Tag Archives: Sabda tattva

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 the universe (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).

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

The Shatpatha Brahmana (3.12.48; 10.20.43) also equated the sound of the Vedas with the Sabda-brahman.

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.

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 contradicyions’.

satyā visuddhis tatroktā vidyaivekapadāgamā /
yuktā praṇavarūpeṇa 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 is illusion (Maya) or a relative existence. But, according to Bhartrhari the transformation (vivarta) of One into many is a reality. For Bhartrhari, the ‘many’ is real and is not illusion. Bhartrhari explained such transformation 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 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 (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.’

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 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 cognized as such.(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 projective 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 projective power 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).]

(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).  

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.

[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 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-tarkānusāribhi– 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 a much more clever reasoning or argument (kuśalair anumātbhi)’.

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.

Bhartrhari’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;  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 .


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), Yogi (Maha Yogi) , a great warrior  (Maharaja) and the ruler of Avanti (Avantisvara)  who composed Vakyapadiya   (iti Sri Bhartrhari virachitam Vakyapadiyam ). His commentators and critics commonly referred to Bhartrhari by the epithet Vyakarana-kara (Grammarian) or the Sphotavadin (the champion of the doctrine of Sphota-vada).A mangala-verse appearing at the end of the commentary on the second Kanda (ascribed to either of his commentators Punyaraja or Helaraja) reverently submitting respect to Bhartrhari,  addressed him as ‘Guru’; ‘exponent of Sabda-Brahma-doctrine’ Sabda-Brahma vide)

Gurave Bhartrharaye Sabda-bramha vide namah / Sarva-siddantha-sandoha-saramrta-mayaya //

His works cover a wide range of subjects such as Poetics, Grammar, logic, semantics, ontology and philosophy.  In his works, Bhartrhari combines the philosophical insights of Samkhya, Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Mimamsa, Advaita-Vedatnta, Yoga, Shaivism, and Madhyamika-Yogachara Buddhism. He presents in one place precious nugget of knowledge that otherwise would have been lost. In his Vakyapadia, Bhartrhari claims to have brought to light the forgotten writings of the ancient Grammarians Vyadi and Patanjali as also of other Grammarians (Anye Vaiyyakaranah) , other Schools of Grammar (Vyakaranatara) and their traditions  ( Smrtyantara) that are lost. In many ways, Bhartrhari is the only credible link to the Vedic tradition of Vac that existed a long time ago; to the earlier forgotten Schools of Grammar; and to the traditions of Panini and Patanjali.

As mentioned, Bhartrhari is credited with reviving the traditions of classical Schools of Grammar that had fallen into disuse for long centuries. It is said; the Astadhyayi of Panini (ca. 400 BCE) for a long time governed the rules of   classical Sanskrit Grammar. It was later slightly revised and supplemented by the annotations and sub-commentaries (Vrittikas) of Katyayana (Ca.300-250BCE); and, thereafter expanded in Mahabhashya, the detailed commentary of Patanjali (ca.200 BCE).  But, in later centuries, the study of language declined. Many scholars of the later day (such as Vajji, Saubhava and Haryaksa) even came to ignore the rules of Panini and Patanjali. It almost extinguished the tradition of Patanjali.

There were several theories of Grammar. Bhartrhari refers to ‘other Grammars (Vyakaranatara) and to other Grammarians (anya vaiyyakaranah).  When he refers to conflicting theories, Bhartrhari says ‘other person’ or ‘theories of others’ (eke varnayanti, anye varnayanti, apare varnayati, anvesham darshanam, apareshu vyakhyanam etc)

For a very long period of time, the study of Sanskrit Grammar had fallen into neglect. By about the 5th century Grammar had lost its premier position. In addition, the study of Prakrt was also gaining attention. As Bhartrhari says, ‘the influence of Prakrt the language of the common people was steadily growing on classical Sanskrit ‘.

Some of the much debated Karika-s that appear towards the end of the Second Kanda of Vakyapadiya rue that before the time of Bhartrhari the tradition of Grammatical studies , based on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya,  had suffered at the hands of incompetent grammarians (bhrasto vyakaranagama).

yaḥ pātañjaliśiṣyebhyo bhraṣṭo vyākaraṇāgamaḥ /
kālena dākṣiṇātyeṣu granthamātro vyavasthitaḥ//2.485//

parvatād āgamaṃ labdhvā bhāṣyabījānusāribhiḥ /
sa nīto bahuśākhatvaṃ cāndrācāryādibhiḥ punaḥ//2.486

[Bhartrhari names (Vakyapadiya.2.486) Chandracharya or Chandragomin (?) – (a Buddhist scholar, grammarian; said to be a contemporary or a teacher of Vasuratha; and author of Chandra-vyakarana, a text of the Chandra school of grammar) – as one of those who contributed to the neglect of Patanjali’s Mahabhashya. Bhartrhari mentions Vaiji, Sauva and Haryaksa, and later Chandracharya, who by their uncritical methods did much to push the Mahabhasya to the background. Quite obviously, Chandracharya, a Buddhist, had scant regard for the rules of Panini’s Grammar; and, is said to have even censured it. His work did not contain any section on Vedic Grammar. That might perhaps be the reason why Chandra-vyakarana disappeared in India (Aryadesha), though it was popular among the Buddhists in Tibet, Nepal and Ceylon. Studies in the Buddhistic Culture of India During the 7th and 8th Centuries A.D. by Lal Mani Joshi]

There were, however, still some scholars who tried to preserve the purity of the traditional Grammar. They attempted to formulate a fresh system that would make study of Grammar easier and rational. The well known among such scholars was Sarvavarman (author of Kaatantra) a Buddhist who lived around theFirst century. In his work, Sarvavarman essayed to explain how Sanskrit Grammar could be made to be understood easily and warmly welcomed by common people. His works exerted a remarkable influence on the study of Sanskrit in Tibet as also on Tibetan Grammar itself.

It is, however, Bhartrhari who is considered principally responsible for reviving interest in study of Grammar. It was only when Bhartrhari breathed a fresh life into the study of Grammar; the classical Sanskrit began to flourish once again. Following his efforts, Sanskrit Grammar gained a fresh lease of life.  The appearance of Bhartrhari was, thus, very significant in the development of the tradition of study of Grammar in India. It led to the School of Panini and Patanjali flourishing into philosophy of Grammar. The transition came about because of the initiative of Bhartrhari. The Grammarians of the later period largely followed the lead of Bhartrhari, and revered him as an authority. Even otherwise, Bhartrhari’s influence in the study of Grammar per se was considerably huge. Bhartrhari came to be revered as next only to the three sages (Muni –traya) of Grammar – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali

It is said; the inspiration for Bhartrhari to bring about a transformation in the study of classical Sanskrit Grammar was his teacher (Vasuratha). It was because of the initiative he provided that Bhartrhari took up the task of composing a text based on the traditional vales and principles of Classical Grammar. Bhartrhari states that ‘the summary of the science of language (Grammar) was composed by my teacher (Vasuratha) after going through other systems along with our own system’. Bhartrhari mentions that his teacher was trying to revive classical Sanskrit when it had fallen on lean days. He claims that he extended his teacher’s efforts by composing Vakyapadiya. And, he credits some of his theories in Vâkyapadiya to his teacher. Bhartrhari affirms that he was, thus, carrying forward an ancient tradition kept alive by the long line of his teachers.

[In fact, Bhartrhari went much further. Patanjali’s purpose was to systematise the language and not to establish philosophical theories. Bhartrhari’s  Vakyapadiya is at once a grammatical treatise (Vyakarana-shastra) and a philosophical text (darshana) as well.]

The appearance of Bhartrhari was, therefore, very significant in the development of the tradition of study of Grammar and the philosophy of Grammar. Bhartrhari, though not seen as a successor to Patanjali, is respected as a reviver of the ancient traditions. Some scholars opine that ‘Bhartrhari’s singular contribution was to revive the traditions of classical  Grammar and entwine that into the main stream of Indian philosophy – Darshana, a view of the Reality’.


Supporters and detractors

The Grammarians of the later period largely followed the lead of Bhartrhari, and recognized him as an authority. Even otherwise, Bhartrhari’s influence in the study of Grammar per se was considerably huge. Bhartrhari came to be admired as next only to the three sages (Muni–traya) of Grammar (Vyakarana Shastra) – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali. Bhartrhari is, thus, at the very heart of the development of philosophy related Grammar. Dr. K Raghavan Piliai in his introduction to the Study of Vakyapadiya – Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971) while tracing the development of Grammar from Panini to Patanjali, writes: ‘one can say with certainty that it is in the Vakyapadiya that a first full-fledged statement and discussion of a philosophy of Grammar is given’.

Most Schools, therefore, regard Bhartrhari as the representative of traditional Grammar as also the philosophy of Grammar.

Bhartrhari called himself a ‘monist ‘(ekatva-darshin). He had declared his views as that of ‘one who knows the inner secret of the three Vedas’ (satyatvam ahus traya-anta-vedinah: Vakyapadiya: 3.3.70). He had enormous faith in and reverence for Vedas, the Sruti.  He said ‘the words of Sruti, though their authors and origins are unknown, they go on forever without interruption’.  In his writings, he frequently referred to Vedas.

[At the time of Bhartrhari, the term ‘Advaita’ was not yet in currency. Yet, the scholars who came after 11th century labelled his doctrine as Advaita-vada, Advaita-nyaya.]

Bhartrhari is generally recognized as a Vedantin. And his views are accepted and quoted by the later Vedanta Scholars of repute. His work is  treated by some , virtually, as an Agama-text (pratyak caitanye sannivesita vak).

For instance; Vachaspathi Misra in his Bhamathi (BS: 2.1.11), a commentary on Sri Sankara’s Brahma-sutra-bhashya quotes Bhartrhari (Vakyapadiya: 1.34) as an authority, saying ‘what is inferred by a skilful logician with much labor can be refuted only by another who is more capable’. Yamunacharya the Vishistadvaita scholar of 10-11th century   counts Bhartrhari as an authority on Vedanta. Similarly, Madhava (14th century) in his Sarva-darshana-samgraha discusses Bhartrhari in the context of Panini’s rules (Chapter 13); and, again he quotes Bhartrhari (16th Chapter) in support of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.  And, Yoga Vasista also quotes phrases from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya.

Many of the later Advaita scholars  regarded Bhartrhari as an eminent Vedanta scholar. For instance; Pratyagrupa (author of Nayanaprasadini a commentary on Citsukha’s Tattva-pradipika, a 12th-13th century text which establishes, analyses and offers interpretation  on the fundamentals of Sri Sankara’s Advaita) recognized Bhartrhari as a Vedantin; and, lauded him as a Bramha-vit-prakanda (highly learned in Brahma-vidya). And, Somananda and Utpaladeva of Kashmir Shaivism considered  Bhartrhari as an Advaitin.  Abhinavagupta, of course, was deeply influenced by Bhartrhari.


The flip side of such recognition was that the later scholars of the rival schools whenever they criticized the philosophy of Grammar invariably attacked Bhartrhari and his work Vakyapadiya. That might have been, mainly, because Bhartrhari in his exposition of the philosophy of Grammar fused Vedanta with the study of Grammar. That attracted the ire of followers of the rival philosophies. Just to name a few his critics : the Buddhist philosophers Santarakshita and Kamalasila; the Jain Philosopher Prabhachandra; the Mimamsaka Kumarila Bhatta ; Jayanta of the Nyaya School besides many others.

And again, the Sphota theory developed by Bhartrhari had its supporters as also its opponents. For instance; the Vedanta scholars such as Sri Sankara and others; the Nyaya and Samkhya Schools; as also Kaumarila Bhatta, a noted Mimamsa Scholar (7th -8th century) all attacked Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota. Among the Grammarians, Bhamaha (6th century) did not accept Sphota, while Anandavardhana (9th century) argued in favor of Sphota and Dhvani. And, Abhinavagupta (11th century) after discussing concepts of Rasa, Saundarya in details accepted Sphota; and, went on to establish its theory, abhivyaktivada.

Interestingly, the support to Bhartrhari also came from another Mimamsa Scholar Mandana Misra, a contemporary of Kaumarila Bhatta. Mandana wrote a brilliant book (Sphota-siddhi) based Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. He supported Bhartrhari’s theory of Sphota.


Similarly, among the Buddhists, there were those who supported as also those who opposed the views of Bhartrhari.

Bhartrhari’s date comes very close to a time when the Buddhist schools of the Vijnanavada and Madhyamika were flourishing. He was, perhaps, in close contact with the Buddhist tradition.  Bhartrhari was, therefore, familiar with the Buddhist arguments. In turn, the Buddhist scholar Santarakshita and Jnanasribhadra recognized Bhartrhari as an authoritative teacher on ‘Brahma- darshana’ the doctrine of Brahman. Similarly, the Jain scholar Prabhachandra calls Bhartrhari as Sabda-advaitin; while another Jain scholar Abhayadeva lauds Bhartrhari’s doctrine on Sphota as Sabda-advaita –vada.

Among the Buddhist scholars, while Dharmakirti and kamalasila  attacked Bhartrhari, another Buddhist scholar Dinnaga seemed to have been highly influenced by Bhartrhari; and quoted verses from Vakyapadiya in support of his own arguments concerning grammatical distinctions between two words having different nominal endings and those with identical endings.


Who was Bhartrhari?

As it usually happens in the Indian studies, the time or even the identity of Bhartrhari is much debated.

The name ‘Bhartrhari’ is identified with many, such as, the Grammarian (author of Vakyapadiya); the Grammarian associated with other philosophers and grammarians Vasurata, Dinnaga and Chandracharya ; the poet (author of Subhashita-tri-sahati, three sets of hundred stanzas each, grouped under the titles Niti-shataka, Sringara-shataka and Vairajya-shataka); the author of Bhaga-vrtti;  Bhatti the author of Ravan-vadha and the brother of King Vikramaditya;  the follower of the Great Siddha Gorakhnatha from whom he he is said to have learnt Yoga and renounced the world  ; and so on .

That rather complicates the matter. The question of the identity of the authors of the two works – Vakyapadiya and Subhashita-tri-sahati – is widely discussed; but is left unresolved.


There, again, is much debate about the date of Bhartrhari.

Generally, the attempts to surmise or to estimate Bhartrhari’s date have been made by tracing the line of his teachers:  Asaga–> Vasubandhu ->Vasuratha–> Bhartrhari.

: – Asanga who belongs to the early phase of the development of Mahayana Buddhism was a renowned exponent of the Yogachara (Vijñānavāda) School. He along with his half-brother and disciple Vasubandhu are regarded as the founders of this school. They were also the major promoters of Abhidharma teachings. It is believed that they lived during the fifth century.

: – Paramartha (499-569 C.E.) – one of the chief exponents of Yogachara doctrine in China – in his biography of Vasubandhu (written in Chinese) mentions that Vasuratha was a disciple of Vasubandhu.

: – And, Vasuratha was the husband of the younger sister (Brother-in-law) of the crown prince Baladitya, the son of King Vikramaditya.

: – The Buddhist scholar, grammarian Candracarya the author of Chandra-vyakarana, a text of the Chandra school of grammar is said to be a contemporary or a teacher of Vasuratha; his time is estimated to be around 450 CE

 :- and; Simhasurigani, a sixth century Jain writer, in his commentary Nyaya-chakra-tika , a commentary of Mallavadin’s  Nyaya-chakra , mentions that the renowned Grammarian Vasuratha was the ‘upadhyaya’, the teacher of Bhartrhari.

Another Buddhist scholar Dinnaga (480-540 CE) (in his pramana–samucchaya) quotes verses from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya. And, therefore Bharhari was either a contemporary or a senior to Dinnaga.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued in

Next Part


References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Bharthari, the Grammarian by Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  3. The Study of Vakyapadiya – Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  4. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bharthari and Heidegger by Sebastian Alackapally
  5. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound by Guy L. Beck
  6. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510) by Madhav Deshpande
  7. Bhartrihari by Stephanie Theodorou
  8. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis by Harold G. Coward
  9. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahari by Harold G. Coward
  10. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernity by  V. Ashok.
  11. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  12. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  1. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgenstein edited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  2. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  3. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney
  4. Of Many Heroes”: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiography  by N. Dev
  5. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhi by Allen Wright Thrasher
  6. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First … Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  7. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  8. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  9. Studies in the Kāśikāvtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras : Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  10. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
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Posted by on November 27, 2016 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


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