Tag Archives: Yaska

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine


Levels of speech

The various ancient texts speak of the levels of speech, which, generally, are taken to be four. Each School – Grammarians, Mimamsa, Upanishads, Tantra, Yoga, mythology etc – offers its own understanding and explanation of the four levels of speech. These levels are variously explained  as the varieties of  speech  that are said to be  spoken either in four regions of  the universe;  or spoken by divine beings and humans ; or as speech of the  humans , animals, birds and creatures .  These four are even explained as four levels of consciousness.

For our limited purpose, let us briefly scan through other interpretations, before we discuss  the Grammarians’ views and their explanations of the four levels of speech.


The Asya-vamiya – sukta  (Rig Veda: 1.140- 164) which is one the most philosophical , but  rather enigmatic Suktas (hymns) of Rig Veda, ascribed to Rishi Dīrghatamas  Aucathya  (son of  Ucathya  ),  who was  also called as Mamateya (son of Mamata) ,  mentions  about the levels of speech, among many other things.

According to Rishi Dīrghatamas, there are four levels of speech. Only the wise who are well trained, endowed with intelligence and understanding know them all. As for the rest; the three levels remain concealed and motionless. Mortals know  only  the fourth.

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

But, he does not specify what those four levels of speech are.


The notion that there are four quarters or  four levels of existence ; and of which, only  one quarter is within the experience of mortals also appears in the Purusha-sukta  (Rig-Veda 10.90.3) ascribed to Rishi Narayana – Paadosya Vishva Bhutaani Tri-Paada-Asya-Amrtam Divi .

That idea of four quarters is extended to speech as well. The texts of several traditions speak of four levels of speech. For instance :

The Maitrayaniya (Maitri) Upanishad (1, 11.5), of Krishna Yajur-Veda, mentions the four quarters of speech as those belonging:  to the upper region – the heavens (Divi); to the intermediate space (Antariksha); and, to the region of earth (Prithvi) as spoken by the humans (Manusi); and, to the animals (Pashu).

The Atmavadins (mainly those belonging to Nyaya and Vaisesika Schools) say: the four fold speech can be found in the animals; in musical instruments (such a flute); in the beasts ; and,  in the individuals (Atmani)

–  pasusu tunavesu mrgesu atmani ca iti atmavadinah

The Satapatha Brahmana (1.3.16) categorizes the speech into four kinds: as that of the humans; of animals and birds (vayamsi); of reptiles (snakes); and, of small creeping things (kshudram sarisrpam)

– varā vā ia iti hi varā io yadida kudra sarīspa

Similarly, those who believe in myths and legends say that – the serpents; birds; evil creatures; as also the humans in their dealings with the rest of the world – all use speech of their own.

Sarpanam vagvayasam ksudrasarispasya ca caturthi vyavaharika-ityaitihasikah 

The Jaiminiya-Upanishad-Brahmana (1.40.1)  deals with the four levels of speech in a little more detail. In a verse that is almost identical to the one appearing in Rig-Veda Samhita – 1.164.45, it mentions that the discriminating wise know of four quarters of speech.  Three of these remain hidden; while the fourth is what people ordinarily speak.

Chatvaari vaak parimitaa padaani / taani vidur braahmaanaa ye manishinaah. Guhaa trini nihita nengayanti / turiyam vaacho manushyaa vadanti //

Then, the text goes on to explain that of the four quarters of speech: mind is a quarter, sight is another quarter, hearing is the third quarter; and, speech itself is the fourth quarter. 

 tasya etasyai vaco manah padas caksuh padas srotram pado vag eca caturtah padah

Further, it says: what he thinks with the mind, that he speaks with speech; what he sees with the sight, that he speaks with the speech; and, what he hears with hearing, that he speaks with speech.

 tad yad vai manasa dyayanti tad vaco vadati; yac caksus pasyati tad vaca vadati; yac srotrena srunoti tad vaco vadati/

Thus, finally, all activities of senses unite (Sam) into speech. Therefore speech is the Saman.


In the later Upanishads, speech is said to be assimilated with consciousness. The four divisions of speech are explained as four states of consciousness. For instance; Sri Gauda-Paada, the Parama-Guru of Sri Sankara (the teacher of his teacher) , in his celebrated commentary (Gaudapada-karika) on the Mandukya Upanishad while explaining his concept of Asparsha Yoga or pure knowledge,  identifies the four levels of speech with the four states of consciousness : Vishva or Vaisvanara in wakeful state (Jagrat); Taijasa in dream state (Svapna); Prajna in deep-sleep (Shushupti); and, Pranava AUM with Turiya, the fourth, the Absolute state which transcends all the three states and represents Ultimate Reality .


Explanations offered by Sri Sayana

Sri Sayana in his Rg-Bhashya   deals with the subject of four levels of speech in a little more detail. He says, people use speech in a variety of ways to fulfil their roles and responsibilities in life. And, similarly, the animals, birds, creatures and objects in nature do use their own sort of speech to serve their needs.  He  then , while explaining these four levels or quarters of speech (ani tani catwari ityatra bahavah) , remarks that  each School  offers explanations  (bahudha  varnayanti ) according to its own  tenets  (sva- sva-mantanu-rodhena). He, next, briefly mentions what those explanations are:

: – According to Vedantins, the four levels of speech could be the Pranava (Aum) – which is the sum and substance of all the Vedic terms (sarva-vaidika-vag-jalasaya), followed by three Vyahritis (Bhu, Bhuh and Suvah). Thus the Pranava along with three Vyahritis form the four quarters of speech.

: – According to Nirukta (Etymology), the language of the three Vedas (Rik, Yajus and  Saman ) and the speech commonly used  for dealings in the world , together make the four quarters of speech– (Rg-yajuh-samani-caturdhi vyavharikiti nairuktah )

: – The four levels of speech could also be related to four regions representing four deities : on the Earth as Agni (yo prthivyam sa-agnau); in the mid-air as Vayu (Ya-antarikshe sa vayau); and, in the upper regions as Aditya (Ya divi saditye). And whatever that remains and transcends the other three is in Brahman (Tasya-mad-brahmana).

: – The speech, though it is truly indivisible, is measured out or analyzed in the Grammar as of four kinds or four parts-of-speech (akhandayah krtsnaya vacah caturvidha vyakrtattvat).  Accordingly, the four divisions of speech are named by the followers of the various Schools of Grammar (vyakarana-matanus-arino) as: Naaman (Nouns), Akhyata (Verbs), Upasarga (prepositions or prefixes) and Nipata (particles)

:-  According to the wise who are capable of exercising control over their mind; the Yogis who have realized Sabdabrahman; and, others of the Mantra (Tantra) School,  these four levels of speech (Evam catvari vacah padani parimitani)  are classified as : Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.

Manisinah manasah svaminah svadhinamanaska brahmana vacyasya sabdabrahmani dhigantaro yoginah paradicatvari padani viduh jananti 

Apare mantrkah parkarantarena pratipadanti Para, Pasyanti, Madhyama   Vaikhariti catvariti 


The power of the spoken word

In the Indian traditions, it is believed that it is only  in its oral form that the language becomes fully alive and reveals  its true nature , provided it is spoken properly.  For Indian thinkers, language was  primarily the spoken word or speaking itself (vac); while the written word, as a secondary aid, was only a coded-representation of the spoken word; but, without its nuances. Perhaps the most salient feature of ancient Indian linguistic culture was its concern for preserving the purity of the spoken word.

It was the speech, the spoken word not the written letter that is at the base of the Sanskrit grammar. All speculations and practices are concerned with the oral. Panini’s Astadhyayi is also based on the sounds of spoken Sanskrit. The spoken language in Sanskrit was/is the real language.

Therefore, right from the earliest period, the study of speech has been one of the major concerns of various Schools of Indian traditions. The power of the spoken word or still more of the potent un-spoken sound was well recognized.


Levels of awareness and speech

The notion of various levels of awareness and speech is accepted and discussed in almost all the Schools of Indian philosophy and Grammar. Although numerous meanings are read into the term catvari vak (four kinds or levels of speech), the one that is commonly understood and commented upon by most Grammarians and philosophers is the classification of speech into four strata: Para; Pashyanti; Madhyama; and, Vaikhari.

The entire system of such classification is rooted in the faith that at the top of this language hierarchy, there is only One-indivisible (ekameva) Reality; and, it transforms itself (Vivarta), manifests itself , resulting (Parinama) in  variety of  sounds,  word, sentence etc.

The theory underlying the evolution of speech is an extension of that faith; and it asserts, though there are several levels in the hierarchy of language, they all emanate from one indivisible reality Sabdabrahman. And again, the Sabdabrahman is identified with Para Brahman, the Absolute.

The principle that is involved here is also based in the dictum that diversity essentially pre-supposes an underlying unity (abedha-purvaka hi bhedah).  In other words, it says, where there is difference or division there must be a fundamental identity underneath it ; else, each cannot relate to the other; and , each object in the world would be independent of , or unconnected to  every other thing in existence.

This concept provides the foundation for treating all forms of speech as emanating from a single source. The various levels of language from the most subtle to the gross are, therefore, treated as hierarchy or the levels of a unitary language-system. Most of the philosophical speculations on the process of manifestation of language; and, the discussions upon its various stages – from the subtlest (Para) to the most explicit (Vaikhari) – are based in that principle.


Grammarians’ view

Each of the major schools of Indian philosophy and Grammar tried to explain the origin and nature of the Universe by exploring the nature and manifestations of the sound. They built elaborate philosophical edifices around the concepts they evolved during that process. Those traditions considered sound as one of the most important principles of existence; as the source of matter ; and , also the key to be free from it. They described Sound as the thread-like link connecting  the material and spiritual realms.

The analysis of the speech by the Grammarians is not merely an intellectual exercise, but is also a philosophical quest in an attempt to identify all forms of speech as originating from Sabda-Brahman, the ultimate ground of all speech phenomena. The study of Grammar was itself looked upon as a means or as a right-royal-path to liberation (moksha-manamam ajihma raja-paddhatih).


Speech was  regarded as the verbal expression of a thought that arises in a person’s consciousness. If there is no consciousness, there would be no speech. Speech (Vac) is indeed an outward form of consciousness (chetana). Vac is the word principle that gives expression to the latent or unmanifest thoughts and feelings.

That was meant to say; thinking is, in fact, a sort of internal speaking. Such inaudible speech was regarded the seed or the potent form of explicit speech that is heard by others. It was also said; all knowledge is interpreted in terms of words; and, it is quite not possible to have any sort of cognition that is free from words (Vakyapadiya: 1.123)

The process of transformation of a thought or an impulse arising in ones consciousness into a cognizable, explicit speech is said to resemble the evolution of the Universe from the un-manifest (A-vyakta) to the manifest (Vyakta) material world.

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

Here, the latent, unspoken form of thought that instinctively springs up and is visualised, within one’s self, is called Pashyanti Vak (thought visualized). The Pashyanti, which also suggests the visual image of the word, is indivisible and without inner-sequence; in the sense, that the origin and destination of speech are one. Here, the ‘internal speech’ or ‘thought’ stands for what is intended to be conveyed. That intention is instinctive (prathibha) and immediate; and, it does not involve stages such as: analysis, speculation, drawing inferences and so on. At the level of Pashyanti Vak, there is no distinction between word and meaning. And, there is also no temporal sequence.

The Pashyanti Vak thereafter transforms into an intellectual process, the level of thought (Buddhi), during which the speaker looks for and identifies appropriate words, phrases, and their sequence, which are capable of conveying his intention candidly. That sequence of thoughts results in definite and clear array of words. As that cognition arises and takes a form within, he grasps it. This is the intermediate stage – The Madhyama vak, a sequenced but a pre-vocal thought – described as the voice of silence; perhaps best understood as internal speaking. Here, there is no perceptible sound (Nada). The Madhyama vak is in an inaudible wave or vibratory (spandana) form.

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

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

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

The spoken word comes out of one’s mouth, no doubt. However, it needs the assistance of breath and of several body parts in order to manifest itself (Vikhara literally means body; and, Vaikhari is that which employs bodily organs). The head, throat, tongue, palate, teeth, lips, nose, root of the tongue and bosom are said to be the eight places which assist  the sounds of the letters to become audible and explicit.

When a person wills to express a thought orally, the air (Prana) inside his body spurs and moves up. Sabda or the Vac (speech or utterance) then manifests through Dhvani (sound patterns), with the assistance of appropriate organs.

[The King Pratardana of Kasi (Kasi-rajah-Pratardanaha), in the Kausitaki Upanishad, makes an interesting observation that one cannot breathe and speak at the same time (‘when a man speaks he cannot breathe; and when he breaths he cannot speak’- kau.Up.2.5).

Yavadvai purusho bhasate na tavat-pranitum shaknoti pranam …. Yavadvai purushah praniti na tavat-bhashitum shaknoti vacam-kau.Up.2.5]

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

And, of the three levels or stages of speech, Pashyanti is regarded the subtle forms of Vac; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

The chief characteristic of Vaikhari Vak is that it has a fully developed temporal sequence. At this level, the speaker’s individual peculiarities (such as accent, voice modulation etc) are present, along with relevant parts of speech. Though the Vaikhari gives expression to subtler forms of Vac, it is not considered as the’ ultimate’.


The ancient Grammarians went to great lengths, systematically, to trace the origination of each letter, its appropriate sound; the intricacies and efforts involved in producing them. (Please see the Note * below)


[* In the Sanskrit, the vowels and consonants sounds are classified and arranged dependent on their origin (pronunciation) in different parts of mouth, such as throat, palate, teeth or lips.

The vowels and consonants are so arranged that those emanating from the throat come first. These are followed by those pronounced through tongue; the palate; teeth and the lips. All sounds are arranged as those from the inside of the mouth proceeding outwards, in that order. No other ancient system of writing seems to have been so systematically thought out.

The vowels (Svara-s) , alternating long and short, come first : अ(a)  (aa)  इ(i)   ई(ee)  उ(u)  ऊ(oo)  ऋ(r)  ॠ(r)  लृ(lr)  ए(e)  ऐ(ai)  ओ(o)  and औ(au)

The commencing vowels अ(a) and  (aa)  are pronounced in the throat – Kantya  (कण्ठ्य). They are followed by vowels इ(i) and  ई(ee) produced by the tongue touching the base of the teeth ,Taalavya (तालव्य). The vowels उ(u)  and ऊ(oo)  are produced using the lips making a rounded opening – Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य).  The vowels ऋ(r) and ॠ(r) are produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouth- Murdhanya (मूर्धन्य). The vowel लृ(lr) is produced by the tongue touching the upper teeth – Dantya (दंत्य).  The vowels ए (e) and ऐ (ai)   are produced near the throat by the tongue touching the bottom of the teeth and sucking in the air – Kanta-taalavya (कंटतालव्य).  The vowels  (o) and औ (au) produced near the throat by the rounding of the lips are called Kantoshtya (कंटोष्ठ्य).

The two ornamental nasal (Anusvara) letters अं (am) and  अः (aha ) ,which are used to decorate the vowels, are called the Visarga , meaning  sending forth . These sounds, which are neither consonants nor vowels, add a softening short burst effect at the end.  These are usually listed as a part of the vowel -group; but are shown at the end.

Similar is the emanation of the consonants – from throat outwards to the lips .

The set of consonants – क(ka) , ख(kha) , ग(ga) , घ(gha) , and ङ(nga) – are guttural (throaty) consonants – Kantya  (कण्ठ्य). Then the consonants – च(cha) , छ(chha) , ज(ja) , झ(jha) , and ञ(nja)- are pronounced on the palate- Taalavya (तालव्य). The next set of consonants –  ट(ta)  ,ठ(tha) , ड(da) , ढ(dha)  and ण(na) – is  produced by the tip of the tongue curling back against the roof of the mouthMurdhanya (मूर्धन्य). Next are  those on the teeth (दन्त्य), like – त(ta) , थ(tha) , द(da) , ध(dha) and  न(na) . And last come those on the lips प(pa)  फ(pha)  ब(ba)  भ(bha)  and म(ma) – (ओष्ठ्य). Oshtya (ओष्ठ्य).

The list is rounded off with semi-consonants like – य(ya) , र(ra) , ल(la)  and व(va) ; and the aspirated and sibilant sounds like श(sha)  ष(sha) ,  स(sh)  and ह (ha ).

Such unique organization of the alphabet underlines the attention paid to the patterns of articulated sound; points  of its location; and , to degree of resonance,  in a way that has not been attempted in any other language]

[ Abhinavagupta offers a mystic explanation of the arrangement of the Sanskrit alphabets, which are placed in between A and Ha. According to him, in the Sanskrit alphabet, the very first letter A stands for Shiva, the primal source of all existence. A is the initial emergence of all the other letters; and hence is Anuttara, the absolute. And, A not only represents the origin of the language; but, also the expansion of consciousness.

If A  the first letter represents Shiva the transcendent source, then Ha the final letter of the alphabet represents the point of completion when all the letters have emerged. If A is Shiva, Ha the last letter is Shakthi, His cosmic outpouring that flows back into Him.

Again, the vowels (Bija – the seed) are identified with Shiva; and, the consonants are Yoni identified with Shakthi. The intertwined vowels and consonants in a language are thus the union of Shiva and Shakthi.

Thus, the sequence of A to Ha contains within itself not only all the letters of the Alphabets, but also every phase of consciousness, both transcendental and universal.

The entire sequence of alphabets, according to Abhinavagupta, represents the state in which all the elements of experience, in the inner and the outer worlds, are fully displayed.]


Philosophers’ view

In the ancient traditions of India, the Grammar, the philosophy of Grammar and the Philosophy run into one another. At times, it is hard to separate them.

While the Grammarians, generally, speak about three levels of speech, the philosophers identify four levels or stages of speech (Vac): Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari.  Of these four forms of Vac, Para and Pashyanti are the subtle forms of Vac; while Madhyama and Vaikhari are its gross forms.

The explanations of the Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari are almost the same as offered by the Grammarians; however, their interpretations and connotations differ slightly.


It is said; the sound has four divisions:  Para manifested in Prana (vital energy); Pashyanti manifested in the mind (Manas); Madhyama manifested in the senses (Indriyani); and, Vaikhari manifested in articulate expressions (Vac).

Para Vac is the ultimate and unmanifest principle of speech, the Sabda-tattva (Sabdasya tattvam or Sabda eva tattvam), where there is no subject-object distinction; and, is of the nature of the Absolute (vag vai Brahmeti).

Para vac is identified with Pranava (Aum), the primordial speech-sound from which all forms of speech emanated. It transforms or manifests (Vivarta or parinama) as all forms of sounds, speech etc.


According to Abhinavagupta, word is a symbol. The four stage of Vac: Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari represent its four phases of evolution and also of absorption; the ascent or descent from the undifferentiated to the gross.

It is explained; Para Vac as Sabda-Brahman is the creative energy (Shakthi) that brings forth all existence. It is also the consciousness (chit, samvid), vital energy (prana shakthi) that vibrates (spanda) and enlivens.

While Para Vac is pure consciousness; the three other forms are its transformations. The three lower forms of speech viz. Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari which correspond to intention, formulation and expression are said to represent ts powers , such as :  iccha-shakthi (power of intent or will) , jnana-shakthi (power of knowledge) and the power of becoming (bhuti sakti) or the power of action (Kriya shakthi  ). Thus, out of the transcendent Para, the three phases of its power (Shakthi) emanate.

The urge to communicate or the spontaneous evolution of Para into Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari   epitomizes the Cosmic act of One becoming many; and, the subtle energy transforming into a less- subtle matter.

Thus, the speech, each time it emanates, is an enactment, in miniature, of the unfolding (Vimarsa) of the One into many.  And each time, when that speech is grasped by the listener and each time it merges into her/his intellect, it re-enacts the process of absorption (Samhara) of the many into One.

The process of manifestation of speech is, thus, compared to the evolution of the Universe. And, that process is said to take place in four stages. First, in the undifferentiated substratum of thought, an intention appears. This first impulse, the self-radiant consciousness is Para-vac (the voice beyond).  This latent, un-spoken, un-manifest, silent thought (Para) unfolds itself in the next three stages as Pashyanti (thought visualized), Madhyama (intermediate)   and as Vaikhari  (explicit) speech).

In its second stage, the subtle thought visualised (pashyanthi-vak) is yet to acquire a verbal form. It is the first sprout of an invisible seed (Bija); and, is the second stage in the manifestation of thought or intention. Then the potential sound, the vehicle of the thought, materializes finding   words suitable to express the idea. This transformation of thought into words, in the silence of the mind (Buddhi), is the third or the intermediate stage of Vac (Madhyama-vak). From this non-vocal or un-voiced thought, emerges the fourth stage – the audible sound patterns. It is in that fourth stage, the ideas acquire cognizable forms of speech; and, are transmitted through articulated audible syllables (vaikhari-vak).  These four stages are the four forms of the speech.



The three- Pashyanthi, Madhyama and Vaikhari – are construed as the three sides of the triangle at the centre of which is the dot-point (Bindu) representing the undifferentiated notion of Para-Vak. The triangle with the Bindu at its centre suggests the idea of Isvara the divinity conceived as non-dual Shiva-Shakti.

In the traditions of Tantra, the process of evolution of the principle of speech (Sabda Brahman) from its most subtle and soundless state of sound – consciousness (Para), in successive stages, into the gross physical speech (Vaikhari) is explained through the principle underling the structure of Sri Chakra.


Sri Yantra is a ‘Cosmogram’ – a graphic representation of the processes of evolution (Sristi) of the Universe emanating from its core; and, re-absorption (Samhara) of the created existence back into itself. And, at the very core or the centre of the Sri Chakra is the Bindu, the dimensionless point about to expand immensely. The Bindu denotes what is hidden; the subtle and the most sensitive.

It is said; the true nature of the Supreme Goddess is beyond mind and matter. She is limitless and formless. She is Arupa. But, when She takes a form, the Bindu is her intense representation. The Bindu symbolizes Her most subtle micro form as the Universal Mother, womb, yoni, creator, retainer as also the receiver of the created universe. It is this Bindu that is, in reality, the Sri Chakra; and, everything else is an expansion and manifestation of its aspects.

The Sri Vidya texts call the Bindu also as Sarva-ananda-maya (all blissful); and, the transcendental power (Para Shakthi). It denotes the absolute harmony (saamarasya) between Shiva and Shakthi; as the immense potential of the non-dual Shiva-Shakthi, the union of Purusha and Prakriti.

The evolution (shristi) from the primary state into the mundane level is said to be the apparent separation of Shiva and Shakthi (avarohana karma). And, the reverse process of re-absorption or withdrawal from the gross to the very subtle state is termed Samhara karma.

According to Sri Vidya ideology, in the process of evolution (Vimarsa), that is in the process of shristi or the outward movement or descending arc of creative activity, the speech proceeds from the creative consciousness pulsations (spanda) of the Devi as Para-Vac, the most subtle and silent form of speech-consciousness. And, in successive stages or forms,  it moves on to more cognizable forms as : Pashyanti (Vak-shakthi, going forth as seeing, ready to create in which there is no difference between Vachya– object and Vachaka-word); Madhyama (the speech in its subtle form as existing in the anthahkarana prior to manifestation); and, Vaikhari (as articulated gross physical speech).

If the Bindu represents the Para-Vac, its immediate expanded form, the triangle formed by three points, represents the Pashyanti, the second stage of the sound (Nada). The enclosure next to this, the eight sided figure (ashta kona chakra) is the Madhyama or the third stage in the development of sound. The rest of the Chakra represents the physical or the phenomenal stage, the Vaikhari, which is the manifest and articulate form of sound. The Vaikhari form is represented by the fifty letters of the alphabet, called Matrka-s or the source of all transactions and existence.

Thus, in the process of Sristi, in the outward movement from the centre of Reality to the periphery, from the most sublime to the ordinary, the Para assumes different forms, in successive stages. All these four forms, apparently different, are indeed the manifestations of Para Vac which pervades the entire structure of speech and consciousness, in all their levels – from the highest to the lowest; and, it transforms (Vivarta) projects itself in various forms (Parinama).  

 (Abhinavagupta treats these aspects in a very elaborate manner. We shall talk about the explanations provided by Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari in the next part.)



 The Tantra explains the concept of Mantra and Japa in a similar manner.

Mantra is said to connect, in a very special way, the objective and subjective aspects of reality. The Mantra, in its sublime form, is rooted in pure consciousness. The Shaiva text Shiva Sutra describes Mantras as the unity of Vac and consciousness: Vac chittam (Shiva Sutra: 2.1). It is the living sound, transcending beyond the mental plane; the indistinct or undefined speech (anirukta) having immense potential.  In its next stage, it unites harmoniously with the mind. Here, it is union of mind (Manas) and word (Vac).  That is followed by the Mantra repeated in the silence of one’s heart (tushnim). The silent form of mantra is said to be superior to the whispered (upamasu) utterance.

[When one utters a deity’s Mantra, one is not naming the deity, but is evoking its power as a means to open oneself to it. It is said; mantra gives expression to the identity of the name (abhidana) with the object of contemplation (abhideya). Therefore, some describe mantra as a catalyst that’ allows the potential to become a reality’. It is both the means (upaya) and the end (upeya).]

The reverse is said to be the process of Japa (reciting or muttering the mantra). It moves from Vaikhari through Madhyama towards Pashyanti and ideally, and in very cases, to Para vak.

Ordinarily, Japa starts in Vaikhari form (vocal, muttering). The efficacy of the Japa does depend on the will, the dedication and the attentiveness of the person performing the Japa. After long years of constant practice, done with devotion and commitment, an extraordinary thing happens. Now, the Japa no longer depends on the will or the state of activity of the practitioner. It seeps into his consciousness; and, it goes on automatically, ceaselessly and inwardly without any effort of the person, whether he is awake or asleep. Such instinctive and continuous recitation is called Ajapa-japa. When this proceeds for a long-time, it is said; the consciousness moves upward (uccharana) and becomes one with the object of her or his devotion.

[The term Ajapa-japa is also explained in another manner. A person exhales with the sound ‘Sa’; and, she/he inhales with the sound ‘Ha’. This virtually becomes Ham-sa mantra ( I am He; I am Shiva). A person is said to inhale and exhale 21,600 times during a day and night. Thus, the Hamsa mantra is repeated (Japa) by everyone, each day, continuously, spontaneously without any effort, with every round of breathing in and out. And, this also is called Ajapa-japa.]



The system of Yoga also accepts and speaks in terms of Para, Pashyanti, Madhyama and Vaikhari. Here, those terms are meant to denote different sounds (Nada) or the stages of consciousness. It is explained:

: – Para is the most subtle form of sound, not audible; and, in its un-manifest (Avyakta) form resides as Nada at the base (Karana-bindu) in the centre of the Muladhara-chakra, solar plexus (Ekaiva nadatmika vak muladharadudita sati Para ityucyate)


: – And, with the ascent of Prana (vital energy) it moves up to Manipuraka-chakra in the region of navel; and, it is transformed to Pashyanti when it enters the heart-region (hradayakhya) and becomes visible to the Yogis (hradayakhya udiyamanatvat)


The Pashyanti (radiant) stage is compared to a well nourished seed (Bija) which sprouts into two leaves. it, then, acquires the qualities of subtle sound ( which is not audible to the physical ear) , and hue of colour (varna) which can be seen (Pashyan).

: – The Pashyanti, moving up and enters the mind (Buddhi) with a desire or the urge to express itself (Saiva buddhim gata vivaksam prapta madhyama ityucyate). And, on reaching the Anahata–chakra in the region of the heart, it is transformed into Madhyama Vac.  Anahata literally means un-struck. Here; the subtle sound (Nada) at the level of the mind is like ‘internal-speech’ which is heard, internally, by the Yogi.


[It is said; the Vac which sprouts in Para gives forth leaves in Pashyanti; buds forth in Madhyama; and, it blossoms in Vaikhari.]

: – When the Madhyama moves up further from heart-region to throat, tongue and mouth it becomes articulate (Vyakta) sound, clearly audible to the external ear at the Vishudhi -chakra. This is Vaikhari, the last stage of sound or speech when it emerges out of the mouth with the help of syllables, words etc and is heard by the listener. And, Vaikhari is the intended speech that comes out clearly through the mouth with the assistance of tongue, lips, teeth and the breath


(Atha yada saiva vaktre sthita talvosthadivyaparena bahirnirgacchati tada vaikhari ityuchyate)


Other explanations

Various other interpretations are also imposed on these four terms.

It is said;   Para represents transcendental consciousness; Pashyanti the intellectual consciousness; Madhyama the cerebral consciousness; and, Vaikhari the physical consciousness.

Further, these levels of consciousness are said to correspond with varying levels of awareness:  Turia (the fourth, the transcendental or the one-beyond); Shushupti (deep sleep); Svapna (dream state) ; and Jagrat ( wakeful state) , in that order.

And again, these states of consciousness are said to relate to different states of being (bodies). Para which is referred to as the Supreme form; the first form; the pure and resplendent Highest-light etc, is indeed beyond all forms (Turiya); and it is formless. The sphere of consciousness at Pashyanti is said to be the causal body (Karana-sarira); at Madhyama, the subtle or psychic body (Sukshma-sarira); and at Vaikhari, the physical body (Sthula-sarira).

While Para is pure consciousness, the other three are said to be its powers through which it differentiates as its power of will (iccha shakthi) at the subtle level of Pashyanti; as the power of discrimination or knowledge (Jnana shakthi) at the mental level of Madhyama; and, as its power of action (Kriya Shakthi) at the physical  level of Vaikhari.


In the next part, let’s talk about the theories expounded and the explanations offered by two of the great thinkers – Abhinavagupta and Bhartrhari- on the subject.

Buddha Meditation Song




The next part

Sources and References

Ritam “The Word in the Rig-Veda and in Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri

.Vedic river and Hindu civilization; edited by Dr. S. Kalyanaraman

Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India…Edited by John Muir

Devata Rupa-Mala(Part Two) by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao

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



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

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight

Vac and Sarasvathi

sarasvathi Mysore style

A. Vac

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vac as Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vac as goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[* Note on cow

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

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

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

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

Vac as Water (Apah)

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

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

Vac as Brahman

Ultimately, Vac is identified with Brahman, the Absolute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


B. Sarasvathi

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

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

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

Sarasvathi as the River


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarasvathi as goddess

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysore style of painting of Sri Sharadamba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

  And, Ila is sometimes mentioned as Ida. ]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


C.  Vac identified with Sarasvathi

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

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

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

As speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the River

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

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


D.  Sarasvathi as goddess in the later texts and traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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


E. Iconography

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

sarasvathi Gkcp1

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


Her Dhyana –sloka reads:

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

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


Continued in the Next Part

Sources and References

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



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


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

The Meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part 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
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Artha-Meaning, Bhartrhari, Sanskrit


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

The meaning of ‘MEANING’ – Part Two


Continued from Part One



A. Artha

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

 For a detailed discussion on these elements – please click here



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Panini seems to leave the question open-ended.

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

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


The Problem of Multiple Meanings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


There are certain other peculiar situations:

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

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

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


Artha in Arthashastra

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



B.Tatparya or intention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


C. Shakthi (power of expression)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Continued in Part Three




 Sources and References

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

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

The meaning of ‘MEANING’- Part One


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was also said:

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

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


Study of Grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

This marks his departure from Vedanta, where the supreme consciousness, Para – Brahman, is beyond language.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was even said; poetry follows Grammar as far as possible.  But, when it finds the rules of Grammar too constrained or suffocating, it switches over to other means of expressions that are more appropriate or conducive to its natural flow. It might even invent its own means and modes. At times, when those inventive expressions of poetic suggestions are so charming and become so popular, they walk into Grammar per se and take their position as the tail piece or the appendix of Grammar – ‘vyakaranasya puccham’ .

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


What is meaning?

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

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

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

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

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


In the Sanskrit language, apart from this general term (Artha) there are host of other terms that bring out varying shades or aspects of what in English is referred to as :’ the ‘meaning’  or ‘to mean’. For instance: ‘Tatparya’ (the that about which) ; ’Abhipraya ‘(intent or what one has in his mind; ‘Abhi-daha’ ( to express or to denote); ‘Uddishya’ ( to point out or to signify or to refer); ‘Vivaksa’ (intention or what one wishes to express); ‘Sakthi’ (power of expression); ‘Vakyartha’ (the import of the sentence); ‘Vachya’ and ‘Abhideya’ ( both meaning : what is intended to be expressed);’Padartha’ (the object of the expression); ‘Vishaya’ (subject matter);’Abidha’ ( direct or literal meaning of a term) which is in contrast to lakshana the symbolic sign or metaphoric meaning; and, ‘Vyanjana’ ( suggested meaning and so on .

In many of these discussions, it is difficult to draw a clear distinction between the literal meaning (Artha) and the concept it represents (Pratyaya). In the Sanskrit texts, the terms such as ‘Sabda’ (word); ‘Artha’ (object); ‘Pratyaya’ (concept) are horribly mixed up and are used interchangeably.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Meaning is context-sensitive

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

But, generally, it is the context in which a term is used that brings out the sense that it is trying to express. The context, in each case, is circumscribed by various factors. Elaborate sets of rules or guide-lines were drawn up by each School to identify such ‘context’ in each class of texts.

Among the traditional Schools of thought, it was indeed the Mimamsa School, especially the Mimamsa of Prabhakara, that gave  much  thought  to the question of  language (communicating knowledge);  and , it  took special care to lay down the ground rules for deriving the correct or apt meaning of a text. The Mimamsa method is generally followed by the other Schools as well.

According to Mimamsa , there are six means of ascertaining the correct meaning of a text: Sruti– direct statement; Linga implication derived from another word or term; Vakya– syntactic connection; Prakarana – context of the situation; Sthana – location; and, Samakhya – meaning derived from etymology .Of these six, each is stronger than the succeeding one.

Mimamsa  assert that even to understand the purport or to determine the purpose of a text ,  six factors are  necessary : consistency in the meaning between the introduction and the conclusion; repetition of the main topic; the novelty of the subject matter; the result intended ; corroborative and explanatory remarks; and, arguments in favour of the main topic. These six Linga-s or indicators are accepted by all Schools of thought.


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

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

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


And, Brihad-devata a secondary Vedic text of 4-5th century BCE attributed Saunaka, mentions the rules for interpreting a Vedic text should generally cover: the objective to be served by the text (Artha); the relevance of subject matter under discussion (prakarana); a reference to it in another portion of the text (linga); its suitability of relevance (auchitya); the geographical location (desha); the contextual time (kala).


Bhartrhari, following the Brihad-devata also lists out contextual factors which are similar to those listed in Brihad-devata. He pointed out that in many cases of language behaviour, the literal meaning conveyed by the expression is not the intended meaning and the contextual factors play a vital role in determining the intended sense of the passage. It is by gaining a thorough understanding, in each case, of context, the specific and the grammatical factors that determine the intended sense that one would be able to successfully avoid confusions and misrepresentations in reading a text.

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

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

  1. Samsarga (contact) or Sam – yoga (association): the connection known to exist between two things; 2. Viprayoga(dissociation): the absence of such connection; 3. Sahacarya (companionship): mutual association; 4. Virodhita (opposition): Antonym – opposite in meaning; Artha: the objective or the intended purpose; 6. Prakarana: the context or subject under discussion; 7. Linga: indication from another place; 8. Sabda – syanyasya samnidhih  (nearness to  another word): similar to Samsarga ;  it restricts the meaning to a particular zone;  9. Samarthya  (capacity): capacity to express;  10. Auchitya (propriety or aptness): say, whether to take direct meaning or metaphorical meaning; 11. Desa (place) the geographical region to which the text belongs; 12. Kala (time) the period in history in which the text is composed; 13. Vyakti (grammatical gender); and, 14.  Svara (accent) the tone and tenor of the text.

Apart from these, abhinaya (gesture) and apadesa (pointing out directly) are also taken as determining the exact meaning of an ambiguous expression.


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

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

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

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

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


Particular – General

That which is commonly understood and used (prasiddhi) is considered by Bhartrhari   as the primary meaning of the word. The secondary meaning of a word normally requires a context for its understanding, although sometimes the context may clarify only the primary meaning. Usually, the secondary meaning of a word is implied when a word is used for an object other than it normally denotes, as for example, when the word is used as a metaphor.

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

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

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

Panini seems to leave the question open-ended.]


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


Continued in Part two


Sources and References

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

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