Tag Archives: Sabda

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine


Levels of speech

The various ancient texts speak of the levels of speech, which, generally, are taken to be four. Each School – Grammarians, Mimamsa, Upanishads, Tantra, Yoga, mythology etc – offers its own understanding and explanation of the four levels of speech. These levels are variously explained  as the varieties of  speech  that are said to be  spoken either in four regions of  the universe;  or spoken by divine beings and humans ; or as speech of the  humans , animals, birds and creatures .  These four are even explained as four levels of consciousness.

For our limited purpose, let us briefly scan through other interpretations, before we discuss  the Grammarians’ views and their explanations of the four levels of speech.


The Asya-vamiya – sukta  (Rig Veda: 1.140- 164) which is one the most philosophical , but  rather enigmatic Suktas (hymns) of Rig Veda, ascribed to Rishi Dīrghatamas  Aucathya  (son of  Ucathya  ),  who was  also called as Mamateya (son of Mamata) ,  mentions  about the levels of speech, among many other things.

According to Rishi Dīrghatamas, there are four levels of speech. Only the wise who are well trained, endowed with intelligence and understanding know them all. As for the rest; the three levels remain concealed and motionless. Mortals know  only  the fourth.

Chatvaari vaak parimitaa padaani / taani vidur braahmaanaa ye manishinaah. Guhaa trini nihita nengayanti / turiyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti. (Rigveda Samhita – 1.164.45)

But, he does not specify what those four levels of speech are.


The notion that there are four quarters or  four levels of existence ; and of which, only  one quarter is within the experience of mortals also appears in the Purusha-sukta  (Rig-Veda 10.90.3) ascribed to Rishi Narayana – Paadosya Vishva Bhutaani Tri-Paada-Asya-Amrtam Divi .

That idea of four quarters is extended to speech as well. The texts of several traditions speak of four levels of speech. For instance :

The Maitrayaniya (Maitri) Upanishad (1, 11.5), of Krishna Yajur-Veda, mentions the four quarters of speech as those belonging:  to the upper region – the heavens (Divi); to the intermediate space (Antariksha); and, to the region of earth (Prithvi) as spoken by the humans (Manusi); and, to the animals (Pashu).

The Atmavadins (mainly those belonging to Nyaya and Vaisesika Schools) say: the four fold speech can be found in the animals; in musical instruments (such a flute); in the beasts ; and,  in the individuals (Atmani)

–  pasusu tunavesu mrgesu atmani ca iti atmavadinah

The Satapatha Brahmana (1.3.16) categorizes the speech into four kinds: as that of the humans; of animals and birds (vayamsi); of reptiles (snakes); and, of small creeping things (kshudram sarisrpam)

– varā vā ia iti hi varā io yadida kudra sarīspa

Similarly, those who believe in myths and legends say that – the serpents; birds; evil creatures; as also the humans in their dealings with the rest of the world – all use speech of their own.

Sarpanam vagvayasam ksudrasarispasya ca caturthi vyavaharika-ityaitihasikah 

The Jaiminiya-Upanishad-Brahmana (1.40.1)  deals with the four levels of speech in a little more detail. In a verse that is almost identical to the one appearing in Rig-Veda Samhita – 1.164.45, it mentions that the discriminating wise know of four quarters of speech.  Three of these remain hidden; while the fourth is what people ordinarily speak.

Chatvaari vaak parimitaa padaani / taani vidur braahmaanaa ye manishinaah. Guhaa trini nihita nengayanti / turiyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti //

Then, the text goes on to explain that of the four quarters of speech: mind is a quarter, sight is another quarter, hearing is the third quarter; and, speech itself is the fourth quarter. 

 tasya etasyai vaco manah padas caksuh padas srotram pado vag eca caturtah padah

Further, it says: what he thinks with the mind, that he speaks with speech; what he sees with the sight, that he speaks with the speech; and, what he hears with hearing, that he speaks with speech.

 tad yad vai manasa dyayanti tad vaco vadati; yac caksus pasyati tad vaca vadati; yac srotrena srunoti tad vaco vadati/

Thus, finally, all activities of senses unite (Sam) into speech. Therefore speech is the Saman.


In the later Upanishads, speech is said to be assimilated with consciousness. The four divisions of speech are explained as four states of consciousness. For instance; Sri Gauda-Paada, the Parama-Guru of Sri Sankara (the teacher of his teacher) , in his celebrated commentary (Gaudapada-karika) on the Mandukya Upanishad while explaining his concept of Asparsha Yoga or pure knowledge,  identifies the four levels of speech with the four states of consciousness : Vishva or Vaisvanara in wakeful state (Jagrat); Taijasa in dream state (Svapna); Prajna in deep-sleep (Shushupti); and, Pranava AUM with Turiya, the fourth, the Absolute state which transcends all the three states and represents Ultimate Reality .


Explanations offered by Sri Sayana

Sri Sayana in his Rg-Bhashya   deals with the subject of four levels of speech in a little more detail. He says, people use speech in a variety of ways to fulfil their roles and responsibilities in life. And, similarly, the animals, birds, creatures and objects in nature do use their own sort of speech to serve their needs.  He  then , while explaining these four levels or quarters of speech (ani tani catwari ityatra bahavah) , remarks that  each School  offers explanations  (bahudha  varnayanti ) according to its own  tenets  (sva- sva-mantanu-rodhena). He, next, briefly mentions what those explanations are:

: – According to Vedantins, the four levels of speech could be the Pranava (Aum) – which is the sum and substance of all the Vedic terms (sarva-vaidika-vag-jalasaya), followed by three Vyahritis (Bhu, Bhuh and Suvah). Thus the Pranava along with three Vyahritis form the four quarters of speech.

: – According to Nirukta (Etymology), the language of the three Vedas (Rik, Yajus and  Saman ) and the speech commonly used  for dealings in the world , together make the four quarters of speech– (Rg-yajuh-samani-caturdhi vyavharikiti nairuktah )

: – The four levels of speech could also be related to four regions representing four deities : on the Earth as Agni (yo prthivyam sa-agnau); in the mid-air as Vayu (Ya-antarikshe sa vayau); and, in the upper regions as Aditya (Ya divi saditye). And whatever that remains and transcends the other three is in Brahman (Tasya-mad-brahmana).

: – The speech, though it is truly indivisible, is measured out or analyzed in the Grammar as of four kinds or four parts-of-speech (akhandayah krtsnaya vacah caturvidha vyakrtattvat).  Accordingly, the four divisions of speech are named by the followers of the various Schools of Grammar (vyakarana-matanus-arino) as: Naaman (Nouns), Akhyata (Verbs), Upasarga (prepositions or prefixes) and Nipata (particles)

:-  According to the wise who are capable of exercising control over their mind; the Yogis who have realized Sabdabrahman; and, others of the Mantra (Tantra) School,  these four levels of speech (Evam catvari vacah padani parimitani)  are classified as : Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.

Manisinah manasah svaminah svadhinamanaska brahmana vacyasya sabdabrahmani dhigantaro yoginah paradicatvari padani viduh jananti 

Apare mantrkah parkarantarena pratipadanti Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama   Vaikhariti catvariti 


The power of the spoken word

In the Indian traditions, it is believed that it is only  in its oral form that the language becomes fully alive and reveals  its true nature , provided it is spoken properly.  For Indian thinkers, language was  primarily the spoken word or speaking itself (vac); while the written word, as a secondary aid, was only a coded-representation of the spoken word; but, without its nuances. Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was its concern for preserving the purity of the spoken word.

It was the speech, the spoken word not the written letter that is at the base of the Sanskrit grammar. All speculations and practices are concerned with the oral. Panini’s Astadhyayi is also based on the sounds of spoken Sanskrit. The spoken language in Sanskrit was/is the real language.

Therefore, right from the earliest period, the study of speech has been one of the major concerns of various Schools of Indian traditions. The power of the spoken word or still more of the potent un-spoken sound was well recognized.


Levels of awareness and speech

The notion of various levels of awareness and speech is accepted and discussed in almost all the Schools of Indian philosophy and Grammar. Although numerous meanings are read into the term catvari vak (four kinds or levels of speech), the one that is commonly understood and commented upon by most Grammarians and philosophers is the classification of speech into four strata: Para; Pashyanti; Madhyama; and, Vaikhari.

The entire system of such classification is rooted in the faith that at the top of this language hierarchy, there is only One-indivisible (ekameva) Reality; and, it transforms itself (Vivarta), manifests itself , resulting (Parinama) in  variety of  sounds,  word, sentence etc.

The theory underlying the evolution of speech is an extension of that faith; and it asserts, though there are several levels in the hierarchy of language, they all emanate from one indivisible reality Sabdabrahman. And again, the Sabdabrahman is identified with Para Brahman, the Absolute.

The principle that is involved here is also based in the dictum that diversity essentially pre-supposes an underlying unity (abedha-purvaka hi bhedah).  In other words, it says, where there is difference or division there must be a fundamental identity underneath it ; else, each cannot relate to the other; and , each object in the world would be independent of , or unconnected to  every other thing in existence.

This concept provides the foundation for treating all forms of speech as emanating from a single source. The various levels of language from the most subtle to the gross are, therefore, treated as hierarchy or the levels of a unitary language-system. Most of the philosophical speculations on the process of manifestation of language; and, the discussions upon its various stages – from the subtlest (Para) to the most explicit (Vaikhari) – are based in that principle.


Grammarians’ view

Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy and Grammar tried to explain the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter ; and , also the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link connecting  the material and spiritual realms.

The analysis of the speech by the Grammarians is not merely an intellectual exercise, but is also a philosophical quest in an attempt to identify all forms of speech as originating from Sabda-Brahman, the ultimate ground of all speech phenomena. The study of Grammar was itself looked upon as a means or as a right-royal-path to liberation (moksha-manamam ajihma raja-paddhatih).


Speech was  regarded as the verbal expression of a thought that arises in a person’s consciousness. If there is no consciousness, there would be no speech. Speech (Vac) is indeed an outward form of consciousness (chetana). Vac is the word principle that gives expression to the latent or unmanifest thoughts and feelings.

That was meant to say; thinking is, in fact, a sort of internal speaking. Such inaudible speech was regarded the seed or the potent form of explicit speech that is heard by others. It was also said; all knowledge is interpreted in terms of words; and, it is quite not possible to have any sort of cognition that is free from words (Vakyapadiya: 1.123)

The process of transformation of a thought or an impulse arising in ones consciousness into a cognizable, explicit speech is said to resemble the evolution of the Universe from the un-manifest (A-vyakta) to the manifest (Vyakta) material world.

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

Here, the latent, unspoken form of thought that instinctively springs up and is visualised, within one’s self, is called Pashyanti Vak (thought visualized). The Pashyanti, which also suggests the visual image of the word, is indivisible and without inner-sequence; in the sense, that the origin and destination of speech are one. Here, the ‘internal speech’ or ‘thought’ stands for what is intended to be conveyed. That intention is instinctive (prathibha) and immediate; and, it does not involve stages such as: analysis, speculation, drawing inferences and so on. At the level of Pashyanti Vak, there is no distinction between word and meaning. And, there is also no temporal sequence.

The Pashyanti Vak thereafter transforms into an intellectual process, the level of thought (Buddhi), during which the speaker looks for and identifies appropriate words, phrases, and their sequence, which are capable of conveying his intention candidly. That sequence of thoughts results in definite and clear array of words. As that cognition arises and takes a form within, he grasps it. This is the intermediate stage – The Madhyama vak, a sequenced but a pre-vocal thought – described as the voice of silence; perhaps best understood as internal speaking. Here, there is no perceptible sound (Nada). The Madhyama vak is in an inaudible wave or vibratory (spandana) form.

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

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

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

The spoken word comes out of one’s mouth, no doubt. However, it needs the assistance of breath and of several body parts in order to manifest itself (Vikhara literally means body; and, Vaikhari is that which employs bodily organs). The head, throat, tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nose, root of the tongue and bosom are said to be the eight places which assist  the sounds of the letters to become audible and explicit.

When a person wills to express a thought orally, the air (Prana) inside his body spurs and moves up. Sabda or the Vac (speech or utterance) then manifests through Dhvani (sound patterns), with the assistance of appropriate organs.

[The King Pratardana of Kasi (Kasi-rajah-Pratardanaha), in the Kausitaki Upanishad, makes an interesting observation that one cannot breathe and speak at the same time (‘when a man speaks he cannot breathe; and when he breaths he cannot speak’- kau.Up.2.5).

Yavadvai purusho bhasate na tavat-pranitum shaknoti pranam …. Yavadvai purushah praniti na tavat-bhashitum shaknoti vacam-kau.Up.2.5]

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

And, of the three levels or stages of speech, Pashyanti is regarded the subtle forms of Vac; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

The chief characteristic of Vaikhari Vak is that it has a fully developed temporal sequence. At this level, the speaker’s individual peculiarities (such as accent, voice modulation etc) are present, along with relevant parts of speech. Though the Vaikhari gives expression to subtler forms of Vac, it is not considered as the’ ultimate’.


The ancient Grammarians went to great lengths, systematically, to trace the origination of each letter, its appropriate sound; the intricacies and efforts involved in producing them. (Please see the Note * below)


[* In the Sanskrit, the vowels and consonants sounds are classified and arranged dependent on their origin (pronunciation) in different parts of mouth, such as throat, palate, teeth or lips.

The vowels and consonants are so arranged that those emanating from the throat come first. These are followed by those pronounced through tongue; the palate; teeth and the lips. All sounds are arranged as those from the inside of the mouth proceeding outwards, in that order. No other ancient system of writing seems to have been so systematically thought out.

The vowels (Svara-s) , alternating long and short, come first : अ(a)  (aa)  इ(i)   ई(ee)  उ(u)  ऊ(oo)  ऋ(r)  ॠ(r)  लृ(lr)  ए(e)  ऐ(ai)  ओ(o)  and औ(au)

The commencing vowels अ(a) and  (aa)  are pronounced in the throat – Kantya  (कण्ठ्य). They are followed by vowels इ(i) and  ई(ee) produced by the tongue touching the base of the teeth ,Taalavya (तालव्य). The vowels उ(u)  and ऊ(oo)  are produced using the lips making a rounded opening – Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य).  The vowels ऋ(r) and ॠ(r) are produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth- Murdhanya (मूर्धन्य). The vowel लृ(lr) is produced by the tongue touching the upper teeth – Dantya (दंत्य).  The vowels ए (e) and ऐ (ai)   are produced near the throat by the tongue touching the bottom of the teeth and sucking in the air – Kanta-taalavya (कंटतालव्य).  The vowels  (o) and औ (au) produced near the throat by the rounding of the lips are called Kantoshtya (कंटोष्ठ्य).

The two ornamental nasal (Anusvara) letters अं (am) and  अः (aha ) ,which are used to decorate the vowels, are called the Visarga , meaning  sending forth . These sounds, which are neither consonants nor vowels, add a softening short burst effect at the end.  These are usually listed as a part of the vowel -group; but are shown at the end.

Similar is the emanation of the consonants – from throat outwards to the lips .

The set of consonants – क(ka) , ख(kha) , ग(ga) , घ(gha) , and ङ(nga) – are guttural (throaty) consonants – Kantya  (कण्ठ्य). Then the consonants – च(cha) , छ(chha) , ज(ja) , झ(jha) , and ञ(nja)- are pronounced on the palate- Taalavya (तालव्य). The next set of consonants –  ट(ta)  ,ठ(tha) , ड(da) , ढ(dha)  and ण(na) – is  produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouthMurdhanya (मूर्धन्य). Next are  those on the teeth (दन्त्य), like – त(ta) , थ(tha) , द(da) , ध(dha) and  न(na) . And last come those on the lips प(pa)  फ(pha)  ब(ba)  भ(bha)  and म(ma) – (ओष्ठ्य). Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य).

The list is rounded off with semi-consonants like – य(ya) , र(ra) , ल(la)  and व(va) ; and the aspirated and sibilant sounds like श(sha)  ष(sha) ,  स(sh)  and ह (ha ).

Such unique organization of the alphabet underlines the attention paid to the patterns of articulated sound; points  of its location; and , to degree of resonance,  in a way that has not been attempted in any other language]

[ Abhinavagupta offers a mystic explanation of the arrangement of the Sanskrit alphabets, which are placed in between A and Ha. According to him, in the Sanskrit alphabet, the very first letter A stands for Shiva, the primal source of all existence. A is the initial emergence of all the other letters; and hence is Anuttara, the absolute. And, A not only represents the origin of the language; but, also the expansion of consciousness.

If A  the first letter represents Shiva the transcendent source, then Ha the final letter of the alphabet represents the point of completion when all the letters have emerged. If A is Shiva, Ha the last letter is Shakthi, His cosmic outpouring that flows back into Him.

Again, the vowels (Bija – the seed) are identified with Shiva; and, the consonants are Yoni identified with Shakthi. The intertwined vowels and consonants in a language are thus the union of Shiva and Shakthi.

Thus, the sequence of A to Ha contains within itself not only all the letters of the Alphabets, but also every phase of consciousness, both transcendental and universal.

The entire sequence of alphabets, according to Abhinavagupta, represents the state in which all the elements of experience, in the inner and the outer worlds, are fully displayed.]


Philosophers’ view

In the ancient traditions of India, the Grammar, the philosophy of Grammar and the Philosophy run into one another. At times, it is hard to separate them.

While the Grammarians, generally, speak about three levels of speech, the philosophers identify four levels or stages of speech (Vac): Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.  Of these four forms of Vac, Para and Pashyanti are the subtle forms of Vac; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

The explanations of the Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari are almost the same as offered by the Grammarians; however, their interpretations and connotations differ slightly.


It is said; the sound has four divisions:  Para manifested in Prana (vital energy); Pashyanti manifested in the mind (Manas); Madhyama manifested in the senses (Indriyani); and, Vaikhari manifested in articulate expressions (Vac).

Para Vac is the ultimate and unmanifest principle of speech, the Sabda-tattva (Sabdasya tattvam or Sabda eva tattvam), where there is no subject-object distinction; and, is of the nature of the Absolute (vag vai Brahmeti).

Para vac is identified with Pranava (Aum), the primordial speech-sound from which all forms of speech emanated. It transforms or manifests (Vivarta or parinama) as all forms of sounds, speech etc.


According to Abhinavagupta, word is a symbol. The four stage of Vac: Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari represent its four phases of evolution and also of absorption; the ascent or descent from the undifferentiated to the gross.

It is explained; Para Vac as Sabda-Brahman is the creative energy (Shakthi) that brings forth all existence. It is also the consciousness (chit, samvid), vital energy (prana shakthi) that vibrates (spanda) and enlivens.

While Para Vac is pure consciousness; the three other forms are its transformations. The three lower forms of speech viz. Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari which correspond to intention, formulation and expression are said to represent ts powers , such as :  iccha-shakthi (power of intent or will) , jnana-shakthi (power of knowledge) and the power of becoming (bhuti sakti) or the power of action (Kriya shakthi  ). Thus, out of the transcendent Para, the three phases of its power (Shakthi) emanate.

The urge to communicate or the spontaneous evolution of Para into Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari   epitomizes the Cosmic act of One becoming many; and, the subtle energy transforming into a less- subtle matter.

Thus, the speech, each time it emanates, is an enactment, in miniature, of the unfolding (Vimarsa) of the One into many.  And each time, when that speech is grasped by the listener and each time it merges into her/his intellect, it re-enacts the process of absorption (Samhara) of the many into One.

The process of manifestation of speech is, thus, compared to the evolution of the Universe. And, that process is said to take place in four stages. First, in the undifferentiated substratum of thought, an intention appears. This first impulse, the self-radiant consciousness is Para-vac (the voice beyond).  This latent, un-spoken, un-manifest, silent thought (Para) unfolds itself in the next three stages as Pashyanti (thought visualized), Madhyama (intermediate)   and as Vaikhari  (explicit) speech).

In its second stage, the subtle thought visualised (pashyanthi-vak) is yet to acquire a verbal form. It is the first sprout of an invisible seed (Bija); and, is the second stage in the manifestation of thought or intention. Then the potential sound, the vehicle of the thought, materializes finding   words suitable to express the idea. This transformation of thought into words, in the silence of the mind (Buddhi), is the third or the intermediate stage of Vac (Madhyama-vak). From this non-vocal or un-voiced thought, emerges the fourth stage – the audible sound patterns. It is in that fourth stage, the ideas acquire cognizable forms of speech; and, are transmitted through articulated audible syllables (vaikhari-vak).  These four stages are the four forms of the speech.



The three- Pashyanthi, Madhyama and Vaikhari – are construed as the three sides of the triangle at the centre of which is the dot-point (Bindu) representing the undifferentiated notion of Para-Vak. The triangle with the Bindu at its centre suggests the idea of Isvara the divinity conceived as non-dual Shiva-Shakti.

In the traditions of Tantra, the process of evolution of the principle of speech (Sabda Brahman) from its most subtle and soundless state of sound – consciousness (Para), in successive stages, into the gross physical speech (Vaikhari) is explained through the principle underling the structure of Sri Chakra.


Sri Yantra is a ‘Cosmogram’ – a graphic representation of the processes of evolution (Sristi) of the Universe emanating from its core; and, re-absorption (Samhara) of the created existence back into itself. And, at the very core or the centre of the Sri Chakra is the Bindu, the dimensionless point about to expand immensely. The Bindu denotes what is hidden; the subtle and the most sensitive.

It is said; the true nature of the Supreme Goddess is beyond mind and matter. She is limitless and formless. She is Arupa. But, when She takes a form, the Bindu is her intense representation. The Bindu symbolizes Her most subtle micro form as the Universal Mother, womb, yoni, creator, retainer as also the receiver of the created universe. It is this Bindu that is, in reality, the Sri Chakra; and, everything else is an expansion and manifestation of its aspects.

The Sri Vidya texts call the Bindu also as Sarva-ananda-maya (all blissful); and, the transcendental power (Para Shakthi). It denotes the absolute harmony (saamarasya) between Shiva and Shakthi; as the immense potential of the non-dual Shiva-Shakthi, the union of Purusha and Prakriti.

The evolution (shristi) from the primary state into the mundane level is said to be the apparent separation of Shiva and Shakthi (avarohana karma). And, the reverse process of re-absorption or withdrawal from the gross to the very subtle state is termed Samhara karma.

According to Sri Vidya ideology, in the process of evolution (Vimarsa), that is in the process of shristi or the outward movement or descending arc of creative activity, the speech proceeds from the creative consciousness pulsations (spanda) of the Devi as Para-Vac, the most subtle and silent form of speech-consciousness. And, in successive stages or forms,  it moves on to more cognizable forms as : Pashyanti (Vak-shakthi, going forth as seeing, ready to create in which there is no difference between Vachya– object and Vachaka-word); Madhyama (the speech in its subtle form as existing in the anthahkarana prior to manifestation); and, Vaikhari (as articulated gross physical speech).

If the Bindu represents the Para-Vac, its immediate expanded form, the triangle formed by three points, represents the Pashyanti, the second stage of the sound (Nada). The enclosure next to this, the eight sided figure (ashta kona chakra) is the Madhyama or the third stage in the development of sound. The rest of the Chakra represents the physical or the phenomenal stage, the Vaikhari, which is the manifest and articulate form of sound. The Vaikhari form is represented by the fifty letters of the alphabet, called Matrka-s or the source of all transactions and existence.

Thus, in the process of Sristi, in the outward movement from the centre of Reality to the periphery, from the most sublime to the ordinary, the Para assumes different forms, in successive stages. All these four forms, apparently different, are indeed the manifestations of Para Vac which pervades the entire structure of speech and consciousness, in all their levels – from the highest to the lowest; and, it transforms (Vivarta) projects itself in various forms (Parinama).  

 (Abhinavagupta treats these aspects in a very elaborate manner. We shall talk about the explanations provided by Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari in the next part.)



 The Tantra explains the concept of Mantra and Japa in a similar manner.

Mantra is said to connect, in a very special way, the objective and subjective aspects of reality. The Mantra, in its sublime form, is rooted in pure consciousness. The Shaiva text Shiva Sutra describes Mantras as the unity of Vac and consciousness: Vac chittam (Shiva Sutra: 2.1). It is the living sound, transcending beyond the mental plane; the indistinct or undefined speech (anirukta) having immense potential.  In its next stage, it unites harmoniously with the mind. Here, it is union of mind (Manas) and word (Vac).  That is followed by the Mantra repeated in the silence of one’s heart (tushnim). The silent form of mantra is said to be superior to the whispered (upamasu) utterance.

[When one utters a deity’s Mantra, one is not naming the deity, but is evoking its power as a means to open oneself to it. It is said; mantra gives expression to the identity of the name (abhidana) with the object of contemplation (abhideya). Therefore, some describe mantra as a catalyst that’ allows the potential to become a reality’. It is both the means (upaya) and the end (upeya).]

The reverse is said to be the process of Japa (reciting or muttering the mantra). It moves from Vaikhari through Madhyama towards Pashyanti and ideally, and in very cases, to Para vak.

Ordinarily, Japa starts in Vaikhari form (vocal, muttering). The efficacy of the Japa does depend on the will, the dedication and the attentiveness of the person performing the Japa. After long years of constant practice, done with devotion and commitment, an extraordinary thing happens. Now, the Japa no longer depends on the will or the state of activity of the practitioner. It seeps into his consciousness; and, it goes on automatically, ceaselessly and inwardly without any effort of the person, whether he is awake or asleep. Such instinctive and continuous recitation is called Ajapa-japa. When this proceeds for a long-time, it is said; the consciousness moves upward (uccharana) and becomes one with the object of her or his devotion.

[The term Ajapa-japa is also explained in another manner. A person exhales with the sound ‘Sa’; and, she/he inhales with the sound ‘Ha’. This virtually becomes Ham-sa mantra ( I am He; I am Shiva). A person is said to inhale and exhale 21,600 times during a day and night. Thus, the Hamsa mantra is repeated (Japa) by everyone, each day, continuously, spontaneously without any effort, with every round of breathing in and out. And, this also is called Ajapa-japa.]



The system of Yoga also accepts and speaks in terms of Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari. Here, those terms are meant to denote different sounds (Nada) or the stages of consciousness. It is explained:

: – Para is the most subtle form of sound, not audible; and, in its un-manifest (Avyakta) form resides as Nada at the base (Karana-bindu) in the centre of the Muladhara-chakra, solar plexus (Ekaiva nadatmika vak muladharadudita sati Para ityucyate)


: – And, with the ascent of Prana (vital energy) it moves up to Manipuraka-chakra in the region of navel; and, it is transformed to Pashyanti when it enters the heart-region (hradayakhya) and becomes visible to the Yogis (hradayakhya udiyamanatvat)


The Pashyanti (radiant) stage is compared to a well nourished seed (Bija) which sprouts into two leaves. it, then, acquires the qualities of subtle sound ( which is not audible to the physical ear) , and hue of colour (varna) which can be seen (Pashyan).

: – The Pashyanti, moving up and enters the mind (Buddhi) with a desire or the urge to express itself (Saiva buddhim gata vivaksam prapta madhyama ityucyate). And, on reaching the Anahata–chakra in the region of the heart, it is transformed into Madhyama Vac.  Anahata literally means un-struck. Here; the subtle sound (Nada) at the level of the mind is like ‘internal-speech’ which is heard, internally, by the Yogi.


[It is said; the Vac which sprouts in Para gives forth leaves in Pashyanti; buds forth in Madhyama; and, it blossoms in Vaikhari.]

: – When the Madhyama moves up further from heart-region to throat, tongue and mouth it becomes articulate (Vyakta) sound, clearly audible to the external ear at the Vishudhi -chakra. This is Vaikhari, the last stage of sound or speech when it emerges out of the mouth with the help of syllables, words etc and is heard by the listener. And, Vaikhari is the intended speech that comes out clearly through the mouth with the assistance of tongue, lips, teeth and the breath


(Atha yada saiva vaktre sthita talvosthadivyaparena bahirnirgacchati tada vaikhari ityuchyate)


Other explanations

Various other interpretations are also imposed on these four terms.

It is said;   Para represents transcendental consciousness; Pashyanti the intellectual consciousness; Madhyama the cerebral consciousness; and, Vaikhari the physical consciousness.

Further, these levels of consciousness are said to correspond with varying levels of awareness:  Turia (the fourth, the transcendental or the one-beyond); Shushupti (deep sleep); Svapna (dream state) ; and Jagrat ( wakeful state) , in that order.

And again, these states of consciousness are said to relate to different states of being (bodies). Para which is referred to as the Supreme form; the first form; the pure and resplendent Highest-light etc, is indeed beyond all forms (Turiya); and it is formless. The sphere of consciousness at Pashyanti is said to be the causal body (Karana-sarira); at Madhyama, the subtle or psychic body (Sukshma-sarira); and at Vaikhari, the physical body (Sthula-sarira).

While Para is pure consciousness, the other three are said to be its powers through which it differentiates as its power of will (iccha shakthi) at the subtle level of Pashyanti; as the power of discrimination or knowledge (Jnana shakthi) at the mental level of Madhyama; and, as its power of action (Kriya Shakthi) at the physical  level of Vaikhari.


In the next part, let’s talk about the theories expounded and the explanations offered by two of the great thinkers – Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari- on the subject.

Buddha Meditation Song




The next part

Sources and References

Ritam “The Word in the Rig-Veda and in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri

.Vedic river and Hindu civilization; edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman

Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India…Edited by John Muir

Devata Rupa-Mala(Part Two) by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 edited by Harold G. Coward, K. Kunjunni Raja, Karl H



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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven




Two Aspects of the Word

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[Translation of Shri K Raghavan Pillai

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

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

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

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


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

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

 (i) The gross sound pattern, Dhvani or Nada, is a sequence of sounds. Those sounds are employed to convey or to give an audible form to the intent of the speaker.  Those audible sounds through their divisions and time sequence, produced one after another by the speech organs, act as means (upaya) or as vehicles to transport the intent of the speaker. Such quanta of sound-sequences (words) might create an impression as though they are independent; and, the meaning intended to be conveyed by them (Sphota) comprises several parts. But, in truth, the individual words have no separate existence; and, both the sentence and its meaning (Sphota) are part-less.

.[ pade na varna vidyante varnesva avayaya na cha / vakyat padanam atyantam pravibhago na kascha na // VP 174]

According to Bhartrhari, the letter-sounds have a limited range. Each sound helps in gaining a better understanding of its next. The first one could be vague ; and , the next one little more clear and so on, until the last one, aided by the accumulated  impression created by all the preceding perceptions, finally reveals the complete meaning (Sphota)  with precision and distinctness.

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

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

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

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

[Earlier, Panini had also mentioned that it is through conveying the own form first, the word conveys its meaning –  svam rūpam  śabdasya  aśabdasamjñā (Pā.1.1.68) ]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

In Grammar and in Indian linguistic theory, the term Sphota is of prime importance. Nageshabhatta in his Sphota-vada describes Sphota as an entity which is manifested by spoken letters or sounds (sphutati prakashate artho asmad iti sphotah). In a similar manner, Sri Madhava in his Sarva-darshana-samgraha, defines Sphota as that which is manifested or revealed by the Varna (phonemes): sphutyate vyajyate varnairiti sphotah’.  Sri Madhava describes Sphota in two ways. The first as: that from which the meaning bursts forth or shines forth. And, the second as: an entity that is manifested by the spoken letters and sounds.

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

Bhartrhari also deals with Sphota at two levels: one on the metaphysical plane and the other on the empirical plane. The Sphota here is more than a theory of language.  The principle that is involved here is: the Brahman first manifested itself as Sound and then as form. The Sphota, Sabda-Brahman, the manifester as Logos or Word, is the power through which the Lord manifests in the universe. Liberation is achieved when one attains unity with that ‘supreme word principle’. Within this theory, consciousness and thought are intertwined; and Grammar becomes a path to liberation. This metaphysical Sphota-vada is a monistic philosophy based in Sanskrit grammar.

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

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


Communication of thought

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

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

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

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

Bhartrhari held the view that the sentence is not a mere collection (Sabda-samghatah) or an ordered series of words. The sentence with its words is to be taken as single part-less linguistic unit (eko’navayavah s’abdah); and, not as a jumble of fragments. A sentence is a sequence-less, part-less unity that gets expressed or manifested in a sequential and temporal utterance. He maintained that the primary function of the words is to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning – (Arthah sahabhuteshu vartate – VP.2.115). Ultimately, the meaning of the words depend upon the overall meaning of the sentence (rupam sarva-pada-artham vakyartha nibamdhanam-VP.2.324)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Process of cognition and theories of error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Viccheda grahane arthanam prathibhanyaiva jayate I vakyartha iti tam aahuh padarthair upapadita II – VP.2.143

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

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

[ Mammatacharya ( Kāvyaprakāśa, 11th century) while dealing with poetics , observes  :  the mere knowledge of the word alone is not enough to understand and enjoy the poetic import or the essence of the Kavya;  it needs intuition or Prathibha.  He calls Prathibha as – nava-navaonvesha-shalini prajna – the ever inventive and resourceful intellect. Prathibha is also called, at times, as Vasana.  Only those endowed with Prathibha can truly enjoy the essence and beauty of Kavya. ]

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

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


For and against the Sphota-vada

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

:- As regards the Buddhists , while Dharmakirti attacked Bhartrhari, another Buddhist scholar Dignaga seemed to be highly influenced by Bhartrhari ; and quoted verses from Vakyapadiya in support of his own arguments concerning grammatical distinctions between two words having different nominal endings and those with identical endings. Finally, Dignaga agreed with Bhartrhari that meaning of a sentence (vakyartha) is grasped through intuition (prathibha

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

Sri Sankara adopted the statement of Upavarsha “words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varnas)”. He agreed with Upavarsha; and supported Varna- vada while rejecting the Sphota-vada (Sankara Bhashya on Brahma Sutra: 1.3.28).

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

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

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

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

In the recent times, the Sphota doctrine has received much attention from the scholars of linguistics – both in the West and in the East. It has been duly recognized as one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. As the noted scholar Bimal K. Matilal observes: “Even today this theory is widely recognized among modern linguists as the most complete investigation into the profundities of language, making a considerable contribution to the Philosophy of Language, the Psychology of Speech, and especially Semiotics”.


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

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


Continued in

Next Part

References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiographyby G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduismby Harold Coward
  4. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarianby Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  5. The Study of Vakyapadiya– Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  6. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartṛhari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510)by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihariby Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahariby Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernityby  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topicsby John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhiby Allen Wright Thrasher
  19. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First… Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  20. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  21. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  22. Studies in the Kāśikāvṛtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras: Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  23. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
  24. Encyclopaedia for the world psychologists 1. A – D ; Edited by H. L. Kalia
  25. Linguistic philosophy of Yaska- Sodhganga
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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part 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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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Discussions on Artha in Kavya- the Indian Poetics

As said earlier, one of the issues that preoccupied the Grammarians, the philosophers and the poetic-scholars alike was the subtle relation between the linguistic element (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha). There have been elaborate discussions in the Indian Poetics about the shades or the layers of meaning that the word is capable of revealing.

: – The Grammarian Patanjali explained the term Sabda as that which when articulated gives out the meaning or the intent of the speaker. 

: – According to Bhamaha and Rudrata:  Poetry is the combination of word and meaning.

 –  Saba- arthau -sahitau Kavyam – (Bhamaha, Kavyalankara 1.6); Nanu Sabda-arthau Kavyam – (Rudrata, Kavyalamkara2.1);

: – Kuntaka says the word (Sabda) and sense (Artha), blended like two friends, creating each other, make Kavya delightful

Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi / parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha //

Such togetherness of the word and sense creates a captivating state poetic delight in the mind of the reader or the listener. And, this is exactly what the poet desires to achieve.

Sahitya manayo shobha shalitam prati kashyasau / Atyunna na athiriktha manoharinya vasthithihi // V.J.1.17

: – Raja Bhoja (1011–1055) in his Srngaraprakasha says that word and meaning when harmoniously composed (sahitau) constitute Kavya. . Thus Kavya is a composition (unity, sahitya) of word and meaning.

:- King Somesvara III (around 1130) of the Kalyana Chalukya dynasty in his Manasollasa, an encyclopaedic work, says: Words make up the body of a literary text, meaning is its life-breath, tropes (Alamkara)  its external form, emotional states and feelings its movements, meter its gait, and the knowledge of language its vital spot. It is in these that the beauty of the deity of literature consists.

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

The position, simply put, is: poetry in any of its forms does need words; and the arrangements of those words, however clever or elegant, do have to convey a sense or meaning. The poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It, in fact, goes beyond regulated regimens. It is only the right or judicious combination of the two – Sabda and Artha- that produces relishing aesthetic expressions and suggestive poetry. The ultimate merit of a Kavya is in its enjoyment (Rasa) by the Sahrudaya the reader endowed with culture and taste. (Rasa)

In fact, the late-tenth-century philosopher and literary theorist Abhinavagupta went a step further. He asserted that that Kavya is not just about meaning, it is something more than that; and , as  he put it: “It is not the mere capacity for producing meaning as such that enables a text to be called Kavya. And that is why we never apply that term to everyday discourse or the Veda.”


The primary sense Vakyartha is the natural (Svabhavokti); and, it is the easily comprehended sense of the word. When the perception of the primary sense is obstructed, the word conveys a sense other than the primary sense; but, the two meanings (somehow) seem related.  Thus, the secondary sense (lakshana) could even be called an unnatural meaning (Vakrokti) of the word.

For instance; when the word Purusha is uttered, one immediately understands it as a reference to a male member of the human race. It is the primary sense of the word. It might refer to an individual or to a generic attribute. In any case; the word Purusha and its meaning are related. It is a signified–signifier relationship; one pointing towards the other. This relationship is termed Abhida.

However, in the world we live, we do not always use a word only in its primary sense. Many times, the word in its primary sense may not be adequate.  Then, we attempt to attribute a sense to the word that is different or distinct from the primary sense. Such process of superimposition (aropita) is called lakshana or indication. This would be secondary sense – lakshanika or lakshyartha – of that word. The relationship between the secondary sense and the word is described as lakshya-lakshya sambandha

In poetry; the obstruction caused due to incompatibility of primary sense; the connection between the primary and the secondary sense; and, the convention (rudi) – are all interrelated. Here, there ought to be some justification for switching over to the un-natural meaning of the word; and, it should be generally acceptable (or should have gained currency in the common usage). 


The use of words, their role and the intended effect are context sensitive. The same word could be employed in any number of ways; each performing its role in its own context. Thus, all the shades of meaning are necessary and relevant in poetry; but, each in its own context. Rajasekhara, therefore, says:  A sentence is an arrangement of words which embodies the content that the speaker wishes to convey (pada-nama-abidhita-arthagrathanakarah sandarbhah vakyam – Kavyamimamasa (22) of Rajasekhara).

For instance; take the word Mother. The word in its primary sense is woman who has given birth to a child. In the specific context when one says ‘Kausalya is the mother of Rama’ you are referring to a specific person. And when one says ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, one is not referring to a physical mother but to suggest the sense of ‘origin’. Here, the primary sense of the term does not work. Similarly, when the Saint Ramaprasad calls out to Devi in anguish as Mother, it suggests the intensity of his devotion and the depth of his longing for her love and protection. Devi is not the physical mother but a projection of the Universal Mother principle or a specific mother deity. The vibrations of the suggested meaning of the word are indeed truly powerful.


Then, there is the most interesting and much debated Vyanjana-artha which is the suggested sense or the essence of the word. This, again, is founded in the principle that   the meaning of word is not limited to its literal sense; the word has the power to reach far beyond the obvious. In poetry, the word acquires another power Vyanjana-vritti the suggestive function. It is that    power (Shakthi) which activates the potential hidden in the word. And, the word acquires a new glow. Through the suggestive function of the word, a new meaning emerges, transcending the obvious literal sense, far more beautiful and sensitive.

The word which connotes the suggested sense (through the suggestive function Vyanjana –vritti) is named Vyanjaka. The relationship between the suggestive word and the suggested meaning (Vyanjana-artha) is described as vyangya-vyanjaka sambandha. It is this mutual relationship, which, virtually, is the lifeblood of Indian poetics.  In fact, this is what that distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature.

The suggested sense Vyanjana-artha, which, though not explicit, becomes the object of awareness, is regarded as the essence of poetry. The Dhvani School put forward by Anandavardhana, brought focus on the potential power of the word in a Kavya. Here, the word (Sabda) together with its literal sense (Vakyartha) is said to form the body of Kavya; it is its cloak.  But, the essence of poetry is elsewhere; it is not directly visible; and, that essence is the suggested sense of the word (Vyanjana-artha).

 To put it in another way: it is not the direct literal and obvious meaning that is very significant  in poetry, but it is the suggested, indirect and emotive meaning that matters.  Hence, though the words of a Kavya and the literal sense must be given their due importance, they are but a medium for emotive and indirect meaning to flash forth. In good poetry, this suggested meaning dominates over the words and their literal meaning. As per Anandavardhana: The latter are compared to a woman’s body and the former to her grace and beauty which is a subtler manifestation and a more profound meaning of the womanhood.

The primary meaning can be understood by all. But, the suggested meaning is understood only by those who are gifted with some imagination and a sort of intuition. Here, the mere knowledge of the word alone is not enough to understand and enjoy the poetic import or the essence of the Kavya. It needs intuition or Prathibha.  Mammatacharya calls Prathibha as – nava-navaonvesha-shalini prajna – the ever inventive and resourceful intellect. Prathibha is also called, at times, as Vasana.  Only those endowed with Prathibha can truly enjoy the essence and beauty of Kavya. That is why, it is remarked; the Grammarians (unlike the goodhearted cultured reader the Sahrudaya) cannot truly appreciate and enjoy the Rasa of good poetry. They are incapable of looking beyond what appears obvious.


The suggested sense of the word designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) is regarded Anandavardhana as the soul of Kavya: Kavyasya Atma Dhvanih.

The concept of Dhvani was said to have been inspired by the ancient doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota signifies:  bursting; opening; expansion; disclosure; the eternal and imperceptible element of sound and words; and, is the real vehicle of the idea which bursts or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered.

Nagesha Bhatta identifies Vedic Sage Sphotayana, mentioned by Panini in one of his rules, as the originator of Sphota theory. Bhartrhari, however, states that Audumbarayana (mentioned by Yaska) had put forth views similar to the Sphota concept. In any case, the original idea of Sphota seems to go back to the Vedic age when Vak or speech was considered to be a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman , and Pranava (Aum) was regarded as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were supposed to have evolved. 

It was Bhartrhari (around 485 AD) in his great work Vakyapadiya (all about sentence and word) elaborated and established the Sphota doctrine in the realm of Grammar and in Philosophy.

According to Bhartrhari, the perfect perception is that in which there is identity between the object (namely, the Sphota) and the form of its cognition (namely, words or the letters of sounds) . This special kind of perception is held to be function of mind, rather than of the external senses.

This is a major subject; and deserves to be discussed separately, when we come to the concepts argued out by Bhartrhari.

In the next part, let us start talk of Bhartrhari and his celebrated work Vakyapadiya.


Continued in next Part

Sources and References

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Satya Deva Caudharī

Indian Poetics (Bharathiya Kavya Mimamse) by Dr. T N Sreekantaiyya

Sahityashastra, the Indian Poetics by Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande

History of Indian Literature by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz

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

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock


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Discussions, Debates and Arguments: Ancient India- Part One

Discussions, Debates    and Arguments:  SamvadaVaada –Jalpa and Vitanda

 Part One

 In the Indian traditions, including the Buddhist and Jain traditions, four formats of discussions, debates and arguments are described. These are named as:  Samvada, Vaada, Jalpa and Vitanda. The merit and esteem of each of these types of discussions is graded in terms of the honesty of their purpose, the quality of debate, the decorum and the mutual regard of the participants.

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

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

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


Nyaya Sutra

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

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

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

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

.. The intellectual climate in India was bristling with controversy and criticism. At the center of controversy were certain dominant religious and ethical issues. Nothing was too sacred for criticism. Such questions as: “Is there a soul different from body?”; “Is the world (loka) eternal?”; ”What is the meaning, goal, or purpose of life?”; and, “Is renunciation preferable to enjoyment?” etc. were of major concern.  While teachers and thinkers argued about such matters, there arose a gradual awareness of the characteristics or patterns of correct, acceptable and sound reasoning. There were    also concerns to evolve the norms to distinguish sound reasoning from pseudo-reasoning (hetvabhasa) which is unacceptable. 

The debates tended to get more passionate, animated and even noisy.  Gradually, the notions of ‘good’ and acceptable debates took shape as distinct from wrong and ugly arguments. That gave rise to the development of a branch of study dealing with theories of reasoning and logic (Hetu-vidya or Hetu shastra). It was perhaps around the fifth century BCE that manuals came to be written for conduct of proper and successful debates (Tarka vidya or Vada vidya). Such manuals included instructions and learning methods for the guidance of aspiring debaters. The earliest known text of that genre was Tantra-yukti (structured argument) compiled perhaps in the sixth-fifth century BCE to systemize debates conducted in learned councils (Parishad). 

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

The monks and priests belonging to various Schools and sects were imparted training in Tarka–vidya: the art and skills of conducting impressive successful debates and disputations (Sambasha or Vada vidhi) in learned assemblies (parishad). Apart from  methods of presenting arguments as per a logically structured format, the training modules included ways to stoutly defend ones thesis  by means of genuine criteria of knowledge (Pramana) and to attack the opponent’s thesis by means of indirect arguments (Tarka); estimating the strengths and weaknesses of arguments of either side; establishing one’s own points while setting aside those of the opponent. They were also trained for handling different types of challenges, such as: how to vanquish a person of blazing fame; how to behave with a senior opponent; how to handle an aggressive and troublesome opponent; and,  how to conduct oneself in prestigious Parishads  , to influence the flow of debate and to impress the judges and the onlookers  etc.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Pramana in Sanskrit signifies the means and movement by which knowledge is acquired Pramata means the subject or the knower who cognizes, Prama –the result of pramana i.e., right knowledge, knowledge of reality or valid cognition, prameya–the object of knowledge and pramanya – the validity of knowledge acquired.  The verbal root ma of these terms derived with the prefix pra, means also to measure (apart from meaning to cognize.) Thus, what is to be measured is the prameya, and that by which to measure is pramana.]

[ In Sanskrit, the term Jnana stands for all kinds of knowledge – whether be it of truth or of falsehood. The term Prama, however, is used to designate only a true cognition (yatartha-jnana) as distinct from a false one (mithya-jnana). A Pramana is an active and a unique cause of Prama or knowledge. The Samkhya and Yoga Schools of Indian philosophy accept three means of cognition, Pramanas: Pratyakasha (direct perception) , Anumana (inference) and Sabda ( verbal testimony ). The Mimamsa School accepts six types of Pramanas: Pratyaksha, Anumana, Sabda, Upamana (analogy), Arthapatti (presumption) and Abhava (non-apprehension).  The same set of six Pramanas is also stated by Vedanta. There are, of course, variations among these Schools regarding the specific understang of each of the Pramans.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Pratyaksha (perception), Anumana (inference), Upamana (comparison ) and Sabda (reliable testimony ); the five-part syllogism (Nyaya); the structure (vada vidhi); the ways of developing sound evidence (pramana); the logical reasoning (tarka) to support ones thesis which needs to be proved (Pratijna) and its object (nirnaya); the disciplined (anusasana) mode of presentation (vadopaya); and the exceptions (prthaka-prasthana), as also the limits or the ‘dos and don’ts’ (vada-maryada) of three formats of such debates.

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

As per these texts, the debates and arguments are grouped under a broad head titled ‘Katha’. In Sanskrit, the term ‘Katha’, in general, translates as ‘to inform’, ‘to narrate’, ‘to address or to refer to somebody’. In the context of Nyaya Shatra, which provides the knowledge (Vako-Vakya or Vada-vidya) about the methods for presenting arguments as also the rules governing the debates, the term ‘Katha’ implies formal conversation (Sambasha) as in a debate. The conversation here is not in the casual manner as in day-to-day life. But, it is articulate, precise and well thought out utterances. Katha is described as ‘polemical conversation’, meaning that it is passionate and strongly worded , but a well balanced  argument against or in favor of somebody or something. That is why; the discussions (Vaada) are never simple. A Katha, in essence, is a reasoned and a well-structured philosophical discussion.

Vatsayana at the beginning of his commentary on Nyaya Sutra (1.2.1) mentions that Katha is classified into two kinds of debates (Dvi-vidha sambasha):  Vaada (the good-Sandhya sambasha) on one hand; and Jalpa and Vitanda (the bad- Vigrahya sambasha) on the other. Uddyotakara in his Nyāya Vārttika further explains that this threefold classification is according to the nature of the debate and  the status of the persons taking part in the debate.

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

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

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

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

And, Vitanda is the worst type of argument or squabbling descending to the level of quarrel and trickery. It is  described as a destructive type of argument; the sole aim of each party being not only to inflict defeat on the opponent but also to demolish and humiliate him . The Vaitandika , the debater who employs Vitanda, is basically a refuter; he relentlessly goes on refuting whatever  the proponent says. He has no thesis of his  own – either to put forward or to defend.  Sometimes he might pick up a thesis  just for argument’s sake, even though he may have no faith in the truth of his own argument. The aggressive Vaitandika goes on picking holes in the rival’s arguments  and destabilises his position , without any attempt to offer an alternate thesis. Both the participants in a Vitanda are prepared to resort to mean tactics in order to mislead, browbeat the opponent by fallacies (hetv-abhasa); by attacking the opponents statement by willful misrepresentation (Chala) ; ill-timed rejoinders (Atita-kala) and, make the opponent ‘bite the dust’. It is virtually akin to a ‘no-holds-barred’ sort of street fight. The ethereal values such as: truth, honesty, mutual respect and such others are conspicuously absent here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Samvada is a dialogue that takes between the teacher and the taught in all earnestness.  The one who approaches the teacher could be a disciple; student; friend (as in Krishna-Arjuna or Krishna-Uddhava) ; son ( as in Shiva-Skanda or Uddalaka-Swetaketu); or spouse (as in Shiva-Prvathi or Yajnavalkya-Maitreyi);   or anyone else seeking knowledge (as in Nachiketa -Yama or the six persons who approach Sage Pippalada in Prashna Upanishad). What characterizes the Samvada in such cases is the sincerity and eagerness of the learner; the humility in his/her approach; and the absolute trust in the teacher.  The wise teacher , in turn , gracefully imparts instructions out of enormous love for the ardent seeker of truth.

Samvada is thus a dialogue that teaches, imparts instructions or passes on knowledge. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

It reads in Sanskrit as :

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

However, the kalama Sutta appearing in Aṅguttara Nikaya (III.653) , which is a part of Tipitaka, merely lays down the principle of taking an objective view after a thorough examination (charter of free inquiry ):

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

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

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



Continued in Part Two

..Vada, Jalpa and Vitanda

Sources and References:

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

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

The Nyâya Sûtras of Gotama by Nandalal SinhaH

indu Philosophy by Theos Bernard

Categories of Cognition and Proof – Shodhganga

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

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

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


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