Tag Archives: Varna

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven




Two Aspects of the Word

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[Translation of Shri K Raghavan Pillai

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Communication of thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Process of cognition and theories of error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


For and against the Sphota-vada

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Continued in

Next Part

References and Sources

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

Continued from Part Six


The Word and the Sentence

Grammar and the philosophy of language

Grammar (Vyakarana) was recognized from the earliest times in India as a distinct science, a field of knowledge with its own parameters, which distinguished it from other branches of learning/persuasions. It was regarded as the means to secure release from the bondage of ignorance : Vag-yoga ; Sabda-yoga; or Sabdapurva-yoga.

The overall aim of Sanskrit Grammar was not to list out the rules and to standardize the language; but, to aptly bring out the intended meaning of the structure of words. As Yaska puts it in his Nirukta (the oldest available Indian treatise on etymology, philology and semantics) the aim was to get the meaning of the uttered word (arthanityah parikseta-Nir: 2.1.1). Thus, Sanskrit Grammar was an attempt to purify (samskruta), to discipline and to explain the behaviour of the spoken language, so that the inner meaning could shine forth unhindered.

During the periods following the three Great Sages (Munitraya) – Panini, Katyayana and Patanjali – the question of perceiving the intended meaning of the spoken word engaged the attention of the Grammarians and the philosophers of the language. The more significant of such Scholar-Grammarians, among others, were: Mandana Misra, Kaumarila Bhatta, Kunda Bhatta, Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari. In particular, Bharthari’s major work, Vakyapadiya, discusses the ways in which the outer word-form could unite with its inner meaning. 

Each of those giants, in his own manner, addressed the question about ‘’the meaning of ‘meaning’ ‘’; debated vigorously on various theories of meaning as being fundamental to linguistic studies.


In the Grammar-traditions of ancient India, protracted debates were carried out on the question: ’what is the basic unit of the language that gives forth a meaning (Artha)?  Is it the alphabet (Varna) or the word (Pada) or the sentence (Vakya)?’ Though the discussions took several routes, it ultimately arrived on the fact that the letters constitute a word; and, the words come together to form a sentence. It was pointed out that just as a word has no separate entity without its constituent letters; similarly, a sentence has no separate entity without words that give it a structure. It was also said; though the words are parts of a sentence, the meaning of the sentence does not independently arise out of them. Meaning is the function of the sentence as a whole. Though the distinction between a sentence and its parts (words and letters) was recognised, it was said to be mainly, for day-to-day purposes (loka-vyavahara) and for analytical studies undertaken by the grammarians.

This position was, in a way, formalized when Yaska mentioned that ‘from the Vedic mantras we come to know that ‘language started with sentences and not with individual words’. He described the sentence as the entity that manifests meaning (vak punah prakasayaty-arthan– Nir.9.l9); and, as a fixed combination of words (niyata-vacoyukti) which is unchangeable (niyata-vacoyuktayo niyata-anupurvya bhavanti – Nir.I.l5).The meaning of a sentence remains un-altered even with a shift in the position of the words.

The Next question was whether the words have an independent existence of their own or whether they are merely segments of a sentence which, in truth, is an indivisible entity producing a definite meaning.

There was a line of argument (Pada-vadin) which asserted that a word though being a part or a segment (Khanda) of a sentence is, indeed, an independent unit of thought and meaning; it enjoys its own existence and characteristics; and, it is only the harmonious unity of such meaning-bearing words that lends a purpose to the sentence. The School which supported this line of argument, upholding the independent nature of the word, came to be known as Khanda-paksha.

The other School , which opposed the above standpoint, emphasized that the sentence is the fundamental, indivisible (A-khanda) linguistic unit; words are just the components of a sentence; and, mere words without reference to a sentence are abstractions and unreal; and do not convey a definite meaning. The thrust of this argument  (Vakya-vadin) was that a sentence is an indivisible, integrated unit; and, in the absence of a structured sentence, the individual words, by themselves, do not communicate a sense or the intent of the speaker. It asserted; the meaning of a sentence, as a whole, is an indivisible entity. The School which advocated this argument   was known as the A-khanda-paksha.

Thus, even at the very early stages in the development of Vyakarana (Grammar) we find two fundamental approaches to the study of the problem of meaning: the khanda-paksha and the A-khanda-paksha.



The Khanda-Paksha is about the primacy of the word (Pada or Sabda). Khanda-paksha treats the word as an autonomous unit of thought and meaning.  Here, the language study is primarily based on words; and the sentence is taken to be an assembly of such words. The Khanda-paksha confined its enquiry to the meaning of the words by treating words as self-contained and self-explaining units. It did not pay much attention to the sentence, its structure and its overall meaning. It simply said that a sentence is nothing more than a group of words; and its meaning is just the sum of the meanings carried by its words.

 In the context of the Vedas, the Pada or Sabda is just not the pronounced or uttered word; it is indeed the Vac the eternal speech itself, existing before creation of the worlds.

Though the riks of the Rig-Veda were expressed in the form of sentences, great importance was paid to its constituent words. It is said; Sakalya (Nir. 6. 28), the earliest known historical figure who dealt with linguistic studies, therefore, took up the task of compiling the Pada-paatha of Rig-Veda, where the sentences of the Samhita Paatha (the original text, as it is) were broken down into words (pada) and arranged in sequential order; and, the process also involved breaking up compound words into their elements.  The intention was to clearly bring forth the meaning (Artha) and the denotive power (Shakthi) of individual words in the sentence. Sakalya’s service to the study of Vedic text is acknowledged by Panini the Great Grammarian. 

Yaska-charya (earlier to 5th century BCE), the great etymologist of the ancient India, 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, is critical in arriving at an unerring meaning of a statement. Thus, the word, the meaning and their mutual relations are eternal.  In his remarkable work Nirukta (etymology or Nirvacana shastra) – a commentary on Nighantuka, a sort of glossary – Yaska attempts to establish the proper meaning of certain selected Vedic words (including their prepositions and the particles), in the context of ‘how, where, when and why’ it is stated. For the purpose of his study, Yaska chose about 600 stanzas from the Rig-Veda; and created a well organized glossary to understand and to interpret, particularly, the archaic, uncommon words used in the Vedic texts.

His study also included a system of rules for forming words from roots and affixes. According to Yaska, every word is derived from a root; and by analysing the root, its tendency and the suffix, it is possible to establish the relation between word and meaning. In the Nirukta, Yaska has tried to explain those selected Vedic words from the perspective of the various linguistic aspects, parts of speech (padajatani) such as:  noun (naman), verb (akyata), preposition (upasarga), and particle (nipata) – (chatvari padajatani nama-khyate –upasargani-paatascha  …Nir .l.l) ; in additions to taking up  general definitions, special definitions, 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)

[ Of the four parts of speech (chatvari padajatani) Yaska gives greater importance to nouns and verbs (naman, akyata), which are employed independently , than to prepositions (upasarga) and particles (nipata) which cannot present a clear meaning when detached from nouns or verbs.

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

Between the noun and the verb, Yaska treats the verb as the nucleus of a sentence. According to him, 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 yatrobhe bhavaeradhane bhavatah – Nir. l. l).]


It is interesting to note that the ancient Grammarians did not devote as much attention to sentence and its structure as they did to the word. Among the ancient writers, neither Panini nor Gautama defined the sentence and its essential characteristics. Jayanta Bhatta (in his Nyayamanjari) remarks that the absence of such discussion might be because that Mimamsa and Nyaya Schools considered the sentence to be merely a combination or a sequence of words ; the word as  nothing more than a combination of phonemes (Varna) ; and , the syllables as independent units. The syllables (having a vowel)   by themselves may not convey meaning; but, they are capable of conveying meaning when they combine.

[Generally, the ancient Indian Grammarians and Logicians took a word as the unit of speech and considered a sentence as a combination of words for the purpose of communicating a meaning.

 According to abhihita-anvaya-vada (of Bhatta Mimasa), each word in a sentence conveys its primary and individual meaning by virtue  of primary denotation (abhidha). And then the meaning of the sentence arises from the combined construed (anvaya) meanings of its words.

Another view anvita-abhidhana-vada (of Prabhakara Mimamsa), instead, says that individual words do not convey meaning except when they are associated (anvita) with or indicate an action (kriya). And, no word can be understood as having independent meaning when it is isolated from a sentence.

 According to the monist view, the meaning of the sentence is grasped by the listener as a whole, in a flash. The individual word-meanings appear as parts of a sentence; but, the whole is simply not the sum of parts.

The question: how could a series of isolated words uttered one after another could together produce a unity that makes meaning – continued to engage various schools of Grammarians and philosophers alike.]

Among the Grammarians, Katyayana was perhaps the first to define a sentence (Akhyatam savyaya-karaka-visesham vakyam). In his Vartika, he called a sentence (Vakya) as an eka-tin-vakyam; meaning: a cluster of words having a single finite verb together with a noun and a qualifier. Panini, however, seems to have accepted the possibility of a sentence having more than one finite verb (tinn atinah – 8.1.28).  Mimamsa tried to explain the difference between the two positions as that of Akanksha, the intention (Artha) of the speaker (Arthaikyad vakyam ekam vakyam sakanksam ched vibhage syat – Jaimini Sutra: 2.1.46).

According to Dr. Kunjunni Rajah (Indian Theories of Meaning) : Mimamsa put forward their theory of understanding the clear meaning of synthetic units of a sentence mainly based on three norms: Akanksa, Yogyata and Samnidhi.

Akanksa or the mutual expectancy of the words consists in a word not being able to convey a complete sense in the absence of another word. Literally, it is the desire on the part of the listeners to know the other words or their meaning to complete the sense. A word is said to have Akanksa for another, if it cannot, without the latter produces knowledge of its inter-connection in an utterancen.

In a sentence, every word necessarily requires another word to complete the sense. To convey the meaning of noun in a sentence, a verb is always needed.

Yogyata is the logical compatibility of consistency of the words in a sentence for mutual association; and, whether it makes sense. When we utter a sentence, if the meaning of a sentence is not contradicted by experience, there is a Yogyata or consistency between the words.

If the words in a sentence should be contiguous in time, it is known as Samnidhi or asatti of a sentence. Words uttered at long intervals cannot produce the knowledge of any interrelation among them even if Akanksa and Yogyata are present there. If a man utters a word a long interval after the first word, then the connection of the meaning cannot be understood

[The Mimamasa said that a group of words serving a single purpose (artha) forms a sentence, if on analysis the separate words are found to have mutual expectancy (akanksha). It says : “ so long as a single purpose is served by a number of words , which on being separated , are found to be wanting and incapable of effecting the said purpose , they form one syntactical unit – one complete Yajus-mantra”.

Prabhakara explains that in this sentence, ‘artha’ stands both for meaning and purpose; and the two are related. Kaumarila Bhatta says that it is possible to take artha as meaning in order to allow a wider scope to the principle.

[The distinction between Katyayana’s definition and Mimamsa’s explanation was discussed by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadia (2. 3-4).]

Source: The Encyclopaedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 5: The Philosophy of the Grammarians By Harold G. Coward, K. Kunjunni Raja-page 25]


The later Grammarians accepted Panini’s view. But, from Katyayana’s point of view, such a sentence may be considered as a complex sentence made up of two or more sentences; but, fundamentally, forming one single sentence.

The  main concern of Panini the Grammarian (Ca.500 BCE) – who might have been a junior contemporary of Yaska or might have lived within a century after Yaska – was not the sentences but words (Sabda), His celebrated work Astadhyayi (the eight chapters)  – also called  Astaka , Sabda-anushasana  and Vrittisutra –  sought to ensure  correct usage of words by  purifying  (Samskrita)  the  language (bhasha)  – literary and spoken ( vaidika –  laukika) –  that  was in use during his days.

Panini’s  goal (lakshya) was  building up of Sanskrit words (pada) from their root forms (dhatu prakara), affixes (pratyaya), verbal roots; pre-verbs (upasarga); primary and secondary suffixes; nominal and verbal terminations ; and , their function (karya) in a sentence. The underlying principle of Panini’s work is that nouns are derived from verbs.

Patanjali, who in the Grammar-tradition (Vyakarana parampara) is regarded as next only to Panini, also focussed on words.  According to him, the basic linguistic unit is a word – provided it generates a meaning. However, Mimamsa opposes this view; and asserts   that any aggregation of letters with or without meaning could be a word.

Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, a commentary on Panini’s Astadhyayi, commences with the statement ‘atho sabda-anu-shasanam’:  here begins the instruction on words (or, let us now discuss the rule governing the words). The three important subjects that Patanjali deals with are also concerned with words: formation of words; determination of meaning; and, the rela­tion between a word (speech sounds – Sabda) and its meaning. He also stresses about the need to learn Grammar and to use correct words; to understand the nature of words  whether or not the words have fixed or floating meanings and so on.


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

But, according to Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the basic purpose of a grammar is to account for the words; not by enumerating them; but, by writing a set of general (samanya) rules (lakshana) that govern them and by pointing out to exceptions (visesha).These general rules, according to him, must be derived from the usage, for which the language of the ‘learned’ (shista) is taken as the norm.

[Though both Panini and Patanjali discussed about words and their relevance in Grammar, their approach differed significantly.

For Patanjali, it is the words themselves and not its constituents that produce a meaning.  According to him, the Grammar analyzes the words, thereby arriving at their constituent elements, though such parts may not be the true bearers of the meaning. This perhaps is the reason that many understand Grammar as Vyakarana, in the sense of analysis.

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



The A-khanda-paksha on the other hand, argued that the sentence is one fundamental linguistic unit (samvit). The sentence is indivisible (A-khanda); and, as a whole expresses a certain meaning; and, its meaning is not reducible to its parts. Thus, the meaning is not in the individual words which are mere parts; but, is in the sentence as a whole, in its entirety (A-khanda). That is to say; the sentence employs certain units in order to arrive at a definite meaning. The meaning so arrived at is because of the unity or integral nature of the sentence; but, not because those units are meaningful in themselves.  The meaning of a sentence remains un-altered even if the positions of the words within it are altered.

As mentioned earlier, the thrust of this argument was that a sentence is an indivisible, integrated unit; and, in the absence of a structured sentence, the individual words, by themselves, do not communicate a sense or the intent of the speaker. Mere words without reference to a sentence are abstractions and unreal; and do not convey a definite meaning. It asserted; the sentence and its meaning, as a whole, is an indivisible entity (A-khanda). The sentence, though it is indivisible (A-khanda), it has the power o£ manifestation through various letters and words.

Bhartrhari’s contribution

The champion of the A-khanda Paksha Vada was none other than Bhartrhari. He assigned a greater priority to sentence. Bhartrhari regarded the sentence as a single ‘integral symbol’ (Sphota); an indivisible unit of communication; an integral sentence the meaning of which is grasped by an instantaneous flash of understanding or perception through of intuition (Prathibha). The complete and true meaning of a sentence is achieved only by means of such ‘intuitive perception’ (VakyaSphota). That according to Bhartrhari is the true and complete communication.

“there is no phonemes (Varna)  in the word; and, nor are there any parts of the phonemes.  It is entirely not possible to separate words from the sentence”.

pade na varṇā vidyante varṇeṣv avayavā na ca /
vākyāt padānām atyantaṃ pravibhāgo na kaś cana // VP:1.74 //

That is to say; a sentence alone is the unit of utterance; a single indivisible entity with a single undivided meaning that is grasped as a whole in a flash of insight (Prathibha).

Sphota in the ordinary conversation, according to Bhartrhari refers to 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.

Bharthari’s position has come to be known as Sphota-vada, the doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota derived from the root Shput conveys the meaning of:  ‘to burst forth’ or in the context of Bhartrhari’s text to suggest ‘bursting forth of light or a flash of insight’. For Bhartrhari, the Sphota is an indivisible and changeless unity.

The Sphota concept was developed over long periods; but, it was fully put forward by Bharthrhari. He gave it a substantial credible form; and, provided it a philosophical basis. He maintained that the primary function of the words was to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning. We understand the meaning of a sentence wholly immediately only after the speaker utters the sentence. And, therefore, the sentence is the primary meaningful unit; and, the words extracted from the sentence analytically are only its component parts. Bhartrhari does not decry the value or the validity of words; but, only points out their status of being a part and never a whole.

Thus, Bharthrhari emphasized that the fundamental linguistic unit is indeed the complete utterance of a sentence. Just as a letter or a syllable has no parts, so also the sentence is to be taken as complete integral unit (Vakya-sphota); and, not as a collection of smaller elements.

 Bharthrhari argued that for the purpose of linguistic analysis, study of language and its grammar it might be fine to split the sentence into abstracted pieces, such as: the words, then into the roots and suffixes of the words, syntaxes etc;  and discuss about their position in the sentence. Such analytical splitting is artificial (Vikalpa); does, not have much significance. He said; “it is only those who do not know the language thoroughly that analyze it into words, in order to get a connected meaning.” But, such fragmented approach is surely not suitable in the real world where men and women live, communicate and transact. In a speech-situation where the speaker communicates ones ideas and the listener grasps his/her speech, it is necessary that the utterance has to be complete.  The speaker communicates and the listener understands his/her utterance as a single unit.

Bhartrhari explained that, initially, the thought exists in the mind of the speaker as a unity – Sabda or Sphota – intending a certain meaning. When uttered, ( in an effort to convey that thought through a sequence of sounds (Dhvani) that follow one after the other) , it produces certain specific sound-patterns (Nada). It might look as though the articulated word-sounds are separated in time and space. However, though the word-sounds reach the listener in a sequence, the listener eventually grasps the completed sentence as a single unit, as its meaning bursts forth (Sphota) in a flash of understanding or insight (prathibha). The same Sphota which originated in speaker’s mind re-manifests in listener’s mind, transmitting the meaning. Understanding of the meaning must be the immediate and intuitive grasp of the sentence as a whole. Thus, while the articulated sounds (Dhvani, Nada), apparently having divisions and sequence, are the external forms; Sphota is the inner unity conveying the meaning.

Various other scholars have offered their own interpretations of the Sphota theory in the light of Bhartrhari’s elucidation. The concept of Sphota is one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. As the noted scholar Bimal K. Matilal observes:

”It is rather remarkable that Bhartrihari’s recognition of the theoretical indivisibility of the sentence resonates with the contemporary linguistic view of learning sentences as wholes “;

 “In modern terms Sphoa can be understood as having constant distinctive phonetic features, whereas Dhavni is of a phonic nature. Sphoa is that which is to be manifested (vyagya), and the Dhvani is manifesting (vyañjaka). Sphoa is not uttered but it is perceived by the hearer”;

“The word does not generate the meaning; the word itself is transformed (Vivartate) into meaning. The relation between the word and its meaning is not that of ‘generator – generated’; but, that of ‘signifier-signified’. The word and its meaning, in essence, are identical;

“The Sphoa can be seen as a communication-device based on recognition of the truth of existence through a word/text in the hearer speaker, (sattā). It therefore is of a psychological nature, as any human speech is, for the recognition of the meaning of the text is perceived by a consciousness which lies beyond the analytic capacity of the external mind, and carries in itself all meanings; and as such, its proper understanding requires a psychological experience”;

“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”.


Development of the concept

It is acknowledged that it was Bharthrhari who fully developed the doctrine of Sphota in all the fields of Grammar, philosophy of Grammar and philosophy. But, it was not his invention – as he himself candidly clarified. The idea had been mentioned in various texts, much before the time of Bhartrhari, though not precisely or technically defined. For instance:

: – Panini mentions one Sphotayana, who spoke about the word and its meaning (Avan sphotanyanasya), as the one who originally came up with Sphota concept.

: – Another sage Sakatayana (a grammarian who perhaps was a contemporary of Panini – ?) is also mentioned by some as the author of the Sphota–theory. And, Sakatayana is also said to have held the view that all words must be derived from verbal roots (Nir. 1 3. 12). Some scholars recognize Sakatayana as the author of Unadisutra (a supplement to Panini’s Grammar, providing additional set of rules to derive nouns from their verbal roots). Though, at the same time, Gargya (descendent of Sage Garga, as mentioned in the Nirukta 1.3.12-13) and others are said to have remarked that all nouns cannot be traced to verbal roots.

[The other ancient Grammarians such as Vyadi (author of the lost text Samgraha Sutra; and a contemporary of Panini) as also  Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashya (Ca. 2nd century BCE,) had all developed certain ideas regarding the concept of Sphota.]

:- Before Panini, Yaska  , the etymologist ( earlier to 500 BCE), had  incidentally mentioned that another ancient authority – Audumbarayana, had put forward a theory which basically said that a sentence or an utterance is a primary and an indivisible unit of language; and,  reaches the faculty of the listener as a whole (Nirukta: 1-2)  . Audumbarayana, it appears, had also not agreed with the four-fold classification of words into: noun (naman), verb (akyata), prepositions (upasarga) and particles (nipata) – (indriyanityam vacanam Audumbarayanah tatra chatustam no papayate -Nir.1.1)

[But, apparently, Yaska himself had not agreed with Audumbarayana’s view of a sentence being  a primary and an indivisible unit; and, had gone 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) do occur in all forms of life or of any entity.

Yaska further explains that a Verb (Akhyata) is mainly concerned with Bhava (action), whereas the Nouns (Naman) have Sattva (substance or existence – Asti) as the chief element in their meaning (Bhava-pradhanam akhyatam; sattva-pradhanani namani – Nir. l.l). 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 ityanarthantaram).

Thus, Sattva and Bhava are two aspects of the same existence seen from the static and dynamic points of view. It is said; the six modes of Sattva (static) and Bhava (dynamic) are found in every aspect of creation.

Yaska credits the entire doctrine of Bhava and its classification to a certain Varsayani, another ancient Vedic scholar (Nirukta.1.2). But, nothing much is known to us about this Varsayani [He or She could have been a descendent of Varsa, an adept in Varsa Saman (chant)].

Sad bhava – vikara bhavantiti varsayanih- Jayate-asti-viparinamate- vardhate- apaksiyate- vinasyatiti – Nir.1.2]

: – But, Bhartrhari, in turn, cites Yaska as saying that Audumbarayana outlined the Sphota theory. And, asserts that Audumbarayana and also Varttakas held views similar to his Sphota-vada; and claims that their views support his theory.

: – The later eminent grammarians, such as Nageshabhatta (7th century), the author of Manjusha and Shpota-vada; as also Haradatta the commentator (10th century), however, attribute Sphota-vada to the sage Sphotayana, as mentioned by Panini.

: – Now, going back in time, Patanjali also talked about Sphota-like concept. He said; even though the words uttered follow one after the other and do not co exist in time or space, they do converge in the mind of the listener conveying a meaning. Sphota, he says, is a permanent element in the word; and, in fact is the essence of the word. The permanent unchanging Sphota is manifested by changing sounds (Dhvani). Here, Dhvani is the uttered sound heard by the listener; and, is but an aspect of Sphota. Thus, according to Patanjali, Sphota has an internal and an external aspect. The inner aspect is the innate expression of the word-meaning; while the external aspect is a vehicle to manifest the internal aspect; and is perceived by the sense organs of the listener.

But, for Patanjali, Sphota may be a single letter or structured pattern of letters; not necessarily sentence as a whole (in contrast to the stand taken by Bhartrhari).

:- Much before all these ;  Sage Kapila of the Samkhya School after discussing the concept of Sphota ( described as single, indivisible; as distinct from individual letters, existing in the form of words, and constituting a whole) dismisses it  totally : ‘What necessity is there for this superfluous Sphota? If, on the contrary, it does not appear, and is elusive; then , that unknown Sphota can have no power of disclosing a meaning, and consequently it is useless to suppose that any such thing as Sphota exists’(Sutra .57). All this talk of unity of meaning etc is largely an illusion; for it is the word, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.

Antye tv ajniata-spkotasga nasti artha- pratydyana-saktir iti vyartha sphota-kalpana ity arthah / Pur- vam vedanam nityatvam pratisMddham / idanlffi varna-nityat- vam api pratishedati

: – Similarly, the Mimamsa School had also discussed the Sphota concept; and, had rejected it. Sabaraswamin (Ca. first century BCE) the celebrated Mimamsaka in his comments on Mimamsa sutra (1.1.5) dismisses Sphota-vada, since it is not consistent with the Mimamsa faith in reality of Vedic words. According to Sabara, a word is nothing more than a combination of phonemes (Varna) and the syllables are independent units. The syllables, by themselves, might not convey the meaning; but when they combine they do convey a meaning. He did not see a need for a Sphota.

: – The renowned philosopher Upavarsha (a senor contemporary of Panini – Ca. 500 BCE) had also rejected the Sphota-vada; and, had remarked: all this talk of unity of meaning etc. is largely an illusion, for it is the words, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.

Upavarsha, in turn, had come up with his theory of   Varna-vada; according to which the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phonemes =Varna-s) alone are real constituents of a word.  He said: what is called as a ‘word’ (Sabda) is its individual letters – (for instance the word ‘gauh’ – cow is made of ‘g’, ’au’ and ‘h’). He decaled sounds are only Varna -s; and, there is no need for a Sphota.

[We shall talk more about Upavarsha and of Sri Sankara who followed Upavarsha, later in the series]


In any case, all this was just to   show that even in the ancient Vedic and in little later times the concept of Shpota was widely debated and various types of its interpretations were offered. Some orthodox Schools which recognized Vak or speech as a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman, and Pranava (Aum) as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were deemed to have evolved, acknowledged the need to perceive the sentence as a whole and not merely as a collection of words.

At the same time there were also many others who dismissed the idea of Sphota as being far-fetched, superfluous and useless; and, remarked that such unreal, Sphota can have no power of disclosing a meaning.


In the next part let’s discuss about the Sphota doctrine as expounded by Bhartrhari in his Vakyapadiya; as also the views of its critics and supporters.


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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About Upavarsha … Part Three

Continued from Part Two


 Upavarsha – Bodhayana

1.1. Sri Sankara, in his commentary on Brahma sutras, adopts 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 represents the opposing views (purva-paksha) of ‘others’ (apare); and, it is meant to be rejected.  But, Sri Sankara does not quote the opposing views nor does he mention the name of the opponent. 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.

1.2. In contrast, Sri Sankara whenever he refers to the views of Upavarsha not only he mentions the Vrttikara by name but also treats him with great respect, as Bhagavan. Sri Sankara in his Brahma-sutra-bhashya (3.3.53) quotes the views of Upavarsha as being authoritative.  Following his lead, the latter Sub-commentators of Advaita School, Anandajnana and Govindananda, recognize Upavarsha as the most eminent Vrttikara.

1.3. Similarly, in the Mimamsa School also, Sabarasvamin a noted Mimamsaka, in his Bhashya (Sabara bhashya) on the fifth sutra of Mimamsa sutra of Jaimini refers to a Vrttikara prior to his (Sabara’s) time, without, of course, mentioning his name. At the same time, in his Bhashya on the same sutra (1.1.5), Sabarasvamin refers to Upavarsha by name addressing him with the epithet ‘Bhagavan’. It, therefore, seems reasonable to conclude that the Vrttikara referred to by Sabara was not Upavarsha.  And yet; it is not clear who that Vrttikara was.

[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 ‘someone ‘or ‘others’. Similar is the position with regard to those commentators that are referred to as ‘Vrttikara ‘or ‘Vakyakara’ without mentioning their names or the titles of their texts.  There is therefore always an element of skepticism associated with such sub-commentaries. ]

1.4. The Advaita scholar, Govindananda in his Ratna-prabha explains that the ‘others’ (apare) referred by Sri Sankara in his Bhashya does actually, stands for the Vrttikara Bodhayana.  Another Advaita scholar Anandagiri agrees with this identification.

1.5. The Advaita School, thus, believes that Upavarsha and Bodhayana are two different persons.  And, the other dimension of the debate is that many wonder whether the terms ‘others ‘or ‘some’ truly refer to Bodhayana. That debate is still not concluded.



2.1. The mention of Bodhayana in this and similar other contexts give rise to number of questions such as: Who was this Bodhayana? What were his views? Why Bodhayana and Upavarsha are often mentioned in the same breath? Do the names Bodhayana and Upavarsha refer to one and the same person; or they two different persons? And so on.

2.2. Bodhayana is a very celebrated name in the long line of scholars of very ancient India. There have been many eminent persons in various fields of study going by the name of Bodhayana. It is also said that Bodhayana is the southern form of Baudhayana. Further, the name Baudhayana itself stands for ‘descendent of Budha or Bodha’. The linage of Bodhayana stretches at least from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE.

But for the limited purpose of our discussion here, let us confine to Bodhayana the Vrttikara.  His commentary on the Brahma sutra was recognized as an authority by many teachers of the later period, particularly by Sri Ramanuja.

2.3. And again, not much is known for certain about Bodhayana, other than his authorship of the Vritti (commentary) on the Brahma-sutras, the guidebook to understanding Vedanta. This Vritti is of cardinal importance to the history of Sri Vaishnava philosophy, because Sri Ramanuja mentioned that he followed the interpretations of Bodhayana while commenting on the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana.

In the opening verse of Sri Bhashya, Sri Ramanuja mentions: ‘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)

2.4. In the Sri Bhashya of Sri Ramanuja, Bodhayana is generally addressed as Vrttikara, the commentator. He quotes the views of the Vrttikara Bodhayana seven times.

The interpretations of Bodhayana are traditionally respected by the followers of Sri Ramanuja. And, their tradition regards Bodhayana second only to the author of Brahma sutra (Badarayana). Yet; the commentary of Bodhayana is not extant today, apart from its fragments quoted by Sri Ramanuja. Sri Ramanuja quoted the above seven comments of the Vrttikara Bodhayana. And, these are his only words that have survived.

Even though they are few in number, each of them expresses a special point of Bodhayana’s thought.

2.5. As regards time of Bodhayana, the scholars surmise that the Vrttikara may have lived in the fifth century (?) A D.



3.1.   As mentioned earlier, the Advaita School believes that Bodhayana is different from Upavarsha.  That is also quite possible because of the vast time difference between the two. While Upavarsha may belong to about the fourth century BCE, Bodhayana the Vrttikara may have lived in the fifth or the sixth century AD.

3.2. However, there are very interesting references and comments linking Bodhayana with Upavarsha.

(a) A  Vedanta text of a much later period Prapancha-hrdaya mentions that Bodhayana wrote a very detailed commentary titled Krtakoti on  all the twenty parts of Mimamsa, covering both the Purva and Uttara Mimamsa (Mimamsa sutra 12 parts and Samkarshana-kanda 4 parts – ascribed to Jaimini; together with  the Brahma sutra 4 parts ascribed to Badarayana). It was also said that the commentary on Brahma sutra (Brahma–sutra Vrtti), in particular, was quite detailed.

It was said that these three works were unified under a title called Krtakoti. Fearing that the great length of the commentary would cause it be cast into oblivion, Upavarsha somewhat abridged it.

Tad grantha bahulya –bhayad upekshya kimchid samsksiptam Upavarshena krtam (Prapanchahrdaya .45)

And later, it is said, Devasvamin further abridged Upavarsha’s abridged version.

But, all those works ascribed Bodhayana are dispersed and lost; and none is available now. Since Sri Ramanuja quoted from the condensed version of Bodhayana’s commentary on Brahma sutra, it could be said the rare fragments of those texts were extant until his time (11th century). But, Bodhayana commentaries on Mimamsa sutra, if any, were lost much earlier; and had passed out of existence by the time of Kaumarila Bhatta (8th century).

(b) There is also a tradition which recognizes Krtakoti as the name of an author. According to Avanti-sundari-katha of Dandin, Krtakoti was the name of Upavarsha who was also known as Bodhayana.   And, also according to Manimekhalai, Krtakoti was a scholar of Mimamsa and was reckoned along with Vyasa and Jaimini. And, in the Sanskrit lexicon Vaijayanti, Krtakoti-kavi is said to be another name of Upavarsha]

(c) There is another complication. Some scholars believe that Bodhayana and Upavarsha were the two names of one and the same person; and Bodhayana might have been the Gotra name of Upavarsha. The great scholar Sri Vedanta Desika (14th century) in his Tattvatika, a commentary on Sri Ramanuja’s Sri Bhashya, identified Bodhayana with Upavarsha- Vrttikarasya Bodhayanasyiva hi Upavarsha iti syan nama.

It is surmised that Sri Vedanta Desika might have come to conclusion because ‘Bodhayana’ might have been the Gotra of Upavarsha. The other reason could be that the Vedanta scholars frequently referred to a Vrttikara, without, however, mentioning his name. In the process, both Upavarsha and Bodhayana were each addressed as Vrttikara. There might have been a mix-up. In any case, Sri Vedanta Desika does not cite any authority or a tradition in support of statement.

(d) Sri Ramanuja reckons Bodhayana as being the foremost among his Purava-acharya-s (Past Masters of his tradition) Viz. Bodhayana, Tanka, Dramida, Guhadeva, Kapardi and Baruchi. But, he does not, anywhere, equate Bodhayana with Upavarsha.

(e) Another reason for not identifying Bodhayana with Upavarsha is the stand taken by their followers on the question of the unity or otherwise of the Mimamsa as a whole.

It is said; Bodhayana 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 synthesizes jnana and karma.  This was also the position taken by Sri Ramanuja in his Sri Bhashya.

 Sri Sankara, on the other hand, did not accord much significance to rituals, naturally, tended to differ from Bodhayana.

(f) Bodhayana’s position also meant that Purva and Uttara Mimamsa are two sections of the same text.

But, Sri Sankara’s basic position was that the Mimamsa Sutra which commences with the statement Atato Dhrama jijnasa is quite separate from the Brahma Sutra commencing with Atato Brahmajijnasa.  Sri Sankara’s Shatra-aramba refers to the beginning of the Brahma sutra; and not to Mimamsa that covered both Purva and Uttara. Sri Sankara presents his commentary as a sort of Mimamsa by calling it as Vedanta-mimamsa. He does not use the terms Purva Mimamsa or Uttara -Mimamsa. He did not seem to regard Brahma Sutra as a latter part of the same text.

Sri Sankara maintained that the two systems are addressed to different class of persons. Karma-kanda consist 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.

Sri Sankara generally followed the explanations provided by Upavarsha. And, these were not the same as the views attributed to Bodhayana.  Naturally, these led to doctrinal differences between Sri Ramanuja and Sri Sankara.

(g) It, therefore, seems safe to assume that Upavarsha, Krtakoti and Bodhayana as being three different persons.


Sphota – Varna

4.1. Sri Sankara, in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, mentions Upavarsha on two occasions. First, in the commentary on the Sutra at 3.3.53 which discusses the existence of Atman (We have talked about this aspect in the earlier part of this article).

And, the second, in a passage   comments on the Sutra which deals with the doctrine of words (Varna Vada). At the end of the discussion, he states: Bhagavan Upavarsha says the words (Pada) are none other than the various letter-sounds (Varna). He agrees with Upavarsha. Before that, he goes through the opposing view (Purva-paksha) put forward by a Sphotavadin a votary of the Sphota theory.

4.2. Sri Sankara, of course, does not usally name the Purvapakshin the one who hold the opposing view point. Accordingly, in the commentary on the Sutra in question also he does not name or specify the Sphotavadin who in the present case is the Purvapakshin. But his commentators identify the Sphotavadin with the Grammarian (Vyakarana-kara) Bhartrhari who generally is referred by the epithet

5.1. Bhartrhari (c. 450-510 CE?) was a Grammarian and also a philosopher. He was well versed in the study of Mimamsa and Vedanta. In the citation to the  later editions of the text Bhartrhari  is celebrated as a great Grammarian ( Maha-vaiyyakarana) , Great poet (Maha-kavi) , Yogi (Maha Yogi) , a great warrior  (Maharaja) and the ruler of Avanti (Avantisvara)  who composed Vakyapadiya   (iti Sri Bhartrhari virachitam Vakyapadiyam ).

5.2. In his celebrated work the Vakyapadiya (a treatise on sentences and words) Bhartrhari expounded the Sphota-vada (doctrine of Sphota) which had its origins in the germ-ideas mentioned in ancient texts.

6.1. 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.

[ The Sphota theory is one of the significant contributions of India to the philosophy of Grammar. The Sphota concept was developed over long periods; but, it was fully put forward by Bharthrhari .

The earliest historical figure who dealt with linguistic study seems to be Sakalya, the author of the Pada-paatha of Rig-Veda, and who is mentioned by Panini. Sakalya is credited with breaking down the Samhita (the original text of the verses) into words, identifying the separate elements of compound words. Later, Brihad-devata attributed to Saunaka said that a sentence is made up of words; and the words, in turn, are made of phonemes (Varna).

Nagesha Bhatta (author of Manjusha and Shpota-vada) identifies Sage Sphotayana, mentioned by Panini in one of his rule, as the originator of the Sphota concept.  Bharthrhari quotes Yaska as mentioning that another ancient authority, the sage Audumbarayana together with Varttaksa held views similar to the Sphota theory. Yaska had mentioned (Nirukta: 1-2) about a theory suggested by Audumbarayana that a sentence or an utterance is primary and is a whole,  an indivisible unit of language. Audumbarayana, it appears, had also mentioned that the four-fold classification of words into : noun, verb, upasarga and nipata does not hold good(2). And therefore, Bharthrhari claimed that the views of these ancients support his own theory –Sphota-vada.


 [But, Yaska himself had not agreed with Audumbarayana; and, had went  to talk about Bhava – the being and becoming of  verbs from their roots’ and about their transformations (Vikara) .]

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.  Perhaps, this claim provided the model upon which the Vyakarana philosophers based their concept of Sphota. Indeed Sphota is often identified with Pranava.

 Bharthrhari maintained that the primary function of the words was to combine into a sentence, in its complete utterance, to give forth a meaning.  The sentence with its words is to be taken as an integral unit; and, not as a clutter of fragments. Bharthrhari argued that for the purpose of linguistic analysis it might be fine to split the sentence into words, then into the roots and suffixes of the words, syntaxes etc. Such analytical splitting might be useful for study of language and its grammar.

But, such fragmented approach is surely not suitable in the real world where men and women live, communicate and transact. In a speech-situation where the speaker communicates ones ideas and the listener grasps his/her speech, it is necessary that the utterance has to be complete. The speaker communicates and the listener understands his/her utterance as a single unit. The listener grasps it as a whole; and the understanding is like an instantaneous flash of insight (prathibha). Just as the meaning derived from the sentence is unitary, the symbol (the sentence) which signifies it is also an integral unit.  Its meaning is experienced, known through perception. This, rather roughly put, is the concept called Sphota – the sentence being taken as an integral symbol.

Let’s say, when a painter conceives a picture in his mind and gives it a substance on the canvass he does use variety of strokes, different colors, varying shades etc. But, that does not mean one has to look for individual strokes shades etc. or as a permutation of those that went in to make the picture. The viewer, rightly, takes in, absorbs the picture and its spirit as a whole, as an integral unit.

 Bharthrhari says those who know the language well, listen to the sentence. And those who do not know the language may hear words only as sound bits.  Sphota in essence is the real experience of listening to a sentence as a whole and grasping its meaning through perception.]

6.2. In his Sarva-darshana-samgraha, Sri Madhava (generally accepted as the pre-ascetic name of Sri Vidyaranya who was the Jagadguru of Sri Sringeri Mutt from 1380 to 1386) 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. Sphota may, thus, be conceived as a two sided coin. On the one side it is manifested by the word-sound; and, on the other it simultaneously reveals word meaning.

6.3. In philosophical terms, Sphota may be described as the transcendent ground on which the spoken syllables (Varna) and conveyed meanings (Artha) find their unity as word or Sabda. To put it in another way, that which expresses a meaning; or the process of expressing a meaning through a word could be called Sphota.

7.1. Bhartrhari deals with Sphota at two levels: one on the metaphysical plane and the other on the empirical plane. . Sphota refers to the ‘non-differentiated language principle’. This gave rise to the theory of “word monism – Sabda-advaita. The theory is that Brahman first manifested itself as Sound and then as form. The Sphota, Sabda-Brahman, manifested 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 (Advaita) philosophy based on Sanskrit grammar (as per Swami Vivekananda’s   explanation).

7.2. 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 language.

8.1. Bhartrhari explains : 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?

Bhartrhari goes on to say that a sentence is not a mere 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.

8.2. Bhartrhari 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.

8.3. For Bhartrhari, Sphota is the real substratum, proper linguistic unit, which is identical with its meaning. Language is  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.

[Bhartrhari argues that the words do not designate the objects in the external world directly (sakshat), but indirectly through the intervention (upadana) of universals which are mental, and which reside in words. Universals which are thus intimately connected with the language and mind, on the one hand, and with the whole of existence, on the other, constitute the basis of our knowledge of the external world.]

9.1. However, Upavarsha rejected the Sphota-vada; and, argued all this talk of unity of meaning etc. is largely an illusion, for it is the words, its articulated elements (Varna) that make the unity.  By rejecting the Sphota -theory ,  Upavarsha , in effect , dismissed its notion 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.

(For that reason, some Western scholars call Upavarsha the Fred Hoyle of ancient India.)

9.2. Upavarsha, in turn, came up with his theory of   Varna-vada; according to which the smallest phonetic units that can carry the meaning (phonemes =Varna-s) alone are real constituents of a word.  He said: what is called as a ‘word’ (Sabda) is its individual letters – (for instance the word ‘gauh’ – cow is made of ‘g’, ’au’ and ‘h’). He decaled sounds are only Varna -s; and, there is no need for a Sphota.

9.3. The position so taken by  Upavarsha opposes the Sphota doctrine (Sphota Vada) which is based in the philosophical principle which  in effect says that ‘gauh’ is the essence of the word; and, its individual letter-sounds are artificially distinct from that word.

[10 .1. The Sphota theory developed by Bhartrhari had its supporters as also its opponents.

The main opposition seems to have come from Mimamsa School. Sabarasvamin presents Upavarsha’s views in his Mimamsa-sutrabhasya. But, pointed attack came in the later periods, particularly in the works of Kaumarila Bhatta, a noted Mimamsa Scholar (7th -8th century). He 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 a part of sentence, is nothing more than a collection of word-sounds or spoken words . And, it is with this collection of sounds alone that the meaning is associated. The listener grasps the sound of the words and their meaning. There is nothing else here, he said, one need not assume a mystical process of Sphota etc. Kaumarila the Mimamsaka was, thus, in agreement with Upavarsha on the issue of Sphota.

10.2. Interestingly, the support to Bhartrhari also came from another Mimamsa Scholar Mandana Misra, a contemporary of Kaumarila Bhatta. Mandana wrote a brilliant book (Sphota-siddhi) based Bhartrhari’s Vakya-padiya. 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, it is not the individual words but the complete thought of the sentence that ultimately matters.

Mandana offers the example of a picture. He points out that in our perception of a picture; it is conceived as a whole, over and above its various parts. Similarly when we perceive a piece of cloth our cognition is of the cloth as whole; and it is quite distinct from the particular threads and colors involved.

He says: This aspect is brought out clearly by Bhartrhari who describes the painter as going through three stages when he paints a picture:  “when a painter wishes to paint a figure having parts like that of a man, he first sees it gradually in a sequence , then as the object of a single cognition ; and then he paints it on the surface of a cloth or whatever”.

10.3. The Jain philosopher Prabhachandra in his Prameya-kamala-marthanda attempts to reconcile the two opposing views; and, comes up with his own doctrine of ‘Interminacy’ (syavada, anekantavada),which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject]

[ Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) in the introduction to his very well written work Svetasvataropanisad: The Knowledge That Liberates, writes:

Although the Indian thinkers are not immune to disputation , by and large , their culture has valued the principle of accommodation and acceptance and acceptance…Throughout the centuries of Indian philosophical traditions , the differing views have often been seen as just that – as differing views of a single reality that lies beyond human power of articulation. The tendency has often been to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason. It needs to be stressed that the primary purpose of sacred literature is to impart spiritual knowledge, not to fuel intellectual or sectarian debate – or to create confusion.]

11.1. Sri Sankara refers to Upavarsha as the originator of Varna-vada, which contrasted with Sphota-vada of Bhartrhari. Sri Sankara agrees with Upavarsha and supports Varna- vada as against Sphota-vada (Sankara Bhashya on Brahma Sutra: 1.3.28). He does not approve the concept of Sphota-vada; and, says 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).

11.2. He then follows up with a debate on whether the words are letter-sounds of this kind or whether they are Sphota. And then built up his own arguments to oppose the Sphota vada, based on what he calls ‘the tradition of the Masters’- (Acharya –sampradayokti-purvakam siddantam aaha varna iti).

11.3. While he agrees that the word is nothing other than letter-sounds (Varna) Sri Sankara does not seem to be emphatic. On the question why a letter-sound (say, ’a’) should be heard differently according to its utterances, Sri Sankara explains that such differences are duo the conditions (Upadi) imposed externally or from elsewhere. Otherwise (Athava – meaning or) the differences could be due to intonation; and not necessarily due to the letter-sounds. And, therefore, he says, there is no weakness in our contention.  And, there is no need, he says, 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.

The scholars believe, here, Sri Sankara, was not putting forth an original argument, but was merely condensing the previous refutations of the Sphota theory.

11.4. In his argument in favor of Varna Vada, Sri Sankara says: 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 degree of cognition. According to Sri Sankara, the inference Pramana is 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.

[* According to almost all the Schools of Indian philosophy, the valid means of knowledge (Pramana) other than perception either reveal the object completely or do not reveal at all. However, Bhartrhari argues that perception need not always be an ‘all–or-nothing processes’. There could be vagueness initially; but, the perception could improve as one tries to gain clarity of an object (say as a distant tree or committing a stanza after repeated attempts).

According to Bhartrhari , each sound helps in understanding meaning bit by bit, at first vaguely, the next one little more clearly, and so on, until the last sound, aided by the preceding impressions, finally revea1.s the meaning with clarity and distinctness. The Sphota is revealed in stages by each succeeding sound, but by itself it is indivisible. It is comprehended in a process which begins with complete ignorance, passes through partial understanding, and ends in complete knowledge (dyana)

Bhartrhari asserts that it is the cognition of the Sphota in its entirety that is important in understanding meaning. That is not to say that we do not cognize the individual letters or sounds, but that they are secondary in relation to the Sphota, which is the real object of cognition.

This point is very important to Sphota theory in its contention that error due to vagueness of perception of initial letters can gradually and positively be overcome. It is also crucial for the Sphota theory in its contention that the existence of Sphota is not guesswork, as Mimamsaka-s maintain, but is a proved by direct and clear perception.]

11.5. 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.

12.1. Thus, the Vedic Vak as Sabda-Brahman became the object of philosophical debate during the later periods. The early Mimamsa School which championed Varna-vada argued that the individual word or the letter (Varna) as the prime substance of Vak. The School of the Grammarians, on the other hand, put forth Sphota-vada which developed the notion of Sphota to explain the mysterious manner by which meaning is conveyed in sentence. They explained Sphota as a process of cognition which culminates in the intuitive perception of the Absolute as Sabda –Brahman. These two are the main platforms for the discussion of the Indian philosophy of language.

12.2. Two principle Schools, Mimamsa and the School of Grammarians (Vaiyyakarani) have made huge contributions to the study of language and the philosophy of Grammar and of language. And, both were particularly interested in Sabda. Both believed that Sabda is eternal and manifests itself; and, is not created. They, however, differ on the view in regard to Sabda and the meaning (artha).

13.1. Bhagavan 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.

13.2. Many however feel that Upavarsha   could have given little more thought to the Sphota theory instead of dismissing it off-hand. That perhaps could have leant a greater impetus to the growth of rational thinking within the Indian philosophical traditions.

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


Sources and References

  1. A History of Early Vedānta Philosophy, Part 2 by Prof. Hajime Nakamura
  2. The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 3: Advaita Vedanta Up to … edited by Karl H. Potter
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Posted by on September 20, 2015 in Bodhayana-Upavarsha


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Music of India – a brief outline – Part Thirteen

Continued from Part Twelve – Desi Samgita  

Part thirteen (of 22 ) – Forms of Karnataka Sangita


The Journey

1.1. As you have seen from the articles posted so far that, over the centuries, the Music of India has passed through many significant milestones on the way to its full development. Though the several forms of Music generated over the long periods differ in their form, content and intent, they do in fact represent a continued progression of a hoary tradition, each inspiring its next format. The Music of India, just as its philosophies and branches of art-forms, follows the path of continuity blending in the changes, without compromising its fundamentals.

1.2. The journey of this rich and varied Musical tradition could symbolically said to have commenced from the Riks of the Sama Veda associated with conduct of Yajnas , which then was improved upon by the Shiksha branch of the Vedas (Vedanga). That was followed the pure and chaste form of Music Marga or Gandharva with its gentle appeal to the gods. Then came the Gana of the Natyashastra with its several song-forms to suit various sequences that occur during the course of a Drama.

2.1. Thereafter the somber and rather inflexible Marga gave place to a comparatively relaxed art-music – Desi – derived from different regions of the country, aiming to delight the hearts of men and women. The Desi in its wake established the concept of Raga which in due time revolutionized the theories and practices of Indian Music. And, Raga became the central and predominant melodic concept in Indian music.  Over a period and with the proliferation of the Raga,  the systems of classifying the various Ragas into groups (Mela)  based on the technical traits of their scales (Svaras) came into vogue.

2.2. There arose various theories of characterizing the Ragas according to the mood or the season they seemed to represent,  and the  ideal time (  day , evening or night) to sing  the Ragas. And, the Ragas even came to be personified, treating them as male or female,  each endowed with its own individual traits and appearance. A large number of music-treatises were concerned primarily with the iconography of the Raga; and, were eager to connect the Raga with a deity or a season or a mood or even an environment.

2.3. Emmie Te Nijenhuis observes : For a full understanding of the development of musical forms in India one has to consider not only the technical elements of a composition, such as: its phrasal elements (Taala, Pada, Svara, Pata, Virudu and Tena), its main musical section (Dhatu) or its poetical metre, but also its general character, its subject matter and social environment . Unfortunately the Sanskrit texts do not contain information on some these aspects.

One has to therefore go behind the texts and try to understand their cultural and social background , fathom their inspirations   as also motivations

3.1. Much before the theories and concepts of Raga were fully developed, one of the major forms of Desi Sangita that came to fore was the Prabandha, which in its myriad forms dominated the Music scene of India for more than about thousand years till the end of the seventeenth century. In between, the Persian influence remodeled the forms and the ways of singing classical Music in North India. The ancient Dhruva-pada (Dhrupad) a Desi form of Prabandha gave place to improvised lyrical Khyal and other popular modes of singing.

3.2.  In the South India, the Prabandha which was getting rather rigid gave place, by about the end of seventeen century, to varieties of musical forms that were free flowing and not unduly constrained by rules of Grammar and meter. Though the form and the presentation of the songs took new shapes, they still retained, in one way or the other, the basic elements of the ancient Prabandha. This has helped to keep alive the ancient traditions.

4.1. By the second half of the 17th century the ancient Music that figured in Natyashastra was no longer in practice. The system of 17th century was closer to the one in present day. The texts of this period usually began with the traditional description of the scales (Svara) in terms of the 22 Srutis   and associated Ragas.

4.2. The eighteenth century could be said the golden age of Karnataka Sangita. The period not merely gave birth to significant texts that re-defined Music theories (Lakshana) and practices (Lakshya) but also witnessed the flowering of various Music forms such as : Kirtana, Kriti, Daru, Varna , Padam , Javali, Thillana, Naamavali  and so on. The most fortuitous occurrence or the heavenly blessing of this period was the sublime Music created by the Trinity of Karnataka Sangita who flourished around the same time.  It is, fundamentally, their Music that has given form substance and identity to the Karnataka Sangita and all other related art-forms that are practiced today. We all owe those Great Masters a deep debt of gratitude.

Let’s try to gain brief familiarity with some of the art-music that branched out of the Prabandha. Among those forms, I reckon, Daru seems to be older. Let’s begin with Daru.



Dance Drama

5.1. It is said; the Daru songs were derived from the ancient Dhruva songs (stage-songs) described in the thirty-second chapter of Bharatha’s Natyashastra.

During the times of the Nayaks of Tanjavuru the Yakshagana, Bhagavatamela Nataka and such other dance dramas were popular. And, Daru songs were widely employed in all these forms of dance dramas (geya-nataka). Some of the earliest Daru songs that have come down to us are from Vijayaraghava Nayaka’s Yakshagana Vipranarayana Charita (1633 – 1673).

Daru that is commonly used in Dance Dramas, is basically a story-song (Akhyana or a ballad) narrating an event. Therefore, lyrics (Sahitya) are an essential part of Daru song.

5.2. As regards their format, some Darus may have Pallavi, Anu-pallavi and Charanas; while some others may just have only the Pallavi and Charanas (i.e. without Anu-pallavi). All the Charanas may have the same Dhatu, the musical element. The Tempo (Laya) of a Daru is usually the Madhyama-kaala; but, some are also sung in Vilamba-kala to suit the dramatic event. As regards the Taala, the Chapu Taala is most favored in Geya Natakas (say, as in Nauka Charitram of Sri Tyagaraja).  The other Taalas used were Adi and Jampa.

5.3. The music of Daru songs is usually simple with no elaborate improvisations such as Raga Sancharas or Sangathis.  The Rakthi Ragas are mostly used to bring out the mood and emotion of the scene. The Saurastra Raga seems to have a favorite of the composers.

Classification of Darus

6.1. Darus have been classified into various types depending on their functions. For instance; Svagatha Daru is for a character musing aloud (sotto voce) or a soliloquy speaking to herself/himself softly, aside, rather in a private manner.  Pralapa Daru is for sorrowing or wailing situations. Heccarika Daru is for heralding the entry of the King, alerting the assembled courtiers. Paada-vandana Daru is for respectfully approaching the deity in a temple, as also for retreating, step by step. And, Samvada Daru is for conversations in musical form between two main characters.

6.2. Jakkini Daru has an interesting format. It commenced with Jaati-Svaras (series of notes, sol-fa); and, the words (lyrics) were in the second section of the song. Jakkini was a popular form of Daru during the time of Nayaks. And, in due time, Jakkini Daru gave raise to Tillanas.

6.3. Some Darus (like Tendral Daru, Vennila Daru and Manmatha Daru) were love-songs portraying erotic moods (Sringara Rasa).   Such Darus in lighter moods were the forerunners of the later Javali dance songs.

6.4. Sri Melatturu Venkatarama Shastry who was a senior contemporary of Sri Tyagaraja  is said to have composed as many as twelve  Dance Dramas (Bhagavatha Mela Nataka) employing the Daru-songs. And, the Kuchhipudi dance dramas also employ Daru-songs in their narratives.

6.5. Among the Trinity of Karnataka Music, Sri Tyagaraja in his Dance Drama ‘Nauka Charitram’ used Daru-songs. For instance; one of its Daru –song ‘Indu kemi’ set to Varali Raga in Chapa Taala is of Samvada Daru type. Here, two characters speak alternatively (Uttara – pratyuttara) through songs.

[Independent of the dance dramas, Sri Tyagaraja is said to have composed a Daru (Nee saathi) in Raga Sriranjani. But, its authorship is questioned.]

[And, none of Sri Tyagaraja’s disciples seem to have attempted a Daru.]

Sri Mutthuswamy Dikshitar has also composed a Daru in Sriranjani Raga ‘Na sari sati’ set to Rupaka Taala; and, it is in Telugu. It is one of Dikshitar’s rare compositions in Telugu. The Anuprasa (rhyming) is delightfully phrased in the terms valabu, solabu and kolabu etc. There is an allusion to an anecdote related to churning of the sea that gave forth Amrita (divine nectar)   in the phrase: ’vasavadi amarulella Vamri svarupametti Vasudeva garvamanji’.

Among the later composers, Sri Harikesanallur Muthayya Bhagavatar who was musician in the court of Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar, the Maharaja of Mysore, has composed four Daru Varnas, Two of which are in Telugu; and, the other two are in Kannada. They contain Jaatis, Svaras as well as Sahitya. Here, the first passage in Svaras is followed by Jaati, which then are followed by Sahitya. Of these, the Daru-Varna in Kannada set to Khamas Raga and Chapu Taala (Mathe Malayadwaja pandya samjate matanga vadana guha) is very popular.

[The name of the Raga Khamas when sung repeatedly in succession sounds ‘Sukhama’].

[For more; Please see: Darus in Carnatic Music by Dr. Gowri Kuppuswami and Dr. M Hariharan; Published in ‘Shanmukha’, October 1986 (Vol.XII; No.4)]



7.1. Until about the beginning of the eighteenth century, Prabandha was the dominant form of Music. It also played an important role in the development of dance and dance-drama. Prabandha, essentially, is a tightly structured (Nibaddha Samgita) musical composition that is governed by a set of rules. Venkatamakhin in his landmark work Chaturdandi Prakasika (ca. 1635) describes Prabandha as a composition having specific characteristics; and, that which is well composed – ‘prabandhayeti Prabandha’. However, the definition was narrowed down to include only those compositions which are made up of Six Angas or elements (birudu, pada, tenaka, pāta and tāla) and Four Dhatus or sections (Udgrāha, Melāpaka, Dhruva and Abhoga).

The structure of a Prabandha, by its very nature, had to adhere to a prescribed format. In general, the emphasis appeared to be more on the text than on the musical content. The faithfulness to the form was, at times, carried to its limits. And, the Prabandha form, in due course, grew rather rigid.

And, Prabandha, naturally, had to give place to improvised, easier and innovative (manodharma samgita) forms of music having distinctive features of their own. Yet; it is the basic elements of Prabandha that provide guidelines even to the modern composers of classical music.

[Most of the medieval Prabandha-s eventually disappeared because of the stiffness of their musical construction. Yet; it should also be mentioned that Prabandha helped the Karnataka music, enormously, in ensuring continuity of its ancient tradition.]

7.2. With the steady decline of Prabandha and rise of regional languages, a range of musical compositions and rhythmic variations began to take place. Those with lighter and attractive musical content set in simpler words easy to understand gained popularity as Kirtana-s or Padas. And, those Prabandha-s composed in high literary style and loaded with religious themes passed into realm of religion.

7.3. As said; the Kirtana form of Music that began to flourish towards the end of fourteenth century was basically devotional Music aiming to invoke Bhakthi in the hearts of common folk. Its Sahitya (lyrics) clothed in simple music abounds in Bhakthi-bhava. It usually is a prayer or a Namavali (stringing together various names and epithets of the deity) or is a song ideally suited for group singing (Samuha-gana or Bhajana).

7.4. The Kirtanas do have musical sections such as Pallavi, Anu-pallavi and usually more than two Charanas. The entire Kirtana is usually set to one traditional and melodious Raga in simple Taala; and is rendered in Madhyama-kaala.   In a Kirtana, Music per se is neither explored nor interpreted. Music, here, is but a charming, delightful vehicle to convey the devotional content of the song.

7.5. Among the Saint-poets and composers (Vak-geya-kara) who composed Kirtanas in soul-stirring music preaching devotion and submission to the Lord, the prominent were: Sri Sripadaraya (1403-1502), Tallapakkam Sri Annamacharya  (1408 to 1503), Sri Vyasaraya (1447-1539), Sri Vadiraja (1480-1600) , Sri Purandaradasa (1484-1564) , Kshetrayya (or Kshetragna) (1600–1680), Bhadrachalam Ramadasu (1620-1688)   and  Sri Raghavendra Tirtha (1623- 1671) . However, the original tunes of many of their songs are lost to us.



8.1. As said, Kirtana was the popular form of Music during 15-17th centuries. It was followed by the Kriti format which eventually stabilized and attained perfection by about the middle of the 18th century.

Kirtana and Kriti are often used as alternate or interchangeable terms. But, they are not the same; and, there are differences between the two. But, these two together form the major corpus of the main stream of Karnataka Sangita.

8.2. A Kriti is explained as that which is constructed (yat krtam tat kritih). It is primarily a pre-composed music (kalpitha Samgita), which aims to delineate the true nature of a Raga in all its vibrant colours.  In Karnataka Samgita, a Kriti comprising Pallavi, Anu-pallavi and Charanas, honouring the disciplines of Grammar and Chhandas, and set to appropriate Taala is the most advanced form of musical composition.

8.3. If Kirtana evokes Bhakthi Rasa, Kriti aims at perfection of Gana-Rasa. Kriti depicts shades of various emotions and Rasa-s including Bhakthi. Kriti can express even sorrow-Karuna (e.g. Evari mata–kambhoji); wonder–Adbhuta (Enta muddo– Bindumalini); frustration or disgust – Jigupsa (Chedi buddhi – Adana); resignation or despairBibhatsa (Eti Janma – Varali). And, the expansion of such emotions is more complex, subtle and technically almost perfect.

8.4. The elaboration of a Kriti is complex for other reasons too. It might involve many Kaala-pramanas (tempos). And, quite often, a Kriti may be composed in rare or untested Ragas perhaps because the composer either strives to demonstrate his technical virtuosity or to match the subject and the text of the Kriti with a Raga of an equally aesthetic quality. Many times, a Kriti assigns the Raga greater importance than to its words. It might be trying to employ the Raga with its Gamakas to express the intent (bhava) of its Sahitya more effectively. Further, Kritis are also often structured in complex Taala patterns.

And, it is up to the genius of the performer to bring out the various facets of the Kriti as well as she/he could achieve.  Therefore, a Kriti can effectively be rendered as a solo rather than as group-song (in contrast to the Kirtana).

9.1. Kriti is conceived as a well chiselled work of art; an ideal harmony of Mathu (words) and Dhatu (music-element).  In an excellently well composed Kriti, the bhava of the words has to fuse with the bhava of the Raga, and the two have to become one.  Therefore, the performer is not expected to meddle with it or deviate from the structure laid down by the composer. And yet; a Kriti provides ample scope to the performer to draw out her/his creative (Mano- dharma), innovative expressions in Raga and Laya. A gifted performer transforms a Kriti into his own inspired self-expression, investing it with his creative skill, well crafted Gamakas and Alamkaras.

9.2. Having said that let me also add there are varieties of Kritis. There is no prescribed number of sections or prescribed the length to define a Kriti. Some are short as in the case of some of Sri Dikshitar’s Kritis where the Anu-pallavi and Charanam are fused into one Samasti-charanam. Sri Tyagaraja, on the other hand, at times, adds extra Charanams. At the same time, in some of his Kritis the last two lines of the Charanam are rendered just like the Anu-pallavi.


9.3. Kritis are set in different speeds, Ragas, Taalas, lengths and levels of proficiency. Some Kritis allow scope for elaboration while others are crisp. Some are scholarly, while some others just project sweet melody with simple words of devotion (Madhura Bhakthi).

9.4. While the Kritis in Karnataka Sangita are generally rendered in Madhyama Kaala, some of Sri Dikshitar’s Kritis commence in Vilamba Kaala, but, brisk and enlivening passages are built into the Kriti towards the end. Similarly in the case of Kritis of Shyama Shastry a performer can do justice only if she/he grasps the delicacy of Gamakas of his Ragas and renders in slow, contemplative tempo.

9.5. It is also said; A Kriti can also be sung with or without Sangathi or Niraval or Svara Kalpana. Because, it is said, a Kriti should essentially be beautiful by itself; and, should sound sweet even without elaborations and ornamentation (nirabharana saundarya).

10.1. One of Sri Tyagaraja’s significant contributions to Karnataka music is the perfection of Kriti format, which was, at that time, evolving out of the shadows of the older Prabandha and its immediate predecessor Kirtana or Pada. Amazingly, Sri Tyagaraja as also Sri Dikshitar and Shyama Shastry, independent of each other, all contributed to the development of Kriti form, although they did not seem to have met or corresponded.

[Prior to the time of Sri Tyagaraja (say, 17th century) composers of great reputation such as Muthu Tandavar and Margadarsi Sesha Ayyangar had experimented with the Kriti format. And, it was the celebrated Trinity of Karnataka Samgita that, later, perfected it. ]

10.2. Sri Tyagaraja in his song Sogasuga mridanga talamu (in Raga Sri Ranjani) provides an outline of how a Kriti should be, in its form and in its content. In this song, he says that a  Kriti should be couched in words ( nija vākkulatō ) conveying the pure spirit of the Upanishads (nigama siro-arthamu) ; should have correctness of musical notes (swara śhuddhamutō)  of the ragas in which they are set; should have pleasant (sokkajeya ) rhythm that is enjoyable (Sogasuga mridanga talamu ); should be marked by beauties of alliterations and successive increases and decreases of notes and syllables , as also pauses (Yati Visrama) ; it’s  literary expressions should nurture  cultivation of true devotion (Sadbhakti ) and dispassion (virati ); and, it  should be adorned with  grace and simplicity embodying  all the nine (nava) Rasas or aesthetic moods.

10.3. In number of his other songs; he explains how Music is indeed the expression of the primordial Nada; how music originates in mind and body; and, how music should be presented. According to him, enjoying music is Sukhanubhava – a tranquil delight.


11.1. One of the innovations of Sri Tyagaraja to improve the aesthetic beauty of Kriti –rendering was the Sangathi.  A Sangathi (lit. putting together) is essentially a set of variations on the shades of a theme, gradually unfolding the melodic (Raga) potential of a phrase (Sahitya) in combination with Svaras. Some say that Sri Tyagaraja adopted Sangathi-rendering from dance-music where variations are done for Abhinaya and for bringing out the different shades and interpretations of the basic emotion (Bhava).

11.2. In any case, this was an outstanding contribution to the advancement of the Kriti format in particular and to the musical performances in general. Sangathi elaboration in Madhyama Kala, in the opening of a Pallavi, has enormously enriched the aesthetic beauty of Raga-bhava during Kriti-presentation in a concert.  With that, a Kriti is no longer static; but, it is a vibrant, living entity like language that is wielded with skill and dexterity. Sangathi passages also mark the virtuosity of the performer. Some of Sri Tyagaraja masterpieces open with a cascade of Sangathis (E.g.  Chakkani raja margamu; Rama ni samana; O Rangashayi; and Naa Jivadhara.)

11.3. Though the Sangathi was fundamentally a feature of Tyagaraja-Kritis, its practice (Sarasa-sangathi sandharbhamu, as Tyagaraja calls it)   has now spread to the presentation of Kritis of Dikshitar, Shyama Shastry and other composers, though they belong to a different style.  Similarly, Madhyama kaala that goes with the Sangathi has come to be the principal tempo of Karnataka Samgita [though some of Dikshitar-kritis, in Vainika style, are in slow tempo (Vilamba Kala)].

11.4. Sangathi and  Neraval (sahitya vinyasa) – where the Sahitya and its melody is spread out in various ways while keeping intact the original structure of the Pallavi or Charanam – together with Kalpana Svaras, provide depth and expansiveness to Karnataka Samgita. And, Tyagaraja-kritis, in particular, provide ample scope not only for elaboration on various phases and aspects of Raga (manodharma-samgita), but also for improvising fascinating sequences of Sangathi-s, Neraval and Kalpana –Svaras.

Raga Taana and Pallavi


12.1. Raga Taana Pallavi is regarded the most mature form of presentation in Karnataka Sangita. Raga here stands for Alapana or elaboration, the Anibaddha Sangita. It is the Music that is not fettered by words, meters or Taala.  Its excellence is limited only by performer’s virtuosity.  The performer after a slow contemplative phases delves into the depths of the Raga explores its various dimensions through his creative endower; and, ends on a high note.

12.2. After the Alapana the performer takes up Taana (comparable to Jor –Jhala in Hindustani Dhrupad and instrumental music). This involves boundless play on meaning-less syllables such as ta, na, nom, tum or tanam, etc. Taana is unique in the sense that with the rise in tempo, the performer improvises and builds into the melody various patterns of rhythms, without, however, the element of Taala. The Veena players invariably perform Taana; and, it is most delightful.

12.3. The third part is Pallavi, which is Nibaddha, structured by words, sections and Taala. Here the percussion player join in and do enjoy a greater role. The Pallavi ends in a series of kalpanaswaras.


[The Varna or Varnam that we are about to discuss is different from the technical term Varna (special note sequences that indicate different kinds of Svara- movements) we talked about earlier. The Varna or Varnam in the following paragraphs refers to a class of musical composition in Karnataka Sangita.]

13.1. Varnam is a short, crisp and tightly knit music-piece that aims to encapsulate the main features and requirements of a Raga. These are finely crafted exquisite works of art. The creation of a Varna calls for delicate craftsmanship, thorough knowledge of the Raga, its sanchara (movements) in various Kaala (tempos) , grasp over Taala and an overall sense of beauty and balance.

13.2. Varnams have been composed, since about eighteenth century, in all the major Ragas and most of the minor Ragas, in all the principal Taalas. Many Masters of Karnataka Sangita have composed Varnas. The prominent among them are: Pachchimiriyam Adiyappayya, Sonti Venkatsubbayya, Shyama Shastri, Swati Tirunal Maharaja, Patnam Subrahmanya Iyer, Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar and Mysore Vasudevacharya.

[Varna is unique to Karnataka Sangita. The Hindustani Music does not seem to have its counterpart.]

13.3. Varna lays out the Grammar of a Raga. That is to say, it specifies the features and rules regarding the movement of the Raga (raga-sanchara), its scale, how each note of the Raga should be stressed and so on. A Varnam is therefore a fundamental form in Karnataka Sangita. It needs to be practiced well both by the learner and the experienced performer.

14.1. A Varnam is structured in two Angas (sections) : The Purvanga ( first section) comprises  Pallavi, Anu-pallavi, Mukhayi Svara; and The Uttaranga ( the latter section)  comprises a Charana that acts as a refrain for the latter part of the Varnam and Charana-svaras (Chittasvara) that are alternated with the Charanam.  Each section of a Varnam elaborates an aspect of the Raga (raga-svarupa).

14.2. A Varna does include Sahitya (lyrics); but, its role is secondary, merely supporting the music-content of the Varnam. The focus of a Varnam is on the Raga, its individual Svaras and Svara phases of various lengths and speeds. It is said; Varnam does not need the distraction of Sahitya.

14.3. The movement of a Varnam is strictly controlled; and, it’s rendering demands discipline.  Its focus is on the Graha Svara (initial note of the Raga), the Gamakas, the Sanchara (movement) of the Raga according to the prescribed format.

14.4. The Pallavi of a Varna starts on the lower end of the scale stressing on the most important Svara (Jiva Svara) in the opening phase of the Pallavi. The Anu-pallavi deals with the higher end of the scale . And, the Mukhayi Svara and Chittasvara – consist of meandering (Sanchari) chains of Svaras that explore both the upper and lower reaches of the Raga.

14.5. The rendering of a Varna employs all the three tempos. The first Charana Svara is rendered in Vilamba kaala (slow tempo) and each Jiva Svara must be highlighted. After which, the rest is sung in Madhyama kaala (half-time). Some musicians insert their own kalpanaswara passages. In the third Charana Svara, the Svaras are short and made into groups (avartanam) of four. Thus, in Charana, there are two or three Svaras of one avartanam, one Svara of two avartanam-s and finally one Svara of four avartanam-s.


15.1. As said earlier, practicing Varna is much required for the student as also for the experienced performer. For students, the Varnams that are taught at the intermediary level are useful for learning the Svaras of various Ragas, singing in multiple speeds rapidly; as well as learning the appropriate Gamakas.  Advanced students are taught Varnas in multiple Ragas or Taalas. They introduce the student to the proper combinations of Svaras for each Raga and inculcate discipline that is needed for singing.

Varna- rendering also helps to develop voice culture and in learning to maintain proper pitch and control over rhythm. The instrumentalists too can gain control over playing -techniques.

Among the early Adi Taala Varnams a student usually learns are: Ninnukori in Raga Mohana by Ramnad Sreenivasa Iyengar; Samininne in Shankarabharanam by Veenai Kuppaiyer; Evvari Bodhana in Abhogi by Patnam Subramania Iyer; and many others. In the later stages all student do learn to sing the celebrated Viriboni, in Bhairavi, set to Ata Taala by Pacchimirium Sri Adiyappayya.

15.2. In the concerts, a Varnam is most often the first or the second piece to be rendered. Though some consider it as a warm-up exercise, the correct rendering of Varna requires complete knowledge of the Raga.

16.1. Varnams are of three sorts: Daru Varnam, Pada Varnam and Taana Varnam. . The theme of these Varnams is usually Bhakthi (devotion) or Sringara (love).

We just spoke about Daru Varnam in the previous paragraphs of this article. Daru Varnams are special type of Varnams in whose Mukthayi Svaras; there are first the Svara passages, followed by the jatis which are then followed by the Sahitya.

16.2. Pada Varnam: As its name indicates there it has a greater element of Sahitya (Pada or words). Pada Varnams with elaborate Sahitya are difficult to grasp especially when set to difficult Ragas and Taala. But, Pada Varnams are in greater use in Bharatanatyam. Because, it’s Sahitya, expressions and Svaras in moderately slow pace is said to be suitable for choreography.

16.3. Taana Varnam: This does not have Sahitya for Svaras. It usually is of fast tempo (Druta and Tisra Gati). It is the sort of Varna that is meant as pure music, without the intervention of words. It therefore has fewer words than the Pada Varna. The difficult Taana Varnams are commonly chosen for rending in the concerts. The artists enjoy greater elaborations of Taana Varnams studded with Kalpana-svaras to enhance to beauty of the Raga.

Gitam, Svarajati and Jatisvaram

17.1. Just as the Varnam, the Gita and Svarajati have rhythm matching each syllable of the Sahitya to one Svara.

17.2. Gitam is the simplest type of composition. Taught to beginners of music, the Gitam is very simple in structure with an easy and melodious flow of music set in simple Taala.

17.3. Svarajatiis are learnt after a course in Gitams. More complicated than the Gitams, the Svarajati prepares the student for the Varnams. . It consists of three sections, called Pallavi, Anu-pallavi and Charanam. Svarajati does not offer much scope for elaboration of neraval etc since it is in a tight knit form. It bound by rules. Its Svara patterns are aligned with Sahitya in a graded manner. It was the genius of Shyama Shastry that endowed Svarajati with Raga bhava.

17.4. Jatisvaras are similar to the Svarajati in musical structure. However, – Jatisvaram-has no sahitya or meaningful words. The piece is sung with sol-fa syllables. its rhythmical excellence and the jati pattern used in it are its strength.  . This is a musical form belonging to the realm of dance music. In some Jatisvarams, the Pallavi and Anu-pallavi are sung to Jatis and the Charanas are sung to a mixture of Svaras and jatis. There are also Ragamalika Jatisvarams.]

Pada or Padam


[Pada hereunder does not merely refer to ’word’; but, it also refers to a type of song that was prevalent during 17th-18th century.]

18.1. Pada or Padam were sung during Dance as they offered scope for subtle expressions through face and gestures (Abhinaya). During the times of Nayaks of Tanjavuru, Dance and Dance related music were popular because of their sweet music and aesthetic appeal. Most of the poets, musicians and Natyacharyas attached to the King’s Court were engaged in scripting songs and composing music for dance related music-forms such as Pada, Jakkini, Javali, Chintamani, Perani etc than with the art-music. Almost all forms of dance related compositions that are in vogue today are derived from this period. Its form has remained almost unchanged.

18.2. Most of the Padams were composed in regional languages, majority of them in Telugu and some in Tamil. The theme of a Padam would usually be Madhura Bhakthi devotion colored with tender love or suggestive romance. Theoretically, this sort of Bhakthi tinged with Sringara was projected in its two aspects: Antar Sringara, the unseen sublime relation between the Universal Soul (Paramatma) and the Individual Soul (Jivatma) that is guided by the Guru, the spiritual mentor; and, the Bahir Sringara was the explicit romantic relation between the Hero (Nayaka) and the Leading Lady (Nayika) that is aided and abetted by the Lady’s maid (Sakhi). Though all the nine Rasas (Nava Rasa) were portrayed in a Padam, the Srinagar (erotic or romantic love) was the dominant Rasa and the theme.

[The terms Pada and Kirtana seem to be used synonymously in this period .And, later the compositions with Sringara content came to be known as Pada; and, those with element of Bhakthi as Kirtana.]

19.1. The music   of the Padam is generally slow-moving, arousing with an appeal to ones delicate sensibilities. The natural flow of music goes along with tender and evocative words of the song. The Padam aims to blend the music, the words and Abhinaya the dance expressions into a harmonious and very enjoyable art-experience.

19.2. The Padam, when sung, presents an epitome of the raga in which it is composed. Ragas specially noted for evoking typical rasa bhava are commonly employed in Padam. They usually are the mellow and serene Ragas such as: Anandabhairavi, Sahana, Nilambari, Ahiri, Ghanta, Mukhari, Huseni, Surati, Sourashtram and Punnagavarali.

19.3. The Taala of a Padam is rather subdued, not intruding into the mood or the bhava of the song. The Sangathi too are gentle and elaborate; and, not vigorous or energetic.

A Padam also has the sections: Pallavi, Anu-pallavi and Charana.

20.1. Among the Pada composers, Kshetrajana is renowned for his Sringara Pada-s. Some of the poets in the Maratha Court at Tanjavuru like Giriraja Kavi were also noted Padam composers. He is said to have composed many Sringara Padas employing Desi Ragas like Brindavani.  He was followed by Vasudeva Kavi, Soma Kavi and Rama Bharathi.

Kshetrajna- Indian Music composer

20.2. The Maratha kings themselves (Thulaja I, Ekoji II, Sarabhoji II and Shahaji) are said to have composed several Padas, musical operas, Kuravanji’s, Daru, Yakshagana Natakas etc.


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21.1. Javali in its nature is similar to Padam. The Javali too involves the characters of Nayaka, Nayaki and Sakhi; but, unlike in Padam, there are no symbolisms here. The Sringara portrayed in Javali is overt. It is meant to titillate the patron.


21.2. They are basically dance-songs set in Madhyama kaala with attractive tunes and crisp Taala. Lighter Desi Ragas like Paraz, Kapi, Khamas, Behag, Jhinjhoti, Tilang, etc that   are simple and melodious are used in Javalis. They are not burdened with technical complexities as alapanaineraval or kalpanaswaras; and, in a concert they are sung towards the end as a way of relaxation.



22.1. Tillana, again, is a dance oriented song format. It makes use of Mrudanga Jathis in Pallavi and Anu-pallavi. The emphasis is on brisk rhythm, lively movement and not on Sahitya or Manodharma. Percussions have greater role to play in Tillana. It is said; the life of a Tillana is in its rhythm (Laya). The composers played around music-sounds such as tha, thai, theem, thakadhimi, or kitathakatharikitathom, quite generously.

22.2. The Jathis are articulated throughout the piece. The Charanam has usually epithets (Birudu) saluting the deity or the patron. It is tight knit composition that is rendered in just the way it is composed. Tillana exude with joy, celebration or exuberance; and, it is not meant for other Rasa such as sorrow etc.

22.3. The Tillana corresponds to Tarana of Hindustani music. It is a favorite of Veena players.   In a concert Tillanas are sung towards the end, before the Mangalam (benediction), just to make up the variety.



23.1. The forms of song-formats in Indian Music, right from Sama-gaana to the present-day, are truly countless, as we have seen from this and the earlier posts in the Series. As Dr. Ramanathan observes; form is actually a codification of various musical aspects that has been abstracted from Musical structures and prescriptions as given in the texts.

23.2. To repeat; though the several forms of Music generated over the long periods differ in their form, content and intent, they do in fact represent a continued progression of a hoary tradition, each inspiring its next format. The Music of India, just as its philosophies and branches of art-forms, follows the path of continuity blending in the changes, without compromising its fundamentals

23.3. That is to say the Forms in Karnataka Sangita are the representations or the expressions of theoretical principles that governed each stage of its evolution over the centuries. The Forms and formats change to suit their adopted environment; but, the principles behind them remain true and lasting.

In the next two parts, lets briefly take a look at the various Lakshana Granthas (from Dattilam to Chaturdandi prakashika) that have defined, guided and protected Karnataka Sangita.



Lakshana Granthas-1

Sources and References

  1. 1. Darus in Carnatic Music by Dr. Gowri Kuppuswami and Dr. M Hariharan; Published in ‘Shanmukha’, October 1986 (Vol.XII; No.4)
  2. The charisma of composers BY T.M. Krishna
  1. Form in Music by Prof. Dr. N. Ramanathan
  2. 4. Carnatic Classical Music – Centre for Cultural Resources
  3. Carnatic music
  4. All pictures are taken from the Internet. I gratefully acknowledge the sources.

Posted by on May 27, 2015 in Music, Sangita


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Music of India – a brief outline – Part Twelve

Continued from Part Eleven –Prabandha

Part Twelve (of 22 ) – Desi Samgita  

Marga – Desi

1.1. The term Desi, very often, is used along with or in contrast to another term Marga. Both these terms -Marga and Desi- refer to traditional systems of Music of India.

Marga or Margi or Gandharva is the ancient class of Music that precedes the time of Natyashastra (say, before second century BCE). Marga (the path or the tradition) signifies something that which is chaste and classical. And, Shiva himself is said to have taught this Marga Music, on his Veena, in his Sri Dakshinamurthy form, to the sages sitting around him.

The early Marga songs were in praise of Shiva (Shiva-stuti). And, during the times of Natyashastra, Marga songs were traditionally sung for offering worship to gods, in the preliminaries (purvanga), that is, before the commencement of the play proper. Bharatha explains Marga or Gandharva as the Music dear to gods (atyartham iṣṭa devānā), giving great pleasure to Gandharvas; and, therefore it is called Gandharva.

(atyartham iṣṭa devānā tathā prīti-kara puna | gandharvāā ca yasmād dhi tasmād gāndharvam ucyate || (NS Ch. 28, 9).

Marga Music was both sacred and well regulated (Niyata).And, by its very nature; Marga was rather somber and not quite flexible.

1.2. While Marga was the sacred Music devoted to please the gods by submitting gentle appeals, Desi was the art-Music that set out to hold a charming appeal to human beings. It was said; Desi is that which delights the hearts of humans (hrudaya-ranjaka), enchants common folks, cowherds, women, children and nobility alike; and, reflects the range of emotions and tunes springing from different regions. In other words, it was meant for ‘pleasing the hearts of the people’; its nature varied from Desha to Desha – region to region. It was basically the Music of the regions (Desha = region).

Deshe-Deshe jananam yadruchya hrudaya-ranjakam I Gitam ca vadanam nruttam tad Desi  ethyabiyate  II

Abala-bala-gopalaihi kshitipali nirjecchaya I Giyate sanuragena svadeshe Desir ucchate  II

[Sangita-ratnakara of Sarangadeva ;  Chapter One  about Svara  ; Verses 23 and 24 ;  pages 14/ 15 – edited by Pandit Subrahmanya Sastri]

[ The verse Abala bala – appears at: Brihaddeshi – First Chapter) (Desha-utpatti prakaranam) – Verse 13]

Desi the music of the land was rooted in the music of the regions, capturing the unique flavors of the regions and sub-regions; and, giving expression to the moods, joys and sorrows of common people. The term Desi encompassed all forms of created songs (Gita); and even the art forms of instruments (vadya) and dance (Nŗtta).

As compared to Margi, Desi was relatively free, less rigid and improvised music of the countryside.

1.3. But, it would not be correct to equate Desi with folk (jaana-pada) and tribal songs.

Desi music was in strict conformity with the lakshana-s (theoretical principles) and the lakshya (practices in vogue) of the then established classical or well regulated (Niyata) Music of its times.  Desi Music was perhaps more relaxed in its approach; and its form opted for a lesser regimen of the Grammar.

Chatura Kallinatha (15th century) in his Kalanidhi, a commentary on Sangita-ratnakara, states that of the ten older types of Grama-Ragas, the Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga were regarded as Desi Ragas. He remarks that in these Desi Ragas though some liberty was taken, the rules of the Marga-Ragas were not totally disregarded.

1.4. Matanga also says that Desi is modeled after the Marga; and both allow scope for structured (Nibaddha) and un-structured (Anibaddha – like Aalapi) Music. He says, no Desi Raga can be composed of four Svaras (notes) or less. He remarks: those with less than five Svaras are used by tribes such as Savara, Pulinda, Kambhoja, Vanga, Kirata, Valheeka, Andhra, Dravida and forest dwellers.

[Thus, Raga is technically penta-tonic. And, usually there is an upper limit of seven notes. But in Hindustani Music, Ragas with nine Svaras are common; and a few mixed Ragas have even twelve Svaras (say, Basant Bahar).]

Obviously, Desi was conceived as a chaste classical music, well regulated but not too rigidly. It was the art-music of the land. It was different from the tribal or folk music of the rural mass. Sarangadeva did not also equate Desi with folk music or Loka or Jaanapada sangeet.

Similarities and differences

2.1. Just as there are similarities between Marga and Desi, there are also differences. To put these in a summary form:

2.2. Marga was the classical phase of the ancient Indian music. It was basically a sacred class of music; and in theatre it was sung to offer prayers to gods during the purvanga the preliminaries before the commencement of the play per se. It was somber and also not flexible. Marga was the icon of the Higher tradition. Its songs were composed in chaste Sanskrit following the rules of Chhandas (metre) Vyakarana (Grammar).  Its music was based in the Jaati-s (melodies) and in Shadja and Madhyama Grama-s (groups of melodies).

2.3. Desi was the art-music of the regions. It represented the flowering of the Prakrit (other than Sanskrit) phase that began to flourish by around 4th century. Songs of Desi Sangita were in Sanskrit as also in Prakrit and other vernacular languages.  They were modeled upon incidental music of the early theatre. Desi music was free flowing, vigorous and attractive; appealing to ones heart (hrdaya-ranjaka); as also providing scope for improvisation.  Its melodic portfolio could be expanded to include all other types of melodies and Ragas.

2.4. One could say that the distinction of the two – Marga and Desi- is largely historical. The transmission from Marga to Desi was a progression from a regimented few towards a spectrum of wide choices. With the growth in art and art forms many styles of music sprang up in diverse regional traditions. The ways of musical expressions also diversified and grew in abundance. For instance; eighteen Jaati-s, two Grama-s and seven Grama Ragas expanded into more than 250 Ragas by the medieval times. Alongside, the varieties of rhythmic patterns, time-units and the entire system of Taala also grew very appreciably. Thus, the advent of Desi and its rapid development greatly enlarged the boundaries of ancient musical structure; opened up new horizons; and, altered and brightened the future course of Indian Music.

2.5. The classification of the Music of India into two strata – Marga Samgita and Desi Sangita – dates back to at least to the eighth or to the ninth century, mainly through the treatise Brhad-Desi by Matanga.

[I wonder whether Marga and Desi are shifting or dynamic concepts. They are not fixed. What was Desi of ancient times could as well be called Margi of the present day. Let me explain. The Karnataka Sangita as it is practiced and performed today honors the theoretical principles, rules, disciplines and the hoary traditions. It is contemplative and devotional in its nature. The chaste and pure classical music of today has taken the place of Marga. The other popular form of music – sugam-sangget, loka-sangeet and film-sangeet etc – that quickly attracts with its catchy tunes and beats is the Desi of today. This is just a muse. ]


[Classical and folk music

3.1. Before we get back to Matanga, let’s digress for a short while, and talk about classical and folk music.

(i). In all literal art forms, two conventions (dharmi) or two streams of expressions are recognized; one is the Loka-dharmi and the other is the Kavya-dharmi.  Similar conventions or forms exist in, music, dance or art. Loka-dharmi in poetry stands for a localized or an individual’s expressions of her/his experience or emotions. Kavya–dharmi is when an individual’s emotions are turned into a song or into a poem; and it is enjoyed by all as a beautiful piece of poetry. Here, an individual’s intimate emotions are shared by all as a work of art, independent of the poet’s localized circumstances that caused the poem. The poem that is enjoyed by its listeners/readers is far removed from its original Desha (location), Kaala (circumstances) and Karana (the cause that triggered the emotion). The emotional content (let’s say, love)  in the poem is no longer limited to poet’s or to one particular person’s experience , but is  generalized and shared by all as the idiom of expression of the entire gamut of  that emotion (love).

In the present context, perhaps, one could (roughly) equate the folk music with Loka-dharmi and the Classical music with Kavya–dharmi.

(ii). The folk music is essentially the outpouring of the elementary, subjective human emotions. It generally is about purely personal emotions limited to an individual. It is spontaneous; and its purpose is to fulfill an immediate need to give forth to an emotional experience that is tied to a specific incident in one’s life or to an occasion, time, and place. In other words, folk music is immediately relevant for the emotions of only a small group, a community with a shared background and emotional state.

Folk music is spontaneous and does not require training in a developed musical system.

Folk music is certainly significant and pleasing; and is a powerful emotive language of a people. It is the medium through which shared feelings are communicated and experienced by the community.  But, it is the innocent expression of basic, natural feelings, limited to the context of a particular time and situation. And, it is rather undeveloped or underdeveloped; is without structure, grammar or classifications; and does not require training in creating a song-form.

In comparison; Classical music is not the simple expression and an instant gratification of a basic human emotion. It is a highly developed and complex art form ; and its creation is involved not merely with musical genius of the composer , but also with the intellectual processes and sensitivities that determine the quality of the creation in terms of musical contents of melody , rhythm;  the structure and the Grammar  of the composition;  and its appeal.

Here, the personal impressions or feeling of the composer are sublimated into a classical form that goes beyond subjective self. The composer’s or the performer’s individual identity is left behind. The created music is universal and is for all, instead of being limited to a specific individual’s personal feelings or to an occasion.

Thus, both the folk and the classical are genuinely powerful and qualitatively rich in aesthetic value. They both aim to interact with human minds and hearts, each in its own way. One is elementary, subjective and localized; and, the other is developed, objective with its own sensitivities and is almost universal. The difference appears to be in the purpose of their creation, which defines their context and relation with the rest of mankind.

For a detailed discussion, please check:  ]





4.1. Matanga or Matanga Muni or Matanga-Bharatha (as he is regarded one among the five-Pancha Bharathas: Nandikesvara, Kohla, Dattila, Bharatha and Matanga) takes a very important position between Bharatha (Ca.2nd century BCE) and Sarangadeva (Ca.13th century). It is surmised that he perhaps lived during sixth or the seventh century.

4.2. Matanga’s fame rests mainly on his outstanding treatise Brhaddeshi. It carries forward the tradition of Natyashastra and Dattilam; and at the same time it establishes the Desi Sangita on a firm pedestal. Brhaddeshi bridges the Marga and the Desi class of Music; and also provides the basis for the emergence of the Mela system of classifying the Ragas.   One could say, Brhaddeshi gave a new birth to Indian Music; and, revitalized its creative genius by bringing the concept of Raga into the very heart of the Music traditions and their sensibilities.

Brhaddeshi also serves as a reference to many earlier authors whose works are now lost, such as: Kashyapa, Kohala, Durgasakti, Maheshwara, Yastika, Vallabha, Vishvavasu   and Shardula.

4.3. The edition of Brhaddeshi, as it has come down to us, is an incomplete text. Only about five hundred of its verses are available. Those available verses and chapters deal only with Music; and conclude with the remark that the next Chapter will deal with Musical instruments (Vadya).  Sadly, that and subsequent Chapters, if any, are not available. However, some commentators of the later periods cite from Brhaddeshi the references pertaining to instruments, taala and dance.

5.1. In the available chapters, the first portion starts with the definition of Desi.  The term Desi, here, refers to all forms created of songs; and, it comprehends the three arts of Gita (song), Vadya (instruments) and Nŗtta (dance). One of Matanga’s major contributions is his scholarly focus on the regional element in music. Brhaddeshi (Brihat + Desi) is thus a masterly compilation of the music traditions of the various regions (Desha).

5.2. Next, the concept of Nada is described as the most subtle vibration which is the basis for speech, music, dance and all other forms of activities. Then, the text goes on to discuss two Grama-s: Shadja-grama and Madhyama-grama. From these, Grama-s the music elements Sruti, Svara, Murchana, Tana, Jaati and Raga are derived.

5.3. Matanga deals with Grama, Murchana and Jaati, rather briefly. According to Matanga, twenty-one Murchana-s evolved from the three main Grama-s: Shadja, Madhyma and Gandharva. Murchana were of two kinds: one, having seven Svaras and the other having twelve Svaras (sa-Murcchana dvi-vidha; sapta-svara-Murchanat dvadasha-svara-Murchana cheti).

The Murchana with Seven Svaras  was divided into four parts: Purna, Shadava, Audava, and Sadharana, The Purna contained  seven Svaras (hexatone ) ; Shadava , six Svaras (heptatone ) ; Audava , five  Svaras (pentatonic ) ; and the Sadharana , two displaced (vikrita} Svaras :  antara-gandhara and kakali-nishada.

And, the Murchana with Twelve Svaras manifest in three registers (Sthana): low, medium and high (Mandra, Madhya and Tara).

5.4. The text then discusses Sruti (silent intervals between Svaras), Svara intervals in the two Grama-s and other terms and concepts such as, Tana, Varna, Alamkara, Jaati, Gita and Raga. Various other aspects including the popular melodies of his time are given in the other chapters.  As the name suggests, it is a huge work and is highly informative.

5.5.  He says that the Aroha (ascending) and the Avaroha (descending) pattern of Svaras form the Murcchana of a Raga. Murcchana, in effect, describes the string of notes that, with further embellishments (Alamkaras) of thirty-three varieties, constitutes the core of a Raga. These Alamkaras are indeed the musical excellences that adorn the songs.

5.6. After allotting a chapter to the Jaati-s, Matanga devotes a special chapter to the Ragas.  Here, he deals with Grama-raga; and the Desi-ragas: Bhasa, Vibhasa and Antarabhasa. These Desi-ragas are again classified into four categories, Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga.

5.7. Indeed, it is in this chapter of the Brhaddeshi we first come across the definition of Raga as given by Matanga, and as understood by all later literature on Classical Music. In the history of the Ragas, Brhaddeshi is, therefore, a landmark text.



8.1. The term Raga conveys many shades of meanings ranging from color, hue, tint, dye, love, desire, passion, emotional attachment  ( as opposed to it is Viraga– detachment)  , beauty, melody and so on .

But, in the context of music it had a special connotation; and, it had been in use many centuries, even prior to Matanga. Bharatha in his Natyashastra used the term Raga in compound terms in association with Jaati raga, Grama raga. And, he perhaps meant ‘Raga’ in the general sense to suggest color or aesthetic appeal or enjoyment or pleasure. He employed the term Jaati to indicate melodies, but also used the term Grama Raga. But, somehow, he did not explain the terms Jaati and Grama-raga and their mutual relationship.

8.2. There was also the Murchana which was described in Natyashastra as the string of seven Svaras used in an order (krama) in their fixed positions. Later, in the Gandharva, Murchana came to be understood as an arrangement having a gradual Aroha (ascent) and Avaroha (descent) of the seven Svaras (notes). Different musical expressions were derived from the Murchanas by permuting the seven Svaras in any number of ways.

8.3. Further, the term and the concept of Grama-raga was in common use, as evidenced by the seventh century rock inscription at kudumiyamalai in South India. The inscription which basically was meant as lessons for the pupils mentions seven verities of melodies or Grama-ragas : (1) Madahyama-grama (2) Shadja-grama (3) Sadava (4) Sadharita (5) Paricama (6) Kaisikamadhyama-grama (7) Kaisika. These seven seem to correspond to the Grama-ragas in the Naradiya-shiksa the text said to belong first or second century BCE.

8.4. The term Raga seemed to have been in use even prior to 7th century. For instance; Poet Kalidasa (5th century) had suggested Raga Saranga (Madhyamadi) for rendering the introductory song to the first Act of his play Abhijnana Shakuntalam. And, in a fable appearing in the fifth volume of Panchatantra (5th century or earlier), a donkey poses as a musician and explains Gramas, Ragas etc.

8.5. Following the steps of Bharatha, Matanga also recognized Shadja-grama and Madhyama-grama as two basic Grama-s (groups or clusters). From these Grama-s he derived Sruti, Svara, Murchana, Tana, Jaati and Raga. The Aroha (ascending) and Avaroha (descending) pattern of Svaras, according to Matanga, formed Murchana of a Raga.

[It needs to be mentioned here that Bharatha’s concepts of Jaati, Murchana and Giti continued to be in use even during the time of Matanga. He uses these terms and offers his explanations with illustrations from Natyashastra.

For instance; Matanga divides his scales (Giti, melodies) into seven groups. And, he recommends the Raga-giti for singing in dramatic sequences. He quotes Bharatha and says: Madhyama-grama (Ma Grama) melodies be used in the Mukha (opening of the drama); the Shadja-grama (Sa Grama) melodies in Prati-Mukha (progression of the play); the Sadharana (mixed scales) in the Grabha (development stages); and, Panchama-Jaati melodies for the Vimarsha (pauses)- (NS: 28.41-45)

Further, even among the music-related terms of the older (Marga) Sangita that he explained, the term Raga was used. ]

[In the meantime:

There is a remarkable text which the scholars have neither been able to date nor understand it fully. It is titled Gitalamkara; and, is said to have been written by an author who, for some reason, called himself Bharatha. The book aimed at controlling or disseminating the arguments of the rivals (Vadi-mattagaja-ankusha) . In its Chapter 14, the book cites thirty-six ‘Ragas’ (which are named here as Varna or colors).They are classified into three groups: Purusha (male); Stri (female) and Apatya (descendents). This, by a long stretch of time, foreshadows the Raga-Ragini-Purta concept that came about in later times. The scholars suggest that Varna might have been the older name of Raga (which also suggests color).

The Gitalamkara treats the three ancient Gramas (Nandyavarta, Jimuta and Subhadra) in an un-usual manner. Instead of treating them as basic scales, as others did, it merely lists characteristic series of four Svaras (tetrachord) for each of them. This perhaps goes back to the period before the three Gramas: Shadja, Madhyama and Gandhara Gramas came to be recognized.

It is bit confusing to say the least. For more, please see:  Le Gitalamkara by Alan Danielou; and, Musical Literature by Emmie te Nijenhuis.]

9.1. Yes; it seems the word Raga with its multiple meanings was in use even from early times. But, it was not used in Music or in Music-theories in the way we know it and use it now.  It is, therefore, difficult to say Raga as it is understood today, had fully evolved and was recognized as such at the time of Natyashastra.

9.2. Which is to say; the notion of melodies that are created by artistic and ingenious arrangement of ascending and descending Svaras had been there for a very long time. It was a rather amorphous concept; its structure had not been determined; and, was waiting to be defined in a clear language.

That is, precisely, what Matanga did.



10.1. The chapter titled Raga-lakshanam (characteristics of Raga) in the Brhaddeshi commences with two questions and a request: ‘What is meant by the word Raga? And, what are the lakshana-s of a Raga? You must please explain the origin and nature   of Raga clearly ’.

Kim ucchyate raga-shabdena ? kim va ragasya lakshanama  ? I  Utpatthi lakshanam-tasya yathavad vaktum arhasi     II (278)

Matanga replies:

The nature of the Raga system (Raga-margasya- lit. path) has not been explained by Bharatha and others (Bharathadi); and, it is going to be explained (Nirupayate) by us, according to theory (lakshana) and also practice (lakshya) – (279).

Raga-margasya vad rupam yannoktam Bharathadibhih I Nirupayate tasmad abhir lakshya –lakshana –samyuktam II

10.2. Then he goes on to explain: It is that particular quality or distinction of melodic-sound (dhwani-bhedaya) which is created by the combination or the arrangement of Svaras and Varnas (Svara-varna visheshena); and that which delights (Ranjyate) is recognized by the wise as Raga.

Svara-varna visheshena dhwani-bhedaya va punah I  Ranjyate yena yan kashichit sa ragah samsthatham   II 280

10.3. Or (Athava), it is that particular sound (dhwani vishesa) which is adorned by Svara and Varna (svara varna vibhushitaham); and that which delights the minds of the people (Ranjako jana-chittanam) is called Raga by the wise.

Athava – Yo asya dhwani vishesathu svara varna vibhushitaham I Ranjako jana-chittanam sah ragah kathitho vidhuv II 281

[Following Matanga, Sarangadeva in his Sangeeta-ratnakara described Raga as: ranjayati itihi rāga- that which delights the mind is Raga.]

10.4. After defining Raga, in two way:  as that particular  arrangement or ornamentation   of Svara and movement of Varna (Svara-Varna vishesha ; vibhushitam ); and as the distinction of melodic sounds (Dhwani-bhedana)  which delight the minds of people (Ranjako jana-chittanam) , Matanga takes up  the etymological  explanation  of the term Raga and its origin (Utpatthi).

Matanga says: this is how the word Raga is derived (Ithevam raga-shabdasya utpatthir abhidiyate). He explains that the word Asvakarna when it is derived from its root might literally mean the ears of a horse. But, in practice (rudi), Asvakarna is generally understood as the tree whose leaves resemble in shape the ears of a horse. Similarly, the word Pankaja literally means one that is born (ja) out of mud (panka). But, Pankaja in convention and common usage refers only to the lotus-flower.

In a like manner, he says, the word Raga has etymological as well as special conventional meaning like the word Pankaja. He 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 II 283

Ashva-karnadi vidha rude yaugikau vaapi vachakah I  Yogarudosthva raage jneyam pankaja-shabdavat II 284

[ Among the many  tools (Nyaya) employed in the olden days to extract and to explain the meaning of the words and terms ,the  Samabhirudha Nyaya derived the meaning of a word from its root;  and , Vyavaharika Nyaya  interpreted the word through conventions (rudi)  and its common usage (paddathi)  in day-to-day life (Vyavahara).

The words Asvakarna and Pankaja are common illustrations of these Nyayas. And, Matanga’s argument is based on similar lines.

There are many other similar words, such as:  Mantapa which normally is understood as an open-hall; but, its etymological meaning could be ‘one who drinks scum of boiled rice (Ganji)’. And, the term Kushala is generally used to denote an expert or a highly skilled person (pravina); but, its etymology analysis would lead to one who is ‘good at cutting grass (kush). And, similarly, Ashva-gandha is literally ‘smell of the horse; but in common usage it refers to a medicinal herb.

 Bhartrhari, in his Vakyapadiya 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 the conventional meaning (Vyvaharica artha) takes precedence over the etymologically derived sense. Panini the Grammarian also recognized the fact the people who spoke the language and used it in their daily  lives were better judges in deriving, meaning of  the words

Therefore, the generally accepted rule in the Indian poetics is that the conventional meaning overrides the etymological derivation.  It is said; the conventional (rudi) meaning is grasped immediately and directly while its etymological sense has to derived indirectly through analysis. And, the essential nature of the word lies in its power (Skakthi) to signify directly. ]

10.5. Thus, the term Raga, in its etymological and technical sense, means a particular combination or sequence of Svaras and Varnas which delights, charms or colors  (in broader sense ) the mind. Therefore, every Raga, while it delights also creates an emotional mood which colors or influences the mind in its own unique manner. It colors different minds in different ways. That is why a single Raga can yield divergent expressions, associations and experiences.

General and Special characteristics

11.1. Along with defining Raga and explaining its concept, Matanga takes up the question of its identity. He says that the identity of Raga is conceived in two ways (dvivida matham):  through its general (Samanya) classification and through its special characteristics (vishesha lakshana). He mentions the general categories as four (Chatur vidha tu samanya); and, that the Raga’s special identity lies in Amsa and other features (vishesha cha Amshakadhikam).

Samanya cha visheshacha lakshana dvivida matham I  Chatur vidha tu samanya vishesha cha Amshakadhikam II 282

11.2. General (Samanya) classification

As regards the four broad categories (Chatur vidha tu samanya) that Matanga mentioned, some say, he, perhaps, was referring to Desi ragas that are classified into four categories, Raganga, Bhashanga, Kriyanga and Upanga. These ragas are the basis for all musical forms presented in the later Samgita traditions and forms. [But, during the later times the connotation and interpretation of these terms underwent thorough revision. The Ragas came to be classified into Janaka and Janya. And, Janya ragas were further classified into: Sampurna — Varja; Krama- Vakra; Upanga — Bhashanga: Nishadantya, Dhaiva- tantya and Panchamantya. ]

[There is another interpretation which says that the four general categories mentioned by Matanga might refer to : Purna, Shadava, Audava, and Sadharana, The Purna contained  Svaras (hexatone ) ; Shadava , six Svaras(heptatone ) ;  Audava , five  Svaras (pentatonic ) ; and the Sadharana , two displaced (vikrita} Svaras :  antara-gandhara and kakali-nishada.]

Amsa and other characteristics

11.3. Amsa was said, during the time of Matanga, to be the prominent or predominant Svara through which the Raga manifested (raga-janakatvad vyapakatvaccha Amsasya pradhanyam).  During his time, the term Amsa and Vadi were used alternatively. Kallinatha in his commentary has said that both Amsa and Vadi used to convey the idea of creating the pleasing sensations of the Ragas (Sa vadi tyogyatavashdt amsha syat rakti-vyanjakatvat).

Along with Amsa, nine other characteristics (Dasha-lakshanam) of Jaati (melodies) were listed in Natyashastra (28.74) as also in Dattilam (55) as Graha, Amsa, Tara, Mandra, Sadava, Audavita, Aplatva, Bahutva, Apa-Nyasa and Nyasa.

These are briefly:

: – Graha – It is the initial note –Adi-Svara– used at the beginning of a song;

: – Amsa – It is the prominent note (key note) in the song. The melodic expression of the song depends on it;

: – Tara – It is the high register; the upper limit of the notes to be used. It is the fourth note from Amsa which belongs to middle sthana;

: – Mandra –It is the low register; the lower limit of the note to be used;

: – Sadavita –Six notes are used omitting one;

: – Audavita -Five note are used dropping two.

: – Alpatva – It is the use of a note or notes in small measure. It is twofold: by skipping over the particular note or notes; and by non-repetition;

:- Bahutva – It is of two kinds: by using the notes fully or by repeating it often

: – Apa-nyasa– It is before the final note (penultimate) . It is note with which a section of the song ends –Vidari;

: – and, Nyasa – It is the note with which the song ends.

Svara, Varna and Alamkara

12.1. In the explanations offered by Matanga, he mentions Svara, Varna and Alamkara etc.


12.2. The Svara, here, indicates the arrangement of five or more ascending and descending notes. According to Matanga, Svara is the sound which has musical quality that creates melody. When the interval between the notes (Sruti) is raised or lowered, the musical quality gets altered.

Depending on their level of importance in a Raga, Svaras are classified under the four categories Vadi, Anuvadi, Samvadi and Vivadi (sonant, assonant , consonant  and dissonant). Bharatha defines these in his Natyashastra. here , the Vadi is the most important Svara to a Raga. It is repeated often and used as a fundamental note  upon which the raga sculpture is erected. Sa, shuddha ri, antara ga or pa are examples of Vadi Svaras. When sung with the Vadi Svaras, only certain Svaras have a pleasant or concordant effect. These are Samvadi Svaras, and they generally have nine or thirteen shruti intervals between them and their corresponding Vadi Svara . The Anuvadi Svaras help in adding substance to a Raga, and they are not emphasized. Vivadi Svaras are those which are discordant and create a displeasing effect when rendered with the Vadi Svara. The space between these two is usually one Svara, though it is often more than two Sruthi differences.


12.3. And, Varna refers to special note sequences that indicate different kinds of movement. The function of Varna in a Raga is to manifest a song; and, it is, therefore, known as gana-kriya. The Varna-s are said to be of four kinds, depending on the movement of Svara. They indicate the general direction of the melodic line.   When a note remains more or less at the same level it is called Sthayi-varna (stable); when the notes are ascending or descending these are known as Arohi and Avarohi. And, a mixture of the three is sanchari-varna, wandering, back-and-forth.


12.4. Alamkara (adornment or ornamentation) refers to graces and flourishes in the music. Alamkara contributes to enhancing the artistic beauty in the presentation of Music.  It has been a vital aspect of the creative process even from very early times. Bharatha, in a famous verse, remarks that “A song without Alamkara will be like a night without moon; a river without water; a creeper without a flower; and, a woman without any ornament.”

Shashina rahiteva nisha, Vijaleva nadee lata, Vipushpeva avibhooshitheva cha kantha, geethir-alamkara-viheena syath.

The Alamkaras are associated with Varna (appearance, color, word, and syllable). It is said; if Varna is the architecture or the structure, then the Alamkara is its decoration bringing out and enhancing its natural beauty. In Music,the term Alamkara represents the combinations of progressions and ornamentation. The harmonious blending of structure and decoration is basic to all forms of Indian art.  And, in early Music, probably, no precise distinction was  made between Varna and Alamkara.

Alamkaras, as recurring patterns of variations formed out of Svaras, were associated with each of the four Varnas. They were classified according to the Varna underlying them. Accordingly, there were four broad categories of Alamkaras:

Sthayi -Varna –Alamkara; Arohi-Varna-Alamkara; Avarohi-Varna-Alamkara; and, Sanchari-Varna –Alamkara.

 12.5. Under these categories, Natyashastra had earlier listed thirty-three types of Alamkaras. But, Dattila later abridged the list to thirteen. Matanga who followed Natyashastra reckoned thirty-three Alamkaras.  However, in later times the list grew up to eighty-eight types of Alamkaras.

Dattila’s list of thirteen Alamkaras , which is  regarded as the basic contained : 1. Prasanna-adi, begins with low note; 2. Prasanna-anta, ends with low note; 3. Prasanna-madhya, low note in the middle; 4. Prasanna-adyanta, begins and ends with low note; 5. Bindu, higher note touched like lightning; 6. Nivrtta-pravrtta, lower note touched quickly; 7. Prenkholita, even swing between two notes;  8. Tara-mandra-prasanna, gradual rise followed by sudden drop; 9. Mandra-tara-prasanna, sudden rise followed by gradual descent; 10. Sama, even ascent and/or descent; 11. Kampita, quiver in low register; 12. Harita, quiver in middle register; and, 13. Recita, quiver in high register

[Source: As listed in Early Indian musical speculation and the theory of melody by Lewis Rowel]


13.1. Karnataka Samgita has developed an intricate system of Alamkara with subtle variations.  It is celebrated as Gamaka. And, Gamaka, as such, was not mentioned in Natyashastra. But, the text does talk about different types of Alamkaras as that which add beauty and aesthetic value to Music.

13.2. Matanga, in his Brhaddeshi, however, does mention Gamaka. For in instance; while discussing about Raga-giti , one of the seven charming song-forms, he mentions that Raga-giti should be rendered with varied delicate Gamakas (lalithau–Gamakau-vichitrau); and should be adorned with Svara pronunciations, lucid, powerful and even (300); and the Vibhasha–giti should be sung blending in the Gamakas that are pleasant on the ears (Gamakau–srotra-sukhadai-lalithairasthu) and are also delicate , according to the will of the singer (yadrucchaya samyojya)   to the delight of the people (lokan-ranjathe)- (308).

13.3. Sarangadeva in Chapter three: Prakīrņaka-adhyāya of his Sangita-ratnakara treats Gamaka in greater detail. He lists fifteen types of Gamakas (Panchadasha Gamaka): the kinds of shake or oscillations that Svaras can be endowed with.

Tripa; Spurita; Kampita; Lina; Andolita; Vali; Tribhinna; Kurula; Ahata; Ullasita; Plavita;  Gumpita; Mudrita; Namita; and, Misrita.

स्वरस्य कम्पो गमकः श्रोतृचित्तसुखावहः | तस्य भेदास्तु तिरिपः स्फ़ुरितः कम्पितस्तथः ||लीन आन्दोलित वलि त्रिभिन्न कुरुलाहताः | उल्लासितः प्लावितस्च गुम्फ़ितो मुद्रितस्तथा || नामितो मिश्रितः पञ्चदशेति परिकीर्तिताः |

Sarangadeva’s descriptions are closer to our understanding of Gamaka.

Tripa: Playing one of the notes of a phrase with some stress.

Spurita: wherein the lower note is faintly heard and the second note is stressed.

Kampita: A slight tremble oscillating between two Svaras.

Lina: Merging of a note softly into another note.

Andolita: A free swinging. Holding on a note for some time and then pulling the string or gliding on it so as to reveal a higher note.

Vali: deflecting the string in a circling manner for producing the chhaya of two or three notes from the same Svara-sthāna.

Tribhinna: Produced by placing the left-hand fingers on a Svara-sthāna so that the fingers are in contact with three strings, and then by plucking the three strings with the right hand fingers either simultaneously or successively (only in fretted instruments).

Kurula: production of a note of another sthāna with force

Ahata: Sounding a note and then producing another note without a separate stroke (only in Veena).

Ullasita: Glide. Starting on a note and reaching a different (higher or lower) note by gliding over the intermediate notes.

Plavita: This is a variety of Kampita.

Gumpita: The tone is slender at the start and goes on increasing in both volume and pitch- in vocal music.

Mudrita: Produced by closing the mouth and singing – in vocal Music.

Namita: Singing in a slender tone –vocal Music.

Misrita: Mixture of two or three of the other varieties.

[For more: please check ]

[Various commentators on Indian music have mentioned different numbers of Gamakas. For example, Narada in Sangeeta Makaranda describes nineteen Gamakas; and, Haripala in Sangeeta Sudhakar describes seven Gamakas. There is also a mention of Dasha-vida Gamaka, which is slightly different from that of Sarangadeva. Please check: ]

14.1. In today’s Karnataka Samgita, Gamakas are essential aspects of Manodharma Sangita. Gamaka is much more than an ornament to Karnataka Sangita. It is a very essential constituent of its musical element and its elaboration.

4.2. Gamaka is any graceful turn, curve or cornering touch given to a single note or a group of notes, which adds emphasis to each Raga’s unique character.  Gamaka, in short, is the movement of Svaras which bounce, slide, glide, shivers, rapidly oscillates or skips. It provides movement and animates Svaras to bring out the melodic character and expression (bhava) of a Raga. Each Raga has specific rules on the types of Gamakas that might be applied to specific notes, and the types that may not. Every Raga has, therefore, to be necessarily rendered with the appropriate Gamakas. They depend on the manner of quivering, oscillations or shaking that the Svaras can be endowed with.

14.3. Gamaka-rendering is a highly individualistic and a specialized skill. Not merely that the Gamakas are designed specifically for vocal music and for instrumental music, but also that each performer would, in due course, develop her/his own Gamaka-improvisations. And therefore, two ragas with identical ascending (Aroha) and descending (Avaroha) Svaras and born out of the same parent (Janaka) Raga might sound totally different in character and expression , mainly because of the Gamakas that are employed. One could say that Karnataka Sangita is Gamaka oriented. And, it is, perhaps, because of such extensive use of Gamakas, it has not been easy to commit Karnataka Sangita to notation system.  Gamakas can be taught and practiced only by oral method, through Guru-Shishya interactions.

[In Hindustani Music, Meend and Andolan are similar to Gamakas.]

15.1. Other Angas of Karnataka Sangita

Apart for the above mentioned,  there are certain other Angas (limbs) that are essential to the song formats in Karnataka Sangita. These are:  Pallavi, Anu-pallavi, Chjttaswaram, Mukthayiswaram and Charanam .

The Pallavi is a sort of introduction to the piece; and, it must establish the RagaTaala and bhava of the entire song. The Pallavi is rendered usually, in the middle octave (madhyama sthayi), though Sangathis take it to the higher and lower octaves at times. Pallavi is the counterpart of Udgraha of the Prabandha compositions.

The Anu-pallavi links the Pallavi to the Charanam.  It is analogous to Melapaka of the Prabandha. The Anu-pallavi is usually sung in the higher octave. The Charanam provides the climax of the Sahitya aspect of the song. Neraval and Kalpanaswara often resolve in the Charanam, though this is not a rule. The Charanam has a range from the lower to the middle to the higher octaves, thus having the widest range of the angas of a song.


16.1. For Indian Music, Sruthi and Laya are said to be the parents of music: ‘Shruthi Matha Laya Pitha ’ . The term  Laya  (‘to be one with ) denotes Taala (rhythm).  Sarangadeva remaked that music, vocal , instrumental, and dance  are based on units of time-measure, or Taala: ‘gitam vaadyam thathaa nrtyam yatasthale pratishthitham.’ Bharatha said that without a sense of Taala, one could neither be called a singer or a drummer. Earler to that , Bharatha  had further elaborated on Taala in the 29th chapter of the Natyashastra, saying that it is a definite measure of time upon which Gana, or song, rests: ‘ganam talena dharyathe’.

16.2. While Raga dictates the appearance and characteristics of a melody, it is the Taala that sets the rhythm and beat of any piece in Indian music. All Taalas of Karnataka Sangita are cyclical in nature, i.e. a single unit is taken and repeated to form the Taala pattern or rhythm. There are different units of Taala. An important unit, one of the smallest, is the akshara (lit. Alphabet) . The akshara is not defined in terms of absolute duration ; but it is conceived as  a variable that changes according to the mood of the composer, the piece and the performer involved.

The akshara is further divided into Svaras. And, the Svaras are of five different measures – Tisra (3), Chatusra (4), Misra (7),Khanda (5) and Sankeerna (9). The smallest measure of Svaras is Tisra. Strangely enough, two is not taken as the smallest number, perhaps because two is too small a number to stand on its own as a beat. The number divisible by 2 that is used instead is four, in Chatusra.

These Svara divisions are made easier to remember with the help of the meaningless syllables used primarily in dance or percussion training. For Tisra, the syllables ‘Tha Kita’ are used. Chatusra is denoted by the syllables ‘Thakadhimi’; Khanda – ‘Thaka Thakita’; Misra -‘Thakita Thakadhimi’;and , Sankeerna – ‘Thakadhimi Thaka Thakita’.

16.3. The means and materials of Taala according to Bharatha in his Natyashastra are ‘laya, yati and pani’. The Laya, or tempo, is divided into fast, medium and slow speeds, i.e. Druta, Madhya and Vilambita.  And, Yati is a kind of method of application of laya. It is of many kinds; the three of which are sama, srotogata and gopuccha. The sama-yati possesses three units of tempo: one in the beginning, one in the middle and one in the end. The srotogata contains three units of tempo, as well: the first is slow (vilambita), the second is medium (Madhya) and the third is fast (druta). The gopuccha-yati consists of three units of tempo, where in the beginning of the song the tempo is fast, then it becomes medium and in the end it becomes slow.

16.4. The present day Karnataka Sangita has a Taala System based on the scheme of Sapta Taala (seven Taala). In order to facilitate easy and accurate methods of reckoning these Taalas, the shadangas (six parts) are used. There are symbols to denote these angas. Except for the anga known as ‘laghu,’ the others have fixed time measures.

[For more, please check A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Indian Music]




17.1. It is very essential to understand that Raga is not merely a scale or a mode. To limit a Raga to the confines of a scale might not be quite correct. A Raga has dimensions that go beyond its scales, such as swaroopalakshana and bhava. One might ordinarily,   even, say, a Raga is not a tune, nor is it a ’modal’ scale, but rather a continuum with scale and tune as its extremes. But, Ragas are actually more complex than this limited definition. How the musical sounds are conjured up and configured in such a way as to produce that tender or powerful but indescribable feeling in the listener is truly a very complex process.  The artistic transformation of a scale into Raga is a phenomenon that is unique to the Music of India,

17.2. Indeed, Raga is basically a feeling, an emotional experience shared by the performer and the listener. The expression of the Raga is essentially  through the combination of certain notes and twists of melody. But, Raga is more than its structure. Raga is an icon. It is  indeed a living, fluid, organic entity.

The raga bhava is visualization of the Raga in a seemingly tangible form that draws the listener into the music.

17..3. Ragas keep changing shape; their rendering vary from time to time ; and, new ones are born while others are forgotten. They gain full status when they are  repeatedly played and heard. Their main features have to be established and tested by experienced performers whose knowledge and interpretation contributes to the very  understanding  of the raga-bhava. In this context, Indian musicians often speak of a ‘raga grammar’, sets of rules and patterns that determine the selection of intervals and characteristic melodic movements. This practical knowledge is orally transmitted ; it  guides the melodic development of every performance; and,  it also forms the  essential framework for the manifestation of each raga’s personality as developed by the performer.

While Raga lakshana is the Grammar of a Raga, the theoretical that define the characteristics of a Raga, Raga Prayoga is movement of the Raga through Aroha (upward sequence of Svaras) and Avaroha (downward sequence of Svaras) that give its identity along with the application of Gamakas

17.4. Each raga has its own definite personality; and can easily be recognized.  A musician may compose in the same Raga many number of times; and, yet it is possible that new tunes can be composed using that Raga. That is to say, though a given Raga has certain melodic phrases, their forms and expressions are truly unlimited. And yet, a Raga can be recognized in the first few notes, because the feelings produced by the musician’s execution of these notes are intensely strong. The effect of Indian music is cumulative rather than dramatic. As the musician develops his discourse in his Raga, it eventually colors the thoughts, elevates and delights the listeners.

18.1. Raga is the central and predominant melodic concept in Indian music. Raison d’être of a classical music performance is projecting the entity of a Raga in its fullest splendor, so as to offer to the listeners an aesthetic experience which only that Raga can generate ( that is, Raga–specific) .

18.2. Raga-bhava-rasa is a continuum. The Raga ambience creates a mood that binds together the performer and the listener. The elaboration of the idyllic tender passages manifests or becomes (Bhava) the emotive world; and, it creates is an experience shared by the creator and the enjoyer (rasika). In that we, somehow, touch the very core of our being. And, that out-of –the world (alaukika) subjective ultimate aesthetic experience (ananda) is not a logical construct. As Abhinavagupta says, it is a wondrous flower; and, its mystery cannot really be unraveled.


19.1. The advent of Raga changed the whole phase of Indian Music.  With its coming, the ancient music-terms and concepts such as Jaati, Grama, and Murchana etc no longer are relevant in the Music that is practiced since say, fourteenth century. Since then Raga has taken the centre stage; and, it is the most important concept in music composition, music performances and even in music-listening.

19.2. The proliferation of Ragas led, in the South, to systematic ways of classifying or grouping (Mela) them based on the technical traits of their scales (Svaras). In North India, Ragas are classified according to such characteristics as mood, season, and time of the day or night. Classification of Ragas plays a major role in Indian Music theories.

Though the present-day system is evolved from the structure suggested by Venkatamakhin, it has many differences. For example, Venkatamakhin did not believe parent melakarthas must contain sampoorna (complete) Aroha and Avaroha as long as they contained the seven notes in some form or the other. The idea that they should have these seven notes in their complete form in the ascending and descending sequences of Svaras is attributed to Govindacharya, who, in the late 18th century, re-organized the melakartas making them all sampoorna so that a certain mathematical elegance could be maintained

[We shall talk about Mela-system later in the series]

In the next segment of this series let’s take a look at the various forms of Karnataka Sangita.



Forms of Karnataka Sangita


Sources and References

  1. Third Quarterly Report – SIPA Textbook Committee

  1. Rāga-s in Bṛhaddēśī: English translation of the verses and the prose passages describing the Rāga-s, in the Bṛhaddēśī of Mataṅga by Dr. Hema Ramanathan
  2. Brhaddasehi of Matanga by Dr. N . Ramanathan
  3. History of Indian Music by Swami Prajnananda
  4. Music and Musical Thought in Early India by Lewis Eugene Rowell
  5. Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of … By Bruno Nettl, Philip V. Bohlman
  6. Essays on Indian Music by Raj Kumar
  7. Emergence of the Desi tradition by T.M. Krishna
  8. Raga:
  11. A Brief Overview of the Evolution of Indian Music
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Posted by on May 21, 2015 in Music, Sangita


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