Tag Archives: Vakyartha

Yaska and Panini – Part One


Yaska and Panini – Part One


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yaskacharya believed that every Vedic word has an expressive power to denote a certain sense. And, as a signifier (vacaka), every word is eternal (vyaptimattvat tu sabdasya – Nir.I.2); and, it performs a critical function in helping to arrive at an unerring, definitive meaning of a statement.

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

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

Yaska goes further; and tenders a sage-like counsel (Nir.1.18): what is taken from teacher’s mouth, but not understood and, is merely repeated, never flares up. It is like dry firewood flung on something that is not fire.

Don’t memorize, seek the meaning / What has been taken [from the teacher’s mouth] but not understood,/ Is uttered by mere memory recitation /  It never flares up, like dry firewood without fire . / Many a one, although seeing, do not see Speech, / Many a one, although hearing, do not hear her/ And many a one, she spreads out [Her] body, like a wife desiring her husband. / The meaning of Speech is its fruit and flower. (Translation by Eivind Kahrs)

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




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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

In addition, it also serves a practical purpose; which is to help and guide the Yajnaka (the one who performs the Yajnas), in unerringly identifying the Devata of a mantra, so that the Yajna is performed well, without a blemish; and, its objective is achieved successfully.



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

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

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


Nighantu -Nirukta

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Brahmana texts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yaska’s Nirukta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Word (Sabda) and Meaning (Artha)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nirukta –Vedanga-Vyakarana

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

Both these traditions are classed among the six Vedangas, the disciplines or branches of knowledge, which are auxiliary to the study of Vedas; and, which are designed to preserve and to carry forward the Vedas to the succeeding generations, in their pristine purity.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The term Vyakarana is defined as: Vyakriyate anena iti Vyakarana – Grammar is that which enables us to form and examine words and sentences; and, it is both that which is to be described (lakshya) and the means of description (lakshana). Patanjali explains; that which is to be described is the word (sabda); and the means of description is the rule (Sutra),consisting of general and specific statements .

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 [*But, at the same time, Yaska remarks: while deriving the meaning of a word, in its own context, one should try to stick to the rules of the Grammar (Vyakarana) as far as possible; but, if this is of no avail in bringing out the hidden meaning of the term in question, then one should abandon such rules – na saskāram ādriyeta  / viśaya-hi vttayo bhavanti (Nir.2.1)]


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


Niruktas of the pre-Yaska period

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, such works – Nighantus as also Niruktas – of all those savants, who preceded Yaska, are lost. And, it is only the Nirukta of Yascacharya that has stood the test of time for over two thousand seven hundred years; and, is acclaimed, for its excellence, as the most authoritative text in its class.


Manifold approaches to the study of Vedas

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

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

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

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

The Naidanas’ (said to be specialists on the theory of causation) approach was similar to that of Aithihasikas.

The Parivrajaka, the wandering philosophers, Adhyatma-pravada, try to interpret almost every aspect of a Samhita text in terms of spiritual or mystical context.

The Dharma-shastrikas search for points of Law or precedence in the accounts narrated in the Vedas.

The Vaiyakaranah, the Grammarians are mostly interested in the linguistic analysis of the Vedic texts


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first, svar, is explained as follows by Sarup (1920–27: part II, p. 30): Svar means the sun; it is very distant, it has well dispersed (the darkness), it has well penetrated the fluids, it has well penetrated the light of the luminaries, or it is pierced through with light.’ It is said; the explanations imply that derivation from the preverb su plus the word araṇa ‘distant,’ īr ‘set in motion,’ or the root ṛ ‘go.’ The word araṇa is itself a derivation from the verb ‘go.’ ]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


With reference to this, the words, the accent and the  grammatical  form of which are regular and accompanied by a radical modification which gives a hint, should be derived in the ordinary manner.

But, If the meaning is not perspicuous; and, if there is no radical modification which gives a hint, one should investigate [the word to be explained], taking one’s stand on the meaning, according to a similarity (of a verbal root with a suitable meaning) – (Sama-artha-svara-samskara)- to the derived from (i.e., to the word to be explained). 

Even If no similar [verbal root] is found, one should explain [the word] according to a similarity in syllable or phoneme – (Arthanityah parkseta kenchid vrtti samanyena)

But, never should one abstain from explaining [by deriving it from some root], one should not be attached to the grammatical form [too much], for the derived forms (i.e., the words to be explained) are full of uncertainties

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


Yaska’s Nirukta -structure

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

: – Principles of Nirvachana (etymology)

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

agni purana cropped

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Nighantu-Nirukta chart

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


Catvari padajatani

In his Nirukta, Yaska tried to explain (Nirvacanam) such Vedic words from the perspective of various linguistic aspects like Noun, Verb, preposition, particle, general definition, special definition, synonyms, homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but convey different meanings), common and obscure grammatical forms, words and their meanings, and the etymology of these words. Yaska terms such analytical method as samaskara (treatment) or sastrakrto yogah (grammatical combination)

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

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

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

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

Yaska opposes the stand taken by Audumbarayana; but then, he goes on to talk about a totally different concept, Bhava – the being and becoming (Bhu) of verbs from their roots. Yaska, in that context, mentions six modes or forms of transformations (Sad bhava vikarah) of Bhava-s from the indistinct (A-vyakta) to explicit (Vyakta) and then to disappearance (vinasa). These phases are: coming into existence (jayate); existence (Asti); transformation (viparinamate); growth (vardate); decay or wane (apaksiyate); and, ceasing to exist (vinasyati).

These are the six phases of changes (parinama) that do occur in all forms of life or of any entity.


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

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

Here, Sattva is the static aspect of the meaning (as it exists); and, Bhava, the dynamic aspect, is action (Kriya) as it takes place in temporal sequence – (bhavah karma kriya dhatvartha ity anarthantaram).

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

According to Yaska, Verb (Akhyata) is the vital unit of language through which we express our intentions and actions; and, a sentence without a verb serves no purpose (tad.yatra.ubhe.bhāva.pradhāne.bhavata– Nir. l. l

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


Of the four parts of speech (Catvari padajatani) , Yaska gives greater importance to Nouns and Verbs (Naman, Akyata) – which are employed independently – than to the Prefix or Prepositions  (Upasarga – Nanavidha vishesha artha pradhana) and the Particles (Nipata – Upamarthe pada puranartha – for the purpose of drawing comparisons),  which cannot present a clear meaning when detached from Nouns or Verbs – na nirbaddha upasarga arthannirahuriti Sakatayanah –Nir.I.3.

According to Yaska; Sakatayana held the view that the prepositions are indicative (dyotaka) rather than denotative (vacaka) — (nama-akahyatayostu karmopa-samyoga-dyotaka bhavanti~ Nir.I.3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

As the nouns, often, have verbal roots (Dhatu), they attempt to explain ‘Why something is called what it is called ‘, by linking it to some activity; thereby establishing its relation to a verb or verbal-root. In fact, Yaska treats every noun as an information-invoking singular term.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yaska was, perhaps, one among the earliest authorities to make a reference to Sphota-vada.  Bharthari (11th century) in his celebrated work Vakyapadiya acknowledges Yaska’s reference to the Sphota concept.  Bhartrhari explains the Sphota as: a spontaneous process where a latent idea or thought arising out of the consciousness or the mind of the speaker is manifested by the sounds (Dhvani) of the spoken words employed in the sentence; and, it is directly grasped, through intuition (Prathibha), by the mind (Buddhi) of the listener.

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

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

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

Durga remarks: the use of words, their role and the intended effect are context sensitive. The same word could be employed in any number of ways; each performing its role its own context. Therefore even on the purely communication level, the word acts as a meaningful entity, influencing and creating the society of man, which is nothing but a product of this communication.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yaskapranitam.2 jpg

References and Sources

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


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The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Three

Continued from Part Two

Natya Sastra

Discussions on Artha in Kavya- the Indian Poetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manasollasa vol 2-page 171 ( 225) verses 205-206

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

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

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


[ Let me digress here, for a while:     About the word and the meaning :

Similar ideas appear in the poetics of the ancient West as also during the Renaissance period. In their ancient treatises – Aristotle (384-322 BCE – Poetics); and, Horace (65-8 BCE Ars Poetica) – talk about the art of poetry.  Horace, in particular, in a discussion of poetics, elaborates on the idea of beauty in poetry. He observes that poetry should contain both beauty and meaning. He comes up with the dictum:  non satis est pulchra esse poemata (it is not enough for a poem to be beautiful), which became a major theme in Renaissance art theory.  And, the Renaissance critics readily accepted the idea of beauty supplementing meaning in art and poetry.

Horace also theorized that the poet’s ability to empathize with his characters; and, express man’s most profound concerns helped build civilization. The Renaissance period also embraced Horace’s idea that the artist should experience an emotion in order to depict it.

Horace writes that poets should apply appropriate styles to their poems based on the subject; and, not force an artificial relationship between subject and style. Horace observes that the poet should use appropriate language relevant to a character’s age, occupation, and personality.

He observes that successful poets know their subjects by observing them, as an artist would observe a live model, and/or experiencing them, as a poet experiences the spoken word.

Yet you cannot draw except from the living model /and the poet must learn to write from the spoken word.”

He asserted that the poet has a responsibility to know his subject intimately; and, to learn of the ways in which past and contemporary scholars approached similar subjects.

Horace, therefore, emphasizes the importance of studying the techniques of successful poets. While he feels that the poets should not restrict themselves to established form, he supports the idea that one could use the classical structures, styles and techniques of established poets when the subject calls for it. He observed that a successful poet becomes wise by reading the philosophies of “better men”.

Horace also feet that both poets and painters should have the freedom, or poetic license, to create from their imagination. He said; for any artist, either as a musician or a painter or poet, there is an inexhaustible richness and diversity in the world we live in. And, there is also abundant freedom to experience and to express in countless innovative ways. Without such artistic freedom, the human civilization comes to a virtual end.

Further, Horace also believes the arts should promote virtuous characters and ideas, because of their ability to influence humanity. At the same time, he cautions that the poet need not omit beauty in order to do this.

Another interesting feature of the treatises on poetry of Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica is the direct correlations between the sister arts – poetry and painting. From their comparison of these two arts emerged the art theory ut pictura poesis: as is painting so is poetry. Thus, the poet’s ability to paint images of nature in the mind’s eye; and, the painter’s ability to paint the same images on canvas, linked the two arts. The relation between poetry and painting was seen as that between two forms of poetry. And, of course, there is the much quoted saying, attributed to Simonides (556-468 BCE), by Plutarch in his De Gloria Atheniensium: Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is the painting that speaks.

It was said; the painter and the poet have much in common.  Conventionally the painter deals with forms, moods and their representations in lines and colours .And, the poet is more immersed in the world of concepts, ideas, doubts and queries often tending to be philosophical. Both symbolize their emotions, sensations and ideas through concrete images and words; each in his own manner.

 Renaissance artists, like Alberti and others, also drew a relationship between the formal elements of poetry and painting in that geometry and arithmetic were the theoretical basis for both arts. Further, they pursued similar goals.

It was said; the most relevant relationships between poetry and painting in the Renaissance’s theory of art were the imitation of nature; content and harmony between parts; beauty and meaning; formal elements and scholarship, and expression, action and decorum..

The impact of the dictum: ut pictura poesis during Renaissance was that it contributed, in a large measure, for introducing several layers of symbolisms and the elements of poetic imagery; forging relations with within certain parameters of literary contexts; and, raising painting to the status of a liberal art. Renaissance critics encouraged the painters to study past and contemporary poetry, history, theology, and philosophy. The ideal painting in the Renaissance contained subject matter from classical sources and the imitation of nature.

Source: Horace, Ars Poetica, trans. C. H. Sisson (Great Britain: Carcanet Press, 1975) ]


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lotus blossoms

Continued in next Part

Sources and References

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Satya Deva Caudharī

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

Sahityashastra, the Indian Poetics by Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande

History of Indian Literature by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz

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

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock


Posted by on November 19, 2016 in Artha-Meaning, General Interest, Sanskrit


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The meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Two


Continued from Part One




A. Artha

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

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


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

Yaska, the etymologist of the very ancient India, derives the term Artha from two roots (chakarita): Artho’rtem and Aranastha va – (artho.arter.araṇastho.vā -1,18)  ‘ to go, to move towards, reach etc’ and Arna+shta ‘to stay apart ‘. The Artha is, thus, derived from roots conveying mutually opposite sense. It is said; Artha, according to this derivation, at once, denotes something that people are moving towards (Arteh) or something from which  they desire to move away (Aranastha).

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

  1. Pramāa (valid means of knowledge);
  2. Prameya (objects of valid knowledge);
  3. Saśaya (doubt);
  4. Prayojana (objective or the aim);
  5. Dṛṣṭānta (instances or examples);
  6. Siddhānta (conclusion);
  7. Avayava (members or elements of syllogism);
  8. Tarka (hypothetical reasoning):
  9. Niraya (derivation or settlement);
  10. Vāda (discussion)
  11. Jalpa (wrangling);
  12. Vitaṇḍā (quibbling);
  13. Hetvābhāsa (fallacy);
  14. Chala (hair-splitting); 
  15. jāti (sophisticated refutation) ;and
  16. Nigrahasthāna (getting close to defeat).

 For a detailed discussion on these elements – please click here



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[According to him:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Panini seems to leave the question open-ended.

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

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


The Problem of Multiple Meanings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There are certain other peculiar situations:

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

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

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


Artha in art

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

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

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


Artha in Arthashastra

Artha sastra

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

Here, Artha is an all-embracing term having a verity of meanings. It includes many shades and hues of the term : material well-being of the people and the State (AS:15.1.1); economy and livelihood of the people ; economic efficiency of the State in all fields of activity including agriculture and commerce(AS:1.4.3) . It also includes Rajanithi; the ‘politics’; and the management of the State. Artha, here, is the art of governance in its widest sense.

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

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


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

 [manuṣyāṇāṃ vṛttir arthaḥ, manuṣyavatī bhūmir ity arthaḥ //–KAZ15.1.01]

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

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


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

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

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


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

The ruler’s responsibilities in the internal administration of the State are threefold: raksha, protection of the Sate from external aggression; Palana, maintenance of law and order within the State; and, Yogakshema, safeguarding the welfare of the people and their future generations – tasyāḥ pṛthivyā lābha.pālana.upāyaḥ śāstram artha.śāstram iti /.

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

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

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

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


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

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



B.Tatparya or intention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


C. Shakthi (power of expression)

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

The understanding of the relationship between word and its meaning is called vyutpatti. Salikanatha (Ca.8th century) ,  a Mimamsa philosopher  belonging to the Prabhakra School , in his Prakarana-pancika  lists  eight means for such comprehension of the meaning of the words. They are:

  • (i) grammar;
  • (ii) comparison;
  •  (iii) dictionary;
  •  (iv) words of a trustworthy person;
  •  (v) action;
  •  (vi) connotation of the sentence;
  • (vii) explanation;  and,
  •  (viii) proximity of a word, the meaning of which is already established.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Continued in Part Three




 Sources and References

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

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