The Word and the Sentence
Grammar and the philosophy of language
Grammar (Vyakarana) was recognized in India , even from the earliest times , as a distinct science; a field of knowledge with its own parameters, which distinguished it from other branches of learning / persuasions. It was regarded as the means to secure release from the bondage of ignorance, cluttered or muddled thinking : Vag-yoga ; Sabda-yoga; or Sabdapurva-yoga.
The overall aim of Sanskrit Grammar was not to list out the rules and to standardize the language; but, it was to clearly bring out the apt and the intended meaning of the structure of words. As Yaska puts it in his Nirukta (the oldest available Indian treatise on etymology, philology and semantics) the aim was to understand the real significance of the word; and, to bring out the meaning of the uttered word (artha nityah parikseta – Nir: 2.1).
Nirukta is the systematic creation of a glossary; and, it discusses how to understand archaic, uncommon words used mainly in the Rig-Veda . The field grew probably because almost a quarter of words in the Vedic texts composed in the 2nd-millennium BCE appear just once; and, their meaning and intent had, over a period, become unclear.
The texts of the Nirukta field of study are also called Nirvacana shastra. The Nirukta belongs to a class of texts that are designed to explore and present the precise meaning of the Vedic mantras. There were such Niruktas (Nirvachana Shastra) even prior to the time of Yaska (Ca. 6th century B C E). In his Nirukta, Yaska refers to about twelve Nirukta-karas prior to his time ; and, to their views: Aupamanyava; Aurnanabha; Agrayana; Varshyayani; Sakapuni; Gargya; Talava; Kaitiki; Kaushtuki; Sthaulashtivi; and, Katthayaka.
But, the works of all those savants are lost. It is only the Nirukta of Yascacharya that has stood the test of time for over two thousand seven hundred years; and , is acclaimed , for its excellence, as the most authoritative text in its class.
Yaska’s Nirukta, essentially, is a commentary on the Nighantu, which mostly lists the words occurring in the Rig-Veda; and, it is also meant to functions as a compliment to Vyakarana (Grammar) . In addition, it also served a practical purpose; which was to help and guide the Yajnaka, the one who performs the Yajnas, in unerringly identifying the Devata of a mantra, so that the Yajna is performed well and its objective is achieved successfully.
The study of Nirukta has been closely related to a Vedanga (an ancillary Vedic science) viz., Vyakarana (Grammar); but, it has a different focus. Vyakarana deals with linguistic analysis to establish the exact form of words to properly express ideas, while Nirukta focuses on linguistic analysis to help establish the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in the Vedic texts. Yaska asserts that the prerequisite to the study of Nirukta is the study of Vyakarana
And, Vyakarana , the Sanskrit Grammar essentially aimed to purify (samskruta), to discipline and to explain the behavior of the spoken language, so that the inner meaning could shine forth unhindered.
During the periods following the three Great Sages (Munitraya) – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali – the question of perceiving the intended meaning of the spoken word engaged the attention of the Grammarians and the philosophers of the language. The more significant of such Scholar-Grammarians, among others, were: Mandana Misra, Kaumarila Bhatta, Kunda Bhatta, Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari. In particular, Bharthari’s major work, Vakyapadiya, discusses the ways in which the outer word-form could unite with its inner meaning.
Each of those giants, in his own manner, addressed the question about ‘’the meaning of ‘meaning’ ‘’; debated vigorously on various theories of meaning as being fundamental to linguistic studies.
In the Grammar-traditions of ancient India, protracted debates were carried out on the question: ’what is the basic unit of the language that gives forth a meaning (Artha)? Is it the alphabet (Varna) or the word (Pada) or the sentence (Vakya)?’
Though the discussions took several routes, it ultimately arrived on the fact that the letters constitute a word; and, the words come together to form a sentence. It was pointed out that just as a word has no separate entity without its constituent letters; similarly, a sentence has no separate entity without words that give it a structure.
It was also said; though the words are parts of a sentence, the meaning of the sentence does not independently arise out of them. Meaning is the function of the sentence as a whole. Though the distinction between a sentence and its parts (words and letters) was recognized, it was said to be mainly, for day-to-day purposes (loka-vyavahara) and for analytical studies undertaken by the grammarians.
This position was, in a way, formalized when Yaska mentioned that ‘from the Vedic mantras we come to know that ‘language started with sentences and not with individual words’. He described the sentence as the entity that manifests meaning (vak punah prakasayaty-arthan– Nir.9.l9); and, as a fixed combination of words (niyata-vacoyukti) which is unchangeable (niyata-vacoyuktayo niyata-anupurvya bhavanti – Nir.I.l5).The meaning of a sentence remains un-altered even with a shift in the position of the words.
The Next question was whether the words have an independent existence of their own or whether they are merely segments of a sentence which, in truth, is an indivisible entity producing a definite meaning.
There was a line of argument (Pada-vadin) which asserted that a word though being a part or a segment (Khanda) of a sentence is, indeed, an independent unit of thought and meaning; it enjoys its own existence and characteristics; and, it is only the harmonious unity of such meaning-bearing words that lends a purpose to the sentence. The School which supported this line of argument, upholding the independent nature of the word, came to be known as Khanda-paksha.
The other School , which opposed the above standpoint, emphasized that the sentence is the fundamental, indivisible (A-khanda) linguistic unit; words are just the components of a sentence; and, mere words without reference to a sentence are abstractions and unreal; and do not convey a definite meaning. The thrust of this argument (Vakya-vadin) was that a sentence is an indivisible, integrated unit; and, in the absence of a structured sentence, the individual words, by themselves, do not communicate a sense or the intent of the speaker. It asserted; the meaning of a sentence, as a whole, is an indivisible entity. The School which advocated this argument was known as the A-khanda-paksha.
Thus, even at the very early stages in the development of Vyakarana (Grammar) we find two fundamental approaches to the study of the problem of meaning: the khanda-paksha and the A-khanda-paksha.
The Khanda-Paksha is about the primacy of the word (Pada or Sabda). Khanda-paksha treats the word as an autonomous unit of thought and meaning. Here, the language study is primarily based on words; and the sentence is taken to be an assembly of such words. The Khanda-paksha confined its inquiry to the meaning of the words by treating words as self-contained and self-explaining units. It did not pay much attention to the sentence, its structure and its overall meaning. It simply said that a sentence is nothing more than a group of words; and its meaning is just the sum of the meanings carried by its words.
Sabaraswamin , the great Mimamsaka , also argues that the sentences cannot have any separate meaning apart form the meanings of the words composing it. The meaning of a sentence is comprehended only on the comprehension of the meanings of the component words. The sentence can have no independent meaning apart from the meanings of the words composing it. This theory, known as Abhihitanvaya vada , is believed to have been based upon the views of the Grammarian Vajapyayana. who had said that meaning of a sentence is the Samsarga or the mutual relation of the individual word-meanings expressed by the words . The Abhihitanvaya vada was also supported by the Mimamsakas of the Bhatta School and by some scholars of the Nyaya School.
Kumarila Bhatta , another Mimamsaka , said that the meaning of a sentence is always conveyed by the meanings of words obtained from the word itself. Unlike the words, the sentence does not have a meaning of its own independently.
In the context of the Vedas, the Pada or Sabda is just not the pronounced or uttered word; it is indeed the Vac the eternal speech itself, existing before creation of the worlds.
Though the riks of the Rig-Veda were expressed in the form of sentences, great importance was paid to its constituent words. It is said; Sakalya (Nir. 6. 28), the earliest known historical figure who dealt with linguistic studies, therefore, took up the task of compiling the Pada-paatha of Rig-Veda, where the sentences of the Samhita Paatha (the original text, as it is) were broken down into words (pada) and arranged in sequential order; and, the process also involved breaking up compound words into their elements. The intention was to clearly bring forth the meaning (Artha) and the denotive power (Shakthi) of individual words in the sentence. Sakalya’s service to the study of Vedic text is acknowledged by Panini the Great Grammarian.
Yaska-charya (earlier to 5th century BCE), the great etymologist of the ancient India, believed that every Vedic word has an expressive power to denote a certain sense. And, as a signifier (vacaka), every word is eternal (vyaptimattvat tu sabdasya – Nir.I.2); and, is critical in arriving at an unerring meaning of a statement. Thus, the word, the meaning and their mutual relations are eternal.
In his remarkable work Nirukta (Nir+Ukta = to explain clearly; Nirukti or Nirvacana shastra, meaning etymology – derivation and semantic explanation of words) ; which is also a commentary on Nighantuka, a sort of glossary – Yaska attempts to establish the proper meaning of certain selected Vedic words (including their prepositions and the particles), in the context of ‘how, where, when and why’ it is stated in the text . For the purpose of his study, Yaska chose about 600 stanzas from the Rig-Veda; and created a well organized glossary to understand and to interpret, particularly, the archaic, uncommon words used in the Vedic texts.
His study also included a system of rules for forming words from roots and affixes. According to Yaska, every word is derived from a root; and by analyzing the root, its tendency and the suffix, it is possible to establish the relation between word and meaning.
[According to Prof. Jan E.M. Houben; on the methodology of the Nirukta as a discipline, Yäska has the following to say:
With reference to this, the words, the accent and the grammatical form of which are regular and accompanied by a radical modification which gives a hint, should be derived in the ordinary manner. But, If the meaning Is not perspicuous; and, if there is no radical modification which gives a hint, one should investigate [the word to be explained], taking one’s stand on the meaning, according to a similarity (of a verbal root with a suitable meaning) to the derived from (i.e., to the word to be explained). Even If no similar [verbal root] is found, one should explain [the word] according to a similarity in syllable or phoneme. But , never should one abstain from explaining [by deriving it from some root], one should not be attached to the grammatical form [too much], for the derived forms (i.e., the words to be explained) are full of uncertainties
2,1: atha.nirvacanam : tad.yeṣu.padeṣu.svara.saṃskārau.samarthau.prādeśikena.vikāreṇa.(guṇena.Bh).anvitau.syātām.tathā.tāni.nirbrūyād;atha.ananvite.arthe.aprādeśike.vikāre.artha.nityaḥparīkṣeta.kenacid.vṛtti.sāmānyena;avidyamāne.sāmānye.apy.akṣara.varṇa.sāmānyān.nirbrūyān.na.tv.eva.na.nirbrūyāt;na.saṃskāram.ādriyeta.viśayavatyo.(hi.Bh).vṛttayo.bhavanti ]
In the Nirukta, Yaska has tried to explain those selected Vedic words from the perspective of the various linguistic aspects, four parts of speech (Catvari padajatani) such as: noun (naman), verb (akyata), preposition (upasarga), and particle (nipata) –
(catvāri.pada.jātāni.nāma.ākhyāte.ca.upasarga.nipātāś.ca.tāni.imāni.bhavanti ...Nir .l.l) .
kriyavacakam akhyatam; upasapgo visesakrt / sattva-abhidhayakam namah ; nipatah padapuranah //
In addition, Yaska takes up the up general definitions, special definitions, synonyms, homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but convey different meanings), common and obscure grammatical forms, words and their meanings, and the etymology of these words. Yaska terms such analytical method as samaskara (treatment) or sastrakrto yogah (grammatical combination)
[Of the four parts of speech (chatvari padajatani) Yaska gives greater importance to nouns and verbs (naman, akyata), which are employed independently , than to prepositions (upasarga) and particles (nipata), which cannot present a clear meaning when detached from nouns or verbs – na nirbaddha upasarga arthannirahuriti Sakatayanah – • Nir.I.3.
According to Yaska; Sakatayana held the view that the prepositions are indicative (dyotaka) rather than denotative (vacaka) — (nama-akahyatayostu karmopasamyoga-dyotaka bhavanti~ Nir.I.3)
When that logic is extended, it leads to say: the phonemes and syllables are not independent entities conveying their own meaning; nevertheless they are parts of the word; but, the meaning of the word does not solely arise out of them. Meaning is the function of the word as a whole.
Between the noun and the verb, Yaska treats the verb as the nucleus of a sentence. The logic behind this appears to be that it enables one to explain ‘Why something is called what it is called’ by linking it to some activity; thereby establishing its relation to a verb or verbal-root.
In this context , Yaska also mentions that Gargya did not agree with the views of Sakatayana ; and, that Gargya had pointed out that the prepositions do have a meaning .
ucca.avacāḥ.pada.arthā.bhavanti.iti.Gārgyas / tad.ya.eṣu.pada.arthaḥ.prāhur.ime. tam.nāma.ākhyātayor.artha.vikaraṇam/ ā.ity.arvāg.arthe.pra.parā.ity.etasya.prātilomyam – Nir.1.3 .
Yaska seems to have gone along with Gargya; for, he enumerates twenty prepositions , along with their meanings.
According to Yaska, Verb (Akhyata) is the vital unit of language through which we express our intentions and actions; and, a sentence without a verb serves no purpose (tad.yatra.ubhe.bhāva.pradhāne.bhavataḥ– Nir. l. l).]
It is interesting to note that the ancient Grammarians did not devote as much attention to sentence and its structure as they did to the word. The noted Grammarians like Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali were mainly concerned with the derivation of the correct form of words. Yaska and other etymologists were occupied with word-meanings. Even the Nyaya-sutras of Vatsayana discuss the nature of individual words.
Though the later texts of Nyaya – Vaisesika School bring in the factors necessary for understanding a sentence; it was only the Mimamsa school that started detailed study of sentence ; and developed sets of rules for understanding word-meaning and its relationship with the sentence (one of its alternate names is Vakyashastra). But, yet the relationship between word-meaning (Pada-artha) and sentence-meaning (vakya-artha) continued to be a major problem of concern.
Among the ancient writers, neither Panini nor Gautama defined the sentence and its essential characteristics. Jayanta Bhatta of Nyaya School (in his Nyayamanjari, Ca.10th century) remarks that the absence of such discussion might be because that Mimamsa and Nyaya Schools considered the sentence to be merely a combination or a sequence of words ; the word as nothing more than a combination of phonemes (Varna) ; and , the syllables as independent units. The syllables (having a vowel) by themselves may not convey meaning; but, they are capable of conveying meaning when they combine.
[Generally, the ancient Indian Grammarians and Logicians took a word as the unit of speech and considered a sentence as a combination of words for the purpose of communicating a meaning.
According to abhihita-anvaya-vada (of Bhatta Mimamsa), each word in a sentence conveys its primary and individual meaning by virtue of primary denotation (abhidha). And then the meaning of the sentence arises from the combined construed (anvaya) meanings of its words. The meaning of a sentence is thus is just a synthesis of the separate meanings of its words.
Another view anvita-abhidhana-vada (of Prabhakara Mimamsa), instead, says that individual words do not convey meaning except when they are associated (anvita) with or indicate an action (kriya). And, no word can be understood as having independent meaning when it is isolated from a sentence.
According to the monist view, the meaning of the sentence is grasped by the listener as a whole, in a flash. The individual word-meanings appear as parts of a sentence; but, the whole is simply not the sum of parts. It is something more. The unified sentence-meaning is referred to by different terms , such as : Vakyartha; Samsarga ; or, Tatparyartha. It is also called as the power of the sentence to assimilate and to convey a connected sense – Vakyashakthi.
The relation between the words and the sentence (bheda or samsarga) ; and, specifically , the question: how could a series of isolated words uttered one after another could together produce a unity that makes meaning – continued to engage various schools of Grammarians and philosophers alike.
The later Grammarians such as Mukulabhatta and others tried to bring together these varied concepts ; and, form a unified theory – Samucchaya vada (evam caitayah samucchaya iti) . ]
Among the Grammarians, Katyayana was perhaps the first to define a sentence (Akhyatam savyaya-karaka-visesham vakyam). In his Vartika, he called a sentence (Vakya) as an eka-tin-vakyam; meaning: a cluster of words having a single finite verb , a karaka (= a factor of action), together with a noun and a qualifier. Panini, however, seems to have accepted the possibility of a sentence having more than one finite verb (tinn atinah – 8.1.28). Mimamsa tried to explain the difference between the two positions as that of Akanksha, the intention (Artha) of the speaker (Arthaikyad vakyam ekam vakyam sakanksam ched vibhage syat – Jaimini Sutra: 2.1.46).
According to Dr. Kunjunni Rajah (Indian Theories of Meaning – chapter Four) : Mimamsa put forward their theory of understanding the clear meaning of synthetic units of a sentence mainly based on three norms: Akanksa, Yogyata and Samnidhi.
Akanksa or the mutual expectancy of the words consists in a word not being able to convey a complete sense in the absence of another word. Literally, it is the desire on the part of the listeners to know the other words or their meaning to complete the sense. A word is said to have Akanksa for another, if it cannot, without the latter produces knowledge of its inter-connection in an utterancen.
In a sentence, every word necessarily requires another word to complete the sense. To convey the meaning of noun in a sentence, a verb is always needed.
Yogyata is the logical compatibility of consistency of the words in a sentence for mutual association; and, whether it makes sense. When we utter a sentence, if the meaning of a sentence is not contradicted by experience, there is a Yogyata or consistency between the words.
If the words in a sentence should be contiguous in time, it is known as Samnidhi or asatti of a sentence. It is the immediate recollection of the words through their expressive power (lakshana). Words uttered at long intervals cannot produce the knowledge of any interrelation among them even if Akanksa and Yogyata are present there. If a man utters a word a long interval after the first word, then the connection of the meaning cannot be understood.
To these three , some scholars of the Nyaya School have added the fourth criteria, the Tatparya or Tatparya-jnana , the knowledge of the intention of the speaker ; or the comprehension of the general purport of the sentence. later, Abhinavagupta and others , following Jayantabhatta of Nyaya school, recognized Tatparya-vrtti, as a specific function which forges a relationship among various word-meanings.
[The Mimamasa employs the term Tatparya to indicate the substance or the intent of the statement , even without reference to the speaker or his intent. It says ; it would suffice if the predicate or the active part or Sadhya , that which is about to happen (Videya) is known.
As regards Akanksha, the Mimamasa said that a group of words serving a single purpose (artha) forms a sentence, if on analysis the separate words are found to have mutual expectancy (akanksha). It says : “ so long as a single purpose is served by a number of words , which on being separated , are found to be wanting and incapable of effecting the said purpose , they form one syntactical unit – one complete Yajus-mantra”.
Prabhakara explains that in this sentence, ‘artha’ stands both for meaning and purpose; and the two are related. Kaumarila Bhatta says that it is possible to take artha as meaning in order to allow a wider scope to the principle.
[The distinction between Katyayana’s definition and Mimamsa’s explanation was discussed by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadia (2. 3-4).]
Source: The Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 5: The Philosophy of the Grammarians By Harold G. Coward, K. Kunjunni Raja-page 25]
The later Grammarians accepted Panini’s view. But, from Katyayana’s point of view, such a sentence may be considered as a complex sentence made up of two or more sentences; but, fundamentally, forming one single sentence.
The main concern of Panini the Grammarian (Ca.500 BCE) – who might have been a junior contemporary of Yaska or might have lived within a century after Yaska – was not the sentences but words (Sabda), His celebrated work Astadhyayi (the eight chapters)- also called Astaka , Sabda-anushasana and Vrittisutra – sought to ensure correct usage of words by purifying (Samskrita) the language (bhasha) – literary and spoken ( vaidika – laukika) – that was in use during his days.
Panini’s goal (lakshya) was building up of Sanskrit words (pada) from their root forms (dhatu prakara), affixes (pratyaya), verbal roots; pre-verbs (upasarga); primary and secondary suffixes; nominal and verbal terminations ; and , their function (karya) in a sentence. The underlying principle of Panini’s work is that nouns are derived from verbs.
[ Patanjali has also explained Akhyata in the sense of kriya (action) . And, verb (kriya pada) plays a very important part in constituting a sentence. A sentence in fact, cannot be framed without a verb.
He explains Kriya as Vyapara. Following the view of Patanjali, Bhartrhari defined kriya as “made up of all actions, whether accomplished or unaccomplished, which are expressed as being accomplished because they have a definite sequence.”]
Patanjali, who in the Grammar-tradition (Vyakarana parampara) is regarded as next only to Panini, also focussed on words. According to him, the basic linguistic unit is a word – provided it generates a meaning. However, Mimamsa opposes this view; and asserts that any aggregation of letters with or without meaning could be a word.
Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, a commentary on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, commences with the statement ‘atho sabda-anu-shasanam’: here begins the instruction on words (or, let us now discuss the rule governing the words). The three important subjects that Patanjali deals with are also concerned with words: formation of words; determination of meaning; and, the relation between a word (speech sounds –Sabda) and its meaning. He also stresses about the need to learn Grammar and to use correct words; to understand the nature of words whether or not the words have fixed or floating meanings and so on.
[In contrast , Apoha the Buddhist theory does not give any credence to the words. It believes that the essence of meaning is negative in character and that words have no direct reference to objective realities. They are purely subjective construction of the mind (Vikalpa); and, therefore there can be no real connection between words and the external objects. The word ‘cow’ doesn’t actually mean the animal with dewlap, horns etc. It means only the exclusion of all objects that are not cow.]
The Astadhyayi of Panini, as per its working scheme, attempts to produce words and sentences based on their verbal roots (dhatu), nominal themes (prathipadika) and suffixes (pratyaya). These constituent elements are invested with meaning. Derived from these elements, in their various combinations, words and sentences are formed to express collection of meanings as held by these elements.
But, according to Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the basic purpose of a grammar is to account for the words; not by enumerating them; but, by writing a set of general (samanya) rules (lakshana) that govern them and by pointing out to exceptions (visesha).These general rules, according to him, must be derived from the usage, for which the language of the ‘learned’ (shista) is taken as the norm.
Katyayana , in his Vartika , had also said that the way to understand the relation between the word and the meaning is through its popular usage (siddhe sabda-artha-sambandhe lokath).
Gautama , in his Nyaya sutra, held similar views ; and, said that it is by convention that the meaning of a word is understood (samayikatavak sabda-artha-sampratyayasya – NS.4.18)
[Though both Panini and Patanjali discussed about words and their relevance in Grammar, their approach differed significantly.
For Patanjali, it is the words themselves and not its constituents that produce a meaning. According to him, the Grammar analyzes the words, thereby arriving at their constituent elements, though such parts may not be the true bearers of the meaning. This perhaps is the reason that many understand Grammar as Vyakarana, in the sense of analysis.
For Panini, on the other hand, Grammar proceeds differently. It is a way of synthesis. His Grammar does not divide the words into stems and suffixes. On the contrary, it combines the constituent elements with a view to form words. So, Grammar here is understood as ‘the word formation’ or as an ‘instrument by which forms are created in various ways’ (vividhena prakarena akrtayah kriyante yena).]
The A-khanda-paksha on the other hand, argued that the sentence is one fundamental linguistic unit (samvit). The sentence is indivisible (A-khanda); and, as a whole expresses a certain meaning; and, its meaning is not reducible to its parts. Thus, the meaning is not in the individual words which are mere parts; but, is in the sentence as a whole, in its entirety (A-khanda). That is to say; the sentence employs certain units in order to arrive at a definite meaning. The meaning so arrived at is because of the unity or integral nature of the sentence; but, not because those units are meaningful in themselves. The meaning of a sentence remains un-altered even if the positions of the words within it are altered.
According to Anvitabhidhana theory of Prabhakara, the isolated words are not helpful in the communication of ideas. He said; the implied meaning of words can be known only when they occur in a sentence. But, Prabhakara regarded the words as real and actual constituents of the language. According to him, in language, each word has definite meaning/s. Thus, his theory , though it does not deny the importance of the meaning of the words and their indicative power (Abhidha); yet, it asserts that the purpose of the of words is only to serve the sentence, as its part.
As mentioned earlier, the thrust of this argument was that a sentence is an indivisible, integrated unit; and, in the absence of a structured sentence, the individual words, by themselves, do not communicate a sense or the intent of the speaker. Mere words without reference to a sentence are abstractions and unreal; and do not convey a definite meaning. It asserted; the sentence and its meaning, as a whole, is an indivisible entity (A-khanda). The sentence, though it is indivisible (A-khanda), it has the power o£ manifestation through various letters and words.
The champion of the A-khanda Paksha Vada was none other than Bhartrhari. He assigned a greater priority to sentence. Bhartrhari regarded the sentence as a single ‘integral symbol’(eko anavayah sabdah); an indivisible unit of communication ; an integral sentence the meaning of which is grasped by an instantaneous flash of understanding or perception through of intuition (Prathibha). The complete and true meaning of a sentence is achieved only by means of such ‘intuitive perception’ (Vakya–Sphota). That according to Bhartrhari is the true and complete communication.
“there is no phonemes (Varna) in the word; and, nor are there any parts of the phonemes. It is entirely not possible to separate words from the sentence”.
pade na varṇā vidyante varṇeṣv avayavā na ca / vākyāt padānām atyantaṃ pravibhāgo na kaś cana // VP:1.74 //
That is to say; a sentence alone is the unit of utterance; a single indivisible entity with a single undivided meaning that is grasped as a whole in a flash of insight (Prathibha).
According to Bhartrhari, the gross sound pattern, Dhvani or Nada, is a sequence of sounds. Those sounds are employed to convey or to give an audible form to the intent of the speaker. Those audible sounds through their divisions and time sequence, produced one after another by the speech organs, act as means (upaya) or as vehicles to transport the intent of the speaker. Such quanta of sound-sequences (words) might create an impression as though they are independent; and, the meaning intended to be conveyed by them (Sphota) comprises several parts. But, in truth, the individual words have no separate existence; and, both the sentence and its meaning (Sphota) are part-less.
[pade na varna vidyante varnesva avayaya na cha / vakyat padanam atyantam pravibhago na kascha na // VP 1.74]
According to Bhartrhari, the letter-sounds have a limited range. Each sound helps in gaining a better understanding of its next. The first one could be vague ; and , the next one little more clear and so on, until the last one, aided by the accumulated impression created by all the preceding perceptions, finally reveals the complete meaning (Sphota) with precision and distinctness.
Sphota in the ordinary conversation, according to Bhartrhari refers to a spontaneous process where a latent idea or thought arising out of the consciousness or the mind of the speaker is manifested by the sounds (Dhvani) of the spoken words employed in the sentence; and, it is directly grasped, through intuition (Prathibha), by the mind (Buddhi) of the listener.
Bharthari’s position has come to be known as Sphota-vada, the doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota derived from the root Shput conveys the meaning of: ‘to burst forth’ or in the context of Bhartrhari’s text to suggest ‘bursting forth of light or a flash of insight’. For Bhartrhari, the Sphota is an indivisible and changeless unity.
The Sphota concept was developed over long periods; but, it was fully put forward by Bharthrhari. He gave it a substantial credible form; and, provided it a philosophical basis. He maintained that the primary function of the words was to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning. We understand the meaning of a sentence wholly immediately only after the speaker utters the sentence. And, therefore, the sentence is the primary meaningful unit; and, the words extracted from the sentence analytically are only its component parts. Bhartrhari does not decry the value or the validity of words; but, only points out their status of being a part and never a whole.
Thus, Bharthrhari emphasized that the fundamental linguistic unit is indeed the complete utterance of a sentence. Just as a letter or a syllable has no parts, so also the sentence is to be taken as complete integral unit (Vakya-sphota); and, not as a collection of smaller elements.
Dr.Kunjunni Raja remarks : Bhartrhari’s theory of the ‘non reality‘ of the words is accepted only by the Grammarians in India. But, the importance of the linguistic principle underlying his Sphota theory is very great.
Bharthrhari argued that for the purpose of linguistic analysis, study of language and its grammar it might be fine to split the sentence into abstracted pieces, such as: the words, then into the roots and suffixes of the words, syntax’s etc; and discuss about their position in the sentence. Such analytical splitting is artificial (Vikalpa); does, not have much significance. He said; “it is only those who do not know the language thoroughly that analyze it into words, in order to get a connected meaning.” But, such fragmented approach is surely not suitable in the real world where men and women live, communicate and transact. In a speech-situation where the speaker communicates ones ideas and the listener grasps his/her speech, it is necessary that the utterance has to be complete. The speaker communicates and the listener understands his/her utterance as a single unit.
Bhartrhari explained that, initially, the thought exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity – Sabda or Sphota – intending a certain meaning. When uttered, ( in an effort to convey that thought through a sequence of sounds (Dhvani) that follow one after the other) , it produces certain specific sound-patterns (Nada). It might look as though the articulated word-sounds are separated in time and space. However, though the word-sounds reach the listener in a sequence, the listener eventually grasps the completed sentence as a single unit, as its meaning bursts forth (Sphota) in a flash of understanding or insight (prathibha). The same Sphota which originated in speaker’s mind re-manifests in listener’s mind, transmitting the meaning. Understanding of the meaning must be the immediate and intuitive grasp of the sentence as a whole. Thus, while the articulated sounds (Dhvani, Nada), apparently having divisions and sequence, are the external forms; Sphota is the inner unity conveying the meaning.
Various other scholars have offered their own interpretations of the Sphota theory in the light of Bhartrhari’s elucidation. The concept of Sphota is one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. As the noted scholar Bimal K. Matilal observes:
”It is rather remarkable that Bhartrihari’s recognition of the theoretical indivisibility of the sentence resonates with the contemporary linguistic view of learning sentences as wholes “;
“In modern terms Sphoṭa can be understood as having constant distinctive phonetic features, whereas Dhavni is of a phonic nature. Sphoṭa is that which is to be manifested (vyaṅgya), and the Dhvani is manifesting (vyañjaka). Sphoṭa is not uttered but it is perceived by the hearer”;
“The word does not generate the meaning; the word itself is transformed (Vivartate) into meaning. The relation between the word and its meaning is not that of ‘generator – generated’; but, that of ‘signifier-signified’. The word and its meaning, in essence, are identical;
“The Sphoṭa can be seen as a communication-device based on recognition of the truth of existence through a word/text in the hearer speaker, (sattā). It therefore is of a psychological nature, as any human speech is, for the recognition of the meaning of the text is perceived by a consciousness which lies beyond the analytic capacity of the external mind, and carries in itself all meanings; and as such, its proper understanding requires a psychological experience”;
“Even today this theory is widely recognized among modern linguists as the most complete investigation into the profundities of language, making a considerable contribution to the Philosophy of Language, the Psychology of Speech, and especially Semiotics”.
Development of the concept
It is acknowledged that it was Bharthrhari who fully developed the doctrine of Sphota in all the fields of Grammar, philosophy of Grammar and philosophy. But, it was not his invention – as he himself candidly clarified. The idea had been mentioned in various texts, much before the time of Bhartrhari, though not precisely or technically defined. It is said; Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota in the culmination of many such attempts in the past that were grappling with linguistic problems. For instance:
: – Panini mentions one Sphotayana, who spoke about the word and its meaning (avaṅ sphoṭāyanasya – PS_6,1.123), as the one who originally came up with Sphota concept.
: – Another sage Sakatayana (a grammarian who perhaps was a contemporary of Panini – ?) is also mentioned by some as the author of the Sphota–theory. Sakatayana is mentioned three times in the Astadhyayi (PS_3,4.111; PS_8,3.18 ; & PS_8,4.50) . And, Sakatayana is also said to have held the view that all words must be derived from verbal roots (atha. ananvite. arthe. aprādeśike .vikāre. padebhyaḥ. pada.itara.ardhānt.sañcaskāra.śākaṭāyanaḥ – Nir.1.13).
Some scholars recognize Sakatayana as the author of Unadi Sutra (a supplement to Panini’s Grammar, providing additional set of rules to derive nouns from their verbal roots; and, saying that all words can be analysed by the addition of affixes to verbal roots) . Though, at the same time, Gargya (descendant of Sage Garga, as mentioned in the Nirukta 1.3.12-13); and, others are said to have remarked that all nouns cannot be traced to verbal roots.
[The other ancient Grammarians such as Vyadi (author of the lost text Samgraha Sutra; and a contemporary of Panini) as also Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashya (Ca. 2nd century BCE,) had all developed certain ideas regarding the concept of Sphota.]
:- Before Panini, Yaska , the etymologist (earlier to 500 BCE), had incidentally mentioned that another ancient authority – Audumbarayana, had put forward a theory which basically said that a sentence or an utterance is a primary and an indivisible unit of language; and, reaches the faculty of the listener as a whole (Nirukta: 1-2) . Audumbarayana, it appears, had also not agreed with the four-fold classification of words into: noun (naman), verb (akyata), prepositions (upasarga) and particles (nipata) – (indriyanityam vacanam Audumbarayanah tatra chatustam no papayate –Nir.1.1-2).
[But, apparently, Yaska himself had not agreed with Audumbarayana’s view of a sentence being a primary and an indivisible unit; and, had gone on to talk about a totally different concept, Bhava – the being and becoming (Bhu) of verbs from their roots. Yaska, in that context, mentions six modes or forms of transformations (Sad bhava vikarah) of Bhava-s from the indistinct (A-vyakta) to explicit (Vyakta) and then to disappearance (vinasa). These phases are: coming into existence (jayate); existence (Asti); transformation (viparinamate); growth (vardate); decay or wane (apaksiyate); and, ceasing to exist (vinasyati).
These are the six phases of changes (parinama) do occur in all forms of life or of any entity.
Yaska further explains that a Verb (Akhyata) is mainly concerned with Bhava (action), whereas the Nouns (Naman) have Sattva (substance or existence – Asti) as the chief element in their meaning (Bhava-pradhanam akhyatam; sattva-pradhanani namani – Nir. l.l). Here, Sattva is the static aspect of the meaning (as it exists); and, Bhava, the dynamic aspect, is action (Kriya) as it takes place in temporal sequence – (bhavah karma kriya dhatvartha ity anarthantaram).
bhāva.pradhānam.ākhyātam.sattva.pradhānāni.nāmāni / tad yatra ubhe bhāva pradhāne bhavataḥ / pūrva.aparī.bhūtam.bhāvam.ākhyātena.ācaṣṭe.vrajati.pacati.iti /
upakrama.prabhṛty.apavarga.paryantam.mūrtam.sattva.bhūtam.sattva.nāmabhir.vrajyā.paktir.iti/ ada.iti.sattvānām.upadeśo.gaur.aśvaḥ.puruṣo.hastī.iti/bhavati.iti.bhāvasya.āste.śete.vrajati.tiṣṭhati.iti – Nir. l.l
[About five hundred years after Yaska, the Grammarian Durga rendered Yaska’s views more specific. According to Durga : In a sentence, the Verb is the essential element; because, it is very necessary for the sentence; while the noun is a secondary member needed for the production of the Bhava –
Vakye hy akhytam pradanam ; tad arthavat gunabhutam nama , tad arthasya bhavani-spattva anga-bhutavat , evam tadvad akhyatam vakye pradanam / ]
Thus, Sattva and Bhava are two aspects of the same existence seen from the static and dynamic points of view. It is said; the six modes of Sattva (static) and Bhava (dynamic) are found in every aspect of creation.
Yaska credits the entire doctrine of Bhava and its classification to a certain Varsayani, another ancient Vedic scholar (Nirukta.1.2). But, nothing much is known to us about this Varsayani [He or She could have been a descendant of Varsa, an adept in Varsa Saman (chant), referred to as : parivrājakā.varṣa (2,8) ].
Sad bhava – vikara bhavantiti varsayanih- Jayate-asti-viparinamate- vardhate- apaksiyate- vinasyatiti – Nir.1.2]
: – But, Bhartrhari, in turn, cites Yaska as saying that Audumbarayana outlined the Sphota theory. And, asserts that Audumbarayana and also Vartakas held views similar to his Sphota-vada; and claims that their views support his theory.
: – The later eminent grammarians, such as Nageshabhatta (7th century), the author of Manjusha and Shpota-vada; as also Haradatta the commentator (10th century), however, attribute Sphota-vada to the sage Sphotayana, as mentioned by Panini.
: – Now, going back in time, Patanjali also talked about Sphota-like concept. He said; even though the words uttered follow one after the other and do not co exist in time or space, they do converge in the mind of the listener conveying a meaning. Sphota, he says, is a permanent element in the word; and, in fact is the essence of the word. The permanent unchanging Sphota is manifested by changing sounds (Dhvani). Here, Dhvani is the uttered sound heard by the listener; and, is but an aspect of Sphota. Thus, according to Patanjali, Sphota has an internal and an external aspect. The inner aspect is the innate expression of the word-meaning; while the external aspect is a vehicle to manifest the internal aspect; and is perceived by the sense organs of the listener.
But, for Patanjali, Sphota may be a single letter or structured pattern of letters; not necessarily sentence as a whole (in contrast to the stand taken by Bhartrhari).
:- Much before all these ; Sage Kapila of the Samkhya School after discussing the concept of Sphota (described as single, indivisible; as distinct from individual letters, existing in the form of words, and constituting a whole) dismisses it totally : ‘What necessity is there for this superfluous Sphota? If, on the contrary, it does not appear, and is elusive; then , that unknown Sphota can have no power of disclosing a meaning, and consequently it is useless to suppose that any such thing as Sphota exists’(Sutra .57). All this talk of unity of meaning etc is largely an illusion; for it is the word, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.
Antye tv ajniata-spkotasga nasti artha- pratydyana-saktir iti vyartha sphota-kalpana ity arthah / Pur- vam vedanam nityatvam pratisMddham / idanlffi varna-nityat- vam api pratishedati
: – Similarly, the Mimamsa School had also discussed the Sphota concept; and, had rejected it. Sabaraswamin (Ca. first century BCE) the celebrated Mimamsaka in his comments on Mimamsa sutra (1.1.5) dismisses Sphota-vada, since it is not consistent with the Mimamsa faith in reality of Vedic words. According to Sabara, a word is nothing more than a combination of phonemes (Varna) and the syllables are independent units. The syllables, by themselves, might not convey the meaning; but when they combine they do convey a meaning – autpattikaḥ śabdasya-ārthena saṃbandhas. He did not see a need for a Sphota – pratyakṣādibhir anavagatasya / – katham? .
Jaim_1,1.5: autpattikas tu śabdasyārthena saṃbandhas tasya jñānam upadeśo ‘vyatirekaś ca arthe ‘nupalabdhe, tat pramāṇaṃ bādarāyaṇasya, anapekṣatvāt //
: – The renowned philosopher Upavarsha (a senor contemporary of Panini – Ca. 500 BCE) had also rejected the Sphota-vada; and, had remarked: all this talk of unity of meaning etc. is largely an illusion, for it is the words, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.
Upavarsha, in turn, had come up with his theory of Varna-vada; according to which the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phonemes =Varna-s) alone are real constituents of a word. He said: what is called as a ‘word’ (Sabda) is its individual letters – (for instance the word ‘gauh’ – cow is made of ‘g’, ’au’ and ‘h’). He decaled sounds are only Varna -s; and, there is no need for a Sphota.
[We shall talk more about Upavarsha and of Sri Sankara who followed Upavarsha, later in the series]
In any case, all this was just to show that even in the ancient Vedic and in little later times the concept of Shpota was widely debated and various types of its interpretations were offered. Some orthodox Schools which recognized Vak or speech as a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman, and Pranava (Aum) as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were deemed to have evolved, acknowledged the need to perceive the sentence as a whole and not merely as a collection of words.
At the same time there were also many others who dismissed the idea of Sphota as being far-fetched, superfluous and useless; and, remarked that such unreal, Sphota can have no power of disclosing a meaning.
In the next part let’s discuss about the Sphota doctrine as expounded by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya; as also the views of its critics and supporters.
References and Sources
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