Tag Archives: Varna vada

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven




Two Aspects of the Word

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[Translation of Shri K Raghavan Pillai

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Communication of thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Process of cognition and theories of error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For and against the Sphota-vada

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Continued in

Next Part

References and Sources

  1. The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume 5 – edited by Harold G. Coward, Karl H. Potter, K. Kunjunni Raja
  2. Of Many Heroes: An Indian Essay in Literary Historiographyby G. N. Devy
  3. Time in Hinduismby Harold Coward
  4. Bhartṛhari, the Grammarianby Mulakaluri Srimannarayana Murti
  5. The Study of Vakyapadiya– Dr. K Raghavan Piliai Volume I (Motilal Banarsidas; 1971)
  6. Being and Meaning: Reality and Language in Bhartṛhari and Heideggerby Sebastian Alackapally
  7. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Soundby Guy L. Beck
  8. Bhartrhari (ca. 450-510)by Madhav Deshpande
  9. Bhartrihariby Stephanie Theodorou
  10. The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysisby Harold G. Coward
  11. Speech versus Writing” In Derrida and Bhartahariby Harold G. Coward
  12. Sequence from Patanjali to Post _modernityby  V. Ashok.
  13. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  14. Sphota theory of Bhartrhari
  15. Word and Sentence, Two Perspectives: Bhartrhari and Wittgensteinedited by Sibajiban Bhattacharyya
  16. Hermeneutical Essays on Vedāntic Topicsby John Geeverghese Arapura
  17. Culture and Consciousness: Literature Regainedby William S. Haney
  18. The Advaita Vedānta of Brahma-siddhiby Allen Wright Thrasher
  19. Bhartr̥hari, Philosopher and Grammarian: Proceedings of the First… Edited by Saroja Bhate, Johannes Bronkhorst
  20. Bhartṛhari – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  21. Sri Venkateswara Univrsity Oriental Journal Volumes XXX-XXXi 1987 – 1988
  22. Studies in the Kāśikāvṛtti: The Section on Pratyāhāras: Critical Edition …edited by Pascale Haag, Vincenzo Vergiani
  23. Proceedings of the Lecture Series on Våkyapadiya and Indian Philosophy of Languages- (31.1.08 to 2.2.08)
  24. Encyclopaedia for the world psychologists 1. A – D ; Edited by H. L. Kalia
  25. Linguistic philosophy of Yaska- Sodhganga
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Posted by on February 18, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


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Who was Upavarsa ..?

Upavarsha is one of the remarkable sage-scholars who come through the mists of ancient Indian traditions. And, again, not much is known about him.

Upavarsha is recognized as one of the earliest and most authoritative thinkers of the Vedanta and Mimamsa Schools of thought. He is placed next only to the author of the Brahma sutra.  Among the many commentaries on Brahma sutra the one by Upavarsha was most highly regarded.  It is believed that the words of Sri Sankara explain the correct account of Upavarsha’s doctrines. He is quoted twice by Sri Sankara in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya (3.3.53).  

Upavarsha was  looked upon as an authority by all branches of Vedanta Schools; and  is respected in the Mimamsa School also. Both Sabaraswamin and Bhaskara treat the ancientVrttikara as an authority; and, quote his opinions as derived from ‘the tradition of Upavarsha ‘ (Upavarsha-agama).  Bhaskara calls Upavarsha as ‘shastra-sampradaya- pravarttaka’

[ A Vritti is a short gloss explaining the aphorisms in a more elaborate way, but not as extensively as a Bhashya. A Vrttikara is thus a commentator on traditional texts. The most well known of the Vrttikara-s are Upavarsha and Bodhayana.]

Upavarsha’s time is surmised to be  around 200 BCE. We come to know Upavarsha through references to his views by Sri Sankara and others. He was an intellectual giant of his times. He is credited with being the first to divide the Vedic lore into Karma-kanda (ritualistic section) and Jnana-kanda (knowledge section).

As said ;the earliest Acharya to have commented upon Badarayana’s Brahma Sutra is believed to be Upavarsha.  His sub-commentary (Vritti) on Brahma Sutra is titled asSariraka-mimamsa-vritti. Sri Sankara and his disciples make frequent references to the works of Vrittikara-s, commentators on the   Brahma Sutra; and, in particular to Sariraka-mimamsa-vritti of sage Upavarsha.

It is said; the ancient commentator Sabaraswamy drew upon Upavarsha for his commentary on Mimamsa-Sutra. Another ancient writer Sundarapandya is also said to have commented in his Varttika on Upavarsha’s Sariraka-mimamsa-vritti. Sri Sankara too relied upon Upavarsha‘s Vritti for his commentary on Brahma Sutra. In addition, Sri Sankara followed the sub-commentary of Sundarapandya.  It is said; the doctrine   elaborated by Sri Sankara in his Adhyasa Bashya stemmed out of the germ ideas put forth by Upavarsha and Sundarapandya ( among others ) . It is not surprising that Sri Sankara held both the teachers in such high regard.

Sri Sankara regards Upavarsha a forerunner of his own tradition (sampradaya). He displaysenormous reverence towards Upavarsha and addresses him as Bhagavan and Sampradaya vit , the upholder of the right tradition, just in the manner he addresses the Great Badarayana.  Sri Sankara addressed Jaimini, Sabara and other Mimasakas only as teachers (Acharya). 

Sundarapandya in his Varttika on Upavarsha’s Sariraka-mimamsa-vritti, mentions the six means of knowledge (cognition) advocated by Upavarsha. These are, briefly: Pratyaksha(immediate); Anumana (inference) ; Sabda (verbal or textual testimony ); Upamana(analogy);  Artha-patti (presumption) ; and , Abhava  (non- apprehension).  He remarks that the Vrittika-kara   (Upavarsha) believes that these six modes of acquiring knowledge are valid only until the Self is ascertained. 

But, once the subject-object differentiation is erased they no longer matter. He therefore makes a distinction between relative knowledge (sesha-jnana) and absolute knowledge (a-sesha-jnana). Upavarsha, he says, believes that absolute knowledge is attainable through Adyaropa or Apavada (adyaropa-apavada-ubhayam nishprapancham prapanchate). Sundarapandya explains; the attribute-less Brahman can be described by the method of superimposition followed by its withdrawal. The Absolute knowledge, however, is neither the process of superimposition nor is it the negation.  Incidentally, Sundarapandya is also believed to have contemplated on the concept of Maya and on the pristine nature of Brahman without Maya.

[The Adhyaropa-Apavada method of logic pioneered by Upavarsha consists in initially assuming a position and later withdrawing that assumption, after a discussion. ]

Apart from delineating the six means of knowledge that were adopted by the later Advaita Schools, Upavarsha is believed to have initiated a discussion on self-validation (svathah pramanya) that became a part of the Vedanta terminology. Svatah pramana: true knowledge is valid by itself; not made valid or invalid by external conditions (sva-karya-karane svatah pramanyam jnanasya).

 [As a general rule ,  knowledge (except memory) is taken to be valid on its own strength , unless invalidated by contrary knowledge. (memory is not considered valid knowledge as it is dependent on previous cognition or impressions which might get faded or distorted ; and , so is the dream.)]

There is a view that Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa were initially two independent treaties authored by Jaimini and Badarayana respectively; and, were later put together with suitable emendations by someone described as Vyasa – “the arranger”.  And, Upavarsha the Vrttikara commented upon the text in that combined form.  

Sri Sankara refers to a discussion held by Upavarsha on the nature of Self in Brahma Sutra (3.3.53). And, the same discussion appears in the commentary on Mimamsa-Sutra(1.1.5). Further Sri Sankara mentions:  ‘ Bhagavan Upavarsha has written a Vrtti on Purva Mimamsa. And, in that, he is referring to his another Vrtti on Saririka Mimamsa  (Brahma Sutra) ’.

 Ata Eva Bhagavata Upavarshena Prathame Tantre I Atma-stitv-abhidhana-prasaktau Sarirake Vakshyamaha ityuddharaha Krutaha II (3.3.53)

This suggests that Upavarsha may have commented  on both Purva and Uttara Mimamsa.

Sri Sankara whenever he refers to Upavarsha treats him with great respect and quotes his views in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya (3.3.53) as being authoritative. And the latter Sub-commentators of Advaita School, Anandajnana and Govindananda, recognize  Upavarsha as the Vrttikara.

Sri Sankara, in his commentary on Brahma sutra, adopted a particular way of presentation. On each subject (vishaya), he first gives one interpretation and then follows it up by the other interpretation. It is explained; the first one is given as the opposing views (purva-paksha) of ‘others’ (apare); and, it is meant to be rejected.  But, Sri Sankara does not quote the opposing views; he merely sums up, raises them as the views of ‘others’, and finally dismisses them. Sri Sankara’s own views are presented in the later set of interpretation.

The later scholars, Anandajnana and Govindananda, explain that the ‘others’ referred by Sri Sankara, actually, stands for the Vrttikara Bodhayana. The Advaita School, thus, believes that Upavarsha and Bodhayana are two different persons.  And, the other dimesion of the  debate is  whether the terms  ‘others ‘ or ‘some’ truly refer to Bodhayana . That debate  is still not concluded.

Similarly , Savarasvamin a noted Mimasaka in his bhashya (Savara bhashya) on the fifth sutra of Mimamsa sutra of Jaimini refers to a Vrttikara prior to his (Savara’s) time, without, of course, mentioning his name. In the bhashya on the same sutra (1.1.5), Savarasvamin also refers to Upavarsha by name and with the epithet ‘bhagavan’. It is not clear who that Vrittikara was. But, he, in any case , was not Upavarsha. 

[An unfortunate feature of the traditional texts is that they do not mention the names of the old teachers-commentators whose opinions are being quoted. Such practice might have been an idiom of a well-understood literary etiquette. But, it has led to needless debates and speculations.  Very often, it is left to a commentator who comes perhaps a century or more later to tell us that (let’s say) Sri Sankara actually meant such-and–such commentator when he said ‘some one ‘or ‘others’. Similar is the position with regard to those commentators that are referred to as ‘Vrttikara ‘ or ‘Vakyakara’ without mentioning their names .  There is therefore always an element of scepticism associated with such sub-commentaries. ]

Bodhayana, it is said, laid equal importance of Jnana and Karma Kandas; as   the two together constituted the doctrinal system (Shastraikatva).   He held the view that directly after completing the rituals one should take up the investigation into Brahman, which is the study of Vedanta. His position was coined by the later Vedanta Schools as jnana-karma-samucchaya-vada, the doctrine that synthesises jnana and karma. Sri Sankara who did not accord much significance to rituals, naturally, tended to differ from Bodhayana. 

Sri Sankara’s basic position was that the two sections are addressed to different class of persons. Karma-kanda consists injunctions to act in order to achieve certain results. But, liberation is not a product or a thing to be achieved. Jnana-kanda is about Brahman that already exists; it pertains to the ultimate purpose which is true knowledge of Self, and it is addressed to one who is intent on liberation.   Each section of Veda is valid in its own sphere; but, the two sections cannot logically be bound together.

There is  an alternate view that Upavarsha was a successor to Bodhayana. It is said that   Bodhayana wrote a Bhashya titled ‘Krtakoti’ on the Brahma Sutra. Fearing that the great length of the commentary would cause it be cast into oblivion, Upavarsha somewhat abridged it. And later, it is believed, Devasvamin further abridged Upavarsha’s abridged version.

But, there is also a belief that the names Upavarsha and Bodhayana refer to one and the same person ; and , Bodhayana might have been the linage, Gotra name, of Upavarsha. Sri Vedanta Deshika supported the view in his Tattvatika

  (Vrttikarasya  bhodhayanasiva  hi Upavarsa iti syan nama  ) .

This School beleives that  Bodhayana’s theory of assigning equal importance to Karma andJnana Kandas was adopted by Yadavaprakasha, Sri Ramanuja’s teacher. Bodhayana, it is said, had recognized  that Jnana and Karma Kandas  together constitute the doctrinal system (Shastraikatva). 

Sri Ramanuja in his Sri Bhashya quotes the views of the Vrttikara Bodhayana seven times. In the opening verse of Sri Bhashya, Sri Ramanuja says: ‘The previous masters have abridged the detailed commentary on Brahma sutra which had been composed by Bhagavad Bodhayana. The words of the sutra will be explained in accordance with their views. “(Bhagavad Bhodayana kritam vistirnam Brahma-sutra – vrttim purvacharyah samskipuh I tan-mata-anusarena sutraksarani vyakhyasyante II)  

Sadly, Bodhayana’s vrtti is no longer extant.


Sri Sankara indicates that Upavarsha’s commentary on Brahma Sutra was called Sariraka –mimamsa – vritti (but that work is now lost). Sri Sankara perhaps adopted the term Sarirakafrom Upavarsha; and, titled his own Bhasya on Brahma Sutra as Sariraka –mimamsa – Bhashya.

Upavarsha is believed to have held the view that Brahman is the source, the ground and the goal of all universes. Sri Sankara and Padmapada expanded on this view. Upavarsha is quoted as explaining the term ‘Brahma-jignasa’ as Brhmane jignasa, meaning the enquiry for Brahman. Sri Sankara and others remark that when Vrittikara (Upavarsha) says that the enquiry is for Brahman, he is right…, for, knowledge of Brahman is indeed the fruit of this enquiry.

Padmapada says that Upavarsha explained the word ‘atha’  as referring to that ‘ after the enquiry into the antecedent condition’, the enquiry into Brahman  follows ( Ref :panchapadika ). 

It is said; Upavarsha developed a theory on Atman (Atma-vada).  He emphasized that the postulation of “self” as distinct from body and the mental process was rather inevitable. He argued that   the self cannot in any manner be revealed to another person; but, it cannot be denied by oneself either. It is affirmed by introspection, but that process cannot itself be regarded as self.

As for the proof of the existence of Atman, Upavarsha holds the view that Atman is known by perception as it is the object of ‘I’.

A verse quoted in Nyayamanjari of Jayanta of the Nyaya School (dated around ninth century) cites the Atman-theory of ‘the followers of Upavarsha’ (Aupavarsha): ‘they understand the Atman to be directly perceptible (pratyaksha) ;  For Atman can be known by ‘I’ consciousness.

 [Tatra pratyaksham atmanam Aupavarsha prapedire I aham-pratyaya-gamyatvat svayuthya api kechana II]

The argument seems to be that the existence of Atman need not be proved by reasoning or verbal arguments. It is in each one’s own experience. Self is the consciousness of being. This was also the faith of the later Mimamsa school of Kumarila Bhatta.

Sri Sankara too adopted the proposition of Upavarsha. Sri Sankara explained: “For all men are conscious that the Atman (self) exists. No one ever thinks ‘I do not exist’ “. At another place (BS : 1.1.1), he says that the inner-self (pratyagatma) is the object of “I consciousness’ (asmat-pratyaya-vishaya); and, that it is directly perceptible (aparoksha).

Sri Sankara expanded further on the Atman-theory of Upavarsha, and extended it to the Supreme Self, transcending the individual.


Some people   call Upavarsha the Fred Hoyle of ancient India  , in the sense that both rejected the Big Bang theory. Upavarsha rejected the Sphota-vada , which in essence said that every act of creation and every sound that issues forth in the universe is the duplication of the initial Big Bang. When we utter a sound or word the Big Bang is duplicating itself in our mind.

Bhartrihari (c. 450-510 CE?) expanding on an ancient idea is said to have propounded Sphota-vada In his famous work the Vakyapadiya.

The term ‘sphota’ does not easily translate into English, as it usually happens.  The Sphota is derived from the root ‘sphut’ which means ‘to burst’, but it also describes what ’is revealed’ or  ‘is made explicit’. Sphota can also refer to the abstract or conceptual form of an audible word. Sphota is somewhat similar to the Ancient Greek concept of logos or Word.

Sphota is also interpreted to mean that from which the meaning bursts forth, shines forth etc. To put it in another way, that which expresses a meaning; or the process of expressing a meaning through a word is called sphota.

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

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

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

Bhartrihari held the view that the sentence is not a collection of words or an ordered series of words . A sentence-sphota is the primary unit of meaning. A sentence is a sequence_ less, part_ less whole that gets expressed or manifested in a sequential and temporal utterance. A word or sentence is grasped as a unity by  intuition (pratibha). According to Bhartrhari, sphota is an auditory image of word. It is indivisible and without inner-sequence.

 Bhartrihari explains that initially the word exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity but is manifested as a sequence of different sounds, giving raise to the appearance of differentiation. Bhartrhari states: “All difference presupposes a unity”;  and where there is a duality there is an identity pervading it. Otherwise one cannot be related to the other or each would constitute a world by itself.

For Bhartrhari, Sphota is the real substratum, proper linguistic unit, which is identical with its meaning. Language is not the vehicle of meaning or of thought. Thought anchors language and  the language anchors thought. In this way , there are no essential differences between a linguistic unit and its meaning or the thought it conveys. Sphota refers to the” non-differentiated language principle”. This gave raise to  the theory of “word monism“.

However, Upavarsha rejected the Sphota-Vada. He in turn came up with his theory of  Varna-vada; according to which the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phonemes -varnas) alone are real constituents of a word. He said sounds are only Varnas and there is no need for a sphota.

Sri Sankara refers to Upavarsha as the originator of Varna-vada, which contrasted with Spotavada of Bhartrhari. According to Varna- vada, the Varna-s, phoneme (speech sounds) , alone are real constituents of the word; and there is nothing else in the word apart from Varna-s.

Sri Sankara remarks (BS: 1.3.28): Bhagavad Upavarsha says ‘But, the words are none other than various letter-sounds (Varna). He then follows up with a debate on whether the words are letter-sounds of this kind or whether they are Sphota. 

Sri Sankara supported Varna vada as against Spotavada (Sankara Bashya on Brahma Sutra: 1.3.28) ; and followed Upavarsha . He did not approve the concept of Sphota-vada; and, said the meaning of a word can be known from its constituent letters, sounds  and the context. But, Sri Sankara, the scholars believe, was not putting forth an original argument, but was  merely condensing the previous refutations of the Sphota theory.

The other Acharyas and commentators too toed a similar line and did not approve the Sphota theory.Vacaspati Mishra who commented on Sri Sankara’s Vedanta Sutra Bhashya, too rejected the Sphota  theory . He came up with  his own theory of Abhihitanvaya-vadaand said the understanding of the meaning of a whole sentence is reached by inferring to it, in a separate act of lakshana or implication, from the individual meanings of the constituent words.


Upavarsha, whoever he might have been, was indeed an intellectual giant of his times. He was a worthy successor to the remarkable sage-scholars such as Badarayana and Jaimini. His contribution to the development of Indian thought is enormous.

Many however feel that by dismissing off-hand the Sphota theory he derailed the growth of rational thinking within the Indian philosophy.


[For more on Bhartrhari  and the Sphota  theory , please visit ]

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Posted by on September 7, 2012 in Indian Philosophy


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