Volume 4 : 10 October 2004

A Brief Overview
Anirban Dash, Ph.D.



The term dhvani (sound) is derived from the root 'dhvan' to make sound. Dhvani is an older term going back to Atharva Veda, where it was used in the sense of sound, tune, noise etc. [i]

In the Veda and UpaniSad, there are many mythical and magical speculations regarding speech and sound. The BraahmaNa texts have also given some focus on analyzing the words into their elements in the context of meaning [ii]. The problem regarding the relation between sound and meaning is fully discussed by the ancient Indian thinkers. Thinkers like AudumbaraayaNa and VaarttaakSa [iii] were the pioneers in this field. Even Yaaska, in his NirUkta, records the view of AudumbaraayaNa regarding the eternal character of the sound [iv].

PaaNini's grammar does not talk anything about eternality or non-eternality of dhvani because it is not related to the philosophical problem of language.


PataNjali has, however, presented a systematic discussion on dhvani by accumulating various ideas from his predecessors. He makes an important statement regarding the nature of dhvani and sphoTa. He says that dhvani is heard by the ear and sphoTa is grasped by intellect. Therefore, both sphoTa and dhvani are essential for the knowledge of meaning [v]. PataNjali mentions that language (shabda) has two aspects, namely, sphoTa and dhvani. The former is the permanent unchanging element, whereas the latter refers to the non-permanent element of the speech associated with length, tempo, and various peculiarities of any individual speaker. Therefore, dhvani is the actualized and ephemeral (lasting a very short time, or transient) element and an attribute of the former [vi] .

Commenting upon the rule 'krupo ro laH ' (P. 8.2.18), PataNjali further states that dhvani stands for ordinary sounds and sphoTa represents the class sounds. To explain the above aspect, PataNjali gives the analogy of drumbeat.

When a drum is struck, one drum-beat may travel twenty feet, another thirty, another forty, but the sphoTa is precisely such and such a size, the increase and decrease in the steps is caused by the difference in the duration of dhvani [vii] .

Thus, the term sphoTa stands for the initial sound of the drum while the term dhvani stands for the reverberation of the initial sound. This reverberation is called dhvani and it is responsible for the increase and decrease in length.

The above discussion makes it clear that, for PataNjali, the sphoTa is a unit of sound as an isolated letter or a series of letters, which can be analyzed as a succession of sound units; it has a normal and fixed size. The difference in the speed of utterance does not affect the sphoTa, but it is felt to be associated with it, due to the difference in the sounds, which manifests the sphoTa.


Bhartrhari in his Vaakyapadeeya and MahaabhaaSya Deepikaa exhaustively discusses the dhvani theory. In this regard, he not only gives his own views, but also records the views of others without mentioning their names.

According to Bhartrhari, the physical audible sound manifests the sphoTa, which is nothing but the mental articulated image of the sound through which the meaning is conveyed to the listener. Thus, dhvani is the physical body of the word, whereas sphoTa is the conceptual entity of sound.


An important feature of sound is its fixed capacity to express a particular phoneme. For instance, a particular sound, produced by its particular articulated efforts, reveals a particular phoneme [viii] .

Dhvani is a divisible entity. It is produced and grasped in a particular sequence and generally by mistake the same qualities of sound are superimposed on sphoTa [ix].

The sound-wave emanating from its origin is compared to a light-wave starting from the original flame. Once the first flame has been produced by the fire-producing machinery, the light-wave continues to spread in all direction, even after the fire-producing machinery has stopped [x].

The sound, which contains vibration in it, travels in all directions. The range covered by the sound depends upon loudness (intensity) of the sound. The area covered by the sound may be smaller or larger, but that does not change the duration of the sphoTa [xi].

According to another view, sphoTa is the first sound. It results from the conjunction and disjunction of the vocal organs with points of articulations. On the other hand, sounds, which originate from the first sound and spread in all directions and travel over a certain range, are the dhvanis. In short, the articulated sound is sphoTa, and its continuation in the form of sound -waves is called dhvani [xii].


Bhartrhari makes a new distinction within the manifesting sounds: primary sound (praakruta dhvani) and secondary sound (vaikruta dhvani) [xiii].


Primary sounds are those, without which the form of sphoTa would remain unmanifested and therefore unperceived [xiv]. Primary sounds are considered to be the root cause of sphoTa, because, as soon as we hear the primary sounds, sphoTa is perceived. Due to this close relationship between the two, the features of primary sounds are often attributed to the sphoTa.

Another character of primary sounds is that they determine the exact nature of the sphoTa, as short, long or prolonged, for example a1, a2 and a3. Length of the vowel as short, long or prolonged is considered as the primary feature of sounds because, in the case of length, we find some significant differences in the concerned articulating position of the vocal organ.

Duration seems to be the basis for this distinction. According to this distinction, primary sounds are classified into three, namely, apacita, pracita and pracitatara. When a primary sound is apacita (brief in duration), it manifests a short vowel; when it is pracita (long in duration), it manifests a long vowel; when it is pracitatara (longer in duration), it manifests a prolated (extended or elongated) vowel:

kaanicidapacitarUpaavrttigraahyaaNi |
tathaa svabhaavabhedaadapacitadhvanidyotyo hrasvaH |
taavataa'bhivyaktinimittena svarUpasya
graahikaa buddhistatrotpadyate |
pracitadhvanidyotyastu dIrghaH |
pracitataradhvanipratipaadyastu plutaH |
sa ca praakrtadhvanikaalo
sphoTe sphoTakaala ityupacaryate shaastre ||
vrtti on Bk. 77 ||


The second type of sound is called vaikrta dhvani [xv]. It arises out of the primary sounds after the manifestation of sphoTa, and therefore does not affect the quality of sphoTa. It can be perceived again and again uninterruptedly for a longer period of time. The duration of the period depends upon the tempo, (vrtti of the speaker). Drtatva (rapidity); Vilambita [xvi] (slowness) are the properties of secondary sound. These qualities depend on the movements of the vocal organ from one position to another at slower or faster rate.

These properties of secondary sounds are not superimposed on the sphoTa [xvii]. The length of the time of continued cognition of sphoTa fully depends on the tempo with which the secondary sound is associated.

The term never refers to a single phonemic unit taken by itself, but it refers to the relation of sounds within a series.


Bhartrhari records three different views regarding the relation between dhvani and sphoTa.

kaishcid dhvanirasaMvedyaH
svatantro'nyaiH prakalpitaH ||
Bk. 83 ||


According to the first view, the sphoTa perceived by the listener is not different from dhvani produced by the speaker. In this context, sphoTa means auditorily perceived sound, as there is no gap between the perception of sphoTa and dhvani. According to a more orthodox view, it is the sphoTa, which is perceived as one with dhvani, so that the properties of the dhvani are wrongly attributed to sphota.


According to the second view, dhvani refers to the sounds emitted from the speaker's vocal organ, whereas the sounds reaching the ears of the listener is called sphoTa. Here, the relation between sphoTa and dhvani is that of manifester and manifested.


According to the third view, sphoTa represents the constant distinctive phonetic features revealed to the listener's ear, whereas dhvani represents the gross sound.

Thus it is said:

anekavyaktyabhivyaNgyaa jaatiH sphoTa iti smrtaa | kaishcid vyaktaya evaasyaa dhvanitvena
prakalpitaaH ||
Bk. 96 ||


As in ordinary language, Bhartrhari uses the terms naada and dhvani as synonyms, even the adjectives praakrta and vaikrta are found added to naada as they are to dhvani, without any apparent difference in the meaning. However, at another occasion, he has differentiated the dhvani and naada. [xviii]. In a passage from vrtti, dhvani, and naada are distinguished, as follows:

nityapakSe tu samyogavibhagajadhvanivyaNgyaH
sphotaH ekeSaaM
samyogavibhaagajadhvanisambhUtanaadaabhivyangyaH ||
Vrtti on Bk 78 ||

According to this view, the word is eternal, and the sphoTa is revealed by the sound produced by the contact and separation of the vocal organs. However, according to some, it is manifested by naada resulting from the dhvani produced by the contact and separation.

Thus, according to this view naada is the product of dhvani. In the vrtti on Bk. 47, naada is looked upon as a gross form or an accumulation of dhvanis [xix].

However, this is a minority viewpoint, and it is neither emphasized nor further elucidated.


To sum up, dhvani (meaning sound) is the term of an earlier origin. Though, thoughts about its nature are already met with in the works of scholars like AudumbaraayaNa and others, its role in the ordinary verbal usage, and its relation with the abstract level of sphoTa, was defined only at the time of PataNjali. Bhartrhari has thrown more light on this entire issue by expounding the ideas already met with in MahaabhaaSya and by providing an original theory about the two-fold nature of the sound as primary and secondary. He has also elucidated the relation between sphota and dhvani by explaining it from the standpoint of the speaker as well the listener. Another merit of his work is that, he has also provided viewpoints of other scholars on the same issue.

Bhartrhari's theories about the praakrta and vaikrta dhvani and the explanation of the dhvani-sphoTa relationship are very significant as they provide the solution to some of the linguistic problems.


[i] Sanskrit - English Dictionary , Monier- Williams , p.522

[ii] SphoTa Dhavani and Pratibhaa ,( thesis) A. Hota, University of pune, p. 78

[iii] VaakyakaaNDa. 344

[iv] indriyanityaM vacanamaudumbaraayaNa | Nirukta.1.1 |

[v] dhvaniH sphoTashca shabdaanaaM dhvanistu khalu lakSyate,
alpo mhaamshca keSaaMcidubhayaM tatsvabhavataH ||
MahaabhaaSya *Vol. 1. P.181 ||

[vi] sphoTa shabdaH dhvaniH shabdaguNaH || MahaabhaaSya. Vol. 1 p.181||

[vii] tadyathaa bheryaaghaataH |
bherImaahtya kashcidvimshati padaani gacchati
kashcitrmshatkshciccaatvaarimshat ||
MahabhaaSya Vol. 1 . p.181. ||


[viii] grahaNagraahyayoH siddhaa yogyataa niyataa yathaa |
vyaNgyavyaNjakabhaave'pi tathaiva sphoTanaadayoH || Bk.100 ||

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

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

[xi] alpe mahati vaa shabde sphoTakaalo na bhidyate |
parastu shabdasamtaanaH prachayaapacayaatmakaH ||

[xii] yaH samyogavibhaagaabhyaam karaNairupajanyate |
sa sphoTaH shabsajaaH shabdaa dhvanayo'nairudaahrtaa ||
Bk. 105||

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

[xiv] tatra praakrto naama yena vinaa sphoTarUpamanabhivyaktam na
paricchidyate |
Vrtti on Bk.77 ||

[xv] vaikrtastu yenaabhivyaktam sphoTarUpam punaH |
punaravicchedena pracitataram kaalamupalabhyate ||
Vrtti on Bk. 77

[xvi] sthitibhede nimittatvam vaikrtaH pratipadyate. Bk. 78

[xvii] tasmaadupalakSitavyatirekeNa vaikrtena
dhvaninaa samsrjyamaano'pi
sphoTaatmaa taadrUpyasyaanadhyaaropaat
shaastre hrasvaadivat kaalabhedavyavahaaram naavatarati ||
vrtti on Brahmakanda. Verse -79 ||

[xviii] naadairaahitabIjaayaamantyena dhvaninaa saha |
BrahmakaaNDa verse- 86 ||

[xix] tacca sUkSme vyaapini dhvanau
karaNavyaapaareNa pracIyamaane
naadaatmanaa praaptavivartena
vivartamaanmiva grhyate ||
Vrtti on BrahmakaaNDa. Verse- 48 ||


Anirban Dash, Ph.D.