Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 4 : 9 September 2004

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


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A Brief Overview
Anirban Dash, Ph.D.


The first reference to the word shabda is found in Maadhyandina Samhitaa 30.19, where it is used to refer to god.[i]

The word shabda has been used in different senses in different contexts. In general, shabda is used in the sense of sound (dhvani) of any kind, which is perceived by the auditory sense organ [ii]. A specific sense of a spoken word, it signifies a meaningful utterance. Thus, for example when the word 'cow' is uttered it brings in the understanding of an animal having a dewlap, a tail, hoofs and horns etc.[iii] More specifically, shabda is used in the sense of a sentence spoken by a reliable person (aapta vaakyam), which is taken as authority or testimony. [iv]


The word shabda has been of great interest to different systems of Philosophy as well as the science of grammar for different reasons. The system of philosophy has twofold interest in it.[v]

  1. The philosophers and grammarians had an epistemological interest in shabda. They had to decide whether or not to recognize it as an independent means of knowledge.
  2. They had to determine the nature of it as a purely physical phenomenon. They had to make up their mind as to whether it is a product of waves of aakaashaa, as the Naiyaayikas held, a product of a combination of atoms, or it is somehow derived from consciousness.


The grammarians, who, as linguists, began to take interest in shabda as a means of communication, ended in dealing with it as a psychologist and metaphysician. They looked upon shabda as an eternal entity as opposed to the logician and Buddhists, for whom it was impermanent.

In the present work, I focus on shabda, as it appears to grammarians.

4. PaaNini ON SHABDA

In ASTaadhyaayI, PaaNini has used the term shabda in the sense of sound (gatibuddhipratyavasaanaarthashabdakarmaakarmakaaNaamaNi kartaa sa Nau, PaaNini.1.4.52).

5. PataNjali ON SHABDA

PataNjali has used the term shabda in three different senses:

  1. A mere sound.
  2. Meaningful word.
  3. The conceptual sound entity, otherwise known as sphoTa.

In the introductory chapter of MahaabhaaSya., PataNjali provides two alternative definitions of shabda. The first definition (yenoccaatitena saasnaalaaÉgUlakakudakhuraviSaaNinaam sampratyayo bhavati sa shabdaH. MahaabhaaSya. 1.1 p.13) [vi] tells us that the term shabda 'word' stands for a meaningful segment.

According to the second definition, (pratItapadarthako loke dhvaniH Sabda ityucyate tadyathaa, MahaabhaaSya. 1.1 p.13) [vii], any meaningful or meaningless sound is designated as shabda. This shows that PataNjali knows the two-sidedness of word. One side represents 'sound' and the other, 'content'. Then he proceeds to contrast this sense of shabda with the other sense of shabda, namely, sound, which is accepted by the lay man.

Sounds are of two kinds[viii]: dhvanyaatmaka (inarticulate) and varNaatmaka (articulate).

  1. Dhvanyaatmaka, for example, is the sound produced by the beat of a drum or the ringing of a bell, etc.
  2. VarNaatmaka is the sound produced by the vocal organs, namely, the throat, palate etc. For example, the sound of the letter, ka, kha, etc.

While commenting on P. 1.1.70 (taparastatkaalasya), PataNjali uses the term shabda in sense of sphoTa word (evam tarhi sphoTaH shabdaH, dhvaniH shabdaguNaH MahaabhaaSya. 1.1 p.180). [ix] According to him, sphoTa word represents the structure of expression, which may or may not have meaning.

PataNjali makes another important statement about the nature of shabda. (shrotropalabdhirbuddhinirgraahyaH prayogeNaabhijvalitaH aakaashadeshaH shabdaH ekam ca punaraakaasham, MahaabhaaSya.1.1, p.18). [x]

Here PataNjali gives an adequate description of the process of communication. Firstly, the articulated process reveals sound. Secondly, it is perceived by the listener's ear, and, thirdly, the auditory perception of the sound is translated into thought. Here, it should be noted that these ideas form the basis for Bhartrhari's deliberations on shabda.


Bhartrhari has dealt with various aspects of shabda in his VP. He has used the term in the following five senses: speech, word, sphoTa word, sound, and one of the means of knowledge (pramaaNas). In the present work, I restrict myself only to the first four of the meanings.


Bhartrhari starts his philosophical exploration with the discussion of the concept of Shabdabrahman. For him, Shabdabrahman is the unique and ultimate reality. He speaks about the Brahman not only because it is the ultimate reality to be reached, but also because it is the ultimate source of everything. It is, therefore, the source of Vaakya and Pada, the subject matter of Vaakyapadiya. [xi] It is obvious that Bhartrhari offers primacy to the concept of unity in his metaphysical scheme. Therefore, Shabdabrahman signifies supreme unity rather than supreme existence. All along, his attempt has been to show the pluralities of the phenomenal world and to direct us towards an ultimate form of unity.

Bhartrhari's main metaphysical approach to Shabda brahman is given in the first four kaarikaas of Bk. There are many other kaarikaas, where the main idea is supplemented or elaborated. In fact, one can say that right through the VP., Bhartrhari has this ultimate reality at the back of his mind, even when he is dealing with what appears to be purely linguistic or grammatical topics. It runs like a thread through his work and gives it a kind of unity. When he is speaking about jaati or dravya, saadhana, dik, and kaala, etc., he somehow connects it all with Brahman. [xii]

Bhartrhari's philosophical inquiry about the nature of language culminates in the idea of Shabda brahman as the ground of all-phenomenal multiplicities and changes. It is a form of monism in which the principle of language is identified with the reality otherwise known as Shabdaadvaitavaada. Then he goes on to unravel the structural concepts of language and thought and ends his inquiry with an analysis of the nature of utterances. In this sense his Vaakyapadeeya. consisting three parts is a complete book in the area of language analysis.


The main ideas regarding Shabda Brahman are:

  1. The ultimate reality, Brahman, which is without beginning and end, is of the nature of the word (Shabdatattava) and from it proceeds the whole universe. [xiii]
  2. The ultimate Reality, that is, Brahman is one, but it manifests itself as many because of its many powers. It is not different from its powers but appears to be different. [xiv]
  3. Time is one of the powers of Brahman, in fact, the important of them. It is one, but divisions are superimposed on it. On it depend all the different kinds of actions and changes (SaD bhaavavikaaraaH) which bring about multiplicity in Existence or being. [xv]
  4. The ultimate reality, which is one, contains all the seeds of all multiplicity. It manifests itself as the Experiencer, the Experienced, and the Experience itself. [xvi]


Grammarians are generally of the opinion that speech is of eternal character. Ancient thinkers like AudumbaraayaNa [xvii] and VyaaDi [xviii] may be treated as first thinkers of this view. It was then supported by other thinkers like Kaatyaayana, PataNjali and Bhartrhari.

Under the Vt. "siddhe shabdaarthasambandhe"[xix] PataNjali established that words as well as their meaning and their relation is eternal. He has brought out the exact meaning of the term nitya (eternal) with the epithets such as kuTastha, avicaali [xx] etc. In Vedaantic conception, all these epithets are frequently used to signify the Supreme Being. PataNjali extends the meaning of the term nitya further and says 'that is also eternal where the essence is not really destroyed'. [xxi] Here, essence means existence, thus when one says the word is eternal, it means that it exists all the time.

Bhartrhari also supports this concept of eternality. He declares 'shabda may be produced, or may perish but it is there in uninterrupted currency'. Words look like a stream, and therefore they are eternal. It is called pravaahanityataa or vyavahaaranityataa'. [xxii]


A word has two aspects: sound and meaning. The first aspect refers to the phonetic form, while the second aspect refers to the thing meant by it. [xxiii] In the grammatical context, a word stands for its own form, while in communication we understand from a word a thing meant. [xxiv]

These two aspects of word are compared to two aspects of knowledge and light. Knowledge and light both reveal their own form as well as that of the object to be known and illuminated. Similarly, words while revealing their own form reveal the meaning to be conveyed. [xxv]

But the sound-form is regarded as secondary with regard to meaning because the sound-form is only instrumental in conveying meaning to the listeners. Although the listener has to hear the sound-form carefully, his attention is mainly directed to the meaning conveyed. [xxvi]

Words do not make meaning known independently, that is, before they become the objects of audition. If the listener does not grasp the form of a word, he will not understand the meaning. Mere existence of words does not convey any meaning unless they are uttered by the speaker and heard by the listener. [xxvii]


Bhartrhari assumes two types of words: mental and audible. The mental word is an abstract form known as sphoTa, whereas the audible word is a phonetic form known as dhvani or naada.

The abstract form is a conceptual image of the phonetic form. According to some, the difference between these two is real, whereas according to others it is superfluous. [xxviii] According to Bhartrhari, there is a cause and effect relationship between these two types of words. If viewed from the speaker's point, the abstract form is the cause of phonetic form. However, if viewed from the listener's point, it is the exact opposite. When a speaker intends to speak, he first selects a word related to a particular meaning in his mind. And then expresses it with the help of articulated sound. The nature of the abstract word is such that it is devoid of any sequence and parts. However, since the articulation of sound is done in sequence and in parts, these qualities are superimposed upon it.


Bhartrhari presents different views with regard to the origin of shabda. This includes the views of sikSaakaara, jainas and PataNjali. The cause of shabda according to shikSaakaara is air, according to Jaina is atom, and according to grammarian it is knowledge [xxix].


When a speaker intends to express his mental thought, certain internal process takes place in order to express it. The desire [xxx] of expression leads the speaker to make an effort, that is, pushing the air upwards in the direction of the mouth, tightening the vocal chords, opening the lips, stretching the jaw, etc. The air, set in the motion by these efforts, strikes [xxxi] at the different places of articulation and transforms into sounds. The impact of the forceful air caused by the desire and effort of the speaker is such that even the solid masses are broken up due to its accumulation.


According to this theory, atom [xxxii] is the cause of shabda. There are distinct qualities in atoms. They have all the powers. On account of their separation and association, they assume various forms such as shadow, sunlight, darkness, and sounds. The blue atom changes into shadow and darkness, while the white atom changes into sunlight, and shabda atoms change into solidified sounds. When the power of shabda atoms is manifested by the effort [xxxiii] of speaker, they are set in motion and start gathering like rainy clouds urged by the wind. The shabda atoms gathered in this way take the shape of solidified audible sounds.


According to this theory, the knowledge [xxxiv], which is in the form of subtle speech, takes a form of shabda. When someone wants to express his knowledge to others, first his knowledge, which is in the form of subtle speech (sukSma vaagaatmaa), comes in contact with the mind. Then with the help of some special samskaara of the fire in the stomach [xxxv], it reaches the stage of maturity where it can assume the form of an audible speech. It then transforms into praaNavaayu, life-breath and is thrown in the upward direction. The life-breath, which is the substratum [xxxvi] of the mind, carries its intention with it, and gets ready to assume the form of audible speech. At this stage all the phonetic distinctions are in the latent stage. These distinctions become manifest only when the life-breath reveals itself in the form of phoneme. After manifestation, it merges into them. It means, it is revealed to the listener in the form of phoneme [xxxvii] and not in the form of air.

This view is different from the first view, which holds that the air assumes the form of phoneme, in as much as it lays down more emphasis on the various components of the knowledge such as knower, mind, knowledge and their capacity to manifest. Moreover, in this view, praaNavaayu is simply treated as the medium or physical means of expression.


Verse 71 [xxxviii] of Bk. records four different views on the nature of shabda as follows: Some scholars considered the word to be one, whether it is to be produced or eternal; others considered it as many, whether it is produced or eternal.

Thus the four views are:

  1. Word is produced and is absolute one (not many) ( kaaryatve ekatvam).
  2. Word is Eternal and is absolute one (nityatve ekatvam).
  3. Word is produced and is many (kaaryatve naanaatvam).
  4. Word is Eternal and many (nityatve naanaatvam).


It is our common experience that words are produced as a result of various articulated efforts. Thus, the view that words are produced agrees with our common experience. In the same way, the unity among many individual utterances of the same word does not contradict with our verbal usage. People always say that, for example, the word agni is the same word agni which is in use since the time of Veda. Thus, on the basis of our common experience and generally accepted usage it can be said that the word is produced and is one.


According to this view the relationship between the sound and word is that of revealer and revealed. The meaningful words such as: ghaTa , paTa etc , which permanently exist in the mind of the speaker are manifested by those particular phonemes, which are produced by the speaker with the help of several articulated efforts. Thus sounds only manifests the words that are already there in the speaker's mind, in the same way as the light manifests the already existing forms. Here it cannot be said that, the forms are produced by the light. In the same way words cannot say to be produced as they always exist in the mind of the speaker. Thus, according to this standpoint, words are eternal. At the same time they are also one following the conventions: 'This is the same word as the other'.

19. PRODUCED AND MANY (kaaryatve naanaatvam)

According this view, words are produced by the effort of the speaker. Thus at one moment they are born and next moment they perish. Every time a word is produced it can be treated as new word on account of the diversity in speaker, place and time of production. Thus word is produced and many. The oneness of the word is simply figurative and not real.

20. ETERNAL AND MANY (nityatve naanaatvam)

According this view, the basic form of the word, which is manifested through the phonemes such as 'gha' etc. is eternal, but at the same time its each manifestation by one or the different speakers is different from the other. This is similar to the view held by the Naiyaayikas with regard to individual soul (Jivaatman). According to them, individual soul is eternal and at the same times many as it is different in each individual body. 'jIvaatmaa tu pratisharItam bhinno vibhurnityashca', (Tarkasamgraha, pratyakSakhanDa). Thus, according to this fourth view the word is eternal and at the same time it is multiple. Here too the idea of oneness among the words is said to be figurative and not based on the reality.


Out of these four views the view: nityatve ekatvam is the view of MImaamsakas and Grammarians. Kaaryatve naanaatvam is the view held by the Naiyaayikas. The other two views namely kaaryatve ekatvam and nityatve naanaatvam are not ascribed to any particular school or scholar. It seems that they are mentioned here as the remaining two possibilities

Greatness of SHabda

The basis for the expression of a meaning is that the speaker wants to communicate it, no matter whether it has an external existence as an object or not. Desire to communicate depends upon the existence of suitable word for every meaning which, when desired, comes to the mind. The expression of what one wants to say depends upon the word.

'arthapravrttitattvaanaam shabdaa eva nibandhanam' | Bk. 13

There is no cognition in the world in which the word does not figure. All the knowledge is as it were, intertwined with the word.

na so'sti pratyayo loke yaH shabdaanugamaadrte |
anuviddhamiva jNaanam sarvam shabdena bhaasate || Bk. 131||

It is the word, which is the basis of all the sciences, crafts and arts. Whatever is created due to it, can be analyzed (and communicated).

saa sarvavidyaashilpaanaam kalaanaam copabandhanI
tadvashaadabhiniSpannm sarvam vastu vibhajyate || Bk.133||

The consciousness of all beings going through transmigration is in the nature of the word; It exists within and without. The consciousness of all types of beings does not go beyond this essence.

'saiSaa samsaariNaam samjNaa bhirantarashca vartate|
tanmaatraamvyatikraantam caitanyam sarvajaatiSu|| Bk .134||

It is because consciousness is of the nature of the word that the distinction between sentient and insentient is made in the world.

It has been said:

It is the word, which urges all beings towards purposeful activities. If that were absent, every thing would be insentient like a piece of wood or a wall.
arthakriyaasu vaak sarvaan samIhayati dehinaH |
tadutkraantau visamjno'yam drshyate kaaSThakuDyavat || 135||

Shabda is the soul of all the transactions in the world. The power, which creates and regulates this universe, rests on word. It is through it, that all this diversity of understanding is perceived.

It is the word which sees the object, it is the word which speaks, it is the word which reveals the object which is lying hidden, it is on the word that this multiple world rests and it is this very word which enjoys all the differentiation.


To sum up, the word shabda, which originally meant sound, was later used by the grammarians to denote different levels of the speech, such as: Articulated sound, word, sphoTa and the speech itself.

Bhartrhari, raised the word to the level of ultimate reality, as all human experiences are intertwined with the word. The word is said to be the principal cause of existence.

According to grammarians, word is eternal in two ways: one, because it is a permanent, non-changing entity. Two, because it is in use since the time immemorial.

Word has two aspects, the first aspect is in the form of sound pattern whereas the second aspect is in the form of meaning. When a word is uttered both these aspects are revealed simultaneously.

PataNjali and Bhatrhari speak of two type of words: mental and audible. The mental word popularly known as the sphoTa, is the abstract form of audible word, whereas the audible word popularly known as dhvani is the manifestation of the mental word.

To conclude, different shaastrakaaras have their different theories about the origin and nature of the word in accordance with their accepted standpoint. However, in spite of the differences in their viewpoints, they all agree on the unrivaled importance of the word in the human life.


[i] Pratishrtkaayaa artanam ghoSaaya bhaSamantaaya bahuvaadinamanataayamUka shabdaayaaDambaraaghaatam mahase vINaavaadam koSaaya tUNavadhmavarasparaaya shaÉaravadhma vanaaya vanapamanyatoraNyaaya daavapam || Maadhyandina samhitaa 30.19 |

[ii] 'shrotragraahyo'rthaH shabdaH, Vaakyavrtti of LaugaakSi Bhaaskara.

[iii] yenoccaritena saasnaa-laaÉgulakhura-viSaaNiNaam sampratyayo bhavati saH shabdaH || MahaabhaaSya.1.1,p.1||

[iv] aaptopadeshaH shabdaH , Vaatsaayana BhaaSya

[v] Shastri Charudeva, The philosophy of Bhartrhari, p. 102)

[vi] Word is that which, when uttered , gives rise to the knowledge of objects possessed of dewlap, tails, humps, hoofs and horns.

[vii] word is that sound from which there arise the knowledge of things in the affair of the world.

[viii] dhvani visheSasahakrta kanThataalva |
bhighaata janyashca varNaatmaka ||
shabdaartha Ratnaakara ||

[ix] Or may it be thus shabda is sphoTa , an quality of that sound is shabda.

[x] He says shabda is what is perceived by the auditory organs, grasped through intellect, revealed by the sounds pertaining to the region of the sky.

[xi] The VaakyapadIya : Some problems , K. A.S. Iyer, BORI, 1982. p.1.

[xii] ibid. p.2)

[xiii] anaadinidhanam brahma shabdatattvam yadakSaram |
vivartate'rthabhaavena prakriyaa jagato yathaH || Bk. 1||

[xiv] ekameva yadaamnaatam bhinnashaktivyapaashrayaat |
aprthaktve'pi shaktibhyaH prthaktveneva vartate|| Bk. 2||

[xv] adhyaahitakalaam yasya kaalashaktimupaashritaaH|
janmaadayoH vikaaraaH SaD bhaavabhedasya yonayaH || Bk.3||

[xvi] ekasya sarvabIjasya yasya ceyamanekadhaa |
bhoktrbhoktavyarUpeNa bhogarUpeNa ca sthitiH || Bk. 4||

[xvii] indriyanityam vacanamaudubaraayaNaH || Nir.1.1||

[xviii] kim punaH nityashabdaH ahosvit kaarya ? samgrahe etat pradhaanyena parIkSitam || MahaabhaaSya. 1.1, p.7||

[xix] MahaabhaaSya. 1.1.p.6

[xx] yatkUTastheSvavicaaliSu bhaaveSu vartate ||MahaabhaaSya. 1.1.p.6 ||

[xxi] aakrtaavapi tattvam na vihanyate || MahaabhaaSya. 1.1, p.7

[xxii] nityatve krtakatve vaa teSaamaadirna vidyate |
praaNinaamiva saa caiSaa vyavasthaanityatocyate || Bk.28||

[xxiii] bhedenaavagrhItau dvau shabdadharmaavapodhrtau|
bhedakaaryeSu hetutvamavirodhena gacchataH || Bk. 59||

[xxiv]vrddhyaadayo yathaa shabdaaH svarUpopanibadhanaaH ||
aadaichpratyaayitaiH shabdaiH sambandham yaanti samjNibhiH || Bk.60 ||

[xxv] aatmarUpam yathaa jNaane jNeyarUpam ca drshyate |
artharUpam tathaa shabde svarUpam ca prakaashte || Bk. 51 ||

graahyatvam graahakatvam ca dve shaktI tejeso yathaa |
tathaiva sarvashabdaanaamete prthagavasthite ||Bk. 56||

[xxvi] yathaa prayoktuH praag buddhiH shabdeSveva pravartate |
vyavasaayo grahItrNaamevam teSveva jaayate || Bk. 54||

[xxvii] viSayatvamanaapannaiH shadairnaarthaH prakaashyate |
na sattayaiva te'rthaanaamagrhItaaH prakaashakaaH || Bk. 57||

ato'nirjNaatarUpatvaat kimaahetyabhidhIyate|
nendriyaaNaam prakaaSye'rthe svarUpam grhyate tathaa || Bk. 58||

[xxviii] avibhakato vibhaktebhyo jaayate'rthasya vaacakaH |
shabdastatraartharUpaatmaa sambhedamupagacchati || Bk.45||

[xxix] vaayoraNUnaam jNaanasya shabdatvaapattiriSyate|
kaishciddarshanabhedo hi pravaadeSvanavasthitaH ||Bk.110||

[xxx] labdhakriyaH prayatnena vakturicchaanuvartinaa
sthaaneSvabhihato vaayuH shabdatvam pratipadyate || Bk. 111

[xxxi] tasya kaaraNasaamarthyaad vegapracayadharmaNaH |
samnipaatadvibhajyante saaravatyo'pi mUrtayaH || Bk. 112||

[xxxii] aNavaH sarvashktitvaad bhedasamsargavrttayaH |
chaayaatapatamaHshabdabhaavena pariNaaminaH || Bk.113||

[xxxiii] svashaktau vyajyamaanaayaam prayatnena samIritaaH|
abhraaNIva pracIyante shabdaakhyaaH paramaaNvaH || Bk.114||

[xxxiv] athaayamaantaro jNaataa sUkSmavaagaatmani sthitaH |
vyaktaye svasya rUpasya shabdatvena vivartate || Bk.115||

[xxxv] sa manobhaavamaapadya tejasaa paakamaagataH |
vaayumaavishati praaNamathaasau samudIryate || Bk.116||

[xxxvi] antakaraNatattvasya vaayuraashrayataam gataH |
taddaharmeNa samaaviSTastejasaiva vivartate || Bk. 117||

[xxxvii] vibhajan svaatmano granthINchrtirUpaIH prthagvidhaiH|
praaNo varNaanaabhivyajya varNeSvebopalIyate || Bk. 118||

[xxxviii] kaaryatve nityataayaam vaa kecidekatvavaadinaH|
kaaryatve nityataayaam vaa kecinnaanaatvavaadinaH || Bk. 71||


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