Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 4 : 3 March 2004

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.


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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai

No World Beyond the Sphere of Language
Anirban Dash, Ph.D.


Grammar has been considered a system of philosophy in India, in addition to its being a linguistic grammar proper. It has been treated as an auxiliary discipline of the Veda. Maadhavaachaarya included grammar in his SarvadashanasaNgraha, in which he quotes the Vaakyapadeeya (VP) of Bhartrhari to describe his philosophical viewpoints.

Bhartrhari's contribution to the philosophy of language is very authentic and outstanding in nature. It is not an exaggeration to say that, Vaakyapadeeya (VP) continued to be a guidebook on the philosophical issues of grammar.


The philosophy called shabdaadvaita 'linguistic monism' occupies a central position in Bhartrhari's Vaakyapadeeya even if the attention is, sometimes, more directed towards grammatical issues. T. R. V Murti (1974, 328) remarks, 'The school of grammar is an Advaitavaada (Absolutism) and has a share in the virtues and difficulties of all Absolutism'. Bhartrhari declares that the attainment of Brahman is the ultimate goal of the study of grammar. It is not the only goal to be attained, but it is the ultimate source of the very thing. It is, therefore, the source of vaakya (sentence) and pada the word, the two main subjects of the Vaakyapadeeya. The first four verses of the BrahmakaaNDa in Vaakyapadeeya states the main idea of Bhartrhari regarding the unity of shabda and Brahman. Besides these, many other verses of Vaakyapadeeya take over this idea and elaborate it. According to Pere Sarvesvwara (1981, 75), "The whole of the Vaakyapadeeya is to be understood on the basis of the first four kaarikaas".


According to Bhartrhari, the nature of ultimate reality, the Brahman, is:

"Without beginning or end, is of the nature of word (shabdatattva). All the objects as well as cosmos are manifested from it. This Ultimate Reality is one, but manifests itself as many due to its various powers. Even though it is not different from its powers, it appears to be different. Among its many powers, time is the most important. It is one, but divisions are super-imposed on it. All the different kinds of changes depend on it, which causes multiplicity in the Being. The Ultimate, which is one, contains the seeds of all multiplicity. It manifests itself as the experiencer, the experienced one, and the experience itself."[i]


Thus, Brahman itself is word-principle (shabadatattva). According to Iyer (1969, 402) "The central idea in Bhartahari's philosophy is that the Ultimate Reality is the nature of the word which presupposes consciousness."

This can not be said to be the original idea of Bhartrhari. It is rather inherited from the Vedic tradition. As per this tradition, the seers of the Veda proclaimed 'the whole cosmos as manifestation of word (shabda) and that cosmos is evolved out of the Veda.'[ii]


The available Vedic literature, both the Mantras as well as the BrahmakaaNDa is full of statements about the nature of Vaak and Brahman in different contexts.

Some of these references contain the idea that Brahman is the ultimate source of everything, while others convey the idea that Vaak is the ultimate source of everything. Aitareya BraahmaNa 4.21.1 identifies Brahman with Vaak. BrhadaaraNyaka Upanishad 4.1.20 echoes the same thought 'the speech (vaak) truly, is Brahman" (Vaag vai Brahman).

The Vrtti also quotes some passages from the Veda supporting Bhartrhari's statement that Vaak is source of everything. It is the experiencer as well as the experienced. For instance, in Rig Veda 10.125, Vaak is identified as everything in universe and it is implied that it is the Vaak, which manifests itself as everything.

Some of the non-Vedic texts are also quoted as the authority behind this notion and these are said to be taken from Puraakalpa[iii].

Thus, one may conclude that the idea about the unity of the word and the Brahman has its root in the Vedic tradition. Nevertheless, Bhartrhari's original contribution in this regard lies in the rational framework provided by him in order to support the above-mentioned assumption.


Bhartrhari's arguments, in this respect, are as follows:

Our knowledge of everything in the cosmos is interwoven with word. A knowledge, which is not, so would not be Knowledge at all.[iv] We cannot cognize an object through the word unless we cognize the word first. We find that all the manifestations of the Brahman are intertwined with the word and, therefore, their root cause, Brahman, must be of the nature of the word. In other words, it must be Shabdatattva. The object is really not different from the word. It is the word, which has become the object. As the object-figures are formulated in words, the conclusion is that, they are products of the word. Consciousness of the word forms a part and parcel of our knowledge of objects. Their knowledge depends upon the word. Therefore, their ultimate source concerns with the nature of the word (Shabdatattva).


Bhartrhari lays great stress on the idea that Brahman, being the word-principle, manifests all phenomena and objects in the form of a word. Therefore, all thoughts and whole knowledge are intertwined with the word. The universe consists of an infinite number of phenomena arranged in a temporal and spatial sequence and of the words, which are expressive of them.

The universals of these phenomena can not enter worldly usage unless the particulars reveal them and the word-principle has to emerge from it. They emerge because the universals of the objects and the words inherent in them are distinct from one another and stand towards one another in the relation of the expressed (vaachya) and the expressive word (vaachaka). In this way the word principle is the ultimate source of the universe consisting of the vaachya and the vaachaka.


All the things, which emanate from the Brahman (Shabdatattva) are concerned with the manifestation of the vaachya and vaachaka. In other words, they are concerned with the artha and the shabda. Bhartrhari declares that there are no worlds beyond the sphere of language. As a window to the worldly knowledge, language comprehends the whole world and at same time, it is beyond the world. The language we use shapes our knowledge of reality.

Bhartrhari identifies the phenomenal universe in all its diversity with the ultimate principle, which according to him is pashyanti in which stage there is no difference between the word and meaning.


This whole theory about the unity of the speech and Brahman also provides the basis for Bhartrhari's advocacy of indivisible sentence theory. According to Bhartrhari, the sentence and sentence meaning are indivisible. For him, sentence is the minimum meaningful unit of speech. He observed that people do not speak in individual words. The knowledge of language is not merely the knowledge of the meaning of individual words.

Though, Bhartrhari speaks about the phoneme and the individual word as the meaning-bearing units, he advocates the reality of indivisible sentence. The sentence meaning is a flash of insight or intuition (Pratibhaa).


While establishing his own view, Bhartrhari refutes mainly the views of the MImaamsakas, upholders of the view regarding the reality of the pada (word). MImaamsakas hold that the sentence and the sentence meaning are the result of joining together smaller units called words and word meaning.


After explaining the concept of shabdabrahman in the first chapter and the theory of the indivisibility of sentence and the sentence meaning in the second, in the third chapter Bhartrhari takes up some grammatical notions for discussion. They are Jaati (universal), dravya (substance), sambandha (relation), guNa (quality), dik (direction), kriyaa (action) saadhana, (participants in action), kaala (time), samkhyaa (Number), purusha (grammatical Person), linga (grammatical gender), upagraha (meaning of Atmanepada and parasmaipada endings) and vrtti (complex formation).

It is interesting to note that, on the one hand Bhartrhari talks of the uniform and indivisible reality, while on the other hand the philosopher is engaged in analyzing the same reality to arrive at the above mentioned categories.


Unlike PaaNini, Bhartrhari deals with these notions from the philosophical standpoint. In the spirit of accommodation, he tries to make the definitions also acceptable to the philosophers. Sometime, he takes a notion from the philosophers in order to explain a form of the Sanskrit language. In the jaatisamuddesha, he expounds the view that all words and even parts of words denote jaati (the universal).


Dik, saadhana, kriyaa and kaala have been grouped together because Bhartrhri looks upon them as a kind of power (shakti) existing in substantial entities.

While defining 'means' as understood by the grammarians, the views of the Vij˝aanaadins, the Vaishesikas, the Mimaamsakas, the Advaitins and the Saamkhyas on the same subject have also been briefly explained. Saadhana as power is a general notion. There is no limit to the number of powers of a thing but they have been brought under six headings beginning with karma, with the addition of sesa seven powers are recognized.

Kriyaa (action) is an important notion because it is the meaning of the most important among other words obtained by analyzing the sentence, namely, verb. The notion of 'means' or accessory also presupposes action, because what is a 'means' is so because it helps in its accomplishment.

In the section on time (kaalasamuddesha), Bhartrhari records various views about time, current in those days. A Sanskrit verb always expresses an action qualified by time. The notion of time as expressed by the verb is directly subordinate to action. The notion of number and person are also subordinate to action, not, so directly as the notion of time and aspect are, but indirectly through the 'means' saadhana of which they are properties. Thus, Bhartrhari has explained all these grammatical notions from the philosophical point of view.

It is noteworthy that, when he speaks about jaati, dravya, saadhana, kriyaa, etc. Bhartrhari always connects these ideas with the shabdabrahman. Thus being a philosopher, he is always in search of realty that runs through various diversities of the language.

[i] Bk. from Verse1 to 4

[ii] Bk.124

[iii]K.A. S. Iyer , Bhartrhari, p.185

[iv] Bk.131



Anirban Dash, Ph.D.

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