elements. Far more important was the organization and co-ordination of these elements to give the composition the quality of a work of art.

Thus, at the end, very little would separate the connoisseur and critic from the writer of kavya.




While on the subject of ‘The Poet’, I cannot resist talking about the redoubtable Banabhatta. Let’s dwell on him for a while.

The Sanskrit poets are generally reticent when it comes to their personal details. Some might perhaps give out frugal particulars such as the names of their parents, their Gotra and the village they came from. Beyond that, hardly any information that might throw light on the cultural and social life of their period is given out. Sometimes, even the simple task of ascertaining their period, by itself, becomes a minor exercise.

A notable exception to such general practice was Banabhatta, a versatile scholar and poet, a contemporary and a close associate of King Harsha Vardhana of Thaneshvar and Kanuj, who ruled over North India from 606 to 647 A D.  Banabhatta’s fame rests on his remarkable romantic prose work Kadambari, perhaps the world’s first Novel; and on Harshacharita a glorified biography of his friend and patron King Harsha Vardhana.

[Banabhatta is also credited with some other, lesser known, works.  It is said; Banabhatta composed a devotional poem Candisataka, of one hundred and two stanzas, in praise of goddess Chandi. Further, Parvathi-parinaya, a drama in five acts describing the marriage o f Siva and Pravathi; and, another drama, Mukutataditakam concerning the conflict between Bhima and Duryodhana, are also ascribed to Banabhatta. But, nothing much is known about these works.]

kadambari_of_banaBanabhatta, sadly, passed away before he could complete his magnum opus Kadambari woven into complicated, interrelated plots   involving two sets of lovers passing through labyrinth of births and re-re-births. It was later completed by his son Bhushanabhatta.

In this marvelous complex texture, men and demigods; the earth and the regions beyond; the natural and the supernatural; love and curses, are all blended naturally. There are also amazing transformations of gods into demigods; demigods into men; men into animals and birds. Their relations persist and continue over   successive births. They create unusual situations that make the author to construct intriguing devices to advance the development of the plot.

There is a well-known, interesting adage with a play on words: Kādambari rasajnānām āhāropi na rochate- while savouring ‘Kādambari‘ – the book, readers lose interest in (eating) food (Kādambari).

Bana, especially, in his Kadamabari, was celebrated  for  his rich  figurative speech; his command over  language;  his clever use of words;  and,  his  deep understanding of human nature. His descriptions are amazing; his similes and metaphors are matchless; and, even his critics could not help admire, exclaim Bana’s brilliance. He had a unique  manner of describing even the most familiar things in life. For instance; look at the ingenuity in scripting the  love-message that Princess Kadambari sent to her lover:

love letter

“What message can I send to you?   If I say: ‘You are very dear to me’, that would be a needless repetition;  If I say: ‘I am yours’ , that would be a childish prattle; In case I say: ‘I have deep affection for you’, that would  be improper for a Queen;  I cannot say:  ‘Without you I cannot live’, because that would be rather untrue;   If I cry out: ‘I am overtaken by Cupid’, that would sound silly ; I cannot, of course, say :  ‘I have been forcibly abducted’,  that would be sheer helplessness  of a captive girl; ‘ If I insist : You must come at once ‘, that might be construed as arrogance ;   If , on the other hand, I offer myself and say : ‘I will come to you of my own accord’, then I could be mistaken to be a horny , fickle minded  woman; If  I submit , imploring : ‘This slave is not devoted to anybody else, but to you alone’, then that would amount to demeaning myself , a Queen;   If I make a pretext  : ‘I do not send messages for fear of refusal’, that would be a rather senseless excuse  lacking trust in you;  If I beseech you wailing : ‘I shall suffer terrible pains in case I lead an undesired life’, that would suggest that I am weak and lacking conviction in myself; and, If I finally declare :  ‘You will come to know of my love through my death’, that would be pointless”. [History of Indian Literature by Moriz Winternitz (page 409)]


[ Please click here for Kadambari, with a scholarly introduction and translation, as rendered by  by Prof. C M Ridding, formerly scholar of Griton College, Cambridge; published by the Royal Asiatic Society, London , 1896

Please click here for Banabhatta’s Kadambari , translated with an Introduction by Gwendolyn Layne; Garland Publishing, NY & London;1991 ]


Banabhatta gives glimpses of his early life and youth in the introductory verses of his Kadambari and in the first two Ucchavasas of the Harshacharita. And, in the third Ucchavasa of Harshacharita he describes how he came to write that work.

His story is truly amazing.

Banabhatta mentions that he was born to Chitrabhanu and Rajadevi of Bhojaka Brahmin family, which was rich in wealth and in learning, belonging to Vatsyayana Gotra. Chandrasena and Matrsena were his half-brothers. And, Ganapathi, Adipathi, Tarapathi and Shyamala were his parental cousins..

They lived in the village of Pritikuta on the banks of Hiranyabahu (the Sona River) which raises in the Vindhya hills and flows through the Dandaka forest. The scholars opine that the ancestral home of Banabhatta might have been  in the region of Madhya Pradesh from where the Sona river rises . From here , Banabhatta, later , went to the court of King  Harshavardhana in Kanyakubja (Kanuj) in Uttar Pradesh.

Bana lost his mother Rajyadevi at a tender age. He was brought up by his father Chitrabhanu who was learned in scriptures and in literature. Chitrabhanu played a large part in molding his interests ; and,  remained a great influence even in the later years .

Bana’s teacher was said to be one, Bhravu . Banabhatta, at the commencement of his Kadambari, submits his salutations to his teacher Bhravu, who was also respected by the kings of the Mukharin dynasty – (namami bharvos-carana-ambuja-dvayam  sasekharair moukharibhih krtarcanani). The commentator, Bhanuchandra, however, mentions that Banabhatta’s teacher was known as Bhatusa or Bhartsu.

Sadly, Bana lost his father while he was just about fourteen years of age. He felt his father’s absence very deeply and missed him sorely. The death of his father left the clueless young Bana , just stepping into adolescence, rather rudderless. He came into wealth and money with none to guide him. After recovering from anguish and sorrow, he found life rather hollow and boring; grew more and more impatient by each day; and got into irregular life of nasty habits.  Bana   went totally astray indulging in carefree, reckless, restless life in the company of a most weird bunch of friends.

His motley crowd  of friends, medley of varied talents, came from an amazing assortment of backgrounds , various classes of life and professions. Bana, in fact, names about forty-four of his friends, some them of dubious character. His friends circle included poets, singers, actors, story tellers, physicians, jugglers, goldsmiths, potters, Jain monks, Buddhist nuns, shampooers, gamblers, snake doctors and so on. There were also many women in the group.

For instance ,  he mentions that among his friends , Candasena and Matrsena  were born out of a Brahmin father and a Sudra mother; Rudra, Venibhadra  and Narayana were poets; Isana was song writer in Prakrit; Bharata was a composer of songs set to music ; Govinda was a writer; Sudrsti was a reader of letters; Susivana was a panegyrist (an orator who delivers eulogies or panegyrics); Mayuraka was a snake-charmer ; Viravarman was a painter; Kumaradatta was a varnisher; Damodara was, a potter ;   Kumaraan was a manufacturer of dolls; Carmkara and Sindhusena were goldsmiths;  Jimuta was a  drummer; Somila , Grahaditya  were singers; Jayasena was a story teller; Madhukara and Paravata were pipers; Darduraka and Tandavika were dance teachers; Sikkhadaka was an actor; Mandaraka was a physician; Akhandalaka and Bhlmaka were  dice players (gamblers); Vihamgama was an alchemist;  Lohitaksa was  a treasure-seeker ; Tamracuda was a shaiva  ascetic; Viradeva was a  Jain  monk;  Cakoraka was a juggler ;  Karalakesa was a magician ; and Vakaragoha was a snake doctor (Visha vaidya)  so on.

There were also many women among his friends.  Among them :  Mayuraka was the daughter of a forest-man; Anangavana and Suchivana  were born in family of Prakrit poets;  Chandaka was the seller of betel leaves;  Harinika was a dancer; Sudrati was an artist;  another Chandaka was a physician  ; Karangika was an  independent artisan; Keralika was massage girl; Karangika, the maid of honor ; and, Sumati  and Cakravakika ( the elderly)  were  Buddhist  nuns.

After the excitement the of a fling at wild and reckless living wore off, Bana set out to take a look at the world; and took along with him a colorful   bunch of his friends and his two half brothers. He aimlessly wandered across many countries,  in an irresponsible manner.

The good outcome of his travels was that during the sojourn   , he studiously attended a number of assemblies (gosthl) of poets and connoisseurs; and, other scholarly circles (mandala). As he said: he paid visits to Royal courts; submitted his respects to ‘the Schools of the wise’; attended ‘assemblies of able men deep in priceless discussions’; and, ‘plunged into circles of clever men endowed with profound natural wisdom’.

Bana gained a great deal of experience during these febrile years of wandering. That gave him a direct experience of life outside of his closed circle.  That helped him to gain an insight into life, its nature and an understanding of the many-sided world filled with men and women of various manners of behavior. His travel experiences widened his horizons; enabled him to depict in his works the pictures of  varied  characters in real   life; and, it  also   ignited the poetic genius latent in him. Bana returned home a much more mature, wiser and determined.

On his return, he was surprised to see his home taken over by host of his relatives; most whom sporting long brown hair like wisps of fire had their forehead besmeared with ashes. Worse still, the house choked with smoke emanating from Homa kunda (fire-altar),  was echoing with Vedic chants. The smoke of the clarified butter had darkened the foliage of trees. The backyard of the house marked by hoofs of cows was filled with remains of Kusa grass; and , was  littered with pieces of wood and cow dung. The whole ground was rendered brown by the sacrificial offerings.

Inside the house, the floor was littered with puffed rice; nivara paddy rice cakes; mats made of dark deer skins;and, the branches of fig leaves were hanging by the pegs on the wall. At many places, the soma-juice was oozing out of the hollows in the wood. The children with little tufts were running around the house; and, some sat on different sides  of the altar watching  , curiously, what was going on.

That was rather too much for Bana to take in. He, definitely, was very uncomfortable with the scene as also with  the  persons who filled it.

Bana, then, promptly went back to his country house in the mango grove outside of the village. His friends were overjoyed with his return, clasped him to their hearts; and, celebrated the joyous reunion by drinking, dancing and singing all night. As Bana said, the reunion with his long last childhood friends was like the joy of the highest release (moksha).

Bana, thereafter, spent some of the most enjoyable days of his life amidst his friends.

One summer afternoon while Bana was lazing under the shadow of a mango tree, a messenger, called  Mekhalaka, delivered him a letter from Krishna the brother of King Harshavardhana. In that, Krishna urged Bana to posthaste call on the King who was camping at Manitara. Accordingly, Bana promptly set out meet the mighty ruler.  He traveled two days and one night and reached Manitara on the third day; and sought audience with the King. And, that meeting with the King changed the course of Bana’s life, in a very healthy way.

The King, who had heard of the wayward ways of the spoilt youth, was rather reluctant to talk to him. He even tried to reproach the young Brahman for wasting his wealth, heath and youth; and, smearing the fair name of his family.

But, as they conversed, the atmosphere cleared ; the two came to  like each other and, became sort of friends. And, in time Banabhatta won the  regard of the Emperor who became his patron.

It seems, Bana spent some considerable time with King Harshavardhana.

When Bana later revisited his Prithikuta one autumn, he was besieged by his friends who lustily cheering , demanded accounts of King Harsha, his stay in the Capital and other interesting experiences he had.

To comply with their wishes, Bana tells us, he began writing  the great biography of Emperor Harshavardhana. That was how Harshacharita came to be written. Harshacharita narrates Harsha’s  rise to power and glory; and ends with his conquest of the world. The work is a sophisticated, erudite display of Banabhatta’s descriptive and poetic genius.

[ Please click here for The Harsa-Carita of Bana; Translated by Edward Byles Cowell and F.W. Thomas; Published under the patronage of The Royal Asiatic Society, London – 1897] 

Later on, Banabhatta married and led a happy married life. He settled down in the Court of King Harshavardhana as his poet and confidant,

What rescued Bana from the abyss of depravation were his poetic genius and the moderating influence of his patron King.

Banabhatta’s regret was that he could not complete his Kadambari an intricate work spread over a large canvas. His son , variously called Bhushanabhatta or Pulinda, who by then had grown up, did complete the third and the last part of Kadambari’s elaborate structure .

Bhushnabhatta wrote:

I bow in reverence to my father,

Master of speech.

This story was his creation,

A task beyond other men’s reaches.


The world honoured his noble spirit in every home.

Through him I, propelled by

Merit, gained this life.


When my father ascended to heaven

The flow of his story

Along with his voice

Was checked on earth.


I , considering the unfinished work to be

A sorrow to the good,

Again set it in motion-

But out of no pride in my poetic skill.


(Translation of Prof. Gwendolyn Layne, University of Chicago)

Kadambari Bhushana Bhatta



Sources and References

A history of Sanskrit literature – Classical period – Vol. I  – by  Prof. S. N. Dasgupta

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

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Prof. Satya Deva Caudharī

Indian Kāvya Literature: The bold style (Śaktibhadra to Dhanapāla) By Anthony Kennedy Warder

Kadambari – translated by Prof. Gwendolyn Layne

Banabhatta – His Life and Literature by S V Dixit



Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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

Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine

[I could not arrange the topics in a sequential order (krama). You may take these as random collection of discussions; and, read it for whatever it is worth. Thank you.]

Kavyasya Atma – the Soul of Poetry


Another line of speculation that is unique to Indian Poetics is to muse about the soul (Atman) of Poetry. Every literary endeavour was regarded a relentless quest to grasp or realize the enigmatic essence that inhabits the Kavya body.

As Prof Vinayak Krishna Gokak explains in his An Integral View of Poetry: an India Perspective:  Poetry in its manifestation resembles the series of descending arches in a cave. It is dim lit, leaving behind the garish light of the day, as we walk into it. And as we begin to feel our way, we detect another passage, leading to yet another. But, we do know that there is light at the other end. And, when we have passed through the archways, we stand face-to-face with the ultimate mystery itself. This seems to the inner core, the essence and the fulfillment of poetry. It is the Darshana, perception, of Reality

Then he goes on to say:  When we say the poet is inspired, we mean that he had a glimpse of Reality, its luminous perception. It is this perception that elevated him into a state of creative excitement. Such vision is the intuitive perception. It reveals the many-splendored reality that is clouded by the apparent. It is the integral experience in which the intuitive and instinctive responses are in harmony.

But, this intuitive perception in poetry is rarely experienced in its pristine purity. It is colored, to an extent, by the attitudes, the experiences and the expressions of the poet. The attitude seeps into the structure of words, phrases, rhythms that give form to poetry. The attitude forms the general framework of the poetic experience.

The soul of the Kavya is truly the poet’s vision (Darshana) without which its other constituents cannot come together.


Thus, the inquiry into the appeal of the Poetry was meant to suggest a sort of a probe delving deep into the depths of Kavya to seize its essence. It was an exploration to reach into the innermost core of the Kavya.  The term used to denote that core or the fundamental element or the principle which defines the very essence of Kavya was Atma, the soul.

In the context of Kavya, the concept of Atma, inspired by Indian Philosophy, was adopted to characterize it as the in-dweller (Antaryamin), its life-breath (Prana), its life (Jivita) , consciousness (Chetana) ; and to differentiate it from the  exterior or the body (Sarira) formed out of the words. That is to say; while structure provided by the words is the physical aspect of Kavya, at its heart is the aesthetic sensitivity that is very subtle and indeterminate.

In the Indian Poetics, the term Atma stands for that most elusive factor which is the highly essential, extensive factor illumining the internal beauty of Kavya. Though one can talk about it endlessly, one cannot precisely define it. One could even say, it is like a child trying to clasp the moonbeams with its little palms.   It is akin to consciousness that energizes all living beings (Chaitanya-atma). Its presence can be felt and experienced; but one cannot see its form; and, one cannot also define it in technical terms


In the Kavya-shastra, generally, two types of texts are recognized: Lakhshya grantha and Lakshana grantha.

The texts that describe the characteristics of good poetry and define the technical terms of Kavvya shastra are the Lakshana granthas. These outline and define the concepts ;and, illustrate them with the aid of citations from  recognized and time-honored works of poetry or drama, composed by  poets of great repute. Sometimes, the author of a Lakshana grantha would himself compose illustrative model pieces,  as examples.

Lakshya Grantha is  a creative work of  art , the Kavya , in the form of a poem or a drama , generally, following the prescriptions of the Lashana granthas.

Various thinkers and writers of the Lakshana granthas, over a long period, have put forward several theories based on their concept of the essential core , the heart or the soul of the  Kavya (kavyasya Atma). While the authors like Bhamaha, Dandin, Udbhata and Rudrata focused on Alamkara; Vamana emphasized the concept of Riti. However, it was Anandavardhana who changed the entire course of discussion by introducing the concept of Dhvani.  But, , Dhananjaya the author of Dasharupaka and its commentator Dhanika , as also  Mahimabhatta the author of Vyaktiviveka , firmly opposed the concept of Dhvani.

Let’s see some of these in a summary form before we get into a discussion:

Author Lakshana Grantha Atma
Bharata Natyashastra Rasa
Bhamaha Kaavya-alamkara Alamkara
Dhandi Kaavya-adarsha Dasha (ten ) Gunas
Vamana Kaavya-alankara-sutra Reeti
Anandavardhana Dhvanya-loka Dhvani
Kshemendra Auchitya-vicharachara Auchitya 
Mammata Kavya-prakasha Dhvani
Kuntaka Vakrokti Jivitam Vakrokti

kavya lakshana

Traditionally, the Kavya was defined by Bhamaha as Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam (KA.1.15) – the combination or a complex of words and their meanings. His explanation also implied that word and sense in a Kavya must be free from blemishes (nirdosa) .  Bhamaha then extended his explanation to bring in the element of Alamkara; and, said: Kavya is the happy fusion of Sabda and Artha which expresses Alamkaras relating to them

Sabda-abhideya-alamkara-bhedadhistam dvayam tu nah I Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam (KA.1.15).

Dandin also said the body of Kavya is a group of sounds which indicates the desired effect or the desired import of the poet

Sariram tavad ista-artha vyvachinna padavali (KA 1.10b).

But, the later Schools pointed out that Bhamaha and Dandin seemed to be talking about the body of Kavya, but not about the Kavya itself. And, their   definition of Kavya is centred on the external element or the body of Kavya; but, it misses the spirit or the soul of the Kavya.  The basic idea of the critics, here, was that Kavya is much more than a collection of words; it is about the vision of the poet and the aesthetic delight it presents to the reader.

It was argued that if the structure of words (Pada-rachana or Padavali) could be taken as the body (Sarira) of the Kavya, then it is separate or different from its soul (Atma) which is its   inner–being. Further, Padavali – the group of words – by itself and not accompanied by sense is not of great merit.

Thus, a clear distinction was sought to be made between the body of the Kavya and the spirit or the soul which resides within it. And from here,  began a quest for the soul of Kavya (Kavyasya Atma).

As regards the meaning (Artha) conveyed by words in the Poetry, it was also examined in terms of its external and internal forms. It was said :

the language and its structural form lead us to meaning in its dual forms. Thought in poetry manifests itself in two ways: as the outer and the inner meaning. The Outer meaning dominates poetry through its narration. Yet, it permits inner meaning to come into its own seeping through its narrative patterns or poetic excellence. The Outer meaning plays a somewhat semi transparent role in poetry.  It achieves its fulfillment when it becomes fully transparent revealing what lies beneath it.

The inner meaning of poetry is embodied in it’s suggestive, figurative or expressions evoking Visions.  It reveals the moods, the attitudes and the vision of the poet expressed with the aid of imagery and rhythm. Such vision is the intuitive perception. It reveals the many-splendored reality that is clouded by the apparent”.


It was perhaps Vamana the author of Kavyalankara-sutra-vritti  who initiated the speculation about the Atman or the soul of poetry. He declared – Ritir Atma kavyasya – // VKal_1,2.6 // (Riti is the soul of Poetry). Vamana’s pithy epithet soon became trendy ; and, ignited the imagination of the champions of other Schools of poetics. Each one re-coined Vamana’s phrase by inserting into it (in place of Riti) that Kavya-guna (poetic virtue) which in his view was the fundamental virtue or the soul of poetry.

For instance; Anandavardhana idealized Dhvani as the Atma of Kavya; Visvanatha said Rasa is the Atma of Kavya; while Kuntaka asserted that Vakrokti as the Jivita – the life of Kavya. Besides, Rajasekhara (9th century) who visualized literature, as a whole, in a symbolic human form (Kavya Purusha) treated Rasa as its soul (Atma).


Although Vamana was the first to use the term Atma explicitly, the notions of the spirit or the inner-being of Kavya were mentioned by the earlier scholars too, though rather vaguely. They generally talked in terms Prana (life-breath) or Chetana (consciousness) and such other vital factors in the absence of which the body ceases to function or ceases to live. But, such concepts were not crystallized. 

[Nevertheless, those epithets, somehow, seemed to suggest something that is essential, but not quite inevitable.]

For instance; Dandin had earlier used the term Prana (life-breath) of the body of poetry which he said was the Padavali (string of words or phrases) – Sariram tavad istartha vyavachhina padavali (KA-1.10). He also used Prana in the sense of vital force or vital factor (say for instance: iti vadarbhi –margasya pranah).

Udbhata who generally followed Dandin, in his Alamkara-samgraha, a synopsis of Alamkara, stated that Rasa was the essence or the soul of Kavya.

While Dandin and his followers focused on Sabda Alamkara, Vamana (Ca.8th century) raised questions about the true nature of Kavya; and said Ritiratma Kavyasya – the soul of the poetry abides in its style – excellence of diction.

Anandavardhana said: all good poetry has two modes of expression – one that is expressed by words embellished by Alamkara; and the other that is implied or concealed – what is inferred by the listener or the reader.  And , this implied one or the suggested sense, designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) , is indeed  the soul of Kavya: Kavyasya Atma Dhvanih.

A little later than Anandavardhana, Kuntaka (early tenth century) said that indirect or deflected speech (Vakrokti) – figurative speech depending upon wit, turns , twists and word-play is the soul of Kavya. He said that such poetry showcases the inventive genius of the poet at work (Kavi-karman).

[The complex web of words (Sabda) and meanings (Artha) capable of being transformed into aesthetic experience (Rasa) is said to have certain characteristic features. These are said to be Gunas and Alamkara-s. These – words and meanings; Alamkara; Gunas; and, Rasa – though seem separable are, in fact , fused into the structure of the poetry. The Poetics, thus,  accounts for the nature of these features and their inter-relations

All theories, one way or the other, are interrelated; and, illumine each other. The various aspects of Kavya starting from making of poetry (kavya-kriya-dharma) up to the critique of poetry (kavya-mimamsa)  and how human mind perceives and reacts to it, was the main concern for each theory. ]



Alamkara denotes an extraordinary turn given to an ordinary expression; which makes ordinary speech into poetic speech (Sabartha sahitya) ; and , which indicates the entire range of rhetorical ornaments as a means of poetic expression. In other words, Alamkara connotes the underlying principle of embellishment itself as also the means for embellishment.

According to Bhamaha, Dandin and Udbhata the essential element of Kavya was in Alamkara. The Alamkara School did not say explicitly that Alamkara is the soul of Poetry. Yet, they regarded Alamkara as the very important element of Kavya. They said just as the ornaments enhance the charm of a beautiful woman so do the Alamkaras to Kavya: shobha-karan dharman alamkaran prakshate (KA -2.1). The Alamkara School, in general, regarded all those elements that contribute towards or that enhance the beauty and brilliance of Kavya as Alamkaras. Accordingly, the merits of Guna, Rasa, and Dhvani as also the various figures of speech were all clubbed under the general principle of Alamkara.

Though Vamana advocates Riti, he also states that Alamkara (Soundarya-alamkara) enhances the beauty of Kavya. Vamana said Kavya is the union of sound and sense which is free from poetic flaws (Dosha) and is adorned with Gunas (excellence) and Alamkaras (ornamentation or figures of speech).

According to Mammata, Alamkara though is a very important aspect of Kavya , is not absolutely essential. He said; Kavya is that which is constructed by word and sentence which are (a) faultless (A-doshau) (b) possessed of excellence (Sugunau) , and, (c) in which rarely a distinct figure of speech  (Alamkriti) may be absent.


Vamana called the first section (Adhikarana) of his work as Sarira-adhikaranam – reflexions on the body of Kavya. After discussing the components of the Kavya-body, Vamana looks into those aspects that cannot be reduced to physical elements. For Vamana, that formless, indeterminate essence of Kavya is Riti.

Then, Vamana said; the essence of Kavya is Riti (Ritir Atma Kavyasya – VKal_1,2.6 ); just as every body has Atma, so does every Kavya has its Riti. And, Riti is the very mode or the act of being Kavya. Thus for Vamana, while Riti is the essence of Kavya, the Gunas are the essential elements of the Riti. The explanation offered by Vamana meant that the verbal structure having certain Gunas is the body of Kavya, while its essence (soul) is, Riti.

Riti represents for Vamana the particular structure of sounds (Vishista-pada-rachana Ritihi) combined with poetic excellence (Vishesho Gunatma) . According to Vamana, Riti is the going or the flowing together of the elements of a poem

Rinati gacchati asyam guna iti riyate ksaraty asyam vanmaddhu-dhareti va ritih (Vamana KSS). 

The language and its structural form lead us to the inner core of poetry. And, when that language becomes style (Riti), it absorbs into itself all the other constituent elements of poetry. It allows them, as also the poetic vision, to shine through it.

Vamana, therefore, accorded Riti a very high position by designating Riti as the Soul of Kavya – rītirnāmeyam ātmā kāvyasya / śarīrasyeveti vākyaśeṣaḥ  (I.2.6) – Riti is to the Kavya what Atman is to the Sarira (body). Here, it is explained that in his definition of Riti, Pada-rachana   represents the structure or the body while Riti is its inner essence. Through this medium of Visista Pada-rachana  (viśiṣṭā padaracanā rītiḥ viśeṣo guṇātmā – 1,2.7the Gunas become manifest and reveal the presence of Riti, the Atman.


Kshemendra – wrote a critical work Auchitya-alamkara or Auchitya-vichara-charcha (discussions or the critical research on proprieties in poetry), and a practical handbook for poets Kavi-katnta-abharana (ornamental necklace for poets) – calls Auchitya the appropriateness or that which makes right sense in the given context as the very life-breath of Rasa – Rasajivi-bhootasya.

He said Auchitya is the very life of Kavya (Kavyasya jivitam) that is endowed with Rasa (Aucityam rasa siddhasya sthiram kavyasya jivitam).

Abhinavagupta avers that the life principle (jivitatvam) of Kavya could said to be  the harmony that exists among the three : Rasa, Dhvani and Auchitya –  Uchita-sabdena  Rasa-vishaya-auchityam bhavatithi darshayan Rasa-Dhvane jivitatvam   suchayati.  Thus, Auchitya is entwined with Rasa and Dhvani

He asserts that Auchitya implies , presupposes and stands for ‘suggestion of Rasa’ – Rasa-dhvani – the principles of Rasa and Dhvani. 

The most essential element of Rasa , he said, is Auchitya.  The test of Auchitya is the harmony between the expressed sounds and the suggested Rasa. And , he described  Auchitya as that laudable virtue (Guna) which embalms the poetry with delight  (aucityaṃ stutyānāṃ guṇa rāgaś ca andanādi lepānām – 10.31)

According to Kshemendra, all components of Kavya perform their function ideally only when they are applied appropriately and treated properly. “When one thing befits another or matches perfectly, it is said to be appropriate, Auchitya”:

(Aucityam prahuracarya sadrasham kila; Aucitasya ka vo bhava stadaucityam pracaksate).

The concept of Auchitya could , perhaps, be understood as the sense of  proportion  between the whole (Angin) and the part (Anga) and harmony on one side; and, appropriateness and adaptation on the other.

It said; be it Alamkara or Guna, it will be beautiful and relishing if it is appropriate (Uchita) from the point of view of Rasa; and, they would be rejected if they are in- appropriate . And, what is normally considered a Dosha (flaw) might well turn into Guna (virtue) when it is appropriate to the Rasa

But, many are hesitant to accept Auchitya as the Atma of the Kavya. They point out that Auchitya by its very nature is something that attempts to bring refinement into to text; but, it is not an independent factor. And, it does not also form the essence of Kavya. Auchitya is also not a recognized School of Poetics.

[Please click here for a detailed discussion on Auchitya. Please also read the research paper : ‘A critical survey of the poetic concept Aucitya in theory and practice’ produced by Dr. Mahesh M Adkoli

Please also read Dr.V. Raghavan’s article: The History of Auchitya in Sanskrit Literature ]



Kuntaka defined Kavya on the basis of Vakrokti, a concept which he developed   over the idea earlier mentioned by Bhamaha and others.  According to him, Kavya is the union of sound, sense and arranged in a composition which consists Vakrokti (oblique expressions of the poet), delighting its sensible reader or listener –

(Sabda-Artha sahitau vakra Kavi vakya vyapara shalini I bandhe vyavasthitau Kavya tat ahlada karini:  VJ 1.7).

Kuntaka also said that  the word and sense, blended like two friends, pleasing  each other, make Kavya  delightful

Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi I parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha  II 1.18.II

Kuntaka, declared Vakrokti as jivitam or soul of poetry. By Vakrokti, he meant the artistic turn of speech (vaidagdhyam bhangi) or the deviated from or distinct from the common mode of speech.

abhāvetāv alaṅkāryau tayoḥ punar alaṅkṛtiḥ / vakroktir eva vaidagdhya bhaṅgī bhaṇitir ucyate – Vjiv_1.10

Vakratva is primarily used in the sense of poetic beauty. It is striking, and is marked by the peculiar turn imparted by the creative imagination of the poet. It stands for charming, attractive and suggestive utterances that characterize poetry. The notion of Vakrata (deviation) covers both the word (Sabda) and meaning (Artha). The ways of Vakrokti are, indeed, countless.

Vakrokti is the index of a poet’s virtuosity–kavi kaushala. Kuntaka describes the creativity of a poet as Vakra-kavi–vyapara or Kavi–vyapara–vakratva (art in the poetic process).  This according to Kuntaka , is the primary source of poetry; and, has the potential to create aesthetic elegance that brings joy to   the cultured reader with refined taste (Sahrudaya).

According to Kuntaka, Vakrokti is the essence of poetic speech (Kavyokti); the very life (Jivita) of poetry; the title of his work itself indicates this.


Rasa (the poetic delight) though it is generally regarded as the object of Kavya providing joy to the reader rather than as the means or an element of Kavya , is treated  by some as the very essence of Kavya.

Yet; Indian Aesthetics considers that among the various poetic theories (Kavya-agama), Rasa is of prime importance in Kavya. And, very involved discussions go into ways and processes of   producing Rasa, the ultimate aesthetic experience that delights the Sahrudya, the connoisseurs of Kavya.

The Rasa was described as the state that arises out of the emotion evoked by a poem through suggestive means, through the depiction of appropriate characters and situations and through rhetorical devices. The production of Rasa or aesthetic delight was therefore regarded the highest mark of poetry.  It was said – The life breath (Prana) of Kavya is Rasa.

Further, Poetry itself came to be understood as an extraordinary kind of delightful experience called Rasa. It was exclaimed: Again, what is poetry if it does not produce Rasa or give the reader an experience of aesthetic delight?

Rasa is thus regarded as the cardinal principle of Indian aesthetics.  The theory of Rasa (Rasa Siddhanta) and its importance is discussed in almost all the works on Alamkara Shastra in one way or the other. The importance of the Rasa is highlighted by calling it the Atman (the soul), Angin (the principle element), Pradhana-Pratipadya (main substance to be conveyed), Svarupadhyaka (that which makes a Kavya), and Alamkara (ornamentation) etc.

Mammata carrying forward the argument that Rasa is the principle substance and the object of poetry, stated ‘vakyatha rasatmakarth kavyam’, establishing the correlation between Rasa and poetry.

Vishwanatha defined Kavya as Vakyam rasathmakam Kavyam – Kavya is sentences whose essence is Rasa.

Jagannatha Pandita defined Kavya as: Ramaniya-artha prathipadakah sabdam kavyam ; poetry is the  combination of words that provides delight (Rasa) . Here, Ramaniyata denotes not only poetic delight Rasa, pertaining to the main variety of Dhvani-kavya, but also to all the ingredients of Kavya like Vastu-Dhvani Kavya; Alamkara-Dhvani –Kavya, Guni-bhutha –vyangmaya-kavya; Riti; Guna, Alamkara, Vakrokti etc.


[While talking about Rasa, we may take a look at the discussions on Bhakthi Rasa.

Natyashastra mentions  four main Rasas and their four derivatives, thus in all eight Rasas (not nine). These Rasas were basically related to dramatic performance; and Bhakthi was not one of those. Thereafter, Udbhata (9th century) introduced Shantha Rasa. After prolonged debates spread over several texts across two centuries Shantha was accepted as an addition to the original eight.

But, it was Abhinavagupta (11th century) who established Shantha  as the Sthayi-bhava the basic and the abiding or the enduring Bhava form which all Rasas emerge and into which they all recede. His stand was: one cannot be perpetually angry or ferocious or sad or exited or erotic, at all the time. These eight other Rasas are the passing waves of emotions, the colors of life. But, Shantha, tranquility, is the essential nature of man; and it is its disturbance or its variations that give rise to shades of other emotions. And, when each of that passes over, it again subsides in the Shantha  that ever prevails.

During the times of by Abhinavagupta and Dhanajaya, Bhakthi and Priti were referred to as Bhavas (dispositions or attitudes); but, not as Rasas. Even the later scholars like Dandin, Bhanudatta and Jagannatha Pandita continued to treat Bhakthi as a Bhava.

[Later, each system of Philosophy or of Poetics (Kavya-shastra) applied its own norms to interpret the Rasa-doctrine (Rasa Siddantha) ; and in due course several Rasa theories came up. Many other sentiments, such as Sneha, Vatsalya; or states of mind (say even Karpanya – wretchedness) were reckoned as Rasa. With that, Rasas were as many as you one could identify or craft (not just nine).]

It was however the Gaudiya School of Vaishnavas that treated Bhakthi as a Rasa. Rupa Goswami in his Bhakthi-Rasa-amrita–Sindhu; and the Advatin Madhusudana Sarasvathi in his Bhagavad-Bhakthi Rasayana asserted that Bhakthi is indeed the very fundamental Rasa. Just as Abhinavagupta treated Shantha as the Sthayi Bhava, the Vaishnava Scholars treated Bhakthi as the Sthayi, the most important , enduring  or  the abiding Bhava  that  gives rise to Bhakthi Rasa.

Their texts described twelve forms of Bhakthi Rasas – nine of the original and three new ones. Instead of calling each Rasa by its original name, they inserted Bhakthi element into each, such as: Shantha-Bhakthi-Rasa, Vira-Bhakthi-Rasa, Karuna-Bhakthi-Rasa and so on. They tried to establish that Bhakthi was not one among the many Rasas; but, it was the fundamental Rasa, the other Rasa being only the varied forms of it. The devotee may assume any attitude of devotion like a child, mother, master, Guru or even an intimate fiend. It was said “Bhakthi encompasses all the Nava-rasas”.

Bhakthi, they said, is the Sthayi (abiding) Bhava; and it is the original form of Parama-Prema (highest form of Love) as described in Narada Bhakthi Sutra. What constitutes this Love is its essence of Maduhrya (sweetness) and Ujjvalata (radiance).

Although, an element of individualized love is involved in Bhakthi, it is not confined to worship of a chosen deity (ista Devatha). The Vedanta Schools treat Bhakthi as a companion of Jnana in pursuit of the Brahman. They hold that Bhakthi guides both the Nirguna and the Saguna traditions. Just as Ananda is the ultimate bliss transcending the subject-object limitation, Bhakthi in its pristine form is free from the limitations of ‘ego centric predicament’ of mind. And, both are not to be treated as mere Rasas.

Bhakthi is that total pure unconditional love, accepting everything in absolute faith (Prapatthi).

Now, all Schools generally agree that Bhakthi should not be confined to theistic pursuits alone; as it pervades and motivates all aspects human persuasions including studies, arts and literature. In the field of art, it would be better if the plethora of Rasa-theories is set aside; because, the purpose of Art, the practice of Bhakthi and the goal of Moksha are intertwined.

Therefore, it is said, it is not appropriate (an-auchitya) to narrow down Bhakthi to a mere Rasa which is only a partial aspect. Bhakthi is much larger; and it is prime mover of all meaningful pursuits in life.]


Dhvani and Rasa-Dhvani

With the rise of the Dhvani School, the elements of Rasa and Dhvani gained prominence; and, superseded the earlier notions of poetry. And, all poetry was defined and classified in terms of these two elements.

Anandavardhana said: all good poetry has two modes of expression – one that is expressed by words embellished by Alamkara; and the other, that is implied or concealed – what is inferred by the listener or the reader.

The suggested or the implied   sense of the word designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) through its suggestive power brings forth proper Rasa. Abhinavagupta   qualified it by saying:   Dhvani is not any and every sort of suggestion, but only that sort which yields Rasa or the characteristic aesthetics delight.

For Anandavardhana, Dhvani (lit. The sounding-resonance) is the enigmatic alterity (otherness) of the Kavya-body- Sarirasye va Atma ….Kavyatmeti vyavasthitah (as the body has Atma, so does Dhvani resides as Atma in the Kavya)

yo ‘rthaḥ sahṛdaya-ślāghyaḥ kāvyātmeti vyavasthitaḥ / vācya-pratīyamānākhyau tasya bhedāv ubhau smṛtau –DhvK. 1.2

Anandavardhana regarded Dhvani – the suggestive power of the Kavya, as its highest virtue. The Alamkara, figurative ornamental language, according to him, came next. In both these types of Kavya-agama, there is a close association between the word and its sound, and between speech (vak) and meaning (artha). The word is that which , when articulated, gives out meaning; and,the  meaning is what a word gives us to understand. Therefore, in these two types of Kavya there is a unity or composition (sahitya) of word (sabda-lankara) and its meaning (artha-lankara).

Anandavardhana‘s definition of Kavya involves two statements: Sabda-Artha sariram tavath vakyam; and, Dhvanir Atma Kavyasa – the body of poetry is the combination of words and sounds; and; Dhavni, the suggestive power is the soul of the poetry. Here, Anandavardhana talks about poetry in terms of the body (Sabda–artha sariram tavath vakyam) and soul of the Kavya (Dhvanir atma Kavyasa). And he also refers to the internal beauty of a meaningful construction of words in the Kavya. And, he declares Dhvani as the Atma, the soul of poetry.

kāvyasyātmā dhvanir iti budhair yaḥ samāmnāta-pūrvas tasyābhāvaṃ jagadur apare bhāktam āhus tam anye / kecid vācām sthitam aviṣaye tattvam ūcus tadīyaṃ tena brūmaḥ sahṛdaya-manaḥ-prītaye tat-svarūpam // DhvK_1.1 //

The Dhvani theory introduced a new wave of thought into the Indian Poetics. According to this school, the Kavya that suggests Rasa is excellent. In Kavya, it said, neither Alamkara nor Rasa , but Dhvani which suggest Rasa, the poetic sentiment, is the essence, the soul (Kavyasya-atma sa  eva arthaa Dhv.1.5). He cites the instance of the  of the sorrow (Soka) separation (viyoga) of two birds  (krauñca-dvandva) that gave rise to poetry (Sloka) of great eminence.

kāvyasyātmā sa evārthas tathā cādikaveḥ purā / krauñca-dvandva-viyogotthaḥ śokaḥ ślokatvam āgataḥ  – DhvK_1.5

Anandavardhana maintained that experience of Rasa comes through the unravelling of the suggested sense (Dhvani). It is through Dhvani that Rasa arises (Rasa-dhavani).  The experience of the poetic beauty (Rasa) though elusive, by which the reader is delighted, comes through the understanding heart.

Then, Anandavardhana expanded on the object (phala) of poetry and on the means of its achievement  (vyapara). The Rasa which is the object of poetry, he said, is not made; but, it is revealed. And, that is why words and meanings must be transformed to suggestions of Rasa (Rasa Dhvani).

The Rasa Dhvani, the most important type of Dhvani, consists in suggesting Bhava, the feelings or sentiments. In Rasa Dhvani, emotion is conveyed through Vyanjaka, suggestion. Rasa is the subject of Vyanjaka, as differentiated from Abhidha and Lakshana.

Anandavardhana, in some instances, considers Rasa as the Angi (soul) of poetry. Its Anga-s (elements) such as Alamkara, Guna and Riti seem to be dependent on this Angi.

Thus, the principle of Rasa Dhvani is the most significant aspect of the Kavya dharma, understanding Kavya. And, the Rasa experience derived from its inner essence is the ultimate aim of Kavya. Hence, the epithet Kavyasya Atma Dhvani resonates with Kavyasya Atma Rasah.

Anandavardhana regarded Rasa-Dhvani as the principal or the ideal concept in appreciation of poetry. He said that such suggested sense is not apprehended (na vidyate) by mere knowledge of Grammar (Sabda-artha-shasana-jnana) and dictionary. It is apprehended only (Vidyate, kevalam) by those who know how to recognize the essence of poetic meaning (Kavya-artha-tattva-jnana) – Dhv.1.7

śabdārtha-śāsana-jñāna-mātreṇaiva na vedyate / vedyate sa tu kāvyārtha-tattvajñair eva kevalam – Dhv.1.7

The confusion and chaos that prevailed in the literary circles at that time prompted Mammata to write Kavyaprakasa , to defend and  to establish the Dhvani theory on a firm footing ; and, also to  refute the arguments of its  opponents.

Abhinavagupta accepted Rasa-Dhvani ; and expanded on the concept by adding an explanation to it.  He said, the pratīyamānā or implied sense which is two-fold:  one is Laukika or the one that we use in ordinary life; and the other is Kavya vyapara gocara  or one  which is used only in poetry – pratipādyasya ca viṣayasya liṅgitve tad-viṣayāṇāṃ vipratipattīnāṃ laukikair eva kriyamāṇānām abhāvaḥ prasajyeteti.

He also termed the latter type of Rasa-Dhvani as Aloukika, the out-of–the world experience. It is an experience that is shared by the poet and the reader (Sahrudaya). In that, the reader, somehow, touches the very core of his being. And, that Aloukika is subjective ultimate aesthetic experience (ananda); and, it is not a logical construct. As Abhinavagupta says, it is a wondrous flower; and, its mystery cannot really be unraveled.

As regards the Drama , Abhinavagupta and Dhananjaya  both agree that Rasa is always pleasurable (Ananadatmaka); and Bhattanayaka compares such Rasa – Anubhava (experience of Rasa) to Brahma-svada, the relish of the sublime Brahman.  

[However, the scholars , Ramachandra and Gunachandra , the authors of Natya Darpana (12th century), sharply disagreed and argued against such ‘impractical’ suppositions.  They pointed out that Rasa, in a drama,  is after-all  Laukika (worldly, day-to-day experience); it is  a mixture of pain and pleasure (sukha-dukka-atmaka); and , it is NOT always pleasurable (Ananadatmaka) . They argued, such every-day experience  cannot in any manner be Chamatkara or A-laukika (out of the world) ecstasy comparable to Brahmananda etc., But, their views did not find favor with the scholars of the Alamkara School ; and, it  was eventually, overshadowed  by the writings of the stalwarts like Abhinavagupta, Anandavardhana, Mammata, Hemachandra , Visvanatha and Jagannatha Pandita.]

In any case, one can hardly disagree with Abhinavagupta. The concept of Kavyasya-Atma, the soul of Poetry is indeed a sublime concept; and, one can take delight is exploring layers and layers of its variations. Yet, it seems, one can, at best, only become aware of its presence, amorphously; but, not pin point it. Kavyasya-Atma, is perhaps best enjoyed when it is left undefined.

Happiness is such a fragile thing!! Very thought of it disturbs it.



in the

Next Part

Sources and References


An Integral View of Poetry: an India Perspective by Prof Vinayak Krishna Gokak

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by  Dr. Satya Deva Caudharī


Posted by on September 5, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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