Tag Archives: Vac

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Twelve

Continued from Part Eleven



According to Bhartrhari

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

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

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

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

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

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


At a metaphysical level, Bhartrhari conceives the ultimate Reality as One-without–a second (Ekam Eva). It is of the nature of the Word (Sabda eva tattvam) and from it are manifested all objects (including speech) and the whole of existence.

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

According to Bhartrhari, the language we speak is the medium of expression of the Ultimate Reality communicated through meaning-bearing words. It leads us across the external appearances and diversities to the core of the Reality which is the source and the underlying unity beneath everything. 

Here, the Real is the luminous Truth which needs to be rediscovered by every speaker. The Real breaks forth (sphut) through the medium of speech (Sabda). And, Sabda is not mere means to the Reality, but it is the very Truth and Reality (Shabda-Brahman).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


According to the explanations provided by Bhartrhari:

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


The Pashyanti Vak thereafter transforms into an intellectual process (Jnana), the level of thought (Buddhi), during which the speaker becomes aware of the word as it arises and takes a form within him. As that cognition crops up and takes a shape within, he grasps it.  Here, one looks for and identifies appropriate words, phrases, and their sequence, which are capable of conveying ones’ intention, clearly. As Prof. Matilal puts it: “In other words, he recognises the verbal parts, which he is about to verbalise either to himself or to another as distant and separable from the Artha or thought.”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Bhartrhari again classifies Dhvani into two sorts – Prakrta Dhvani and Vaikrta Dhvani – (primary or natural sounds and derived or transformed sounds).

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

lotus pond


Sources and References

Sphota theory of Bhartrhari

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

Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by   William S. Haney


Pictures are from internet.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Eleven

Continued from Part ten


Para vac

According to Abhinavagupta

As mentioned in the previous Part, it is explained that the process of manifestation of speech, like that of the Universe, takes place in four stages. First, in the undifferentiated substratum of thought an intention appears. This first impulse, the self-radiant consciousness (Sva-prakasha-chaitanya) is Para-vac (the voice beyond). Thereafter, this intention takes a shape. We can visualize the idea (Pashyanthi-vac) though it is yet to acquire a verbal form. It is the first sprout of an invisible seed; but, yet searching for words to give expression to the intention. This is the second stage in the manifestation of the idea. Then, the potential sound, the vehicle of the thought, materializes, finding   words suitable to express the idea. This transformation of an idea into words, in the silence of the mind, is the third stage. It is the intermediary stage (Madhyama-vac) between un-manifest and manifest. The fourth stage being manifestation of the till then non-vocal verbalized ideas into perceptible sounds. It is the stage where the ideas are transmitted to others through articulated audible syllables (Vaikhari-vak).  These four stages are the four forms of the word.

In this part, let’s talk about the theories expounded and the explanations offered by two of the great thinkers – Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari – on the subject of different levels of speech or awareness.

While Bhartrhari regards levels of speech as three (Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari), Abhinavagupta discusses on four levels (Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari).

Some scholars have tried to reconcile that seeming difference between the stance of the two scholars  by explaining that Bhartrhari’s concept of the speech-principle Sabda-tattva or Sabda-brahman the fundamental basis of the all existence, virtually equates to Para Vac , the Supreme Consciousness adored by Abhinavagupta. In this connection, they remind of a passage in Bhartrhari’s Vritti on his Vakyapadiya where the description of Paśyantī Vac  is followed by a subtle hint at a para paśyantī – rūpam, which they take it as pointing towards  Abhinavagupta ‘s   Parā Vāc.

Let’s briefly take a look at the theories expounded by Abhinavagupta on various stages of language, speech and consciousness.


Abhinavagupta Acharya (Ca. 950 to 1020 C.E) the great philosopher, mystic and a true sadhaka, was the intellectual and a spiritual descendant of Somananda the founder of the Pratyabijnya School of Kashmiri Shaiva monism.  He was a many sided genius; a visionary endowed with incisive intellectual powers of a philosopher who combined in himself the experiences of a spiritualist and a Tantric. He was a prolific writer on Philosophy, Tantra, Aesthetics, Natya, Music and a variety of other subjects. His work Tantraloka in which he expounds Anuttara Trika, the ‘most excellent’ form of Trika Shaivism (Nara- Shakthi- Shivatmakam Trikam)  is regarded as his magnum opus. It is a sort of an encyclopedia on Tantra – its philosophy, symbolism and practices etc.

Abhinavagupta was also a scholar-commentator par excellence, equipped with extraordinary skills of an art critic.  Among his notable commentaries are: the Īśvarapratyabhijñā-vimarśini and its detailed version Isvara-pratyabhijña-vivrti-vimarsini, both being commentaries on Isvara-Pratyabhijña – kārikā and vtti (Recognition of Shiva as self) by Utpaladeva or Utpalācārya (early 10th century), an earlier philosopher of the Pratyabhijñā Darśhana School. And, Abhinavagupta’s Paratrisika-Laghuvritti (also known as the Anuttara-tattva-vimarsini) and its expanded form Parātrīśikā–vivarana a commentary on Parātrīśikā also known as the Trikasūtra (a seminal text on Kashmiri Shaivism) – which is based in the concluding portion of the Rudra-yamala-tantra – is held in high esteem.

And, his work Abhinavabharati though famed as a commentary on  Bharata’s  Natyasastra  is,  for all purposes, an independent treatise on aesthetics in Indian dance, poetry, music and art; and , it helps in understanding Bharata and also a number of other scholars and the concepts they had put forth. The Abhinavabharati along with his other two works – Isvara pratyabhijna Vimarshini and Dhvanyaloka Lochana – are highly significant works in the field of Indian aesthetics.

 [For more on Abhinavagupta, please click here]


Generally speaking, the Tantra-s of all tendencies deal with the nature of Vac and its manifestations. But, the tradition to which Abhinavagupta belonged – namely the Bhairava Tantra, and in particular to the Kula and Trika Tantras –  differs from the others in that it bestows greater importance to the nature and to the role of Vac.  It views Vac (language) at its highest level as identical with the Supreme Reality.

Abhinavagupta’s ideas and concepts with regard to language are based in the scriptures of his School and in his philosophy of language. Abhinavagupta’s speculations on the nature, on the levels of Vāc and its manifestations are, therefore, some of the important aspects of all his works. They run like a thread that ties together the diverse aspects of Abhinavagupta’s vast body of works.  The speculations on Vac also interweave his views on the religious and philosophical traditions that he expounds.

According to the Pratyabhijna School, Shiva is the Ultimate Reality; and, the individual and Shiva are essentially one. The concept of Pratyabhijna refers to self-awareness (parämarsa); to the way of recognition and realization of that identity. It firmly asserts that the state of Shiva-consciousness is already there; you have to realize that; and, nothing else. As Abhinavagupta puts it: Moksha or liberation is nothing but the awareness of one’s own true nature –Moksho hi nama naivathyah sva-rupa-pratanam hi tat.

Abhinavagupta, while explaining this school of recognition, says, man is not a mere speck of dust; but is an immense force, embodying a comprehensive consciousness; and, is capable of manifesting , through his mind and body, limitless powers of knowledge and action (Jnana Shakthi and Kriya Shakthi).

According to the Tantras of Kashmir Shaiva tradition, which recapture the ancient doctrine of Sphota, the manifestation of all existence is viewed as the expression of Shiva (visarga-shakthi) occurring on four levels. These represent the process of Srsti or outward movement or descending or proceeding from the most sublime to the ordinary. It is said; such four levels of evolution correspond with the four levels of consciousness or the four levels in the unfolding (unmesa) of speech (Vac).

Just as a Samkalpa (a pure thought) has to pass through several stages before it actually manifests as a concrete creative force, so also the Vac has to pass through several stages before it is finally audible at the gross level as Sabda (sound). Each level of Vac corresponds to a different level of existence. Our experience of Vac depends upon the refinement of our consciousness.

The latent, un-spoken, un-manifest, silent thought (Para) unfolds itself in the next three stages as pashyanti (thought visualized), Madhyamā (intermediate)   and Vaikhari (explicit) speech).

Though the speech (Vac) is seen to manifest in varied levels and forms, it essentially is said to be the transformation (Vivarta) of Para Vac, the Supreme consciousness (Cit),   which is harboured within Shiva in an undifferentiated (abheda) unlimited  form (Swatrantya).


Abhinavagupta describes Parā vāk as a luminous vibration (sphurattā) of pure consciousness in an undifferentiated state (paramam vyomam). While Shiva is pure consciousness (Prakasha); Devi is the awareness of this pure light (Vimarsha). It is highly idealized; and, is akin to a most fabulous diamond that is also aware of its own lustre and beauty. The two – Prakasha and Vimarsha – are never apart. The two together are manifest in the wonder and joy (Chamatkara) of Para vac. And, there is no knowledge, no awareness, which is not connected with a form of Para vac.

The Devi, as Parā Vāc, the vital energy (prana shakthi) that vibrates (spanda) is regarded as the foundation of all languages, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions; and, is, therefore, the seat of consciousness (cit, samvid). Consciousness, thus, is inseparable from the Word, because it is alive.

Vac (speech), he says, is a form of expression of consciousness. And, he argues, there could be no speech without consciousness. However, Consciousness does not directly act upon the principle of speech; but, it operates through intermediary stages as also upon organs and breath to deliver speech.

 Thus, Vac is indeed both speech and consciousness (chetana), as all actions and powers are grounded in Vac. Abhinavagupta says: Someone may hear another person speak, but if his awareness is obscured, he is unable to understand what has been said. He might hear the sounds made by the speaker (outer layer of speech); but, he would not be able to grasp its meaning (the inner essence – antar-abhiläpa)).


Abhinavagupta explains the process of evolution (Vimarsa) of speech in terms of consciousness, mind and cognitive activity (such as knowing, perceiving, reasoning, understanding and expressing).

In his Īśvara-pratyabhijñā-viti-vimarśinī  Abhinavagupta says: the group of sounds (Sabda-rasi) is the Supreme Lord himself; and, Devi as the array of alphabets (Matraka)   is his power (Shakthi) .

iha tāvat parameśvara śabdarāśi, śaktir asya bhinnābhinnarūpā mātkādevī, vargāṣṭaka rudraśaktyaṣṭaka pañcāśad varā pañcāśad rudraśaktaya

Abhinavagupta says: “When She (Parā vāc) is differentiating then she is known in three terms as Pašhyantī, Madhyamā, and Vaikharī.” The Kashmir Shaiva tradition, thus, identifies the Supreme Word, the Para Vac with the power of the supreme consciousness, Cit of Shiva – that is Devi the Shakthi.


According to Abhinavagupta, the Vac proceeds from the creative consciousness pulsations (spanda) of the Devi as Para-Vac, the most subtle and silent form of speech-consciousness. And then, it moves on, in stages, to more cognizable forms: Pashyanti (Vak-shakthi , going forth as seeing , ready to create in which there is no difference between Vachya– object and Vachaka – word); Madhyamā ( the sabda in its subtle form as existing in the anthahkarana or antarbhittï prior to manifestation); and ,  Vaikhari (articulated as gross physical speech). This is a process of Srsti or outward movement or descending proceeds from the most sublime to the mundane.

It is said; the gross aspect (sthūla) of nāda is called ‘sound’; while the subtle (sūkma) aspect is made of thought (cintāmaya bhavet); and, the aspect that is devoid of thought (cintayā rahita) is called Para, the one beyond

Sthūlam śabda iti prokta sūkma cintāmaya bhavet | cintayā rahita yat tu tat para parikīrtitam |

[This is similar to the structure and the principle of Sri Chakra where the consciousness or the energy proceeds from the Bindu at its centre to the outward material forms.

The Bindu or dot in the innermost triangle of the Sri Chakra represents the potential of the non-dual Shiva-Shakti. When this potential separates into Prakasha and Vimarsha it is materializes into Nada, the sound principle.]


There are also other interpretations of the four stages in the evolution of Vac.

:-It is also said; the stages of Para, Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari correspond to our four states of consciousness – Turiya (the transcendental state); Sushupti  (dreamless state);  Swapna  (dreaming state), and Jagrut (wakeful state).

Thus, Para represents the transcendental consciousness, Pashyanti represents the intellectual consciousness, Madhyamā represents the mental consciousness, and Vaikhari represents the physical consciousness. Our ability to experience different levels depends upon the elevation of our consciousness.

:-The three lower forms of speech viz. Pashyanthi, Madhyama and Vaikhari which correspond to intention, formulation and expression are said to represent iccha-shakthi (power of intent or will), jnana-shakthi (power of knowledge) and kriya-shakthi (power of action) of the Devi .These three are construed as the three sides of the triangle at the centre of which is the dot-point (bindu) representing the undifferentiated notion Para-vac. The triangle with the Bindu at its centre suggests the idea of Isvara the divinity conceived as Sabda-Brahman.

Rāmakantha (aka Rājānaka Rāma; Ca. 950 CE) in his commentary (Vritti) on Spandakārikā, explains, “The speech is indeed an action, the mediating part of the Word is made of knowledge, the will is its visionary part, which is subtle and is common essence in all [of them].”

Vaikharikā nāma kriyā jñānamayī bhavati madhyamā vāk/ Icchā puna pašyant ī sūkmā sarvāsā samarasā vtti/ /

 :-According to the Yoga School, the Para stage manifests in the Karanabindu in Muladhara chakra; and then it passes through Manipura and Anahata chakras that denote Pashyanti and Madhyama states of sound. And, its final expression or Vaikhari takes place in Vishudhi chakra.

 The Yoga Kundalini Upanishad explains thus: “The Vac which sprouts in Para gives forth leaves in Pashyanti; buds forth in Madhyamā, and blossoms in Vaikhari.”

:-The Tantra worships Devi as Parā Vāc who creates, sustains and dissolves the universe. She is the Kuṇḍalinī Śkakthi – the serpent power residing in the human body in the subtle form coiling around the Mūladhāra Chakra


According to Abhinavagupta, the Para Vac is always present and pervades all the levels of speech; and, is indeed present on all the levels from the highest to the lowest. By its projection, it creates the flash of pašyantī vāc, the intellectual form; and finally the articulate form, the Vaikhari. He also says that without Her (parā vāk), darkness and unconsciousness, would prevail.

pašyantyādi dašasv api vastuto vyavasthitā tayā vinā / pašyantyādiu aprakāšatāpattyā jaJaā-prasagāt /

 “Everything (sarvasarvātmaiva); stones, trees, birds, human beings, gods, demons and so on, is but the Para Vac present in everything and is, identical with the Supreme Lord.”

 ata eva sarve pāšāa-taru-tirya-manuya-deva-rudra-kevali -mantratadīša- tanmahešādikā ekaiva parābhaṭṭārikā-bhūmi sarva-sarvātmanaiva paramešvara- rūpeāste

Thus, the entire process of evolution of Vac is a series of movements from the centre of Reality to the periphery, in successive forms of Para-Vani.  Abhinavagupta states: Shiva as Para is manifested in all the stages, from the highest to the lowest, right up to the gross sound through his Shakthi; and, he remains undivided (avibhaga vedanatmaka bindu rupataya).


To put the entire discussion in a summary form:

:- According to the explanations provided here: Para is the highest manifestation of Vac. Para and Pashyanti are inaudible; they are beyond the range of the physical ear; and so is Madhyama which is an internal dialogue.

Thus, it is said, there are three stages in the manifestation of Vac: Para (highest); Sukshma (subtle – Pashyanti and Madhyama); and, Sthula (gross – Vaikhari)

Para, the transcendent sound, is beyond the perception of the senses; and, it is all pervading and all encompassing. Para is pure intention. It is un-manifest. One could say, it is the sound of one’s soul, a state of soundless sound. It exists within all of us. All mantras, infinite syllables, words, and sentences exist within Para in the form of vibration (Spanda) in a potential form.

Para-Vani or Para Vac, the Supreme Word, which is non-dual  (abeda) and  identified with  Supreme consciousness, often referred to as Sabda Brahma, is present in all  the subsequent stages; in  all the states of experiences and expressions  as Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari.


:-  Pashyanti , which also means the visual image of the word, is the first stage of Speech. It is the intuitive and initial vision; the stage preceding mental and verbal expression.  

Paśyantī is prior to sprouting of the language or ‘verbalization’, still potent and yet to unfold. Pasyanti, says Abhinavagupta, is the first moment of cognition, the moment where one is still wishing to know rather than truly knowing. 

In Pashyanti (Vak-shakthi, going forth as seeing, ready to create) there is no difference between Vachya – object and Vachaka – word. The duality of subject-object relation does not exist here. Pashyanti is indivisible and without inner-sequence; meaning that the origin and destination of speech are one, without the intervention of mental constructs (Vikalpa). Paśyantī is the state of Nirvikalpa.

It is the power of intent or will (Icchāśakti) that acts in Paśhyantī state. And yet, it carries within itself the potentials of the power of cognition, jñāna šhakthi, and the power of action, kriyā šhakthi.


:- Madhyama is an intellectual process, during which the speaker becomes aware of the word as it arises and takes form within him; and, grasps it. Madhyama vac is a sequenced but a pre-vocal thought, Here, the sound is nada; and, is in a wave or a vibratory (spandana) form.

Madhyamā is the intermediate stage (madhyabhūmi) of thinking. It is the stage at which the sabda in its subtle form exists in the anthahkarana (the internal faculty or the psychological process, including mind and emotions) prior to manifestation) as thought process or deliberation (chintana) which acts as the arena for sorting out various options or forms of discursive thought (vikalpa) and choosing the appropriate form of expression to be put out.

The seat of Madhyamā, according to Abhinavagupta, is intellect, buddhi. Madhyamā represents conception and internal articulation of the word- content. Madhyamā is the stage of Jñānaśakti where knowledge (bodha) or the intellect is dominant. It is the stage in which the word and its meaning are grasped in a subject-object relationship; and, where it gains silent expressions in an internal-dialogue.


:- And, finally, Vaikhari Vac is sequenced and verbalized speech, set in motion according to the will of the person who speaks. For this purpose, he employs sentences comprising words uttered in a sequence. The word itself comprises letters or syllables (varnas) that follow one after the other.

Vaikhari is the articulated speech, which in a waveform reaches the ears and the intellect of the listener. Vaikhari is the physical form of nada that is heard and apprehended by the listener. It gives expression to subtler forms of vac.

The Vaikhari (which is related to the body) is the manifestation of Vac as gross physical speech of the ordinary tangible world of names and forms. Vaikharī represents the power of action Kriyāśakti. This is the plane at which the Vac gains a bodily- form and expression. Until this final stage, the word is still a mental or an intellectual event. Now, the articulated word comes out in succession; and, gives substance and forms to ones thoughts. Vaikharī is the final stage of communication, where the word is externalized and rendered into audible sounds (prākta dhvani).

There are further differences, on this plane, between a clear and loud pronunciation (Saghosha) and a one whispered in low voice (aghosha), almost a sotto voce. Both are fully articulated; what distinguishes them is that the former can be heard by others and the latter is not.


That is to say; Vac originates in consciousness; and, then, it moves on, in stages, to more cognizable forms : as Pashyanti, the vision of what is to follow; then as Madhyama the intermediate stage between the vision and the actual; and , finally as Vaikhari the articulated , fragmented, conventional level of everyday vocal expressions.

Thus, the urge to communicate or the spontaneous evolution of Para, Pashyanti into Vaikhari epitomizes, in miniature, the act of One becoming Many; and the subtle energy transforming into a less- subtle matter. Thus, the speech, each time, is an enactment in miniature of the progression of the One into Many; and the absorption of the Many into One as it merges into the intellect of the listener.


While on Abhinavagupta, we may speak briefly about the ways he illustrates the relation that exists between Shiva, Devi and the human individual, by employing the Sanskrit Grammar as a prop.

In the alphabetical chart of the Sanskrit language, A () is the first letter and Ha (ह) is the last letter. These two, between them, encompass the collection of all the other letters of the alphabets (Matrka).

Here, the vowels (Bija – the seed) are identified with Shiva; and, the consonants are wombs (yoni), identified with Shakthi. The intertwined vowels and consonants (Malini) in a language are the union of Shiva and Shakthi.

[ In the Traika tradition, the letters are arranged as per two schemes: Matrka and Malini. Here, Matrka is the mother principle, the phonetic creative energy. Malini is Devi who wears the garland (mala) of fifty letters of the alphabet.

The main difference between the Matrka and Malini is in the arrangement of letters. In Matrka , the letters are arranged in regular order ; that is , the vowels come first followed by consonants in a serial order. In Malini, the arrangement of letters is irregular. Here, the vowels and consonants are mixed and irregular; there is no definite order in their arrangement.]

According to Abhinavagupta, word is a symbol (sanketa). The four stages of Vac: Para, Pashyanti, Madhyamā and Vaikhari represent the four stages of evolution and also of absorption ascent or descent from the undifferentiated to the gross.

Abhinavagupta then takes up the word AHAM (meaning ‘I’ or I-consciousness or Aham-bhava) for discussion. He interprets AHAM (अहं) as representing the four stages of evolution from the undifferentiated to the gross (Sristi); and, also of absorption (Samhara) back into the primordial source. In a way, these also correspond to the four stages of Vac: Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama – and Vaikhari.


He explains that the first letter of that word – A () – represents the pure consciousness Prakasha or Shiva or Anuttara, the absolute, the primal source of all existence. It also symbolizes the initial emergence of all the other letters; the development of the languages.

And, Ha (ह) is the final letter of the alphabet-chart; and, it represents the point of completion when all the letters have emerged. Ha symbolizes Vimarsha or Shakthi, the Devi. The nasal sound (anusvāra) which is produced by placing a dot or Bindu on ‘Ha(हं) symbolises the union of Shiva and Shakthi in their potent state.

The Bindu (◦) or the dimension-less point is also said to represent the subtle vibration of the life-force (Jiva-kala) in the process of creation. It stands at the threshold of creation. It is the pivot around which the cycle of energies from A to Ha rotate. Bindu also is also said to symbolize in the infinite nature (aparimitha-bhava) of AHAM.

As regards and the final letter M (ह्म) providing the final nasal sound, it comes at the end of the vowel series, but before the consonants. It is therefore called Anusvara – that which follows the Svaras (vowels). And, it represents the individual soul (Purusha).


Abhinavagupta interprets AHAM as composed of Shiva; the Shakthi; and the Purusha – as the natural innate mantra the Para vac.

In the process of expansion (Sristi), Shiva, representing the eternal Anuttara, which is the natural, primal sound A () , the life of the entire range of letter-energies (sakala-kala-jaala-jivana –bhutah) , assumes the form of Ha’ (हं) the symbol of Shakthi; and, then he expands into Bindu (◦) symbolizing phenomenal world (Nara rupena).

Thus, AHAM is the combine of Shiva-Shakthi that manifests as the world we experience. Here, Shakthi is the creative power of Shiva; and it is through Shakthi that Shiva emerges as the material world of human experience. AHAM , therefore, represents the state in which all the elements of experience, in the inner and the outer worlds, are fully displayed. Thus, Shakthi is the creative medium that bridges Nara (human) with Shiva.


At another level, Abhinavagupta explains: The emergence (Visarga) of Shakthi takes place within Aham.  She proceeds from A which symbolizes unity or non-dual state (Abedha). Shakthi as symbolized by Ha represents duality or diversity (bedha); and, the dot (anusvara or bindu) on Ha symbolizes bedha-abeda – that is, unity transforming into diversity. These three stages of expansion are known as Para visarga; Apara visarga; and Para-apara visarga.

Here, Para is the Supreme state, the Absolute (Shiva) ; Para-apara is the intermediate stage of Shakthi, who is identical with Shiva and also different; she is duality emerging out of the undifferentiated; and, Apara is the duality that is commonly experienced in the world.

Aham (अहं), in short, according to Abhinavagupta, encapsulates the process of evolution from the undifferentiated Absolute (Shiva) to the duality of the world, passing through the intermediate stage of Bheda- abeda, the threshold of creation, the Shakthi. All through such stages of seeming  duality , Shiva remains undivided (avibhaga vedanatmaka bindu rupataya).

The same principle underlines the transformation, in stages, of the supreme word Para Vac the Supreme Word, which is non-dual and identified with Supreme consciousness, into the articulate gross sound Vaikhari.


[ Abhinavagupta in his Paratrisika Vivarana says :  In all the dealings , whatever happens , whether it is a matter of knowledge (jnana) or action (kriya) – all of that arises in the fourth state (turyabhuvi) , that is in the Para-vac in an un-differentiated  (gatabhedam ) way. In Pashyanti which is the initial field in the order of succession (kramabhujisu) there is only a germ of difference. In Madhyamā, the distinction between jneya (the object of knowledge) and karya (action) appears inwardly, for a clear-cut succession or order is not possible at this stage (sphutakramayoge).

Moreover , Pashyanti and Madhyamā fully relying on Para which is ever present and from which there is no distinct distinction of these ( bhrsam param abhedato adhyasa)  (later ) regards that stage as if past like a mad man or one who has got up from sleep.


Abhinavagupta in his Para-trisika Varnana explains and illustrates the Tantric idiom ‘sarvam sarvatmakam’: everything is related to everything else. The saying implies that the universe is not chaotic ; but , is an inter-related system. The highest principle is related to the lowest (Shiva to the gross material object) .

Abhinavagupta illustrates this relation by resorting to play on the letters in the Sanskrit alphabets, and  the tattvas or the principles of reality.

He says “ the first is the state of Pasu , the bound individual; the second is the state of jivanmuktha or of the Pathi , the Lord himself  for : khechari –samata is the highest  state of Shiva both in life and in liberation”. Khechari is the Shakthi moving in free space (kha) , which is an image of consciousness. Khechari-samaya is described as the state of harmony and identity with the Divine I-consciousness-Akritrima-aham-vimarsha .]


In a play on words, Abhinavagupta turns Aham backwards into Maha; and, interprets it to mean the withdrawal (Samhara) or absorption of the material existence into the primordial state. Here again, in MAHA, the letter Ma stands for individual; Ha for Shakthi; and, A for Shiva (Anuttara the ultimate source).

In the reverse movement, Ma the individual (Nara) is absorbed into Shakthi (Ha) which enters back into the Anuttara the primal source the Shiva (A).  That is; in the process of withdrawal, all external objects come to rest or finally repose in the ultimate Anuttata aspect (Aham-bhava) of Shiva.

Thus the two states of expansion (sristi) and withdrawal (samhara) are pictured by two mantras Aham and Maha.

In both the cases, Shakthi is the medium. In Aham, it is through Shakthi that Shiva manifests as multiplicity. And, in Maha, Shakthi, again, is the medium through which the manifestation is absorbed back into Shiva. She, like the breath, brings out the inner into the outer; and again, draws back the outside into within. That is the reason Shakthi is often called the entrance to Shiva philosophy (Shaivi mukham ihocyate).

 Abhinavagupta remarks: this is the great secret (Etad Guhyam Mahaguhyam); this is the source of the emergence of the universe; and, this is the withdrawal of the mundane into the sublime Absolute. And, this also celebrates the wonder and delight (Chamatkara) emanating from the union of the two Shiva and Shakthi.


[ In all the voluminous and complex writings of Abhinavagupta, the symbolism of Heart (Hrudaya) plays an important role. He perhaps meant it to denote ‘the central point or the essence’. His religious vision is explained through the symbol of heart, at three levels – the ultimate reality, the method and the experience. The first; the Heart, that is, the ultimate nature (anuttara – there is nothing beyond) of all reality, is Shiva. The second is the methods and techniques employed (Sambhavopaya) to realize that ultimate reality.  And, the third is   to bring that ideal into ones experience.

The Heart here refers, in his words ‘to an experience that moves the heart (hrudaya-angami-bhuta). He calls the third, the state of realization as Bhairavatva, the state of the Bhairava. He explains through the symbolism of Heart to denote   the ecstatic light of consciousness as ‘Bhaira-agni-viliptam’, engulfed by the light of Bhairava that blazes and flames continuously. Sometimes, he uses the term ‘nigalita’ melted or dissolved in the purifying fire-pit the yajna–vedi of Bhairava. He presents the essential nurture (svabhava) of Bhairava as the  self-illuminating (svaprakasha) light of consciousness (Prakasha).  And, Bhairava is the core phenomenon (Heart – Hrudaya) and the ultimate goal of all spiritual Sadhanas.

When we use the term ‘understanding’, we also need to keep in view the sense in which Abhinavagupta used the term.  He makes a distinction between the understanding that is purely intellectual and the one that is truly experienced. The latter is the Heart of one’s Sadhana.

The Heart of Abhinavagupta is that a religious vision is not merely intellectual, emotional or imagined. But, it is an experience that is at once pulsating, powerful and transforming our very existence.

The Triadic Heart of Siva by Paul Eduardo Muller-Ortega]


In the next part let’s see the explanations and the discussions provided by Bhartrhari on the various levels of the language (Vac).



In the

 Next Part

Sources and References

Abhinavagupta and the word: some thoughts By Raffaele Torella

Sanskrit terms for Language and Speech

The Four levels of Speech in Tantra

Bettina Baeumer -Second Lecture – Some Fundamental Conceptions of Tantra

 Sphota theory of Bhartrhari

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

Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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



Posted by on April 8, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight

Vac and Sarasvathi

sarasvathi Mysore style

A. Vac

The Rig-Veda, in its several hymns, contains glorious references to the power of speech.  An entire Sukta (RV. 10.7l) is devoted to the subject of speech; its various kinds ranging from the articulated to the in-articulate sounds in nature and to the gestures (ingita). For the Vedic seers who herd and spoke about their experiences, speech was the most wonderful gift from the divine. The splendour and beauty of Vac, the personification of wisdom and eloquence, is sung in several hymns. It is said; the Rishis secured the power of divine speech through Yajna; studied it; and, revealed it for the benefit of the common people.

Yajnena vaeah padavlyan ayan tam anv avladan rslsa praviatam tam abhnya vy adadhnh pnrutra tarn sapta rebha abhi sain navante (RV.10.71)

Vac is the inexplicable creative power of speech which gives form to the formless; gives birth to existence and lends identity to objects by naming them. It is the faculty which gives expression to ideas; calms the agitated minds; and, enables one to hear, see, grasp, and then describe in words or by other means the true nature of things. Vac is intimately associated with the Rishis and the riks (verses) that articulate or capture the truths of their visions. Vac, the navel of energy, the mysterious presence in nature, was, therefore, held in great reverence. Many of the later philosophical theories on this unique human faculty, the language, have their roots in Vedas.

 [ While the Rishis of the early Vedas were overwhelmed by the power of speech, the philosophers of the Upanishads asked such questions as: who is the speaker? Who inspires one to speak? Can the speech truly know the source of its inspiration?  They doubted; though the speech is the nearest embodiment of the in-dweller (Antaryamin) it might not truly know its source (just as the body cannot know its life-principle). Because, they observed, at the very beginning, the Word was un-uttered and hidden (avyahriam); it was silence. Ultimately, all those speculations led to the Self. But, again they said that Self is beyond mind and words (Avachyam; yato vacho nivartante, aprapya manasaa saha) ]


In the Rig-Veda, Vac, generally, denotes speech which gives an intelligent expression to ideas, by use of words; and it is the medium of exchange of knowledge. Vac is the vision, as also, the ability to turn that perceived vision into words.   In the later periods, the terms such as Vani, Gira and such others were treated as its synonyms.

Yaska (Ca. 5th-6th BCE), the great Etymologist of the ancient India, describes speech (Vac) as the divine gift to humans to clearly express their thoughts (devim vacam ajanayanta- Nir. 11.29); and, calls the purified articulate speech as Paviravi – sharp as the resonance (tanyatu) of the thunderbolt which originates from an invisible power (Tad devata vak paviravi. paviravi cha divya Vac tanyatus tanitri vaco’nyasyah – Nir. 12.30).

Vac, the speech-principle (Vac-tattva), has numerous attributes and varied connotations in the Rig-Veda.  Vac is not mere speech. It is something more sacred than ordinary speech; and carries with it a far wider significance.  Vac is the truth (ninya vachasmi) and the index of the integrity one’s inner being. A true-speech (Satya-vac) honestly reflects the vision of the Rishi, the seer. It is through such sublime Vac that the true nature of objects, as revealed to the Rishis (kavyani kavaye nivacana), is expressed in pristine poetry. Their superb ability to grasp multiple dimensions of human life, ideals and aspirations is truly remarkable.  Vac is thus a medium of expression of the spiritual experience of the Rig Vedic intellectuals who were highly dexterous users of the words. Being free from falsehood, Vac is described in the Rig-Veda as illuminating or inspiring noble thoughts (cetanti sumatlnam).

Chandogya Upanishad (7.2.1) asserts that Vac ( speech)  is  deeper than name (worldly knowledge) – Vag-vava namno bhuyasi  –  because speech is what communicates (Vac vai vijnapayati) all outer worldly knowledge as well as what is right and what is wrong (dharmam cadharmam) ; what is true and what is false (satyam canrtam ca); what is good and what is bad (sadhu casadhu ca); and, what is pleasant and what is unpleasant ( hrdayajnam cahrdayajnam ca).  Speech alone makes it possible to understand all this (vag-eva etat sarvam vijnapayati). Worship Vac (vacam upassveti).

dharmam cadharmam ca satyam canrtam ca sadhu casadhu ca hrdayajnam cahrdayajnam ca; yad-vai van nabhavisyat na dharmo nadharmo vyajnapayisyat, na satyam nanrtam na sadhu na’sadhu na hrdayajno na’hrdayajna vag-eva etat sarvam vijnapayati, vacam upassveti.

[Vac when translated into English is generally rendered as Word. That, however, is not a very satisfactory translation. Vac might, among many other things, also mean speech, voice, utterance, language, sound or word; but, it is essentially the creative force that brings forth all forms expressions as also the existence. It is an emanation from out of silence which is the Absolute. Vac is also the river and the embodied or god-personified as word, as well. It may not, therefore, be appropriate to translate Vac as Word in all events. One, therefore, always needs to take into account the context of its usage.]

There are four kinds of references to Vac in Rig Veda : Vac is speech in general; Vac also symbolises cows that provide nourishment; Vac is also primal waters prior to creation; and, Vac is personified as the goddess revealing the word. And, at a later stage, commencing with the Brahmanas, Vac gets identified with Sarasvathi the life-giving river, as also with the goddess of learning and wisdom.

According to Sri Sayana, Sarasvathi – Vac is depicted as a goddess of learning (gadya-padya rupena–prasaranmasyamtiti–Sarasvathi- Vagdevata)

Vac as Speech

As speech, the term Vāk or Vāc (वाक्), grammatically, is a feminine noun. Vac is variously referred to – Syllable (akshara or Varna), word (Sabda), sentence (vakya), speech (Vachya), voice (Nada or Dhvani), language (bhasha) and literature (Sahitya).

While in the Rig-Veda, the Yajnas are a means for the propitiation of the gods, in the Brahmanas Yagnas become  very purpose of human existence ; they are the ends in themselves. Many of the Brahmana texts are devoted to the exposition of the mystic significance of the various elements of the ritual (Yajna-kriya). The priests who were the adepts in explaining the objectives, the significance, the symbolisms and the procedural details of the Yajnas came into prominence. The all-knowing priest who presides over  , and directs the  course and conduct of  the Soma sacrifice is designated as Brahma; while the three other sets of priests who chant the mantras are named as hotar, adhvaryu, and udgatru

Here, Brahman is the definitive voice (final-word); while the chanting of the mantras   by the other three priests is taken to be Vac. Brahma (word) and Vac (speech) are said to be partners working closely towards the good (shreya)   and for the fulfilment of the performer or the patron’s (Yajamana) aspirations (kamya).  And, Brahma the one who presides and   controls the course of the Yajna is accorded a higher position over the chanters of the mantras. It was said; Vac (chanting) extends so far as the Brahma allows (yaávad bráhma vistham taávatii vaák– RV.10.114.8).

It was said;   if word is flower, speech is the garland. And, if Vac is the weapons, it is Brahma that sharpens them – codáyaami ta aáyudhaa vácobhih sám te shíshaami bráhmanaa váyaamsi. (RV 10.120.5 and 9.97.34)

According to Sri Sayana (Ca.14th century of Vijayanagara period and brother of the celebrated Sri Vidyaranya), the seven-metres (Chhandas) revered for their perfection and resonance (Gayatrl, Usnih, Anustubh, Brihati, Pankti, Tristubh, and the Jagati) are to be identified with Vac.

Dandin (6th century), the poet-scholar, the renowned author of prose romance and an expounder on poetics, describes Vac as the light called Sabda (s’abdahvyam jyotih); and, states that “the three worlds would have been thrown into darkness had there been no light called Sabda”.

Bharthari also asserted   that, all knowledge is illumined through words, and it is quite not possible to have cognition that is free from words (tasmād arthavidhā sarvā śabdamātrāsu niśritā Vakyapadiya: 1.123); ‘no thought is possible without language’; and ’there is no cognition without the process of words’.

And, Bhartrhari declares- ‘It is Vac which has created all the worlds’- vageva viswa bhuvanani jajne (Vakyapadiya. 1.112)

The concept of Vac  was extended  to cover oral and  aural  forms such as : expression , saying , phrase  ,  utterance sentence, and also the languages of all sorts including gesture (ingita).

Yaska says that all kinds of creatures and objects created by God speak a language of their own, either articulate or in-articulate (devastam sarvarupah pasavo vadanti, vyakta vac-ascha- avyakta- vacacha – Nir. 11.29).  He says that the Vac of humans is intelligible, articulate (vyakta vaco manushyadayah) and distinct (Niruktam); while the speech of the cows (animals) is indistinct (avyakta vaco gavayah).  Thus , Vac includes   even the sounds of animals and birds; mewing of cows, crackle of the frogs, twitter of the birds, sway of the trees and the breeze of hills;   and also the sounds emanated by inanimate objects such as : the cracking noise  of the  fissures in the stones due to friction  ; as also the beats of drum , the sound of an instrument.

Even the rumbling of the clouds, the thunder of the lightening and the rippling sounds of the streams are said to be the forms of Vac (praite vadantu pravayam vadama gravabhyo vacam vadata vadadbhyah – RV. 10.94.1)

It was said; the extant of Vac is as wide as the earth and fire. Vac is even extolled as having penetrated earth and heaven, holding together all existence. As Yaska remarks: Vac is omnipresent and eterna1 (vyaptimattvat tu Sabdasya – Nir.I.2)

Vac (word) belongs to both the worlds – the created and un-created.  It is both the subject of speech and the object of speech.

The Tantra ideology identified Vac with the vibrations of the primordial throb (adya-spanda) that set the Universe in motion; and , said  that all objects of the Universe are created by  that sound –artha-srsteh puram sabda-srstih.  

Thus, Vac broadly represents the spoken word or speech; its varied personified forms; and also the oral and aural non-literary sounds forms emanating from all animal and plant life as also the objects in nature.  Vac is, verily, the very principle underlying every kind of sound, speech and language in nature.

And, Vac goes beyond speech. Vac is indeed both speech and  consciousness (chetana), as all actions and powers are grounded in Vac. It is the primordial energy out of which all existence originates and subsists. Vac is also the expression of truth.

Yajnavalkya in the   Brhadaranyaka Upanishad explaining the relation between Vac and consciousness says that Vac (speech) is a form of expression of consciousness. And, he argues, there could be no speech without consciousness. However,  Consciousness does not directly act upon the principle of speech; but , it  operates through intermediary organs and breath to deliver speech.

Rishi Dīrghatamas exclaims: “When I partake a portion of this Vac, I get the first part of truth, immediately (maagan-prathamaja-bhagam-aadith-asya-Vac)” (RV. I.164.37.) But, he also says:”Vac has four quarters; only the wise that are well trained, endowed with intelligence and understanding know them all. For the rest; the three levels remain concealed and motionless. Mortals speak only with the fourth (RV. 1.164.45).”

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

Vac as goddess

Vac is also Vac Devi the divinity personified. Vac is called the supreme goddess established in Brahman Iyam ya paramesthini Vac Devi Brahma-samsthita (Rig-Veda.19.9.3).

She gives intelligence to those who love her. She is elegant, golden hued and embellished in gold (Hiranya prakara). She is the mother, who gave birth to things by naming them. She is the power of the Rishis. She enters into the inspired poets and visionaries, gives expression and vitality to those she blesses; and, enables them to turn precious knowledge into words. She is also said to have entered into the sap (Rasa) of plants and trees, pervading and enlivening all vegetation (Satapatha-brahmana

It is said;  Vac the first offspring of the  Rta, the cosmic order or principle or the Truth (Satya).And that Truth (Rta)  is not static or a mere question of morality. but, it is the dynamic order of the entire reality out of which the whole of existence comes into being  . She is proclaimed as the mother of the Vedas and as immortal. Again, it is said that Prajapati produced goddess Vac so that she may be omnipresent and propel all activities. She is Prakrti. In the later Vedic traditions, Vac is hailed as the very reflection of the greatness of the creator – vagva asya svo mahima (SB.,; and, in the Nighantu (3.3), Vac occurs as a synonym of the terms describing greatness, vastness etc – mahat, brhat.

And, at one place, Vac is identified with Yajna itself unto whom offerings are made – Vac vai yajanam (Gopatha Br. 2.1.12). Further, Vac is also the life-supporting Soma; and for that reason Vac is called Amsumathi, rich with Soma.

The idea of personifying Vac as a goddess in a series of imagery associating her with creation, Yajna and waters etc and her depiction as Shakthi  richly developed in the later texts, is said to have been inspired by  the most celebrated Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha   or Vagambhari Sukta  (Rig Veda: 10.125) . Here, the daughter of Ambhrna, declares herself as Vac the Queen of the gods (Aham rastri), the highest principle that supports all gods, controller all beings and manifest universally in all things.

Aham rastri samgamani vasunam cikitusi prathama yajniyanam / Tam ma deva vy adadhuh purutra Bhunisthatram bhury avesayantim // 3

She declares: It is I who blow like the wind, reaching all beings (creatures). Beyond heaven and beyond the earth I have come-to-be by this greatness.

Ahameva vata iva pra vamyarabhamana bhuvanani visva / paro diva para ena prthivyaitavat mahina sarri babhuva // 8

Vac, the primal energy the Great Mother Goddess, is thus described in various ways.

Vac is identified with all creation which she pervades and at the same time she spreads herself far beyond it. She is the divine energy that controls all and is manifest in all beings: ‘tam ma deva vyadadhuh purutra / bhuristhatram bhurya vesayantim’. Whatever the gods do they do so for her; and, all activities of living beings such as thinking, eating, seeing, breathing, hearing etc., are because of her grace.

[At another level, it is said; there are three variations of Vac the goddess – Gauri Vac, Gauh Vac and Vac. Of these, the first two goddesses are said to be personifications of the sound of thunder, whereas the goddess Vac is a deity of speech or sounds uttered or produced by earthly beings.

Gauri Vac, described as having a number of abodes (adhisthana-s) in various objects and places like the clouds, the sun, the mid-region, the different directions so on , is said to be  associated with sending forth rains to the earth, so that life may  come to being, flourish   and prosper on it perpetually.

Gauh Vac on the other hand is described in a highly symbolical language portrayed as cow. In the traditional texts, Vac, which expresses the wonder and mysteries of speech, was compared to the wish-fulfilling divine cow (dhenur vagasman, upasustutaitu –RV. 8.100.11). And, in the much discussed Asya Vamiya Sukta ascribed to Rishi Dirghatamas, Vac again is compared to a cow of infinite form which reveals to us in various forms (Gauri mimaaya… sahsraaraparame vyoman- Rig Veda 1.164).


Gauh Vac is symbolically depicted as a milch-cow that provides nourishment; and one which is accompanied by her calf (please see note below *). She constantly cuddles her calf with great love, and lows with affection for her infant. It is explained: the rains are her milk, the lowing sound made by her is the sound of thunder and the calf is the earth. Gauh Vac is hailed in the Rig-Veda (8.101.15) as the mother principle, the source of nourishment (pusti) and bestowing immortality (amrutatva).

And Vac is the goddess of speech; and, her origins too are in the mid-regions (atmosphere). Just as Gauh Vac, she also is compared to a milch cow that provides food, drink and nourishment to humans.

And again, the goddess Vac and goddess Sarasvathi are both described as having their origin or their abodes in the mid-region (Antariksha). Both are associated with showering the life-giving rains on the parched earth. And, Sarasvathi is also said to shower milk, ghee, butter, honey and water to nourish the student (adhyéti) reciting the Pavamani (purification) verses  which hold  the  essence of life (Rasa) , as gathered by the Rishis  (ŕ̥ibhi sámbhr̥ta ) – (Rig-Veda. 11.67.32).

Pāvamānī́r yo adhyéti ŕ̥ṣibhi sámbhr̥ta rásam | tásmai sárasvatī duhe kīrá sarpír mádhūdakám |11.67.32| ]

[* Note on cow

In the early texts, the cow is compared to Earth as an exemplary symbol of Motherhood. She is the life-giving, nourishing Mother par excellence who cares for all beings and nature with selfless love and boundless patience. The Mother goddesses such as Aditi, Prithvi, Prsni (mother of Maruts), Vac, Ushas and Ila all are represented by the cow-symbolism.

Further, the nourishing and life-supporting rivers too are compared to cows (e.g. RV. 7.95.2; 8.21.18). For instance; the Vipasa and the Sutudri the two gentle flowing rivers are said to be two be like loving mothers who slowly lick their younglings with care and love (RV. 3.33.1)

The cow in her universal aspect is lauded in RV.1.164.17 and RV. 164.27-29. She manifests herself together with her calf; she is sacrosanct (aghanya), radiant, the guardian mother of Vasus.  She created the whole of existence by her will.

Sri Aurobindo explains: in many of these  hymns,  milk (literally, that which nourishes) represents the pure white light of knowledge and clarified butter the resultant state of a clear mind or luminous perception, with bliss, symbolized by the honey (or Soma), as the essence of both. ]

Vac as Water (Apah)

Vac is sometimes identified with waters, the primeval principle for the creation of the Universe.

In the Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha  of Rig Veda (RV.10. 10.125), Apah, the waters, is conceived as the birth place of Vac. And, Vac who springs forth from waters touches all the worlds with her flowering body and gives birth to all existence. She indeed is Prakrti.  Vac is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In an intense and highly charged superb piece of inspired poetry Vac declares “I sprang from waters there from I permeate the infinite expanse with a flowering body. I move with Rudras and Vasus. I walk with the Sun and other Gods. It is I who blows like the wind creating all the worlds”.

Vac as Brahman

Ultimately, Vac is identified with Brahman, the Absolute.

:- According to Sri Sayana, the  Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha   is a philosophical composition in which Vac the Brahmavidushi daughter of seer Ambhrna, after having realised her identity with Brahman – the ultimate cause of all, has lauded her own self. As such , she is both the seer and Vac the deity of this hymn. And Vac, he asserts, is verily the Brahman.

saccit sukhatmakah sarvagatah paramatma devata / tena hyesa tadatmyam anubhavanti sarva-  jagadrupena , sarvasyadhistanatvena sarvam bhavamti svatmanam stauti – (Sri Sayana on 10.125.1)

:-  In the fourth chapter of the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad, Yajnavalkya speaking about the nature of Vac, equated it with the Brahman (vāg vai brahmeti)  

: – The Jaimimya Upanishad Brahmana (2.8.6) also states that Vac indeed is the Brahman – Vagiti Brahma

 : Similarly the Aittariya Brahmana (4.211) declares: Brahma vai vak

 : – Bhartrhari commences his work of great genius, the Vakyapadia, with the verse (Shastra-arambha):

Anādinidhana Brahma śabdatattva yadakaram / vivartate arthabhāvena prakriyā jagato yata– VP.1.1.

[The ultimate reality, Brahman, is the imperishable principle of language, without beginning and end, and the evolution of the entire world occurs from this language-reality in the form of its meaning.]

It is explained; the Sabda, mentioned here is just not the pronounced or uttered word; it is indeed the Vac    existing before creation of the worlds. It is the Vac that brings the   world into existence. Bhartrhari, thus, places the word-principle – Vac – at the very core (Bija) of existence That Vac, – according to Bhartrhari is not merely the creator and sustainer of the universe but is also the sum and substance of it.

And, Vac as Sabda-Brahman is the creative force that brings forth all existence. Vac is also the consciousness (chit, samvid), vital energy (prana shakthi) that vibrates (spanda). It is an emanation from out of silence, which is the Absolute.

That Sabda-tattva (Sabdasya tattvam or Sabda eva tattvam) of Bhartrhari is of the nature of the Absolute; and, there is no distinction between Sabda Brahman and Para Brahman the Supreme Principle (Para tattva).  

 : – Vac was considered manifestation of all-pervading Brahman; and, Pranava (Aum) was regarded the primordial speech-sound from which all forms of speech emanated


B. Sarasvathi

In the Rig-Veda, Sarasvathi is the name of the celestial river par excellence (deviyā́m), as also its personification as a goddess (Devi) Sarasvathi, filled with love and bliss (bhadram, mayas).

And Sarasvathi is not only one among the seven sister-rivers (saptásvasā), but also is the dearest among the gods (priyā́ deveu).

Again, it is said, the Sarasvathi as the divine stream has filled the earthly regions as also the wide realm of the mid-world (antárikam) – āpaprúī pā́ rthivāni urú rájo antárikam | sárasvatī nidás pātu | ( RV. 6-61-11)

Sarasvathi as the River


Invoked in three full hymns (R V.6.6.61; 7.95; and 7.96) and numerous other passages, the Sarasvathi, no doubt, is the most celebrated among the rivers.

It is said; the word Sarasvathi is derived from the root ‘Sarah’, meaning water (as in Sarasi-ja, lotus – the one born in water). In the Nighantu (1.12), Sarah is one of the synonyms for water. That list of synonyms for water, in the Nighantu, comes immediately next to that of the synonyms for speech (Vac). Yaska also confirms that the term Sarasvathi primarily denotes the river (Sarasvathi Sarah iti- udakanama sartes tad vati –Nirukta.9.26). Thus, the word Sarasvathi derived from the word Sarah stands for Vagvathi (Sabdavathi) and also for Udakavathi.

The mighty Sarasvathi , the ever flowing river,  is also adored as Sindhu-mata, which term is explained by Sri Sayana as ‘apam matrubhuta’ the mother-principle of all waters; and also   as ‘Sindhunam Jalam va mata’ – the Mother of the rivers , a perennial source of number of other rivers . The Sarasvathi (Sarasvathi Saptathi sindhu-mata) of the early Vedic age must have been a truly grand opulent river full of vigour and vitality (Sarasvathi sindhubhih pinvamana- RV.6.52.6) on which the lives of generations upon generations prospered (hiranyavartnih).

[The geo-physical studies and satellite imagery seems to suggest that the dried up riverbed of the Ghaggar-Hakra might be the legendary Vedic Saraswati River with Drishadvati and Apaya as its tributaries.  For more ; please check Vedic river and Hindu civilization edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman.


It is said in the Rig-Veda; on the banks of Sarasvathi the sages (Rishayo) performed yajnas (Satram asata) – Rishayo vai Sarasvathyam satram asata). The Rig-Veda again mentions that on the most auspicious days; on the most auspicious spot on earth; on the banks of the Drishadvati, Apaya and Sarasvathi Yajnas (Ahanam) were conducted.

ni tva dadhe vara a prthivya ilayspade sudinatve ahnam; Drsadvaty am manuse apayayam sarasvatyamrevad agne didhi – RV.3.23.4 ]

There are abundant hymns in the Rig-Veda, singing the glory and the majesty  of the magnificent  Sarasvathi that surpasses all other waters in greatness , with her mighty (mahimnā́ , mahó mahī́ ) waves (ūrmíbhir)  tearing away the heights of the mountains as she roars along her  way towards the ocean (ā́ samudrā́t).

Rihi Gtsamada adores Sarasvathi as the divine (Nadinam-asurya), the best of the mothers, the mightiest of the rivers and the supreme among the goddesses (ambitame nadltame devitame Sarasvati).   And, he prays to her:  Oh Mother Saraswati, even though we are not worthy, please grant us merit.

Ámbitame nádītame dévitame sárasvati apraśastā ivasmasi praśastim amba naskdhi – (RV 2.41.16)

Sarasvathi is the most sacred and purest among rivers (nadinam shuci). Prayers are submitted to the most dear (priyatame) seeking refuge (śárman) in her – as under a sheltering tree (śaraá vr̥kám). She is our best defence; she supports us (dharuam); and, protects us like a fort of iron (ā́yasī pū́).

The Sarasvathi , the river that  outshines all other waters in greatness  and majesty is celebrated with love and reverence; and, is repeatedly lauded with choicest epithets, in countless ways: uttara sakhibhyah (most liberal to her friends); vegavatinam vegavattama (swiftest among the most speedy); pra ya mahimna mahinasu cekite dyumnebhiranya apasamapastama – the one whose powerful limitless  (yásyā anantó) , unbroken (áhrutas) swiftly flowing (cariṣṇúr aravá) impetuous  resounding current and  roaring (róruvat) floods,     moving with rapid force , like a chariot (rathíyeva yāti ), rushes  onward towards the ocean (samudrā́t)  with tempestuous roar;  bursting the ridges of the hills (paravataghni) with mighty waves .. and so on.

yásyā anantó áhrutas tveáś cariṣṇúr aravá | ámaś cárati róruvat | (RV. 6-61-8)

The Sarasvathi, most beloved among the beloved (priyā́ priyā́ su) is the ever-flowing bountiful (subhaga; ́jebhir vājínīvatī) energetic (balavati) stream of abounding beauty and grace (citragamana citranna va) which purifies and brings fruitfulness to earth, yielding rich harvest and prosperity (Sumrdlka). She is the source of vigour and strength. She personifies purity (Pavaka); her waters which are sweet (madhurah payah) have the life-extending (ayur-vardhaka) healing (roga-nashaka) medicinal (bhesajam) powers – (apsvantarapsu bhesajamapamuta prasastaye – RV. 1.23.19).

She is indeed the life (Jivita) and also the nectar (amrtam) that grants immortality. Sarasvathi, our mother (Amba! yo yanthu) the life giving maternal divinity, is dearly loved as the benevolent (Dhiyavasuh) protector of the Yajna – Pavaka nah Sarasvathi yagnam vashtu dhiyavasuh (RV. 1.3).

Sarasvathi is depicted as a purifier (pavaka nah sarasvathi) – internal and external. She purifies the body, heart and mind of men and women (10.17.10); and inspires in them pure, noble and pious thoughts (1.3.1012). Sarasvathi also cleanses poison from men, from their environment and from all nature (6.61.3).

Prayers are submitted to Mother Sarasvathi, beseeching her:  please cleanse me and remove whatever sin or evil that has entered into me. Pardon me for whatever evils I might have committed, the lies I have uttered, and the false oaths I might have sworn.

Idamapah pravahata yat kimca duritam mayi, yadva ahamabhidudroha, yadva sepe utanrtam (RV.1.23.22)

The beauty of Sarasvathi is praised through several attributes, such as: Shubra (clean and pure); Suyanam, Supesha, Surupa (all terms suggesting a sense of beauty and elegance); Su-vigraha (endowed with a beauteous form) and Saumya (pleasant and easily accessible). Sri Sayana describes the beauteous form of Sarasvathi: “yamyate niyamytata iti   yamo vigrahah, suvigraha…”

Sarasvathi is described by a term that is not often used  : ’ Vais’ambhalya’ , the one who brings up, nurtures and protects the whole of human existence – visvam prajanam bharanam, poshanam – with abundant patience and infinite love. Sri Sayana, in his Bhashya (on Taittiriya-Brahmana, 2. 5.4.6) explains the term as: Vlsvam prajanam bharanam poshanam Vais’ambham tatkartum kshama vaisambhalya tidrsi.

Thus, the term Vais’ambhalya pithily captures the nature of the nourishing, honey-like sweet (madhu madharyam ) waters of the divine Sarasvathi who sustains life (vijinivathi) ; enriching the soil ; providing abundant food (anna-samrddhi-yukte; annavathi) and  nourishment (pusti) to all beings; causing overfull milk in cows (kshiram samicinam); as  Vajinivathi enhancing vigour  and strength  in horses ( vahana-samarthyam)  ; and , blessing all of existence with happiness  (sarvena me sukham ) – (Sri Sayana’s  Bhashya on  Taittiriya-Brahmana).

Sarasvathi as goddess

Saraswati on Dark Green Ground

Yaska mentions that Sarasvathi is worshipped both as the river (nadi) and as the goddess (devata) – (vak kasmat vaces tatra Sarasvathi ity etasya nadivad devatavach cha nigamah bhavanti – Nirukta.2.23).

Yaska categorizes Sarasvathi as the goddess of mid-region – Madhya-sthana striyah.

Sri Sayana commenting on RV. 1.3.12, also mentions that Sarasvathi was celebrated both as river and as a deity – Dvi-vidha hi Sarasvathi vigrahavad-devata nadi rupa-cha.

 Following Yaska, Sri Sayana also regarded Sarasvathi as a divinity of the mid-region- ‘madhyama-sthana hi vak Sarasvathi’; and as a personification of the sound of thunder.

Thus, Sarasvathi, a deity of the atmosphere is associated with clouds, thunder, lightening, rains and water.  As Sri Aurobindo said; the radiant one has expressed herself in the forming of the flowing Waters.  

[Sri Aurobindo explaining the symbolism of thunder and lightning, says: the thunder is sound of the out-crashing of the word (Sabda) of Truth (Satya –vac); and, the lightning as the out-flashing of its sense (Artha) ]

Mysore style of painting of Sri Sharadamba

John Muir (Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India) remarks: It seems that Vedic seers were not satisfied with the river-form of Sarasvati; and, in order to make the river a living and active entity that alone could hear them, they regarded it as a river-goddess.

Thus, Sarasvati is a river at first; and, later conceived as a goddess

Sarasvathi, the best of the goddesses (Devi-tame) and the dearest among the gods (priyā́ deveu) is associated with Prtri-s (departed forefathers- svadhā́ bhir Devi pitŕ̥bhir; sárasvatī́m pitáro hávante) as also with many other deities and with the Yajna. She is frequently invited to take seat in the Yajnas along with other goddesses such as: Ila, Bharathi, Mahi, Hotra, Varutri, Dishana Sinivali, Indrani etc.

She is also part of the trinity (Tridevi) of Sarasvathi, Lakshmi and Parvati. 

Sarasavathi as Devata, the Goddess is also said to be one of the three aspects of Gayatri (Tri-rupa –Gayatri): Gayatri, Savitri and Sarasvathi. Here, while Gayatri is the protector of life principles; Savitri of Satya (Truth and integrity of all Life); Sarasvathi is the guardian of the wisdom and virtues of life. And, Gayatri is said to manifest in three forms: as Gayatri the morning (pratah-savana) as Brahma svarupini; Savitri in the midday (madyanh savana) as Rudra svarupini; and, as Sarasvathi in the evening (saayam savana) as Vishnu svarupini.

[ Sri Aurobindo interprets the divine Sarasvathi, the goddess of the Word, the stream of inspiration as: an ever flowing great flood (mahó ára)  of consciousness; the awakener (cétantī, prá cetayati)  to right-thinking (sumatīnām); as inspirer (codayitrī ́) who illumines ( vi rājati) all (víśvā) our thoughts (dhíyo); and, as truth-audition, śruti, which gives the inspired perception (ketúnā) – mahó ára sárasvatī prá cetayati ketúnā | dhíyo víśvā ví rājati –  RV.  I.3. 12]

Prayers are also submitted to Sarasvathi to grant great wealth (abhí no nei vásyo), highly nourishing food (aṁ, páyasā) and more progeny (prajā́ṁ devi didiḍḍhi na); to treat us as her friends (juásva na sakhiyā́ veśíyā); and, not let us stray into inhospitable fields (́ tvát kétrāi áraāni gamma) – RV. 6-61-14. Sarasvathi, thus, is also Sri.

The goddess Sarasvathi is also the destroyer of Vrta and other demons that stand for darkness (Utasya nah Sarasvati ghora Hiranyavartanih / Vrtraghni vasti sustuition).


In the Rig-Veda, the goddess Sarasvathi is associated, in particular with two other goddesses: Ila and Bharathi.

The Apri Sukta hymns (the invocation hymns recited just prior to offering the oblations into Agni) mention a group of three great goddesses (Tisro Devih) – Ila, Bharathi and Sarasvathi – who are invoked to take their places and grace the Yajna (ā no yajña bhāratī tyam etu, iā manuvad iha cetayantī; tisro devīr barhir eda syona, sarasvatī svapasa sadantu- RV.10.110)  . They bring delight and well-being to their devotees.

The three -Ida, Bharathi and Sarasvathi – who are said to be manifestations of the Agni (Yajnuagni), are also called tri-Sarasvathi.

[In some renderings, Mahi (ta bhat , the vast or great) is mentioned in place of Bharathi: Ila, Sarasvathi, Mahi tisro devir mayobhuvah; barhih sIdantvasridah. And Mahi, the rich, delightful and radiant (bhat jyotiḥ) goddess of blissful truth (ta jyoti; codayitrī sntānām), covering vast regions (vartrī dhiaā) is requested to bring happiness to the performer of the Yajna, for whom she is like a branch richly laden with ripe fruits (evā hyasya sntā, virapśī gomatī mahī; pakvā śākhā na dāśue – RV.1.8.8).

  And, Ila is sometimes mentioned as Ida. ]

Among these Tisro Devih, Sarasvathi, the mighty, illumines with her brilliance and brightness inspires all pious thoughts (RV.1.3.12 ;). Her aspects of wisdom and eloquence are praised, sung in several hymns. She evokes pleasant songs, brings to mind gracious thoughts; and she is requested to accept our offerings (RV.1.3.11)

Bharathi is hailed as speech comprising all   subjects (sarva-visaya-gata vak) and as that which energises all beings (Visvaturith)

Ila is a gracious goddess (sudanuh, mrlayanti devi). She is personified as the divine cow, mother of all realms (yuthasya matha), granting (sudanu) bounteous gifts of nourishments. She has epithets, such as: Prajavathi and Dhenumati (RV. 8.31. 4). She is also the personification of flowing libation (Grita). She is the presiding deity of Yajna, in general (RV.3.7.25)

According to Sri Sayana Ila, as nourishment, (RV.7.16.8) is the personification of the oblation (Havya) offered in the Yajna (annarupa havir-laksana devi). Such offerings of milk and butter are derivatives of the cow. And Ila, in the Brahmana texts, is related to the cow. And, in the Nighantu (2.11), Ila is one of the synonyms of the cow. Because of the nature of the offering, Ila is called butter-handed (RV. 7.16.8) and butter –footed (RV. 10.70.8).

The three goddesses (Tisro Devih) are interpreted as: three goddesses representing three regions: Ida the earth; Sarasvathi the mid-region; and Bharathl, the heaven. And again, these three goddesses are also said to be three types of speech.

Sri Sayana commenting on the verse tisró vacaa irayati prá váhniron… (RV.9.97.34), mentions Ida (Ila), Sarasvathi and Bharathi as the levels of speech or languages spoken in three regions (Tripada, Tridasatha – earth, firmaments and heaven). Among these goddesses, he names Bharathi as Dyusthana Vac (upper regions); Sarasvathi as Madhyamika Vac (mid-region); and Ida as the speech spoken by humans (Manushi) on the earth (prthivi praisadirupa).  Another interpretation assigns Bharathi, Sarasvathi and Ila the names of three levels of speech: Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari..

According to Sri Aurobindo, Ida, Sarasvathi and Bharathi represent Drsti (vision), Sruti (hearing) and Satya the integrity of the truth-consciousness.


C.  Vac identified with Sarasvathi

Rig-Veda does not, of course, equates Vac with Sarasvathi. But, it is in the Brahmana texts, the Nighantu, the Nirukta and the commentaries of the traditional scholars that Vac is identified with Sarasvathi, the Madhyamika Vac. The later Atharva-veda also speaks of Vac and Sarasvathi as one

It is particularly in the Brahmana that the identity of Vac with Sarasvathi begins – ‘vag vai Sarasvathi’ (Aitareya Brahmana 3.37). The notions such as – the one who worships Sarasvathi pleases Vac, because Vac is Sarasvathi – take root in the Brahmanas (yat sarasvatlm yajati vag vai sarasvatl; vacam eva tat prlnati atha – SB. 5.2). And, Gopatha Brahmana (2.20) in an almost an identical statement says that worship of Sarasvathi pleases Vac, because Vac is Sarasvathi (atha yat sarasvatim yajati, vag vai Sarasvathi, vacham eva tena prinati). Also, in the ancient Dictionary, the Nighantu (1.11), the term Sarasvathi is listed among the synonym s of Vac.

Such identification of Vac with Sarasvathi carries several connotations, extending over to the Speech; to the sacred river; and, to the delightful goddess inspiring true speech and sharp intellect, showering wisdom and wealth upon one who worships her devotedly.

As speech

As speech, Sarasvathi as Vac is adored as the power of truth, free from blemishes; inspiring and illuminating noble thoughts (chetanti sumatim). In the Taittariya Brahmana, the auspicious (subhage), the rich and plentiful (vajinivati) Vac is identified with Sarasvathi adored as the truth speech ‘Satya-vac’.

 Sarasvathi subhage vajinlvati satyavachase bhare matim. idam te havyam ghrtavat sarasvati. Satyavachase prabharema havimsi- TB. II. 5.4.

The Vac-Sarasvathi, the power of speech, is hailed as the mother of Vedas – Veda Mata. She is the abode of all knowledge; the vast flood of truth (Maho arnah); the power of truth (Satya vacs); the guardian of sublime thoughts (dhinam avitri); the inspirer of good acts and thoughts; the mother of sweet but truthful words; the awakener of consciousness (chodayitri sunrtanam, chetanti sumatinam); the purifier (Pavaka); the bountiful blessing with vast riches (vajebhir vajinivati); and the protector of the Yajna (yajnam dadhe)

Pavaka nah Sarasvathi, vajebhir vajinivati; yajnam vastu dhiyavasuh. Chodayitri sunrtanam, cetanti sumatinam; yajnam dadhe Sarasvathi.  Maho arnah Sarasvathi, pra cetayati ketuna; dhiyo visva vi rajati. (Rig-Veda. 4.58.1)

[Sri Aurobindo’s translation: “May purifying Sarasvathi with all the plenitude of her forms of plenty, rich in substance by the thought, desire our sacrifice.”She, the impeller to happy truths, the awakener in consciousness to right metalizing, Sarasvathi, upholds the sacrifice.” “Sarasvathi by the perception awakens in consciousness the great flood (the vast movement of the ritam) and illumines entirely all the thought.]

Vac- Sarasvathi is regarded the very personification of pure (pavaka) thoughts, rich in knowledge or intelligence (Prajna or Dhi) – (vag vai dhiyavasuh)

Pavaka nah sarasvatl yajnam vastu dhiyavasur iti vag vai dhiyavasuh – AB. 1.14.

In the Shata-patha-Brahmana (5. 2.2.13-14) , Vac as Sarasvathi is first taken to be her  controlling power, the mind (manas), the abode of all thoughts and knowledge,  before they are expressed through speech.

Again, the Shata-patha-Brahmana (I.4.4.1; 3. 2.4.11) mentions the inter-relations among mind (manas), breath (prana) and Speech (Vac). The speech is evolved from mind; and put out through the help of breath. The speech (Vac) is called jlhva Sarasvati i.e., tongue, spoken word. Vac-Sarasvathi is also addressed as Gira, one who is capable to assume a human voice.

Taittirlya Brahmana refers to Sarasvathi as speech manifested through the help of the vital breath Prana; and, indeed even superior to Prana (vag vai sarasvatl tasmat prananam vag uttamam – Talttirlya Brahmana,

The Tandya Brahmana identifies Sarasvathi with Vac, the speech in the form of sound (sabda or dhvani).  Here, Sarasvathi is taken to be sabdatmika Vac, displaying the various form of speech (rupam) as also the object denoted by speech (vairupam): vag vai sarasvati, vag vairupam eva’smai taya yunakti – TB. 16. 5.16.

As said earlier; Sarasvathi along with Ila and Bharathi is identified with levels of speech (Vac). In these varied forms of identifications, Sarasvathi is the speech of the mid-position. For instance; Sarasvathi is Madhyamika Vac (while Bharathi is Dyusthana Vac and Ila is Manushi Vac. Similarly, Sarasvathi is Madhyama Vac (while Bharathi is Pashyanti and Ila is Vaikhari). And again, Sarasvathi is said to represent the mid-region (while Ida the earth and Bharathl, the heaven).

By the time of the later Vedic texts, the identity of Vac with Sarasvathi becomes very well established. The terms such as ‘Sarasvathi –Vacham’, ‘Vac- Sarasvathi’ etc come into use in the Aharva-Veda. Even the ordinary speech was elevated to the status of Vac.

As the River

In the Aitareya Brahmana (3.37) Vac is directly identified with the life giving Sarasvathi (vag vai Sarasvathi). Even its location is mentioned.  Vac is said to reside in the midst of Kuru-Panchalas – tasmad atro ‘ttari hi vag vadati kuru-panchalatra vvag dhy esa – SB. 3. 2.3.15.

The Vac-Sarasvathi in the form of river (Sarasvathi nadi rupe) is the generous (samrudhika) loving and life-giving auspicious (subhage) splendid Mother (Mataram sriyah), the purifying (pavaka) source of great delight   (aahladakari) and happiness (sukhasya bhavayitri) which causes all the good things of life to flourish.


D.  Sarasvathi as goddess in the later texts and traditions

Sarasvathi, in the post-Vedic period, was personified as the goddess of speech, learning and eloquence.

As the might of the river Sarasvathi tended to decline, its importance also lessened during the latter parts of the Vedas. Its virtues of glory, purity and importance gradually shifted to the next most important thing in their life – speech, excellence in use of words and its purity. Then, the emphasis moved from the river to the Goddess. With the passage of time, Sarasvathi’s association with the river gradually diminished. The virtues of Vac and the Sarasvathi (the river) merged into the divinity – Sarasvathi; and, she was recognized and worshipped as goddess of purity, speech, learning, wisdom, culture, art, music and intellect.

Vac which was prominent in the Rig Veda, as also Sarasvathi the mighty river of the early Vedic times had almost completely disappeared from common references in the later periods.

Vac merged into Sarasvathi and became one of her synonyms   as a goddess of speech or intellect or learning – as Vac, Vagdevi, and Vageshwari. And the other epithets of Vac, such as: Vachi (flow of speech), Veda-mata (mother of the Vedas), Vidya (the mother of all learning), Bhava (emotions) and Gandharva (guardian deity of musicians) – were all transferred to goddess Sarasvathi.

Similarly , the other Vedic goddesses – Ila, Bharathi, Gira, Vani , Girvani, Pusti,   Brahmi – all merged into Sarasvathi, the personified goddess of speech ( vāca sāma and vāco vratam) who enters into the inspired poets , musicians, artists and visionaries; and ,  gives expression and energy to those she loves (Kavi-jihva-gravasini)

Sarsavathi also acquired other epithets based on the iconography related to her form: Sharada (the fair one); Veena-pani (holding the veena); Pusthaka-pani (holding a book); japa   or akshamala-dharini (wearing rosary) etc.


E. Iconography

The iconography of goddess Sarasvathi that we are familiar with, of course, came into being during the later times; and, it was developed over a long period. There are varying   iconographic accounts of the goddess Sarasvathi. The Puranas (e.g.  Vishnudharmottara-purana, Agni-purana, Vayu-purana and Matsya-purana) ; the various  texts of the Shilpa- shastra (e.g. AmshumadbedhaShilpa-ratna, Rupamandana,  Purva-karana,  and Vastu-vidya-diparnava)  and Tantric texts ( Sri Vidyavarana Tantra  and Jayamata)  each came up with their own variation of Sarasvathi , while retaining her most uniformly accepted features.

The variations were mainly with regard to the disposition, attributes and the Ayudhas (objects held) of the deity. The objects she holds, which are meant to delineate her nature and disposition, are truly numerous. These include : Veena;  Tambura; book (pustaka); rosary (akshamala); water pot (kamandalu) ;  pot fille with nectar (amrutha-maya-ghata); lotus flowers (padma); mirror (darpana); parrot (Shuka); bow ( dhanus); arrow ( bana ); spear (shula), mace (gadha), noose( pasha); discus (chakra); conch (shankha); goad (ankusha);  bell (ghanta) and so on. Each of these Ayudhas carries its own symbolism; and, tries to bring forth an aspect of the deity. In a way of speaking, they are the symbols of a symbolism

In the case of Sarasvathi the book she holds in her hands symbolize the Vedas and learning; the Kamandalu (a water jug) symbolizes smruthi, vedanga and shastras; rosary symbolizes the cyclical nature of time; the musical instrument veena symbolizes music and her benevolent nature; the mirror signifies a clear mind and awareness; the Ankusha (goad) signifies exercising control over senses and baser instincts; and, the sceptre signifies her authority. The Shilpa-shastra employs these as symbols to expand, to depict and to interpret the nature of the idol, as also the values and virtues it represents.

There were also variations in the depictions of Sarasvathi  : complexion ( white (sweta) , red (raktha-varna) , blue  (nila) – as tantric deity and form of  Tara); number of eyes (two, three),number of arms ( four , six, eight), Posture ( seated – Asana, standing – sthanaka ; but never in reclining posture– shayana ), seated upon ( white lotus, red lotus or throne), wearing (white or red  or other coloured garments), ornaments ( rich or modest) and so on.

Interestingly, the early texts do not mention her Vahana (mount). But the latter texts provide her with swan or peacock as her Vahana or as symbolic attributes (lanchana).


The Shilpa text Vastu-vidya-diparnava lists twelve forms of Sarasvathi ( Vac sarasvathi, Vidya sarasvathi, Kamala, Jaya, Vijaya, Sarangi, Tamburi, Naradi, Sarvamangala, Vidya-dhari, Sarva-vidya and Sharada) all having four arms , but without the Vahana. They all are looking bright, radiant (su-tejasa) and happy (suprasanna).

Another Shilpa text Jayamata enumerates a different set of twelve forms of Sarasvathi (Maha-vidya, Maha-vani, Bharathi, Sarasvathi, Aarya, Brahmi, Maha-dhenu, Veda-darbha, Isvari, Maha-Lakshmi, Maha-Kali, and Maha-sarasvathi).

The tantric text, Sri Vidyarnava-tantra, mentions at least three Tantric forms of Sarasvathi: Ghata-sarasvathi, Kini-Sarasvathi and Nila–sarasvathi (blue-complexion; three eyes; four arms, holding spear, sword, chopper and a bell).

And, there is also Matangi who is also called Tantric-Sarasvati; and, she is of tamasic nature and is related to magical powers. Her complexion too varies from white, black, brown, blue or to green depending on the context, She also has many variations, such as:  Ucchista Matangini, Ucchista-Chandalini, Raja Matangini, Sumukhi Matangini, Vasya Matangini or Karna Matangini.

Bhuvanesvari, one of the ten Mahavidyas, is also linked to speech (vak); and, therefore, she is said to correspond to Sarasvathi,    Vagesvari.

Tara, in Buddhism, of blue complexion, associated with the speaking prowess, and seated on a lotus is called Nila (blue) Sarasvathi

The Vajrayana Buddhism too has its own set of Tantric Sarsavathi-s, like the six armed Vajra-Sarasvathi; the Vajra-sharada holding a book and a lotus in her two hands; and, Vajra-veena-sarasvathi playing on a veena. The other deities like Prajna-paramita and Manjushree have in them some aspects of the Sarasvathi.

The Jain tradition has Sarasvathi in the form of Sruta-devata; Prajnapti; Manasi and Maha-Manasi.


Sarasvathi, as Vagdevi, is depicted as gesturing scriptural knowledge with her right hand in Vyakahana-mudra; and, gesturing protection and assurance with her left hand in Abhaya-mudra. At times, she is shown with three eyes. She is decorated by a crown (makuta) with a crescent moon; and with a sacred thread across her chest (yajnopavitha).

sarasvathi Gkcp1

The Sarasvathi that is commonly depicted is an extraordinarily beautiful, graceful and benevolent deity of white complexion, wearing white garments, seated upon a white lotus (sweta-padmasina) , adorned with pearl ornaments ; and holding in her four hands a book, rosary , water-pot and lotus .


Her Dhyana –sloka reads:

Yaa Kundendu tushaara haara dhavalaa, Yaa shubhra vastranvita.
 Yaa veena vara dandamanditakara, Yaa shwetha padmaasana
 Yaa brahma achyutha shankara prabhutibhir Devaisadaa Vanditha 
Saa Maam Paatu Saraswatee Bhagavatee Nihshesha jaadyaapahaa  

Salutations to Bhagavathi Sarasvathi, the one who is fair like garland of fresh Kunda flowers and snowflakes; who is adorned with white attire; whose hand is placed on the stem of the Veena; who sits on white lotus; one who has always been worshiped by gods like Brahma, Vishnu and Shankar; May that goddess Sarasvathi bless us, protect us, and completely remove from us all stains of lethargy, sluggishness, and ignorance.


Continued in the Next Part

Sources and References

  6. Ritam “The Word in the Rig-Veda and in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri
  8. 12. Vedic river and Hindu civilization; edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman
  9. Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India… Edited by John Muir
  10. Devata Rupa-Mala (Part Two) by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao



Posted by on March 21, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Devi, Sanskrit


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The meaning of ‘MEANING’- Part One


The most common Sanskrit term for meaning is Artha.  Various terms, such as ‘sense’, ‘reference’, ‘denotation’, ‘connotation’, ‘designatum’ and ‘intention’, have been used to render that Sanskrit term. Artha, basically, refers to the object signified by a word. Artha is an all-embracing term having a verity of hues and shades of meanings. In numerous contexts, it stands for the meaning of the word  (pada+artha) as also for  an object (padartha)  in the sense of an element of external reality. It could also mean Artha (money), the source of all Anartha (troubles); and Anartha could also be nonsense. Artha is also one of the pursuits of life – wealth or well being. Artha could also signify economic power and polity. And, finally, Paramartha is the ultimate objective.


The Grammar in the ancient Indian context was a highly respected subject. The Vedic traditions such as Nyaya, Mimamsa and Vedanta ; the Buddhist and Jain traditions;  also the various traditions of Grammar and literary schools (Kavya),  each have contributed significantly to the development of numerous  theories regarding Grammar, philosophy of Grammar and semantics. These studies, regarded as specialized branches of learning dealing with language have, within their own ambit, tried to explain the manifold aspects of language behaviour.

The power of the language is one of the oldest themes in Indian thought. The later Grammarians such as Bharthari paid enormous importance to the study of language. According to him, ‘a thought cannot be without language’; ’There is no cognition without the process of words’;   all knowledge is illumined through words, and it is quite not possible to have cognition that is free from words (Vakyapadiya: 1.123). Bhartrhari says the knowledge comes out in the form of words. Speech is an embodiment of thought. That relation is natural; and, is not artificial.

Thus, the spoken aspect of the language gains importance in the process of thinking. Thinking, here, is seen as a sort of internal speaking. Such inaudible speech is the seed or the potent form of explicit speech that is heard by others. 

In a way, a language grows with the thought; or rather the thought grows with language. In the ultimate analysis, they might even be identical. In that sense, the philosophy of language is not a mere academic pursuit, but is the basic foundation for all philosophy.

According to Bhartrhari, language is used for communication of ideas through spoken words. Grammar deals with this communicative language which consists of (a) sentences and words, (b)  appropriate meanings  corresponding to the words  and the sentences ; and, (c) compatibility between word-sound (sabda) and its meaning (Artha).

At the same time, Bhartrhari also says ‘nahi sarvesham sataam shabdo bhidayakyaha (VP: 3.2.38) – ‘a word cannot always fully express the true nature of an object’.  An object is not fully expressed by the word that denotes it. A word , according to him, is an indicator; has limited powers; and, what is intended is more powerful that the word itself.

Bhartrhari says; just as pure knowledge cannot manifest without an object, so also an object cannot exist without its related properties.

But often, the properties expressed by the word are not always real. Let’s take the term, ‘white color of the cloth’ (patasya shukla) which really is non-existent. It means that when a feature of an object is expressed in words it hardly matters whether the feature actually exists or not.

Bhartrhari explains: Let’s say, our perception of a fast revolving fire is called fire-circle (alata-chakra). It is a word that is commonly used. But, that is an illusion. There is no fire-circle as such. Similarly ‘hare’s horn’ (sasa-sringa) , ‘sky-flower’ (kha-pushpa) are just words that refer to non-reality. Thus, the word not only presents an incomplete picture, but it also projects non-reality.

Yet, the word with its limited power, tries to signify a ‘perceived’  reality; and, checks it through ‘speaker’s intention’.

He was perhaps putting forward an argument about the limitations of the language to describe Absolute Reality.

I reckon what Bhartrhari was trying to put across was: Reality transcends language. Further, whatever picture it presents is not always reality. Words often misrepresent or distort the facts of external life. Thus, the linguistic world and the external do not always perfectly synchronize.

And yet, though the language we use is rather imperfect and is limited to give us a complete picture of the reality,  it is our only window to the world.  We have to make the best use of that unique facility gifted to us as human beings.

It was also said:

Language is the most important human behaviour; and makes communication and interconnectedness possible. With practice, it makes even a child capable to deal with the world (balaanam ca yathatha pratipadane: VP: 2.117)

Language is the limit of the world as we know. All cognition is enlightened only when pierced by the word (sabda).


Study of Grammar

Grammar (Vyakarana) was recognized from the earliest times in India as a distinct science, a field of knowledge with its own parameters that distinguished it from other branches of learning/persuasions.  

The origin of Grammar cannot, of course, be pinpointed. Yaska and Panini are the two known great writers of the earliest times whose works have come down to us. They were perhaps before fifth century BCE; and, Yaska is generally considered to be earlier to Panini. Yaska’s work Nirukta is classified as etymology; and Panini’s work Astadhyayi as Grammar (Vyakarana). Though Panini is recognized as the earliest known Grammarian, it is evident that he was preceded by a long line of distinguished Grammarians. Panini refers to a number of Grammarians previous to his time.  But, very little is known about those ancient Masters.

Panini and Yaska perhaps represent a stage of Grammar that came into being after several centuries of growth. Both these scholars recall a number of ancient Grammarians who worked and preached much before their times. Some scholars speak of an ‘Aindra’ School of Grammar as being the earliest set of Grammarians. Patanjali refers to another tradition said to have originated from Brihaspathi.

Perhaps the earliest historical figure that is said to have dealt with the study of language seems to be Sakalya the author of the Padapatha  ( arrangement of words of a verse in sequence ) of the Rig-Veda; and, he is mentioned by Panini. Again, Panini also mentions one Sphotayana who spoke about the word and its meaning. Bhartrhari also refers to Sphotayana. And, Yaska mentions another ancient authority – Audumbarayana. Further, Bhartrhari, citing Yaska, states that Audumbarayana, as also Varttakas held views similar to his Sphota-vada.  There is also a mention of another sage Sakatayana who is said to have held the view that all words must be derived from verbal roots. But, no authenticated works of any of these authors have come down to us.

It appears there were several theories or Schools of Grammar. Bhartrhari refers to ‘other Grammars (Vyakaranatara), to other Grammarians (anya vaiyyakaranah) as also to ‘other traditional works’ (smatyantara)’; as also to the conflicting theories of other person’ or ‘theories of others’ ( apare) .  He does not specify who those other schools of Grammars etc were. It is surmised that the ‘other Grammars (Vyakaranatara) mentioned by Bhartrhari might refer to ancient Grammarians Apisali and Kasakrtsna. But again, nothing much is known about those ancient scholars and their theories.

  (Eke varnayanti, anye varnayanti; apare varnayati; anvesham darshanam; apareshu vyakhyanam etc)


Thus, the study of Grammar and the philosophy of language, in varied traditions, have always taken an important position in Indian thought. In Grammar, the nature of words, meanings and the relationship between them and their variances are studied. It was said:  “the foremost among the learned are the Grammarians, because Grammar lies at the root of all learning” ( prathame hi vidvamso  vaiyyakarabah , vyakarana mulatvat sarva vidyanam – Anandavardhana ) 

Grammar was not an artificial construct; but, was the very life blood of learning and understanding, developed directly and naturally from the spoken language. Bharthari, in his Vakyapadiya, described Grammar as the ‘purifier of all the sciences’. He believed that  Grammar helps us to cleanse our speech and mind.  Bhartrhari who inherited the traditional attitude towards Grammar called it as the cure to remedy (chikitsitam) sullied (van-malaanam) language. He believed the use of correct forms of language makes possible   the philosophic or any other pursuit of knowledge.

Grammar – Vyakarana also known as Pada –Shastra  (the science of words) which  treats the word as the basic unit and  deals with the  study of  the spoken language involving words and sentences ,  is regarded as one of the most important Vedanga (branch of the Vedic studies). The primary object of Vyakarana, in that context, was to study the structure of the Vedic language in order to preserve its purity and to ensure its longevity. Panini asserted that the Grammar should be studied in order to preserve the Vedas (rakshatam Vedanam adhyeyam vyakaranam). 

Thus, safeguarding the purity of its language, its correct usage (sadhutva) meant ensuring the continuity (nitya) of Vedas in their pristine form.

In the Indian traditions, the language is said to be fully alive and is truly experienced in its oral form, when it is spoken as it should be. The spoken word is regarded as its primary form while written word, as a secondary aid,  is only a coded   representation of the spoken word; but , without its nuances. The learning and preserving the Vedas therefore includes the ability to pronounce, to articulate the text with its correct ascent, meter, stress, pauses and so on. . The elaborate network of Pryatshakha-s was devised to ensure the pure and disciplined form of its presentation.

Thus , the study of Grammar ; and, faithfully following its traditional rules played very important role in that process.

[Of the Vedic Schools, the Mimamsa is particularly interested in correct interpretation of the Vedic passages relating conduct of Yajna. Those are considered as knowledge ‘handed down by tradition – aamnaya. Hence Mimamsa is also known as Vakya-shastra.

Vyakarana which is one of the sub-branches (upanga) of Vedic texts also deals with the study of spoken language involving words (Pada –shastra ) and sentences (Vakya-shastra) .

The Sutras of Jaimini (Mimamsa–sutra) governs the Mimamsa; while the rules of Grammar laid out by Panini ( Astadhyayi) govern the Vyakarana – shastra.

Grammar is applicable to Vedic texts and also to the study of language in general (sarvaveda-parisada). It is the right royal road (ajihma raja-paddathi) which all can tread.]


But, the study of language went far beyond that; and, Grammar was extended, through linguistic analysis, into philosophical inquiry.

According to Bhartrhari, Grammar is Vak-yoga or Sabda-purva yoga– meditation centered on language.  In Bhartrhari’s vision, the language we speak is the medium of self-expression of the Ultimate Reality communicated through meaning-bearing words. For him, the question of Being is interwoven with the question of language , that of becoming . There is no philosophy of Being without the philosophy of language. He described Grammar as the Royal road to those who seek liberation; and as the efficient means to realize Brahman. Ultimately, he asserts, speech (Sabda) is Brahman.

For Bhartrhari, Sabda Brahman or Sabdatattva or Sabda eva tattvam the undifferentiated Reality   is one with the ultimate Reality – Para Brahman. Bhartrhari conceives the ultimate Reality as being in the nature of the Word; and , from it all of existence is manifested. The world is only a transformation (vivarta) of the Sabdatattva (speech – principle) which is identical with the ultimate Reality, Brahman. The Sabda-tattva of Bhartrhari is , thus, the Absolute; and, there is no distinction between Sabda Brahman and Para Brahman the supreme.

That marks his departure from Vedanta, where the Supreme Consciousness, Para – Brahman, is beyond language.

[It needs to be mentioned here that the concept of Sabda Brahman was known and discussed even before the time of Bhartrhari. For instance; Mytrayani Upanishad (4.22) and Brahma-bindu Upanishad (verse 17) do discuss about Sabda-Brahman. However, the connotation of Sabda-Brahman, in those texts, varied from that of Bhartrhari.

Those texts made a distinction between Sabda-Brahman and Para (Highest) Brahman.  There, the Sabda-Brahman referred to the words or sounds of the Veda, while the Para Brahman referred to the Ultimate Reality. Thus, the Vedas, in general, was distinguished from the Highest Brahman as the Absolute.

(Dve vidye veditaye tu sabdabrahma, parm ca yat I sabdabrahmani nisnatah param brahmadigacchathi – Amritabindu Upanishad -17)]



The earliest of the known text of etymology (Nirukta) that has come down  to us is that from Sanskrit. And that was composed by Yaska, who in turn cites number of his predecessors in that field. Similarly, the oldest known Grammar is also in Sanskrit; and, it was composed by the Great Grammarian Panini. And, Panini also similarly mentions other renowned Grammarians that lived before his time. And, Patanjali   a Grammarian who came a couple of centuries after Panini wrote an elaborate commentary (Maha Bhashya) on Panini’s work. He was, in turn, followed by many other scholars who wrote glosses on Patanjali. There have also been re-arrangements of Panini’s Sutras and the interpretations arising out of such exercises.

The overall aim of Sanskrit Grammar was not to list out the rules and to standardize the language; but, to bring out the intended meaning of the structure of words. As Yaska puts it (Nirukta: 2.1.1), the aim was to get the real meaning of the spoken word (arthanityah parikseta). Thus, Sanskrit Grammar was an attempt to purify (samskruta), to discipline and to explain the behaviour of the spoken language, so that its  inner meaning could shine forth unhindered.

[Panini’s Grammar (Astadhyayi), as per its working-scheme, attempts to produce words and sentences based on their verbal roots (dhatu), nominal themes (prathipadika) and suffixes (pratyaya). These constituent elements are invested with meaning. Derived from these elements, in their various combinations, words and sentences are formed to express collection of meanings as held by these elements.

However, according to Patanjali (Mahabhashya) the meaning-bearers are not the word-constituents, but the words themselves. Here, Patanjali follows the lead given by his predecessor Katyayana in his annotated commentary (Vrittika) on Panini’s Astadhyayi.

There is obviously a difference in the two attitudes towards Grammar.

For Patanjali, the Grammar analyzes the words, thereby arriving at their constituent elements, though such parts are not the true bearers of the meaning. This perhaps is the reason that many understand Grammar as Vyakarana, in the sense of analysis.

For Panini, on the other hand, Grammar proceeds differently. It is a way of synthesis. His Grammar does not divide the words into stems and suffixes. On the contrary, it combines the constituent elements with a view to form words. So, Grammar here is understood as “the word formation “or as an “instrument by which forms are created in various ways” (vividhena prakarena akrtayah kriyante yena).]

The rules of the classical Sanskrit had been set by the Sutras of Panini, the Vrattika of Katyayana and the Mahabhashya of Patanjali. The works of these three sages (muni traya) came to be regarded by the later scholars as the highest authority.  During the periods following the three Great Sages  the question of perceiving the intended meaning of the spoken word engaged the attention of the Grammarians and the philosophers of the language. The more significant of such Scholar-Grammarians, among others, were: Mandana Misra, Kaumarila Bhatta, Kunda Bhatta, Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari. In particular, Bhartrhari who belonged to the tradition of these classical Grammarians in  his major work, Vakyapadiya, discusses the ways in which the outer word-form could unite with its inner meaning. 

Let’s talk about these stalwarts and their theories of language later in the series

[It appears by about the eleventh century, the Grammar and the  Grammarians had lost their premier position. By then, Kavya (poetry or poetic expressions) that can be subtle and suggestive  had taken the center stage; and grammar which concerned  itself with the arrangement of words into sentence was considered rather pedestrian. The poetic schools argued: ‘What is unsaid in poetry is more evocative than the explicit’. That was to suggest that appreciation of  poetic beauty does not solely dependent on following the strict order of words or other conventions. The true enjoyment of poetic beauty , in fact, goes beyond the regulated regimens. For instance; Anandavardhana who regarded the concept of Rasa-Dhvani as the principal or the ideal element in appreciation of poetry, said that the suggested sense of poetry is not apprehended (na vidyate) by mere knowledge of Grammar (Sabda-artha-shasana-jnana) and dictionary. It is grasped (Vidyate, kevalam) only by those who know how to recognize the essence of poetic meaning (Kavya-artha-tattva-jnana) – Dhv.1.7

It was even said; poetry follows Grammar as far as possible.  But, when it finds 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. It might even invent its own means and modes. At times, when those inventive expressions of poetic suggestions are so charming and become so popular, they walk into Grammar per se and take their position as the tail piece or the appendix of Grammar – ‘vyakaranasya puccham’ .

Scholars like Nagesha Bhatta say that Grammarians cannot always afford to be wooden-headed ; but, must necessarily learn to accept (svikara avashyakah) the power of suggestion (Dhvani) – vyakarananamapi etat svikara avashyakah) in poetry .]


What is meaning?

Study of language has been one of the fundamental concerns of Indian philosophy. All Schools of thought began their discussion from the problems of speech, meaning and the language.

And, in particular, extracting the exact meaning of a sentence in a text has been one of the main concerns of all the Indian Schools of thought.

Down the ages, each of the traditions, each School of philosophy, the Grammarians, Scholars and poets have been asking the same set of questions: ‘What is meaning?’; ‘What is the relationship between word and its meaning?’ The most common term employed to denote ‘meaning’ is Artha, which term was used mostly by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya.

In the English language, the term ‘meaning’ is directly connected with and derived from the verb ‘to mean’; and it is taken to stand for terms such as ‘sense’, ‘reference’, ‘denotation’, ‘connotation’, ‘designatum- that which is named’ and ‘intention’. In the modern academic discussions the term ‘meaning’ is usually understood in the sense of ‘meaning of a word’.

But, in Sanskrit language, though the term ‘Artha’ basically refers to the object signified by a word, it makes room to denote various shades or the distinctions within its specific   context. And yet, the term ‘Artha’ has no clear derivation from any verb or verb-root. And, the term Artha itself gives rise to another term ‘Arthayate’, which means ‘to request, to beg; to strive or to obtain’.


In the Sanskrit language, apart from this general term (Artha) there are host of other terms that bring out varying shades or aspects of what in English is referred to as :’ the ‘meaning’  or ‘to mean’. For instance: ‘Tatparya’ (the that about which) ; ’Abhipraya ‘(intent or what one has in his mind; ‘Abhi-daha’ ( to express or to denote); ‘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 .

[ Even the Vedic sages recognized the fact that the literal meaning of an utterance is  , often,  only a part of its total meaning ; and, those who try to analyze the literal meaning  run the risk of losing sight of the intended or the signifying meaning of the speech (Vāk ).  Rig-Veda (10.71.7-8) does, in fact, distinguish between a person who takes in only the literal meaning of a verse; and, a wise person who grasps the inner meaning and its true significance. The former: ‘sees, but does not see; hears, but does not hear. But, it is to the latter that speech reveals itself completely, as does a loving wife to her husband’

atrā sakhāyaḥ sakhyāni jānate bhadraiṣāṃlakṣmīrnihitādhi vāci || uto tvasmai tanvaṃ vi sasre jāyeva patyauśatī suvāsāḥ ||(10.71.7-8)

In another passage of Rig-Veda, it is said; the great poets select their words , winnowing away the chaff from the grain; and, only the persons of equal scholarship and literary taste can truly appreciate  good poetry.

saktumiva-tita-unā punanto yatra dhīrā manasā vācamakrata | atrā sakhāyaḥ sakhyāni jānate bhadraiṣāṃlakṣmīrnihitādhi vāci || (10.71.3-4)

Anandavardhana does not attack the usual divisions of speech into sentences and words; into stems and suffixes; as also the distinction between the primary and the transferred or metaphorical sense of the words (Abidha; Lakshana). He accepts all such divisions; but, in addition, he puts forward a third potential or capacity of language. He calls that as ‘the capacity to suggest a meaning other than the literal meaning. Such suggestive power of language is named as ‘Vyanjana’.

It is said; Anandavardhana adopted and improved upon the idea of Vyanjana; and, also adopted Bhartrhari’s concept of Sphota; and, thereupon  he developed his theory of suggestion (Dhvani)   and its value in appreciation of in poetry (Kavya).]

In many of these discussions, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between the literal meaning (Artha) 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.

But, generally speaking, the subtle relation between Sabda and Artha is one of identity. The word, sound, sense and knowledge overlap each other. Normally, Sabda denotes a meaning-bearing word-sound, while Nada signifies ‘voiced’ or vowels or non-linguistic sounds.

Bhartrhari says Sabda, that which when articulated gives out the meaning or intent of the speaker ;  and , the  Artha, its meaning, are  two different aspects of one and the same thing (ekasyva athmano bhedau, sabda-arthau aprathishatau – VP: 2.31).

Similarly, Vak is another term that has varieties of references.  Vak , grammatically , is  a feminine noun meaning – speech , voice , talk , language ( also of animals and birds), sound ( also of inanimate objects such as stones or of a drum) , a word , saying , phrase , sentence , statement and speech personified. Bhartrhari raises Vak to sublime heights. In his Vakyapadiya, Bhartrhari  states that ‘It is Vak which has created all the worlds (vageva visva- bhuvanani jajne;  Vakyapadiya: I.112)

The Rig Veda contains glorious references to the power of speech.  For the Vedic seers who herd and spoke about their experiences, speech was the most wonderful faculty. Speech was also held in great reverence. Many of the later philosophical theories on language have their roots in Vedas.

There are  hymns that specifically refer to the speech (Vak).

 (1) Asya-vamiya –sukta (Rig Veda : 1.164) which is one the most philosophical hymns of Rig Veda places Vak at the peak of the universe. Here , Vak has been divided into four parts ; the three parts are hidden ; and , only the fourth part is spoken by the mortals.  Vak is also identified with the lifegiving Sarasvathi – a source of great delight which causes all the good things of life to flourish.

(2) The hymn 10.71 of Rig Veda which speaks about the origin of language is much discussed by the later Grammarians. Here, two tyes of people are mentioned: those who see Vak and understand her ; and , those who see the form but do not understand her.  That might be because the Rishis were basically the seers that heard or vizualized the eternal impersonal truth.

But, in the ancient texts, Vak is not mere speech. It is something more sacred than ordinary speech; and , carries with it a far wider significance. In Rig Veda, there are three kinds of references to Vak:  Vak is speech in general; Vak also symbolizes  cows; and, Vak is personified as goddess revealing the word.  And, Vak is, indeed,  the principle  underlying every kind of speech and  language in  nature. It  includes even the sounds of cows, animals, frogs, birds, trees and hills.  It was said; the extant of Vak is  as wide as the earth and fire.

In the most celebrated Vagambhari Sukta (Rig Veda: 10.125) , the Vak herself describes her powers and functions. Vak , here , is deity personified. It declares Vak as the highest principle that supports all gods , controls all things and exists universally in all things.

The Brahmanas go further and state that Vak is Brahman ( Brahma vai vak : Ait . Br.4.211) . The tendency to view Vak , speech, as the principle forming all things is prominent throughout the Brahmana-texts.

But, it was Bhartrhari who expanded on the theory of Sabda-Brahman as the ultimate principle of all things . However, the concept of Sabda-brahman did exist in slightly in the earlier texts, as said before.


Meaning is context-sensitive

Meaning   could be taken as the content carried by the words exchanged by people when communicating through language. In other words, the communication of meaning is the purpose and function of language. A sentence therefore should convey an idea from one person to another. Meanings may take many forms, such as evoking a certain abstract idea, conveying an emotion or denoting a certain object.

But, 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, it was indeed the Mimamsa School, especially the Mimamsa of Prabhakara, that gave  much  thought  to the question of  language (communicating knowledge);  and , it  took special care to lay down the ground rules for deriving the correct or apt meaning of a text. 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 .Of these six, each is stronger than the succeeding one.

Mimamsa  asserts that even to understand the purport or to determine the purpose of a text ,  six factors are  necessary : 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. These six Linga-s or indicators are accepted by all Schools of thought.


Panini who gained fame as a Great Grammarian , as the author of  Astadhyayi (the eight chapters)  – also called  Astaka , Sabda-anushasana  and Vrittisutra –  sought to ensure  correct usage of words by  purifying  (Samskrita)  the  language (bhasha)  – literary and spoken ( vaidika –  laukika) –  that  was in use during his days.

Panini also stressed the importance of the context in deriving the meaning of a word. According to Panini, it is the social context that ultimately recognizes which is the ‘good’ (shista) language.

It is the language employed by those in authority or the sphere of influence forming the crest of a social order that gains authenticity. Such users of the correct language are known as Sista -s ‘elite or cultured’; and , the language as used by them is taken as the standard. Thus, an accepted literary form is the result of a process of translating social dominance into medium of exchange among the elite. Eventually, it is the community of the learned (shista) that decides and shapes the form of the good language. The language-ability, in turn, points to who the ‘learned’ are. Therefore, the learned decide what is learning; and, which, in turn, who is learned. It is a loop.


And, Brihad-devata , a secondary Vedic text of 4-5th century BCE attributed Saunaka, mentions that the rules for interpreting a Vedic text should generally cover: 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); its suitability of relevance (auchitya); the geographical location (desha); the contextual time (kala).


Bhartrhari also lists out contextual factors which are similar to those listed in Brihad-devata. He pointed out that in many cases of language behavior, the literal meaning conveyed by the expression may not be the intended meaning. Here, in such cases, 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 – along with the specific and the grammatical factors that determine the intended sense – one would be able to successfully avoid confusions and misrepresentations in reading a text.

Bhartrhari generally follows the six criteria laid down in Brihad-devata, but substitutes Vakya (sentence) in place of Linga (reference to in another place). But, more importantly, Bhartrhari further extends the list of criteria to determine the ‘context’ to fourteen factors.  

Bhartrhari   repeatedly refers to the importance of contextual factors in determining the meaning of an expression.  His elaborate list of contextual factors includes:

  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. Desa (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.


Bhartrhari also underlines the fact that a word can carry multiple meanings; and , the grammarian should explain how only one of those meanings would be apt in a given context.

Bhartrhari pointed out that in many cases of language behaviour, the literal meaning conveyed by the word is not its intended meaning. And, it is the contextual factors that play a vital role in determining the intended meaning of a passage. He also laid much importance on the situational context such as the – the speaker, the listener, the time, the place and the tone as well as the social and cultural background.

All these factors discussed above were classified under three headings: 1) Grammatical construction; 2) Verbal context, and, 3) Non-verbal situational- context.

Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya also states that Meaning in language is dependent on usage and on the speaker-listener relationship, as also on their capacities to communicate and to comprehend – Sabdabodha (verbal cognition).

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.


Particular – General

That which is commonly understood and used (prasiddhi) is considered by Bhartrhari   as the primary meaning of the word. 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, when the word is used as a metaphor.

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 for. As in Advaita, the universal (Brahman) appears as relative or specific limited. It is ultimately the Brahman (Sabdatattva) that turns out to be the meaning (Artha) of all words.

The fundamental beliefs with regard to sound in the ancient Indian texts are: 1.sound is eternal like space, since both are imperceptible to touch;  2. Sound is eternal and liable to perish immediately after its utterance; and , it could be passed from one to another; Sound is eternal , as there is no cognition of the cause that might destroy it.

[There was also another line of discussion on whether Artha is universal or the particular? Grammarian Vyadi says that the words refer to Dravya (substance) or 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.]


In the next part let’s briefly talk about the ‘meaning’ and interpretations of the terms such as Artha, Tatparya and shakthi; and , then concerns of the poets and scholars on the relation between Artha ( meaning) and sabda( word) before we move on the discussions of Bhartrhari’s concepts and theories concerning word, sentence, meaning , Kala (Time) , Sphota  ( intuitional grasping of the intended sense ), theories of error , different stages/ levels of speech (Vak)  and Sabdatattva ( the ultimate Reality ) so on ..


Continued in Part two


Sources and References

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 ; edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. 2. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topics by John Geeverghese Arapura
  3. The Emergence of Semantics in Four Linguistic Traditions: Hebrew, Sanskrit …edited by Wout Jac. Van Bekkum
  4. A Comparative History of World Philosophy: From the Upanishads to Kant by Ben-Ami Scharfstein
  5. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound by Guy L. Beck
  6. Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
  7. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regained by William S. Haney
  8. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis by Harold G. Coward
  9. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First International conference on Bharthari held at Pune in 1992 edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  10. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartṛhari and Heidegger by Sebastian Alackapally
  11. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarian by Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  12. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgenstein edited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Varuna and his decline – Part Four


Continued from Part Three

Varuna’s association with waters

Varuna’s associations with waters are explained at two levels. The two are extremes; so extreme that one is far removed from the other like the rarified deep space from the dark underground. The one is pure metaphysics and high symbolism, while the other is mundane and vulgar. The differences between the two levels cannot be bridged. There is no common ground for reconciliation. The two sets of associations cannot also be rationalized and bound into one. It is best that each is viewed separately, each in its own context–for whatever.

The philosophical explanations and suggestions on the nature of  Varuna’s association with waters have bred numerous debates, theories and speculations. Scholars have come up with varied interesting and intricate explanations which at times sound too abstract; hard to grasp. It is not easy to present them either. We shall briefly see a couple of such explanations and theories.

N. Creation- the process


Apah – Dark, deep and unfathomable waters

47.1. The terms Salilam and Apah which denote waters in the Rig Veda are said to be highly significant. Dr. Usha Choudhuri (in her scholarly thesis Indra and Varuna) explains these terms as implying more than just the water-element.   In the most celebrated hymn of creation – Nasadiya Sutktha which occurs in the Tenth Book of Rig Veda, as also in the Vak Suktha (RV.10.8.125) and  in the Hiranya-garbha Suktha  (RV. 10.121 ) the terms Salila and Apah represent Great Waters  or the primeval waters or the primeval matter of creation. They stand for the manifest as also for the un-manifest primeval matter: Prakrti or Vak or Aditi or Viraj.

47.2. Apah or Salilam is conceived as the threshold prior to which there was no distinction between existence and non-existence; between form and formlessness. Whatever that was there prior to it was neither sat nor a-sat; neither being nor non-being. That is; Apah or Salilam represents the crosses-over stage at which the unformed primordial universe transforms into existence. It could be regarded as the first stage of creation. Thus, Apah is Prakrti   as in Samkhya; and it is the primary source of all possibilities of manifestation in the world.

47.3. Apah is twofold: as the undifferentiated, un-manifest and formless (a-vyakta or apraketa or a-murta); and as the manifest with forms (vyakta or praketa or murta). It is said; Apah and Salilam denote Prakrti or the creative power (Shakthi) of the Purusha the Absolute principle. It also suggests movement (gati) and action (karma). Thus, Apah or Salilam signifies the state of Becoming; while Purusha signifies the state of Being.

47.4. To explain it in another way; these dark, deep and unfathomable waters (gahanam ghabhiram – RV. 10.129.1) hold in their womb the un-manifest universe. And, it is from these dark waters the manifest world springs forth. Nasadiya Suktha mentions “the un-manifest conceals within itself the formless manifestation. The universe was then undifferentiated in the primeval waters” (RV 10.129.3). That is; these Great waters (mahat-salilam)   represent the immense potential of Prakrti in its un-manifest (a-vyakta) state. It has that potential to give expression to infinite possibilities as forms (vyakta).

Varuna symbolizes Prakrti

48.1. The essential character of these primeval waters is Avarana – to cover or to encompass (var). Varuna is the encompasser; he pervades (var) everything; he presides over the visible and the invisible worlds. Varuna is the mythical symbol of primeval matter. And, he is the presiding deity of Apah and salilam. Varuna the lord of these waters, the primeval matter, thus symbolizes Prakrti.

48.2. It is by the will or the desire of Varuna, and through his wisdom-extraordinary (Maya) the forms of the visible world (Murtha) emerge from out of the formless (a-Murtha). Varuna in this sense is the creator; the world is born out of his mind (manas); and thus, he symbolizes kaarana –Brahman, the Brahman with a desire to create.

48.3. Shri Ananda Coomaraswamy too (in his Yakshas) explains Varuna as denoting Prakrti. He states that the term Samudra originally meant the sky; and the sky did not merely signify the physical sky but the all encompassing desire of the Purusha. Varuna is that will of Purusha. Varuna who is described as Rta-Samudra or Rta-sadana   is indeed the Prakrti.

Aditi is Apah and Prakrti

49.1. Aditi, the Mother – principle, Deva matri  the mother of all gods and of all existence is described as the mighty mother,’ lofty like a mountain, swelling with sweet milk’, the celestial light (jyothihmati RV .1.115.5), the queen or the guardian of Rta (rtavari), ever expanding and never decaying, gracious guide and great protector (YV. 21.5). She denotes freedom from bondage. She gives birth to manifest world. She is the Mother of all creation. Because the nourishing Mother Aditi is the source of all manifested reality – the past, the present and the future; of “all that has been and will be born” she is   regarded as Prakrti the creative principle, the desire of the Supreme to create (YV.10.7).

49.2. As mentioned earlier, Apah or Maha-salilam the great waters denote primeval matter or the primal cause of creation from which the manifest is born. Thus, Apah, the waters too are mothers (apah asmin matarah) – ‘The waters are our mother (ambayah), womb of the universe’ (RV.1.23.10). Aditi the great mother (mahi mata) who gives give birth to the manifest world is thus equated with Apah, among other things.

49.3. As Apah, Aditi is the creative energy which is active and moving (gati). Since Apah suggested movement (gati), it is said, the life-giving(jiva-nadi) , flowing rivers and streams are deemed feminine (Prakrti) ; while the stagnant Samudra the ocean into which all beings go and from which all beings emerge acquired a masculine identity (Purusha).

49.4. Aditi (Apah and Prakrti) is the forerunner of the Mother –Goddesses of the later texts and lore who symbolize the power (shakthi) of Prakrti in all its aspects.

Vak is Apah and Prakrti

50.1. In the Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha    of Rig Veda (RV.10. 10.125), Apah is conceived as the birth place of Vak or Vac   who is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In an intense and highly charged superb piece of inspired poetry She declares “I sprang from waters there from I permeate the infinite expanse. It is I who blows like the wind creating all the worlds “.

Vak the primal energy the Great Goddess Mother is described in various ways : Vak is the eternal being; the first-born of the eternal waters.   Vak is the Mother who gives form to the formless; gives birth to existence and lends identity to things by naming them. Vak is the faculty which gives expression to ideas. She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp and express in words or otherwise the true nature of things. She is the navel of energy

50.2. Vak who springs forth from waters, touches all the worlds with her flowering body and gives birth to all existence is indeed the Prakrti. Vac is also Apah and an attribute of Varuna.

I sprang from the waters,
And from there I spread throughout the universe,
I touch that heaven with a flowering body.

I move with Rudras and Vasus,
I walk with the Sun and other Gods,
I esteem Mitra, Varuna
And Indra, Agni and the Asvins.

[Please click here for the rendering of Devi Sukta]

50.3. Eventually; Apah, Aditi, Vak and Varuna all represent the same principle: Prakrti the creative principle.

O. Lotus and the inverted tree

Lotus symbolizes waters and life

51.1. The Lotus symbolizes waters; and earth is a leaf thereof. The lotus-leaf is called the back of the waters (Tai.sam. The earth lies spread on water just as the lotus-leaf does. The noted scholar Ananada K Coomaraswamy (in his Yakshas) too relates lotus to waters. He explains the concept of earth resting on waters in the context of the full-blown lotus flower that supports a divinity in the Indian iconography: ”where it seems to be implied that the figure is supported by a widely extended lotus flower rising out of the waters; and in the last analysis the deity is supported by the waters”.

51.2. He also mentions that lotus symbolizes life. The imagery of creation springing forth from the all-encompassing creator was initially related to Varuna. That is because Varuna in the early phases of Rig Veda was the Creator who brought forth all existence. But, since the virtues and powers of Varuna merged into Vishnu, in the later mythologies lotus came to be depicted as rising from the navel of Narayana resting on celestial waters bearing Brahma the abjaja –born of water or born of lotuses.

51.3. In any case, that imagery pictures the principle that all life and existence is born out of the waters.

Inverted tree of life – Varuna

tree with roots

52.1. Ananada K Coomaraswamy says “The roots of the inverted tree are in the sky and its branches are spread downwards (RV. 1.24.7). Varuna called the unborn in Rig Veda symbolizes the root of that tree of life; the source of all creation. That cosmic tree is originally said to have sprung from the navel of Varuna the sky- god blue like the waters reflecting the sky.”

52.2. Tracing the myth of the world tree from Varuna to Narayana, Ananada K Coomaraswamy refers to the remarkable resemblances in the ethical character of Varuna and Vishnu. According to him, ’the cosmic-tree myths of various forms and their relation to the lotus symbol verily owe their origin to Varuna. He says the concept of the cosmic functioning originally represented Varuna.   That concept did not undergo any change; but it only acquired new names and new symbols.

Thus, Varuna is Kaarana Brahman by whose desire the manifest world materializes.

Varuna the king of pure intelligence / Sits atop the tree with its roots/ in his un-supported and absolute realm; Its branches spread downwards. (RV. 1.24.7)

Varuņa of hallowed understanding,/ Holds aloft a mass of life-giving radiance, which streams down; May these rays sink deep and set within us. (RV. 1.24.7)

P. Some other explanations for Varuna’s association with waters

Waters, Darkness and Varuna -Prakrti

53.1. Varuna’s association with darkness (tama) metaphorically called night (rathri), as also with waters (Apah) has given rise to number of other highly interesting philosophical speculations.

Nasadiya Suktha says, “In the beginning, darkness was hidden by darkness. All this was unmarked formless waters. ..”. That image of primordial waters was perhaps meant to convey the absence or the sense of absence of all sorts of distinctions in the pre-creation universe. And, similarly, darkness implied a state where day or night was not marked. Here, darkness and waters both seem to mean the same principle -– the all enveloping unformed state before the world of things (sat) arose out of its matrix.

“All this was produced from the dark waters (Tai Aranyaka 1.23)”.

53.2 As said earlier, Varuna symbolizes un-manifest (a-vyakta or a-praketa or a-sat) as well as manifest (vyakta or praketa or sat) state of existence.

53.3. It is also explained; Rathri the darkness is Varuna (Ait Brh. 4.10); Rathri the starlit night belongs to Varuna (Tai .B 1.7.10); and, Varuna is waters (Apah) as it pervades (var) everything. Thus, both – darkness and waters- become associated with Varuna.

53.4. For these reasons, it is said that Varuna, Rathri and Apah all represent Prakrti.

Water- purifier – joy of life


54.1. Water is glorified as the nectar or honey (madhu) and the joy of life; and it is also the elixir of immortality. Water is the symbol of creation, life (jeevanam), strength and energy. Water is thus the nourishing mother of all life and existence. Water is as essential to life as is the vital-air (prana– aphomaya pranah. Water is the source of all existence; it   sustains, heals and purifies life.

Water is regarded as an extraordinary and omnipresent element in Rig Veda. It is the support of all lives; and, the savior of everything living or dead on earth. The world moves along  with the pure and simple movement of the water. It washes away the impurities and also cleans the inconsistencies of human behavior. Water is a great medicine. It does away with the diseases and is the benefactor of health, strength, long-life, wealth and immortality.

Yasam Raja Varuno Yati Madhyai Satyanrite Avapashyanje yajnanam| Madhushchutah Shuchaye yah pavakah ta Apao devirih mamvantu|| VII.49.3

The water dwells where gods dwell. The water in which the king of waters Varuna dwells, the water in which Soma lives, in whom all gods drink exhilarating strength, the waters in which the leader of all–Agni enters, who are full of divine values, help me in the world.

He, whose destination is the ocean, who purifies the world, is always flowing, such water lives in the middle of the Universe. Indra, who possesses ‘Vajra‘ and rains the desires, broke opened a path for these divine waters. May these waters help me and be received by me.

Samudrajyestha Salilasya Madhyapunana Yantyanivishmanah | Indrah ya vajri vrishabho rarad TaApoa devirih mamvantu ||

54.2. Shatapatha Brahmana (SB. makes an interesting remark: when Agni burns brightly, he then indeed becomes Varuna the purifier (paavaka). There is therefore a belief that the purifying waters cleanses sins, betrayals (abhidudroha) and falsehood (anŗtam duritam) – (RV. 1.23.22). The one that has been purified shouts in ecstasy: “I have become one with the essence of the celestial energy, rasena”. Water represents that faith (shraddha) in life.

54.3. Though the waters are celebrated by various metaphors, the physical aspect of water is not lost sight. The Chandogya Upanishad describes Waters as the source of all plants and herbs Oshadhis; the giver of good health and destroyer of   diseases. It is the source of joy of healthy living. The mountains, the earth, the atmosphere and the heavenly bodies too derive their form through water (Chandogya Upanishad – 7.10.10) .It is said; even the gods are waters – as they are the foundation and source of the universe and everything is contained in them.(SB. 10.5) .

And again , it is said; the water which is created in the universe; which is pure and full of light; which is full of divine characteristics; the water which flows in the form of river; the water which comes from the digging of the wells, canals; the water which is self-created in the form of waterfalls; and, that which enters into the ocean, help me in this world and thereafter.

Ya Apaodivya Ut Va Sravanti Khanitrima ut va yah swayamjah | Samudrartha Yah Shuchayah pavakasta Apao Devirih Mamvantu || VII.49.2

Varuna too is water.

“Verily all this is water. All the created beings are water. The vital breaths (prana) in the body are water. Quadrupeds are water. Herbs and crops are water. Madhu the nectar is water. Samrat[perpetually shining] is water. Virat [shining] is water. Svarat [self-luminous] is water. The metres (pankti) are water. The Devas are water. Vedic formulas are water. Truth is water. All deities are water. The three worlds denoted by BhuhBhuvah and Suvah are water. The source of all these is the Supreme denoted by the syllable ‘Om”. (Mahanarayana Upanishad- 29.1)

54.4. Since Varuna is waters, Apah, all its virtues and attributes are imbibed in him.

Apah and Sathya

55.1. Varuna who is the lord of waters (Apah) is also related with the order in world and to the laws in nature (Rta), and the Truth (satya). It is said ‘waters are the Truth…where waters flow there the Truth resides …. It is the waters indeed that were made first of this universe, hence when waters flow then everything whatever that exists in the universe is brought forth’ (Sathapatha Brahmana).Water is thus the universal mother –principle in the Rig Veda. Waters are Prakrti.

55.2. Thus Waters, Truth and Varuna symbolize Prakrti.

The child of waters

56.1. Varuna the son of Aditi resides among primal waters. He is described also as Apam-shishuh ‘the child of waters, in the best of the mothers – Aditi’

56.2. It is also said; since Varuna dwells in waters he is Apam Napat, “Son of the Waters’ (RV.1.2.35). Apam Napat is also referred to as the embryo (garbha) of the waters (RV.7.9.3). It is said; the sun when he sinks into waters – to quench his thirst- becomes Varuna the fire in the waters (Apam Napat).

[But, Varuna soon lost this ancient title; and it came to be applied more and more to Agni born of a spark from water and to other solar deities such as Savitr.]

Varuna and the moon

56.7. Another explanation offered to reason Varuna’s association with waters seems to me rather flat. It is said; as the god of the night sky Varuna is related with the celestial bodies that shine in the night sky: the stars and the moon. And, the moon  who  is related to Varuna influences the tides of the ocean and movement of terrestrial waters. Therefore, Varuna is connected with water and the aquatic realm.

Q. Varuna the water-god

This is the other-side of Varuna’s association with waters.

57.1. The status and the attributes of Varuna changed drastically, for worse, in the Puranas and the epics. Varuna lost the authority of kingship and the moral superiority that he once enjoyed in the Rig Veda and in the other Samhitas.   He is relegated as the regent of the west and demigod of waters; and practically nothing more.  It was as if the once mighty Varuna had been pensioned off and assigned a minor rank.

57.2. The waters that Varuna is now made in – charge are just waters on earth – plain and simple; they have no symbolic interpretations or philosophical connotations. Varuna is Salilesvara the king of terrestrial waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. Samudra the vast urukşhaya (1.2.9) is his abode. There he resides in his magnificent underwater palace (saagaro varunalayah) a den of sensual delights, surrounded by nymphs, snakes and all types of aquatic creatures.

57.3. His underworld too has gone radical reimaging; it is no longer the sedate and welcoming abode of the Pitris, but it is now tainted by the fearful pollution of death. Varuna has now turned sensuous and cruel; and developed dark and sinister associations.  He has also lost his good looks. Varuna in this phase does not command much respect. He is often chastened by other gods. Stories are told of his misadventures and humiliations. It appears he abducted and seduced Urvasi a nymph of Indra’s court and fathered a son from her. On another occasion, it is said, Varuna kidnapped Bhadra, daughter of Soma and wife of Uthahya.

57.4. Varuna who once was: the nearest approximation to the Supreme Being, the sovereign of all earth and heavens, the creator and sustainer of life in all three regions, the lord who presided over order in the physical and moral realms, the judge who dispensed justice and handed down punishments, is now turned into the regent of the west and god of seas; and eventually a demigod of local water- bodies; a god of not much consequence… a god of small things….what a fall….!!

In the next section let’s look at the explanations offered for Varuna’s decline and fall.


58.1. His association with waters  however earned Varuna number of descriptive epithets, such as: Prachetas, apam-pathi , ambu-raja, jaleshwara, jalaadhipa, vaaripa, udakapathi, salileshwara, Jala-pati, Kesa  ( lord of water) ; Sindhu pathi , Nadi-pathi ( lord of the seas or rivers ); sarit-pathi (lord of all that flows);  VIloma, Vari-loma ( watery hair) ; Yudh pathi ( king of aquatic animals) ; Uddama ( the surrounder) ; bharti  (the nourisher); and, Pashi ,  Pasha bhrit, (bearer of the noose) .


Continued in Part Five

References and Sources

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. UshChoudhuri; Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

2. The Indian Theogony by Dr.Sukumari Bhattarcharji, Cambridge University Press, 1970

3. Asura in early Vedic religion by WE Hale; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, 1986

4. Goddesses in ancient India by PK Agrawala; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,1984

5. The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathustra by JM Chatterji; the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, Calcutta, 1967;

6. Outlines of Indian Philosophy –Prof M Hiriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2005

7.Original Sanskrit texts on the 0rigin and history of the people of India, their region and institution By J. Muir;Trubner & co., London, 1870.

8. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature byJohn Dowson; Turner & co, Ludgate hill. 1879.

9. Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantharangachar; DVK Murthy, Mysore, 1968

10. Sri Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G. Gnanananda

11. Zarathustra Chapters 1-6 by Ardeshir Mehta; February 1999

All images are by courtesy of Internet


Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Varuna


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,