Category Archives: Sanskrit and the Philosophy of Sound

The Vedangas

The word Vedangas in Sanskrit means “limbs of the Vedas” which is appropriate because it is a collection/genre that is an appendage of the Vedas. The origin of the Vedangas can date back to as early as 1200 BC but some speculate on an even earlier date of 1800 BC. The jyotisa collection for instance refers to the beginning of the Vedangas during a winter solstice, which may have occurred closer to 1800 instead or 1200 BC (Achar 173).  The Vedangas consist of six appendages: siksa, chandas, vyakarna, nirukta, jyotisa [oldest in Hindu history], and kalpa. The first four of the appendages are considered exegetical, meaning they are used as aids to help understand the Vedas. The last two appendages are regarded as ritual because they deal with rites and laws as well as the proper time and place to perform the appendages (Bhat 10).


The first appendage of the Vedangas is siksa, which is the category related to correct pronunciation and accentuation. Siksa is proper pronunciation and in order to have proper phonics, there have to be rules. A major rule under this category pertains to the sound of syllables because being off pitch by even a slight degree would alter the result and therefore the effect of the word trying to be pronounced (Tiwari 1).  There are four main pratisakhya; which deals with the phoenics of the Sanskrit language. Pratisakhya also falls under siksa: Rgveda-Pratisakhya of Rgveda, Taittiriya-Pratisakhya of Krishna Yajurveda, Vajasaneyi Pratisakhya of Shukla Yajurveda, and Atharvaveda-Pratisakhya of Atharvaveda. These pratisakhya are responsible for determining the relationship between Samhita; the most ancient layer of text in the Vedas, consisting of mantras, hymns, prayers, litanies and benedictions, to Padapathas; which are recitation styles designed to complete and memorize a text,  and also vice versa. They are also important for the interpretation of the Vedas (Bhat 11).


The second appendage of the Vedangas is kalpa, which is the category related to Vedic rituals. If the Vedas were imagined as a person (Purusa), this section would be known as the arms. Rules referring to sacrifice, excluding things that are not directly connected to the ceremony are found in the Kalpa-sutras [contents directly connected to the Brahmanas and Aranyakas] (Tiwari 1). The Kalpa-sutras is broken down into three categories (1) the Srauta-sutras, (2) the Grhya-sutras, and (3) the Dharma-sutras. The Srauta-sutras consist of great sacrificial rites, where the most priests were employed. The Grhya-sutras consist of household rituals that do not need a priest’s assistance. The Dharma-sutras consist of customary law prevalent at the time (Bhat 13).


The third appendage of the Vedangas is vyakaraṇa, which is the category related to Vedic grammar. Parts of this section have been lost over time because of pratisakhya, which also connects to grammar but has surpassed Vyakarana (Bhat 11). However, one major figure when Vyakarana is being discussed is Panini, primarily because he was one of the most, if not the most significant grammarian alive. His book the Astadhyayi is possibly the reason Panini surpassed all other grammarians of the period. Vyakarana is called the mouth of the Veda Purusha and is also seen as crucial for understanding the Vedas (Tiwari 1).


The fourth appendage of the Vedangas is nirukta, which is the category related to why certain words are used. This section is known as the ears of the Veda Purusa. Under this category, there has only been one text that is based on “etymology” that has survived known as the Nirukta of Yaska. In this text, it explains words found in the Vedas are explained and then assigned to one of three sections based on the type of word. The first category are words that were collected under main categories, the second category are more difficult words found, and the third category are words based on the three regions (earth, sky, and heaven) and the classification of deities (Tiwari 1). These three categories are known as the Naighantuka-kanda, Naigama-kanda, and the Daivata-kanda. The Vedangas put lots of emphasis towards this category for increase growth in the grammatical science in India (Bhat 12).


The fifth appendage of the Vedangas is chandas, which is the category related to meter, which covers the sense of the Mantra. Even though there has been no exclusive Vedic meter that survived there is the Chandas-shastras (book by Pingala). This section is often referred to as the feet of the Veda Purusha. This is because the Vedas are known as the body, which relies on the chandas [feet]. The use of this appendage is so reading and reciting is done properly (Tiwari 1). The chandas discuss the number of syllables in texts and poems which is linked to meter. This category is connected to the Brahmanas, which created the syllable and verse, however research could not find a meter in it. There are also two different types of meters based on the Rg Veda and the Yajur Veda based on the recessions (Bhat 12).


The sixth appendage of the Vedangas is jyotisa, which is the class related to the knowledge of astronomy. This section is the oldest text about astronomy in Hindu literature and dates back to around 1300 BC (Abhyankar 61). Since this category was supposedly created during a winter solstice when the sun and the moon were aligned, the date of 1820 BC has been proposed and is said that astronomy started shortly after (Achar 177). Jyotisa is known as the eye of the Veda Purusha. Jyotisa is not the teaching of astronomy, but the use of astronomy to fix the appropriate time [days and hours] for sacrifices (Tiwari 1). The most substantial sources of knowledge on astronomy can be found early in the Brahmanas. Jyotisa is especially useful because it can give positions of the moon and sun for solstices as well as other useful information (Bhat 13).


Since the Vedangas are appendages of the Vedas they can be seen as equally important in the studying and learning of the Hindu culture. Siksa provides the phonics of the Sanskrit, and without it speaking and understanding would be near impossible. Kalpa provides the proper steps towards performing rituals and when to do them. Vyakaraṇa is similar to the phonics but provides proper grammar for words that are used in the Vedas. Nirukta contains etymology (ie. meaning of usage). Chandas provide the meters in Vedic hymns to help proper reading. Jyotisa is the knowledge of astronomy to help with dating events in Hindu history and other useful information. The origins of the Vedangas can also be traced to the Brahmanas, which are a collection of ancient commentaries based on the Vedas. This connection can be made because the Brahmanas also have discussions on grammar, meter, etymology etc. (Bhat 10).


References and Further Readings

Abhyankar, K. D (1998) “Antiquity of the Vedic Calendar.” Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India, Vol. 26, 61-66.

Achar, B.N (2000) “A Case For Revising The Date or Vedanga Jyotiṣa” Indian Journal of History of Science, Vol. 35, No. 1: 173-183.

Arnold, E.V (1905) Vedic metre in its historical development: Cambridge, UP.

Bhat, M. S (1987) Vedic Tantrism: A Study of R̥gvidhāna of Śaunaka with Text and Translation: Critically Edited in the Original Sanskrit with an Introductory Study and Translated with Critical and Exegetical Notes. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Brockington, J. L (1989) “Review of Literature in the Vedic Age.” The Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, Upaniṣads and Vedāṅga Sūtras. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 52(3), 569–570.

Tiwari, Sashi (2014) “The Vedangas – Vedic Heritage.” The Vedangas – Vedic Heritage. Delhi: Delhi University.


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Nirukta of Yaksa




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Article written by: Ryan Loman (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.


Bhartrhari (pronounced: BHUHR-tur-HUH-ree) was a famous Indian grammarian, philosopher, and poet. Many regard him as a linguistic philosopher (Bronkhorst 479).  He should not to be confused with the Ujjain ruler Bhartrhari, mentioned in many Indian folk stories, although there has been debate that the two men are linked in some way. The grammarian’s work is very well known, and many grammarians have often referred to his work when discussing a linguistic phenomenon (Murti 9). His most influential writings are the Vakyapadiya and the Satakatraya. The Satakatraya is a book based on his three collections of poems on political passion, renunciation, and wisdom (Coward 1976:12), while the Vakyapadiya is a Sanskrit treatise on semantics and the philosophy of language (Wright 388).

The tomb of Bhartrhari, who is here reputed to be the brother of an ancient king of Ujjain (Chunar Fort, Uttar Pradesh, India)
The tomb of Bhartrhari, who is here reputed to be the brother of an ancient king of Ujjain (Chunar Fort, Uttar Pradesh, India)

The “Personal” Life of Bhartrhari

There are very few records that contain information on the grammarian’s personal life, and his writings tend to avoid the subject as well. However, although exact dates are still unknown, it has been determined that Bhartrhari was alive during the 6th century CE. This was confirmed based on references made by Chinese traveller Yijing (635-713CE), who mentioned Bhartrhari in his travelogues (Murti 9). According to his notes, Bhartrhari was indecisive on choosing a life in the world of pleasure or the isolated life of a monk (Miller 766).

Due to the lack of information provided for his personal life, many narratives have been created to fill in the missing gaps of Bhartrhari’s private life. For example, in a drama written by Harihara, Bhartrhari is portrayed as a disciple of Goraksanatha from whom he learned yoga and renounced the world (Murti 9).

Famous Writings

The Satakatraya

Also referred to as Satakatrayam, this poetic ensemble is split into three parts (centuries): the Srngarasataka, the Nitisataka and the Vairagyasataka. In English, these subjects are: Passionate Encounters, Man in the World of Villains and Kings, and Refuge in the Forest (Teele 348). In the Srngarasataka you will find both bitter and affectionate stanzas dedicated to women. The ones that show fondness are similar to romantic poetry based on their soppy, compassionate qualities (More 9).  However, while these writings may be beautiful, they are not written to an individual woman, but to every woman. The stanzas treat women as “a symbol of sensual pleasure to be flattered or reviled” (More 10). The stanzas within the Nitisataka are designed to teach knowledge of men as individuals and instil sayings of worldly prudence (Tawney xii). This worldly wisdom occasionally contains sarcastic pitches at fools, pedants, flatterers, and babblers, sometimes to the point of highest morality (More 13). While the first two parts of the Satakatraya seem to agree with their English translations, the Vairagyastaka seems to have some different views. According to More, it seems to give the impression that Bhartrhari put his heart and soul into it, proven by the songs of true wisdom and finding peace, along with songs about the happiness of his new life (More 13). However, Tawney states that the Vairagyasataka contains poems about the king of Ujjain who was disgusted with his wife’s faithlessness (Tawney xiii). He also mentions that ‘vairagya’ translates to “disgust with the world,” indicating that both authors might be thinking of two different men that go by the name Bhartrhari.

The Vakyapadiya

The Vakyapadiya is thought to be Bhartrhari’s magnum opus (Aklujkar 547), and is based on his questioning of why something that exists comes into being and how something that does not exist comes into being (Bronkhorst 479). For him, language is the manifestation of Brahman, and it constitutes the world (Collins 230). His work of art is split into three kandas, respectively called Brahma-kanda (Agama-kanda), Vakya-kanda, and Prakirna-kanda, all of which are composed in karikas (Murti 11). The first two chapters discuss metaphysical ideas concerning the concept of sabdabrahman and the structure and meaning of sentences, while the third deals with issues relating to words (Coward 1976:31).  According to Bhartrhari, the sentence is indivisible and is the unit of expression, which is why the focus of first two kandas is on the vakya sentence (Murti 11). The real structure of language is formed from the words and sentences in our speech and written records (Murti 22), and from this, Bhartrhari notes that knowledge and the proper use of words reveals spiritual dharma, which leads to an understanding of pratyaya (Coward 1976:32). According to the Vakyapadiya, there are eight subjects within grammar that must be dealt with. These subjects are: sentences and words, word and sentence meanings, fitness or compatibility, spiritual merit, stems/suffixes (etc.), meanings of stems/suffixes (etc.), causality, and knowledge of the meaning of the correct words (Murti 23). These are each discussed in their respective chapters of the Vakyapadiya.

Sphota Theory

An important theory discussed in the Vakyapadiya is the Sphota Theory. Meaning “to burst forth,” this concept further analyzes word meanings and how the words’ knowledge is shown and communicated in everyday experience (Coward 1980:11). Modelled off the pranava, Bhartrhari states that the sphota is the cause of the actual word, while dhvani conveys the meaning (Coward 1976:36). Consider a person saying a word to you. Before they speak, the word exists as a unity (sphota). When they tell you the word, a series of different sounds are produced, which gives the impression of differentiation. At first you only hear the different sounds, but eventually you distinguish the utterance as a unity, the same sphota that the person talking to you began with, therefore indicating that the meaning has been transmitted (Coward 1976:36). Put even more simply, when you hear the word “baboon,” you initially hear the different sounds for the letters/syllables, before they are recognized as one word (baboon) that contains meaning (ex. animal). In this sense, the word-meaning (artha) and word-sound (dhvani) are what constitute the sphota (Coward 1980:12).

Under this theory, it is written that, aside from perception, means of knowledge will either reveal an object, or conceal it entirely (Coward 1976:37).  The Vakyapadiya as a whole functions on two levels, pratibha (sometimes pasyanti vak), an instinctive understanding of what something is and how to use it (Ho 404) and vaikharu vak, the uttered sounds that group together to form a sentence, book or poem (Coward 14). There is also a middle section, termed madhyama vak, the level of thought. At this level, the sphota is fragmented into a sequence of thoughts, words, and phrases that still have to reach the level of uttered sounds (Coward 15).


Aklujkar, Ashok (1969) “Two Textual Studies of Bhartrhari.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol. 89, No. 3:547-563. Michigan: American Oriental Society.

Bronkhorst, Johannes (2001) “The Peacock’s Egg: Bhartrhari on Language and Reality.” Philosophy East and West. Vol. 51, No. 4:474-491. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Collins, Randall (2009) The Sociology of Philosophies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coward, Harold (1976) Bhartrhari. Boston: Twanye Publishers

Coward, Harold (1980) The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Miller, Barbara (1978) Review of Harold Coward’s Bhartrhari. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 37, No. 4:766-767.

More, Paul (1898) A Century of Indian Epigrams: Chiefly from the Sanskrit of Bhartrhari. New York City: Harper.

Murti, Mulakaluri (1997) Bhartrhari, the Grammarian. New Delhi: Sahitya Akad.

Tawney, Charles (1877) Two Centuries of Bhartrihari. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink, and CO.

Teele, Roy (1968) “Review of Far Eastern Chronicle.” Poetry. Vol. 112, No. 5:347-352. Chicago: Poetry Foundation.

Wright, J.C. (1980) Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya by Wilhelm Rau: Bhartrhari: The Vakyapadiya of Bhartrhari, Kanda II. London: Cambridge University Press.

Other Sources of Interest

Kennedy, J.M (1913) The Satakas or, Wise sayings of Bhartrihari. London: T.W Laurie

Todeschini, Alberto (2010) “Bhartrhari’s view of the pramanas in the Vakyapadiya.” Asian Philosophy: An International Journal of the Philosophical Traditions of the East. Vol. 20, No. 1:97-109

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vaikharu vak



Article written by: Sydney Haney (March 2015), who is solely responsible for its content.

Mantras in Hinduism

Mantras are a complex feature of the Hindu tradition that people sometimes do not understand all that well.  Different mantras are used for different things.  “For India, Mantras are real, palpable, mental artifacts to be revered and mastered, to be used or misused (Alper 2)”.  Mantras are very important in religion but they are not completely significantly religiously they have other significance also.  Mantras are important for religious and non religious purposes.  The history of mantras can be extensively related to Indian people’s religious life (Alper 2).   One way of defining mantras is that they are sacred utterances, that are uttered sometimes daily, and sometimes for special occasions.  There are formal and also informal definitions of mantras.  Mantras are used in a variety of contexts.  Hinduism sees certain mantras as only being useful for certain things. Each mantra has a specific function with a specific time and place for use.  The Hindu tradition sees mantras as effective because they are believed to be useful and powerful (Alper 6).  There are Vedic, Puranic, and Tantric mantras (Alper 5-6).  Certain types are used to achieve some sort of escape from hardships from outside nature.  There are certain mantras that are used to cope with the daily up and downs of everyday life.  Besides these, there are also mantras that address the problems of the whole of human nature (Alper 7-8).  Scholars debate whether mantras are language (Alper 9).  The Rg Veda has several mentions of mantras.  It is hard to understand mantras when you are not immersed in Indian life but it is possible if we try, it is just more difficult (Alper 9).

Mantras are considered to be sacred utterances.  Mantras may be recited or chanted when religious rites are performed.   They may also be uttered when one is not doing a ritual act (Burde 28).  Mantra means “instrument to think” (Burde 28).  Mantras are usually regarded as utterances that will aid you if you need some form of protection.  Two functions are said to be performed by mantras.  The first is the power to not get injured and a possible wish fulfilment (Burde 28).  Mantras first appear in the Vedas but they also appear in the tantric texts and the Puranas.  The guru is usually charged with teaching mantras. There are several types of mantras.  There are Vedic mantras and also meditative mantras. The Guru gives his student several mantras and helps them learn them, so that one day the student can put the mantras he has learned to good use (Burde 28).

There are six Vedic Mantras.  One of the Vedic mantras is agnin… which is a command.  The second Vedic mantra is mitro na ehi…, which is a sacrificial formula.  This mantra accompanies an act.  The third Vedic mantra is yo’sman dvesti…, which is purely used for ritual purposes.  It is recited when the soil of a ritual enclosure is prepared with a wooden knife, a sphya.  The fourth Vedic mantra is devasya tva savituh…, which you recite frequently and it indicates that material is being measured for an offering.  The fifth Vedic mantra is indra jusasva which are considered to be mantras in their normal meaning.  The sixth Vedic mantra is ha bu ha bu ha bu… which is chanted by the Udgata priest (Staal 201-207).  These mantras represent what most of the Vedic mantras look like (Alper 59).  It is not possible to compare different mantras such as Vedic, tantric or other mantras to each other (Alper 63). This is because these different mantras have things that make them characteristically unique and they are interpreted differently and so because of this, it would be almost impossible to compare these mantras with each other (Alper 63).

There four basic types of utterances, each of them is responsible for certain parts of the religious acts.  They are all focused on some aspect of the presentation.  The first mantra deals with presenting the characteristics.  These are utterances that define parts of the situation such as the qualities and identities.  The second one deals with presenting the attitudes.  These are expressions of personal feeling, such as personal wishes.  The third mantra deals with presenting the intentions.  These are statements expressed in the first person that expresses the commitment that person has to that action; why is this particular person doing this.  The fourth one deals with presenting the requests.  These are commands that are directed to a second party because they wish to establish a relationship with that person (Alper 99).  In order to perform a ritual, the person who wishes to perform the ritual must be purified (Alper 99-103).  The multiple repetitions of bija mantras are felt to accomplish the transformation.  Bija mantras are felt to be symbols of the elements in their essential form (Alper 103).

Mantras are felt to put a person in contact with divine power, and that is why they are essentially controlled through very strict rules (Alper 165).  There are certain prerequisites a person must have in order to recite a mantra.  The person must have a proper moral basis, purgation, excellent practical skills, sufficient intellectual grounding, and the status of a person in an esoteric tradition (Alper 165-166).  The person who wants to perform a mantra must have purified themselves before the ritual to get rid of all the bad stuff.  They must be of a moral standing, so they can not have done anything bad.  The must have the proper skills to perform the mantra.  They must be from the right class in society.  And they must have sufficient knowledge about mantras.   A mantra must be performed by a disciple who pays close attention to the proper ways of saying the mantra (Alper 166).  There is one mantra that is identified as comprising all other mantras.  It is the AUM mantra.  Pranava and also Vedic mantras are said to be the means of knowledge and also a way to help you achieve moksa (Alper 167).  If a person does not understand a certain mantra it is due to their ignorance or absence of their mind in finding the meaning; which is there if you look (Alper 167).  Another place mantra is used in Yogic Meditation.  Using mantra in meditation is attested in the classical yoga meditation.  The aim of Yoga is to receive a vision of your outer body Purusa.  Because a mantra is not necessary it is not useful in this situation (Alper 204).  There is a relationship between mantra and god but it is not given in much detail (Alper 205).  There is claimed to be a relationship between the mantra and god, because when you meditate you are claimed to be realizing god in the meditation.  It is not the same as the relationship between the object in human language and the word, which has to follow certain rules.   In Yoga  the individual is attempting to attain a bond with the divine.  Mantras are similar because you are trying to enlighten yourself by saying your sacred utterance (Alper 205).

The field of mantras is very large.  “The fundamental, role of mantras, their great variety, and the powers ascribed to them, and the fact that belief in their efficacy has survived in India from the Vedas down to our own day does indeed confront us with a problem: How is one to explain the mantric phenomenon?” (Alper 296).  There is a tendency that has become widespread that believes that the existence of mantras can be explained rationally.  It is believed by some that mantras can only be properly understood and explained within Indian tradition itself (Alper 296).

Since there are varying definitions of mantras it is possible to say the word is untranslatable (Gonda 247).  Mantras are considered to be formulas of worship and believed to contain a presence of a deity.  It is believed that if correctly prounced the deity will appear from it (Gonda 248).  The reason the mantra is produced by your mind is to gain deific assistance when you need help of some kind (Gonda 251).  There are several mentions in the Rg Veda of mantras which are called the songs to the Gods (Gonda 252).

Mantras are mentioned in several different ways.  Mantras can be used as an arm for those who make the rules and help decide religious orthodoxy (Alper 17-18.).   “Not only does the power of mantra have clearly designed policing powers against Vedic enemies, it also is so highly charged that, unless properly and carefully handled, it can fall back upon  and burn its handler” (Alper 18).  To be considered a perfect mantra it must be done with the greatest of care, and said exactly how it should be, and that it be done in a poetic way (Alper 19).  One of the most common mantras is the mantra that is given to a boy at his sacred thread ceremony, Upanayanam.  This ceremony is to celebrate his coming of age.  The mantra which he should repeat three times a day is called the Guyatri mantra (Rodrigues 132-135).

Can mantras be considered speech acts?  In order to designate something a speech act it involves viewing language a certain way and having everybody believe that is the way to view it.  The best way to approach theories of language is to see it in action.  Because mantras are recited by a person with specific intentions they are considered speech acts.  Some discussions have said that mantras are obscure, because it is hard to pin point what the true meaning is behind them (Alper 144-145).  Because, of the fact that mantras are intended to be indicative and refer to things (Alper 149).  But overall it would appear that since mantras are actually trying to convey meaning they should not be considered speech acts (Alper 149).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Alper, Harvey P. (1989) Mantra.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Burde, Jayant (2004) Rituals, Mantras and Science. India: Shri Jainendra Press.

Dhavamony, Mariasusai (1982) Classical Hinduism. Rome: Gregorian University Press.

Dowson, John (1979) Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography,

History, and Literature. Great Britain: The Gresham Press.

Fowler, Jeaneane (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Great Britain: Sussex Academic


Gonda, J. (1963) The Indian Mantra. Brill.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—The Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Staal, Frits (1990) Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning.  New York: Peter Lang

Publishing, Inc.

Williams, George M (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yelle, Robert A. (2004) Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural

Language in Hindu Tantra.  New York: Routledge.

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Article written by: Brittany Hermanson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sacred Sound

The concept of sacred sound, where the spoken word has an intrinsic connection with the transcendent or the divine is not unique to Hinduism; however, within its various theologies and philosophies one will find a very robust discourse on how sound – in its many forms – relates to and helps define the human spiritual condition. From the Vedas and the earliest teachings of the Hindu tradition, through grammarian texts, as well as Yogic and Tantric philosophies and even in the classical music of India the concept of sacred sound is pervasive, important and the subject of much discussion (Beck 5). Sacred sound exists not just as a concept but plays an important role in the practice of Hinduism, permeating the daily routine through the ritual use of mantra, defining the life of the Hindu from birth to death and beyond.

The Vedas are some of the most sacred of scripture in Hinduism, they are given the designations sruti, meaning that they are authorless – having been heard and discerned by the rsis. The origins of the texts are oral, and were passed down through strict oral tradition in the sacred language of Sanskrit for generations before being committed to the page. The content of the Vedas is steeped in instructions for the appropriate pronunciation of sacred utterances known as mantras as well as the correct application of these powerful sonic tools in rituals (yajna) and for daily life. The pre-eminence of sound in the Vedas is exemplified through its role in creation: “By His utterance the universe came into being.” (Brhad Aranyaka Upanisad 1.2.4). And even more significantly by its personification in the goddess Vak. In the Rg-Veda Vak is viewed “as a powerful female potency who solely pervades and sustains all aspects of life…” and associated with Sakti the Great Goddess, through her personification as the metrical powers of Vedic mantras (Beck 28).

Mantras, which are one of the most prominent manifestations of the sacrality of sound within the Hindu tradition, are considered by some to be so powerful that their inappropriate use could cause harm to an ignorant practitioner; for this reason correct use is often restricted to Brahmin priests and proper instruction is to be ensured by a guru (Coward and Goa 12). The power which is present in a mantra could be utilised for specific ritual ends, but additionally mantra may be used as a salvific instrument, which is a nearly universal concept within Hinduism. The mantra as a tool of sacred sound leading to “…release (moksa) from beginning-less and seemingly endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth (karma-samsara)” is a concept developed in the Upanisads. Various schools of Hindu philosophy such as Mimamsa, grammarian and Yoga, as well as sectarian movements such as Tantra, Vaisnavism and Saivism all incorporate the use of sacred sound as a path to moksa, while maintaining distinct explanations for the mechanism behind it.

A yajna, ( a Vedic ritual performed by a Brahmin priest) has two fundamental components: the sacrificial fire and the recitation of verses from the Vedas as sacred mantras. The sonic component of Hindu rituals is so important that many mantras are considered rituals in and of themselves (Beck 31). The spoken word is linked to the performatory aspect of the ritual, and consequentially associated to the divine through the sacredness of the Vedic verses and the Sanskrit language. Ritual use of sacred sound permeates the spiritual life of a Hindu practitioner; for example, the initiation into the spiritual community is done through a rite of passage known as the upanayana or the sacred thread ceremony. Not only is the ceremony itself defined through the recitation of sacred mantras, but additionally it is the occasion on which the young Hindu is invested with the Gayatri Mantra. This mantra is said to contain the entire wisdom of Vedas, and is to be recited at the beginning and the end of each day (Coward and Goa 19). One can see how integral the mantra is to the ritual practice and everyday spiritual life in Hinduism.

The concept of god manifest as the word is known as Sabda-Brahman. The orthodox philosophical school of Mimamsa expounds the idea that each word or sabda is a manifestation of some aspect of the eternal divine cosmic order known as rta. From the perspective of a Mimamsata “…the ultimate reality is nothing other than the eternal words of the Vedas…” which exist even between cycles of creation; the word or sabda is the sum of creation, Brahman (Coward and Goa 33). A comprehensive theory of Sabda-Brahman can be found within the works of grammarian writers, the most paramount of whom being Panini, Katyayana, Patanjali and Bharthari. While the grammarians and Mimamsa agree that each sabda is sacred, “a major division exists between those who conceive of Ultimate Reality itself as Absolute Sound (Sphotavada)” and the view that sacred sound is embodied solely in the Veda, known as Varnavada (Beck 53). Indian grammarians hold that all sounds have inherent meaning or artha, which is revealed through a process known as sphota. Therefore to the grammarians it is manifest in all sound whereas the Mimamsa restrict Sabda-Brahman to the Vedas. Interestingly, the literature on the subject of this debate has been very influential in the modern field of linguistics and “the impetus for serious study of language and phonetics in the West seems to have come initially from India” (Beck 50).

In the philosophical school of Yoga, the concept of sacred sound is developed through the nada, a term which like sabda refers to sound. Nada however, encompasses sounds which are resonant or reverberating, whereas sabda is more specifically related to linguistic sound. Examples of nada include rolling thunder or the nasal vibration which is created when chanting OM. As in the Mimamsa and grammarian writings sacred sound, in the form of nada is associated with absolute reality to form Nada-Brahman. A whole branch of Yoga known as Nada-Yoga is devoted to achieving release through meditation on sacred resonating sound in the form of Nada-Brahman. While the chanting of the Pranava, the sacred mantra (OM/AUM) is one way of meditating upon the nada; another method involves focusing inward and listening to subtle inner sounds. Some Yogis believe that if one can make nada the entire focus of ones mind by listening to increasingly subtle inner sounds one can come to the realization that Atman is Brahman and achieve the goal of salvation through release known as moksa (Beck 93). In Yoga, like the sectarian traditions, (Viasnavism, Saivism and Saktism), the concept of sacred sound is often related to a specific deity, such as Isvara.

The mantra most commonly related to Isvara is the Pranava which while central to the philosophy of Yoga is also very important for the rest of the Hindu tradition. OM is considered the divine sonic representation of god; it is the sound which begins the Vedas, the Upanisads and the Vedanta Sutras and therefore considered the beginning of “…the divine journey, or the search for transcendental knowledge…” (Rosen 217). While giving instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, Krsna proclaims: “I am the wetness in water / the light in the moon and the sun; / I am Om in the Vedas. / ‘Om’ is God’s magic word” (Gajjar 135). While it often precedes sacred texts, many mantras begin or end with the Pranava including the one prescribed in the Bhagavad Gita as ideal for achieving union with Brahman: “Those who want to reach God say Om Sat Tat / These three words explain God” (Gajjar 275).

The Yogic association of sacred sound to the divine personality of Isvara has its parallels in the sectarian traditions. In Vaisnavism, Saivism and Saktism, divine sound is associated with the deities Visnu, Siva and Sakti respectively. “In the Hindu theistic experience mantras have both meaning and power – power to purify the mind and reveal the transcendent lord to the devotee in an existential encounter” (Coward and Goa 41). Tantra has influenced all three but especially Saivism and Saktism. Tantra conceives of sacred sound as the divine feminine, the active principal in a dualistic conception of the universe where the neuter Brahman divides itself in the during the act of creation into both the masculine and the feminine. “Several Tantric cosmogonies describe Nada-Brahman (cosmic sound) as being the vibration resulting from the sexual act of Siva and his consort Sakti” (Beck 124). This relates back to the manifestation of sacred sound in the form of the goddess Vak in the Vedas as discussed previously.

Indian classical music is rooted in the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, and plays its own part in defining the sacredness of sound within the tradition. The combination of the world’s oldest instrument (the human voice) along with other classical instruments such as the sitar and tablas is used to make sonically rich recitals of sacred verses. The classical style of Indian music and dance is known as sangita. The theological importance of musical sound “…gives rise to its ultimate equation with Nada-Brahman in the tradition of sangita” (Beck 107). The arts of sangita – vocal music, instrumental music and dance – are related to a rich theory of music numbers and astrology, and play a vital role in the recitation of the Sama-Veda (Vijayadevji 27). This again illustrates the importance of sacred sound in performance of ritual and is yet another example of the diverse role that it plays in Hinduism.

From the resonating Pranava, pronounced at the beginning of sacred scriptures, to the anthropomorphization of sonic vibration as the Great Goddess Sakti and the divine word Vak. Within the philosophical schools as well as the theistic traditions, one finds sacred sound as a principal factor in the theology of Hinduism. The sacred use of sound can viewed as an adjunct to ritual performance, but also as a tool for various paths which lead to ultimate release or moksa. While the reverence of sound is not overall unique to India the concept is broadly developed and widely pervasive throughout the whole of Hinduism.



Beck, Guy L. (1948) Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Coward, Harold and David Goa (1991) MANTRA Hearing the Divine in INDIA. Chambersburg: Anima Publications.

Gajjar, Irina N. (2000) The Gita: A New Translation of Hindu Sacred Scripture. Mount Jackson: Axios Press.

Rosen, Steven J. (1955) Essential Hinduism. New Dheli: Pentagon Press.

Vijayadevja, Maharana of Dharampur (2004) Indian Music; its origin, history and characteristics. New Dheli: Sanjay Prakashan.

Related Topics for Further Investigation:


Bhagavad Gita



Gayatri mantra





















Siva Sphota













Noteworthy Websites Related to Topic:

Article Written By Sean Desrochers (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content

Indian Grammarians and the Philosophy of Sound


The tradition of studying language, sound and communication in India is as old as the subcontinent itself. Vast amounts of works have been written about grammar and its relation to theology by Indian grammarians, beginning centuries before the time of Jesus Christ. Perhaps these accounts of the Sanskrit language—intricately breaking it down into a handful of verbal roots and phonemes—are so meticulous and amazing because the writers believed in the divinity of language and sound; they reverently explored every aspect of the language and philosophically speculated on its connection to the Supreme Being, or Brahman, and through that, liberation (moksa). This article examines the contributions of two prominent, ancient Indian grammarians, Panini and Bhartrhari, to the Indian tradition of theologically oriented linguistics. This is followed with a discussion of the connection between sound and the divine as it is conceived in the Hindu tradition.

Panini was a highly influential grammarian who, in the fifth century BCE wrote a monumental work of linguistic analysis known as the Astadhyayi. Even to this day, the Astadhyayi remains unsurpassed in its comprehensive and complex brilliance. The work is a complete grammar of the Sanskrit language, including classical (or Vedic) Sanskrit, the language in which the Vedas were composed. Sanskrit is highly complex in its organization and subtle in its execution and intonation; there are forty-nine phonemes in the language, divided into vowels, consonants, and dipthongs, or combined vowel sounds. The consonants are structured according to where in the mouth they are produced. For instance, they may be produced in the throat (gutterals), back of the mouth (palatals), with the tongue on the roof of the mouth (cerebrals), with the tongue on the back of the teeth (dentals), or with the lips (labials). There are five different nasal letters (“n” sounds) and three forms of “s” (silibants) (Pathak 35). It consists of eight chapters, each further divided into four, and contains around four thousand sutras (or rules) that reference categories of verbal roots (dhatu) (Coward and Raja, 113). Panini’s explanation of Sanskrit grammar as it appears in the Astadhyayi thoroughly explains the entire organization of the language and it remains faithful to these rules today; it was the first such work to trace an entire language to a small number of verbal roots (Klostermaier 70). The language is categorized into two lists, the dhatupatha (the most basic verbal roots) and ganapatha (nouns, verbs, etc that are applied to the lists) (Coward and Raja 14). The Astadhyayi explains how each word in classical Sanskrit is able to be reached at, beginning with two basic categories—affixes and bases, which are of two types as well, verbal and nominal (ibid 15). Panini also uses abbreviations to denote recurring characteristics; the Astadhyayi is remarkably systematic and thorough. Panini points out the geographical variances in how Sanskrit is spoken, referring to the different inflections as those of the “northerners” or “southerners” etc. The emphasis is placed, however, on the language as it was spoken by the cultured and educated people of the time (sista) as the authoritative version that Panini was most interested in (Coward and Raja, 113).

Panini is well-known for his work because it has been preserved through the years and is still referenced, but he is not the earliest Indian grammarian. In his work he makes note of other linguists before him and many, such as Katyayana, Patanjali and Bhartrhari, have followed him.

Bhartrhari lived quite sometime after Panini, around the fifth century CE. He was also a popular grammarian whose works were very influential. His most notable effort, the Vakyapadiya, discusses the philosophic conception of the relationship between the spoken word (“outer form”) and its “inner meaning” (Sivaraman 214). Bhartrhari is credited with developing the theory of language known as sphota, from the Sanskrit word sphut, meaning whole (Sivaraman, 214). The term sphota actually means something like bursting forth. For analogy, when the seal is broken on a pop bottle, there is an immediate and abrupt release of once-contained air; with sphota, the hearer intuitively perceives and understands the meaning of the word in an instantaneous moment. The Vakyapadiya expounds on the idea that the spoken word appears to have differentiation but it really does not—it exists in the mind of the speaker as a “unitary gestalt,” or sphota. The listener hears the variation in tone and inflection of the spoken word(s), but ultimately perceives the meaning of the whole word, as a unity (Sivaraman 216). The idea is that the meaning exists in the mind of both speaker and hearer, but it is through sounds that the meaning is transferred.

Bhartrhari does not subscribe to this idea fully; he says that the “spoken words serve only as the stimulus to reveal or uncover the meaning which was already present in the mind of the hearer” (Sivaraman 216). Bhartrhari explains this idea by suggesting that the mind understands sound in two aspects: word-sound (dhvani) and word-meaning (artha). Sphota is the undifferentiated whole, of which dhvani and artha are two sides of the same coin. There is a deep spiritual connection between the communicable word and the thought that inspired it; they develop simultaneously according to this philosophy (Sivaraman 220). Grammarians [of this persuasion] also say that communication is possible among human beings because language and meaning have the same base in a divine consciousness; the Ultimate Reality of Brahman/atman. Because spoken sounds have this unique connection to the divine, that the written word does not share, language can function as a Yoga—as a path to spiritual realization (Sivaraman 221).

A prominent idea behind the Indian philosophy of language, as demonstrated in the sources from ancient grammarians like Panini and Bhartrhari, is that the spoken word can communicate what is incommunicable—the divine. In the West, culture is very visually oriented [i.e. to the printed word, documents, films, and other media]; the oral dimensions of knowledge are often overlooked or undervalued (Beck 2). For their entire recorded history, Indians have been studying language, whereas in the West it has only recently begun. The Indian grammarian tradition has highly influenced the Western study of linguistics (Beck 50). As well in India, the importance of oral knowledge has long been advocated. The Vedas are considered to be divinely revealed to the rsis (or seers), who are regarded as spiritually perfected ones—such that “the Divine Word could reverberate [through them] with little distortion” (Coward and Raja 50). Mantras, such as om (or aum), are common in the Vedas and their repetition is seen as a way to reach high states of concentration and even moksa. Om [also called the pranava or ur-mantra] is considered to be Brahman in the form of sound: it is the beginning and ending of all that exists and all that will exist. It is the Sabda-Brahman, the Word-Brahman—the manifestation of the divine in sound. In the letters of the mantra aum, as explained in the Mandukya Upanisad, the ‘a’ stands for the waking state, the ‘u’ for the dream state, and the ‘m’ for deep sleep, hence aum is all-encompassing; the ultimate revelation (Klostermaier 71).

As mentioned previously, sound has a special orientation to the divine. This means that anything recorded is just an attempt to code sound which is too subtle to be fully captured by the written word. To truly understand the word and thereby its entire meaning, it is necessary to memorize the words so that they become part of your consciousness (Coward and Raja 36-37). Oral transmission of the Vedas has thus been a standard orthodox Hindu practice; writing cannot ever cover all of the nuances of spoken language and is therefore a discipline of secondary importance (Sivaraman 212).

Each letter of the Sanskrit language, often referred to as a non-verbal energy, has a numeric connection with the physical and psychic body. Mantras are then used in meditation to bring one in closer alignment with the cosmos, speeding one towards moksa. It is believed that each syllable or root sound has a mathematical connection to specific areas of the body, known as the cakras, and those areas correspond to the cosmos (Pathak 19-30, 207). Each verse in the Vedas is considered to be a mantra because the texts were divinely revealed and the entire sacred universe is present (albiet in fragmented forms) in these sounds. To perfect the proper pronunciation and grammar that is required to gain spiritual merit through the medium of language, as presented by Bhartrhari and others, is quite the feat of intellect. However, full liberation will only take place once one has relinquished any attachment to this feat—and has emptied him or herself like the rsis to the divine consciousness of sound (Sivaraman 223-224).


Beck, Guy L (1993) Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound. Columbia: University of Southern Carolina Press.

Bhate, Saroja and Johannes Bronkorst (1997) Bhartrhari: Philosopher and Grammarian. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Cardona, George (1997) Panini: A Survey of Research. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Chomsky, Noam (2006) Language and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coward, Harold G. and K. Kunjunni Raja (1990) Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: The Philosophy of the Grammarians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Deshpande, Madhav M. (April-June 2002) “The Fluidity of early grammatical categories in Sanskrit.” In The Journal of the American Oriental Study. pp. 244-248.

________ (July-September 1997) “Who inspired Panini? Reconstructing the Hindu and Buddhist counter-claims.” In The Journal of the American Oriental Society. pp. 444-465.

Emeneau, M.B. (1988) “Bloomfield and Panini.” In Language. pp. 755-760.

Ford, Alan, Rajendra Singh and Gita Martohardjono (1997) Pace Panini: Towards a Word-Based Theory of Morphology. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Klostermaier, Klaus K (1989) A Survey of Hinduism. New York: SUNY Press.

Krishnaswamy, Revathi (issue 1, 2005) “Nineteenth century language ideology: a post-colonial perspective.” In Interventions. Pages 43-71.

Pathak, Manish Kumar (2004) An Introduction to Sanskrit Grammar. Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.

Sivaraman, Krishna (ed.) (1989) Hindu Spirituality: Vedas through Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Vasu, Srisa Chandra (ed. and trans.) (1988) The Ashtadhyayi of Panini, volume one. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Vasu, Srisa Chandra (ed. and trans.) (1988) The Ashtadhyayi of Panini, volume two. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Whitney, William Dwight (2003) Sanskrit Grammar. New York: Dover Publications.

Zammit, Michael (July 1996) “He is You are what I am: from the unique to the universal.” In Asian Philosophy. pp. 109-115.

Related Topics for Further Study







Indo-Iranian languages








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Written by Thera Body (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sphota Theory and Its Influence on Mantra

In Hinduism there are two dominant views about the connectivity between word meaning (varna) and word sound (dhvani), which make up sabda, or linguistic sound in general (Beck 8). One view is called Mimamsa, which tries to establish that the Veda is divine law and that one can only come to know dharma from Vedic command (Beck 55). This idea relies on the pretences that meaning (artha) and “the Eternal Word” can only exist in the Veda “and does not manifest in any other form apart from the specific linguistic constructions found there” (Beck 63). The theory attempts to explain that individual letters are the main substance of sacred speech (Beck 52). The grammarian view is different in that it allows for Sabda-Brahman [Sabda-Brahman refers to the sonic absolute (Beck 8)] to exist “both in the cosmos and within normal human consciousness” (Beck 63). The concept of sphotavada and the sphota theory were developed by the grammarians and the Mimamsa School discards the sphotavada because it undermines their doctrine that relies on the “reality of Vedic words” (Beck 68). The sphota theory tries to depict “the mysterious manner by which meaning is conveyed in sentences” which is a cognitive approach to the “intuitive perception of the Absolute as Sabda-Brahman” (Beck 52). Sphota also illustrates that words (sabda) and sentences are important in conserving the Vedas (Beck 64).
The sphota theory “refers to the interior apprehension of meaning in language” (Beck 8). Sphota comes from the Sanskrit word sphut which literally means “to burst forth or when applied to language a bursting forth of illumination or light” (Coward 12). This means that words, specifically in Sanskrit, get their meaning from something set intrinsically within them, and literally ‘shed light’ on to what they are referring to. “Probably the simplest and clearest image for the meaning of sphota is that of a light bulb flashing on when one understands (“gets”) an idea” (Beck 67). Sphota has two parts, internal and external, both important, and reliant on one another. One is the sound which the meaning is carried in (dhvani), and the other is the actual meaning that the sound carries (varna) (Coward 12).

Notions of speech as sacred sound are revealed mainly in the Vedic texts, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, Aranyakas, and the Vedangas (Beck 23). The Rg-Veda, which is the oldest of the Vedic texts, is said to be “impregnated with sacred speech” (Beck 25) and has extended insight into the origins of language (Beck 36). The sphota theory was originally developed by grammarians Patanjali and Bhartrhari who wrote the Mahabhasya and Vakyapadiya respectively (Beck 63). “Wider concepts concerning the philosophy of grammar in India draw mostly from Patanjali and Bhartrhari” (Beck 63). According to grammarians, sphota is a “kind of meaning-bearing sound revelation within normal human consciousness” (Beck 63), and meaning (artha) comes from human consciousness, it is something that comes from the mind, and does not dwell in things or “objective existence” (Beck 63-4). From the Mahabhasya, Patanjali’s definition of a word is “that sound from which there arises the knowledge of things in the affairs of the world” (Beck 64).

Understanding language and meaning is very important in the Hindu religion. Mantras are a major part of their daily life, “the chief instrument of tantrism” (Bharati 101), and are based on the major Hindu texts like the Vedas (Bharati 104). A brief definition of mantra is; a spiritual utterance “to be recited at the time of spiritual exercise” (Bharati 107). There are two uses for mantras, either in a planned ritual or ceremony, or in “spontaneous meditation” (Bharati 121). Mantras like the Gayatri Mantra are used daily.

Language (vak) has origins that are explained in the Rg-Veda. There are three references to vak in the text, “the Goddess Vak…, vak as speech in general, and vak in the symbolism of cows” (Beck 25). The vak explained in the Rg-Veda mentions the meaning that exists in even the sounds produced by birds and beasts (Beck 25). This extends to even the heavens, where thunder is supposedly the voice of Vak (Beck 26). The Rg-Veda contains a tale about the creation of human speech, and how it came to be because of a quarrel between Indra and Vayu. The two Gods went to Prajapati for help, and when the soma that they were fighting over was divided up Indra took offence to his small portion and made it so that the speech of man would be unintelligible to the Gods (Beck 26-7).

There is only one hymn about the Goddess Vak in the Rg-Veda. It asserts her divinity and power, and along with a similar hymn from the Atharva-Veda, is “the earliest document of the personification of speech as a productive principle of energy” (Beck 28). Later Vak is expanded and even has influence on “the earliest meaning of the word Brahman” which was “sacred word.” This shows a direct relationship between language and the primary concepts of Brahman and Hinduism (Beck 29).

Mantras are related to the sphota theory because of the mystic origins of the mantras. There is an assumption that mantras are language because many are often a recitation of Vedic texts, but that does not mean that they are all language (Staal 253). Bija, or seed mantras, like Om and Aum, are probably the best known type, and consist of only one syllable. Stobhas mantras are the Vedic forms of bija mantras, and also only contain one syllable (Staal 227). Both types of mantras do not contain language per-say, but are supposed to be a means of realizing Brahman (Staal 253). The Om syllable is believed to be reminiscent of the child of Brahma with the same name, who defeated the Asuras, or demons, when they were attacking a city. As a reward to the son the make it so “no holy text shall be chanted without Om” (Beck 29).

Sphota is the “transcendent ground in which the spoken syllable and the conveyed meaning find themselves unified” (Coward 13). People use language to think. The great goddess of language, Vak, is even associated with the goddess of learning Sarasvati (Coward 5). And, the Brahmanas point out that the hymn about Vak and language should be recited when students first meet their teachers (guru) (Morgan 282). With such an intrinsic connection between knowledge, language, and meaning it follows that once a person can use a single syllable mantra to calm their mind, and focus on its undefined meaning, then perhaps they can use that to understand Brahma, and find mindful silence and liberation.

Work Cited and Related Reading

Beck, Guy L. (1993) Sonic Theology. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Bharati, Agehananda (1975) The Tantric Tradition. New York: Samuel Weiser INC.

Coward, Harold G. (1997) The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.

Morgan, Kenneth William (1953) The Religion of the Hindus. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Staal, Frits (1996) Rituals and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banardsidass.

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Vak Goddess

Written by Kathleen Barteaux (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Philosophy of Sanskrit Grammar

Language is possibly the most important aspect of human social life and interaction that we know of today. Although scientists have studied various languages and their sources for ages, they have never found another animal on this planet that is able to communicate quite the way humans can, exchanging abstract ideas and conceptual representations through words alone. Since ancient times, the Hindu tradition in India has paid close attention to the use of language in everyday life, and how it is able to effortlessly convey meanings, thoughts, impressions, beliefs, and other complex notions that can be demonstrated in no other manner. Language was so important to Hindus that they incorporated it directly into their spiritual practices, and it became yet another medium for reaching their ultimate goal, moksa: realisation of the Ultimate Truth within oneself.

Although there have been hundreds of languages spoken across India since ancient times, the Hindus selected Sanskrit as the language in which to write their spiritual literature. Obviously then, Sanskrit must be considered an extremely important aspect of the Hindu tradition, so important that some Hindus believed in a deified language, the goddess Vac. According to her myth, the world was created through her divine speech, and the Sanskrit used today is merely a part of that language she spoke (Coward 3). Others believed, according to what is written in the Brahmanas, that the Indian warrior god, Indra, was the first to create coherent language when he analysed speech utterances in terms of their parts and created a grammatical structure (Coward 13). However, the Hindu grammarians who studied Sanskrit held a more practical view of the language, and put a great deal of time and effort into examining its subtleties. Most of the Hindu grammarians studied how the grammar was initially constructed, including the most famous grammarian, Panini. He is believed to have lived between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE, and was the author of the oldest surviving literary work on Sanskrit grammar, the renowned Astadhyayi (The Eight Chapters) which lays down the entire structure of Sanskrit grammar in roughly four thousand sutras (Coward 111). Although Panini’s contribution to the composition of the Sanskrit language is unsurpassed, the Astadhyayi is foremost a linguistic analysis, and Panini did not spend much time discussing the actual philosophy behind Sanskrit.

When we do examine the philosophy behind Sanskrit, we see that language was often related with the life-cycle of the universe, and there is no better example than that of the Hindus’ most sacred mantra, Aum. For Hindus, the entire creation and destruction of the universe can be represented by the utterance of this one monosyllable, and although it may be difficult for some people to immediately grasp this concept, the explanation for how it works is actually quite elegant. Aum is said to encompass all spoken language because the “A” syllable begins at the back of the mouth—where all language must begin—and then the whole word ends with a “fourth” syllable, silence (Prattis 83). If language is used as a metaphor for the universe, then Aum is that essential element that holds the cosmos together; when it stops, the universe will stop as well. Hindus identify Aum as “a primordial sound, inherent in the Universe” (Prattis 82) and “it denotes the super conscious state of Samadhi or Turiya” (Prattis 83).

This description of Aum as a cosmic concept is related to the sphota theory of language, which is spoken of extensively by another grammarian, Bhartrhari. Although Bhartrhari was not the grammarian who originally invented the sphota theory, he comments on it extensively in his work, the Vakyapadiya, which explains how sentences are meaningful to us despite differences in accent, speech tempo, and so forth. The sphota theory also states that individual words cannot have meaning when they are uttered on their own; it is only when they are ordered together into a coherent sentence that they take on meaning. Sentences are also unable to gain meaning without the active participation of both the speaker and the listener. Both individuals must understand the sentence in order for it to make sense, or the language merely becomes gibberish. When the sentence is thought of by the speaker and understood by the listener, they work as a single unit, and only then does meaning erupt from the words and enter the minds of both individuals (Coward 10-11). Where the mantra, Aum, is concerned, the meaning of the Ultimate Truth will supposedly issue from the sound of Aum while it is chanted. People seeking the Truth are both the speakers and listeners of this mantra, and they have only to grasp the meaning before they are able to fully understand the Ultimate Truth and achieve spiritual liberation.

Patanjali, another very famous Hindu grammarian, was careful to emphasize the fact that language is special; it is not some everyday commodity that can be created and destroyed at will, but rather an ever-changing means of communicating with one another. He had a famous notion, known today as “Patanjali’s Potters Principle,” which roughly states that “if you want pots, you go to a potter, but if you want words, you don’t go to a grammarian” (Staal 27). What he meant by this was that languages are more significant than regular, everyday commodities like pots. Words cannot just be made up on the spot by a grammarian like a pot can by a potter, but rather, new words come into being as a language evolves. Patanjali also made it clear that grammarians were not the creators of languages, but merely the analysers of it. It was not the grammarians who decided whether something in a language was “right” or “wrong” but the people who spoke that language instead. He said that if a man wanted to learn about how a language was put together, then he should see a grammarian, but if he wanted to learn a new language altogether, the only way would be to go to where that language was spoken and simply listen to it himself (Staal 27).

Language and speech has had a tremendous amount of influence on Hindu thought and philosophy. The amount of time, thought, and effort that Indians have put into creating and preserving their elegant Sanskrit is astounding to other cultures who have never viewed language as anything more than a simple means of communication. Hindus understand that this unique type of expression is not something to be taken for granted, and they revere language as something that can actually help them achieve that crucial goal they strive for throughout their lifetimes, knowledge of the Ultimate Truth of both the universe without, and the true Self within.


Coward, H.G. & K. Kunjunni Raja (1990) Encycolpedia of Indian Philosophies: The Philosophy of the Grammarians. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Prattis, J.I. (2002) “Mantra and consciousness expansion in India.” Journal of Ritual Studies. Vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 78-96.

Staal, Frits (1982) “Ritual, grammar, and the origins of science in India.” Journal of Indian Philosophy. Vol. 1, no. 0, pp. 3-36.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Sanskrit grammatical structure

Hindu grammarians




The Astadhyayi

The Mahabhyasa

The Vakyapadiya

The sphota theory of language


Meditation using mantras

Mantras used in rituals

Ancient languages

Noteworthy, Related Websites

Written by Jackie Hannaford (Spring 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.