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Yaska and Panini – Part One


Yaska and Panini – Part One


Yaska and Panini are two of the most celebrated scholars of the Sanskrit linguistic sciences.  Yaskacharya is renowned as a Great Etymologist (Niruktakara), whose work, the Nirukta, is looked upon as the oldest available authoritative treatise concerning derivation of certain selected Vedic words. And, Panini, the Grammarian par excellence (Maha-Vaiyakaranah), is reverently addressed as Bhagavata  Pāine Acārya. And, his Grammar Aṣṭādhyāyī (inīktaSūtrapāham), the most distinguished treatise that set the linguistic standards for Classical Sanskrit, is referred to as Paniniyam Maha-shastram.

There is often a tendency to compare the approach and the methods adopted by the two Greats to their respective fields of study.


It is said; Yaska preceded Panini (Ca.5th century B C E) by about a century or, perhaps, more. This is based, rather tentatively, upon the Sutra: Yaska-adibhyo gotre (PS_2.4.63) in Panini’s Astadhyayi. Further, Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashya on Panini’s Astadhyayi, suggests that Yaska hailed from the Paraskara Country – (pāraskara deśa P_6, 1.157) – (?*), on the basis of Panini’s Sutra – Pāraskara-prabhtīni ca sajñāyām (PS. 6.1.157). And often, salutations are submitted to Yaska with the mantra: Namo Paraskaraya, Namo Yaskaya.

 [*According to some,Paraskara corresponds to Tharaparkar in the Sindh region]

It appears during the time of Yaska, the then contemporary Sanskrit, though not the same, was yet somewhat near to the Sanskrit of the ancient Vedas (Chhandas). In fact, Yaska, in his Nirukta (1.1; 1.15), remarks: the Vedic stanzas are still meaningful; because, their words are almost close to the currently spoken Sanskrit. However, understanding certain obscure terms of Vedic Mantras had become rather difficult.

samāmnāyaḥ samāmnātaḥ sa vyākhyātavyaḥ /1.1/.. Atha api idam antareṇa mantreṣv artha pratyayona vidyate / Nir.1.15 /

The Sanskrit, when it was a living language, was evolving and changing from period to period. For instance; the language of the Upanishads is not, in every respect, the same as the language of the Rig-Veda. And again, the language of Classical period differed, substantially, from that of the Upanishads.

Accordingly, by the time of Yaska, the Sanskrit language had changed a great deal since the period of the Vedas; and, was more or less bereft of the characteristic Vedic phonetic and semantic forms.  But, at the same time, the link between the Vedic idioms and the contemporary language had not entirely worn-out.

Nevertheless, in the process, over a period, say by the First millennium BCE, interpretation of certain Vedic terms had indeed become rather vague and imprecise. The tradition had apparently broken down; and, by the time of Yaska, the meaning of some archaic words in the   Vedic Riks could no longer be grasped clearly.

Yaska points out the differences between the Vedic Sanskrit (which Panini calls as Chhandas) and the contemporary language (Bhasha) – Na iti pratiedha arthīyo bhāāyām ubhayam anvadhyāyam (Nir.1, 4)

Yaska described the position then obtaining (Nir.1.20); and, remarked: the Rishis, who envisioned, had direct perception (dṛṣṭayo bhavanti) of the meaning of the Vedic hymns (evam ucca avacair abhiprāyair sīnām mantra dṛṣṭayo bhavantiNir.7.3). But, the later generations had lost that faculty; and, did not fully understand the meaning of certain mantras. Therefore, with a view to helping the future learners in comprehending the meaning of certain difficult passages of the Vedas, the texts like Nighantu and Nirukta were composed.

Upadeśāya glāyanto avare bilma grahanāya imam grantham samāmnāsiur vedaś ca veda agāni ca- // Nir.1.20 //


Yaskacharya 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, it performs a critical function in helping to arrive at an unerring, definitive meaning of a statement.

Yaska, therefore, remarks that it is essential that one should realize this truth.  And,  in the absence of such realization, a person, who merely recites the Vedas, without comprehending its meaning, would be like a pillar (sthaanu) or a mere load-bearer (bhara-haara). And, it is only he, who fully grasps and appreciates the meaning of what he is reciting (arthajña), that will attain the good – both here and hereafter (sakalam bhadram-aśnute-nākam); having been purged of all impurities by the power of knowledge (jñāna vidhūta pāpmā).

sthāur ayam bhāra-hāra kila abhūd adhītya vedam na vijānāti yo artham / yo arthajña it sakalam bhadram aśnute nākam eti jñāna vidhūta pāpmā (Nir.1. 18)

Yaska goes further; and tenders a sage-like counsel (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 her  / Many a one, although hearing, do not hear her/ And for many a one, she spreads out [Her] body, like a wife desiring her husband. / The meaning of Speech (Vac) is its fruit and flower. (Translation by Eivind Kahrs)

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




As mentioned earlier, in order to instruct , to guide and to help such of those who were ill at ease with the Vedic language; and, those who did not fully comprehend the meaning of the mantras, the texts such as Nighantu  (joined together or  strung together  words) and others were compiled; its plural being Nighantava.  Yaska calls these texts as Samāmnāyam Nighaṇṭava  (enumerations)Nir. 1, 1

 [Albrecht Weber (The History of Indian Literature (1892) on page 25) points out that correct name of such texts should be Nigranthu (strung together); and, not Nighantu, as it is generally called]

The Nighantu could briefly be described as a glossary of certain Vedic words – in the exact form in which they appear in the Vedic texts; and, as the earliest known systematic work, clearly dividing the words of the Sanskrit language into the groups of nouns, verbs , prepositions and particles.

[However, Nighantu is not an exhaustive list of all Vedic words. It includes only such words as were considered ambiguous, obscure, or synonymous.]

Durga , the commentator, therefore, calls Nighantu  an example (Udaharana); and, he explains its  purpose  by saying : In order that we get the knowledge of  the meaning of the Vedic verses (mantra-artha-parijnana), the Rishis have composed (sam-amnaya) this text, which in its five parts (pancha-adhyayayi), could serve as an example for  forming  a more exhaustive compendium of the Shastras.

Sa Ca Rsibhir mantra-artha-parijnanayo udaharana bhutah, pancha-adhyayayi shastra samgraha bhaven ekasmin amnaye granthikrta ity arthah (1.30;3-4)


The Nighantus, as a class of texts, consist five chapters, which are again divided into three sections.

The first section, comprising the first three chapters, deals mainly with synonyms (Nighantuka-kanda), which, perhaps, is the earliest.

The second section covering the fourth chapter (Naigama or Aikapadika-kanda) dealing with homonyms, contains a list of ambiguous and particularly difficult words of the Veda.

The third section, covering the fifth chapter (Daivata-kanda), gives the names of deities; and, their classification under the three regions, earth, sky and the intermediate space.

The Nighantus, upon which Yaska offers his comments, are the most ancient in a long and hoary tradition of lexicography. Besides the Nighantus and the Nirukta there are the Koshas (vocabularies) and Anukramanika (indexes).

The Nighantu, which mostly lists the archaic words occurring in the Rig-Veda, is also meant to functions as a compliment to the Vyakarana (Grammar).

In addition, it also serves a practical purpose; which is 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, without a blemish; and, its objective is achieved successfully.



Further, with a view to comprehend and to restore the correct meaning of certain antiquated words appearing in the Vedas, the method of Nirvachana (Nir+Vac = clear explanation of words) was applied to the glossary of Nighantu.

The term Nirvachana, which embodies the principles of etymology, is understood as the study which enables the analysis of a word; its formation; the different senses it  conveys (yathartham), in accordance with its derivation (vyutpattih) (Nirvachanam nama sabdasya yathartham vyutpattih); and, by taking into account the contextual factors (samsarga) , as well.

Such a field of analytical study had  perhaps become necessary; because, almost a quarter of words in the Vedic texts, composed in the Second millennium BCE, appeared just once; and, their meaning and intent had become imprecise.


Nighantu -Nirukta

The related field of learning, which deals with the derivation and semantic explanation of words, came to be known as Nirvachana Shastra or Nirukti, (‘interpretation’ or derivation and semantic explanation of words) a branch of etymology.

It attempted to systematically put forward theories on how words are formed; and, how their meanings are to be determined in the context of the Vedas.  Its related subsidiary texts were known as Nirukta (Nir + Ukta or Nir-Vac = to explain clearly).

And, Nirukta developed into a branch of etymology; offering explanations about the derivation of certain chosen words of the Vedas , in order to comprehend; to determine; and,  to restore their proper meaning. In the process, the Nirukta systematically discussed how to understand the significance of archaic, uncommon words used, mainly, in the Rig-Veda.

Nirukta is very closely connected with the Vedas. The body of Yäska’s work is a commentary on most of the words of the Nighantu; which again is a glossary of certain Vedic words. The main task of the Nirukta of Yaska is to explain most of the rare and obscure Vedic words by resorting to various possible etymologies.

[Sri Sayanacharya , in the preface to his Rig-bhashya, extols the approach of Yaska for explaining the uncommon aspects (Tattvas) of the Vedas; while other Vedangas are engaged in secular subjects – arthāvabodhe nirapekatayā padajāta yatrokta tan Niruktam  

Sri Sayana concluded his exposition of the Nirvachana-shastra with the remark: the Nirukta is useful for grasping the meaning (Artha) of the Vedas – tasmat Veda-rtha ava bodha- upayuktam Niruktam ]


The Brahmana texts

It is said; the Brahmana texts were indeed the earliest attempts made in the study of etymology (Nirukta) of Vedic words.

The etymologies in the Bråhmanas were believed to bring to light the connections that underlie between the explicit and the implicit ideas that are normally concealed. Such revelations also helped to emphasize the fact that words could, often, have multiple etymologies. 

And, with that, it was realized that  certain  words  may possibly  have the potential to function as the  network of ideas; not being confined to merely suggesting the possibility of having a set of synonyms’. 

It is said; the Brahmana texts explain the mantra-passages in ten different ways –Nirvachana; and Vyava-dharana-kalpa.

The advantages of analysing a word or a technical term; and studying it from the point of view of more than one etymology, are said to be, that one gains access to the realities that were till then latent or hidden.  Which is to say; one becomes aware of   the unknown through the known. The knowledge, so acquired through such revelation – the texts emphasize repeatedly – are of great importance: as, it helps to widen the awareness of one who is fired with zeal to learn.

And, Yaska’s work, as also the works of those other Nairuktas, who   preceded him, such as Sakapuni, Aupamanyava, et al, were all said to be based upon the derivations and explanations as provided in the Brahmana literature. That is evidenced by the fact that all the characteristic features of the etymologies in the Nirukta are said to be based in the Bråhmanas. And, the Brähmanas many times provide the narrative background for an etymology given in the Nirukta. Further, Yaska also frequently quotes passages from Brahmana-texts, in support of his etymologies.

Some scholars regard Yaska’s Nirukta as a methodical extension of the   explanations of words, as in the Brähmanas.


Yaska’s Nirukta

Yaska’s Nirukta brings together and presents, with comments, in a cohesive form those matters that were already discussed in other earlier texts. And, the selected Verses of the Rig-Veda, of course, are the main substance that is commented upon and made explicit, by using illustrative passages and the explanations as given in the Nighantu and in the Brahmanas. And, this forms the important part of Yaska’s Nirukta.

Nirukta as a distinct branch of etymology is primarily concerned with the meaning of a word or of a term – Artha pradhana; and, determines the meaning it conveys or is intending to convey, by tracing the roots of its formation.

Sri Sayana gives an analysis of the name of Yaska’s Nirukta: that which fully (nihsesha) provides (ucyante) the various possible (sambhavitah) meanings of the constituent elements (avayava-artha) of each individual word (ekaikasya padasya) by tracing its root (vyutpatti), is called Nirukta.

Tad api Niruktam ity ucyate / ekaikasya padasya sambhavita avayav-arthas tarta nihseseno ucyante iti vyutpatteh /

Here, the context in which the word appears, as well as the function it serves therein, assumes much importance, in order to understand the real significance of a word. Because, the Nirvachana principle, which is adopted in the Nirukta   is , essentially, concerned with  the formation of a word , and meaning in a given context; and , in a different context, the word could give forth a different meaning;  then, the  Nirvacana would also differ.

evam.anyesām.api.sattvānām.sadehā.vidyante/tāni.cet.samāna.karmāi.samāna. NirvacanāniNir. 2, 7

It is therefore, said; a Niruktakara would never handle a word, torn out of its context (Na ekapadani Nirbhuyat- Nir.2.3); because, it would otherwise lead to a mere speculation about  its probable intended meaning.

[Similarly, Bhartrhari clarifies (VP.1.59): all the elements extracted from the word in the course of linguistic analysis are valid in their own context. The elements that are relevant in the context of one activity may not be valid in the context of another. That is to say; each kind of activity, i.e. each kind of communicative situation, has its own reality , which in some ways might differ from the realities of other situations.

bhedenāvagṛhītau dvau śabdadharmāv apoddhṛtau/ bhedakāryeṣu hetutvam avirodhena gacchataḥ  (VP.1.59)  ]


Yaska’s Nirukta is not a ‘basic text’ of a Nirvacana-shastra from which a certain tradition of interpretation distinct from Vyakarana develops. It is, initially, a commentary on the Nighantu texts, which, again is a glossary of Vedic words; and, subsequently, it is an explanation of certain selected passages from the Rig-Veda. Thus, the two traditions – Vedic and Nighantu- are intertwined in Yaska’s work.

According to Yaska, every Vedic word has a meaning; and, denotes an appropriate sense. A mantra, for the Nirukta, suggests the activity of the mind (mantro-mananath).  Here, speech is regarded as the vehicle of thought; and, whatever that comes within the purview of thought also comes within the purview of speech.  In other words; Nirukta belongs to class of texts that are designed to intellectually explore and present the precise meaning of the Vedic mantras.

The aim of Yaska’s etymology is to understand the real significance of a word. It is not a subject of antiquarian interest; but, is of great importance to the study of meaning of Vedic mantras by countless generations that succeeded Yaska.

Besides that, the etymology featured in the Nirukta is of great importance for the study of Sanskrit language, in general. Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya, very frequently  refers to Yaska’s Nirukta; and,  so does  Sri Sayanacharya , in the later times.

Nirukta is important for several other reasons, as well. Firstly, it presents the type of the earliest classical style that was used in the Rig-Veda; and, secondly, it is the oldest known attempt in the field of Vedic etymology.

As regards the importance of the etymology, the Nirukta, Yaska asserts , right at the commencement of his work : without this science, one cannot gain the precise meaning of certain Vedic terms; and , therefore, one cannot clearly understand and grasp of the import of Vedic mantras, as well.

Samāmnāyah samāmnāta sa vyākhyātavya/ idam antarea mantre vra artha pratyayo na vidyate iti Nir. 1,1

[ Please do not fail to read the remarkable study on the Language of the Nirukta by Dr. Mantrini Prasad (DK Publishing House – 1975). It is very thorough, detailed and authoritative; and, is imperative for anyone earnestly undertaking the study of Yaska’s Nirukta.]


Word (Sabda) and Meaning (Artha)

Yaska uses the term Sabda to denote ’the word’ as also ‘the sound’. The sound could either be (a) inarticulate (various natural sounds) – dhvanya-tmaka; or (b) articulate – varnat-maka

The articulate sounds (varnat-maka sabda) can be comprehended by the listeners without much effort – (Vyāptimattvāt tu śabdasya aīyastvāc ca śabdena sañjñā karaa vyavahāra artham loke – Nir.I.2) .

And, it again, has two forms (i) Sarthaka (meaningful); and (ii) Anarthaka (meaningless). Here, Yaska mentions about the meaningless particles (Nipata) used as expletives; such as:  kam, im, id and u (Nir.I.9) – nipātā ucca avaceṣv artheṣu nipatanti (Nir.1.4). Yaska’s list contains 23 Nipatas; and, an additional two Nipatas (total being 25)

Atha ye pravrtte arthe amita aksaresu granthesu vākya pūranā āgacchanti pada pūranās te mita akarev anarthakāh kam īm id v iti (Nir.I.9).

He has discussed, at length, about the words which are formed from the articulate (varnat-maka), natural, meaningful sounds, (Sarthaka).

It is said; the word (Pada) is the signifier (Vacaka); and, the meaning (Padartha) that is signified is (Vachya). That relation – Vacya-vacaka bhava – is determined by the primary function or Abhidha of a word. And, the essence of a word lies in its denotative or expressive power (Shakti).


Nirukta –Vedanga-Vyakarana

In the linguistic traditions of ancient India, Vyakarana, of course, occupied a preeminent position. But, at the same time, the value of a parallel system of linguistic analysis – Nirvachana shastra or Nirukta – which served a different purpose – was also well recognized.

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 and to carry forward the Vedas to the succeeding generations, in their pristine purity.

As said earlier; the Nirukta is reckoned as one among the six Vedangas, the ancillary Vedic sciences or disciplines related to the study of Vedas; the other five being: Vyakarana, Shiksha, Chhandas, Kalpa and Jyotisha.

Of these, the study of Nirukta is closely related to Vyakarana (Grammar). The Nirukta and Vyakarana are unique to each Veda; whereas, the other VedangasShiksha, Chhandas, Kalpa and Jyotisha – are common for all Vedas.

Though, the study of Nirukta is associated with one of the Vedangas viz., Vyakarana (Grammar), each of the two has its own focus. And, though they are divergent, they also overlap in certain areas.


As mentioned, the main task of the Nirukta of Yaska is to explain most of the rare and obscure Vedic words, by way of pointing out various possible etymologies.

Here, his Nirukta focuses on linguistic analysis to help establish the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in the Vedic texts. In such etymological explanations, Yaska has stressed on the meaning of the word (Artha nitya parīketa kenacid vtti sāmānyena- Nir.2.1), than its grammatical modifications.

Further, Yaska’s work is, culturally and intellectually, closer to the Samhitäs and Brähmanas, as compared to the Astadhyayi of Pänini.

The scope of Vyakarana, the Grammar, is much wider than that of the Nirukta; and, it covers all formats of the language. For instance; Panini discusses both the Vedic language (Chhandas) as also the bhäsä, the contemporary language, in general, spoken by the well-educated.

The term Vyakarana is defined as: Vyakriyate anena iti Vyakarana – Grammar is that which enables us to form and to examine words and sentences; and, it is both that which is to be described (lakshya) and the means of description (lakshana).

Patanjali explains; that which is to be described is the word (sabda); and the means of description is the rule (Sutra),consisting of general and specific statements .

A Grammarian determines the meaning of a word by tracing the process of its formation.

An etymologist determines the formation of a word by tracing the meaning it conveys or desires to convey.

Durga, the commentator, remarks: the Grammar (Vyakaranam) is an independent (svatantram) precise and logical system of knowledge (vidyasthanam). It deals with linguistic analysis – Lakshana pradhana – to establish the exact form of words to properly express ideas. For that purpose, it lays down the general and specific rules, which enable us to understand the exact meaning of the words (artha-nirvacanam).

Svatantram e vedam vidyasthanam artha-nirvacanam Vyakaranam tu laksana-pradhanam

And, Nirukta is the explanation of the meanings; it focuses on linguistic analysis in order to help establishing the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in the Vedic texts.


And yet, the Nirukta complements the study of Vyakarana; since, it explains the words that are not analyzed by the Vykarana.  And at the same time, it accomplishes its own purpose, which is to provide a clear understanding of the portions of the Rig-Veda text it commented upon.

Yaska asserts that the prerequisite to the study of Nirukta is the proper learning of Vyakarana. (Grammar) * .

 [*But, at the same time, Yaska remarks: 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 saskāram ādriyeta  / viśaya-hi vttayo bhavanti (Nir.2.1)]


Thus, the Nirukta, as a class of texts, is intimately related to several branches of studies, such as:  the Vedas; the Brahmanas; the Nighantu; as also to the Grammar (Vyakarana) in general.


Niruktas of the pre-Yaska period

Yaska recounts the several  Schools of Grammar or the  Grammarians who flourished before his time : Agrayana; Aindra; Apisali; Aupamanyava; Aurnabhava ; Chakravarmaa;  Galava ; Gargya;  Kashyapa ;Kaaktsna ; Katthakya ; Kautsa Kraustuki; Kuaravaava ; Sakalya; Sakaayana; Senaka ;Shakapuni; Sphoayana and others.

And, it appears; by about seventh or sixth century BCE, many of these Grammarians had compiled Nirukta texts. But, sadly, all those earlier versions of Niruktas disappeared gradually in the course of time.  It is only the Nirukta that was composed by Yaska that has survived; and, has come down to us.

Yaska, in his own Nirukta, refers to the views (either in his support or to show their divergence)  that were offered by as many as sixteen compilers (Nirukta-karas) of the Nirukta class of texts that were in existence and in circulation prior to his time (Ca. 6th century BCE) .

[Hartmut Scharfe in his  Grammatical Literature remarks : one of the interesting parts of the Nirukta is that it gives us more information on early Grammarians than any other source. And, it is all the more valuable, since almost all other information on Pre-Paninian Grammarians in the later literature is rather suspect.

In course of his work, Yaska mentions twenty four great teachers and seven different schools by name; in addition to referring to some others in a general way]

      • (1)Agrayana (1.9; 6.13;10.8);
      • (2) Audumbarayana (1.1);
      • (3) Aupamanyava (1.1; 2.2; 2.5; 2.11; 3.8; 3.11; 2.19; 5.7; 6.30; and, 10.8);
      • (4) Aurnavabha (2.26; 6.13; 7.1; 12.1; and, 12.19) ;
      • (5) Katthayaka (8.5; 8.6; 8.17; 8.10; 9.41; and, 9.42);
      • (6) Kusta (1.15);
      • (7) Kraustuki (8.2);
      • (8) Gargya (1.3; 1.12; and,1.25);
      • (9) Galava (4.3);
      • (10) Karmasiras (3.15);
      • (11) Taitiki ( 4.3 ; 5.27 );
      • (12) Varshyayani (1.2);
      • (13) Satabalaksa Maudgalya (9.6);
      • (14) Sakatayana (1.12; 1.13);
      • (15) Sakapuni (Nir.3.11 ;3.13 ;3.19; 8;  4.15;  5.3 ; 5.28; 7.14; 7.28; 8.5; 8.6; 8.10; 8.12; 8.14; 8.17; and, 12.40); and,
      • (16) Sthaulashtivi (7.14; 10.1).

Source: (pages 62 to 90) , of Sri Bishnupada Bhattacharya  ‘s scholarly work Yaska’s Nirukta  and the science of etymology  (1958)]

Of the many such Nirukta-karas; Yaska, in his Nirukta, frequently cites the explanations provided by Aupamanyava; Aurnavabha; and, Katthayaka. But, Sakapuni Rathitara is the most frequently quoted Nirukta- teacher. His views are cited by Yaska as many as about twenty times. 

It is believed; each of the Nirukta-karas, who preceded Yaska, had his own Nighantu text. And, perhaps, Yaska too had his own Nighantu.

But, such works – Nighantus as also Niruktas – of all those savants, who preceded Yaska, are lost. And, 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.


Manifold approaches to the study of Vedas

There are several approaches or methods that are generally applied for the systematic study, analysis and interpretations of the Samhita texts (the Vedas). Yaska also recognized that the Vedic texts presented multiple aspects; and could be studied and interpreted in various different ways.

Accordingly, the Samhitas were analyzed and interpreted, in varied ways, by earlier authors adhering to different sets of  disciplines , such as: Yajnika (ritualists); Nairuktas (etymologists); Aithihasika (those who traced the historical traditions); Naidana (mix of history and etymology); Parivrajaka (ascetics); the Dharma-shastrika (those who interpreted books of moral code and conduct); and, the Vaiyakaranas (Grammarians)

Aitihasikah, Nairuktah, Naidanah, Parivrajakah, Yajnikah, Dharma-shastrika and Vaiyakaranah.

The Yajnika-s, whose primary interest was the performance of the Yajna, were more concerned the sequence of the rituals to be conducted during the course of the Yajna, and the proper utterance of the related Vedic mantras; than with the meaning of the mantras that were recited by them.

tatra etad yājñikā vedayante triśad uktha pātrāni mādhyandine savana eka devatāni tāny etasmin kāla ekena pratidhānena pibanti tāny atra sara  ucyante/ 5.1/

 The Aithihasikas, on the other hand, try to relate a hymn or a Vedic passage to an event or an account concerning a deity, as narrated in a mythical story. (This, of course, is totally different from the historical analysis of the present-day.) – tvāstro.asura.ity.aitihāsikā / 2,16 /

The Naidanas’ (said to be specialists on the theory of causation) approach was similar to that of Aithihasikas – ṛcā samaṃ menaḥ iti naidānāḥ । 

The Parivrajaka, the wandering philosophers, Adhyatma-pravada, try to interpret almost every aspect of a Samhita text in terms of spiritual or mystical context-  bahu.prajā.kcchram.āpadyata.iti.parivrājakā  2,8

The Dharma-shastrikas search for points of Law or precedence in the accounts narrated in the Vedas – sākṣāt.kṛta.dharmāṇa.ṛṣayo.babhūvuḥ / te. avarebhyo. asākṣāt. kṛta. dharmabhya. upadeśena.mantrānt.samprāduḥ /1,20 /

The Vaiyakaranah, the Grammarians are mostly interested in the linguistic analysis of the Vedic texts – mandayater.iti.vaiyākaraāh / 9,5 /

But, Gargya remarks : Not all , only some Grammarians — Na sarvani iti Gargyah vaiyyakarananam ca eke syath


In contrast, Yaska chose to adopt the method of Nirukta, which analyzes the words used in the Vedic mantras; and determines their precise meaning (Nirvachana) in their proper context.

Some scholars regard  Yaska’s Nirukta as not only a work on etymology; but, also as a work on the most fascinating branches of philology, the study of language in oral and written historical sources.

But, the type of etymologies that Yaska adopted, does not typically establish a link with the mythological or historical realm; nor does it, as a rule,  reveal hidden layers of language.

It is explained; such a semantic etymology is to be distinguished from a historical etymology.

A historical etymology presents the origin or the early history of a word in question. It tells us; for example, how a word in a modern language is derived from another word belonging to an earlier language, or to an earlier stage of the same language.

A Semantic etymology does something quite different. It attempts to connect one word with one or more others which are believed to elucidate its meaning. The semantic etymologies tell us nothing about the history of a word, but something about its meaning in a particular context.

[Dr.Saroja Bhate remarks: though some scholars interpret the term Nirvachana to mean Etymology, it is, in fact, different from the modern concept of Etymology. Yaska’s etymologies do not attempt historical analysis of words.]

In his remarkable work Nirukta,  which also serves as a commentary on the Nighantu, Yaska attempts to establish the proper meaning of certain selected Vedic words, in the context of ‘how, where, when and why’ it is stated in the text .

Thus, the essential feature of Yaska’s commentary is the semantic interpretation of words based on their derivation (Nirvachana).

[As Peter M. Scharf explains in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics (11,2) : at times; Yaska provides a familiar synonym for an obscure word, in addition to its etymological derivation. For instance; in vayāḥ śākhā veteḥ (Nirukta 1.4) – the obscure word Vayāis explained through a familiar word śākhā  (the branches) ; and, Yaska says that vayā  is derived from the root vī  (to move).

But, some etymologies in the Nirukta are less explicit; they utilize semantic statements from which a phonetic analysis is easily inferred. For instance; Nirukta 2.14 explains the six words contained in Nighaṇṭu 1.4.

svar ādityo bhavati. su araṇaḥ. su īraṇaḥ. svṛtaḥ rasān. svṛtaḥ bhāsam jyotiṣām. svṛtaḥ bhāseti vā.

The first, svar, is explained as follows by Sarup (1920–27: part II, p. 30):

Svar means the sun; it is very distant, it  disperses (the darkness); it penetrates the fluids;  it is luminary; its light penetrates or pierces through the objects. It is said; the  term Svar can be derived from the pre-verb su plus the word araṇa ‘distant,’ īr ‘set in motion,’ or the root ṛ ‘go.’ The word araṇa is itself a derivation from the verb ‘go.’ ]


As Johannes Bronkhorst observes in his Etymology and magic: Yāska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the riddle of semantic etymologies 

One way to account for the validity of such semantic etymologies based on the similarity between words (for those who accept this validity) would be to claim that there are ultimate meaning bearers, such as individual sounds or small groups of them, each with its own specific meaning

[For instance; as per its etymology, the term Indra denotes the one who, by his power (Indriya), energises or kindles the vital airs (prana). The Satapatha Bråhmana  says, since he kindled (indh), he is the kindler (indha ). But, cryptically, he is called Indra

sa yo yam madhye prāa | ea evendrastānea prāānmaindra ityācakate paro
am paro ‘kakāmā hi devāsta iddhā sapta nānā puruānasjanta –

Besides the etymology of Indra, as above (from Indh), the Taittiriya Bråhmana ( offers an altogether different explanation: “No one can withstand this power (idam indriyam) in him; and, that is why he is called ‘Indra’.”

Different etymologies of one and the same word (often a name) are frequently met with, sometimes even in one and the same text. For instance;

The two different etymologies of the word Indra occur in one and the same passage at Satapatha Bråhmana

So’rcañcrāmyaścacāra prajākāma sa ātmanyeva prajātimadhatta sa āsyenaiva
jata te devā divamabhipadyā sjyanta taddevānā devatvayad divamabhipadyā sjyanta tasmai sasjānāya divevāsa tadveva devānā devatvayadasmai sasjānāya divevāsa
1.1.6.[7] ]


[According to Prof. Jan E.M. Houben, this is what Yaska said about the methodology that he adopted in the Second Chapter of his Nirukta, commencing with – Atha Nirvachanam, which states the characteristic features of Nirvachana.


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) – (Sama-artha-svara-samskara)- 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 – (Arthanityah parkseta kenchid vrtti samanyena)

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

Nir.2,1:atha.nirvacanam : tad.yeu.padeu.svara.saskārau.samarthau.prādeśikena.vikārea(guena.Bh).anvitau.syātām.tathā.tāni.nirbrūyād;atha.ananvite.arthe.aprādeśike.vikāre.artha.nityaparīketa.kenacid.vtti.sāmānyena;avidyamāne.sāmānye.apy.akara.vara.sāmānyān.nirbrūyāūyāt;na.saskāram.ādriyeta.viśayavatyo.(hi.Bh).vttayo.bhavanti ]


Yaska’s Nirukta -structure

As mentioned earlier, Nirukta is the systematic creation of a glossary; written in archaic Sanskrit prose, which discusses how to understand antiquated, uncommon words used mainly in the Rig-Veda.

For the purpose of his study, Yaska chose about 600 stanzas from the Rig-Veda; and, created a well organized vocabulary to understand the meaning; and, to interpret, particularly, the archaic, uncommon words used in the Vedic texts (artha nitya parīketa kenacid vtti sāmānyenaNir.2.1).

But, all the Mantras that he quotes are not fully explained by him. Often, Yaska passes past some mantras by saying: this mantra is self-explanatory – iti.sā.nigada.vyākhyātā (Nir.6.5). It is said; there are about 13-14 such mantras.

[Although, Yaska’s Nirukta hardly needs a commentary, in the later times, many commentaries came to be written. Of these, the commentaries that are very well known are: (a) Skandaswamin’s Nirukta-bhashyatika (14th century), supplemented by Maheshwara’s Vivarana (15thcentury); and, (b) Durga-simha’s Rjvarta (14th century). Durga’s comments are more frequently cited by the later scholars.]


Yaska’s Nirukta comprises twelve Chapters (Parishishta) divided into two broad sections: Purva-shatka (the first six Chapters); and, Uttara-shtka (the latter six Chapters).

These again are grouped into three Kandas (Cantos):  Naighantuka Kanda; Naigama Kanda; and, Daivata Kanda.

A. Under the Purva-shatka, which has six Chapters:-

(1) The Naighantuka Kanda, comprises three Chapters (1 t0 3) – Kanda-trayatmaka; and, it comments on the Fourth Chapter of the Nighantu (Naigama Kanda), treating of the words used in the Rig-Veda – commencing with the Gau and ending with Apara.

In this section, Yäska discusses the aims and methods of the Nirukta, as a branch of learning; and, refers to different teachers and contemporary disputes concerning the language and the  meaning/s.

Chapter 1 (and part of chapter 2) of Yaska’s Nirukta deals with some important theoretical aspects which gives an insight into Yaska’s overall philosophical and linguistic approach;  such as :

: – importance of knowing the meaning   of the Vedic mantras;

:- Parts of speech (Padas) classified into four groups  (Jatis) (Bheda-chatushtaya)- (1)Nama (noun); (2) Akhyata (verb); (3) Upasarga  (preposition);  and, (4) Nipata  (particles) – (Catvari padajatani Nama-Akhyate cha  Upsarga Nipata-shcha)

: – Verb-root principle – asserting that the nouns are derived from verbs (dhatuja / akhyataja).

: – Language variation, its causes, forms, and effects

: – Principles of Nirvachana (etymology)

(2) The second Kanda, Naigama Kanda : while the first three Chapters dealt with synonyms (Ekartham-aneka-sabdam); the three Chapters (4 to 6), here, explain the homonyms (Aneka-arthani-ekasabdani); and the Vedic words whose derivation is obscure (Anavagata-samskaran -nigaman). This is called Aikapadikam. This Kanda covers the selected words of the Rig-veda beginning with Jahā and ending with Ulbam  bīsam.

agni purana cropped

(B) Under the Uttara-shatka or the Second Section of Nirukta:-

The Daivata Kanda, in its six Chapters, comments on the Fifth Chapter of Nighantu (Daivata Kanda). It is a systematic exposition of the nature; the symbolism; the forms’ interpretation etc., of the prominent Deities (Devata) of the three regions, of the Earth (Prithvi-sthana), of the Sky (Dyu-sthana); and, of the intermediate space (Madhyama-sthana). It commences with Agni and ends with Deva-patnyah (consorts of gods).

Of those three regions; the Prithvi-sthana covers the deities from Agni to Urjahuti; the Madhyama-sthana covers from Vayu to Bhaga; and, the Dyu-sthana, from Surya to Deva-patnyah.

[Yaska_charya defines a Deva as one who gives gifts (devo daanad), who is effulgent (devo dipanaat), who illumines (devo dyotanad), and who resides in heaven or the celestial world (dyusthane bhavati  iti).


After discussing the three different views (namely, they have form, they do not have form, and a combination of these two views), the Nirukta concludes that, in reality, there is only one Devata who can be addressed in various ways depending upon the temperament of the aspirant. Yaska_charya confirms by saying Eka atma Bahudha Stuyate (Nir.7,4meaning there is only One God and many praise by different names.

ekam.sad.viprā.bahudhā.vadanty.agnim.yamam.mātariśvānam.āhuh/”(RV.1,164,46) imam.eva.agnim.mahāntam.ātmānam.ekam.ātmānam.bahudhā.medhāvino.vadanti/ Nir.7.18 /

He further says ; the many forms of gods are manifestation of the atman, One Reality – Ekasya atmanah anye devah pratyangani bhavanti . He emphasizes that the Sat Vastu  includes in itself different deities. 

māhābhāgyād.devatāyā.eka.ātmā.bahudhā.stūyate,.ekasya.ātmano.anye.devāḥ.pratyaṅgāni.bhavanti- Nir.7.4

Sri Sayanacharya in his Rig_bashya_bhumika  says praise of any god  leads to the same tat (entity) – Tasmat sarvairapi parameshvara eve huyate .]

Nighantu-Nirukta chart

[ Devaraja (15th-16thcentury) , a commentator, in the introduction to his work says : Yaska, in his Nirukta, explained, individually , and in their entirety, only the words of which a list is given in the Fourth and Fifth Section of the Nighantu (Naigama and the Daivata Kandas)]

Yaska deals with the etymology proper (Nirukta), with commentary on the related portions of the Nighantu; starting from Chapter 2, Section 2 of Naighantuka Kanda.

Yaska’s commentary (bhasya) commences with a discussion on synonyms (Ekartham-aneka-shabdam). But, later, he devotes more space to elucidating the Nighantu words of obscure nature (Anavagata-samskaran -nigaman), which suggest more than one meaning.

The most interesting portion of the Nirukta is the discussion which covers the whole of the First book and a part of the Second, as well as the Seventh book of the Nighantu, which was as an admirable introduction to the study of the Veda

Yaska’s study included a system of rules for forming words starting from roots and affixes. According to Yaska, every word is derived from a root (Dhatu); and, by analyzing the root, its tendency and the suffix, it is possible to establish the relation between word and meaning.

For Yaska, every term is embedded with meaning (Artha); and, Nirvachana provides the device for doing so. In other words; the meaning is secured by the term itself by Nirvachana analysis, which indeed is the objective way of determining what meaning is ascribed to each word.


As Johannes Bronkhorst   writes in Etymology and magic: Yāska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the riddle of semantic etymologies

A number of rules are formulated in the Second chapter of the Nirukta that should help the student to find etymologies on his own. The most important among these rules is, no doubt, the one that etymologizing should, first of all, be guided by the meaning of the word concerned; phonetic considerations play a less important role:

One should examine a word, being intent upon its meaning, with the help of some similarity in function with other words. When not even such a similarity is present one should explain on the basis of similarity (lakshana) in a syllable or in a single sound.” (Nirukta 2.1).

Tad yeu padeu svara saskārau samarthau prādeśikena vikārea  guena  anvitau syātām tathā tāni nirbrūyād / atha ananvite arthe aprādeśike vikāre artha nitya parīketa kenacid vtti sāmānyena / Nir.2,1/

 In the case of unknown words, therefore, one looks at the context in which they occur (usually a Vedic hymn), so as to get a first impression as to their meaning. Subsequently one looks for other words (they have to be verbal forms, according to the Nirukta) which are more or less similar to the word under study

Semantic considerations, however, come first. Therefore, a verbal form which is less similar but closer to the expected meaning is to be preferred to a more similar verbal form which does not support the desired meaning. And words which are known to have several meanings have also several etymologies

An example is the word gau “The word go is a synonym for ‘earth’; because, it goes (gata) far; and, because living beings go (gacchanti) on it. Or else, it could be a name of something which moves (gåti). The syllable ‘au’, in the word gau , is a nominal suffix. Moreover, the word gau is the name of an animal (the cow) for this same reason. 

Also a bowstring is called gauh; because it sets arrows in motion (gamayati) Gavyā cet tādhitam,  atha cet na gavyā gamayati isūn iti (Nirukta 2.5).


As a part of his exposition, Yaska makes a clear distinction between the Vedic and the spoken language. But, he also observes that sometimes a word used in one is derived from a root belonging to the other. He makes a similar observation with regard to the dialects of regional language (Prakrita)

Atha-apy.bhāikebhyo dhātubhyo naigamā kto bhāyante damūnā ketrasādhā iti –Nir.2.2…Atha-api praktaya eva ekeu bhāyante viktaya ekeu –Nir.2.2


The Nirukta, as a discipline , which attempts to determine the essential significance of a Vedic passage (mantrartha), recognizes five kinds of changes that a word in common usage [with Noun (Nama), Verb (Akhyata), Preposition (Upasarga) and Particle (Nipata) ] could undergo to become a Vedic word ; and, to be included in the Nighantu:  (1) A letter may be freshly added on to the word (Varna-agama); (2) A letter may be altered (Varna-viparitya); the form of the letter may be distorted (Varna-vikara); (4) A letter may be omitted (Akshara-lopa); and, (5) the root of may get over stressed (Yoga).


Catvari padajatani

In his Nirukta, Yaska tried to explain (Nirvacanam) such Vedic words from the perspective of various linguistic aspects like Noun, Verb, preposition, particle, general definition, special definition, 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)

In that context, Yaska mentions about the classification of the four groups of parts of speech (Catvari padajatani) such as:  Noun (Naman), Verb (Akhyata), Preposition (Upasarga), and Particle (Nipata). Of these, the first two are established by definition; and, the remaining two by enumeration.

Catvāri pada jātāni nāma ākhyāte ca upasarga nipātāś ca tāni imāni bhavanti ...Nir .l.l iti imāni catvāri pada jātāni anukrāntāni  nāma ākhyāte ca upasarga nipātāś ca tatra nāmāny ākhyātajāni iti śākaāyano nairukta samayaś ca – Nir. 1, 12/

It appears that Audumbarayana, another ancient authority, had not agreed with such four-fold classification of parts of speech

(indriyanityam vacanam Audumbarayanah tatra chatustam Na papayate Nir.1.1-2). 

Yaska opposes the stand taken by Audumbarayana; but then, he goes 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) that do occur in all forms of life or of any entity.

life cycle

Between the Noun and the Verb, Yaska treats the Verb as the nucleus of a sentence. 

Here, though the Noun is named first, it is the Verb that is evidently more important. The Verb expresses action (Kim karoti?), the becoming (Bhava); while Noun, fundamentally, denotes the existing thing – (Sattva – ‘being’).

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).

In other words; a Verb (AkhyataBhava pradhana) – is mainly concerned with Bhava (action). Whereas, the Nouns (Naman) have Sattva (substance or existence of an object – Asti- Satva pradhana) as the chief element in their meaning (Bhava-pradhanam akhyatam; sattva-pradhanani namani Nir. l.l).  

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.bhavata– Nir. l. l

bhāvapradhānam ākhyātam/ sattvapradhānāni nāmāni/ tad yatrobhe bhāvapradhāne bhavata pūrvāparībhūta bhāvam ākhyātenācaṣṭe/ vrajati pacatīti/ upakramaprabhtyapavargaparyanta mūrta sattvabhūta sattvanāmabhi/ vrajyā paktir iti/ ada iti sattvānām upadeśa/ gaur aśva puruo hastīti/ bhavatīti bhāvasya/ āste śete vrajati tiṣṭhatīti –  Nir. l.l 


Of the four parts of speech (Catvari padajatani) , Yaska gives greater importance to Nouns and Verbs (Naman, Akyata) – which are employed independently – than to the Prefix or Prepositions  (Upasarga – Nanavidha vishesha artha pradhana) and the Particles (Nipata – Upamarthe pada puranartha – for the purpose of drawing comparisons),  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 karmopa-samyoga-dyotaka bhavanti~ Nir.I.3)

With regard to pre-verbs, Yaska refers to the views of Sakatayana and Gärgya: According to the former, the prepositions do not have a meaning of their own; and, when detached from a Noun or a Verb, they do not distinctly express a meaning. But, they do help in highlighting a secondary relation with the object of the Noun or Verb. 

But, according to Gärgya, prepositions do have various meanings (even when they are detached from a Noun or a Verb). Their meaning implies a modification in the meaning of Noun and Verb. For instance; Upasarga which is described as Nanavidha vishesha artha pradhana – can provide a special meaning to a word as in A-hara, Vi-hara and Sam-hara.

And, even in its isolated condition, a prefix is capable of modifying the sense of a Verb or a Noun. For instance; the preposition  ’A ’ can express the sense of limit , say as in,  Apara ( limitless)  as opposed to  Para (limited). The prepositions Ati and Su indicate excellence, while Nir and Dur are the reverse of the two; Ni  and Ava indicate downward-ness, while Ud is the reverse of the two ; and, similarly , Sam indicates junction or togetherness , while Vi and Apa are the reverse of Sam.

Yaska seems to have gone along with Gargya’s view . he enumerates twenty Upasargas. 

nāma.ākhyātayos.tu.karma.upasamyoga.dyotakā.bhavanty / ucca. avacā. Pada . arthā.  bhavanti iti Gārgyas /āhur.ime. tam. Nāma. Ākhyātayor artha vikaraam/ ā.ity.arvāg.arthe.pra.parā.ity.etasya.prātilomyam – Nir.1.3 .

When that logic is extended, it leads to say:  the phonemes and syllables are not independent entities conveying their own meaning.  Nevertheless, they are the essential parts of the word. But, the meaning of the word does not solely arise out of them. The Meaning is the function of the word as a whole.

[Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya puts forward a similar argument.

For the purpose of illustration; he cites the three words Kupa (well); Supa (soup); and, Yupa (sacrificial post).

Here, Patanjali points out; the first letter of each of those three words differs; but, the other letters that follow are identical. These are, in fact, three separate words that are distinguished by the substitution of one phoneme, for another phoneme

 However, the object signified by each one is distinct from the objects signified by the other two words. Each of the three words signifies a different object.

Patanjali says; each of the phonemes – K; S; and Y- does not by itself carry a meaning. Similarly, the set of other letters in the three words (- upa) also, by itself, does not make any sense. It is only when they combine, a word carrying a meaning, is put forth.

Patanjali compares this fact to a chariot made of several parts; where, each of its parts, by itself, is incapable of moving.  It is only when all the parts combine systematically and form a single entity that the chariot can move.

Thus, Patanjali argues that phonemes have a differentiating significance within the units which bear the meaning. Such a unit, he considers it as saghāta, a single entity which is ‘indivisible and one’. A phoneme, thus, plays a significant role in distinguishing one word from the other, each pointing to a different object.]

 In Yaska’s Nirukta, the Upasargas were used with the nouns and also with Verbs nāma.ākhyātayos.tu.karma.upasamyoga.dyotakā.bhavanty (Nir.1.3).

[Yaska enumerates twenty prepositions, along with their meanings: ati-;adhi-;anu-;apa-;api-;abhi-;ava-;aa-;ut-;upa-;dus-;nis-;nir-;paraa-;pari-;pra-;prati-;v; sam-;and su-. And, to that list, Sakatayana adds three more Upasargas: accha-; srad-; and antar-. Later marut-; and dur- were added; thus making it to 25.]


One of the main features of Nirukta is that Yaska agrees with Sakatayana that all nouns are derived from a verbal stem (mula); and, all nouns are regarded as related to an activity expressed in language by a verbal form – tatra nāmāny ākhyātajāni iti śākaāyano nairukta samayaś ca / na sarvāi iti Gārgyo vaiyākaraā-nāś ca eke – Nir. 1, 12/

Yaska says:  any Noun can be traced back to a root (Dhatu), similar in form and meaning – samāna karmāo dhātavo dhātur dadhāte. And with that, all words come under the purview of the Nirukta.

[As compared to that, Panini left aside the irregular formations. Further, Nirukta also comments on those Vedic passages, words and their forms , which were not analyzed in the texts of Grammar.  And, therefore,  Saroja Bhate remarks, the function of Nirukta starts when that of the Grammar ends. And, therefore, Yaska aptly describes his work as ‘the completion of Grammar’- vyākaraasya kārtsnyam- [tad idam vidyasthanam vyakaranasya kartsnyam svartha-sadhakam ca . (Nir. 1,15) ]

Yaska considers the verbal roots (Dhātu) to be the bases (prakṛti), and their  noun-forms to be the modifications of them (vikṛti); and, he calls the latter as ‘born’ from the former.

As the nouns, often, have verbal roots (Dhatu), they attempt 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 fact, Yaska treats every noun as an information-invoking singular term.

 For instance; the Nirukta states that the noun Cittam (mind) is derived from (the root) its activity cit (to know) – cittaṃ cetateḥ (Nirukta 1.6)

The logic behind Yaska’s assertion appears to be: man keeps creating more new words to conceptualize and to describe verities of actions; which is to say, both the meaning and the etymology of words are always context-sensitive.

Thus, His main view is that the name of an object is to be determined by its actions, as also by the contextual factors (samsarga etc.)


The proposition that the Nouns are derived from Verbs (dhatuja/akhyataja) was opposed by many grammarians, including Gargya. They argued that if all nouns were derived from verbs, every person who performs a particular action should have the same name. [Kartri (a doer) from Kri (to do); Pachaka (cook) from Pach (to cook), and so on]

Yaska rebutted such criticisms by pointing out: Not everyone gets the same name by performing the same action.  For instance; a carpenter performs many other actions (takati karoti karmā), besides cutting the wood. The term ‘Carpenter’, here, signifies a person, who possesses a distinctive skill; and, perhaps follows a particular profession for his living. It does not, however, refer to any one particular person. It could refer to a whole class of such persons, in general.

 But, anyone or everyone who cuts wood cannot be called a carpenter (takā).  

Thus, though one is involved in many different activities, one gets his name from a particular action in which he is engaged. Therefore, objects are named depending upon the specific actions they perform.

yaḥ kaś ca tat karma kuryāt sarvam tat attvam tathā ācakṣīran /  yaḥ kaś ca adhvānam aśnuvīta aśvaḥ sa vacanīyaḥ syāt / atha api cet sarvāṇy ākhyātajāni nāmāni syuḥ  / Nir.1,12


It is said; the Grammarians classify the meanings of a word under three categories:   Yaugika; Yogarudha; and, Rudha.

When a word expresses its etymological sense, it is called Yaugika (derivative);

When its etymological meaning and its conventional meaning are the same, it is called Yogarudha (derivative and conventional) ; and,

When the conventional meaning, the one that is used in day-to-day affairs, is either not directly connected with its etymological derivation or it is different, then it is called Rudha (conventional).

But, as rule, the conventional meaning is regarded as stronger as and more acceptable than the etymological meaning (yogad rudhir baliyasi sighravrttitvat).

For instance; the etymological meaning of the term Asva is that which pervades or occupies; but, Asva in common usage denotes a horse. Similarly, Pankaja etymologically means that which is born in slush; but, it is commonly used to indicate a lotus flower.

The other is the Ashva-karna a type of leaf; but literally, the ears of a horse. In all such cases, it is the meaning in common usage that is generally accepted; and, the literal meaning is treated as faded metaphor.

Following the same principle, and citing the same instances, Matanga, in his Brhaddeshi,   explains: whatever might be its other meanings, the word Raga (derived from the root ranj = to please), effectively suggests, here, as that which generates delight: Ranjana-jjayate ragau.

Ithevam raga-shabdasya utpatthir abhidiyate I Ranjana-jjayate ragau utpatthih samudahrutah II283II Ashva-karnadi vidha rude yaugikau vaapi vachakah I Yogarudosthva raage jneyam pankaja-shabdavat II 284II

[Panini also said that the meanings of the words were bound to change with the passage of time, as also in varying contexts. He recognized the fact the people who spoke the language and used it in their day-to-day lives were better judges in deriving, meaning from the words.

Strangely, that came true in the case of Panini himself. For instance; in the Astadhyayi (6.1.147), the word ‘Ascharya’ is explained as that which is not-permanent (Anitya) or rare: āścaryam-anitye. And, Katyayana, a couple of centuries later, corrected that meaning to imply ‘Adbhuta’ – something that is wondrous, miraculous or unprecedented. The meaning of the term ‘Ascharya’, as interpreted by Katyayana has, of course, prevailed; and , is in common use now.

The term Aranyaka is interpreted by Panini to mean ’a forest dweller, a man who lives in the forest’- arayān-manuye (P S 4.2.129).  And, Katyayana expanded its  meaning to include a class of Vedic texts. But, somehow, it is not applied for referring to forest elephants, jackals and other wild animals that also live in the forests.

Bhartrhari, in his Vakyapadiya, therefore, emphasizes the importance of contextual factors in the determination of the meaning of expressions. Etymology is without doubt important in its own context; but, in the day-to-day conversations (rudi) the conventional meaning (Vyvaharica-artha) takes precedence over the etymologically derived sense

It is often said; a Grammarian may have control over the Lakshana (the rules); but, not always over the Lakshya, the way the language is used in the outside world. The quality of such language is almost excellent, when it is immediately close to the grammatical rules. But, many a times, the Lakshana becomes subservient to Lakshya. ].

[The American Dialect Society, which studies the evolution of language, has voted
the neutral pronoun “they” as the word of the present decade. “They” is used in English by a growing number of non-binary individuals, people who do not identify as either male or female. They prefer the plural neutral pronoun to bypass the traditionally male “he” or female “she”. Thus, it is said “they” has become an indication of “how the personal expression of gender identity employed by an increasing part of our shared discourse.”]


After explaining the evolution of speech; and, the fourfold stages of speech, Yaska takes up the question:  — ‘whether the words are eternal or ephemeral, merely created for the time being’.

Besides the issue of the eternity of words, Yaska also talks about the infallibility of Vedic words, the impermanence of human knowledge etc., – karmasampattir mantro Vede– Nir.I.2.; Purusa vidya nityatvat Nir.I.2

Yaska asserts that the word, the meaning and their mutual relations are eternal (nityam vacanam)

Yaska brushes aside the prima facie view (Purva-paksha) or the objections raised by Audumbarayana and such others; and, argues: If we admit the impermanence of words, then the mutual relation and the grammatical relation of words are not possible. Therefore, the functions of words are possible only if we admit they are everlasting, in their nature.

Following the Mimamsakas, Yaska also supported the doctrine of the eternal nature of the words – ‘vyaptimattvat tu sabdasya’ (Nir.I.2)

In this way, Yaska believed in the idea of the eternity of words; and, then he engaged in the Sphota theory.  This Doctrine (Sphota-vada) puts forward the view:  When a word is uttered, it reaches the mind of the listener through her/his ears; and, on its acceptance, the mind absorbs and understands the sense of verbal-sounds it received. Thus, the uttered words, which travel through the air, perish. Yet, the meaning conveyed by them resides permanently in the mind of the listener.

Yaska was, perhaps, one among the earliest authorities to make a reference to Sphota-vada.  Bharthari (11th century) in his celebrated work Vakyapadiya acknowledges Yaska’s reference to the Sphota concept.  Bhartrhari explains the Sphota as: 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.

In this context, Yaska mentions that the words, obviously, carry a meaning; but, in the course of time, a word might acquire a meaning that is different or even quite opposite to the one it had earlier. Such a change of meaning possibly comes about due to various reasons. That might be because, in the later times, it may to have to indicate a different type of action, object or an usage. And, that often happens; because the name of an object is to be determined by its actions. Therefore, the contextual factors (Samsarga) , in their current time, become important in arriving at the new meaning of a term.

Answering the question –  how an object could be called by a certain name, when it is performing a different action than that is indicated by its  name, Durga, commenting on the Nirukta, says: šabda-niyama svabhāvata eva loke – “in spoken language, in the world , the usage of  the word (Sabda-vrtti) follows its own nature”.

According to Durga , this svabhāva is an inherent characteristic of the word, as a meaningful entity. It has its own existence; and , can  ,therefore, be applied to any object at will by a speaker, thus creating a new contextual meaning; because, the word in its semantic aspect, continues to carry its own significance .

Durga remarks: 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 its own context. Therefore even on the purely communication level, the word acts as a meaningful entity, influencing and creating the society of man, which is nothing but a product of this communication.

The Scholarly Paper Yaska’s discussion of the meaning of a word in relation to objective reality, explains:

A word persists in its own reality beyond the reality of time and space. Since we live, act, see, understand the world using our linguistic reality, the name once given to the object, whether it was relevant or seemed to be relevant for a particular speaker, could remain for a longer time, even if it had very little to do with the current  action of the object. The reason why this or that name was given to the object was not in order to satisfy an objective reality. But, rather, it was a subjective one; for, it was named by a speaker imposing his wish, opinion, knowledge or will on the object. Once the name has been used, it would persist in memory until a new name effaces or changes it; or even, it might perhaps, last longer.


Finally, as Eivind Kahrs in his Indian Semantic Analysis: The Nirvacana Tradition  sums up his review of Yaska’s work, says:

What is really important about the Nirukta is that it is the single text we possess which applies a certain method designated to give semantic analysis of nouns, in the widest sense of the term. Moreover, Nirukta contains lengthy discussions of linguistic and philosophic import.  As compared to Panini’s formal grammatical attitude, keeping out the philosophical notions; Yaska’s interest in philosophy is remarkable.

Though the  main task of the Nirukta of Yaska is to explain most of the rare and obscure Vedic words by pointing out various possible etymologies , there are also discussions of general nature, on the concept of eternity and infallibility of Vedic words, (karma-sampattir mantro Vede Nir.I.2);  the impermanence of human knowledge (purusa-vidya-anityatvatNir.I.2) and so on. Thus, Yaska’s commentary is not restricted to derivation of Vedic words, but covers a much wider field.


Before go proceed to talk about Panini, let us briefly, in a capsule form, jot down the significant differences between the Nirukta of Yaska and the Astadhyayi of Panini.

(1) Nirukta is a glossary commenting and explaining the meaning of certain chosen mantras of the Rigveda, based mainly on the Nighantu and the Brahmana texts. Its focus is on the Vedic language.

Astadhyayi is an independent and an original treatise, seeking to construct a systematic analysis of all speech forms.

(2) The main task of the Nirukta is to provide the exact meaning of antiquated terms of the Rigveda that were no longer in use. It, basically, is rooted in the past.

The Astadhyayi is, principally, concerned with the language that is alive and is evolving. It deals with the then present status of the language; refining its form and usage. It strives to ensure the correct treatment of the words by purifying (Samskrita) the language (bhasha) – literary and spoken (vaidika and laukika) – that was in use during its days.

It also serves as authoritative guidelines, for the future generations, for understanding the language, speaking it correctly and using it, as it should be.

The content and the scope of Astadhyayi is much wider, as compared to that of the Nirukta.

(3) Yaska’s Nirukta is written in easy flowing prose. It hardly needs a commentary, to explain or to interpret its content.

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is composed in Sutra form-terse and tightly knit; rather highly abbreviated. The text does need a companion volume to explain it. Therefore, generations of Grammarians and scholars were engaged (and continue to be engaged) in commenting upon and in elucidating Panini’s text.

Yaskapranitam.2 jpg

References and Sources

  1. The Nighantu and the Nirukta by Sri Lakshman Sarup
  2. Text of the Nirukta – Based on the edition by Sri Lakshman Sarup
  3. Ashtadhyayi or Sutrapatha of Panini
  4.  A critical study of some aspects of Nirukta by Tarapada Chakrabarti
  5. Etymology and magic: Yaska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the riddle of semantic etymologies by Johannes Bronkhorst
  6. Grammatical Literature by Hartmut Scharfe
  7. Indian Semantic Analysis: The Nirvacana Tradition  by Eivind Kahrs
  8. Yaska’s discussion of the meaning of a word in relation to objective reality
  9. Pānini and Yāska : Principles of derivation  by Saroja Bhate
  10. Yaska’s Nirukta and his reflections on language
  11. The Nirukta and the Aitareya Brahmana by Prof. Viman Ch. Bhattacharya
  12. The History of Indian Literature (1892) by Albrecht Weber
  13. Introduction to the Nirukta and the literature related to it by Rudolph Roth
  14. Panini and his place in Sanskrit by  Theodor Goldstücker
  15. Yaska’s Nirukta by Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao
  16. All images are from Internet


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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Five

Continued from Part Four

Dance forms of India

ashtalakshmi2 (1)


Bharata, in his Natyashastra, discussed, in main, the Rupakas, the major forms of the Drama; and, the two genre of Dance formats – Tandava and Sukumara. His concern seemed to be, primarily, with the forms and styles that were dominant in the art-tradition of his time; and, particularly those that had the potential to display various modes of representations and to evoke Rasas. For him, the aspect of Rasa was central to the Drama.

Of the eleven essential elements of the Drama that he names, Rasa is of paramount importance; and deriving that Rasa is the objective of a theatrical performance. The other ten elements – from Bhava to Ranga – are the contributing factors for the production of the Rasa

rasā bhāvā hy abhinayā dharmī vtti pravttaya / siddhi svarā astathātodya gāna ragaś ca sagraha // BhN_6.10 //

Bharata, similarly, even in regard to Dance, described only those dance forms that he considered to be artistically well cultivated; leaving out the regional and popular varieties. In the process, Bharata did not deal with the many peripheral styles.


The Drama, a Drshya-Kavya, was formally known as Rupaka. Abhinavagupta explains Rupam as that which is seen by the eyes; and, therefore, the works containing such matter is Rupani or Rupaka. And, Dhananjaya in his Dasarupaka (ten forms of Drama)  explains :  it is called a Rupaka or a representation because of the acts put on by the actors (abhinaya)  by assuming (rupakam tat samaropad)  the forms of various characters  such as gods or kings  and men and women. And, it is called a show because of the fact it is seen (rupam drsyatayocyate). Thus, Drama is the reproduction of a situation (Avastha-anikrtir natyam), in a visible form (rupa),  in the person of the actors. Dhanika in his commentary , explains that the terms Natyam, Rupam and Rupakam can be treated as synonymous.

The Drama was classified into two types: Major (Rupaka) and Minor (Upa-Rupaka).

Under the Rupakas (major types of Drama) Bharata mentioned ten of its forms (Dasadhaiva). Of the ten, he discussed, in fair detail, only two forms –Nataka and Prakarana. Because, he considered that these two alone fulfilled all those requirements that were necessary for Rupaka (major type). According to Bharata, these two major forms alone depict varieties of situations, made up of all the four modes or styles (Vrttis) and representations. And, they alone could lend enough scope for display of Rasas (Rasapradhana or Rasabhinaya or vakya-artha-abhinaya). In contrast, the other eight forms of Rupakas deal with limited themes and rather narrow subjects; and, are also incapable of presenting a spectrum of Rasas. 

In the process, Bharata did not also discuss about the minor forms of the drama, the Uparupakas or Natyabhedas. These were a minor class of dramatic works, distinct from the major works; and, did not satisfy all the classic, dramatic requirements prescribed for a Rupaka or Nataka proper. Such minor class of plays (Uparupakas) handled only a segment of a theme or story (Vastu); and, not its full extent. It did not also, perhaps, employ all the four Abhinayas, in their entirety.


By the time of Abhinavagupta (Ca.11th century), the Dance had diversified into many more forms than were known during the time of Bharata. However, he mentions that even those innovative forms, indeed, continued to be rooted in the basic concepts laid down in the Natyashastra. And, in fact, he often cites idioms of dancing from such new categories, in order to illustrate Bharata’s concepts.

For instance; Abhinavagupta explains the nature of the delicate Sukumara Prayoga and of the gentle Kaisiki Vrtti, with reference to examples taken from Nrtta-kavya or Nrtya-prabandhas or Ragakavyas – musical compositions or narrative plays (classified under Uparupakas) beautified with  the elements of dance and music; and, which could be presented through expressive Abhinaya.

Abhinavagupta remarks; though the concept of minor dramas is absent in the Natyashastra, it is those minor classes of plays – Uparupakas, par excellence – in their varied forms, adorned with rich, melodious music, as also with graceful and delicate dance movements, which grew into becoming the main stay of the contemporary dance- scene.

Thus, Abhinavagupta, in his commentary, did mention the Upa-rupakas; but, he did neither define its essentials nor did he explain its features. He merely called them as Nrtta-kavya and Raga-kavya; meaning, the type of plays that are rendered through song, dance and interpreted through Abhinaya. In that context, Abhinavagupta mentions some plays of Uparupaka variety. He names them as: Dombika, Bhana, Prasthana, Sidgaka, Bhinika, Ramakrida, Hallisaka, Sattaka and Rasaka. These minor dramatic works were of the nature of dance-drama, where the elements of music and dance were dominant.  But, Abhinavagupta had not discussed about those musical varieties.

[Though the Natyashastra had not specified  the varieties of Uparupakas, in the later times their numbers varied according to the whim of each author. For instance; Abhinavagupta refers to nine types of Uparupakas; Dhanika mentions seven types as being Natya-bheda (varieties of dance forms) ; Sahityadarpana mentions eighteen types; Natyadarpana recognizes only thirteen of these eighteen types, because they were said to be the only ones that were mentioned by the Vruddhas (the elders) or Chirantanas (ancient ones) ; Raja Bhoja refers to twelve types; but, the largest number seems to have been listed in Bhavaprakasana , which mentions as many as twenty Uparupakas , including Natika, Prakaranika, Sattaka, Trotaka etc., which are almost as good as the Nataka .

The fact that there was no unanimity among various authors either in the numbers or in the definition of the Uparupakas, merely suggests that this from of Rupaka was evolving all the time; improving; and, continuously  undergoing changes and modifications in their nature and form, aiming to attain a near-perfect musical dance format. 

It is explained the prefix ‘Upa‘ should not be taken to mean ‘minor’ ; but, it should be understood as referring to the types that are ‘very near’ to the Rupakas, but, having a preponderance of dance and music.]


Perhaps, the earliest reference to Uparupaka occurs in the Kama-sutras of Vatsyayana (earlier to second century BCE), which presents a guide to a virtuous and gracious living. Here, Vatsyayana mentions Uparupaka type of plays, such as Hallisaka, Natyarasaka and Preksanaka, which were watched by men and women of taste.

Rajashekara (8th-9th century) calls his Prakrit play Karpuramanjari, as a Sattaka type of Uparupaka. He explains that the play in question was not a Nataka, but resembled a Natika (a minor form of Drama). It was a single-Act play (ekankika or Javanika); and, it did not contain the usual theatrical scenes such as: the pravesakas (entry-scenes) and viskambhakas (intermediary or connecting scenes). Here, in the Sattaka type of Uparupaka, music and dance were the principal mediums of expression. It is composed in the graceful Kaisiki Vrtti; and, have an abundance of Adbhuta Rasa (wonder and amazement). Even a major part of its spoken dialogues (Vachika) was rendered in musical form. And, the story of the play was composed by stringing together series narrative songs.

Bharata had also mentioned that  in a well rendered play, the song, dance,  action and. word follow one another in an unbroken flow; presenting a seamless spectacle as if there is neither an end nor a beginning , just as wheel of fire  (Alata chakra).

eva gāna ca vādya ca nāya ca vividhā aśrayam / alāta-cakra pratima kartavyayayoktbhi // BhN_28.7 //

That, in a way, sums up the characteristic nature of the dance-drama type of Uparupakas. Here, the stylized Natya-dharmi mode of depiction is dominant. And, even when Vachikabinaya is used, the emphasis is more on the Abhinaya rendered through gestures to the accompaniment of song and music; than on speech.

Such Uparupakas, while narrating an episode or a story, did use the elements of the Nrtta (abstract dance movements) along with the Abhinaya of the Nrtya. They were, thus, a specific form of Natya–  (Natyabheda) . They also provided ample scope for display of Bhavas and for evoking Rasa.

[ As Dr. Sunil Kothari observes in his research paper :

The technical distinction which Natyashastra makes between Rupakas and Uparupakas is that while the former presents a full profile of a Rasa with other Rasas as its accessories.  Further, in the Rupaka a full story was presented through all the dramatic requirements and resources fully employed. But in the Uparupaka only a fragment was depicted. And, even when a full theme was handled all the complements of the stage were not present; the Uparupaka lacked one or  the other or more of the four Abhinayas; thus, minimizing the scope for naturalistic features Lokadharmi and resorting increasingly to the resources of Natyadharmi.

Whereas this is true of several other forms of Uparupakas, it is not true of the dance-drama forms. They used all the elements of the Abhinayas; and,also  provided scope for display of Bhavas and for evoking Rasa.]


Coming together of the Marga and Desi traditions

By about the twelfth century, the classic Sanskrit Drama, in its major format, the Nataka, began to gradually decline. And, over a period, it almost faded away.

Though the Sanskrit theatrical tradition was tapering out, it did continue in the forms of minor or one-act plays – Uparupakas – mainly in regional languages, with a major input of dance and songs; but, with just an adequate stress on Abhinaya (acting) and Sahitya (script). These forms of dance-dramas were gaining ground.

The texts of the later period commenting on Natya and Alankara-shastra (poetics) could hardly afford to ignore the Uparupakas which were steadily gaining popularity. And, many scholars did formally recognize the Uparupaka class of dramatic works; codified their features; and assigned them a place within the framework of theory , as Nrtya-prabandhas.

By about the twelfth century, the differences as also the relationship between the Nrtta (pure dance) and Nrtya (Nrtta with Abhinaya) were clearly established. And, those dance formats, in combination with music, were suitably applied and integrated into the performance of the dance dramas.

Among the authors of the later period, Raja Bhoja ((10-11th century), Saradatanaya (12-13th century) and Vishvanatha (14-15th century) dealt at length with the Uparupakas. Raja Bhoja in his Srngaraprakasa discusses twelve types of Uparupakas; Saradatanaya in his Bhavaprakasa describes twenty-one forms of Uparupakas and also provides a gist of several definitions as given by the previous authorities ; and, Vishvanatha in his Sahityadarpana discusses in detail eighteen types of Uparupakas, with examples

For a detailed discussion on  the types of Uparupakas: please click here. And, go to pages 189 and onward for descriptions of those forms.


Such staged dramatic texts (Nrtta-kavya or Raga-kavya), narrating a story, composed of songs, set to music with instrumental accompaniment; and, choreographed with dance movements, came to be known by different names such as: Natyabheda (in Avaloka of Dhanika); Geyarupaka (in Kavyanusasana of Hemacandra): Nrtyarupakas or, simply as the ‘other plays’ anyani rupakani (as by Ramacandra and Gunacandra), in which music and dance dominate.

The period between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries was a very highly significant phase in the evolution and development of Art in its varied dimensions. It was during this period that Dance, as Nrtya, gained recognition as an independent Art-form. And, Dance was no longer treated as a mere adjunct to drama. Similarly, vocal (Gita) and instrumental (Vadya) also began to flourish on their own.

The Dancing in India evolved by assimilating new forms and techniques; and, by moving away from its early dependence on Drama. In the process, it also widened its aesthetic scope beyond decorative grace; and, enlarged its content or repertoire to encompass depiction of emotional narrative themes. Now, the beauty of form walked hand-in-hand with the richness of the lyrics and, with the depth of its emotional content; resulting in the growth of a complex art form.

During the period , which spans the eleventh to the sixteenth century, many excellent works on Dance and music were written; and, new trends in Dancing were set. Now, many texts, exclusively devoted to Dance came into being (Say, Sangitaratnakara of Sarangadeva – Chapter seven;  the Nrtya-ratna-kosa of Maharana Kumbha ; the Nrttaratnavali of Jaya Senapati; Nartananirnaya of Pundarika Vittala).

The texts of this period , though rooted in the principles of Natyashastra, did recognize and discuss Dance-forms and styles whose technique and structure differed from the Marga class described by Bharata- During this period, the emphasis of the texts shifted away from Natyashastra’s Marga tradition ; and, moved towards the styles known , generically, as Desi , regional or improvised.

It was during this period that Uparupakas developed into a common ground where the classical Natya of the Shastra (Marga) met the regional (Desi) forms of Dance of easy movements; allowing more freedom and greater degree of improvisation, within the given framework. It was here that the sophisticated fused with the folk forms.

The noted scholar Dr. Raghavan, therefore, described the Uparupaka as the golden link (svarna-setu) or common ground where the classical met the popular; and, where the sophisticated took the folk forms. It was also here that the folk forms sublimated into classical form.

This period was also marked by the efforts to codify the less acknowledged, but popular forms; and, assign them a place within the framework of theory.

In the process, the theories of Dance adopted the terms and principles that were prevalent in the Kavya, poetics. Those dance forms which adhered to the established regulations and conventions; and, which had a definite structure were termed and classified as Nibaddha. And, those free-flowing dance forms, which were spontaneous, unregulated, unstructured and not bound by any rules, were treated as Anibaddha. Such unfettered dance-forms were not restricted by the requirements of Taala and such other disciplinesand, it did not also need the support of compositions woven with meaningful words (Pada or Sahitya). Sarangadeva defines Anibaddha as that which is not bound or as that which lacks rules (bandha-hinatva).

The Anibaddha also meant allowing the dancer considerable latitude in devising body movements that best suited the aesthetic and emotional content of the theme.; And , it also  made room for enterprise to come up with fresh idioms of expressions.

At the same time, the texts, such as the Sangita-samayasara, the Sangitaratnakara and the Nartananirnaya, suggested body movements as that of  simulating the quiver of a drop of water on a lotus leaf, or the trembling of a flame etc.

Such process of reorganization  and innovation covered not only the well regulated dance forms ; but, it  also  extended even to  the individual and   the group dances like Daṇḍaras, Raslīlā and other folk dances of similar nature, some of which have survived as dramatic group presentations.


Dr. Mandakranta Bose in her Movement and Mimesis concludes : Our study of technique also shows that present day classical dancing in India is grounded more directly in the tradition recorded in the later dance manuals, especially the Nartananirnaya , than in the older tradition of the Natyashastra. This suggests that those styles which had marginal existence in Bharata’s time not only came to be admitted into the mainstream of dancing, but eventually became the dominant current. The evolutionary process is therefore one of dynamic growth rather than a static survival. Through the comparative analysis of the concepts and technique of dancing the present study attempts to mark the milestones of that process

As Dr. Sunil Kothari also observes in Part One of his research Paper  : the minor forms that were not specifically described by Bharata came into fore during the later periods. And, they have contributed greatly in the evolution of the dance concepts; and, in shaping and enriching the various dance forms, in their distinct regional milieu; as we see in contemporary India.



Dance and music have always formed an integral part of Sanskrit drama. But, it was the Uparupakas – minor class of drama- based in music and dance movements that eventually gave rise to the now living traditions such as KuchipudiBhagavata-Mela-Natakas, Yaksha-gana and Kuravanji    dance dramas.  Such forms of  Uparupakas  are very attractive formats, with the elements of the music and dance being predominant. And, most of them are based in dances accompanied by soulful songs, interpreting the emotional contents of the song through Abhinaya or gestures.

The Uparupakas also marked the emergence of dance-drama along with the solo exposition as a credible format of Dancing. Since then, dance-drama has come to stay and flourish side by side with the solo dance forms.


The key element of the musical dramas was delighting in the spectacle of presentation and the emotions displayed by the characters on display. Their themes were crafted around Raga and Kavya elements, which dealt with the characters, themes, plots, emotional situations rooted mainly in Srngara (lovely and graceful) and Bhakthi (devotion) Rasas. The Uparupakas were, therefore, said to be Bhavatmaka or dependent on emotions.

The Uparupakas were broadly classified according to the dance-situations that were involved and the Rasas, the emotions, they projected. Among the Uparupakas, the Rasaka, Hallisaka, Narttanaka, Chalika and Samyalasya gave importance to Nrtta, the pure dance movements, in their performance. And, Natika, Sattaka, Prakaranika and Trotaka (Totaka) gave prominence to emotional aspects and to Abhinaya.

‘The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garhwal’ <i>Gita ­Govinda</i> (Song of the Cowherds), Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra or Guler, circa 1775–1780


The most celebrated of the Raga-kavyas, Chitra-kavyas or Nrtya-prabandhas is the Gita-Govinda composed by Sri Jayadeva Goswami (about 1150 A.D), who was a court poet of the King Lakshmana of the Bengal region (12th century). It is the most renowned and the best loved among all the Raga-kavyas of the Prabandha class. Gita-Govinda occupies a preeminent position in the history of both the Indian music and dance.

The Gita-Govinda is a Khanda-Kavya, confined to description of some episodes. It comes under the Prabandha class of Kavyas. Jayadeva at the commencement of his Khanda-kavya states that he is composing a Prabandha Kavya (Etam karoti Jayadeva kavih prabandham). The Ashtapadi (eight footed) is a  Dvi-dhatu  Prabandha,  i.e. consisting two sections (Dhatu):  Udgraha and Dhruva.

from the Gita Govinda

This sublime Sringara-mahakavya, lovingly describes the emotive sports of Sri Radha, the Mahabhava – highly idealized personification Love and Beauty; and, Krishna the eternal lover (Sri Radha-Krishna-Lila).

Gita Govinda is the most enchanting collection of twelve chapters (Sarga). And, each Sarga commences with soulful a Sloka followed by one or two songs arranged in couplets. These songs are known as Giti, Prabandha or Ashtapadi, since twenty-four of such (but not all) employ eight couplets. Sri Jayadeva himself calls them as sweet and delicate Padavali-s (Madhura komala padavalim).

The Gita Govinda, permeated with intensely devotional and delicate Madhura Bhakthi, was one of the inspirations of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprbhu who was steeped in Krishna-bhakthi; and, it is now the primary text of the Gaudiya Vaishnava School of Bengal.

The popularity enjoyed by Gita Govinda is amazing. Each region and each language of India embraced it to its heart, with love and devotion; adopted it as its own; sang in its own chosen Raga; and, interpreted it in its own dance form.

The Gita Govinda also served as an inspiration or as a model for creation of dance-dramas, elaborating on parallel themes, in different parts of the country, in different languages. For instance; the dance sequences composed in the traditions of Kuchipudi of Andhra; the compositions of Sri Sankaradeva of Assam; Umapati of Bihar; Bhagavata Mela Natakas of the South; Yaksaganas of Karnataka ; and, Krsnattam and Kathakali of the Malayalam areas – were all inspired by the Gita-Govinda.

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Nauka Charitam

And, Sri Thyagaraja (1767- 1847) is said to have composed three musical dramas  (Geya-Nataka). Of these, only two namely: Prahlada-Bhakti-Vijayam and Nauka Charitam are available. But, the third – Sita Rama Vijayam – is sadly lost.

Nauka Charitam, mostly a product of Sri Thyagaraja’s imagination, improvising on an incident briefly mentioned in Srimad Bhagavatam, comprises twenty-one Daru songs set in thirteen Ragas (some of which follow folk tunes) . Its theme extols the virtue of absolute surrender to the Lord with Love and devotion. Nauka Charitam lends itself beautifully well for production of a Dance-drama.


Regional Dance forms

By about the sixteenth century, the Nrtya-prabandhas, set free from the confines of the Drama, began to flourish and to evolve further, by assimilating new forms, more creative modes of expression and techniques. In the process, their aesthetic scope grew beyond mere decorative postures. They refined their skills to communicate the emotive content of the lyrics, more effectively. Beauty of form was blended with meaningful expressions (Abhinaya). The Uparupakas having developed into a complex Dance-form came to occupy a central position within the contemporary world of Art.

Even in this format, the dance element continued to be divided into Nrtta and Natya on the one hand; and, into Tandava and Lasya on the other. Another significant factor was that even though the Dance was mainly based in the theoretical principles of the Natyashastra; yet, in practice, it inculcated styles and techniques that were peculiar to each region. In each of those regions, the Dance practitioners also developed their own local vocabulary. These gave rise to distinctive dance forms and technical terms.

Each of such derivative forms formulated a tradition of its own; such as Kathak, Odissi, Manipuri, and Kuchipudi and so on. And, each of those eminent dance forms rooted in its own regional and cultural background; anchored in its own philosophy and outlook, developed its own idioms of expressions.

There are also certain factors that are common to all those diverse types of dance forms. These, in brief, are :

:- the prominence accorded to the narration of the theme; 

:- the dominance of Natya-dharmi;

:- performing to  the appropriate music, Laya (tempo) and Taala (time-units, beats) ;

:- employment of all the four Abhinayas in varying degrees, in an appropriate manner ;

:- in making a distinction between the  Nrtta and the Nrtya, and maintaining their distinctive features while executing  the respective elements in the performance;

:- taking care to see that the Nrtta aspect, particularly the individual dance movements and postures, are  governed by the special techniques developed by each school of Dance; and,

:- recognition of both the  Ekaharya (solo – where a single dancer enacts the role of several characters) and Anekaharya (where several actors participate  to enact their respective role)  modes of presentation.

Yet, these Dance-forms have successfully retained their identity; and, have carried it forward to the present time.



As regards Kathak, its history as a performing art has to be viewed in the larger context of the history of the Dance forms of the North India. Kathak, in its earlier form had a long association with temple-dance. But, with the advent of Mughal rule; and with the influence it exerted on Indian life and culture, Kathak dance was remodeled into a different form.

For instance; it is said, by the time of Akbar (16th century), the Persian art and music had vastly influenced the cultural life of India, particularly the milieu surrounding the Mughal court. According to Pundarika Vitthala (Nartana-nirnaya), who had the opportunity to watch, appreciate and enjoy excellent presentations of the Persian oriented dance and music, the restructured Dance form of Kathak, was born out of the fusion of classical Natya with the dance of the Yavanas, (meaning, the Persians), which took place in the context of the cultural life of the Mughal inner court, during the time of Akbar.

Kathak, in its early period, had not only a special, unique manner of dancing, with its own phrases of Nrtta and Abhinaya; but it also had its own distinct structure of performance and philosophy. But, During the Mughal period, it became a source of recreation for those seeking escape from the day-to-day annoyances. Its purpose, then, was to provide sheer pleasure, entertainment and amusement. Thus with the advent of the Mughal rule there was a definite shift in its content as also in its emphasis. And, the elements of devotion, worship etc., that were there in its traditional form went into background. It acquired the epithet of Nautch.

Thereafter, with the fall of the Mughals, Kathak, somehow, managed to survive by shaping itself into a fine expression of a dance form aiming to please its newly acquired patrons, the rulers of small native states. It then branched into Gharanas named after the court that supported it ; like Lucknow Gharana , Jaipur GharanaRampur Gharana etc. (For more, please do refer to Kathak, Indian Classical Dance Art by Sunil Kothari )


Kathak , which follows Nartanasarvasva , has a unique feature of taal-prastuti (a systematic elaboration of a time-cycle of a chosen number of beats) that is not found in any other classical Indian dance-forms. It has also a distinct way of presenting the syllables and Bols used in the text of the songs. The variations of these Dance-forms are also recognized by their nature, even in case their style is classical, folk, or modern.

And since the post-Independence days, happily, the classical Kathak is rediscovering itself. It is liberated from the confines of the past feudalistic court associations. The framework and outlook of the present-day classical Kathak is chaste – aesthetically and spiritually.



In contrast; the classic Odissi was, essentially, a temple-dance, enacting a devotional poem. It is steeped in devotion; and, in the concepts of spirituality of the Vaishnava tradition. It is performed as a way of submitting ones service (seva) to Lord Jagannath. Odissi is a lyrical form of dance with subtlety as its keynote. It is known for its fluidity and grace. Its sculpture-like poses are executed with harmony of line and movement. Odissi has developed its own vocabulary of foot positions, head movements, eye movements, body positions, hand gestures, rhythmic footwork, turns and spins.

Odissi, again, is based in the principles of the Natyashastra. It also follows other texts such as Abhinaya Chandrika of Mahesvara Mahapatra and Abhinaya Darpana of Nandlkesvara. Dr. Mandakranta Bose opines that the techniques of Odissi are also derived from the Nartananirnaya of Pundarika Vittala.

The Odissi also observes the traditional formats of Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya, in their distinct forms.

The initial items, following soon after the invocation , the Mangalacharana, and Pushpanjali, are in the fast-paced, rhythmic pure dance movements of Nrtta class, known as Battu or Battu Nrtta. That is followed by Pallavi rendering in varied tempos.

The Nrtya segment of the Odissi is more elaborate. It consists narration of a theme; the interpretation of the words and sentences of the lyrics of the song; illustrating with grace Abhinaya articulated through elegant Bhavas, gestures and facial and eye expressions. Odissi is renowned for fluid, eloquent and gracefully charming movements and postures. The songs of Nrtya are, generally, in adoration of Vishnu, as Lord Jagannath. Apart from that, the Astapadis selected from Jayadeva Kavi’s Gita Govinda are the most popular numbers in it’s Nrtya repertoire. These soulful dance recitals celebrate the divine Love of Sri Radha and the eternal Lover Sri Krishna.

The Natya segment of a Odissi performance relates narration of a theme selected from the mythology, epic or a celebrated Kavya.



Similarly, Kuchipudi, the dance-drama  of the coastal Andhra Pradesh, is regarded as a religious art of the Vaishnava tradition, devoted to Lord Krishna (Bhama kalapam), where the dancer-actor narrates a story, conveying a spiritual message through expressive gestures, graceful body-movements and rhythmic footwork. In fact, a Kuchipudi performance commences with the recitation of the auspicious slokas extracted from Vedic texts; consecration of the stage with sprinkling of holy water (punyavachana); and , offering Puja to the Ranga Adidevata , the chief deity on the stage. That is followed by dance-offering to Ganapathi; prayers submitted to Goddess Tripurasundari, and to the Guru; and Naandi-stotra by the Sutradhara, the stage manager. The Kuchipudi Natyam is usually performed by a group or in some cases by a solo dancer who enacts, through dance movements, the roles of several characters.  The performance concludes with Mangalam, the benedictory verses; and, offering Aarati to gods.

The repertoire of Kuchipudi also follows three performance categories of dance forms; namely, Nrtta (Nrutham), Nrtya (Nruthiyam) and Natya (Natyam).  Here, ‘Nrtta’ is a technical performance where the dancer presents pure dance movements with stress on speed, form, pattern, range and rhythmic aspects without interpretive aspects. In ‘Nrtya’ the dancer-actor communicates a story, spiritual themes particularly on Lord Krishna through expressive gestures and slower body movements harmonized with musical notes thus engrossing the audience with the emotions and themes of the act. ‘Natyam’ is usually performed by a group or in some cases by a solo dancer who maintains certain body movements for specific characters of the play which is communicated through dance-acting.

(For more, please check Indian Classical Dances : Kuchipudi Dance )



Manipuri , of Eastern India, is a classical dance form narrating themes rooted in the Vaishnava Bhakthi tradition, depicting the Love between Sri Radha and Lord Krishna  , mainly through the re-enactment of the sublime  ‘Raas Lila’. It is also fused with the pre-Vaishnava tradition of Lai Haraoba and Thang-ta, which add variety and vibrancy to its repertoire of movements. Here, again, dance and music are interwoven with rituals and religious practices.

It is said; the repertoire and basic play of this dance form revolves around different seasons. The traditional style of this art form incorporates graceful, gentle and lyrical movements. The fundamental dance movement of Raas dances of Manipur is Chari or Chali.

Manipuri dances are performed thrice in autumn from August to November; and, once in spring sometime around March-April, all on full moon nights. While Vasanta Raas is scheduled in spring when Holi, the festival of colours is celebrated, the other dances are scheduled around post-harvest festivals like Diwali.

The themes of the songs and plays comprise of Love and association of Radha and Krishna in company of the Gopis namely, Sudevi, Rangadevi, Lalita, Indurekha, Tungavidya, Vishakha, Champaklata and Chitra. One composition and dance sequence is dedicated for each of the Gopis; while the longest sequence is devoted to Radha and Krishna.

The dance drama is performed through excellent display of expressions, hand gestures and body language. Acrobatic and vigorous dance movements are also displayed by Manipuri dancers in certain plays.



The Mohiniattam, a classical dance form that evolved in Kerala, is said to have been derived from the dance performed by Mohini, a female Avatar of Vishnu. It, again, is a temple-dance; but, with a predominance of graceful and gentle Lasya movements. The Mohiniattam dancers follow- among other manuals – the Balarama -bharatam as their guidebook.

Mohiniattam also comprises all the three elements of Nrtta (pure dance movements); Nrtya (narrating a theme with Abhinaya); and, Natya (enacting a play, usually by a group).

A performance of a Mohiniattam includes sequences commencing with invocation or Cholkettu; and then on to Jatisvaram, Varnam, Padam, Tillana, Shlokam and Saptam. Thus, Mohiniattam is aligned to what came to be known as Bharatanatya.

Its songs are composed with mixture (Manipravala) of Sanskrit and Malayalam words.

Traditionally, Mohiniattam is performed by a single dancer who enacts the roles of the other characters that feature in the lyrics of the song (Ekaharya Abhinaya). Of late, Mohiniattam is also performed as group dance.

dance forms333

Dance forms

All these dance-forms, including Kathak, though they are basically individual performances, they are also enacted as group dances.

What is common to all these classical dances is that their roots are in religion, mythology and devotional stories. Central to these dances is the Nayika, the gentle heroine, who symbolizes the soul of the devotee. The spirit of Bhakthi permeates these dance forms. And, their traditions have been carried forward under the Guru-shishya –parampara, with each generation passing on to the next, with earnestness,  the knowledge, skill and the philosophy of its School.


The Dance forms, such as, Kathak, Odissi or Kuchipudi narrate a story or an episode  chosen from an Epic or mythology. Etymologically, the term Kathak is related to Katha, the art of storytelling. The Western ballet also tells a story. But there are some significant differences between these Dance forms, with regard to their nature and the manners in which they are danced. For example; classical Ballet is performed as a group dance , where different dancers play different roles or characters to build a story. This story is performed as a dance-drama, where various scenes unfold one after the other.

And, another is that unlike in the western dance, the Indian Dances are not set to leaps and gliding movements in the air. It strives to achieve a perfect pose that can be frozen in time. Its technique depends on the skillful management of time (Taala), in order to achieve a series of perfect poses.

In contrast to ballet; the Kathak and other classical dance forms are, traditionally, solo dance-performances. Its dancer enacts all the roles or characters involved in the story (Ekaharya). Here, the story is presented mainly with the help of Abhinaya that involves facial expressions and meaningful hand-gestures. Apart from telling a story, the dancer will have to meticulously follow the rhythmic patterns (Taal) as required by the lyrics and also the sol-fa and other dance syllables rendered in varying speeds (Laya).

Similarly, the Varnams and Padams in the Bharata Natyam are, usually, presented as solo performances.  While presenting the theme of the song that is to be interpreted, the dancer skillfully assumes (Natyadharmi) the role of  several characters (ekaharya) that figure in the lyrics, with appropriate Sancari- bhavas; say, the roles of the Nayika (heroine), her friend/assistant (Sakhi) or of the Nayaka (hero)’. This is achieved through a series of  variations of Angikabhinaya, in which each word of the poetry is interpreted in as many different innovative ways as possible.


Another significant point is that the present-day dance forms like Kathak, Odissi etc., are more related to medieval texts like Nartananirnaya than to the ancient manuals. This, in another way, could be taken to mean that certain dance-forms, which were marginalized in the Natyashastra, found a new life and due recognition as one among classical Dances of India. This again emphasizes the dynamic nature of Art, which rejuvenates and re-invents itself all the time.


Influence of Nartana-nirnaya

Now, as regards the historical significance of Nartana-nirnaya; many scholars, after a deep study of the text, have observed that there is enough evidence to conclude that the text marks the origin of two major styles of India today, namely, Kathak and Odissi. Dr.   Mandakranta Bose, the much respected scholar and authority on the principles and practices of the performing arts of India, also concurs that such connection seems highly plausible. The text was part of the same cultural world of the Mughal court that nurtured Kathak.

Dr. Bose, in her work, Movement and Mimesis: the Idea of Dance in the Sanskritic Tradition , points out that several technical terms used in Nartana-nirnaya match those used in Kathak today. And she goes on to say:

When we look closely at the technique of the dance described under the Anibandha category, we begin to see certain striking similarities with the technique of Kathak. One cannot say that the style described in the Nartana-nirnaya matches Kathak in every detail.  But one may certainly view that style as the precursor to Kathak; but the descriptions and the similarities in their techniques clearly show it to be the same as what we know today as Kathak.

The Nartana-nirnaya seems, thus, to be the proper textual source for Kathak. This claim becomes stronger still on examining points of technique.


As regards Odissi, Dr. Bose observes that the Bandha-nrtta as practiced in the Odissi style is very similar to the descriptions given in the Nartana-nirnaya.  And, the basic standing postures prescribed in the Odissi style: Chauka and Tribhangi are the two main basic stances in Odissi. Chahka is a stable-wide stance, with weight of the body distributed equally on both the sides; and, the heels facing the centre. It is said to be a masculine posture.  Tribanghi, is a graceful feminine posture, with the body bent in three-ways). These are comparable to vaisakha-sthana and Agra-tala-sanchara-pada of the Nartana-nirnaya.  Further, some acrobatic postures still in use are: danda-paksam, lalata-tilakam and nisumbhitam (the foot raised up to the level of forehead), and several others are found both in Odissi and in Chau dance of Mayurbhanj region of OrissaFurther, there is in the Nartana-nirnaya, the description of a dance called Batu involving difficult poses; and it is very similar to the Batunrtta, a particularly difficult dance in the repertory of Odissi.

Nayana dutta


The School of Nrtya that is prevalent in South India is Bharata-natya. It has gained ground through the efforts of some dedicated stalwarts.

During the period of national movement for attaining India’s independence, there was a revival and resurgence of Dance forms; and re-assertion of its values.

With the advent of the Maestro Uday Shankar; and with the efforts of the aesthetes like Rabindranath Tagore, Poet Vallathol of Kerala and Rukmini Devi and E. Krishna lyer of Kalakshetra at Adyar, the ancient form of dance (Marga), as in Bharata’s  Natyashastra, was re-established, by renaming it as Bharata-Natyam.

Along with that, the other classical dance forms like, Kathak, Odissi, Mohiniattam and Manipuri were also revived.


Dance – Today and Tomorrow

Moving from temple to theater was a huge, a gigantic leap. During the last seventy-five years there have been tremendous changes in the arena of Dance, in terms of structure, content, theme, presentation techniques, teaching methods and so on. As it stepped into the open society and reached out to larger numbers of spectators, the well equipped huge auditoriums and theaters having excellent lighting and sound facilities and other means of technical support etc., also came up. With this, the reach of the Art expanded significantly. Now, not merely the well informed connoisseurs, but also the uninitiated audience began to have access to witness and enjoy Art performances. This has  been a very healthy and a robust development.

Up to the early 20th century, the songs to which dances were composed were exclusively those rich in Srngara bhava. In the post-independence India, the dance themes were diversified to depict subjects other than the usual mythological and religious themes and of a heroine pining for her hero.

This shift played an important role in prompting the dancers to re-think and seek new directions in Indian dance and its thematic content. The Dancers with imagination and with the ability to reflect upon the present-day issues, began to experiment; to innovate dance-expressions; to create new movements using space, different levels; and, to develop an impressive array of dance vocabulary.

In India, Dance has always been an activity associated with socially, culturally and ritually sanctioned practices. And, the present period is the age resurgence of Indian classical dancing, freed from its past associations. The youth who pursue classical dance are the educated middle class, both in India and elsewhere. Today Indian dances have crossed national borders; and, the exponents of Dancing in the Indian Diaspora have been  extending their dance horizons,  wherever they are.

In today’s world, the classical dance is an icon of high-art. It is also the representation of India’s preserved history, tradition and culture. It is a part of understanding our cultural heritage. The classical Dance as a specialized performing art draws fewer males than females. It, somehow, is essentially the domain of the females . It is, therefore, the women who, mostly, have carried forward this form of traditional art.


There is a dichotomy here. Fueled by the cross-currents of theory , practice and the ongoing innovations  in the other  contemporary  fields of art ,  the artist in a zeal  to create one’s  own meaning, restructures and extends her/his little world , in order  to evoke, to fathom, and to effectively represent varied human emotions and experiences.   So long as the power of  such created-language of art is rooted in the basic principles and is within the structure of the classic-tradition, the Indian dance forms such as, the Bharatanatya etc., retain their identity and authenticity.  What is important in such shared aesthetic sensibilities, is retaining a sense of balance between the old and the new, which is continuity while still being rooted in one’s own tradition.

These are interesting and vibrant days for Indian classical Dance in its varied forms. With that, it has to face new challenges; and, has to address itself to new questions. It has to look within to review the techniques, the structural principles and to reassess the internal strength of its traditional forms. And, it has also to look forward and project its future path; to explore new horizons. It has to gain power and strength to carry forward the various Dance forms; and, at the same time have the tenacity to preserve the purity of the essential principles of the classical Dance. It has to find resilient ways to reflect the contemporary progressive values; and, continue to be relevant to the society and the world we live in. And, at the same time, it has to devise safeguards to protect the Art against the dangers of the rampant commercialization, which might affect the standards and the quality of the classical dance forms. It is the shared responsibility of the Gurus, the learners and the art connoisseurs.

And, that , indeed, is a very tall order.

Dance poses

Commencing from the next part, we shall briefly discuss each of the significant texts that defined the nature and practice of Dancing in India. We may, as always, start with Natyashastra; and, thereafter go to other texts, following their chronological order.

Nataraja big




Part Six

References and sources

All images are from the Internet


Posted by on October 4, 2018 in Art, Natya


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The texts of the Indian Dance traditions – Part Four

Continued from Part Three

 Nrtta, Natya and Nrtya

B. During the Post- Bharata period

Bharata Natyam


The commentators of the middle period (say, around the tenth century and thereafter) interpreted some of the fundamental terms of the Natyashastra in a manner that was considerably different from perhaps what Bharata meant. They also brought in many concepts that were not envisaged by Bharata.

Just to recapitulate:

As per Natyashastra,

: – the Nrtta was pure dance. It was not a subsidiary or an auxiliary to Natya. It was an independent Art-form, which was performed mainly in the Purvaranga, before the commencement of the play proper, as praise offering to gods (Deva-stuti).

: – The Tandava was described as Nrtta (pure dance); and, it was not necessarily aggressive; nor was it performed only by men.

[The Tandava in the Natyashastra did not convey the sense of Uddhata (Vigorous). Further, the Tandava or Nrtta of the Natyashastra was in no way related to what later came to be known as Tandava-nrtta.]

: – The graceful dance (Sukumara-prayoga) with delicate, graceful (Madhura) movements (Angaharas) performed by Devi Parvathi (which Abhinavagupta named as Lasya) was not in contrast to Shiva’s Tandava. It was her own Dance.

[Sukumara-prayoga (or Lasya) did not mean a feminine style of dancing, as was interpreted later. Such distinctions, as between masculine and feminine dances, were not made in the Natyashastra.]

: – During the time of Bharata, there was no clear theoretical division of Dance into Tandava and what, later, came to be known as Lasya. They merely referred to the nature of the physical movements. And, the term Lasya, per se , does not also appear in Natyashastra, though the concept of the element of grace and beauty did exist; and, was named as Sukumara or Madhura.

Shiva performing celestial dance

But, during the Post-Bharata period, especially in the medieval times:

: – Nrtta was classified into Tandava and Lasya types. And, here, Tandava was described as forceful (Uddhata Angaharas), the fast paced furious Tandava Nrtta.

And Tandava Nrtta came to be idealized as an extremely angry and destructive type of dance.

: – Sukumara Prayoga was renamed as Lasya, the soft or delicate (Lalita) form of dance.

: – And, the two, were said to be related to masculine and feminine dancers; saying that Tandava is for men, while Lasya is for women.

[But, the Natyashastra had not made such distinctions. There, the dance movements were guided by mental and emotional states of the character. The principle for classification of dance movements was Guna, the quality and the nature of the feeling of the character (not gender).]

: – Although Bharata created a new and more expressive form of Dance form by combining the dance elements of the Nrtta with the Abhinayas, he had not assigned it a name. He did not also define the newly crafted Art-form.

But, in the later periods, it came to be known and celebrated as Nrtya. (The term Nrtya, as such, does not appear in the Natyashastra, though its conceptual essence was very much there.)

: – Further, certain new concepts which, of course could not have been there during the time of Bharata, also came into the vocabulary of Dance. Now the Dance and its forms came to be classified into categories, such as: Marga (pure or classical) and Desi (regional or improvised); and, as Nibaddha (structured) and Anibaddha (unstructured or free-flowing).

: – Another significant development was the steady drift away from the dance that Bharata talked about. Number of regional elements and techniques entered into the stream. And, that gave rise to many Dance –forms, in different regions of the country; each with its own ethos and techniques of presentation.


With this background, let’s take a look the statements made by some authors and commentators of the Post –Bharata period.

dance poses

Nrtta in the medieval period


Abhinavagupta (11th century) in his Abhinavabharati, a detailed commentary on the Natyashastra, brought in many concepts and practices that were not present during the time of Bharata.  He also discussed matters related to the Art of Dancing, keeping in view the practices prevailing during his time.  He also tried to interpret the Natyashastra in the light of his own experience and knowledge; as also according to the principles of his philosophical School.

And, many times, he differed from Bharata. And, in addition, he introduced many new factors. Abhinavagupta provided the details of dance forms that were not mentioned in the Natyasastra. For instance, Abhinavagupta speaks of minor categories of drama (uparupakas), such as nrtta-kavya and raga-kavya – the plays based mainly in dance or in music. The nature of such minor dramas was not specifically  discussed in the  Natyashastra

Abhinavagupta provided his own interpretations to such fundamental terms as Nrtta, Abhinaya etc.

Though Nrtta was later described by Dhananjaya and Dhanika, as one that is bereft of meaning or emotion (Bhava and Rasa) or even of Abhinaya; and, that it can only be a decorative Angikabhinaya element that beautifies the dance presentation (Shobahetu), Abhinavagupta asserted that Nrtta is capable of expressing meaning (Artha). His view prevailed in the subsequent periods.

Further, Abhinavagupta asserted that Nrtta is an integral part of the Drama (Natya). The Nrtta elements can be used both in the Purvaranga (preliminaries before the commencement of the play) and in the sequences within the Drama. He cites some instances where Karanas (the basic units of the Nrtta) are employed.

He mentions: In Bhaṭṭa Nārāyaa’s Veī Samhāra, the actor playing the role of Aśvatthāman enters with the Sūci Viddha (needle-pierced) and Ūrdhvajānu (uplifted foot) Karaas. In Kalidāsa’s Vikramorvaśīyam, the hero Purūravas enters with the Alapallava and Sūci Karaas. Garua enters with Garua-plutam; Rāvaa’s entry is with Vaiśākha Recitam. In Svapna Vāsavadatta, Vatsarāja enters with Sambhrānta karana.

And, certain situations (say, those involving Srngara or Raudra) do need appropriate postures (Karanas) to illustrate the emotional states of the character.

Abhinavagupta’s influence has been profound and pervasive. Succeeding generations of writers on Natya were guided by his concepts and theories of Rasa, Bhava, aesthetics and dramaturgy.


Abhinavagupta, in a very elaborate manner, classifies Nrtta into two groups. The First group has three varieties; and, the Second has four. Thus, there are, in all, seven classifications.

In his rather complicated classifications and their protracted explanations of the Nrtta, Abhinavagupta brings in the elements Abhinayas, in its varying degrees.

The Nrtta types in his First Group have no Abhinaya. The Nrttas in the Second Group involve some element of Abhinaya (therefore, are aligned to what could be called as Nrtya). Here, the Abhinaya is classified into two types.


Dr. KM Varma in his highly scholarly and very  well researched work ‘Natya, Nrtta and Nrtya: their meaning and relation (pages 17-19) analyzes these seven classifications of Nrtta, in the light of Abhinavagupta’s hypothesis of two types of Abhinaya. And, he builds up the relationships among Nrtta (dance), Gana (song) and Vadya (musical instruments).


Abhinavagupta explains Abhinaya , broadly, as a process where the performer brings into his mind the meaning and the sentiment of the words of the song; and, puts it forth through facial expressions, movement of the limbs and such other means.

And, he classifies the Abhinaya into two distinct types.

Of the two types of Abhinayas; in the First one, the performer follows the general trend, without going into details; and, in the Second type, the performer interprets every word and every sentence of the song.

Here, in his classifications of the Nrtta, Abhinavagupta introduces into Nrtta many new factors that were not there earlier. For instance; he brings into the definition of Nrtta the elements of  Artha and Abhinaya (in varying degrees); the variations of Tandava (vigorous) and Lasya (soft) ; the concept of male and female forms of Nrtta ; and Rasas , the sentiments or emotions they express.

Thus, the concept and the content of the Nrtta, as in the Natyashastra, is almost entirely abandoned; thoroughly overhauled; and, given a totally new perspective and disposition.  In short; the Nrtta, here, is far faraway from its ancestor in the Natyashastra.  It is not the same.

[The First Group belongs to the pure Nrtta type ; whereas, the Second Group relates to of what came to be known as Nrtya. Abhinavagupta, in his explanations, did not, however, use the term Nrtya.]

The First Group of Nrtta that Abhinavagupta formulated has the three types: (1) Shudda-Nrtta; (2) Gitakad-abhinayaonmukha –Nrtta; and, (3) Gana-Vadya –Talanusaii Nrtta.

Of these, the First one, Shuddha Nrtta, which consists Angaharas and Recakas, is the sort of Nrtta that is related to the Purvaranga, as in the Natyashastra.

The Second in this Group is Gitakad-abhinayaonmukha- Nrtta. Here, the performer’s physical movements are guided by the general trend or the broad sense of the song. But, she/he does not pay attention to the specific details of the song; such as, the meaning of each words and sentence of the song.

The Third in this Group; the Gana-Vadya –Talanusari Nrtta is similar to the earlier one; but, here the instruments (Vadya), songs (Gitam) and rhythm (Taala) are the leading factors. Here also, the performer follows the general trend of the song without going into its details.


The Second Group has four types: (1) Uddhata Nrtta ;(2) Masrana-Nrtta; (3) Misra Uddhata Nrtta; and,(4)  Misar-Masarna Nrtta.

All these four types do require Abhinaya (as in the Nrtya). Here in the Second Group, the Abhinaya, according to Abhinavagupta, is the action of the performer in sending forth (abhi) or  bringing the meaning of the song into his own mind and expressing it through the movement of  limbs , conveying  the sense of every word and every detail of the song or the  composition.

The First type in this Second Group, the Uddhata Nrtta is a furious dance with display of vigorous movements (Tandava) ; it is associated with Veera and Roudra Rasas. This is a masculine type of dance.

The Second type in this Group, Masrana-Nrtta is the softer type of dance (Lasya) aligned with Srngara, Karuna and so on. This is the feminine type of dance

The Third type Misra Uddhata Nrtta, in the main, is same as Uddhata; but, is mixed with the movements of the Masrana (Lasya) variety

And, the Fourth type in the Second Group, Misar- Masarna Nrtta is again a Masarna Nrtta, with emphasis on lighter; but, mixed with some elements of Uddhata



Dhananjaya perhaps belonged to the same region and to the same period in which Abhinavagupta lived.  By the time of Dhananjaya (Ca. eleventh Century), the meaning and the application of the terms Nrtta, Tandava and Lasya had all changed a great deal. Further, by then, the Natya and Nrtya had taken the center stage.

Dhananjaya, in his Dasarupaka, treats Nrtta, mainly, in its comparison with Nrtya.

Dhananjaya explains Nrtta, as dance, with emphasis on smart looking (shobhahetu) limb-movements, in tune with rhythm and tempo (nrttam tala-laya-asrayam). But, in itself, it is devoid of meaningful content; and, is valued for its mere visual beauty of body movements (gatrasya viksepaha). Nrtta is not an interpretive or expressive dance (though the dancer might perhaps wear pleasant smile on her face).

The Nrtta, according to Dhananjaya, does not also involve the elements of meaning or emotion (Bhava and Rasa) or Abhinaya (Abhinaya-sunya); nor does it evoke a mood or a sentiment (Rasa). It is one of the specific technical elements (Angikabhinaya) that beautify the dance presentation.

[Bharata had used the term Nrtta to denote dancing, in general. But, in the medieval period, the meaning of Nrtta was narrowed down to mean a mere decorative aid. It was just an aspect of the whole body of Dancing.]

As compared to Nrtta, Dhananjaya says, the Nrtya, principally, is the display of various aesthetic moods (Bhava) or emotional states (Bhava-asrayam nrtyam). The Angavikshepa, the throwing of limbs is, however, common to both Nrtta and Nrtya.

But, Nrtya, through its appropriate gestures, facial expressions and limb-movements, gives life and form to the meaning and the sensitivity of the individual words and the sentences of the song (Abhinaya-pada-artha-abhinayatmaka).

[Nandikeshvara (Abhinayadarpana.1-56) similarly distinguished Nrtya from Nrtta, thus: Bhava-abhinaya-hinam tu nrittamitya-abhidhyate;| Rasabhava-vyanjana adi yuktam nrityam ity uchyate]


Of these two, the Nrtya having emotional content is classified by Dhananjaya under Marga (the classic or pristine form of dance), a representation of the classic form of dance; while, Nrtta, with its stress, mainly, on rhythm and tempo, is classified under Desi, perhaps representing the popular regional or improvised dance form – (Adyam padartha-abhinayo Margo Desi tatha param).

Under each of these (Nrtya and Nrtta), Dhananjaya, again makes a two-fold division, as: Lasya, the graceful, gentle fluid and pleasing dance; and, Tandava, the vigorous, energetic, brisk and invigorating movements (lasya-tandava-rupena natakad-dyupa-karakam).

These are the dance-types that are performed during the course of the play, depending upon the nature/need of a sequence in the play.

Thus, Tandava, unlike in Natyashastra, is not necessarily a dance performed as a praise-offering to gods, in the Purvaranga, the preliminaries, before the commencement of the play. On the other hand, it is used in the play to depict aggressive tendencies (Uddhata) and their manifestations. Similar is the case with Lasya, the gentle dance (Lalita).

The distinction between Uddhata and Lalita also suggests a difference  between the masculine and feminine modes of expression; because of their physical characteristics, and also because of their association with a male and a female deity. In due course, the term Lasya came to mean a feminine style of dancing, which lends grace to stage actions.

[Following Dhananjaya, Sarangadeva also mentions that Nrtta and Nrtya can both be of two kinds: Tandava and Lasya (SR.7.28). Tandava requires Uddhata (forceful); and, Lasya requires  Lalita (delicate) movements (SR. 7. 29-30). He identifies Tandava as Shiva’s dance; and, Lasya as Parvati’s.]


According to Dhananjaya, Natya comprises both Nrtta and Nrtya. It is mentioned; that in Natya, the Nrtya is sometimes useful in expressing the Bhava introduced through the topic (Avantara-padartha), while Nrtta is useful as a beautifying factor that pleases the eye (Shobha-hetuvena)

Dhananjaya explains Natya as an Art-form that is based in Rasa- Natyam rasam-ashrayam (DR.I. 9). It gives expressions to the inner or true meaning of the lyrics through dance gestures – vakyartha-abhinayatmaka.

Thus, Natya delightfully brings together and presents in a very highly expressive, attractive visual and auditory form, the import of the lyrics (sahitya), the nuances of its emotional content to the accompaniment of soulful music and rhythmic patterns (tala-laya), along with attractive postures and stances.

[Later, Pundarika Vittala (sixteenth century), in his work (Nartana-nirnaya), following Sarangadeva, uses the term Nartana, generally, to mean ‘Dance’, Pundarika said that by Nartana he meant it to be a general class-name for Dance. And, the term Nartana would cover the three forms of Dance: NatyaNrtya and Nrtta. The last (Nrtta) would again be subdivided into three other types: visama (acrobatic); vikata (absurd); and, Laghu (light), identified respectively as rope-dancing, a comic dance, and a dance based on easy Karanas.]


Dhanika says that Nrtya is Pada-artha-abhinayatmaka; and, Natya is Vakya-artha-abhinayatmaka

It is explained that the terms Pada (word) and Vakya (sentence) should not be taken in their ordinary sense. These have to be seen in relation that the words have with the sentence, of which they are a part.

Here, Pada-artha, word-meanings, is to be taken as Bhavas. And, Vakya-artha is to be understood as Rasa, which is produced by the combination of the Bhavas; just as a sentence is made up of several words.

In other words; the relation between Bhava and Rasa was said to be similar to that which exists between the word and the sentence.   It was said; Vakyartha stands for Rasa, which is similar to the sentence; and, Padartha stands for Bhava, which is similar to the word.


Following that, attempts were made to differentiate Nrtya and Natya on the basis of Bhava and Rasa.

In the process, Nrtya was equated with Padartha-abhinaya; and, Natya with Vakhyartha-abhinaya. And, in effect, according to Dhananjaya, it meant that Nrtya is rooted in Bhava (Nrtyam bhavashrayam); and, Natya in the Rasa (Rasashrayam Natyam). Thus, Nrtya is related to Bhava alone; and, Natya is related to Rasa alone.

Even in the later times, the authorities like Vipradasa (Ca. fourteenth century).  Rana Kumbha (fifteenth century) continued to go by the definitions provided by Dhananjaya/Dhanika; but, with slight modifications.

For instance; Rana Kumbha in his Nrtya-ratna-kosa explains Nrtta as made up of combination of Karanas and Angaharas (Karanam angaharani caiva Nrttam); Nrtya as Rasa (Nrtya sabdena ca Rasam punaha); and, Natya as Abhinaya (Natyena abhinayam). The Nrtya is classified as Marga; and, Nrtta as Desi.


Thus, according the medieval theories, Nrtta is all about beauty of form perceived by the eye; Nrtya expresses Bhava; and, Natya expresses Rasa.

But, such definitions and their import do not seem to be quite correct, at least in certain vital aspects.

Bhava and Rasa, even according to Bharata are intimately related. As Bharata had said; there cannot be Rasa without Bhavas; and vice versa – Na Bhavahino iti Raso; Na Bhavao Rasavargitah.

Na bhāvahīno’sti Raso; Na Bhāvo rasavarjita parasparaktā siddhi-stayor abhinaye bhavet NS.6.36

Apart from textual references, it is common experience that Rasa, the aesthetic pleasure, is evoked by both the Nrtya and the Natya. And, Bhava and Rasa are essential to both the Nrtya and the Natya.

And, therefore, to say that Nrtya is only about Bhava; and Natya is only about Rasa would be incorrect. The aim of both Nrtya and Natya is to provide Rasa; and, for which Bahavas are essential.  The expressions of Bhava are crucial to all the Art forms; as they contribute to the creation of Rasa enjoyed by the viewers, both in a general and auxiliary way (Samanya-guna-yogena).  Abhinavagupta argued on similar lines (though he did not use the term Nrtya, in particular).


And, similarly, Dhananjaya’s views on Nrtta and other issues were criticized by the later scholars.

To start with, it was mentioned that the concepts of the Natyashastra have to be understood in the light of the theoretical principles in which they are based. And, Dhananjaya’s view of Nrtta was restrictive, since it did not take many of its aspects into consideration.

Dismissing Dhananjaya’s classification of Nrtta as Desi, it was argued: the Nrtta as defined by Bharata is a proper art; a pure dance form, where the dancers need to be trained under competent Masters. Nrtta was meant to be performed during the Purvaranga as a prayer offering (Deva stuti). It was dear to gods (atyartham iṣṭa devānā).

Further, it was pointed out that Bharata’s phrase sobham janayati merely suggests that Nrtta is a beautifying factor; and, that does not mean Nrtta is auxiliary to Natya. The Nrtta is  independent, chaste and classical.

Marga, by Dhananjaya’s own definition, is an Art that is created by the Masters; while, Desi is that which is practiced by people of different regions, according to their taste.  And, therefore, to designate Nrtta as Desi is illogical; because, Nrtta  created by Shiva himself; and,  taught by Tandu to  Bharata was in indeed of the Marga class.

It was argued by the  scholars of the later period  that Dhananjaya’s statements do not project a fair view; because: Nrtta, which precedes Natya, in reality, is an art par excellence, which  can suggest meaning and evoke Rasa.

It was, therefore, indicated that it makes more sense to go by the concepts themselves, than be led only by the etymological explanations of the terms.

It was also said that Dhananjaya could have made a distinction between the Nrtta of the Purvaranga; and, the Nrtta type of group dances performed on happy cultural and social occasions. The dancers, here, do not need much training. And, there are also no restrictions with regard either to the mode of its dance or to the place of its performance. Only, such latter type of regional dances could have been classified as the popular Desi; and, not the entire Nrtta, as a class.


It was pointed out that Dhananjaya’s interpretation of Tandava as made of vigorous (Uddhata) Angaharas ; and Lasya as made of soft (Sukumara or Madhura) Angaharas , was not in accordance with the tenets of the Natyashastra.

Further, under, the interpretation provided by Dhananjaya, Nrtta was classified depending on the nature of the physical movements. It seemed that vigorous Tandava and soft Lasya were related to masculine and feminine dancers, respectively; suggesting that Tandava is for men, while Lasya is for women. But, the Nrtta in the Natyashastra did not envisage such discrimination.

Again, such an interpretation also suggests a distinction and between masculine and feminine modes of expression. And, that led to mistaking the term Lasya to mean a feminine style of dancing, which lends grace to stage actions.

It was argued that the dissimilarity of vigorous or soft is purely relative.  And, they are mere assumptions. It doesn’t make much sense to insist that women should be soft and gentle, even when they are angry or furious; and, men should be aggressive even when they are in grief or in love. It is also wrong to state that Lasya should be performed only by women; and Tandava is exclusively for men. The real principle for classification should be Guna, the quality and the nature of the feeling (but, not gender).


Next;   Dhananjaya’s  statements asserting that Nrtta is devoid of Bhava and Rasa (Rasa Bhava vihinam tu Nrttam itya abhijayate); and, Nrtta is only a technical element (Angikabhinaya) that helps to smarten the dance presentation; and it lacks the element of Abhinaya (laya tala matrapekso angaviksepo abhinaya sunyayh), were also refuted. And, downgrading Nrtta to an inferior (Adhama) position was also rejected.

Saradatanaya (1175 -1250 AD) in his Bhavaprakasana, disagreed with the views of Dhananjaya; and asserted that   Nrtta, the pure dance, is rooted in Rasa (Nrttam rasa-ahrayam). Saradatanaya’s definition meant that Nrtta not only beautifies a presentation, but is also capable of generating Rasa.

Further, Abhinavagupta, while dealing with Karanas, which are the basic units of Dance and classified under the Nrtta, emphasized that Karanas are capable of suggesting meanings.

Abhinavagupta opined that Kaisiki-vrtti, which is the medium or the style to depict Srngara, essentially requires Nrtta. Because, he says, Nrtta is the source that provides Valana, Vartana and other movements or stances. Further, he says that Nrtta as a beautifying factor helps to fill or cover up the gaps in the physical movements (chidra-chadana); and, to maintain continuity in action (alata-chakra-pratimata). And, therefore, Nrtta, like Nrtya and Natya, is capable of giving forth Rasa, although it is non representational.

Further, the statements such as ‘Nrtta is devoid of Bhava and Rasa’ (rasabhava-vihinam tu Nrttam itya abhijayate) were dismissed as being   rather harsh and unimaginative. That is because; Nrtta is an Art-form that provides the idioms and metaphors of beauty to  Nrtya , Natya and Shilpa.

And, over the centuries, the Karanas of the Nrtta have inspired creation of wondrous sculptures with their visual beauty (Shobha), their distinctive poses and geometrical constructions. And, they do invoke certain admiration and pleasure (Rasa) in the hearts of the viewers. Same thing can be said about the basic dance poses and dynamic postures.

Dancing (Nrtta) and sculpture (Shilpa)   have much in common. They both share same system of measures and proportions in presenting human forms, as symbols capable of evoking states of being (Bhava).

Thus every figure of Indian sculpture is, like every pose and gesture in Indian dancing, highly symbolic; and, each figure has a particular evocative quality. The technique by which the artist can present the soul or the spirit of subject in a visible form, are guided by the same set of principles.

Just as the Indian dancer aims at attaining the perfect pose, the moment of perfect balance(Sama), after a series of movement in time, so too, does the Indian sculptor try to capture the movement of the figure through the perfection of rhythm and line.

The fundamental principles of Tala (measure) and Bhanga (posture) based on the concept of the Sutra (median) and (proportions) in Dance are similar to the ones in sculpture.

Further, the division of the human form into the various Anga and the Upanga in both the arts is made on the basis of the bone structure, the joints of the body rather than on the muscles of the human body:

It is said; indeed, the Nrtta technique can be better understood if one understands the concept of the Sutras and Mana of the Shilpa. .

[As compared to the restricted understanding of Nrtta by the medieval authors, the present-day acceptance and application of Nrtta is more comprehensive and highly useful. In the Bharatanatya and other classical dances of India, Nrtta forms an essential part of the dance performance, its structure; as also, in its training methods. That is because; Nrtta as per Bharata and also Nandikeshvara, is built of wide-ranging varieties of Karanas (Angavikshepa), which are the basic units. These are rooted in well thought out logical principles and geometric forms. And, they do invoke aesthetic pleasure (Rasa). Therefore, Karanas are ingrained into Nrtya.

Karanas are, thus, essential to the Grammar and structure of Nrtya in Bharatanatya and in other forms.  Going further back; Caris , which could be called as well knit ‘steps’ , is an alphabet of the Nrtta as also of  Natya. And, therefore, Nrtta is more relevant today, than it was in the days of Bharata. It has  received a special treatment from the point of view of choreography.]



The Natyashastra employs Natya as a generic term, which broadly covers drama, dance and music. Bharata’s Natya could also be understood as drama. And Ntta and other dance elements was one of the constituents that provided elegance to the theatrical presentations. It does not treat dance as a separate category of Art-form.

The Natyashastra (6.10) provides a comprehensive framework of the Natya, in a pellet form, as the harmonious combination (sagraha) of the various essential components that contribute towards the successful production of a play.

He mentions the eleven elements that constitute the Natya (Drama). These are: Rasa (sentiment); Bhava (states); Abhinaya (representation or acting); Dharmi (styles of presentation);Vrtti (styles of depiction); Siddhi (attainment of the purpose); Svara (musical notes); Atodya (orchestra or instrumental music); Gana (songs); and Ranga ( stage) .

Bharata later explains, of the eleven, Rasa is of paramount importance; and deriving that Rasa is the objective of a theatrical performance. The other ten elements – from Bhava to Ranga – are the contributing factors for the production of the Rasa,.

Rasā bhāvā hya abhinayā dharmī vtti pravttaya  siddhi svarās tathā atodyaṃ gāna ragaś ca sagraha  6.10

At another place, Bharata, in a nutshell, provides a sort of definition of Natya, which could be understood as Drama (Rupaka).

Bharata explains: when the experiences of the everyday world, mingled with pleasure and pain both, are conveyed through different Abhinayas such as, speech, gestures, costume, makeup, ornaments etc – (Angika, Sattvika, Vachika, and Aharya Abhinayas) –   it is called Natya. (NS 1.119)

yo’ya  svabhāvo lokasya sukha dukha samanvita  som gādya abhinaya ityopeto nātyam ity abhidhīyate  NS.4. 119

Bharata explained that object of the Natya  was to show men and women the proper way to live, a way in which one could live and behave, so that one might become a still better person.

“A play shows your actions and emotions. Neither gods nor demons are depicted as always good or always evil. Actually, the ways of the world as represented here are not only of the gods but also of yours. It teaches you good advice (upadisati); it gives you enlightenment and also entertainment. It provides peace of mind to those who afflicted with miseries, sorrow, grief or fatigue. There is no art, no knowledge, no yoga, and no action that is not found in Natya.”  (Natya-Shastra 1: 106-07; 112-16)

na tajjñāna na tacchilpa na sā vidyā na sā kalā  nāsau yogo na tatkarma nāye’smin yanna dśyate Ns.1. 116


Generally speaking, Bharata not only takes the experience of the individual human beings, but that of the world as a whole; and, considers Natya as the effective means of communicating those experiences. Included in this, are the elements of speech, poetry, music, dance and all those factors that lend beauty and grace to a theatrical performance. For Bharata, Natya is the very epitome of life.

According to Bharata, Natya is the experiences of the world when it is represented on the stage, in order to provide enjoyment and instruction, by means of acts of communication, which a person does not normally employ in the everyday life. The presentation of the play is dominated by the stylized modes of presentation (NatyaDharmi).

In other words, just the fact of one’s experiences in the world, as ordinarily noted or observed during the course of life, is not Natya.  It becomes Natya only when it is communicated through the means of Abhinayas and representation; and, presented on the stage.

The Abhinaya, on the stage, is expressed through Mano-vak-kaya (mind, voice and body), in terms of Sattvika, Vachika and Angika abhinaya-s. These are supported by Aharya (the costumes and stage props), the fourth element. Thus Abhinaya covers not only the movements of face and limbs; but, it also encompasses all the other elements and modes of supportive expressions.

The successful production (Siddhi) of a play  (Natya) enacted on the stage (Ranga) involves various  elements of the components of  the actors’ gestures, actions (bhava) and speech ; bringing forth (abhinaya) their intent (Artha), through the medium of theatrical (Natya-dharmi) and common (Loka-dharmi) practices; in four styles of representations (Vritti-s) in their four regional variations (pravrttis) ; with the aid of  captivating dances and melodious songs  accompanied by instrumental music (svara-gana-adyota).

Such well enacted Abhinayas induce in the minds and hearts of the Sahrudaya the sense (Artha) that is conducive for evoking proper Rasa. Without Abhinaya there is no drama; and, no Natya without representation

Bharata’s definition of Natya covers all these factors; and holds good even in the present day.

[Abhinavagupta also makes a distinction between the world of drama (Nātyadharmī) and the real but ordinary life (Lokadharmī). In the artistic process, where presentations are made with the aid of various kinds of dramatic features such as Abhinayas and synthetic creationswe are moving from the gross  and un-stylized movements of  daily life to more subtle forms of expressions and experiences; we move from individualized experiences to general representations (sadharanikarana) ; and, from multiplicity to unity.]

Abhinavagupta , in the context of Dance, explains Abhinaya as a process , where the performer brings into his mind the meaning and the sentiment of the words of the song; and, puts it forth through facial expressions, movement of the limbs and such other means. And, Abhinaya is the act of communication of an idea, a thought or the phase of an emotion or sentiment that one is experiencing.

 [It is explained that acting, in a sense, means to behave like someone else. And, it is not reality; because, it is not related to the actual life of the person who is acting. But, at the same time, it is not mimicry or imitation. Abhinaya should be understood as the actor’s effort to communicate and to convey the mental and emotional states of the character; and, its experiences. Abhinaya is bringing forth the Artha, the sense of the things, into the minds of the Sahrudayas. ]



Bharata used the term Nrtta to denote dance; and, the term Nrtya does not appear in the Natyashastra. Abhinavagupta also, adhering to the terminologies of the Natyashastra, avoids using the term Nrtya , as such.  He consistently uses the term Nrtta, while referring to Dance. Similar was the case with the authors earlier to his period. They also had not used the term Nrtya.

Further, in some editions of Natyashastra where the word Nrtya crept in, it is taken as a later insertion (unintended or otherwise) by the manuscript-copier (scribes).

That does not mean that the essence of Dance (with which we are now familiar as Nrtya) did not exist; or, was not yet created in the epoch of Natyashastra.

It only means that the specific term Nrtya was not then in currency.  According to some scholars, the term Nrtta along with Abhinaya covered what we now call Nrtya, as evidenced from some verses of the Abhinavabharati.

According to Abhinavagupta, it was Bharata who designed and created an Art form, which would adorn the Natya, by combining the dance element of the Nrtta and the Abhinayas. But, for some reason, Bharata did not see a need to assign a name to the resultant art form.

And, Bharata, in his characteristic way, puts it as if the suggestion came to him from Shiva, who had advised Brahma the ways to utilize the Nrtta in the Natya. Here, Shiva had said : you can very well communicate (Abhinayasi), by use of Nrtta (made beautiful by Angaharas consisting different Karanas), the things (Artha) out of which the songs are composed; the songs that are sung in the Purvaranga.

mayāpīda smta ntya sandhyākāleu ntyatā nānā karaa sayuktair agahārair vibhūitam4.13 pūrvaraga vidhā vasmistvayā samyak prayojyatām vardhamāna akayogeu gītevāsāriteu ca 4.14 mahāgīteu caivā arthān samyagevā abhineyasi yaścāya pūrvaragastu tvayā śuddha prayojita NS. 4. 15

That is to say; on taking the hint from Shiva’s statement, Bharata worked out the details of combining Nrtta with Abhinaya; and, that led to the birth of a new Art form – the Nrtya. The term Abhinaya, here, stands for the act of communication.

Sarangadeva in his Sangitaratnakara, says that by combining the Angikabhinaya of Nrtta with the Abhinayas (Satttvica, Angika, Vachika and Aharya abhinayas) the Nrtya was created – Angikabhinayai reva Bhavaneva vyanakti, yat, tan Nrtyam.


The statement that the combination of Nrtta and Abhinaya resulted in Nrtya, at the suggestion of Shiva, was supported by Abhinavagupta through two verses, which he ascribes to Kohala.

The quoted verses say:  In the past, on one evening (Sandhya), Narada was dancing in front of Shiva. And Narada then sang a song celebrating the victory of Shiva over the demon Tripura. And, Shiva, having been pleased with the song, began to dance; enacting (Abhinaya) the theme of the song. Later, Shiva asked Tandu to combine (yojana) the Tandava (meaning, Nrtta) with Abhinaya used in that dance.

Sandhyayam nrtyaha Shamboh bhakty-agre, Naradah pura gaavan Triporonmatham taccita stavata gitake cakra abhinayam pritas tatas Tandum ca so abravit natyokta abhinayenedam vats yojya Tandavam

Shiva’s Nrtta included Karanas and Angaharas. Yet; Shiva said that one can communicate through Nrtta when used in Natya.

Now, what does that mean?   It might perhaps mean that if Nrtta is performed with a given intention, following a method, then it might convey a meaning.


Dr. KM Varma in his scholarly and highly analytical work Natya, Nrtta and Nrtya: their meaning and relation’, argues (page 32) that Nrtta came first; then Natya. And later, when Abhinaya was added to Nrtta, the idea of Nrtya emerged.

Thus, he says, Nrtta and Nrtya came into being at the suggestion of Shiva. But, both these forms were propagated by Tandu.

Though Bharata is responsible for the emergence of Nrtya, it did not receive special nomenclature or individual treatment in the Natyashastra. Bharata continued to treat it as Nrtta.

Although it developed to full extent soon after the time of Bharata,  the theoreticians and commentators until about the tenth century continued to follow Bharata; and, avoided using the term Nrtya, though they did describe its essential features, nature and techniques by use of other terms.

But, when the combination of Nrtta and Abhinaya, evolved, developed and prospered as an independent, well recognized, dance form; and, became so popular (prasiddha) , the latter authors could not afford to avoid the term Nrtya. And, Nrtya, eventually, became a part of the Grammar of the Dance.

The hypothetical question since when the term came into popular use is much debated. Many point out that though the term Nrtya was not employed by the commentators of the medieval period, it somehow, was in popular usage as early as in the fifth century.

That argument is supported by the fact that Amarasimha (fifth century), in his lexicon Amarakosa, while defining Nartana, included within its meaning, Nrtya as a synonym: ṇḍava naanaya lāsya ntya ca nartane (1.7.427).  That suggests; as early as in the fifth century Nrtya was well known; and, was in common use. And, the lexicographer could not avoid including the term Nrtya in his work. But, it is not clear when it actually acquired its name.


Sarangadeva explains Nrtya as a means of putting forth different aesthetic moods or bhava (bhavahetu orbhavashraya) or giving expression to individual words of the song through appropriate gestures and/or facial expressions – pada-artha-abhinayatmaka.

The key ingredient in the Nrtya is the elaborate gesture-language, Abhinaya (lit., to bring near; that is, to present before the eyes), the meaning (Artha) and the emotion (Bhava) of the lyrics. It is the harmonious combination of striking poses, eloquent gestures, lucid facial expressions, various glances, and meaningful movements of the hands, fingers and feet.

Though the performance of an Nrtya is tied with the interpretation of a lyric (sahitya) depicting a theme (prasanga), it combines in itself the expressive Abhinaya; and the stances, poses, postures and movements, of the pure Dance (Nrtta).  The Nrtya is regarded as the soul of any Dance-style. The Abhinaya and Nrtta elements it portrays demand the skill, grace and ingenuity of a well trained talented Dancer.

[The Abhinaya Darpana describing the qualities of a good dancer says: A dancer must have the inherent sensibility which can be enhanced by training. Agility, steadiness, sense of line, practice in circular movement, a sharp and steady eye, effortlessness, memory, devotion, clarity of speech, sense of music – these ten are the essential qualities of a dancer.

Javaha Sthiratwam Rekha cha /27/ Bhramari Drishti Shramaha; Medha Shraddha Vacho Geetham; Paatra pranaa Dasa Smruthaha/Ab. Da.28/ ]


Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya – their mutual relations

Sarangadeva remarks, when you take a broader view, Ntta is not distant from Nrtya; and, both of these are essential to Natya.  Thus, Dance, in both of its aspects (Nrtya and Natya), was a vital presence of Nrtta. All the three are interrelated.

The Āgika abhinaya or physical expressions, in both Nrtya and Natya, includes the  Ntta elements. But, Āgika abhinaya is of greater importance in the Nrtya.

The Nrtta is an integral part of the Nrtya; but, it also has its presence in the Natya. Thus, Nrtta has constructive relations with Nrtya as also with Natya. The three, in some measures, are bound together.


Nrtta and Natya

Bharata defines Nrtta and Natya on the basis of their techniques; and, their relevance. And, the two Art-forms were discussed independent of each other.

As between Nrtta and Natya, the former was said to be older. And Nrtta, which earlier was a pure dance performed in the Purvaranga as Deva stuti, later became a part of the Natya. The influence of Nrtta on Natya is more delicate.

Nrtta and Nrtya

And, when the dance elements of the Nrtta were combined with the Abhinayas – with its dance movements interpreting the meaning and sentiments of the words in the lyrics – it was transformed into a most delightful art form – the Nrtya. With this, the dance, in general, came to be known as Nrtya.

Though some texts continued to carry on theoretical discussions on Nrtta (pure dance-like movements) and Nrtya (the dance proper) as if they were two totally distinct dance-idioms; the two, in fact, are very intimately related. And, the defining characteristics (lakhaa) of Nrtta and Nrtya are the same.

But, Pundarika Vitthala, in his Nartana-nirnaya, throughout, uses the terms  Nrtta  and Nrtya  interchangeably, perhaps, because, both those dance forms involved, in some measure, the elements of Abhinaya or interpretative movements conveying a meaning (Artha). He was following the explanations put forth by Abhinavagupta. 

As Dr Kapila Vatsyayan observes, in the contemporary Indian dance scene, with the exploration of geometrical space at floor level and choreographic patterns, the elements of Nrtta, pure dance and Abhinaya, expression-full dance (Nrtya) are close-knit, cohesive.

The Indian classical dance of today, has, over a period, evolved its own Grammar and constructed its own devices. The Nrtta element too has changed greatly from what it meant during the days of Bharata. Its structure and style which are based in different units of Nrtta movements are well adopted into Bharatanatya in the form of Adavus etc.

Thus, in the later periods, particularly in the modern period, Nrtta became an essential ingredient of the Nrtya, in displaying its various stances, postures and movements.


Natya and Nrtya

As regards, Natya and Nrtya; the Natya is a deliberate art; and, Nrtya is representational art. The object of both the forms is to provide Rasa.  

The principles which govern the techniques of both the Natya (Sanskrit Drama) and the classical Nrtya are the same. Their ways of stylized modes of presentation (NatyaDharmi); and, the manners of depiction (Vrtti); the techniques of acting (Abhinaya); and, appearances in costumes and make-up (Aharya) are regulated by the same set of principles of the dramaturgy and its stage –presentation.

Even after Nrtya emerged as an independent Art-form, the later writers on the treatise dealing with the Nrtya and its varied forms, (either exclusively or otherwise), adopted the same set of norms and principles that once governed the Natya of the Natyashastra. The techniques of Dance continued to be discussed in terms of the various elements of Dharmis, the Vrittis and Abhinaya as prescribed by Bharata.

The tya-dharmi mode of dance was woven into the play-presentation. The sequences in the Drama were staged through the actors singing, speaking and dancing in their roles. The static and dynamic Ntta karaas were utilized as idioms to portray various emotional states. The Natya , in its production, made use of the  four-fold Dance phrases of body-movements (āgika); speech delivery (vācika); studied involuntary reaction (sāttvika); as also of costumes, make-up and scenery (āhārya).

Thus, in a way of speaking, the two – the Nrtya (Dance proper along with its Nrtta element) and Natya (Sanskrit Drama) – continue to be bound together, in one way or the other.


Both Nrtya and Natya make use of all the four kinds of Abhinayas. And, difference between Natya and Nrtya, is in their modes of using the different degrees of the elements of the Abhinayas.

The entire sphere of presentation in an Nrtya is predominated by Natya-dharmi, graceful gesticulations, stylized aesthetic suggestive expressions. There is no attempt to present things as they actually are. And, in the Nrtya that we know, those principles and conventions are being followed, even to this day, in their pristine form.

In Nrtya, its every movement should follow the Laya and Tala. It is said; the Nrtya inherits this quality from the Angika-abhinaya of the Nrtta. The Nrtya involves Gatra-vikshepa ‘throwing’ or movement of the limbs, to dance. And, almost throughout its performance, Nrtya is accompanied by music, the most enchanting of the art forms.

Nrtya is basically Drshya or Prekshya, a spectacle mainly having visual appeal. Though the performer follows the lyrics of the song, she does not actually sing; but, only provides the lip-movement while interpreting its words and sentences.

Many elements of Nrtta and Natya were absorbed into Natya. And, Nrtya, for a period, became a parallel form of Drama. But, in the Natya, the elements of Nrtya are incidental to its dance sequences. Dance as a part of dramaturgy was employed as an ornamental overlay upon a theatrical presentation.

In contrast to the Nrtya, the facial and body movements in Natya are slight or subtle – Kincit-chalana. Here, the speech (Vachika) is dominant; and, therefore, the need for Sattvikabhinaya  and the vrttis (styles of dialouge delivery) is greater, for communicating the mental and emotional states of the characters in the play. Further, unlike in Nrtya, the actors on the stage do actually sing.  Thus, in the Natya, both the visual and the audio are highly essential.

Thus, the Natya or Drama has an advantage over poetry, music and dance. Apart from bringing in the embellishment of spectacular the visual effects (Rupaka or Drishya-kavya), it has the power of music and speech.


In the later periods, Natya became rather stagnant; but, the Nrtya made rapid strides. While Natya was fading ; and, losing its universal appeal,  the Nrtya and its forms were evolving and developing swiftly as the most delightful and most engaging Art forms, popular among  all sections of the society.

In the process of its growth, Nrtya widened its scope and content by innovating and assimilating a range of stylistic variations; and, by moving away from its early dependence on Drama. Now, Nrtya is no longer an adjunct or accessory to Natya. It has also widened its aesthetic scope, beyond decorative grace to encompass emotive communication (Rasa) and narrative variations. It has evolved into a full-fledged system, a self-governing complex Art form; and, has established its identity. And, it has continued as highly popular classical dance form.

lasya (1)


The School of Nrtya that is prevalent in South India is the Bharata-natya.

In the initial years, there were debates raising questions concerning the name assigned to this Dance form, which, basically, is Nrtya. Many asked, why should it be called Bharata-natya; and, why not Bharata-nrtya.

In reply; explanations were offered to clarify that the suffix ‘Natya’ also stands for ‘Nrtya’, in its technical sense.  The arguments made out said  that as per the past authorities like Kumbha Rana and Vipradasa (fifteenth century), the term ‘Natya’ could also be used to denote ‘Nrtya’. Later, Pundarika Vittala (sixteenth century), in his work (Nartana-nirnaya), following the lead given by Sarangadeva, said that Nartana, a general class-name for Dance, covered the three forms of Dance: NatyaNrtya and Nrtta. And, much before that Amarasimha, as early as in the fifth century, had equated ‘Natya’, among other terms, with ‘Nrtya’.

But, there are no explanations anywhere as to when and why that equation was arrived at. The only other plausible explanation is that it might have come about by way of popular usage. But, in any case, since this form of dancing was created by Bharata, to name it as Bharatanatya, is truly justifiable.  As per Dr. Ananada Coomaraswamy,’ Indian acting and dancing, is a deliberate art; and, the same word, Natya, covers both those ideas. ‘

Thus, the Nrtya, known now as Bharatanatya is surely a continuation of the form and tradition of the Marga class of dance that was promoted by Bharata; although over the period, some elements have entered into it. Yet; no other School of Nrtya has a closer relationship with Natyashastra than Bharatanatya.

Nataraja 005

The Bharatanatya of today is such a refined form of Dance which has brought within its ambit the formats of Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya. This School of Art can be explained in almost every respect by Bharata’s theories. And, it follows Bharata’s techniques to a large extent.  It also contains the beauty of form as in the Nrtta. It excels in the aesthetic presentation of form and geometrical beauty; and in the richness of in variety of movements as no other dance form does. It has the gentle power of expression to communicate ideas and emotions through Abhinaya, as in Nrtya. It can also present a narrative theme as in Natya, where the dancer enacts the roles of varieties of characters (Ekaharya Abhinaya or Ekaharya Lasyanga)

Depending upon the nature of the dance item that is being presented, its balance in terms of Nrtta, Nrtya and Natya varies. But, in general, the dominant aspect of Bharatanatya is Nrtya.

As regards its practice, Bharatanatya draws upon its tradition persevered and passed on from generation to generation in orally transmitted and highly codified manuals (Shastra). Though it is, essentially, rooted in the principles of Natyashastra, it has also adopted many features and techniques from the regional dance traditions; and, has thus enlarged its repertoire and acquired many dimensions.

Though the emphasis is on the adherence to and to preserving the purity of the tradition; and, its continuation, it also has brought in some innovative techniques and refreshing modes of expression, in tune with the advancing times. These could be called as ‘context-sensitive interactions’

The difference between Bharatanatya and other Dance forms like Kathakali, Manipuri and others is mainly in the use of their Abhinayas and techniques. They all belong to the Nrtya class. Each has its own stylized manner of bringing out the essential meaning of the song. Each is delightful in its own way. The coexistence of multiple streams of Dance forms has surely enriched the Indian Art scene.

[Smt. Tanjore Balasaraswati, also known as T. Balasaraswati (1918-1984), the celebrated exponent of Bharata-natyam, who expanded the performance of this dance form beyond the precincts of the temples where it was traditionally performed; re-established it; and, made it famous in different parts of India and many parts of the world, writes:

The greatest blessing of Bharata-natyam is its ability to control the mind. Most of us are incapable of single-minded contemplation even when actions are abandoned. On the other hand, in Bharata-natyam , actions are not avoided; there is much to do but it is the harmony of various actions that results in the concentration we seek.

The burden of action is forgotten in the pleasant charm of the art. The feet keeping to time, hands expressing gesture, the eye following the hand with expression, the ear listening to the dance master’s music, and the dancer’s own singing-by harmonizing these five elements the mind achieves concentration and attains clarity in the very richness of participation.

The inner feeling of the dancer is the sixth sense which harnesses these five mental and mechanical elements to create the experience and enjoyment of beauty.

It is the spark which gives the dancer her sense of spiritual freedom in the midst of the constraints and discipline of the dance. The yogi achieves serenity through concentration that comes from discipline. The dancer brings together her feet, hands, eyes, ears and singing into a fusion which transforms the serenity of the yogi into a torrent of beauty.

The spectator, who is absorbed in intently watching this, has his mind freed of distractions and feels a great sense of clarity. In their shared involvement, the dancer and the spectator are both released from the weight of worldly life, and experience the divine joy of the art with a sense of total freedom.

To experience this rare rapture, a dancer has only to submit herself willingly to discipline. It will be difficult in the beginning to conform to the demands and discipline of rhythm and melody and to the norms and codes of the tradition. But if she humbly submits to the greatness of this art, soon enough she will find joy in that discipline; and she will realize that discipline makes her free in the joyful realm of the art.]


The way ahead…

Having said that; let me add that Bharatanatya, as an art, is a dynamic process. It needs to be rejuvenating and reinventing itself all the time. And, it should not stagnate. Though its theories are rooted in the Natyashastra of Bharata, in its practice, it derives its curriculum from several other texts. Most of those texts were written before the seventeenth century.  And, that makes it essential for Bharatanatya to innovate and look for newer modes and idioms of expressions; and, also try to move away, at least for a limited extent, from the traditional mythological themes.

All the Art forms that are practiced today cannot be explained only on the basis of Natyashastra; nor is it necessary to do so. Art need not always be confined to Bharata’s techniques. Even in the case of Bharatanatya, the theory as detailed in Natyashastra needs to be studied in the light of the current practices. And, that might, hopefully provide us an insight; and, suggest improved techniques, in order to rationalize and bring it closer to today’s environment.

If the dance forms that are practiced today have to come into their own, these should be explained on a rational basis.  It seems much attention is paid to the literal interpretation of the old texts. And, too much philosophizing is another factor. But, Art has its own philosophy, outlook and appeal; although many try to inject their own pet philosophy into the Arts.

If the Art has to be alive it has to be relevant to the times we live in; and, has to reach further levels of the society.

We are in the age of reconstruction. There many problems and issues – old and new-,  including commercialization, that need to be resolved. The ancient theories would not do for all our present needs and problems. A detailed study of present practices without always being tied down to the ancient theoretical works seems advisable.  What is needed is continuity with change. Both the ancient and the modern Art-forms and techniques need to be studied with equal earnestness.


In the next part, we shall briefly talk about various classical Dance forms of India, such as Kathak, Odissi, kathakali and Manipuri.

dance forms



Part Five


References and sources

All images are from the Internet

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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Twelve

Continued from Part Eleven



According to Bhartrhari

As mentioned earlier in the series, Bhartrhari , at the commencement (Granta-aaramba or Grantha-mukha) of Brahmakanda , the first chapter  of his renowned work the Vakyapadiya,  asserts the identity of the Sabda tattva (the Word principle) with the Absolute Reality, the Brahman (vāg vai brahmeti) which is without a beginning (Anadi), without an end (Nidana) and is imperishable (Aksharam). 

That Brahman, he avers, is  One (ekam eva) and is the essence of Sabda from which the whole of existence is derived. And, it transforms (Vivartate) itself into speech; as words, their meanings (Artha) and also the universe (jagato yataha).

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

Thus, according to Bhartrhari, Sabda Brahman is the ultimate ground of all existence; and, the Sabda tattva is the first principle of the universe.

For Bhartrhari, Vac or speech is the means to all knowledge and is the essence of consciousness. He regards speech as the verbal expression of a thought that arises in a person’s consciousness. If there is no consciousness, he argues, there would be no speech. Speech (Vac) is indeed an outward form (Vargupta) of consciousness (chetana or Samjna).

Thus, Vac is the word principle that gives expression to the latent or un-manifest thoughts, feelings and impulses. And at the same time, for Bhartrhari, all forms of awareness imply the presence of words. That is to say; language is an integral part of our consciousness.


At a metaphysical level, 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 (including speech) and the whole of existence.

[Bhartrhari was a monist (Advaita) philosopher; and, he explained everything in terms of his metaphysical view point. Thus, at the top of the language hierarchy there is only one indivisible reality present; and that transforms into many.]

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. 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).


In the Vritti accompanying the main text of the Vakyapadiya (1.14), Bhartrhari describes and offers explanations on the process of evolution or transformation (Vivarta) of the thought arising in one’s mind into audible speech. According to Bhartrhari, the process of transformation of a thought or an impulse arising in ones consciousness into a cognizable, explicit speech resembles the evolution of the Universe from the un-manifest (A-vyakta) to the manifest (Vyakta) material world.

Bhartrhari explains; at first, the intention (iccha) exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity or Sphota. In the process of giving an outward form to that impulse or thought, he produces a series of different sounds in a sequence where one sound follows its previous one. It might appear as though those word-sounds are separated in time and space. But, they are indeed part and parcel of one and the same single entity – the sentence which puts out, in full, the intention of the speaker. The communication of a sentence and its meaning is not complete until its last word is uttered. Thus, though the word-sounds reach the listener in a sequence, eventually they all merge into one; and, are grasped by the listener as a single unit. The same Sphota which originated in speaker’s mind re-manifests in listener’s mind, conveying the intended meaning.

[In the Vakyapadiya, the concept of Sabda occupies a central role; Bhartrhari equates it with Sphota to show the metaphysical nature of the language.]

Such process of unfolding of speech (Vac) is said to take place, at least, in two stages. The first one is the thought that flashes and takes a form within. And, the other is that which comes out as audible speech riding the vehicle of words and sentences; attempting to transport the idea that arose within.  The former is intuition (Prathibha) the flash of insight that springs up; and, the latter is the effort that is exerted, both internally and externally, to put it out.

According to Bhartrhari, the process of manifestation or transformation of the speech principle (Sabda tattva) or the latent, unspoken form of thought, into explicit audible speech can be said to be spread over three stages, Viz. Pashyanti, Madhyamā   and Vaikhari.

vaikharyā madhyamāyāś ca paśyantyāś caitad adbhutam / anekatīrthabhedāyās  trayyā vācaḥ  paraṃ padam // 1.159 //

Bhartrhari explains that Vak or any sort of communication passes through these three stages whenever one speaks or gives expression to it in any other form. Sabda which is at first quite internal is gradually externalized for the purpose of utterance.      [Hearing, of course, operates in the reverse direction]

[While Bhartrhari regards the levels of speech as three (Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari), Abhinavagupta enumerates four levels (Para, Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari). Bhartrhari does not specifically name Para, pure consciousness, as the source of all speech.

However, some scholars have tried to reconcile that seeming difference between the stance of the two scholars by explaining that Bhartrhari’s concept of the speech-principle Sabda-tattva or Sabda-Brahman the fundamental basis of the all existence and of speech, virtually equates to the concept of Para Vac, the Supreme Consciousness, as expounded   by Abhinavagupta. Please see Part Eleven of the series.]


According to the explanations provided by Bhartrhari:

The latent, unspoken thought that instinctively springs up and which is visualised, within one’s self, is called Pashyanti Vak (thought visualized). The Vrtti on Vakyapadiya (1.14) presents Pashyanti as a form of Supreme Reality, Sabda-Brahman. And, Pashyanti again is identified with Prathibha, the flash of insight.

The Pashyanti Vak thereafter transforms into Madhyamā, the intermediate stage. It is an intellectual process, involving thought (Buddhi), during which the speaker looks for and selects appropriate words, phrases, and their sequence, which are capable of conveying his intention , clearly.

And, Pashyanti Vak, thereafter, when it comes out of the speaker’s mouth as sequenced and verbalized speech-form is called the Vaikhari Vak. It is the final stage at which ones’ thought or intention is put out explicitly through uttered words and sentences. Thus, Vaikhari is the fully embodied stage of everyday speech.

Thus, the transformation of a thought into spoken-words involves two kinds of efforts: the internal process (abhyantara prayatna) and the external effort (bahya prayatna). The former is classified into two kinds (Pashyanti and Madhyamā), while the latter (the external) is said to be of eleven kinds.

And, of the three levels or stages of speech, Pashyanti which is identified with Prathibha (intuition) and Madhyamā identified with intellectual process (Buddhi) are regarded as subtle or internal forms of Vac; while Vaikhari is its overt manifested gross form.  These three forms, in turn, are identified with Sphota, Prakrta dhvani and vaikrta dhvani.

Vaikharya  hi krto nadah parasravana gocarah / Madhyamaya krto nadah Sphota vyanjaka ucyate //

Let’s look at these three forms of Vac in a little more detail



Bhartrhari takes a metaphysical view of Sabda, the speech-principle (Sabda tattva). He compares the transformation of Sabda, in three stages, with the manifestation of the Universe.

The Vrtti on Vakyapadiya (1.14) presents Pashyanti as the Supreme Reality, Sabda-Brahman, which is identified with Prathibha, intuitive cognition or the first flash of understanding.

The first stage in the transformation of a thought or an impulse into speech is the Pashyanti (thought visualized). It is a pre-verbal or potential stage. In this stage, the latent, unspoken thought that instinctively springs up is visualised within one’s self.

The Pashyanti, which also suggests the visual image of the word, is indivisible and without inner-sequence; in the sense, that the origin and destination of speech are one. Here, the latent word (Sabda) and its intention or meaning (Artha) co-exist; and, is fused together without any differentiation. That is to say; intention is instinctive and immediate; and, it does not involve stages such as: analysis, speculation, drawing inferences and so on. At the level of Pashyanti Vak, there is no distinction between word and meaning. And, there is also no temporal sequence. In other words; Pashyanti is the direct experience of Vakya-sphota,   of the meaning as whole of what is intended.  

In Pashyanti state, Sabda is in an unmanifested state. Yet, at the stage of Pashyanti, there is a kind of hidden impulse or a desire (iccha) for an expression. That instinct or urge is indeed an experience; and, it is said to prompt or motivate the formation of the Pashyanti vision. It is an intention to convey a certain meaning. Therefore, Vac or the ‘internal speech’ or ‘thought’, at this stage, stands for what is intended to be conveyed ; it is the first ‘vision’ of what is yet to appear.

Bhartrhari employs the simile of the yolk of the peachen’s egg which is about to hatch. Before the hatching of the egg, all the flecked colours of the peacock lie dormant in potential state in the yolk of the egg.


[The Yoga Vasistha (Moksopaya– 4.17.25)  employs the same analogy to prove the existence of the world in Brahman in a potential state: “As the various colors of the tail of a peacock potentially exist within the liquid of its egg, so the plurality is potentially present in the spirit which is capable of manifesting it”.]

yādṛg jagad idaṃ dṛṣṭaṃ śukreṇa pitṛmātṛtaḥ /  tādṛk tasya sthitaṃ citte mayūrāṇḍe mayūravat //MU_4,17.25//

The noted scholar Prof. Bimal Krishna Matilal, in his The word and the world (Oxford University Press; New York, 1990; p.86) explains

“…. Similarly in the self of the language speaker or hearer or whoever, is gifted with linguistic capability, all the variety and differentiation of the linguistic items and their meaning exist as potentialities; and language and thought are identical at that stage. Bhartrhari even believes that the nature of the self is nothing but identical with the nature of language – thought ….”


Thinking or motivation for conveyance of the meaning, here, does not refer to concept-formation, speculation or drawing inference and so on. That intellectual process takes place at the next stage, the Madhyamā.


The Pashyanti Vak thereafter transforms into an internal (antahs-amnivesini), subtle (sukshma) intellectual process (Jnana), the level of thought (buddhi-matropadana), during which the speaker becomes aware (parigrihita) of the word as it arises and takes a form within him.

Madhyama tu antahs-amnivesini parigrihita-krameva buddhi-matropadana sukshma prana-vrtti-anugata

As that cognition crops up and takes a shape within, he grasps it.  Here, one looks for and identifies appropriate words, phrases, and their sequence, which are capable of conveying ones’ intention, clearly. As Prof. Matilal puts it: “In other words, he recognizes the verbal parts, which he is about to verbalize either to himself or to another as distant and separable from the Artha or thought.”

[From the hearer’s point of view, Madhyamā is the stage where the words or sentence are conceived by his mind.]

That sequence of thoughts results in definite and clear array of words. This is the intermediate stage – The Madhyamā vak, a sequenced but a pre-vocal thought –described as the voice of silence; perhaps best understood as internal speaking. Here, there is no perceptible sound (Nada). The Madhyamā vak is in an inaudible wave or vibratory (spandana) form.

Thus, Madhyamā is the stage at which the initial idea or intention is transformed into series of words, as conceived by the mind, before they are actually put out.    It may even be regarded as introspection or as a sort of internal dialogue. All the parts of speech that are linguistically relevant are present here in a latent form. At this stage, which corresponds to Prakrta-dhvani, the word and the meaning are still distinct; and the word order is present. Therefore, temporal sequence may also be present.


And, the Madhyamā, when it is put out explicitly through uttered words and sentences; and, when it comes out of the speaker’s mouth in sequenced and verbalized speech-form, set in motion according to his/her  will,  is called Vaikhari Vak. For the purpose of putting out the Vaikhari Vac, the speaker employs a sentence comprising words uttered in a sequence. The word itself comprises letters or syllables (varnas) that follow one after the other in space and time.

Thus, the Vaikhari is the act (kriya) of articulated speech, which, as sound waves, reaches the ears of the listener and then on to her/his intellect.  It gives expression to the subtler forms of vac. The Vaikhari is the physical or gross form of the subtle thought or is the outward expression of the intention of the speaker. And, when it emerges as the spoken-word, it is the one that is heard and apprehended by the listener, in a flash of understanding (Sphota). 

 [The process of Hearing, that is what is heard and grasped by the listener, of course, operates in the reverse direction.]

The spoken word comes out of one’s mouth, no doubt. However, it needs the assistance of breath and of several body parts in order to manifest itself (Vikhara literally means body; and, Vaikhari is that which employs bodily organs). When a person wills to express a thought orally, the air (Prana) inside his body spurs and moves up. Sabda or the Vac (speech or utterance) then manifests through Dhvani (sound patterns), with the assistance of appropriate  organs.  In this process, the head, throat, tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nose, root of the tongue and bosom are said to be the eight places which assist the sounds of the letters to become audible and explicit.

Vaikharī represents the power of action Kriyāśakti. This is the plane at which the Vac gains a bodily- form and expression; and the intent of the speaker is transported to the listener. Until this final stage, the word is still a mental (iccha) or an intellectual (jnana) event. Now, the articulated word comes out in succession; and, gives substance and forms to ones thoughts. Vaikharī is the final stage of communication, where the word is externalized and rendered into audible sounds (prākta dhvani).


The chief characteristic of Vaikhari Vak is that it has a fully developed temporal sequence. At this level, the speaker’s individual peculiarities (such as accent, voice modulation etc) are present, along with relevant parts of speech.

Bhartrhari makes a distinction between Sabda and Dhvani. The former is the ‘Real word’; while the latter is the ‘sound’ produced by the speaker in order to give expression to Sabda.

The purpose of the Dhvani, the articulated sound, is to give expression to, and to act as a vehicle for Sabda which is the intent of the speaker. One’s mode of speaking, accent, stress and speed etc (Dhvani) might vary; but, the speech-content or intention (Sabda) remains unaltered. Thus, while Dhvani is variable; Sabda, the underlying cause of the Dhvani, is not.

Bhartrhari again classifies Dhvani into two sorts – Prakrta Dhvani and Vaikrta Dhvani – (primary or natural sounds and derived or transformed sounds). The following verse in the Vakyapadiya (1.78) defining the two types of Dhvanis , is said to have been inspired by a similar statement in Vyadi’s famous work Samgraha :

śabdasya grahaṇe hetuḥ prākṛto dhvanir iṣyate / sthiti bheda nimittatvaṃ vaikṛtaḥ pratipadyate  // BVaky_1.78 //

The former, the Prakrta Dhvani, is said to be the natural (prakrti) way of speaking where the sequences, durations and other qualities-as specified by the particular language system- are maintained, as expected. The long sounds (dirga) would be long, of the required length; the short (hraswa) vowels would be short; and,  the extra-long  (pluta) would be elongated  and so on. It is normal way of speaking by one who knows the language.

But, when one brings in her/his own mannerisms or individual peculiarities into her/his utterance, such way of speaking is called Vaikrta (modified or not-natural). Here, what is expected to be pronounced in normal speed (Madhyamā) or slowly (Vilambita) might be uttered rapidly (Druta); and so on. The differences in the ‘speed of utterance’ (vrttibheda) might also be quite the other way. The other features such as accent, stress, pronunciation intonation, tempo, pitch etc might also differ from the natural. It is the way of speaking by one who doesn’t know the language.

Though, in either case, one’s manner of speaking might vary, the substance or what is intended to be conveyed (sphota) is the same.

Earlier, Katyayana had also said that the letters (varna) are fixed though the style or diction (vrtti) might vary, depending upon the habits of the speaker (avasthita varna vaktus cira-cira-vacanad vrattayo visisyante )


There are further differences in Dhvani. It could be either a clear and loud pronunciation (Saghosha); or a whisper in low voice (Aghosha), almost a sotto voce. Both are fully articulated; what distinguishes them is that the former can be heard by others and the latter is not.

[Mahidasa Aitareya (one among the earliest philosophers, revered as  a sage who showed the way to other thinkers that succeeded him ) , in his Aitareya Aranyaka, while elucidating his views on evolution of matter, explains that the evolution has a unity of its own; and , that unity implies identity and continuity , with change, of a common substratum. He says: matter is the ground of all plurality of forms. And, a form is that which emerges out of a common substratum. A form is that which is manifested. And, it is related to its principal or origin; just as a shoot (tula) is to its root (mula) – (AA.

The more evolved the matter is , the more manifest or recognizable or better defined it becomes.

Mahidasa provides an illustration: “A whispered voice is just breath; but, when it is aloud, it acquires a distinct form or a body (sarira). The whispered speech is the latent or the underdeveloped form of clear speech.

Going backward; the whispered speech is loud breath, which in turn is an expression of formless air. 

Speech, in this case, is a kind of form that is generated from air and thereafter from breath and loud breath.


Thus , going further backward in successive steps,  we may arrive at the first or pure matter (mind), which may be entirely be devoid of form,  indeterminate or in- cognizable by itself.

The mind, through the medium of formless air, thereafter breath , transforms into clear  speech,  when spoken aloud. Thus, as speech goes forward from root to shoot, it progressively proceeds towards forms that are better defined.

Thus, when a thought is spoken aloud, with the aid of the formless breath , it transforms into clear perceptible speech.


Here, Mahidasa further explains: Mind is that faculty in an organized body which thinks, wills and feels (A All desires dwell in mind; because, it is with the mind that man conceives all desires (AA A thought conceived in the mind is expressed through speech.

Thus, logically, thought is prior to speech (AA At another place, Mahidasa states that thought and speech are interdependent (van me manasi pratistitha; mano me vaci prathistam – AA 2.7)

Speech, according to Mahidasa, is conceived as a continuous structure. It is compared to a rope or a chain with many knots. As the rope or chain that runs along, it has a first and a last knot, representing the first and the final forms. That is to say; if mind is the first knot , then the  uttered speech is the last knot. The knots or links that lie in between are the names or concepts corresponding to their existent forms (vak tanti namani daamaani – AA 2.6.2).]


It is said; the three forms of speech viz. Pashyanthi, Madhyamā and Vaikhari which correspond to intention, formulation and expression  represent iccha-shakthi  (power of intent or will),  jnana-shakthi (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakthi (power of action).

As said earlier; Pashyanti Vac is identified with the power of intent or will (iccha shakthi) which arises in ones consciousness; Madhyamā Vac which is seated in the intellect (Buddhi) is identified with the power of knowledge (Jnana shakthi); and, Vaikharī Vac where the speaker’s intent gains a bodily- form and expression, and which employs breath and body-organs is identified with the power of action Kriyāśakti


Some scholars point out that each of the three levels of speech – Vac (Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari) correspond to the structure and content of each of the three chapters (Khanda) of the Vakyapadiya.

The first Khanda (Brahmakanda) which deals mainly with Brahman, the undifferentiated Ultimate Reality, is said to correspond with Pashyanti Vac.

The second Khanda (Vakyakanda) which elaborates on Vakya-sphota describes the differentiation as also the unitary meaning of the sentence. The ideas presented here are said to correspond with the Madhyamā vac.

And, the third Khanda (Padakanda) which deals almost entirely with the analysis of words or parts of speech and their differentiation is said to be closely related to the concern of the Vaikhari vac.

lotus pond


Sources and References

Sphota theory of Bhartrhari

The word and the world (Oxford University Press; New York, 1990) by Prof. Bimal Krishna Matilal

Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by   William S. Haney


Pictures are from internet.


Posted by on July 12, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven




Two Aspects of the Word

As mentioned earlier in the series, the first two khandas of the Vakyapadiya cover subjects such as grammar as also the philosophy of grammar and linguistics, focusing on the word (Sabda) and meaning (Artha).

The first Khanda (Brahma-khanda) of Vakyapadiya 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 of Sabda (word or sentence) which conveys the meaning (Artha).

The text explains a complete sentence as the intent of the speaker, which is unerringly grasped, directly and immediately, by the listener (Sphota). And, that it is not the same as Nada (non-linguistic sound or that which expresses) or Dhvani (intonation) which act 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.


After establishing , in the opening Karika-s (Shastra-aramba), that Sabda–tattva (Word-principle) is verily the Brahman, the ultimate truth which is beyond space or time; and declaring that Sabda Brahman (Supreme word principle) is One (ekam eva), is imperishable (Akshara)  and is identical with the highest Reality –Para Brahman, Bhartrhari takes up the question of language and  meaning.

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

Bhartrhari begins his discussion on words and meaning (VP: 1.44-49) by stating that in the words which are expressive, Grammarians see two aspects :  one, the cause of all words, and another, the kind of words used to convey a meaning.  These two , though appearing to be separate, are ,in fact, not distant from each other; they, in truth, are one. The Supreme Word principle and the spoken word are in a similar relationship – as that between the fire which is inherent in the firewood, and that which is made manifest through rubbing fire-sticks together.

dvāv upādānaśabdeṣu śabdau śabdavido viduḥ /
eko nimittaṃ śabdānām aparo ‘rthe prayujyate -VP:1.44
avibhakto vibhaktebhyo jāyate ‘rthasya vācakaḥ /
śabdas tatrārtharūpātmā saṃbandham upagacchati – VP: 1.45
ātmabhedaṃ tayoḥ ke cid astīty āhuḥ purāṇagāḥ /
buddhibhedād abhinnasya bhedam eke pracakṣate –  VP:1.46
araṇisthaṃ yathā jyotiḥ prakāśāntarakāraṇam /
tadvac chabdo ‘pi buddhisthaḥ śrutīnāṃ kāraṇaṃ pṛthak – VP: 1.47
vitarkitaḥ purā buddhyā kva cid arthe niveśitaḥ /
karaṇebhyo vivṛttena dhvaninā so ‘nugṛhyate – VP: 1.48
nādasya kramajātatvān na pūrvo na paraś ca saḥ /
akramaḥ kramarūpeṇa bhedavān iva jāyate – VP:1.49

[Translation of Shri K Raghavan Pillai

Words are of two kinds — one, the cause of all words, and another, the kind of words used to convey a meaning.  Some consider that there is an intrinsic difference between them, according to others, the second type is only a manifested form of the first the Supreme Word principle and the spoken word are in a relationship similar to that between the fire which is inherent in the firewood, and that which is made manifest through rubbing fire-sticks together. The potential fire in the kindling wood, once inflamed, illuminates itself as well as other objects. Like the light concealed in the piece of kindling wood is the cause of the manifestation (prakāśa) of another [light].  It is the same way in which the mental word is the cause of every audible word.

The nada or the uttered sound is only the Sphota or the Word-principle in manifest form. But the manifested word has characteristics of its own which are not – of the Sphota (44-49)

In the next kārikās it is claimed that although the distinction between the mental and the audible words may be useful for the description of a verbal communication, from the ontological point of view it is invalid. It is the indivisible word that acquires succession in the phonemes (Varna) as if being differentiated. Modifications, which the mental word is subject to in the course of audible manifestation, have the same character as the changes which the reflection of an object undergoes because of the movement of water.

pratibimbaṃ yathānyatra sthitaṃ toyakriyāvaśāt / tatpravṛttim ivānveti sa dharmaḥ sphoṭanādayoḥ // VP:1.50 //]


Here, Bhartrhari, just as Patanjali, begins with the observation that the words or sentences (Sabda) can be viewed in two ways or as having two aspects (upādāna-śabdesu): One; as sound patterns (Dhvani); and, the other as its cause and essence (Artha).

[Patanjali had said:  Sphota is both internal and external. The internal form of Sphota is the innate essence of the word-meaning. The external aspect of Sphota is the uttered sound which is perceived by the sense organs. It merely serves to manifest the inner Sphota with its inherent word-meaning. But, for Patanjali, Sphota could be a letter (Varna) or a fixed pattern of letters (Pada).]

 (i) 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 174]

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, as the light does.

 ātmarūpaṃ yathā jñāne jñeyarūpaṃ ca dṛśyate / artharūpaṃ tathā śabde svarūpaṃ ca prakāśate 1.51

(ii) The second; the essence or the meaning-bearing aspect of the language is called the Sphota. It is through that Sphota the meaning (Artha) of the sentence, as a whole, flashes forth.

Bhartrhari envisages Sphota “as that internal aspect, which is a timeless and part-less (avibhakta) linguistic symbol, to which meaning is attached”. Here, Sphota represents the true intent, purpose of the sentence (Sabda), while Dhvani the articulated sound-pattern, in its physical aspect, acts as a carrier to manifest the Sphota.

(ii) These two – Dhvani and Sphota – though appearing to be separate are, in fact, intimately related through a natural process (Yogyata). The former (Dhvani), acts as the outer garment or as an instrument in order to convey the inner essence of the word (Sphota).

Thus, a word has a dual power; one to indicate itself and the other to indicate the thing symbolized by it. It is like the power of fire:  to   reveal itself and at the same time to reveal other things.It is both the revealer and the revealed  (prakasha and prakasyatvam).

[Earlier, Panini had also mentioned that it is through conveying the own form first, the word conveys its meaning svaṃ rūpaṃ śabdasyā śabda saṃjñā – 1.01.068 ]


Though the Sphota is revealed in stages by each succeeding sound; it is, by itself, ‘one and indivisible’. The sounds uttered (words) are merely parts of a sentence that aid to reveal this Sphota. Bhartrhari asserts that it is the cognition of the Sphota in its entirety that is important in understanding the complete and true meaning of a sentence.

While the audible noise may vary depending on the speaker’s mode of utterance, Sphota as the meaning-unit of speech is not subject to such variations.

[ For instance; the sound of the word Ghata (gh, a, t and a) can be produced in any number of ways, either naturally (prakrta) or in a modified manner (vikruta). That word can be uttered slowly (vilambita), a little more quickly (madhyama) or even very quickly (druta).The variations in speed or in the mode of utterance are called vritti. The vritti might vary the form in which the word is uttered (Dhvani); but , it does not alter the content and the sense (Sphota) of the word.

Again; a pot in bright light can be seen clearly. The pot could be seen for a longer time if clear light continues to fall on it. The visibility of the pot depends on the quality of light that falls on it. The variation in the quality of light does not alter the very nature or the status of the pot.

Similarly, the change in speed or accent or mode of uttering a word (vritti) does not alter its Sphota. The physical aspect of the word that is the quality of its sound (Dhvani) might vary ; but , its Sphota remains unchanged.]

Obviously, Sphota is viewed here as a changeless element of speech, the inner unity which holds together the meaning. But, Bhartrhari does not define the term precisely.

[The commentators surmise that the ancient concept of Pranava (Om-kara) might have provided the inspiration to come up with the Sphota concept. In fact, Sphota is often identified with Pranava; and is taken as the imperishable Vak, the speech-principle (Vak-tattva).]


Bhartrhari explains the relation between the Sphota and Nada through an analogy of reflection of the moon on the surface of water. The relation between the object (moon) and its image (reflection) is because of the reflective surface (water). And the movement of the reflection might not necessarily be because of the movement of the object (moon). He says; just as the reflection on the water might give an impression as though the moon  (object) is rippling and moving, similarly the Sphota takes on the properties of uttered speech (sequence, loudness or softness and so on) in which it is manifested. According to this view, the reflection acquires the qualities of the object.

nādasya kramajātatvān na pūrvo na paraś ca saḥ / akramaḥ kramarūpeṇa bhedavān iva jāyate // 1.49 // pratibimbaṃ yathānyatra sthitaṃ toyakriyāvaśāt / tatpravṛttim ivānveti sa dharmaḥ sphoṭa-nādayoḥ // 1.50 // ātmarūpaṃ yathā jñāne jñeyarūpaṃ ca dṛśyate / artharūpaṃ tathā śabde svarūpaṃ ca prakāśate / / 1.51 //

According to Bhartrhari, the perfect perception is that in which there is identity between the essence or the thought (Sphota) and the form of its manifestation (Nada or Dhvani  – the letters or sounds). They are the two halves of one entity; and, are not distinct and separable (asyaiv-ātmano bhedau śabdā-arthāv apṛtha -ksthitau VP.2.31) The  realization of this special kind of relation arises  due to the function of mind, rather than of the external senses.

[Some scholars have pointed out that Bhartrhari’s position is closer to the notion of reflection (Abhasa) formulated by the Trika philosophers of Kashmir. In this viewpoint, the Shaktis and their material forms as words are identical with the Absolute. The relationship between the two is described as that between the mirror and its reflection. That is; the latter can have no independent existence without the former. And, yet the latter also has a reality which is somehow identical with the former.]

[Bhartrhari at another place clarifies (VP.1.59): ‘Two aspects of a word (upādānaśabda), distinguished artificially and perceived as separate, indicate different activities, without contradiction’.  It means that all the elements extracted from the word in the course of linguistic analysis are ultimately unreal. But they are valid in their own context. The elements that are relevant in the context of one activity may not be valid in the context of another. That is to say; each kind of activity, i.e. each kind of communicative situation, has its own reality which in some way might differ from the realities of other situations.

bhedenāvagṛhītau dvau śabdadharmāv apoddhṛtau/ bhedakāryeṣu hetutvam avirodhena gacchataḥ  (VP.1.59)  ]



The technical term Sphota does not easily translate into English. Sometimes, the term ‘symbol’ is used for Sphota in the sense of its function as a linguistic sign. Some scholars have tried to equate Sphota with the Greek concept of Logos, which stands for an Idea as well as for word. But such explanations too seem rather inadequate.

The term Sphota is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Sphut’ which means ‘to burst forth’; but, it also describes what ’is revealed’ or ’is made explicit’. Sphota can also refer to the abstract or conceptual form of an audible word. Say, as when the idea or the meaning bursts or flashes on the mind after one hears /grasps the sounds that are uttered.

[Harsha V. Dehejia remarks : translated wrongly as ‘explosion’; Sphota could ideally be understood as ‘blossoming’]

In Grammar and in Indian linguistic theory, the term Sphota is of prime importance. Nageshabhatta in his Sphota-vada describes Sphota as an entity which is manifested by spoken letters or sounds;  and, through which meaning is expressed (sphutati prakashate artho asmad iti sphotah, Vacaka iti yavat, Sphotavada).

In a similar manner, Sri Madhava in his Sarva-darshana-samgraha, defines Sphota as that which is manifested or revealed by the Varna (phonemes): sphutyate vyajyate varnairiti sphotah’.  Sri Madhava describes Sphota in two ways. The first as: that from which the meaning bursts forth or shines forth. And, the second as: an entity that is manifested by the spoken letters and sounds.

To put it in another way; Sphota, in its linguistic sense, refers to that element which expresses a meaning (word). In its second sense, it is something that is made explicit by letters or sounds (meaning). Thus, the Sphota may be thought of as a kind of two-sided coin. On the one side, it is manifested by the word sound; and on the other side, it simultaneously reveals the word meaning. It is both the word and its meaning.

Bhartrhari also deals with Sphota at two levels: one on the metaphysical plane and the other on the empirical plane. The Sphota here is more than a theory of language.  The principle that is involved here is: the Brahman first manifested itself as Sound and then as form. The Sphota, Sabda-Brahman, the manifester as Logos or Word, 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. This metaphysical Sphota-vada is a monistic philosophy based in Sanskrit grammar.

At the empirical level, Bhartrhari is concerned with the process of communicating meaning. He deals with the word and the sound distinctions; the word meaning; the unitary nature of the whole sentence; the word-object connection; and the levels of speech, etc. His focus is on cognition and on language.

Bhartrhari also says that Sphota is both external (bahya) and internal (abhayantara). And again, in understanding Sphota as an external entity we have to understand it in the form of universal (Jati) and individual or specific (Vyakti).


Communication of thought

If the letters  float away and disappear the instant we utter them and if each sound is replaced by another in quick succession, then one can hardly perceive the sentence as a whole. And the question that comes up is – how does one grasp  a sentence and its meaning in full?

Bhartrhari explains, at first, the sentence exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity or Sphota. In the process of giving a form to a thought, he produces a series of different sounds in a sequence where one sound follows its previous one. It might look as though those word-sounds are separated in time and space. But, they are indeed part and parcel of one and the same single entity – the sentence. The communication of a sentence and its meaning is not complete until the last word is uttered. Thus, though the word-sounds reach the listener in a sequence, eventually they all merge into one ; and, are grasped by the listener as a single unit. The same Sphota which originated in speaker’s mind re-manifests in listener’s mind, conveying the intended meaning.

The listener grasps the intent of the speaker as a whole; and the understanding is like an instantaneous flash of insight (prathibha). Just as the sentence (the symbol – Sphota) is an integral unit, the meaning signified by it is also unitary. That is; the sentence is an integral unit; and, its meaning which is grasped through intuition (pratibha) is also a single unit (Vakya-sphota)). According to Bhartrhari, Sphota is an auditory image of the sentence.  It is indivisible and without inner-sequence.

This, rather crudely put, is the concept called Sphota – the sentence just as its meaning being taken as an integral symbol; and its meaning bursting forth in a flash of understanding.

Bhartrhari held the view that the sentence is not a mere collection (Sabda-samghatah) or an ordered series of words. The sentence with its words is to be taken as single part-less linguistic unit (eko’navayavah s’abdah); and, not as a jumble of fragments. A sentence is a sequence-less, part-less unity that gets expressed or manifested in a sequential and temporal utterance. He maintained that the primary function of the words is to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning – (Arthah sahabhuteshu vartate – VP.2.115). Ultimately, the meaning of the words depend upon the overall meaning of the sentence (rupam sarva-pada-artham vakyartha nibamdhanamVP.2.325)

[At another place, Bhartrhari observes: All differences presuppose a unity (abheda-purvaka hi bhedah); and, where there are differences and parts, there is an underlying unity. Otherwise the one would not be related to the other; and, each would constitute a world by itself.

Abheda-pūrvakā bhedāḥ kalpitā vākya-vādibhiḥ / bheda-pūrvān abhedāṃs tu manyante pada-darśinaḥ // VP. 2.57// ]

Just as a root or a suffix by itself has no meaning, so also the meanings of individual words have no independent existence. Bhartrhari asserts that a word consisting letters and syllables cannot, on its own, directly convey the meaning/ intent of the speaker. The words are somewhat like intermediate steps to arrive at the meaning of the sentences.

[That does not mean that Bhartrhari denies the validity of individual words or their meaning; but, what is in question is their significance. They are secondary in relation to the Sphota, which is the real object of cognition.

Bhartrhari accepts the fact that a word is vital in a sentence; and, can have multiple meanings. The role and the particular desired meaning of the word depend on the intent of the speaker and the context in which it is employed. He explains this through an analogy: the human eye which has the natural power of seeing many things at a time, but it can see a particular object, clearly,  only when the individual decides and focuses his attention to see that object.]

Bhartrhari argues; in a linguistic analysis, artificial extraction of parts from an integral unit (apoddhāra) – splitting up of a sentence into word and then on into roots, suffixes and syllables, syntaxes etc – might be a useful exercise for study of a language and its grammar; but, such fragmented approach serves hardly any purpose; and, surely it is not suitable in the real world where men and women live, transact (vyāpāra) and communicate verbally (Vyavahara). He says that in a   speech situation, where the speaker communicates her/his ideas and the listener grasps the uttered speech, the communication is always through complete statement. The speaker thinks; communicates; and, the listener grasps and understands those series of word- sounds as a single unit.

Bhartrhari says, those who know the language well, do listen to the sentence. And those who do not know the language may hear words only as sound bites.  Sphota, in essence, is the real experience of listening to a sentence as a whole and grasping its meaning through perception.  It is said; meaning is not something that can be inferred; but, it is actually being perceived.

Bhartrhari compares the communication through language (by use of sentences) to creation of a painting. Bhartrhari describes the painter as going through three stages when he paints a picture : “ when an artist wishes to paint a figure of a man , he first visualizes the object and its spirit as a composite unit  ; then , as of a figure having parts; and, thereafter, gradually, in a sequence , he paints it on the surface of a cloth or whatever”.

Mandana Misra in his Sphota-siddhi (a Vritti, commentary, on Bhatrhari’s Vakyapadiya) offers the example of the viewing-experience of a painting, in order to illustrate the relation that exists between a sentence and its words. He points out that when we view a picture, it is conceived as a whole, over and above its various parts. Similarly, he says, the composite image presented by a piece of cloth is a whole; and, it is quite distinct from the particular threads and colours that have gone into making of it.

That is to say; a painter conceives a picture in his mind; and, thereafter gives its parts a substance on the canvass by using variety of strokes, different colours, varying shades etc. Which means; an artist paints the picture in parts though he visualizes it as a single image. The viewer of the painting, rightly, also takes in, absorbs the picture and its spirit as a whole, as an integral unit; and , he  does not look for individual strokes, shades etc or the permutation of such details that went into making the picture.  

Similar is the case with the sentence and individual words employed to compose it.


For Bhartrhari, Sphota is the real substratum, proper linguistic unit, which is identical with its meaning. Language is not merely the vehicle of meaning or of thought. Thought anchors language; and, the language anchors thought. According to Bhartrhari, the speech and thought are two aspects of the same principle (Vak). In this way, he says, there are no essential differences between a linguistic unit and its meaning or the thought it conveys. That is to say; the perfect communication is when there is complete identity between sentence (or word) and its meaning.

Sphota refers to that ‘non-differentiated language principle’; and, that later gave rise to the theory of Sabda-advaita (word monism).

[Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya recognized and gave credence only to the sentence-Sphota (Vakya-Sphota). But, the latter Grammarians split up the concept into various divisions; and, came up with various sorts of Sphota-s. For instance; Nagesabhatta in his Parama-laghu-manjusha enumerates as many as eight varieties of Sphota, such as: Varna-sphota; Pada-sphota; Vakya-sphota; Varna-jati-sphota; Pada-jati-sphota; Vakya-jati-sphota; Akhanda-pada-sphota; and Akhanda-vakya-sphota.

Of those eight fold varieties of Sphota-s, it is only the last mentioned, the Akhanda-vakya-sphota (sentence as the undivided linguistic unit, the conveyer of meaning), that corresponds to the essential nature of Sphota doctrine as envisioned by Bhartrhari. The rest are mere classroom-exercises. It is said; though the other seven divisions have no real merit of their own, they still serve some practical purpose. They enable the beginner to learn and to know the true nature of Akhanda-vakya-sphota.]


Process of cognition and theories of error

In the traditional Schools of Indian philosophy (say; as in Samkhya, Advaita or even in Buddhism) there is a sharp distinction between the states of ignorance (A-vidya) and enlightenment (kaivalya, Moksha or Nirvana). A person is either bound or is liberated; but, there is no intermediate stage. Similarly, in the Schools of Logic (Nyaya) also, the valid means of knowledge (Pramana) either reveal the object completely or do not reveal at all.

The approach adopted by Bhartrhari in explaining the process of true cognition is significantly different from that of the other Schools. Bhartrhari argues that perception need not always be an ‘all–or-nothing process’. It could very well be a graded one. There could be vagueness initially; but, the perception could improve as one tries to gain clarity of the object. That is to say; the process of revelation could start from the indeterminate stage and progress, in steps, to the determinate stage. At each successive step, it gains increasing clarity. It begins from complete ignorance, passes through partial knowledge and ends up in a complete knowledge.

Thus, the position of Bhartrhari is that the overcoming of error is a perceptual process by progressing through degrees of positive approximations. Even invalid cognitions can sometimes lead to valid knowledge ( say , as in trial-and-error). Initial errors or vagueness could gradually and positively be overcome by an increasingly clearer cognition of the word form or Sphota. That is to say; the true cognition, established by direct perception, could take place , initially, through a series of possible errors; but, finally leading to the truth.

And, that also takes care of the objections raised by the Mimamasa School which accused the Sphota of being a mere guesswork.

[In Advaita, the true–final cognition is achieved through a process of reasoning and inference; and, not by perception. The Grammarians, in contrast, hold the view that the final cognition of Sphota is by perfect perception Prathibha; and, not through inference. Mandana explaining the Sphota point of view says: the revelation of an object clearly or vaguely is by direct perception. In the case of the other means of knowledge there is either apprehension of the object or not at all.]

Mandana in his Sphotasiddhi agrees with Bhartrhari’s stand   that the final and the clear perception of the Sphota could possibly be achieved after rectifying  a series of probable errors.

Bhartrhari’s position is in stark contrast to that of Sri Sankara wherein the overcoming of the error (A-vidya) is a process of inference in which there are no approximations or degrees of errors. In Advaita Vedanta, there can only be a ‘True’ or ‘False’ cognition, with no gradation in between. Here, error is overcome by a single negation. According to Sri Sankara, the error, if it is to be overcome, must be completely and effectively replaced at once by true knowledge.

Thus, Bhartrhari’s stand marks a significant departure from the Vedanta School where the validity of a means of cognition (Pramana) is judged by its ability or otherwise either to provide for a clear apprehension of the object or not at all. And, there is no room for vagueness or for improving upon an error in stages.

That is to say; Advaita usually describes the error in terms of negation (such as when it is said it is not a snake). The Grammarians, on the other hand, explain the error (vagueness of perception), positively, as a step that , if overcome by increasingly clear cognition, could finally lead to true and complete understanding (Sphota).

The nature and process of comprehension of Sphota   is illustrated by Bhartrhari and other grammarians by means of various analogies.

: – A jeweler, examining a jewel or precious stone, has to look it steadily for some time, to enable him to gain a familiarity with its genuineness, its details  and as also its probable value. With his first reading he acquires a knowledge of the general features of the gem. Each subsequent examination thereafter helps him to ascertain the true nature and quality of the gem.  And the final assessment, aided by the results gained through the previous ones, will enable him to evaluate and to determine, with certainty, the true quality and the exact value of the gem, completely and clearly.

: – Bhartrhari   gives the example of a student attempting to learn by-heart a verse or an anuvaka (a passage of a text) by repeated reading/recitation. Each such attempt helps him to retain the text or a part of it in his memory, to an extent.  It is the last reading aided by the impressions left behind by the previous attempts that helps him to commit to his memory the verse or the passage correctly and fully.

: – Bhartrhari offers another example of a tree which when viewed from a distance might appear like an elephant. But, that apparent mistake would be eliminated if one keeps gazing at the object intensely. And, one would eventually recognize it as a tree, which is its true form. In this instance also, the valid cognition is achieved by erasing a series of errors.

Mandana Misra, in his commentary, remarks that such correction – moving from error to the true – might not necessarily be explained away by factors such as change in distance. That is because, he says, even by standing at the same spot and looking at the object intensely one would be able to gain the right perspective of the object. He explains   : ‘it is the previous cognitions (in this case an elephant) leaving progressively clearer residual impressions, which become the cause of clear perception of the tree’.

Similarly, in Bhartrhari’s theory of language, the object of cognition (sentence), at first, is heard in the form of a word. But finally, through further cognitions ; with the subsequent words providing increased clarity; and , with the utterance of the last word, the total import of the sentence is grasped clearly (Sphota).

It is said; the Sphota theory was developed by Bhartrhari as a foil to the Mimamsa. In contrast to Mimamsa, Bhartrhari asserts that ‘primary linguistic unit is the undivided sentence (Vakya-Sphota). The individual words are merely hints or stepping stones to the complete meaning of sentence (Vakya).

: – And there is the much battered case of a coil of rope being mistaken for a snake. The perception of a rope as a snake is an error. But, the true perception results by negating that error through a series of increasingly clearer perceptions (Sphota) – (as in the case of elephant-tree analogy) . 

:- And, Sesa Krsna, a philosopher and commentator belonging to the early part of the sixteenth century, in his Sphota-tattva-nirupana, a treatise on the Sphota doctrine, offers another illustration.

He says that when a person utters a sound ka with the intention of saying Kamalam (a lotus), we know that he is trying to say a word beginning with Ka. And, when he utters the next syllable Ma, we have another clue; and, we can guess the word a little more clearly. Now, that eliminates the possibility of all the words not beginning with Kama.  Still, the word is not quite clear. We do not know whether he is going to say Kamanam or Kamalam. It is only when the last sound lam is uttered that we come to know the word fully and clearly. It is by the perception of the last letter; we reach at a valid cognition. Thus, the function of the letters is to build up the higher unit (in this case, the word).



Bhartrhari in the Karikas (2.143-152) of his Vakyapadiya discusses his concept of Prathibha – intuition or flash of understanding.

The basic principle of Bhartrhari’s theory of language is that the complete utterance of the sentence, as a whole, is a unit of speech; and, it should be considered as a single unity. The words, though meaningful, are fractional parts of a sentence. The complete sentence-meaning might be produced by the combination of such parts; but, the whole is simply not the sum of the parts. The sentence and its meaning is essentially an indivisible unit.

We understand the full meaning of a sentence immediately, only, after the speaker finishes the sentence. Thereafter, the complete meaning of the sentence is grasped, as a unity, instantly (pratyaksha), in a flash of insight (Prathibha).

Viccheda grahane arthanam prathibhanyaiva jayate I vakyartha iti tam aahuh padarthair upapaditam IIVP.2.143

That Prathibha or flash is not a mere piece of knowledge. It is the wisdom or flash of understanding which guides a person to right understanding (prajnya) and right conduct (iti-kartavyata). Such instinctive awareness is in everyone’s experience. Even the birds and animals have that basic instinct, acquired directly or through recollection of it (samskara or Vasana).  All beings act upon and depend on that inborn intuition (Prathibha).  Even the language-competence and performance is also an inborn virtue (Pratibha) in Man. It is through the power (Shakthi) of that Pratibha the total meaning of the part-less (avibhakta) sentence (AkhandaVakya-sphota) flashes forth.

And yet, that innate instinctive awareness (Prathibha) possessed by all beings cannot be precisely defined in words (anakhyena); pinpointing ‘this is that’- (idam tad iti sanyesam anakyena katham cha na).

[ Mammatacharya ( Kāvyaprakāśa, 11th century) while dealing with poetics , observes  :  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.  He 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 intuitive wisdom which reveals the dynamic inter-relatedness of all things comes to a person through maturity, experience (anubhava), reasoning (yukthi) and learning ( from Shastras and Grammar). At another place, Bhartrhari remarks: “insight attains clarity through  diverse traditional views (prajna vivekam labhate bhinnair Agama-darshanin -VP: 2.484). Such wisdom, it is said, is derived from six sources (sadvidhā): nature (Svabhava); action (acharana); practice (abhyasa); meditation or contemplation (yoga); invisible causes (adrsta); and, instructions handed down by the wise (upapāditām)

Svabhāva-acharaṇā-abhyāsa- yogā-adṛṣṭa-upapāditām / viśiṣṭopahitāṃ ceti pratibhāṃ ṣaḍvidhāṃ viduḥ (VP : 2.152)


For and against the Sphota-vada

Over the centuries, the Sphota concept was hotly debated among  various Schools of thought. There were those who supported the Sphota-vada; and, there were many others who criticized and opposed it bitterly.

Among the former (Sphotavadins), the more prominent were: Yaska; Patanjali; Mandana Misra; Nagesabhatta; scholars of the Kashmir-Shaiva School; some Yoga-commentators; and, of course Bhartrhari who was the champion of the Sphota-vada. But, somehow, those who opposed the Sphota-vada not only outnumbered its supporters but also were more influential. The anti-Sphotavadins included such eminent philosophers as: Upavarsha; scholars of Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaiseshika Schools; scholars of Shaiva siddantha; Mimamsakas – Sabaraswamin, Kumarila Bhatta and Prabhakara; Sri Ramanuja; Sri Madhva; Sri Jiva Goswami; Vachaspathi Misra; and, most notably Sri Sankara.

The early Mimamsa School which strongly defended Varna-vada argued that the individual word or the letter (Varna) is the prime substance of Vak (speech). The School of the Grammarians, on the other hand, advocated Sphota-vada to explain the mysterious manner by which the sentence-meaning is conveyed. They put forward Sphota as a process of cognition which culminates in the intuitive perception (Prathibha) of the Absolute as Sabda –Brahman.

In the later periods, these two points of view became the major platforms for debates and discussion among the various Schools of Indian philosophy as also among the Schools of Grammar and language.


In the earlier part of this series we have seen the objections raised against the Sphota concept  by the Samkhya and the Mimamsa scholars prior to the time of Bhartrhari. Let’s now see few major observations made by both the pro and anti Sphotavadins after the time of Bhartrhari (Ca.450 CE).

:- 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? .

 : – Following Sabara , Kaumarila Bhatta, a noted Mimamsa Scholar (7th -8th century) also attacked the manner in which the Sphota phenomenon was supposed to reveal the meaning of word-sounds (Sabda). Kaumarila argued that the word (Sabda), whether be it individual or be it a part of sentence, is nothing more than a collection of articulated-sounds or spoken words. And, it is with this collection of sounds alone that the meaning is associated. The listener grasps the sounds of the words and their meaning. There is nothing else here, he said, one need not, without reason, assume a mystical process of Sphota etc.

: – Mandana Misra, a contemporary of Kaumarila Bhatta, however, refuted the stand of his senior Mimamsaka; and, said that Kaumarila’s stand was rather frivolous. Mandana, in support of the Sphota doctrine, wrote a brilliant commentary (Sphota-siddhi) based Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. He supported Bhartrhari’s presumption of the whole being prior to the parts; as also the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. He agreed with Bhartrhari that it is not the individual words but the complete thought of the sentence that ultimately matters.

As mentioned earlier, Mandana also offered the example of a painting conceived as a whole, over and above its various parts. And, also of the appreciation of a piece of cloth, as whole; and, not as mere collection of threads and colours that are woven into it. He says: This aspect is brought out clearly by Bhartrhari.

:- The Jain philosopher Prabhachandra in his Prameya-kamala-marthanda attempted  to reconcile the two opposing views; and, came up with his own doctrine of ‘Interminacy’ (syavada, anekantavada), which, essentially, was a principle that encouraged acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given issue as being multiple dimensions of one and the same object.

:- As regards the Buddhists , while Dharmakirti attacked Bhartrhari, another Buddhist scholar Dignaga seemed to be 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. Finally, Dignaga agreed with Bhartrhari that meaning of a sentence (vakyartha) is grasped through intuition (prathibha

: – Sri Sankara in his commentary on Brahma Sutra (1.3.28) argued against the stand of the Sphotavadins. He adopted the view taken by the highly revered ancient philosopher Upavarsha (Ca.500 BCE) who had earlier rejected the Sphota-vada. While brushing aside the Sphota concept, Upavarsha had remarked: ‘that all this talk of unity of meaning etc. is largely an illusion, for it is the words, it’s articulated elements (Varna) alone that make the unity’.  Upavarsha had in turn come up with his theory of   Varna-vada; according to which, the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phoneme = Varna) alone are real constituents of a word. He said sounds are only Varnas; and, there is no need for assuming a Sphota.

Sri Sankara adopted the statement of Upavarsha “words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varnas)”. He agreed with Upavarsha; and, supported Varna-vada, while rejecting the Sphota-vada .

Sri Sankara did not approve the concept of Sphota-vada; and, said the meaning of a word can be known from its constituent letters, sounds and the context.  Here, he remarks: Bhagavad Upavarsha says ‘but, the words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varna)- varna eva tu sabddh id bhagavan Upavarsah (Brahmasutra, Adhyaya 1 with  Samkara’s  Sariraka mimamsa bhasya: 1.3.28).). And, therefore, he said , there is no need to bring in the concept of Sphota to decide upon the meaning of the word when it can be derived directly from the Varna-s that form the word.

And then, Sri Sankara went on to build his own arguments to oppose the Sphota vada, based on what he called ‘the tradition of the Masters’- (Acharya –sampradayokti-purvakam siddantam aaha varna iti).

According to him, only the individual letters are perceived; and, they are combined through inference of the mind into word aggregate. Because the psychological process is one of inference and not of perception, there can be no degrees of cognition. According to Sri Sankara, the inference Pramana is an all–or-nothing process. The error, if it is to be overcome, must be completely replaced, all at once, by a new inferential construction of mind or by a super-conscious intuition of Brahman.

:-  The other Acharyas and commentators also toed the line of Bhagavan Upavarsha and Sri Sankara; and, supported Varna- vada as against Sphota-vada. Vacaspati Misra, who commented on Sri Sankara’s Vedanta Sutra Bhashya, also rejected the Sphota theory. He came up with his own theory of Abhihitanvaya-vada; and, said the understanding of the meaning of a whole sentence is reached by inferring to it, in a separate act of lakshana or implication, from the individual meanings of the constituent words.

In the recent times, the Sphota doctrine has received much attention from the scholars of linguistics – both in the West and in the East. It has been duly recognized as one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. As the noted scholar Bimal K. Matilal observes: “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”.


Bhartrhari, while discussing about Sphota, put forth his theory to explain the process and the stages through which the thought in the speaker’s mind gets transformed into audible speech.

In the next part let’s look at those levels of Language


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. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiographyby G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduismby Harold Coward
  4. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarianby 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 Bhartṛhari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510)by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihariby Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahariby Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernityby  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topicsby John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhiby 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 Kāśikāvṛtti: 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)
  24. Encyclopaedia for the world psychologists 1. A – D ; Edited by H. L. Kalia
  25. Linguistic philosophy of Yaska- Sodhganga
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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Seven

Continued from Part Six


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-arthanNir.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.yeu.padeu.svara.saskārau.samarthau.prādeśikena.vikārea.(guena.Bh).anvitau.syātām.tathā.tāni.nirbrūyād;atha.ananvite.arthe.aprādeśike.vikāre.artha.nityaparīketa.kenacid.vtti.sāmānyena;avidyamāne.sāmānye.apy.akara.vara.sāmānyān.nirbrūyāūyāt;na.saskāram.ādriyeta.viśayavatyo.(hi.Bh).vttayo.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.ākhyāātāś.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.bhavataḥNir. 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.

Bhartrhari’s contribution

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’ (VakyaSphota). 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 patternDhvani 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 Sphoa can be understood as having constant distinctive phonetic features, whereas Dhavni is of a phonic nature. Sphoa is that which is to be manifested (vyagya), and the Dhvani is manifesting (vyañjaka). Sphoa 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 Sphoa 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 sphoṭāyanasyaPS_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.

nāma.ākhyātayos.tu.karma.upasamyoga.dyotakā.bhavanty ucca. avacāḥ . pada . arthā. bhavanti .iti.gārgyas – Nr.1,3:

[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.


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. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiographyby G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduismby Harold Coward
  4. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarianby 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 Bhartṛhari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510)by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihariby Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahariby Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernityby  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topicsby John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhiby 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 Kāśikāvṛtti: 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)
  24. Encyclopaedia for the world psychologists 1. A – D ; Edited by H. L. Kalia
  25. Linguistic philosophy of Yaska- Sodhganga
  26. Indian theories of Meaning by Dr.kunjunni Raja
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


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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 merely 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.


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)
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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.


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.

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)’
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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.


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


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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 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


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