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