Volume 4 : 6 April 2004

Anirban Dash, Ph.D.



The term sphoTa is etymologically derived from the root sphuT, which means 'to burst', or become suddenly rent asunder (with a sound) [i].

The word sphoTa is explained in two ways [ii].

  1. Naagesha BhaTTa defines sphoTa as sphuTati prakaashate'rtho'smaad iti sphoTaH (that, from which the meaning bursts forth, that is, shines forth. In other words, the word that expresses a meaning, or the process of expressing a meaning through a word is called sphoTa.
  2. SphoTa, according to Maadhava, is that which is manifested or revealed by the phonemes: sphuTyate vyajyate varNairiti sphoTaH.


Gaurinatha Shastri suggested that the original Greek conception of logos best conveys the meaning of sphoTa: 'The fact that logos stand for an idea as well as a word wonderfully approximates to the concept of sphoTa' [iii].

The concept of sphoTa is the unique contribution of Indian grammarians to the philosophy of language. This is the theory, which explains the working of the speech process. We do not have sufficient evidence, in our hand to establish as to who was the first founder of the sphoTa theory. Haradatta in his PadamaNjari and Naagesha BhaTTa in his sphoTavaada claim that the sphoTaayana was the first founder of the sphoTa doctrine [iv].


VyaaDi, the author of samgraha, might have recorded some discussion about the sphoTa theory; as the distinction between the praakrta dhvani and vaikrta dhvani mentioned in the Vaakya Padeeya is supposed to have been made by him [v].

Some scholars believe that the indirect reference to sphoTa theory is found in the writings of AudumbaraayaNa quoted by Yaaska in his Nirukta [vi]. Here it should be noted that Yaaska did not use the term sphoTa and he seems to have known little about it. AudumbaraayaNa also does not mention the term sphoTa directly. His awareness of sphoTa is speculated on the basis of the sphoTa concept of Bhartrhari. (See my earlier articles in Language in India, The Notion of Vaak in Vaakyapadeeya and Bhartrhari -- the Father of Indian Semantics.)

Some grammarians even claimed that the germs of the sphoTa theory are present in PaaNini's ASTaadhyaayee [vii], as he mentions the name of sphoTaayana. The specific mention of the name sphoTaayana, neither sufficiently indicates that PaaNini knew anything similar to the sphoTa theory, nor does it point out that this doctrine originally belonged to the sage sphoTaayana.

The Vaartikakaara, Kaatyaayana does not mention the word sphoTa in his Vt. He only established the great principle that shabda is nitya ("eternal, or permanent"), artha is nitya, and their mutual relation i.e. vaacya- vaacaka-bhaava is also nitya [viii]. While explaining upon PaaNinian rule taparastatkaalasya, P.1.1.70, he says that the letters are fixed and the style of vrtti depends upon the speech habits of the speaker. This statement of Kaatyaayana, regarding the nature of word and the difference in tempo takes us near to the sphoTa doctrine.


Here it should be admitted that though earlier thinkers talk of the eternal and pervasive character of word, as an element or unit, the clear picture of sphoTa theory is not found before PataNjali. He discuses the idea of sphoTa, under P-1.1.170 (taparastatkaalasya), and P-8.2.18 (krpo ro laH), where the word sphoTa is not applied to the meaning bearing element, but to a permanent aspect of phonemes.

According to PataNjali, sphoTa is not identical with shabda. It is rather a permanent element of shabda, whereas dhvani represents its non-permanent aspect. The sphoTa is not audible like dhvani [ix]. It is manifested by the articulated sounds. The dhvani element of speech may differ in phonetic value with reference to the variation in the utterance of different speakers. Differences in speed of utterance and time distinctions are attributes of dhvani, which can not affect the nature of sphoTa revealed by the sound. When a sound passes from a speaker's lips, sphoTa is revealed instantaneously. But before the listener comprehends anything, dhvani elements manifest the permanent element of shabda. So, sphoTa comes first and manifesting dhvani also continues to exist after the revelation of sphoTa. That is why PataNjali remarks that dhvani-s are actualized and euphemeral elements and attributes of sphoTa [x].

PataNjali points out that the sphoTa, which is revealed by the articulate sounds, can be presented through phonemes only. A phoneme (vowel) which represents sphoTa remains the same in three modes of utterance, i.e. slow, fast and faster, whereas dhvani (articulate sound) differs in different utterances [xi].

It is just like the distance, which remains the same, even if it is covered by various means, which travel slow, fast, and faster. Regarding the unaffected nature of sphoTa, PataNjali gives the analogy of a drumbeat. When a drum is struck, one drumbeat may travel twenty feet, another thirty feet, another forty feet and so on. Though the sounds produced by beating the drum differ, the drumbeat remains the same. SphoTa is precisely of such and such a size, the increase and decrease in step is caused by the difference in the duration of dhvani [xii].

According to PataNjali, sphoTa is a conceptual entity or generic feature of articulated sounds, either in the form of isolated phonemes or a series of phonemes. It is a permanent element of physical sounds which are transitory in nature, and which vary in length, tempo and pitch of the speaker. It is an actualized replica of euphemeral sounds.


In interpreting the doctrine of sphoTa, Bhartrhari follows the tradition handed down by his predecessors like PataNjali and others. While explaining the notion of sphoTa, he not only gives his own view but also gives the views of others (using the quotative markers, kecit and apare) [xiii], without mentioning their names. Traditionally it is believed that they may be MImamsakas and Naiyaayikas.

The notion of sphota is part of Bhartrhari's monistic and idealistic metaphysical theory. The term sphoTa occurs nine times in the BrahmakaaNDa [xiv], the use of the term shabda [xv] in different senses namely, pada, vaakya, sphoTa, dhvani, naada, praakrtadhvani, and vaikrtadhvani pose certain difficulties in determining the actual nature of sphoTa.


Bhartrhari begins the discussion of the nature of sphoTa with the observation that words or sentences can be considered under two aspects as sound pattern, or its generic feature. He recognizes two entities, both of which may be called shabda, one is the underlying cause of the articulated sounds, while the other is used to express the meaning. Thus it is said:

dvaavupaadaanashabdeSu shabdau shabdavido viduH
eko nimittam shabdaanaamaparo'rthe prayujyate. Bk. 44//

The former, called sphoTa, is the conceptual entity and permanent element of word, whereas the latter, called dhvani, is a sound pattern, which is the external aspect of the language symbol. Thus, sphoTa which is mental impression of an audible sound pattern, is the cause of that sound pattern.


Bhartrhari records two totally contradictory views about these two different elements of the word - - SphoTa and Dhvani. According to some, there is an absolute difference between these two elements, with cause and effect relationship between them. This agrees with the view held by the logician, who assumed total distinction between the cause and effect. According to the second view, the difference between these elements is mere psychological and not real. This is said to be the view held by Vedaantins, Saamkhya, and grammarians, who believe that the effect is inherited in the cause [xvi].

SphoTa, according to Bhartrhari, is always intimately related to dhvani. As soon as the sounds are produced the sphoTa is cognized instantly. Thus, sounds are manifesters and sphoTa is manifested [xvii].

It is the articulate sound, which reaches the listener's ear in the form of the sphoTa. To put it differently, sphoTa is a replica of dhvani having phonetic features. That's why it is an "auditory image of the sound" [xviii].

According to Bhartrhari, sphoTa [xix] is one and without sequence. Therefore, neither the question of parts nor the order can arise in the conception of sphoTa. It is sound or naada, which is produced at different moments of time, and the notions of sequence of plurality that really pertain to sounds are wrongly attributed to sphoTa.

Bhartrhari elucidates this point with the illustration of reflection. The reflection [xx] of moon in the water, though actually immovable, appears to be moving due to the movement in the water. Here is the property of water; that is, movability is superimposed on the reflected image of the moon. Similarly, sequence which is a property of sound is superimposed on the sphoTa which in reality is without sequence.

The temporal distinction [xxi] and variations in the speed of utterance [xxii] are the properties, which provide many varieties and, thereby they explain continuity of the perception of sphoTa. But the properties of the secondary sound do not affect the intrinsic form of the sphoTa.


First View

The sound, which is closely bound up with the sphoTa, is not perceived separately, like color, which is not separately perceived from the object.

Second View

The sound, without getting itself perceived, causes the perception of the sphoTa, as the sense organ and their qualities, which being themselves unperceived, cause the perception of objects.

Third View

Sound is also perceived without giving rise to the perception of the form of sphoTa. In other words, the perception of sound is not regarded as identical with the perception of the sphoTa.


Bhartrhari records three different views on the nature of the sphoTa. He says that, according to some, the term sphoTa stands for the initial articulated sounds produced by the various degrees of contacts of articulatory organs with the point of articulation.

The sounds, which are produced, from the initial sounds that spread in all directions in the two ways, that is, 'vIcItaraNganyaaya' (like ripples) and 'kadambagolakanyaaya' (like the blossom of kadamba tree). They are like the reflections of the original sound. The first sound in each chain is the result of the vibration of the vocal organs, while the others are produced, not by the movement of the vocal organs but by the sounds immediately preceding them. The former is the sphoTa and the later is called 'dhvaniH'. Thus, according to the thinkers of this view, even after the organs have ceased to vibrate, other sounds also originate from the sphoTa like the series of flames which stream forth from other flames [xxiv].

The second view put forward by Bhartrhari is that both [xxv] dhvani and the sphoTa are said to be produced at the same time. This is explained by the analogy of the flame and the light. The flame and light are produced at the same moment. However, from a distance we see the light without seeing the flame. In the same manner, from the distance we may perceive the sound and not the sphoTa. According to this theory there is no interval between sphoTa and dhvani.

According to the third view, sphoTa stand for the universal concept, which is manifested by many individual sounds. The varied individual sounds are called dhvanis, while the universal nature of these varied individual sounds is considered to be sphoTa [xxvi].

10. THE PROCESS OF COMMUNICATION - - vaagvyavahaara

The sphoTa remains in the intellect of both the speaker and the listener with no motion before its manifestation. There is an inter-link between sound and sphoTa, as soon as the speaker produces the sound through the articulatory organs, the sphoTa is revealed. But the listener cannot understand sphoTa immediately.

Each sound unit contributes some thing to the total perception of sphoTa. The listener receives the phonemes in a sequence and grasps the form of a word in his mind, when the last phoneme is heard. The last sound helps the listener to recognize the sphoTa absolutely. This entire process of manifesting sphoTa is compared with the act of painting. Just as an artist reproduces his mental [xxvii] idea of the form of an object on a cloth, similarly the speaker reproduces the mental verbal image of a word through articulated phonemes.


The process of communication (vaagvyavahaara) is the combination of four steps [xxviii].

  1. The speaker selects in his mind a particular word form, which is related to particular meaning.
  2. The sound-form of the word is revealed through the phonetic act.
  3. The sounds are emitted in sequence by the speaker and are received by the listener in sequence.
  4. From these sounds, a listener receives the mental idea of the uttered word.


Later grammarians treat sphoTa as meaning-conveying power of the language. S.D Joshi after studying carefully all the nine occurrences of the term sphoTa in the VP, has stated that:

Bhartrhari does not say that sphoTa is an indivisible entity. He does not treat it as a meaningful aspect of the language. The term does not occur in connection with the sentence and word in the second and third kaaNDa of the Vaakyapadeeya. It is always related to the sound (dhvani). The idea of the indivisibility of sphoTa can be traced in BrahmakaaNDa 74 [xxix].

Accordingly, 'there are no phonemes in the word nor are their parts in the phonemes. There is no absolute difference of the words from the sentence' [xxx].

On the basis of the verse, S.D. Joshi states that significative units cannot be broken into parts. But phonemes have no relation with the meaning. He argues that an indivisible nature is assigned to sphoTa by the latter grammarians, which goes against the intention of Bhartrhari. They have deliberately interpreted the term varNa sphoTa in the sense of stem, roots, suffixes, etc., to justify the indivisibility and meaningfulness of sphoTa. Thus, they have imposed their own idea on Bhartrhari [xxxi].

Bhartrhari's statement pointed out that the shabda is self-revealing, that is, it reveals its own phonetic form as well as the meaning. The later grammarians have wrongly applied this self-revealing character of a word to sphoTa. But Bhartrhari does not say that sphoTa is self-revealing [xxxii].

According to S. D. Joshi, the sphoTa is comprehended by the listener through the sound produced by the speaker. The sphoTa represents a class of individual sounds, whereas dhvani represents a particular sound. The sphoTa is a sound or a type of sound, which may or may not be meaningful. The meaning-conveying nature of the word in the BrahmakaaNDa Verse 44 has been wrongly identified with the feature of sphoTa by the later grammarians and some modern scholars [xxxiii].

Joshi is fully justified in his interpretation of Bhartrhari's views on sphota, as this interpretation also agrees with that of PataNjali's description of sphoTa.


To sum up, there is no agreement among the scholars as to who was the profounder of the sphoTa theory. The first systematic discussion on sphoTa is found in PataNjali's MahaabhaaSya. According to PataNjali, sphoTa is a conceptual entity or generic feature of the articulated sound. However, there is no such other ancient work, which deals with the nature of sphoTa as satisfactorily as does Bhartrhari's Vaakyapadeeya.

According to Bhartrhari, sphoTa is an auditory image of sound. It is indivisible and without inner-sequence. It does not stand for the meaning-bearing aspect of the word. It is not over and above the sound. Many grammarians and modern scholars have misunderstood Bhartrhari's position on the nature of sphoTa. They misunderstood sphoTa to be the self-revealing and meaning conveying power of the language.

In fact, sphoTa merely represents the class of individual sounds, whereas dhvani represents a particular sound. The sphoTa is a sound or a type of sound, which may or may not be meaningful. The meaning-conveying nature of the word in the Bk.44 has been wrongly identified with the feature of sphoTa by the later grammarians and some modern scholars.


[i] A Sanskrit - English Dictionary, Monier-Williams, p.1270.

[ii] NaageshabhaTTa, SphoTavaada, P.5; & Maadhava, Sarvadarshanasamgraha (edited by Abhya?kar), p. 300.

[iii] Gaurinatha Shastri, The Philosophy of word and meaning, p.102-103.

[iv] sphoTaayanaH sphoTapratipaadanaparo vaiyaakaraNaacaaryaH|| SK. vol. iv. p.6
vaiyaakaraNanaageshaH sphoTaayanarSermatam |
pariSkrtyoktavaamstatra prIyataam jagadIshvaraH || SV. p. 12||

[v] shabdasya grahaNe hetuH praakrto dhvaniriSyate |
sthitibhedanimittatvam vaikrtaH pratipadyate || Bk 78||

[vi] indriyanityam vacanamaudumbaraayaNaH | Nir.11

[vii] ava? sphoTaayanasya | P.6.1.123

[viii] siddhe shabdaarthasambandhe lokato arthaprayukte shabdaprayoge shaaStreNa dharmaniyamaH yathaa laukikavaidikeSu || MahaabhaaSya, Vol.1. 6.

[ix] dhvaniH sphoTashca shabdaanaam dhvanistu khalu lakSyate
alpo mahaaNca keSaamcidubhayam tatsvabhaavataH ||
MahaabhaaSya.,vol.1, p.181.)

[x] evam tarhi sphoTaH shabdo dhvaniH shabdaguNaH || MahaabhaaSya. Vol. 1., p.181.

[xi] katham avsthitaa varNaa drutamadhyamavilambitaasu ki?krtastarhi
vrttivisheSaH vaktushciraaciravacanaad vrttayo vishiSyante vaktaa
kashcidaaSvabhidhaayI bhavati | aashu varNaanabhidhatte | kashciccireNa
kashcicciratareta | tadyathaa | tamevaadhvaanam kashcidaashu gacchati
kashciccireNa gacchati kashcicciratareNa gacchati| rathika aashu
gacchatyashvikaashcireNa padaatishchiratareN | viSama upanyaasaH
adhikaraNamatraadhvaa vrajatikriyaayaaH | tatraayuktam yadadhikaraNasya vrddhihraasau syaataam
|| MahaabhaaSya. Vol.1 p.181.

[xii] katham bheryaaghaatavat | tadyathaa bheryaaghaataH | bherImaahatya

kashcidvi?shati padaani gacchati kashcittrimshatkashciccatvaari?shat ||
MahaabhaaSya, 1.1, 181 || for detail see , Joshi S. D., SphoTa NirNaya, 1967, p.14)

[xiii] ibid, p.20

[xiv] Bk. Verse No- 50, 76,79,83,96,100,105,106,109.

[xv] Satyakama Verma, VaakyapadIya aur Bhasaatattva, p.23.

[xvi] aatmabhedam tayoH kecidastItyaahuH puraaNagaaH|
buddhibhedaadabhinnasya bhedameke pracakSate || Bk.46||

[xvii] grahaNagraahyayoH siddhaa yogyataa niyataa yathaa|
vya?gyavyaNjakabhaave'pi tathaiva sphoTanaadayoH|| Bk..100

[xviii] S. D Joshi, SphoTa NirNaya, p.23

[xix] naadasya kramajaatatvaanna pUrvo na parashca saH|
akramaH kramarUpeNa bhedavaaniva jaayate || Bk. 49||

[xx] pratibimbam yathaanyatra sthitam toyakriyaavashaat |
tatpravrttimivaanveti sa dharmaH sphoTanaadayoH.||Bk.50||

[xxi] sphoTasyaabhinnakaalasya dhvanikaalaanupaatinaH |
grahaNopaadhibhedena vrttibhedam pracakSate || Bk. 76||

[xxii] svabhaavabhedaan nityatve hrasvadIrghaplutaadiSu |
praakrtasya dhvaneH kaalaH shabdasyetyupacaryate || Bk. 77||

[xxiii] sphoTarUpaavibhaagena dhvanergrahaNamiSyate|
kaishcid dhvanirasamvedyaH svatantro'nyaiH prakalpitaH|| BK.83||

[xxiv] anavasthitakampe'pi karaNe dhvanayo'pare |
sphoTaadevopajaayante jvaalaa jvaalaantaradiva || Bk.109||

[xxv] dUraatprabheva dIpasya dhvanimaatram tu lakSyate |
ghaNTaadInaam ca shabdeSu vyakto bhedaH sa drshyate|| Bk.107||

[xxvi] anekavyaktyabhivya?gyaa jaatiH sphoTa iti smrtaa |
kaishcid vyaktaya evaasyaa dhvanitvena prakalpitaaH || Bk. 96||

[xxvii] yathaikabuddhiviSayaa mUrtiraakriyate paTe |
mUrtyantarasya tritayamevam shabde'pi drshyate || Bk. 53||

[xxviii] vitarkitaH puraa buddhyaa kvacidarthe niveshitaH |
karaNebhyo vivrttena dhvaninaa so'nugrhyate || Bk . 48||

[xxix] pade na varNaa vidyante varNeSvavayavaa na ca |
vaakyaatpadaanaamatyantam pravibhaago na kashcan || Bk . 74||

[xxx] K. A. S. Iyer, English Translation of BrahmakaaNDa, 1965, p.77

[xxxi] S. D. Joshi, SphoTa Nirnaya, p. 37.

[xxxii] ibid., p.40-43.

[xxxiii] ibid., p.37,38,46.