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Akhanda Vakya Sphota (Vyakarana): Bhartrhari’s Philosophy of Linguistic Analysis
Bhartrhari (circa Fifth century C.E.) was an Indian grammarian who developed Vyakarana(linguistic analysis) into a darsana (perspective, point of view, school of thought). The understanding of language here employed is more expansive than the one typically dealt with in linguistics, and it is furthermore a spiritual discipline with an interesting metaphysical structure. Language, as here employed, means expression in general, or articulation in the sense of manifestation, which accounts for the cognitive construct of the contingent world of the multiplicity of representations. As such, it is a very unique perspective (darsana), although we find a similar truth in the cosmogony, ontogeny and morphology implied in the Heraclitean and Stoic (Ancient Greek) notion of Logos (the Word), later identified with Jesus in Christianity1, and so in certain underpinnings of Western philosophy ensuing from the Greek tradition. Bhartrhari’s system was also influential directly on the cunning linguist Ferdinand de Saussure2, who begat semiotics (semiologie) and developed the field of linguistics into its present state.
Indeed, the Gospel of John identified Jesus with the incarnation of Logos, through which all things are made, and even identified Logos with Theos, with God. This is the case in Advaita traditions such as in Bhartrhari’s Sabdadvaita wherein the Word is ultimately Brahman, Sabda-Brahman-- the Absolute as Word (see the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 4.1.2).
The Saussurian sign is divided into the signifier and signified (subject and object), and the third element is the sign itself. His Ph.D. dissertation was on the “Genitive Case in Sanskrit”.
Bhartrhari’s principal work is the Vakya-padiya, and it is divided into three chapters: Brahman-Kanda, Vakya-kanda, Pada-Kanda. The word-essence (sabdatattva) is called Sabda-Brahman (the Absolute as the Word, the Word is ultimate reality), which Bhartrhari, in the first part of the Vakyapadiya (On Words and Sentences, or On the Saying and the Word), says is beginningless and endless, and manifests in the form of the Universe(Vakyapadiya 1.1). Furthermore, it is the task of the grammarian to preserve the purity of the Vedas and prevent the corruption of its language (Vakyapadiya 1.11). In this way, Bhartrhari’s linguistic analysis can be seen as a spiritual discipline, but the term ‘philosophy’ fits better than ‘religion’. The best label for what Bhartrhari does is science. The analysis of language has various aspects (epistemological, phonetic, etymological, syntactical, semantic, logical, metaphysical etc.), and can mean an analysis into different fundamental units (letter, word or sentence, respectively, varna, pada, and vakya), and spans from the ultimate reality of Sabda-Brahman (Sabdadvaita) to the vaikhari, the gross word (sthula sabda) which refers to the gross object (sthula artha). But the fundamental analysis in the Vakyapadiya is the four levels of speech: Para (Transcendent Speech), Pasyanti (Subtle Speech), Madhyama (Inner Speech), and Vaikhari (Manifest Speech). And these correspond to the analysis of the basic syllable, the symbol of Brahman, and quite literally the fundament, AUM, wherein a fourth element is hidden, the turiya (literally, “the fourth state”), which represents the transcendent, is typographically appropriate. And three of these four correspond to states of consciousness; waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states (King pp.49). The fourth state could be said to correspond to the ground of consciousness, transcendent consciousness. There is also their correspondence to time, past, present and future (the fourth, again, being beyond the scope of time, in
this case, which we could call by Proust’s label ‘atemporal time’), and in Tantrika philosophy, they correspond to energy centers or cakras, as correlated by Sir John Woodroffe in The Serpent Powerexplains: 1. Muladhara Cakra is the special center of the sacro-coccygeal region (i.e. the region below the genitals). It is the region that the mysterious kundalini (coiled serpentine energy) lays. It is the seat of para vak. 2. Svadhisthana Cakrais the special center in the region of the navel. It is the seat of pasyanti vak. 3. Anahata Cakrais the special center in the region on the heart. It is the seat of madhyama vak. 4. Visuddha Cakrais the special center in the region of the throat. It is the seat of vaikhari vak. (Professor Hari Mohan Jha, Trends of Linguistic Analysis in Indian Philosophy, pp. 8) “It is through the susumna nadi that the vital air (prana vayu) passes through the cakras. It is the interior of the cerebro-special axis and extends from the basic plexus (muladhara) to the sahasrara cakra(in the vertical region). It is most closely associated with speech (vak). Thus sound that is uttered as a letter (varna) is the result of a long-drawn process originating in the muladhara and carried gradually to visuddha cakra by the force of air till it assumes the stage of vaikhari or articulate sound (varna).” (Hari Mohan Jha, pp. 9, from Purnananda Svami’s Satcakra Nirupana) These four stages can be traced back to the Rig Veda, where it is said: “While the former three are hidden into the cave, the fourth is spoken by men.” (Rig Veda, 1.164, 165) The principle of Vac is found already in the Rig Veda, where
it appears as the Goddess of Speech, identified as the creator. (Rig Veda, X. 71.7, from King, pp.49) She, Vac, is responsible for the establishment of a rhythmic “(syntactical?)”3order (rta) to the universe (Rig Veda 1.164.37). “Bhartrhari describes the sacred syllable OM (AUM) ‘as the source of all scripture and the common factor of all original causes.’ (Vakyapadiya 1.9)” (King, pp.49) “In Tantrika philosophy, the cosmic seed (vindu) originates from creative sound (nada). The transcendent power (para sakti), i.e., Supreme Consciousnessthat is manifested through speech is all-pervading and partless. (Satcakra Nirupana of Purnananda Svami)” (Jah, pp. 5) “The vaiyakaranas [Indian grammarians] call this eternal (nitya) indivisible (niravayava, akhanda) sabda Brahman which is the ultimate cause of the world by the name of sphota.” I thought it would be terribly interesting to share the Tantrika account of Bhartrhari’s four levels of speech given in Trends of Linguistic Analysis in Indian Philosophy, because in Bhartrhari’s system, Vak is the fundamental structure of the universe, the medium of the cosmic energy dealt with in Yoga, the method of perfection, and it is. This application of Bhartrhari’s system also shows an application of Yoga, which is classically associated with the Samkhya metaphysics so influential on Patanjali, which itself is metaphysically at odds with Advaita Vedanta-vadas, and therefore shows how inclusive the system of Yoga is. Indeed, Yoga is the characteristic of the anatman, Buddhist school of Yogacara. In the paradigm of Bhartrhari, yoga is a method of purifying one’s speech in all its forms, which means one’s expressions as well as one’s impressions or consciousness. The goal of Yoga is Moksha or Nirvana, liberation from samsara or maya, but in
So asks King, pp. 49
Bhartrhari’s system, it is also the way to Sabda-Brahman, Sabdadvaita, for Bhartrhari is a monist or non-dualist. Patanjali wrote in his Mahabhasya on Panini’s Siksa or Sutra that Sphota is the word-essence (Sabda-tattva), and as such, rather than being a mere combination of letters (varna samudaya), it is a permanent symbol, which, rather than being produced (sabdah jayate), it is revealed or manifested (abhivyakta), and not created (utpanna). “Similarly, when one says sabdah nasyati (the word vanishes), what is meant is that the word disappears and not that it perishes.” (Jah, pp. 11, 12) Sphota (the permanent word-symbol, nitya sabda) derives from the root sphutwhich means to open, to unfold, to develop. “It is interpreted in various ways, such as that which develops by itself, or that which is revealed by letters, or that by which a sense is revealed. [Madhavacarya and Acarya Konda Bhatta] In the first sense it is equated with Brahman which is a self-unfolding principle. But the sphotais not always used in this metaphysical sense. In the linguistic context, it is used in the second and third senses.” (Jah, pp.10, 11) “Grammatical form: The apparent surface form of an expression, in comparison with the underlying logical structure. In any language, some expressions may resemble others in appearance, yet differ fundamentally in their kind of meaning. Such expressions may then be said to be similar in grammatical, but different in logical form.4” Jah calls the label of linguistic analysis“a conveniently elastic expression,” which encompasses more than one meaning. I have given this definition of
Anthony Flew’s A Dictionary of Philosophy, Revised Second Edition, St. Martini’s, New York, 1979
grammatical form from a dictionary of philosophy (A Dictionary of Philosophy)to add that what we have been talking about, what has been developed in the metaphysical systems of the vaikyakaranas or Indian grammarian philosophers, is a powerful notion that can be applied to other areas. I have chosen this topic to further my philosophical career in the application of these metaphysical systems to the refined technology of our present day of programming and information, and in this case to the syntax or grammar that we use. Just as Jah states in the Introduction to his book, the vaikyakaranas have directly influenced, among others, the Western analytic philosophers Russell, Moore, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Ryle, Wisdom, Strawson and Austin, and I would like to add to this list Ferdinand de Saussure. Indirectly, Derrida and Chomsky have been influenced, despite their lifework being done just when the veil began to be lifted from its division of the East and the West at today’s global rate of ideotic proliferation. In the Vakya-padiya, 1.143, Bhartrhari says: “This [science of grammar] Is the supreme and wonderful Source of knowledge For the three-fold speech, Which combines [in itself] many ways— That of the “manifested” [speech], That of the “middle” [speech], And that of the “seeing” [speech].5 These three aspects are similar to the distinction between the seeing (subject, grahaka), manifested (object, grahya) and the middle (grahana; the state
Isayeva, pp. 85
of seeing or perception, the distinction itself). Thus we have a possible source of the Saussurian sign as the signifier (samjna, or vacya: objects or artha, meanings), signified (samjnin, or vacaka: the power to ascribe meanings)and the sign itself. As regards Derrida, there are a plethora of works from journals such as Philosophy East and West, Harold G. Coward’s “”Speech Versus Writing” in Derrida and Bhartrhari” in particular. Here, the significance in Bhartrhari’s work of the distinction between sabda (word) and dhvani (sound) is compared to the Derridean notion of archewriting, that writing is prior to the spoken word, opposite Bhartrhari, but at times similar to Bhartrhari in the inter-relationship between the inner and outer word. The vaiyakaranas [Indian grammarians] have three ways of understanding Sphota: 1. Different from letters (varanatirikta), 2. Manifestable by letters (varnabhivyangya), 3. Indicative of meaning (arthapratyayaka). “For Bhartrhari, the fundamental unit of meaning is the complete utterance. If one knows language well, meaning is apprehended as a complete sentence and is an instantaneous flash of comprehension (pratibha). This became known as the sphotatheory of meaning. The authentic experience of meaning occurs through a holistic grasp of complete utterances and not individual words—a kind of gestalt…. Similarly, when we appreciate a painting we experience it as a whole, not as a collocation of disparate brush strokes…. Language is indivisible (niravayava, akhanda) and ultimately refers to a single monistic reality (Sabda-brahman).” (King, pp. 48) This one object denoted by all words, Brahman, is the meaning (artha) as well as the object, and as such, is the basis of an axiology. This implicit axiology I find is
similar to my axiology and theory of mathematical form. In my system, form is precisely that which is comprised of distinction, so grammar (conventions, injunctive rules) and syntax (rules and principles as in a subset of grammar) applies to form (rupa), which ensues from the first distinction, difference itself, which is the difference between the subject and the object, and in this case can be read as the difference between Atman and Brahman. This originary difference is none other than Para Atman, which I call pure subjectivity, Being, and pure self-reference. So I am at odds with the Advaita tradition, it would seem, but only as much as the Advaita tradition differs from the Difference and Non-Difference (Bhedabhedavada) metaphysics, which really isn’t all that different, not as different as the difference between the Advaita and Dvaita traditions. The big difference here is that in Bhartrhari’s system, Brahman is the cause of the universe and, perhaps by virtue of the identity of Atman and Brahman, is every constituent of the universe, up to and including the totality of the universe itself. But I make a distinction between the monistic ultimate reality and my ultimate reality, between Sabda-Brahman, and what I would call ‘Artha-Brahman’, which is Nirguna Brahman, none other than the Absolute Infinite, and absolutely distinct from Atman, indeed the distinction (Distinction) is the very precise definition of Atman, in my system. My point is that this Infinity is not to be confounded with the radical oneness of Para Atman, for Para Atman is the basic avidya upon which all appearances or forms are based! Of course, this is heresy in Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta, as well as in Bhartrhari, but I feel that Bhartrhari would be more understanding of my predicament of conviction, so I included it here. It is also interesting to note at this point, in the discussion of the Sphota theory of meaning, which Bhartrhari has been influential for the Buddhist Dignaga, but Dignaga rejects the Sphota theory of meaning in favor of
aphota, mutual exclusion of linguistic signs. Another curiosity of my metaphysical system I find in Bhartrhari’s conception of time, described by King on page 49. He describes time as a thread or string (I’d say a trace) (Vakyapadiya 3.9.15) which allows for movement and causal activity, a dynamic force which pushes things (kalayati) in and out of existence by establishing them in the present and preventing others from occurring by establishing them in the future. “Time functions through permission (abhyanujna) and prevention (pratibandha) to bring things into existence…” My idea of time is that it is space, but we are posited on the other side of it, as opposed to space, and moreover, it is dimensionality, extension itself. So for instance, the first time is the first dimension, the first extension of the first distinction, and when we (the process of the subjective form) pass out of that frame of reference, we move into another level, from which we can see, pardon the expression, the former frame as a form, and it appears as a line or trace, which is a mere trace of the first distinction (the self, pure, formless subjectivity). “Nevertheless, the unrolling (vivarta) of the universe is, from the ultimate perspective, an eternal ‘now’. Time is eternal and undivided and the final goal of linguistic analysis for Bhartrhari is the apprehension of the whole, of Sabda-brahman in its absolute non-duality.” (King, pp. 49) The notion of Sabda-Brahmanis also found in the Upanishads, yet here it is distinct from “the higher Brahman,” which the verse suggests ought to be sought. Isayeva, in From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism, (pp.101) explains how this idea corresponds to Samkara’s two ways of knowing Brahman, Saguna and Nirguna Brahman, identifying this Sabda-Brahman with Saguna-Brahman or Isvara or Visnu(personified God), which is, in Samkara’s Vedanta, the lower, illusory knowledge of Brahman. From the Maitri Upanisad:
“Come to know of the two Brahmans— Brahman-Word and the higher [Brahman]. Having left behind Brahman-Word, One should go to the higher Brahman.” Sabda-Brahman is OM, and it should be meditated upon to reach the higher Brahman. Yet, still we find in Gaudapada’s Mandukya-karika: “Indeed, the syllable OM, Is the lower Brahman, And the same syllable OM Is held to be the higher Brahman.” On page 111, Isayeva reiterates this point: “Incidentally, the two states tentatively defined here as “inner Self” (svamatra, literally, “solely Oneself”) and “higher Brhaman” (paramatra, that is, “solely Another” or “solely the Higher one”), roughly correspond to the two higher states in Gaudapada’s table: to that of the “deep sleep” (susupti, sputa) and to that of the ineffable turiya (“the fourth one”).” She explains that in Harivrsabha’s commentary, he marks these as the difference between believers in inner consciousness and believers in an eternal Brahman. But of course, in Bhartrhari and in Gaudapada, these two views are not contradictory but complimentary. In my view, Isayeva is right to see these as complimentary, and while I hold my specific metaphysical system to be the correct one, it is as alive and flexible as I am, and so open to change, however much the foundation is permanent. I still can’t decide if I’m correct to the exclusion of other views, as I accept and appreciate many aspects, often even different foundations, still trying to read other systems into my own, avoiding radical relativism, while appreciating it, (not the
argumentative, critical, and violent moments of it), in my pursuit of the truth. Thank you Bhartrhari and the other vaiyakaranas for being different, I appreciate it!
Flew, Anthony (1984). A Dictonary of Philosophy. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin Isayeva, Natalia (1995). From Early Vedanta to Kashmir Shaivism. Albany: SUNY Jha, Hari Mohan (1981). Trends of Linguistic Analysis in Indian Philosophy. Delhi: Chaukhambha Orientalia King, Richard (1999). An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press
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