Category Archives: Sanskrit Grammarians


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.

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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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