Tag Archives: Sanskrit

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 .

There are similar notions with regard to Pranava Om where the three syllables A, Vu, and Ma are normally visible. But it is its fourth element the Anusvara (Brahma-bindu) that leads from being to non-being; and , from the word to the silence beyond it.

svarena samdhayed yogam asvaram bhävayet param asvarena hi bhävena bhävo näbhäva  isyate– Brahmabindu Upanishad

And, there is also the Turiya paada (Chaturtha or Fourth) the fourth line of the Gayatri mantra. It is said; while the traditional three lines of Gayatri mantra can be grasped by reason, the fourth line, which is mystical in its import, and can be comprehended only through intuition. The fourth line (Turiya paada) which reads ‘paro rajas ya tapati’ is said to be hidden (darshatasya) or un-manifest (apad); beyond intellect; resplendendent, shining beyond the worlds known; and , which is the support of the Gayatri itself and of the Universe.


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.

Nageshabhatta (Ca. between 1670 and 1750), in his commentary on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, accepts the four forms of Vac; and, explains the expression ‘Catvari padjatani namakhyato-upasargani-patah ‘as referring to Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari :

 Bhashya padajatani Para-Pashyanti-Madhyama- Vaikhari rupani / ata evagre nipatah  ceti cakarah sangacchate


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)

Nageshabhatta in his Parama-laghu-manjusha also   describes the four forms of Vac (Para-Pashyanti-Madhyama- Vaikhari), in terms of the Yoga, as those arising from Muladhara, Nabi (navel); Hridaya (heart region) and Kanta (throat)



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 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’.

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

Yamunacharya the Vishistadvaita scholar of 10-11th century   counts Bhartrhari as an authority on Vedanta. Similarly, Madhava (14th century) in his Sarva-darshana-samgraha discusses Bhartrhari in the context of Panini’s rules (Chapter 13); and, again he quotes Bhartrhari (16th Chapter) in support of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.  And, Yoga Vasista also quotes phrases from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya.

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Who was Bhartrhari?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Buddhist scholar Dinnaga (480-540 CE) (in his Pramana–samucchaya and Trikalyapariksha ) quotes verses from Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya- (Yatha visuddam akasham;  and , tathedam amrtam brahma from his Vritti ).  And, therefore Bharhari was either a contemporary or a senior to Dinnaga.


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continued in

Next Part


References and Sources

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


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The meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Two


Continued from Part One




A. Artha

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

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


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

Yaska, the etymologist of the very ancient India, derives the term Artha from two roots (chakarita): Artho’rtem and Aranastha va – ‘to go, to move towards, reach etc’ and Arna+shta ‘to stay apart ‘. The Artha is, thus, derived from roots conveying mutually opposite sense. It is said; Artha, according to this derivation, at once, denotes something that people are moving towards (Arteh) or something from which  they desire to move away (Aranastha).

Some other scholars point out that in Sanskrit, the term ‘Artha’ has no clear derivation from the verb. But, the term itself gives rise to another verb ‘Arthayate’, which means ‘to request, to beg; to strive or to obtain’.

In any event, Artha has been in use as an all-embracing term having a verity of hues and shades of meanings. Almost everything that is understood from a word on the basis of some kind of ‘significance’ is covered by ‘Artha’. It brings into its fold various other terms and expressions such as: ‘Tatparya’ ( the true intent or gist);  Abhi-praya (to intend or to approach); ‘Abhi-daha’ (to express or to denote); or,’Uddishya’ ( to point out or to signify or to refer); ‘Vivaksa’ (intention or what one wishes to express); ‘Sakthi’ (power of expression); ‘Vakyartha’ (the import of the sentence); ‘Vachya’ and ‘Abhideya’ ( both meaning : what is intended to be expressed); ’Padartha’ (the object of the expression); ‘Vishaya’ (subject matter);’Abidha’ ( direct or literal meaning of a term) which is in contrast to lakshana the symbolic sign or metaphoric meaning; and, ‘Vyanjana’ ( suggested meaning ) and so on .

But, in the common usage, Artha, basically, refers to the notion of ‘meaning’ in its widest sense. But, Artha is also used to denote an object or an object signified by a word.

The scope of the term Artha in Sanskrit is not limited to its linguistic sense or to what is usually understood by the word employed. It can be the meaning of the words, sentences and scriptures as well as of the non-linguistic signs and gestures. Its meaning ranges from a real object in the external world referred to by a word to a mere concept of an object which may or may not correspond to anything in the external world.

It could also mean Artha (money), the source of all Anartha (troubles); and Anartha could also be nonsense. Artha is one of the pursuits of life – wealth or well being. Artha could also signify economic power and polity. It is said that a virtuous person gives up Svartha (self-interest) for Parartha (for the sake of others). And, finally, Paramartha is the ultimate objective.



The communication of meaning is the main function of words (Pada); and in that sense, Artha is used in various places. In numerous contexts, Artha denotes the aim, purpose, goal or the object of the spoken word (pada). But, at the same time, it also involves other meanings such as –‘the object’ and/or to signify a certain tangible ’object’, ‘purpose or goal’ which could be attained. It is said; Padāt (lit., from word) suggests that every word has the capability to represent a certain object or multiple objects or purposes.

Thus, Padartha (pada+artha) stands for the meaning of the word; for a tangible object (Vastumatra); as also for the meaning (padartha) that is intended to be signified by the word (Abhideya). It is difficult to find an exact English equivalent to Padartha; perhaps category could be its nearest term.

It is argued that each word (Pada) has countless objects; and therefore, Padartha too is countless. It is said; the whole range of Padartha-s could be categorized into two: Bhava-padartha and Abhava-padartha. For instance; the whole of universe is categorized into Sat (existent) and A-sat (nonexistent); Purusha and Prakrti as in Samkhya

Nyaya Darshana (metaphysics) recognizes and categorizes as many as sixteen Padartha-s, elements:

Pramāa (valid means of knowledge); Prameya (objects of valid knowledge); Saśaya (doubt); Prayojana (objective or the aim); Dṛṣṭānta (instances or examples), Siddhānta (conclusion); Avayava (members or elements of syllogism); Tarka (hypothetical reasoning): Niraya (derivation or settlement), Vāda (discussion), Jalpa (wrangling), Vitaṇḍā (quibbling); Hetvābhāsa (fallacy), Chala (hair-splitting);  jāti (sophisticated refutation) and Nigrahasthāna (getting close to defeat).

 For a detailed discussion on these elements – please click here



According to one interpretation, the word itself is also a part of the meaning it signifies. Such a concept of ‘meaning’ is not found in the western semantics. For instance; the Grammarian Patanjali says: ’when a word is pronounced, an Artha ‘object’ is understood. For example; ‘bring a bull’, ‘eat yogurt’ etc.  It is the Artha that is brought in; and it is also Artha that is eaten.

[Sabdeno-uccharitena-artha gamyate gam anya dadhya asana iti / Artha anyate Arthas cha Bhujyate]

Here, the term Artha stands for a tangible object which could be brought in or eaten; and, it is not just a notion. A similar connotation of Artha (as object) is also employed by Nyaya and Mimamsa schools. According to these Schools, the qualities, relations etc associated with the objects are as real as the objects themselves.

Bhartrhari also says that word is an indicator; even when a word expresses reality; it is not expressed in its own form. Often, what is expressed by a word is its properties rather than its form.

There are elaborate discussions on the issues closely related to the concept of understanding. It is argued; no matter whether the things are real or otherwise, people do have ideas and concepts of many things in life. In all such cases, it is essential that people understand those things and be aware of their meaning. Such meanings or the content of a person’s understanding are invariably derived from the language employed by each one.

That gives raise to arguments on questions such as: whether the meaning (Artha) of a word is derived from its function to signify (Vrtti); or through inference derived by the listener (Anumana) from the words he listned  ; or  through his presumption (Arthapatti) or imagination.

Grammarians assert that Artha (meaning) as cognized from a word is only a conceptual entity (bauddha-artha). The word might suggest a real object; but, its meaning is only what is projected by the mind (buddhi-prathibhasha) and how it is grasped.

Pundit Gadadharabhatta of the Navya (new) Nyaya School, in his Vyutpattivada, argues that a word is closely linked to the function associated with it. According to him, the term Artha stands for object or content of a verbal cognition (Sabda-bodha-vishaya) which results from understanding of a word (sabda-jnana) as derived from the significance of the function  (vrtti) pertaining to that word (pada-nists-vritti-jnana) – Vritya-pada-pratipadya evartha ity abhidayate.

[According to him:

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

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

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

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

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


Punyaraja, a commentator of Vakyapadiya of Bhartrhari, detailing the technical and non-technical aspects of the term Artha offers as many as eighteen explanations.

[ Artho asta-dashaad / tatra vastu-matram abhideyash  cha / abhidheyo api dvidha shastriya laukika cha /.. ]

According to Punyaraja, Artha stands for an external real object (Vastu-matra) as also for the meaning intended to be signified by a word (Abhideya). The latter – meaning in linguistic sense – could be technical (Shastriya) of special reference   or it could be the meaning as commonly grasped by people in a conversation (laukika). In either case, there are further differences. The meaning of a word might or might not be literary; and, it could also stand for an expression or a figure of speech (Abhideya). It could also be used to denote something that is not really intended (Nantariyaka) when something else is actually intended.

Bhartrhari also talks of two kinds of meanings – apoddhara-padartha and sthitha-lakshana-padartha.  The latter refers to the meaning as it is actually understood in a conversation. Its meaning is fixed; and, Grammarians cannot alter it abruptly. Bhartrhari also said: here, meaning does not leave the word. Meaning is comprehended by the word itself. The word is eternal and resides within us.

[There was much discussion in the olden days whether a word has a fixed meaning or a floating one. For instance; the Grammarian Patanjali asserted that a word is spoken; and when spoken it brings about the understanding of its meaning. The spoken word is the manifestation of the fixed (dhruva, kutastha) meaning of the word. And, the word (sabda) and its meaning (artha) and their inter-relations (sambandha) are eternal (nitya) – Siddhe sabda-artha-sambandhe–Patanjali Mbh.1.27]

The former, apoddhara-padartha mentioned by Bhartrhari, tries to bring out the abstract or hidden meaning that is extracted from the peculiar use of the word in a given context. In many cases, such abstracted meaning might not denote the actual (linguistic) meaning of the term as it is usually understood. But, such usage does not represent the real nature of the language. The apoddhara-padartha is of some relevance only in technical or theoretical (Shastriya) sense, serving a particular or special purpose. That again, depends on the context in which the term in question is employed.

[In many of these discussions, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between the literal meaning and the concept it represents (Pratyaya).

In the Sanskrit texts, the terms such as ‘Sabda’ (word); ‘Artha’ (object); ‘Pratyaya’ (concept) are horribly mixed up and are used interchangeably.]


There is also a line of discussion on whether Artha is universal or the particular? The Grammarian Vyadi says that the words refer to Dravya (substance) , that is ,  the particular. Another Grammarian Vajapyayana on the other hand argues that words, including proper names, refer to Jati or class or universal.

Panini seems to leave the question open-ended.

But, Kumarilabhatta of the Mimamsa School argues when we utter a word we are at once referring to at least seven characteristics (Vastuni) associated with it. Let’s say when one utter ‘Bull’ (Gauh) , that expression  points to : Jati the whole class ; Vyakti – individual or particular; Sambandha– the relation between the two; Samudha– the collection of such elements; Linga-gender; Karaka- the relation that the term has with the verb (kriya-pada) or activity associated with it; and Samkhya– number , singular or plural.

With regard to the nature of the meaning of a word, Bhartrhari speaks in terms of its general or universal (jati) and its relative or specific (vyakti) connotations. Bhartrhari says that every word first of all means the class (jati) of that word. For instance; the word ‘cow’ initially refers to the general class of all that is in the form of cow. Later, it is implied to refer to its particular form (vyakti) . Thus, what is universal is then diversified into relative or a particular form.  Bhartrhari then extends his hypothesis to the field of philosophy- Advaita. He says; the universal (Brahman) appears as relative or specific limited. It is ultimately the Brahman (Sabdatattva) that is at the root of  all the words  and their  meaning (Artha) .


The Problem of Multiple Meanings

Generally, the notion of meaning is stratified into three or four types. The first is the primary meaning. If this is inappropriate in the given context, then one moves to a secondary meaning. Beyond this is the suggested meaning, which may or may not be the same as the meaning intended by the speaker. Specific conditions under which these different varieties are understood are discussed by the Schools of Grammar.

Bhartrhari points out   that a word can carry multiple meanings; and that the Grammarian should explain, in some way, how only one of those meanings is conveyed at a time or is apt in a given context.

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

In the case of words carrying multiple meanings, the meaning which is in common usage (prasiddhi) is considered by Bhartrhari   as its primary meaning. The secondary meaning of a word normally requires a context for its understanding. Usually, the secondary meaning of a word is implied when the word is used for an object other than it normally denotes, as for example, the metaphorical use of the word.

Now, according to Indian Poetics, a word has three functions: it signifies or denotes (abhida); it indicates (lakshana); and it suggests (vyanjana).

The meaning that is comprehended immediately after the word is uttered is its primary meaning (mukhya-artha). The meaning thus conveyed and its relation to the next word and its own meaning is a mutual relation of the signifier and the signified (vachya-vachaka). The power that creates the relation among words is Abhida-vyapara, the power of denotation or sense. The suggestive power of the word is through Vyanjana-artha.

The meaning of a word or a sentence that is directly grasped in the usual manner is Vakyartha (denotation or literal sense); and, the power of the language which conveys such meaning is called Abidha-vritti (designating function). It is the principal function of the word .The primary sense Vakyartha is the natural (Svabhavokti) and is the easily comprehended sense of the word.

In certain cases where a particular word is not capable of conveying the desired sense, another power which modifies that word to produce the fitting or suitable meaning is called Lakshana-vritti (indicative function). Such secondary sense (lakshana) could even be called an unnatural meaning (Vakrokti) of the word.


There are certain other peculiar situations:

There is the complicated question of words having similar spelling; but having different pronunciations and conveying different meanings (homograph). Such words have been the concern of Grammarian from ancient times onwards.  Some argue such cases should, technically, be treated as different words with similar pronunciation and similar meaning. But, some Grammarians point out that there are, in fact, no true Homonyms. They do differ, at least slightly, either in the way they are pronounced or their usage or relevance.

 [If someone says saindhavam anaya, it might mean the ‘bringing of a horse’ or ‘bringing salt’. The exact meaning of the term saindhava is to be determined according to the intention of the speaker uttered in a given context,]

There is also the issue of Dyotya-artha  (co-signified) as when two entities are jointly referred by using the conjunctive term such as  ‘and’  or ‘or’ (cha; Va). It is said; the particles such as ‘and’, ‘or’ do not, by themselves, carry any sense if they are used independently. They acquire some context and significance only when they are able to combine (samucchyaya) two or more entities of the similar character or of dissimilar characters.


Artha in art

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

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

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


Artha in Arthashastra

Artha sastra

In the Arthashatra ascribed to Kautilya, the term Artha means more than ‘wealth’ or ‘material well being’ that follows the Dharma. There are numerous interpretations of Artha in the context of Kautilya’s work.

Here, Artha is an all-embracing term having a verity of meanings. It includes many shades and hues of the term : material wellbeing of the people and the State (AS:15.1.1); economy and livelihood of the people ; economic efficiency of the State in all fields of activity including agriculture and commerce(AS:1,4.3) . It also includes Rajanithi; the ‘politics’; and the management of the State. Artha, here, is the art of governance in its widest sense.

But, all those varied meanings aim at a common goal; have faith in the same doctrine; and, their authority is equal or well balanced. The purpose of life was believed to be, four-fold, viz. the pursuit of prosperity, of pleasure and attainment of liberation (Artha, Kama, Moksha); all in accordance with the Dharma prescribed for each stage of life.

That is because; there is a fear that the immoderate pursuit of material advantage would lead to undesirable and ruinous excesses. And therefore, Artha must always be regulated by the superior aim of Dharma, or righteousness.


To start with, Artha is interpreted as sustenance, employment or livelihood (Vrtti) of earth-inhabitants. It also is said to refer to means of acquisition and protection of earth.

 [Manusyanam Vrtti –arthaha manushyavathi bhomir-arthyarthah –KA .15.1-2]

Artha is also taken to mean material well-being or wealth. It is one of the goals in human life. Here, it is with reference to the individual, his well being and his prosperity in life. That perhaps is the reason Artha, in the text, is taken as Vrtti or sustenance or occupation or means of livelihood of people (Manushyanam Vrtti).

It is said; such Vrtti was primarily related to the three-fold means of livelihood – agriculture; animal husbandry and trade – through which men generally earn a living.


Arthashatra is also concerned with the general well-being of the earth and its inhabitants. And, since the State is directly charged with the responsibility of acquiring, protecting and managing the territory and its subjects, the Arthashastra necessarily deals with statecraft, economy and defence of the land and its people.

In the older references, Arthashastra is described as the science of politics and administration. But, in the later times, it came to be referred to as DandaNitishastra or Rajaniti -shastra / Raja -dharma.

But Arthashastra is more comprehensive. It includes all those aspects and more.


In the concluding section of his work, Kautilya says ‘the source of livelihood of the people is wealth’. Here, the wealth of the nation is both the territory of the Sate and its inhabitants who follow a variety of occupations (AS: 15.1.1). The State or the Government has a crucial responsibility in ensuring the stability and the material wellbeing of the nation as a whole as also of its individual citizens. Therefore, an important aspect of Arthashastra is the ‘science of economics’, which includes starting of productive ventures, taxation, revenue collection and distribution, budgets and accounts.

The ruler’s responsibilities in the internal administration of the State are threefold: raksha, protection of the Sate from external aggression; Palana, maintenance of law and order within the State; and, Yogakshema, safeguarding the welfare of the people and their future generations.

Kautilya cautions that a judicious balance has to be maintained between the welfare and comfort of the people on one hand and augmenting the resources of the State on the other through taxes, levies , cess etc. The arrangement for ensuring this objective presupposes – maintenance of law and order and adequate, capable , transparent  administrative machinery.

It is also said that the statecraft, which maintains the general social order should take adequate measures to prevent anarchy.

Apart from ensuring collection of revenue there have also laws to avoid losses to the State and to prevent abuse of power and embezzlement by the employees of the State. These measures call for enforcement of laws (Dandanithi) by means of fines, punishments etc. The Tax payers as also the employees of the state machinery are subject to Dandanithi.

The king was believed to be responsible as much for the correct conduct (achara) of his subjects, and their performing the prescribed rites of expiation (prayaschitta) as for punishing them, when they violated the right of property or committed a crime. The achara and prayaschitta sections of the smrti cannot accordingly be put outside the “secular ” law.


Arthashatra prescribes how the ruler should protect his territory. This aspect of protection (Palana) covers principally, acquisition of territory, its defence, relationship with similar other/rival rulers (foreign-policy), and management of state-economy and administration of state machinery.

Since the safety of the State and its people from aggression by rival states or enemies is of great importance, the King will also have to know how to deal with other Kings using all the four methods (Sama, Dana, Bedha and Danda) ; that is,  by friendly negotiations; by strategies ; as also by war-like deterrents. Thus, to maintain an army and be in preparedness becomes an integral part of ‘science of economics’, the Arthashastra.



B.Tatparya or intention

Tatparya [lit. the about which; Tat (that) +Para (object of intension)] is described as the intention or the desire of the speaker (vak-turiccha); and also as the gist, the substance or the purport of the meaning intended to be conveyed by the speaker. The context plays a very important role in gathering the apt or the correct Tatparya of an utterance (sabdabodha) or a sentence in a text. The contextual factors become particularly relevant when interpreting words or sentences that are ambiguous or carry more than one meaning.

It is said; in the case of metaphors or the figures-of- speech, the intended meaning (Tatparya) is gathered not by taking the literal meaning of each of its individual words but by grasping the overall intention of the expression in the given context (sabda-bodha).

The Mimamamsa and Nyaya Schools which take the sentence to be a sequence of words, relay on Tatparya to explain how the relevant meaning is obtained from a collection of words having mutual relation. Each word in a sentence carries its own meaning; but a string of unconnected isolated words cannot produce a unified meaning. Tatparya, broadly, is the underlying idea or the intention of a homogeneously  knit sentence,  in a particular context, that is required to be understood.

The Mimamsa lays down a framework for understanding the correct meaning of a sentence: denotation (Abhida) – purport (Tatparya) – indication (Lakshana), where by the power of denotation one comprehends the general idea of the sentence; by the power of purport one understands its special or apt sense; and, by the power of indication one grasps the suggested meaning (Dhvani) of the sentence.

According to The Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 5: The Philosophy of the Grammarians edited by Harold G. Coward and  K. Kunjunni Raja ;  the meaning of a sentence can be considered from two standpoints: from that of the speaker and from that of the listener. The general approach of the West has been from the speaker’s point of view. The Indian approach has been mainly from the listener’s point of view.

In a normal speech situation there can be five different aspects of the meaning of an utterance: (1) what is in the mind of the speaker when he makes the utterance; (2) what the speaker wants the listener to understand; (3) what the utterance actually conveys ;(3) what the listener understands as the meaning of the utterance; and (5) what is in the mind of the listener on hearing the utterance.

In a perfect linguistic communication, all the five factors must correspond. But, due to various causes there are bound to be differences that might disturb a perfect communication.

Let’s say that when the speaker is uttering a lie, he clearly intends to misdirect the listener. Here, what is in the mind of the speaker is different from what is conveyed to the listener. Even otherwise, quite often what the listener understands as the meaning of the utterance might be different from what the speaker intends to convey. The problem could be caused either by the lack of expressive power of the speaker or the inability of the listener  to understand; or it could be both.

Here, what is in the mind of the speaker before he speaks and what is in the mind of the listener after he hears are both intangible. They cannot be objectively ascertained with certainty. It is only what is said explicitly that can be objectively   analyzed into components of syllables, words and sentences. It however does not mean that the other aspects or components of the entire body of communication are less important.


C. Shakthi (power of expression)

The power of word (sabda-shakthi) is that through which it expresses, indicates or suggests its intended meaning. The term Shakthi is also understood as the relation that exists between word (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha) – (sabda-artha-sambandha). This relation is considered to be permanent and stable.

The understanding of the relationship between word and its meaning is called vyutpatti. Salikanatha (Ca.8th century) ,  a Mimamsa philosopher  belonging to the Prabhakra School , in his Prakarana-pancika  lists  eight means for such  comprehension of the meaning of the words. They are: (i) grammar; (ii) comparison;  (iii) dictionary;  (iv) words of a trustworthy person;  (v) action;  (vi) connotation of the sentence; (vii) explanation;  and,  (viii) proximity of a word, the meaning of which is already established.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Continued in Part Three




 Sources and References

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

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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Six

Continued from Part Five

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


Can Kavya be defined?

It is said; Adi Kavi Valmiki after pronouncing his first (Adi) Sloka cried out in amazement; what is this that is uttered by me (Kim idam vyahtham maya …!). His exclamation – Kim idam – what is this? – is a perpetual question in Kavya-shastra and, has prompted endless debates over the centuries.

What, then, is this wonderful thing called Kavya?

Many have tried to explain what Kavya is?

The following explanations  of Kavya , as put forward by various scholars, is quite interesting:

: – Saba- arthau -sahitau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning (Bhamaha, Kavyalankara 1.6);

: – Nanu Sabda-arthau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning (Rudrata, Kavyalamkara 2.1);

:- Tad adosau Sabda-arthau sagunya alamkriti punah kvapti – this poetry is word and meaning , without blemishes, adorned with excellences , sometimes without the Alamkaras, figurative expressions.(Mammata , Kavyaprakasa 1.4);

:- Adosau sagunau sa-alamkarau cha sabda-arthau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning , without blemishes, furnished with excellences and Alamkara figures of speech ( Hemachandra , Kavyanushasana  1) ;

:- Sadhu-sabda-artha-samdarbham  guna-alamkara-bhushitam , sphuta- itirara- sopetam Kavyam  kurvita kirtaye – Let the poet ,with the object of gaining fame, compose Kavya intertwining word and meaning , and decorated with excellences and figures (Alamkara) and other poetic  sentiments in a clear style  (Vagbhata , Vagbhata-alamkara 1.2);

: – Sabda-arthau- nirdoshou sagunau prayah alamkarau Kavyam – Poetry is word and meaning; without faults, furnished with excellences and – often – with Alamkara, figurative speech (Vagbhata, Vagbhata-alamkara 1; and Kuntaka, Vakroktivijaya 1.7);]


In addition, Kuntaka came up with a detailed explanation. According to him, the word (Sabda) alone is not the body of poetry, but it is the happy fusion of word and sound which stands for ‘the body’ :  Sabdartyha sahitau kavyam. Kuntaka says the word (Sabda) and sense (Artha) , blended like two friends, creating each other, make Kavya delightful

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

Further, Kuntaka says that the Real word is that which is chosen out of a number of possible synonyms and expresses the desired sense most aptly.  And, the real sense is that which by its own alluring nature causes pleasure in the mind of the Sahrudaya  (person of taste and culture)

Sabdau vivaksitartha kavachakautheyshu sathvapi I arthah sahrudaya ahladkari sva spanda sundarah II V.J.1.9

The togetherness of the word and sense is nothing but a captivating state which creates in the mind of the reader or the listener poetic delight which is exactly what is desired by the poet himself, neither less nor more

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


Then again, the scholars of the later period attempted to come up with a technical ‘Definition’ of Kavya , in place of  ‘explanations’. When the Poetic scholars set out to define Kavya, they set for themselves certain norms, parameters and ground rules. And, also decided to keep out the Drama (which they considered it as Agama-antara, a different tradition) out of the purview of Kavya, for the limited purpose of arring at a definition; and, similarly, the non-literary forms of Kavya were also kept aside.

According to the rules so framed:  any definition of Kavya should be free from three kinds of flaws (Dosha): it should not be too terse, covering too little (A-vyapti); it should not be too verbose, saying more than what is needed (Ati-vyapti);  and , it should nor be improbable or incompetent (A-samartha).  Therefore, any definition of Kavya had to be brief, precise and easy to understand; it should be definite without shadow of alternatives; and, should, as far as possible, be free from technical terms that need further explanations.

But, Kavya, I reckon, cannot of course be defined with precision;  or be  presented in a capsule as a well knit, and packed accurate pellet of information.

Each generation of Poet-Scholars, right from Bhamaha to Jagannatha Pandita tried to define Kavya. They, at best, tried to draw its clear picture. Their attempts could be termed as explanations, circumscribed by their understanding, rather than as definitions.

The explanations offered by those scholars, nevertheless, help us to gain some insight into the nature and role of elements of poetry; and their mutual relationships. All those scholars base their explanations in certain technical terms and elements (Kavya-agama) each having its own connotation: Sabda, Artha, Rasa, Alamkara, Riti, Dhvani, Vakrokti, Dosha, and, Dhvani.

Bhamaha (6th century) said:  ‘Kavya is where the Sabda (word) and Artha (its meaning) are harmoniously combined – Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam .But, that was not regarded by many as an ideal explanation, since it does not specifically pertain to Kavya; and can  be extended to cover even non-literary or technical works.

Bhamaha then extended his explanation to bring in the element of Alamkara; and, said: Kavya is the happy fusion of Sabda words and Artha which expresses Alamkaras relating to them – Sabda-abhideya-alamkara-bhedadhistam dvayam tu nah I Sabda-Artha sahitau Kavyam (KA.1.15). It was not clear whether Bhamaha meant Alamkara as the poetic principle or as the ornamental figures of speech. Further, the term Alamkara itself needs to be explained. Hence, this definition was not considered ideal.

Dandin says the body of Kavya is a group of sounds which indicates the desired or the happy aim intended by the poet – Sariram tavad ista-artha vyvachinna padavali (KA 1.10b). Here, the term ista-artha the desired effect or the desired import of the poet is rather too vague; and needs to be explained. Further, Dandin seemed to be defining the body of the Kavya rather than the Kavya itself. And, Padavali – the group of words – by itself and not accompanied by sense is not of great merit.

Vamana said Kavya is the union of sound and sense which is free from poetic flaws and is adorned with Gunas (excellence) and Alamkaras (ornamentation or figures of speech). Here, it was pointed out that the poetic excellence (Gunas) might be an essential aspect of a Kavya; but, the same cannot be said about Alamkara, the figure of speech.

Then again, Vamana said; the essence of Kavya is Riti (Ritir Atma Kavyasya). Riti represents for Vamana the particular structure of sounds (Vishista-pada-rachana Ritihi) combined with poetic excellence (Vishesho Gunatma). According to Vamana, Riti is the going or the flowing together of the elements of a poem – Rinati gacchati asyam guna iti riyate ksaraty asyam vanmaddhu-dhareti va ritih (Vamana KSS).  But, Vamana’s definition involves technical terms that need to be commented upon offering explanations. Hence, it is not an ideal one.

Anandavardhana‘s definition of Kavya involves two statements: Sabda-Artha sariram tavath vakyam; and, Dhvanir Atma Kavyasa – the body of poetry is the combination of words and sounds; and; Dhavni, the suggestive power is the soul of the poetry. Anandavardhana talks in terms of the body and soul of the Kavya. And he also refers to the internal beauty of a meaningful construction of words in the Kavya. But, Dhvani is a highly technical term, needing much explanation. This definition again   was not treated as an ideal one.

Kuntaka defined Kavya on the basis of Vakrokti, a concept which he himself put forward.  According to him, Kavya is the union of sound, sense and arranged in a composition which consists Vakrokti (oblique expressions of the poet), delighting its sensible reader or listener – (Sabda-Artha sahitau vakra Kavi vakya vyapara shalini I bandhe vyavasthitau Kavya tat ahlada karini VJ 1.7). Kuntaka also said that  the word and sense, blended like two friends, creating each other, make Kavya  delightful – Sama-sarva gunau santau sahhrudaveva sangathi I parasparasya shobhayai sabdartau bhavato thatha  II .  These definitions too are not acceptable because Vakrokti, like Alamkara, Riti and Dhvani is again a technical term.

According to Mammata, Kavya is that which is constructed by word and sentence which are (a) faultless (A-doshau) , (b) possessed of excellence (Sugunau) , and (c) in which rarely a distinct figure of speech  (Alamkriti) may be absent. This definition was attacked by many, pointing out that it is impossible to compose a Kavya without a single blemish; and not a single Kavya would satisfy Mammata’s requirement. Further, it was remarked that the adjective Alamkriti doesn’t seem to be quite appropriate as it merely enhances the quality of a Kavya, but is not an essential aspect of Kavya. And, Mammata has employed number of technical terms like : Dosha, Guna, and Alamkara , which again need to be explained ; and , it also includes an alternate view like ‘Alamkriti punah kvapi. Thus Mammata’s definition was also rejected.

Vishwanatha briefly defined Kavya as Vakyam rasathmakam Kavyam – Kavya is sentences whose essence is Rasa. But, here, Rasa is a technical term which has multiple explanations. And, many said Kavya cannot merely be sentences or collection of words; there has to a happy fusion of word (Sabda) and sense (Artha). Hence, this definition also fell short.

Jagannatha Pandita defined Kavya as: Ramaniya-artha prathipadakah sabdam kavyam ; poetry is the  combination of words that provides delight. Here, Ramaniyata denotes not only poetic delight Rasa, pertaining to the main variety of Dhvani-kavya, but also to all the ingredients of Kavya like Vastu-Dhvani Kavya; Alamkara-Dhvani –Kavya, Guni-bhutha –vyangmaya-kavya; Riti; Guna, Alamkara, Vakrokti etc.

This definition covering all aspects of poetics covers  a wider field than Rasa which is limited to certain criteria. Moreover, the word Ramaniyata is not a technical term, but it covers all the essentials of a Kavya.

Jagannatha Pandita’s definition of Kavya as : Ramaniya-artha prathipadakah sabdam , seems almost nearer to the ideal.

But, I reckon, Kavya is best left un-defined, not put into a straightjacket.   Leaving it to the delight and enterprise of each reader or listener to work out his own levels of appreciation, derive the sense he sees as the best and enjoy the experience of Kavya in his own way seems to be better approach.


 Cause of poetry (Kavya hetu)

According to Rajasekhara , the poet is endowed with Karayitri Prathibha the creative genius while the reader or listener is to have Bhavayitri Prathibha the faculty for appreciation of good poetry; obviously, the poet posses both the faculties.

The Kavi Prathibha the creative intuition is the essential without which no creative art is possible.

The scholars have tried to present other factors that might be responsible for outflow of poetry (Kavya hethu).

Dandin mentions three causes of poetry: Naisargika Prathibha natural or inborn genius; Nirmala-shastra –jnana clear understanding of the Shastras; Amanda Abhiyoga ceaseless application and honing ones faculties.

Rudrata and Kuntaka also mention three causes:  Shakthi, the inborn intellectual brilliance; Utpatti, the accomplished knowledge of the texts and literary works; and, Abhyasa, constant practice of composing poetic works.

Vamana says three causes of poetry are: Loka, knowledge of the worldly matters, norms of behavior; Vidya. learning of various disciplines; and Prakirna  , miscellaneous ,  that is six causes : Lakshajnata , study of the texts; Abhiyoga, practice ;Vrddha seva , instructions from the learned experienced persons;  Avekshana, the   use of appropriate words avoiding  blemishes;  Prathibhana, the  inborn poetic genius ; and Avadhana, concentration or single pointed devotion to learning and composing.

Mammata puts forth the following as the three causes of poetry, while doing so he included the causes mentioned by Vamana: inborn intuitive power; proficiency in worldly conduct as also the study of scriptures and standard literary works; and, practice of composing poetic works through the help of some persons proficient in this art.

In the ‘causes of poetry’ (Kavya hethu) mentioned above, while Utpatti and Abhyasa stand for  the constant learning-effort  and refinements that polish the poetry , the terms Shakthi or Prathibha,  is explained in various ways.

According to Rudrata, Shakthi or Prathibha is that essential factor through which the poet spontaneously presents any subject matter that haunts him or occupies his mind, using appropriate expressions.  This explanation seems to  lay more stress on the external form of poetry. Therefore, Bhatta-tauta brought in the most essential internal factor ‘ He explained Prathibha , in his often quoted words,  as the genius of the intellect which creates new and innovative modes of expressions in art poetry –  Nava-navonvesha –shalini prajna prathibha mathah.

Vamana said, Prathibha is the seed for creating Kavya : Kavitva-bijam prathibhanam (K.S.13.6)

Kuntaka and Mammata tried to explain the very basis of the Prathibha. Kuntaka said: the faculty of creating a poetic work is an unique intellectual power, which gains maturity due to the inborn and acquired impressions (Samskara paripaka prouda prathibha) gathered in poet’s life-time.

Mammata, adding, said: Shakthi is the intellectual power that could be said to be  a sort of a mass of  impressions serving as a seed for sprouting of poetic work: Shakthih kavitva bija-rupah samskara vishesha (Kavyaprakasa 1.3)

Both these scholars suggest that Prathibha or Shakthi is essentially an inborn talent or genius; and, it cannot be acquired artificially or by mere hard work.

Hemachandra also accepts Prathibha as the prime cause of poetry; but says, that such essential inborn poetic gift should be refined and honed or chiseled by intellectual application (Utpatti) and constant practice (Abhyasa) .

The other factors that go into creation of a good Kavya include Utpatti and Abhyasa. Utpatti stands for detailed study of literarily works and scriptures as also for knowledge of worldly matters. Through it, the natural (Sahaja) or inborn Prathibha gets refined, precise and capable of understanding the essentials of poetry as also of life. And, Abhyasa is constant practice of writing and creating poetry.

The general view appears to be that Prathibha is the most essential factor for creation of Kavya (Kavya hetu) but it needs to be refined and polished by Utpatti and Abhyasa.

Then there is also the question whether the cause of poetry (Kavya hetu) could be the same as the fruits of benefits of poetry (Kavya prayojana) , such as achieving  riches or fame or poetic pleasure etc. The opinion, in general, appears to be negative. The reason adduced is that , the Kavya hetu the cause of poetry  is prior to composition of poetry, while Kavya prayojana , the fruits of poetry come after the Kavya is composed and read by others.  But, at times, the fruits of a Kavya may act as an incentive and spur the poet to compose more and better poetry.


The purpose of Kavya

While the earlier theorists on poetics – Bhamaha , Dandin and Vamana-  state that the objectives of poetry are the renown (Kirti) won by the poem and its poet; and , enjoyment (Priti) enjoyed by the readers or the listeners of the poetry. The later sets of critics add instructions (upadesha) as one of the other virtues of a good poetry.

While composing poetry, a poet experiences aesthetic pleasure as a poet. And, after that, while reading or witnessing his own composition he feels aesthetic delight as a Shrudaya.  But, in a situation when he does not feel aesthetic pleasure due to some reason, he is neither a poet nor a reader, but an ordinary person.

The purpose of Kavya is to communicate, and to communicate effectively. The ultimate aim of poetry is to provide a sort of aesthetic rupture – Rasanubhava. Its said; Sadah parnivrtutti, the unalloyed joy is the foremost purpose of poetry . The suggestions offered in a persuasive manner, the kantha samhitopadesha comes only next.

These experiences are related both to the poet and to the Sahrudaya, the reader or spectator , either directly or indirectly.





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

The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 By Harold G. Coward



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Posted by on July 26, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Five

Continued from Part Four

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

Language of Kavya

Poetry is often concerned with the day-to-day experiences and speaks in the common language. But, when those words and expressions walk into poetry, they acquire a totally different nature. The common words (prasiddha) are transformed into suggestive expressions that are less known outside of poetry (a-prasiddha). This is akin to the movements in classical dance where a simple thing such as walking as in common life (loka dharmi) is transformed into idioms of dance expressions (natya dharmi). Similarly, in poetry, If the common language is understood by all (loka dharmi), the poetic expressions are relished by Sahrdaya, the cultured ones (kavya dharmi).

As regards the distinctions between language of poetry and the language of everyday, the earliest modes of such distinctions were of course the meter (chhandas), enlivening of the text with innovative and decorative phrases (Alamkara) along with detailed descriptions of the emotions as also of the surroundings. Kavya also makes abundant use of metaphors; the repetition of conventional patterns and images; and, of long winding unusual expressions. And, naturally, such poetry does not yield itself at the first glance or reading. It needs to be savored slowly in small measures, over and over again.

The technique of poetry makes use of different devices in various ways. But, to ensure that poetry retains its own natural language-flow, usually, it   avoids use of banal words.  In order to just avoid the over-used words, the poets often try being innovative and create words, phrases and expressions that are striking and rather unusual. The various forms of metaphors and similes thus created leads to a broadening of the perspective and produces a multiple view of the subject in an artistic manner. Not only the poets reveal familiar subjects in a new light, but they also reveal truths that hitherto were not quite obvious. They also unfold relationships and beauties that are either not present in ordinary life or else remain unrecognized.


Kuntaka (10th century) in his Vakrokti-jivita finds Bhamaha’s definition of Kavya – Sabdarthau sahitau Kavyam– ‘Poetry is composed of word and meaning together’ – rather inadequate. Kuntaka remarks:  the mere fact that word and meaning exist together cannot be the defining characteristic of poetic expression; for it is what characterizes all linguistic expressions whether be it prose, poetry or whatever; no linguistic expression is possible without it.

Therefore, Kuntaka observes, the language of poetry is a special kind of Sahitya – Visistam evah sahityam abhipretam.  Its uniqueness consists in the fact that the word and the meaning have equal importance: – Anyu-nana-atiriktatva. They ‘vie with each other’ – paraspara sparsparditva; they are united like two intimate friends – suhrudva iva samgatau; and,  they  delight in  the beauty of each other – parasparasya sobhaya bhavataha.  

The relation between words in Kavya is indeed unique .  Their  harmony resides  in  the creative genius  (pratibha) of the poet ; and, is  realized in an inspired  poetic instant (tat-kalo-likhita)  while on the sublime  road of poetry (alaukika kavya-marge)  i.e. of poetic activity (kavi-karma-vartmani) . Such inspired poetry enchants the minds of the sensitive readers or listeners (chetana-chamatkarita, sahrudaya-ahladakarita). Although several other words might possibly be  available for expressing a single  idea, the expression chosen by a gifted poet  is exceptional and irreplaceable- sabdo vivakshit-arthai-kava-vacahako ‘nyesu satsv api.

Kuntaka illustrates how there is accord not only between the words and their meanings, but also between the words themselves; and between the meanings themselves – in fact, among all the constituent elements poetry.  He gives examples from the works of great poets such as Magha and Bhavabhuti.

Kuntaka shows how such accord results in the musical quality of poetry.  He remarks; like music, poetry is that which, by virtue of the beauty of tits expressions, its composition, fills the hearts of the connoisseurs with delight instantly, even when its meaning has not been pondered:

aparyalocite ‘py arthe bandha-saundarya-sampada / gitavad dhrdayahliidarh tadvidam vidadhati yat / /


Poetry is a more liberated form of expression as compared to prose. One cannot easily define poetry.  Poetry discards the rigidity, the disciplines and the correctness of the structure prescribed by the grammar. Poetry enjoys the voluptuous malleability and freedom with words and sounds; it bends and twists them in any number of ways. Its concern is not so much with the correctness of form than with the sensitivity, refinement and brevity in expression of a range of thoughts, feelings and human emotions of joy, sorrow, grief, hope, despair, anger and fulfilment.

Poetry can be subtle and suggestive. The imagery that poetry evokes can hardly be captured in words. What is unsaid in poetry is more evocative than the explicit.

Grammar (Vyakarana) concerns itself with the arrangement of words into sentences. It does not, however, account for the pattern of meanings. The poetry on the other hand is much concerned with the arrangement of words. But, it does strive to convey a meaning. The poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It in fact goes beyond regulated regimens.

Poetry, in the Indian traditions, is often called ‘vyakaranasya puccham’ – the tail piece or the appendix of Grammar. The Grammar determines the correctness of the words and their arrangement within a sentence. The poetry is however more concerned with the appropriateness and mutual relations among the words.  The poetry, as far as possible, follows Grammar. But , when it find the rules of Grammar too constrained or suffocating , it switches over to other means of expressions that are more appropriate or conducive to its natural flow; or , it invents its own means. At times, when those inventive expressions of poetic suggestions are so charming and become so popular, they walk into Grammar per se.  Scholars like Nagesha Bhatta say that Grammarians must necessarily accept (svikara avashyakah) the power of suggestion (Dhvani) – vyakarananamapi etat svikara avashyakah).

 Thus, Poetry has the power to set us free from the limited confines of our own set rules. Poetry represents the world as a man chooses to see it. Poetry is Truth, but not necessarily reality.

Poetry is a search for syllables to express an unknown. It is direct and universal. It appeals to the heart. It finds its echo in another heart. Poetry is the heart talking through the mind.


The complex web of words and meanings capable of being transformed into aesthetic experience is said to have certain characteristic features. These are said to be Gunas and Alamkaras. These – words and meanings; Alamkara; Gunas; and, Rasa – though seem separable are in fact fused into the structure of the poetry. Poetics accounts for the nature of these features and their inter-relations

That is to say that poetry creates for itself a language which has a character of its own (Riti, Marga). It might, if it so chooses, depart from the ordinary day-to-day common usage. With that the poem aims at a definite stylistic effect (vishista). The poet arranges his material or the building-bricks in a non-standard fashion, in a manner that is different from the ordinary usage. As Vamana points out, it is the creative process that involves using word-order (pada-charana) in peculiar or specialized (Visista) ways that possess certain characteristics (Kavya-alamkara). Vamana puts forth the view that such special characteristics (Visesha) of a Kavya are mainly derived from the fact that the poet deliberately attempts to create a fresh or ingenious style of depiction with his unique expressions. The poetic language wears a clock or a veil, so to say.

This unique virtue of poetry provides space for experimentation. For instance; Bhamaha indulged in vakrokti, a twisted way of expressing a thing; Dandin brought in Samdhi-guna; and Udbhata introduced the secondary expressions (amukhya-vyapara). Such hitherto unknown or unusual terms necessarily called for explanations or indication (lakshana) in order to be understood.

In the process, Vamana and others lay much emphasis on the style (Riti or Marga); and, regard it as the most essential virtue of a Kavya. But, such views are not generally accepted, because Riti is but one among the ten traditionally recognized essential elements of a Kavya; and Riti(style ) is not everything that one looks for in a Kavya.

This has reference to the mistaken notion that Kavya is all about high-flown language. For instance; Bhatti takes pride in stating that his poems would not be intelligible to people who are not scholars. This wrong perspective arose probably from the fact that the grammatical and lexicographical sciences as well as the philosophical discipline had attained a high water-mark of respect with the learned people who alone could be the judges of poetry.  It had also something to do with the vain culture of Court-poetry where the rival poets threw challenges at each other in the form of abstruse verses. The failure to solve the puzzle-like verses invariably ended in humiliation.

This high-brow and twisted view of poetic language however, was not universal. Bhamaha urged that kavya should be written in such a manner as to be intelligible even to those who have no learning or general education. Later, Vamana who examined the whole issue said that the poetic beauty does not exist merely in twisted or unusual expressions; but, in the intrinsic merit (guna) of the poetry itself. Then he said, the ultimate object of good poetry in rasa, the enjoyment.

Thus, the general view is that in order to enable his text not only to convey   but also to dress its narration in an artistic manner , the poet might  reasonably  use complex expressions and  structures. But yet, he should not lose sight of the fact that the natural language is the foundation of good  poetry.

The popularity of Ramayana among the common people is the standing testimony to this truth. In spite of the high regard for finer poetry, Indians have always considered the simpler Epic of Ramayana as an ideal Kavya.


The poetic way of expression is employed both by the literary and the non-literary works.  The non-literary works though in poetic form are not regarded as Kavya per se. For instance; presentation of Astronomy in Varahamihira’s Brahmasamhita; or of Algebra in Bhaskara’s Leelavathi contain many verses, beautiful descriptions of nature and of poetic merit that they almost are Kavya. Similarly, Suryapandita’s work on Astronomy (Bhaskarabhushana) has beautiful verses praying to Sun god.  There are also numbers of philosophical works elucidated in poetry.

Even in the non-technical works, the materials of Shastra and Itihasa very often overlap. The materials of Shastra can appear in itihasa, as they frequently do in the Mahabharata or in a kavya. Similarly, the materials of Itihasa can appear in kavya, as in the Harshacharita of Banabhatta.  And, many masters of systematic thought across the religious and philosophical spectrum wrote kavya, often very un-philosophical kavya.

Sanskrit Poetics approves role of Kavya as a vehicle for imparting instructions. But, Kavya need not always deal with learned matters. In fact, too much learning will affect the appeal of a poem. It might turn preachy. There are therefore short poems or couplets that in a capsule form impart moral codes (Niti), wisdom and erotic (Sringara). The most well known poems of this genre are Bhartrhari’s sets of stanzas on Sringara and Vairagya.

Although the words used in Kavya and in the non-lterary Shastra works are the same they do not evoke the same joy or other emotions

Kshemendra makes a distinction between Kavya and Shastra; that is between the purely poetic works and other subject oriented works that are in poetic form. And he also mentions of works that fall in the intermediate zone: Shastra-kavya – poetry that is also technical; and, Kavya-shastra – a technical work that is also poetry.

Basically, Shastra is informative in its character and its style is textual; Kavya, on the other hand, is complex in its structure, employing a language of its own, embellished with artistic metaphors, similes and unusual expressions.

The non-literary work might use, within reasonable bounds, flowery or artistic language or aim at achieving a definite stylistic effect (vishista).But; it would be a mistake if it gets its priorities wrong. It should be more focused on its primary objective which is imparting information, instructions and knowledge, than on seemingly artistic flourish of its language. That would be, as they say, counting the trees but loosing the woods, which is laying premium on minor detail but missing the big picture.


Raja Bhoja (1011–1055) states: another way by distinguishing kavya from ordinary language is in terms of directness. Ordinary language is the direct language of Shastra and everyday life; kavya, in contrast, is the indirect language abounding in descriptions, but, its statements do not prescribe action. Its way of saying is  indirect , indirection (Vakrokti) — an unique manner of expression. .  Raja Bhoja says: Do not read kavya the way you read Shastra, Purana, or the Vedas; do not be concerned (except insofar as it is a source of pleasure) about a breach between what is said and what is really meant; about its relation with an actual world;   and about information or injunction. And do not expect the language of the kavya to be like ordinary language; its purposes are different.

According to Bhoja, all kinds of texts—science, narratives of things, including Shastra and Purana, have the capacity to teach us something by prescribing (Vidhi)  or prohibiting  action (Nishedha) of some sort. Bhoja calls this the educative function. But, Kavya neither prescribes nor prohibits any sort of action; nor does it quote the past authorities in support of its suggestions. It does not expressly enjoin or define appropriate action. Its relevance resides precisely in its own utterances (Ukti). The Shastra and the Vedas act like a master in commanding (Prabhu Samhita) ; the texts of the wise sages are  like a counseling  by a friend in (Mitra Samhita) ;and,  kavya’s Ukti ( utterences) are  like sweet whisperings  of the beloved (Kanta Samhita) . Kavya’s ways are endearing and more persuasive.


The Veda is set apart from the domain of Kavya, for various reasons.   The Vedas impart instructions in regard to true knowledge and right action (Dharmavidhi). Imparting knowledge and instructions are its primary functions; and the question of language, however meticulous, is secondary. The role of language in Veda does not seem to be as crucial as it is in a Kavya. At the same time, Kavya too instructs, in its own way; but without commanding the reader to act in a certain manner.

The Vedas are believed to be intuitive perceptions (Darshana) as envisioned by the seers (Rishi). They are direct; and, its authors transmit their vision, in its pristine purity, perfectly, by expressing exactly what they mean. However, in the kavya, as in everyday life, we often employ metaphorical language, which may give out multiple meanings.  But no such divergence occurs between verbal intention and the Truth as depicted in the texts of the Rishis. .

Elements of kavya are doubtless present in the Veda itself (Sruti) as also in   the Smruti (Vedic texts remembered),    in the narratives of the events that occurred in the past (itihasa), and in ancient lore (purana).  But such poetic elements are incidental to the principal objects of those texts; and, therefore are not of prime importance to their traditional readers or listeners.

There are also other difference between the Vedic poetry and Kavya. The language of the Vedas is different from the classic Sanskrit of the post-Panini era. The imagery and poetic vocabulary too are different. For instance; you do not find in the Samhitas descriptions of young , beautiful  adorable girls through pet idioms that became common in the Kavya works : moon-like or lotus-like face; fleeting eyes of a gazelle; narrow waist; gait like that of a swan etc. There are also no poetic conventions or symbolisms   in the Samhita that speak in terms of: a Chakora bird which is nourished by moon beams; a Chataka bird which feeds on rain-drops; or, Chakravaka which is ever faithful and pining for its partner.

The two ideas seem to be present here:  (i) what makes kavya different from everything else has essentially to do with language itself; (ii)   and, accordingly, literary analysis must center on language. These are two presuppositions that span the entire history of kavya theory and profoundly influenced its production.

A K Warder, in his Indian Kavya Literature (vol. One) explains the distinctions between the literary and non-literary works, particularly those on philosophical subjects. And, the dictions he mentions can very well cover the technical works:

 “Kavya is distinguished from philosophy and most scriptures, in that it is centered in man. As compared with philosophy, which may also be humanist in outlook, Kavya is an art form, presenting its truths and its comments through images and individual characters. The humanism of Kavya differs from that of the critical and analytical schools of philosophy in its endless riches of concrete details, which aims to present by examples the infinite variety of particular times, places, persons situations and actions. Its subject matter is human experiences of life, accumulated over thousands of years, an epic of humanity which is not available to us in any other form. This experience is presented in terms of human emotions: the reactions of the people to situations in life’.

lotus design

Continued in

Next Part





References and Sources

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock

Indian Kavya Literature (vol. One) by A K Warder

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Posted by on July 25, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part Two


Continued from Part One

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

 Kavya – Rise and Decline



Kavya literally means the creation of a Kavi, which term derived from ‘kru-varne’ denotes one who describes; and, it is generally taken to mean a poet. The term Kavi in the Vedic context, however, meant a Rishi, a Drastara (seer) who through his intuition envisions (Darshana) the true nature of entities and their varied states of being (vicitra-bhava-dharmamsa-tattva-prakhya). Later, according to Yaska, the great Etymologist, the term Kavi came to denote, comprehensively, all those who express themselves through their intuitional (artistic) creations . The creative expression could be through words, color, sculpture, sound, or any other form, so long it flows out of intuition (prathibha) and manifests in an enjoyable form, to the benefit of all beings. Kavitva (poetry) thus , basically ,  encompasses in itself all forms of art expressions.

[ In fact , the concept of Kavi was raised to sublime heights. The Rig Veda addresses the Creator  of the Universe as the Supreme Poet (kavir manishi paribhu swayambhuh) who conceives the grand design and expresses himself spontaneously through his creation. He is the seer, the thinker who expands his consciousness to encompass the entire Universe (Vishwa_rupaani_prathimancha_kavihi). The creator, the kavi, through his all-pervasive consciousness becomes one with his creation. ]

In the later times, the scope of the term Kavi was narrowed down to mean an author who creates Kavya. Here also , it was said that one cannot be a Kavi unless one has the faculty to envision (Darshana) and to see that which is beyond the obvious, lifting the veil of the apparent (Drasta).

Kavya in the sense of poetry during the time of Natyashastra (first or second century BCE) was just an ingredient of Drama.

During the time of Natyashastra, Drama enjoyed the preeminent position; and was respected as being the highest form of art expression. All faculties, right from architecture, stage craft, painting, costumes, makeup and even poetry, music, dance etc were treated as the elements that contribute to a credible dramatic performance. It was only much later that each of these arts developed into independent disciplines gaining more depth and spread.

In the later times, a complete turnaround came about; and, Drama was classified as one of the forms of Kavya. Yet; Drama continued to be the most popular form of entertainment. Kalidasa remarked : ‘Drama, verily, is a feast that is greatly enjoyed by a variety of people of different tastes – Natyam bhinna-ruchir janasya bahuda-apekshym  samaradhanam. And, for some period of time, Drama was treated as the most delightful form of Kavya – Kavyeshu Natakan ramyam. 

Perhaps , the elevation of Drama to the most delightful form of Kavya  followed a sort of gradation of poetic experience. It was said; that to include Prose under Kavya  might sound good as a rhetorical principle.  But, the restrictions of Chhandas, rhyme etc do limit the scope as also the appeal of the prose-Kavyas. And,  for similar reasons , just as the metrical Kavya has advantage over prose, so the ‘recited poem’ and Drama have an advantage over metrical Kavya , as they both enjoy the benefit of the musical effects of the sounds that enhance the  beauty of presentation, and hence  the pleasure of the listener . The Drama scores over the ‘recited poem’ because it has the additional power to bring in the embellishment of spectacular the visual effects; hence, Kavyeshu Natakam ramyam.

But, with the decline of Drama, the Dramaturgy became stagnant after Bharata till about 13th or 14th century, that is until scholars such as Dhanajaya, Sagaranandi, Ramachandra-Gunachadra and Simhabhupa came to its rescue by writing treaties. Among these, Dhananjaya’s Dasa Rupaka is an outstanding work. Dhananjaya condensed Bharata’s vast work; and, treated the whole subject under four broad heads or elements: Vastu (plot); Neta (main character/s); Dasa-rupaka (ten classes or types of plays); and, Rasa (aesthetic enjoyment)

Mammaṭācārya  (11th century) explained that Kavya  meant poetry, prose , drama, music as also  dance  i.e. all those forms of art  which delight  and touch the inner most chord of human sensitivity . That was before; dance and music again branched out.

Kavya is very often translated as poetry. This is rather imprecise, because in Kavya both poetry (Padya) and prose (Gadya) are employed. The two – Padya and Gadya – are also used in Drama , Champu Kavya , as also in technical texts and treatises.

Ideally, Kavya has no restriction of languages or its forms . Kavya need not always have to be in Sanskrit. It could as well be in Prakrit any other group of regional languages, including Sinhalese, Javanese. As the scholar Sheldon Pollock says , the languages of the Kavya  termed such as Sanskrit, Prakrit, Apabhramsa or whatever , all refer to social and linguistic characteristics and not to particular people or places; and , least of all the structure and internsic merit of the work.

[ While on the question of languages, let me digress here for a while :

There is an interesting contrast between the Western and Indian concepts on the question of language.  In the West, one language is used for all purposes. That is in sharp contrast to the Indian practice. A different language for different purposes is the Indian way.  That brings in a greater depth and diversity into the cultural milieu of Indian life.

[For instance; say, in America or England, English is the language that almost everyone speaks at home, on the street, in office; and even in the Church. But, let’s say in Karnataka, one may speak Kannada /Telugu / Tulu/ Konkani etc at home as ‘mother-tongue’; use Kannada in the street; speak and submit application to Government and public offices in Kannada the ‘official language’; transact in English at workplace and with outside world; bargain with the meat vendor in Urdu and with the vegetable vendor in Tamil; sing Hindi movie songs; and, recite mantras and prayers in Sanskrit. ]

In ancient India, while Sanskrit was used for learning traditional texts; for intellectual discourses; and, for reciting mantras, it was the Prakrit that was used for popular music, poetry, dance, informal day-to-day conversations, and for simpler instructions. There was also a practice of composing songs with mix of Sanskrit and Prakrit words. Such compositions were named as Mani-pravala (a mix of gems and coral beads)

The Sanskrit drama too, in an attempt to reflect the everyday social behaviour, adopted a multi-lingual approach. The different characters in the play spoke different languages and dialects depending upon their standing in the court hierarchy or their cultural/ regional background.  

The Arthashastra does not anywhere specify a particular language as suited to statecraft or as the ‘official language’. The Edicts by the Kings were issued both in Sanskrit and in many other popular languages. There was no concept of National language or National literature.

Buddhism and Jainism which arose in the Eastern parts of India adopted primarily the regional languages of Pali and Magadhi for their texts. In fact, Vac as speech or any language was considered sacred, if it conveys noble thoughts or sacred knowledge.

Coming to the present-day India,  with formation of states on the basis of language, we have the three language formula of the Regional language, the official language and the link language. While the Regional languages got bitterly involved in rebelling against the domination of  Hindi , the English language gained greater acceptance in almost every field of activity. Now , English has marginalized all the Indian languages – including Hindi –  not only as the bureaucratic language, but also as the medium of business, administration,  judiciary, scientific studies, medicine, higher education  and every other intellectual writing , speech and media.

An unfortunate collateral damage of this mêlée of Hindi Vs Regional languages has been in the decline in the quality, growth and status of every language of India. In the pre-independence era , literary works in Indian languages and even in the dialects had been rich in quality  and reached great heights   . But, sadly, in the period after Independence , the quality of writing in Indian languages has gone down visibly . In contrast,  the English wiring by Indian authors has excelled and gained  larger readership across the continents.]


In fact, the early phase of the Kavya was dominated by Prakrit which was spread across many regions of India. It is only towards the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century that the Sanskrit Kavya began to flower in earnestness.

To say a few word about Prakrit;  the term is said to be derived from Prakrut, meaning natural (or the original as opposed to Vikrti, the modified) .  Another explanation says that Prakrit is the common name given various dialects which sprang up in the early times  in India from the corruption of Sanskrit (Prakritih , tatra –bhavam tata agatam va Prakritam– Hemachandra 13th century). Prof. E B Cowell who was the Professor of Sanskrit in the University of Cambridge, in the preface to his The Prakrit Prakasha (Prakrit Grammar of Vararuchi ) , Turner & Co, London , 1868 says :

Prakrit almost always uses the Sanskrit roots; its influence being chiefly restricted to alterations and elisions of certain letters in the original word. It everywhere substitutes a slurred or a indistinct pronunciation for the clear and definite utterance of the older tongue; and, continually affects a concurrence of vowels, such as is utterly repugnant to the genius of the Sanskrit.

In any case, Prakrit  was the language of the common people ; spoken by the social and cultural groups, other than  the elite. The earliest known Prakrit Grammar is Prakrita Prakasa ascribed to Vararuchi (first century).

Prakrit is a comprehensive term covering a group of regional languages and dialects.  In Vararuchi’s Grammar, only four varieties of Prakrit are mentioned: Maharastri, Paisachi, Magadhi and Suraseni.   The later Grammarians expanded the list. Prakrit, thus, would include what is now known as Pali (language of the Tripitakas); Magadhi (language of Magadha) and Ardha-Magadhi (language of the Jain texts); Sauraseni (language of the Matura region) ; Lati( language of Lata the southern  region of Gujarat);  Gaudi ( language of Eastern India and Bengal)  and Maharstri (earlier form Marathi) etc.

Because of the lack of strict rules governing these languages they were more relaxed in their nature; and, rather experimental in their usage.

Prakrit was also the language employed in the early centuries of literacy (c. 250 BCE – 250 AD.) for public inscriptions and Prashasti (praise-poems), until it was displaced, rather dramatically and permanently, by Sanskrit.

Then there were Paisachi and Apabhramsa two other forms of Prakrit. Paisachi, as Prof. A K Warder explains, was a dialect which appears to have been current, say between fourth century BCE and first century AD, in the region lying between Avanti (Ujjain) and the Godavari basin.  Besides that two other explanations are offered to indicate the sources of Prakrit  : one mentions the sub-Himalayan region, from Kashmir valley to Nepal/ Tibet; and, the other mentions Kekeya, the region on the east banks of the Indus River.

According to A K Warder; linguistically and historically, Paisachi, Pali and the language of the Magadha-inscriptions form a closely related group representing what may be called early Prakrit that was current between 4th century BCE and second century BCE; early Magadhi also belonged to this group.

[ However, George Abraham Grierson, in his research paper The Pisaca languages of north-western India  Published by the Royal Asiatic Society, London, 1906 , holds a different view:

We are therefore driven to the conclusion that the Modern Paisaca languages are neither of Indian nor of Eranian origin, hut form a third branch of the Aryan stock, which separated from the parent stem after the branching forth of the original of the Indian languages, but before the Eranian languages had developed all their peculiar characteristics. ]

The nouns and verbs in Prakrit forms ( Suraseni, Apabramsa, Magadhi, Ardha-Magadhi and Maharastri) follow that of Sanskrit , with local variations. For instance ; see the various forms of Sanskrit Putra ( son ) and Prakrit Putta :


(Source: :Prakrit / by George Abraham Grierson (1911) )

From the fragments of Paisachi of the Brhadkatha and those  from works of Vararuchi the Grammarian (Ca.1st century) that have survived, it appears, Paisachi resembled what came to be known as Pali, though distinct in minor details. It is said; the Paisachi went into decline mainly because the Shatavahana emperor (around first century BCE and first century AD) totally despised it, calling it low or vulgar Prakrit.

By about the first century, the Prakrit – the intermediate or unclassified – was replaced in speech by a sort of vernacular (Desi) called Apabhramsa. Historically , it is treated as the later form of Prakrit; but, rather as a corrupted form of Prakrit. And again, there were several forms of Apabhramsa; and, the major form of it was the one spoken in the Sindhu region, hence known as Saindhava.  Some regard Apabhramsa as the early phase of modern Indo-Aryan languages. Most of the texts in Apabhramsa belonging to the first millennium (say, up to 1000 AD) are lost. But some fragments or illustrations  of Apabhramsa lyrics  have survived  , for instance , in  the anthology  ( muktaka  or kosa) of the Prakrit lyrics of Satavahana ; in the act Four  of Kalidasa’s drama Vikramorvasiya ( early fourth century) ; in Puspadanta’s Mahapurana  (mid tenth century) ; in Raja Bhoja’s  Srñgaraprakasa ( eleventh century) ; and in Chalukya King Someswara’s Manasollasa ( twelfth  century) . Many of these citations are , in fact , erotic stanzas of a sort familiar to  the Prakrit tradition. And they strive to create a rural , homely and amorous ambience.

As Prakrit gained strength, it branched into independent languages; and, accumulated greater expressive power.  At the same time, Sanskrit began to decline steadily and losing its fluidity.

[In fact, Bhartrhari (Ca.450 CE) laments that the social influence of Prakrit was extremely great and was a threat to the historical tradition of Sanskrit Grammar. The schools of Sanskrit Grammar had fallen into disarray; and , in addition study of Prakrit was also flourishing.]

The period spanning between Bharata ‘s Natyashastra (say second century BCE) and the fourth century AD, could be said to be the period of Prakrit, in all its forms. Not only was Prakrit used for the Edicts and the Prasastis (praise-poems), but it was also used in writing poetical and prose Kavyas. The inscriptions of Asoka (304–232 BCE) were in simple regional and sub-regional languages; and, not in ornate Kavya style. The inscriptions of Asoka show the existence of at least three dialects: the Eastern dialect of the capital which perhaps was the official lingua franca of the Empire; the North-western;  and , the Western dialects. And much before Asoka, the Buddhist cannon (Tripitaka) and the Jataka tales were written in Prakrit forms, the then spoken language of the people.

In the period after Asoka, a number of Prakrit forms came to fore. Here, we find the old Ardha-magadhi, old Sauraseni and the Magadhi, besides Paisachi which perhaps was the language of the Vindhya region. There is an abundance of poetic works composed in Prakrit during the period of Satavahanas (say from 230 BCE to 220 AD). It seems that even during the period between Second century BCE and the First century AD, Prakrit was the language of the Royal Courts. The poetry of this period is represented by the Anthology Gatha-sattasai (the seven hundred songs) attributed to King Haala of the Satavahana dynasty (c. third century) ; and by the Brhad-katha of Gunadya (in Paisachi).

Rise of Kavya

The Arthashastra  ( dated somewhere between 150 BCE – 120 CE)  which reflects the conditions obtaining in the Royal Courts of its time  mentions  a host of Court employees such as : Sutas, Puranikas, Magadhas ( those who herald ) and Kusilavas  ( chroniclers , bards and singers) . There is even the mention of monthly honorariums granted to teachers and pupils (Acharyah Vidyavantas cha).  But, strangely, there is no mention of a court poet.   And, among the literary works mentioned in Arthashastra there is no mention, anywhere, of Kavya. Further, no Kavya of note belonging to the period between the 2nd century B.C. and the early  2nd century A.D. has come down to us.

It was perhaps towards the end of this period that the Kavyas seemed to develop.  The Buddhacharita, the Kavya of Asvaghosa (Ca.  First century); the plays of Bhasa (First or Second century) belong to what could be called as the pre-classic period of early ornate Kavya period.  These are perhaps the earliest known Kavya-poets of eminence. And, Kavya as ornate court poetry perhaps blossomed in the courts of Western Ksatrapas (35–405) who ruled over the western and central part of India; and, during the reign of Kushanas, particularly in the second century AD. But, the dates of the works of this period cannot be ascertained with any certainty.

The later Sanskrit writers tried to bring in the informal flavor of Prakrit into their works. (And, another reason could be that the Sanskrit authors too had to come to terms with the changes taking place within the society they lived.) Some major writers such as, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuthi, Dandin, Vishakhadutta and Banabhatta made some of their local characters speak in Prakrit, just to usher a sense of reality into their dialogues. Dandin went a step further by grafting a theory of Riti, by legitimizing the Prakrit influence on Sanskrit. Writers like Rajashekara, Hemachandra, and Jayadeva, though scholars of Sanskrit coined fresh Prakrit terms and phrases for expressing new ideas.  Thus, whatever may have been their original regional specificity, by the time of Bhamaha and Dandin ( 6-7th century)  both the literary Prakrit and Apabhramsa were no longer treated as tied to a  particular place; but , were regarded  as varieties of  languages in their own right.

Therefore, Anandavardhana (Ca. 850) while drafting a new theory of Kavya made use of materials that had not been previously subjected to critical scrutiny. And, among such material were the Prakrit songs (gatha) from perhaps the second or third century. It is said; the informal and sensitive Prakrit lyrics helped Anandavardhana to appreciate how the meaning of the work as a whole resides in an emotional content (Rasa); and, how that can be effectively communicated only through suggestion (Dhvani).

And, Kshemendra (mid eleventh century), also from Kashmir, advises the aspiring poets of talent to “listen to the songs and lyrics and rasa-laden poems in local languages . . . to go to popular gatherings and learn local languages,”

For a short period, there was a practice among the writers to compose Kavyas both in Sanskrit and in Prakrit. For instance; Rajasekhara the author of Kavyamimsa, composed one play wholly in Prakrit; Visvanatha (first half of the fourteenth century), a literary theorist, wrote one Prakrit Kavya besides his Sanskrit works; ; and Anandavardhana, in addition to a courtly epic in Sanskrit, wrote a text in Prakrit “for the education of poets” , most likely a textbook on aesthetic suggestion. Muñja, king of the Paramaras who was  Raja Bhoja’s uncle (Ca.  996), appears to be the only Sanskrit poet who produced a serious body of verse in Apabhramsa as well as in Sanskrit (both only fragmentarily preserved).

Although the number of Prakrit Kavyas tapered out, popular tales, songs and verses set in simple, natural and delightful styles continued to be composed in good numbers.  For instance; Kouhala (Ca.800), in his delightful Maharastri romance Lilavali, pictures a conversation between a youth and his Love. She goads her lover to  narrate a tale. The helpless young man pleads his ignorance: “Ah, my love, you will make me look ridiculous for my lack of learning in the arts of language. Far from telling a great tale, I should in fact keep silent.” She  does not give up , but cajoles him :  “Oh , come my beloved , tell me any story in clear Prakrit that I can understand. Why do we have care for rules and heavy words?  So tell me a  delightful tale in Prakrit, easy to understand which simple women love to hear. .”

In the biography of Yasovarman of Kanyakubja (Ca. 725) the poet defends the virtues of Prakrit, saying: “From time immemorial in Prakrit alone, that one could combine new content and mellow form. . . . All words enter into Prakrit and emerge out of it, as all waters enter and emerge from the sea”. And, he laments “…. many men no longer understand [Prakrit’s] different virtues; great poets [in Prakrit] should just scorn or mock or pity them, but feel no pain themselves.”

The golden age of Kavya

The golden age of ornate court Kavya was the stretch of about 125 years (from 330-455) during the reign of the Gupta dynasty (approximately between 350 and 550 AD). This was also the age of Kalidasa (say, between 375 and 413 AD) –  acknowledged as the greatest of poets. The other great poets and scholars said to belong to this golden age of the Gupta Era were : Matrgupta; Mentha or Hastipaka; Amaru.  They were later followed by other distinguished poet–scholars like Bhartrihari (450-510); Varahamihira (505-587); Bhatti (about 600 AD); and, Bharavi (Ca.6th century) .

Then there was the Emperor Harsavardhana of Thanesar and Kanauj who ruled from 606 to 647 AD. And, Banabhatta his Court poet immortalized his patron in his historical romance Harshacharita. And, Magha (Ca. 7th century) a poet in the Court of King Varmalata of Sharmila (Gujarat/Rajasthan)   created undoubtedly one of the most complex and beautiful poetic works, the Shishupala-vadha. He was followed by   Bhavabuthi the playwright and poet in the court of the King Yashovarman of Kanauj (Ca.750 AD).

Around the seventh century , the convention was invented (and quickly adopted everywhere) of prefacing a literary work with a eulogy of poets past (kaviprasamsa). Bana, author of the Harsacarita (c. 640), the first Sanskrit literary biography that takes a contemporary as its subject, seems to have been the first to use it. This is not to say that earlier writers never refer or allude to predecessors. In a well-known passage in the prologue to Kalidasa’s drama Malavikagnimitra, an actor complains to the director, “How can you ignore the work of the great poets—men like Dhavaka, Saumilla, Kaviratna— and present the work of a contemporary poet like Kalidasa?” to which the director famously replies, “Not every work of literature is good just because it is old, or bad just because it is new.”


(The Old is not necessarily admirable; and the New always not despicable; the wise discriminate and decide; fools let others decide for them. – Kalidasa, Act-I, Malavikagnimitra)

Such kaviprasamsa-s, apart from paying homage and expressing one’s appreciation of the past-poets appreciation served other purposes as well. To start with, it was a way of familiarizing the past Masters, even those who have faded out of peoples’ memory. It was also indicative of the author’s affiliation to a linage (parampara) of his predecessors. For instance; Bana’s praise-poems or Eulogy (kaviprasamsa) offers a broad view  of the main varieties of Kavya that were current during his time; the foremost representations among each of those varieties that the author he appreciated most. Bana’s tributes to his elders include : in the  class of  the tale (katha) in Sanskrit prose (or Prakrit or Apabhramsa verse) was the Sanskrit work Vasavadatta of Subandhu (c. 600);  in the prose biography (akhyayika) , it was the lost Prakrit work of Adhyaraja; in the Sanskrit court-epic (mahakavya) , it was , of course, Kalidasa ;  and, in  the class of Prakrit court-epic (skandhaka) , it was Pravarasena ;  in the Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Apabhramsa lyric or anthology of lyrics (muktaka and rosa), it was  the Prakrit collection of Satavahana; and , in the drama (nataka) it was indeed  the match-less  Bhasa . 

And, amidst the conspicuous absence of any sort of Literary Criticism in the early periods of Kavya, such kaviprasamsa-s , as of Bana , provide a glimpse or a window-view into the standards that the authors adopted  to form  literary judgment over their predecessors works. It was also indicative of the values and merits that the writer himself cherished to look for in a Kavya. And, yet the criteria for selection the work were not clearly stated. Some of those virtues could perhaps  be : the beauty , elegance , charm of the language; command over the language  that splendidly brought out just the right meaning that author intended ; lucid and  sparkling expressions and phrases; the emotive content; vivid descriptions that graphically captured the locale as also the mood of the situation; the delight(Rasa) that it provides to the reader; and, the ways that the Kavya benefits the reader (Kavya-prayojana).

Having said that let me also mention that such kaviprasamsa served only a limited purpose. It was, at best , an appreciation; not an appraisal of the literary merits of a Kavya or its elements such as the  plot, characterization, or voice (Dhvani ) etc.  It did not also give even a clue to the chronology of the authors or the works.

With the passing of those wonderfully well gifted, creative, brilliant poet-scholars, the golden age or the  classical age of Kavya may be considered to have come to an end.

Rise of Sanskrit

The rise of Sanskrit as a medium of Kavya and other forms of literary works, and the fall of Prakrit are in some way related.

With the establishment of mighty Empires that stretched from Afghanistan in the West to the far ends of the East, the power and influence of Indian Empire, its culture, art, philosophy and literatures spread across to the lands beyond the Himalayas and across the seas. The religious scholars, particularly the Buddhists from China, Tibet and Far East travelled across many regions of India to study and to gather texts to be later translated into their own languages.  Their medium of study was invariably Sanskrit, which was written and spoken by most Indian scholars, in almost the same manner. One could say that Sanskrit was India’s language up to about the tenth century. It was in Sanskrit that Indian scholars discussed with the visiting scholars; and, it was also the language of its international diplomacy.

From the second century, and increasingly thereafter, Sanskrit came to be used for public texts, including the quite remarkable Kavya-like poems in praise of kingly lineages (Vamshavali). Prior to that , for about four centuries , say from 250 BCE  it was only the Prakrit that was used for inscriptions, whether for issuing a royal proclamation, glorifying martial deeds, commemorating a Vedic sacrifice, or granting land to Brahman communities.

Similarly, the early Buddhist Canon containing the discourses delivered by the Buddha and other Buddhist texts say up to first or second century of the Common Era were in Pali, a form of Prakrit.  Likewise, the religious texts of the Jains were composed mostly in Ardha –Magadhi, also a form of Prakrit.  These and others, in general, began to adopt Sanskrit for both scriptural and literary purposes.

Later, after the second century AD, large number Buddhist scriptures came to be written in Sanskrit (although the Buddha had insisted that his teachings be in the language spoken the common people). And, thereafter it became a practice to compose texts in Sanskrit. By about the Middle Ages, considerable numbers of eminent Buddhist scholars , who wrote their religious or secular texts in Sanskrit,  had gained renown across all Buddhist countries .  Just to name a few: Dharmakirti (c. 650); Ratnasrijñana (900); Dharmadasa (1000?), Jñananasrimitra (1000) and Vidyakara (1100).

The Jains who earlier composed their texts in a form of Prakrit also switched over to Sanskrit. For instance, take the case of Jains in Karnataka  who  created great Sanskrit poetic works like Adipurana of Jinasena , the Champu Kavyas ( mix of poetry and prose) of Somadevasuri and Prince Yasotilaka. At the same time , they wrote new work in Kannada (Pampa’s courtly epics of the mid-ninth century) and Apabhramsa (Puspadanta’s Mahapurana of 970).

The reasons that prompted the writers, even those writers on philosophy and religion, were many ; but, mostly , they were related to the changed circumstances and the eminent position that Sanskrit had secured, by then, not only in India’s neighboring countries but also in the far off lands.  Sanskrit had extended far beyond the Sub Continent, into Central Asia and as far as the islands of Southeast Asia.

At the same time, neither Prakrit nor Apabhramsa, nor any of the regional-language literature, could command such wide readership or audience. They were in no position to compete with Sanskrit, internationally. Although works of great merit were produced in these languages, they could not reach the readers beyond the limits of their vernacular world. They were hardly known in the outside world.

[ In a way of speaking, in terms of the literary and spoken means of communication in the present-day India – internally and internationally , English could be said to have replaced Sanskrit. And, in the visual media , Bollywood movies enjoy a wider reach and greater appeal than the regional films (however well they might be  made)]

The Sanskrit works, on the other hand, enjoyed readership even outside India. For instance; the works of the great Buddhist Sanskrit poets, such as, Asvaghosa (second century) and Matrceta (not later than 300), were read not only in Northern India but also in much of Central Asia. In Qizil and Sorcuq (in today’s Xinjiang region of China), manuscript fragments were found bearing portions of Asvaghosa’s dramas and his two courtly epics, Saundarananda and Buddhacarita.

Such wide range of circulation was possible not merely because of the influence that Buddhism commanded in those countries, but also because of  the universal acceptance of Sanskrit language and recognition of its aesthetic power and beauty.

The  non-religious Sanskrit poetry  spread as far as up to Southeast Asia, where by the ninth or tenth century at the latest, literati in Khmer country were studying masterpieces such as the Raghuvamsa  of Kalidasa; the Harsacarita , the early-seventh-century prose of the great writer Bana; and , the Suryasataka of the latter’s contemporary, Mayura.

Therefore, any writer of merit – whether religious or secular – aspiring for wider readership, more serious attention and greater fame, naturally opted to write in Sanskrit. And, his Sanskrit work had a better chance of acquiring an almost global readership and following among erudite, aesthetic Sahrudaya –s.

Therefore, the desire to reach out to a larger audience and to acquire recognition from the worthy peers , seems to have prompted aspiring writers to compose in Sanskrit . Such works covered a wide range of subjects – from Grammar, Chhandas, Alamkara, and poetic conventions to study of character, narratives, plots, and the organization of elements that create the emotional impact of a work – such as Rasa etc.

Decline of Kavya

Though Sanskrit in some form or other lingers on in today’s India, what is undeniable is that it’s vital signs have grown very weak.

The reasons for the rapid decline of Kavya are many; and, some of them complement each other. Perhaps the most telling blow was the political instability and virtual anarchy in North India following the invasion of Muslim forces starting from the tenth or the eleventh century. The Royal Courts and the systems that supported the growth of Kavya were totally destroyed; and were never revived. The Kavya and its creators were truly orphaned.

And, even when the Sanskrit poets secured patronage in some Royal Courts, their Kavya became inward looking and dispirited, having lost connection with the society at large. Virtually all the Court poetry was about caritas (poetic chronicles) , vijayas (battles fought and won ) , or abhyudayas (accounts of success), detailing this campaign and that military victory. The poets, as paid employees of the Court, were duty bound to praise their Masters.

Sheldon Pollock in his very well researched and presented  scholarly work Sanskrit Literary Culture from the Inside Out , examines the state of Kavya in the later times with particular reference to the Courts at Kashmir , Vijayanagar and Varanasi. I will try to summarize his views, briefly.

Sanskrit literary culture in Kashmir, commenced by about the sixth century; and by the middle of the twelfth century it reached its zenith, with more innovative literature being written than perhaps anywhere else in the region. By the end of the twelfth century , the orderly life in urban Kashmir suffered   near total dissolution. And, after the establishment of Turkic rule in Kashmir, around 1420, the literary culture was totally shattered. No Kashmiri Sanskrit literature was ever again created or was it circulated outside the valley, as it used to do. Many of its important literary works  survived only through recopying in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but, virtually all of those originated from the twelfth century or earlier.

As regards Vijayanagar (1340–1565) in Karnataka, though the Literature, in general, did enjoy Royal patronage, the energy of Sanskrit Kavya slowly depleted. In Vijayanagara, Sanskrit was not dying rapidly as it did in Kashmir.  Sanskrit learning in fact continued during the long existence of the empire, and after. But, the spirit of the Kavya was somehow lost. Vijayanagara’s Sanskrit literature, as Sheldon Pollock says, presented a picture of an exhausted literary culture. It seemed as though the Court culture insulated the poets from the simple pleasure and pains of the ordinary day-to-day life of common people. Their poetry was mostly about singing the glory of their Royal patrons. Such Sanskrit poetry was socially irrelevant; but was supported by Court as sort  of   state enterprise.

Of the Sanskrit literary works of the Vijayanagara times, with rare exception, not a single one is recognized as great, and continued to be read after it was written. Most of its Kavyas were did not circulate to any extent beyond its region; nor did they attract serious commentaries, nor included in a credible anthology.

In contrast, the literature in regional languages – Kannada and Telugu- flourished during these times.  For instance; . Kumaravyasa’s Kannada Bharata (c. 1450) not only circulated widely in manuscript form but also continues to be  recited all over the Kannada-speaking world, as the Sanskrit Mahabharata itself had been recited all over India a thousand years earlier.

The Maratha court of Tanjavuru in the early eighteenth century was an active cultural centre in the South. Its Sanskrit scholarship as also that in regional languages was indeed of a high order. But, the Sanskrit literary production, while prominent, appeared  to have remained wholly internal to the palace. Not a single Sanskrit literary work of the period transcended its moment in time.

In the south as in the north, Sanskrit writers had ceased to make literature that made history. The Kavya of these later times seemed have been drained of vitality.   There seemed to be neither enterprise nor enthusiasm. What was strange was that the authors of Court-epics did not show much zeal to invent fresh themes. Most found it adequate to re-narrate the familiar myths and legends in their own characteristic styles.

As Sheldon Pollack puts it :  Sanskrit literature ended when it became a practice of repetition and not renewal, when the writers themselves no longer evinced commitment to a central value of the tradition and a feature that defined literature itself: the ability to make literary newness, “the capacity,” as a great Kashmiri writer put it, “to continually re-imagine the world.”

Literary criticism

The practical literary criticism of the type that we are familiar with today, discussing and analyzing issues such as the plot, catheterization, style of presentation, poetic content, its freshness , arrangement of chapters, the validity of the work etc did not for some reason develop in the Kavya tradition. The references to to earlier works would either to praise them very highly (Kavai-prashamsa) or to condemn it outright. The sense of balance in their approach somehow seemed to be lacking.

Question of the sense of History

Then there is the question of the sense of History. It is not that the ancient Indian authors did not have taste for history; but, they did not seem to cultivate taste to chronicle the historical events and facts objectively. Although Bhamaha (early seventh century) drew a distinction between historical and fictional genres (akhyayika and katha), such distinction was hardly ever maintained. In the Indian tradition, the historical writing was usually a branch of Kavya. For instance, the Rajatarangini by Kalhana (Ca.1150) which chronicles the Royal linage of Kashmir is regarded by some as History. But Kalhana himself explicitly identifies his work as a Kavya; and , he affiliates it with literature by frequently citing earlier poems that had achieved the synthesis of literature with History. Moreover, the work was regarded as literature by his contemporaries.

What was surprising was that Anandavardhana (Ca. 850) counseled poets to alter any received historical account that conflicted with the emotional impact they sought to achieve. Thus, according to him, one can and should change fact to suit the dominant Rasa of the work.

The problem appeared to be that Chronology was malleable and was horribly mixed up. And, the events were not sequenced in the order they occurred. The other was the woeful lack of the critical approach.  The ancient authors did not seem to cultivate taste for criticism of the historical truths.

The  reason for such flexible approach could be that the author would invariably be serving as an employee of the King as his  Court poet, who was asked  to write the about the glory of his King’s  ( patron’s) predecessors. In the circumstances, the Poet would not go into analysis of the circumstances, critically examine historical facts; but, was duty bound to praise his patron and his ancestors. And, while writing the ‘History ’ (itivritta of heroes of the Nayaka), the poet would also try to exhibit his poetical skills in extolling his subjects by treating them as heroes (Nayaka) investing them with unbelievable virtues . And, in the narration , he would also try  make room  to entertain and to instruct as a Poet, to teach morals and to generalize the course of human destiny.

Some examples of the works of this genre are Banabhatta’s Harshacharita (7th century) about the life and times of King  Harshavadhana ; Vakpathi’s Prakrit work Gavdavaha ( 8th century) about King Yashovardhana of Kanauj; and, Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacharita (12th century) woven around the dynasty of Chalukya kings , and specially about his patron Vikramaditya VI.

Bilhana, in particular, rewarded his patron by mixing mythology with the chronicles of the Chalukya dynasty.  He makes an epic out of a historical theme. He commences with the allusion to gods who out of benevolence create the Chalukya dynasty in order to ensure and maintain safety of the world.

Continued in Part Three ->




Sources and References

I gratefully acknowledge these and other wonderfully well researched  works of great merit

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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Posted by on July 12, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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