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Meaning, Indian theories of
The term artha in Sanskrit is used for the notion of meaning, in the widest sense of the word 'meaning'; it can be the
meaning of words, sentences and scriptures, as well as of nonlinguistic gestures and signs. Its meaning ranges from a
real object in the external world referred to by a word to a mere concept of an object which may or may not correspond
to anything in the external world. The differences regarding what 'meaning' is are argued out by the philosophical
schools of Nyāya, Vaiśe ika, Mīmāʒsā, Buddhism, Sanskrit grammar and Sanskrit poetics. Among these, Nyāya,
Vaiśe ika and Mīmāʒsā have realistic ontologies. Mīmāʒsā focuses mainly on interpreting the Vedic scriptures.
Buddhist thinkers generally depict language as giving a false picture of reality. Sanskrit grammar is more interested in
language than in ontology, while Sanskrit poetics focuses on the poetic dimensions of meaning.

Generally, the notion of meaning is stratified into three or four types. First there is the primary meaning. If this is
inappropriate in a given context, then one moves to a secondary meaning, an extension of the primary meaning. Beyond
this is the suggested meaning, which may or may not be the same as the meaning intended by the speaker. Specific
conditions under which these different varieties are understood are discussed by the schools.

The various Indian theories of meaning are closely related to the overall stances taken by the different schools. Among
the factors which influence the notion of meaning are the ontological and epistemological views of a school, its views
regarding the role of God and scripture, its focus on a certain type of discourse, and its ultimate purpose in theorizing.

1 Artha in different Indian traditions
The most common Sanskrit term for meaning is artha. In the Western literature on the notion of meaning in the Indian
tradition, various terms, such as 'sense', 'reference', 'denotation', 'connotation', 'designatum' and 'intension', have been
used to render the Sanskrit. However, these terms carry specific nuances of their own, and no single term adequately
conveys the idea of artha. Artha basically refers to the object signified by a word. In numerous contexts, it stands for an
object in the sense of an element of external reality. For instance, Pata&ntildejali (second century BC) says that when a
word is pronounced, an artha, 'object', is understood. So in the case of 'Bring a bull' and 'Eat yoghurt', it is the artha that
is brought in and the artha that is eaten.

The logicians and ontologists belonging to the schools of Nyāya and Vaiśe˷ika, and the later combined school of Nyāya-
Vaiśe˷ika, set up an ontology containing substances, qualities, actions, relations, generic and particular properties, and
absences (see Nyāya-Vaiśe˷ika §§4-5). With this realistic ontology in mind, they argue that if the relation between a
word and its artha were a natural ontological relation, there should be real experiences of burning and cutting in one's
mouth after hearing words like agni ('fire') and asi ('sword'). Therefore this relation must be a conventional one
(saʒketa), the convention being established by God as part of his initial acts of creation. The relationship between a
word and the object it refers to is thought to be the desire of God that such-and-such a word should refer to such-and-
such an object. It is through this established conventional relationship that a word reminds the listener of its meaning.

The school of Mīmā˱sā represents the tradition of the exegesis of the scriptural Vedic texts (see Mīmā˱sā). However, in
the course of discussing and perfecting principles of interpretation, this school developed a full-scale theory of ontology
and an important theory of meaning. For the Mīmā˱sakas, the primary tenets are that the Vedic scriptural texts are eternal
and uncreated, and that they are meaningful. In this orthodox system, which remarkably defends the scriptures but
dispenses with the notion of God, the relationship between a word and its meaning is innate and eternal. Both Nyāya-
Vaiśe˷ikas and Mīmā˱sakas regard language as referring to external states of the world and not just to conceptual
constructions.

While the various schools of Buddhism differ among themselves concerning the nature of the external world, they all
seem to agree that language relates only to a level of conceptual constructions which have no direct relationship to the
actual state of the world. The tradition represented by Theravāda and the Vaibhā˷ikas argued that a word refers to a thing
which, in reality, is nothing but a composite entity made up of components which are momentary and in a continual flux
(see Momentariness, Buddhist doctrine of). The components, the momentary atomic

elements (dharma), are presumed to be more real, but words do not refer to this level of reality. Thus language gives us a
less than true picture of what is out there. Other schools of Buddhism, such as Vijñānavāda, reduced everything to
fleeting states of consciousness (vijñāna). From this point of view, the objects referred to by words are not even

http://www.texttribe.com/routledge/M/Meaning,%20Indian%20theories%20of.html June 17, 2010 6:55:20 PM

Not all schools of Indian philosophy accept all of these different kinds of signification functions for words. Depending upon the kind of signification function (vʖtti) involved in the emergence of the verbal cognition. However. and the notional/conceptual theories (vikalpa) of the Buddhists on the other.html June 17. they seem to have accepted the terminological lead of the neo-logicians. In general terms: 1 When a verbal cognition results from the primary signification function (śakti/abhidhāvʖtti/mukhyavʖtti) of a word. say . the object or content of that cognition is called primary meaning (śakyārtha/vācyārtha/abhidheya). the grammarians claimed that the meaning of a word is only a projection of intellect (bauddhārtha. which in this case is the level of emptiness (see Buddhist concept of Emptiness). a certain uniformity came about in the technical terminology used by different schools. Whether or not things are real. The school called Kevalavyaktivāda. such as Dignāga. and they hold substantially different views on the nature of words.Navya-Nyāya . remain meaningful within this theory. It may be said that the term artha stands for the object or content of a verbal cognition or a cognition which results from hearing a word (śābdabodhavi aya).%20Indian%20theories%20of. the object or content of that cognition is called secondary meaning (lak yārtha). the object or content of that cognition is called intended meaning (tātparyārtha). Without necessarily denying the external reality of objects in the world. if a word refers only to a conceptual construction.texttribe. Briefly stated. and not to a state of reality. For them. in general. buddhipratibhāsa). They are more like fictions (vikalpa) or illusions (māyā) created by a magician. the objects referred to by words are not even composites. Buddhist doctrine of). 3 When a verbal cognition results from the suggestive signification function (vya&ntildejanāvʖtti) of a word. and yet they cannot be defined by making a reference to any level of reality (see Nominalism. meanings. While all these schools engaged in pitched battles against each other. 2 fleeting states of consciousness (vijñāna). is only secondarily and subsequently understood from the word 'bull'. 2 When a verbal cognition results from the secondary signification function (lak a āvʖtti/gu avʖtti) of a word. for most of the schools. From this point of view. and the schools of Mīmā˱sā. the meaning of a word is closely related to the level of understanding. beginning with Bhart˵hari (fifth century). Following the discussion of artha by the neo-logician Gadādhara. the meaning belongs to a distinct type. The examples they offer. such as śaśasʖōga ('horn of a rabbit') and vandhyāsuta ('son of a barren woman'). The Sanskrit grammarians are thus not concerned with the truth- functional value of linguistic expressions. and Sanskrit grammar. Let us note some of the important differences.com/routledge/M/Meaning. then how are we to construe the conceptual construction? The apoha theory proposed by the Buddhist logicians says that external reality ultimately consists of momentary atomic elements which are so individualized and unique (svalak a a) that they are beyond perception and characterization. Our perceptions and conceptions involve generalization (sāmānyalak a a).and the individual object which possesses this generic property. Vedānta. the object or content of that cognition is called suggested meaning (vyaōgyārtha/dhvanitārtha). 2 Varieties of meaning By the middle of the second millennium AD. Mīmā˱sā claims that the sole primary meaning of the word 'bull' is the generic or class property (jāti) . the truth of an expression and its meaningfulness are not to be equated. Such a verbal cognition results from the cognition of a word (śābdajñāna) on the basis of an awareness of the signification function pertaining to that word (padani ʚhavʖttijñāna). and hence do not correspond to reality. The Mādhyamika school of Buddhism focused on the essential emptiness (śūnyatā) of all objects which are subject to dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda). 2010 6:55:20 PM . This also leaves language far away from the level of reality. developed a theory of word- meaning which we can call the 'exclusionary' theory of meaning (apoha). These concepts form the content of a person's cognitions derived from language. For them. namely a particular bull. A concept which corresponds to a given word must be finally construed as being nothing more than the exclusion of all other concepts. we can state the general framework of a semantic theory. 4 When a verbal cognition results from the intentional signification function (tātparyavʖtti) of a word. with some variations. and the relations between words and meanings. Other schools accepted this general terminology. a segment of the http://www. The tradition of the grammarians.initiated by Gaōgeśa. we do have concepts. The prominent schools in this period were the new school of Nyāya . This theory ultimately says that all concepts are different from each other. seems to have followed a middle path between the realistic theories of reference (bāhyārthavāda) developed by Nyāya-Vaiśe˷ika and Mīmā˱sā on the one hand. Later Buddhist logicians. the Navya-Naiyāyikas.'bullness'. the above terminology holds true.

the meaning of grouping is said to be not directly signified by the word 'and'. The tradition of Prābhākara Mīmā˱sā proposes that the words of a sentence already convey contextualized/connected meanings (anvitābhidhāna) and that the sentence-meaning is not different from a simple addition of these inherently connected word-meanings. 'co-signified' meaning. This is also the view of the early grammarians such as Pata&ntildejali and Kātyāyana. sentence-meaning is different from word- meanings. while the generic property bullness is merely a secondary meaning. Meaning may be something directly intended to be signified by an expression (abhidheya). and moods such as the imperative and optative are also traditionally included in the arthas signified by a verb root or an affix. Then there is a further distinction. Therefore. According to this theory.com/routledge/M/Meaning.html June 17. 4 Different views regarding sentence-meaning Most schools of Indian philosophy have an atomistic view of meaning and the meaning-bearing linguistic unit. The problem of use and mention of words is also handled by Sanskrit grammarians by treating the word itself as a part of the meaning it signifies. but that these two words are unable to signify it if used by themselves. 3 Nyāya school. Such divisions are useful fictions and have an explanatory value http://www. and is communicated through the concatenation (saʒsarga) of words rather than by the words themselves. For instance. The same applies to meaning. 2010 6:55:20 PM . The word-meaning may be viewed as a fusion of the meanings of stems. The theory of dyotyārtha argues that grouping is a specific meaning of the two words 'John' and 'Tom'. both being perceived simultaneously.can be meaning in a technical context (śāstrīya). stems. Another aspect of the concept of artha is revealed in the theory of dyotyārtha. past and future. The term artha stands for an external object (vastumātra). or it can be meaning as understood by people in actual communication (laukika). or it can be something which is inevitably signified (nāntarīyaka) when something else is really the intended meaning. the Naiyāyikas and the Bhā˹˹a Mīmā˱sakas propose that the words of a sentence taken by themselves convey uncontextualized/unconnected meanings. 3 Other dimensions of artha The scope of artha is actually not limited in Sanskrit texts to what is usually understood as the domain of semantics in the Western literature. If a particular item of information is deemed to have been derived through inference or presumption. particles such as ca ('and') do not have any lexical or primary meaning. For the later grammarian-philosopher Bhart˵hari. Sanskrit grammarians distinguish between various different kinds of meanings (artha). It covers elements such as gender (liōga) and number (saʒkhyā). and that these uncontextualized word-meanings are subsequently brought into a contextualized association with each other (abhihitānvaya). Tenses such as the present. The latter - that is. and the meaning of a sentence may be viewed as a fusion of the meanings of its constituent words. meaning in a linguistic sense . roots and affixes. argues that a particular individual bull is the sole primary meaning of the word 'bull'. however. as well as such semantic/ syntactic roles (kāraka) as 'agentness' (kartʖtva) and 'objectness' (karmatva). to put it in simple terms. or through presumption (arthāpatti). Nyāya generally argues that the primary meaning of a word is an individual object qualified by a generic property (jātiviśi ʚavyakti). different schools have specific proposals. roots and affixes. such as the meaning of an affix or a stem. He says that only a person ignorant of the real nature of language believes the divisions of sentences into words. The word 'and' used along with them is said to work as a catalyst that enables them to signify this special meaning. Everything that is understood from a word on the basis of some kind of signification function (vʖtti) is covered by the term artha. This is a unique way of handling this problem. through inference (anumāna). as well as for the object that is intended to be signified by a word (abhidheya). there are no divisions in speech acts and in communicated meanings. it is not included in the notion of word-meaning.texttribe. This means that a sentence is put together by combining words and words are put together by combining morphemic elements such as stems. roots and affixes to be real. They are said to help other words used in constructions with them to signify special aspects of their meaning. On the other hand. Different systems of Indian philosophy differ from each other over whether a given cognition is derived from a word on the basis of a signification function.%20Indian%20theories%20of. in the phrase 'John and Tom'. Beyond this generality.

Indian theories of. words and meanings had to be explained irrespective of one's metaphysical views. including language. Language.texttribe. the expression gaōgāyāʒ gho a literally refers to a colony of cowherds on the river Ganges. Meaning in Islamic philosophy MADHAVM. The theories of meaning were thus a significant part of the total agenda of each school and need to be understood in their specific contexts. DESHPANDE References and further reading Biardeau. divine or human. the secondary meaning is always something that is related to the primary meaning in some way. than in explaining how it works. I sleep here and my nightblind mother-in-law sleeps over there. for Mīmā˱sā. Thus the property of potness may be viewed as the śakyatāvacchedaka controlling the use of the word 'pot'. which is analysed and elaborated by authors such as Ānandavardhana (ninth century) in the tradition of Sanskrit poetics. 6 Why the differences? The nuances of these different theories are closely related to the markedly different interests of the schools within which they developed. In reality. Please make sure you do not stumble at night. Thus there is both a difficulty in justifying the linkage of word-meanings (anvayānupapatti) and a difficulty in justifying the literal or primary meaning in relation to the intention of the speaker (tātparyānupapatti). Indian theories of. Her husband away on a long journey. Thus. there is no sequence in the cognitions of these different components. aimed at weaning people away from all attachment to the world. The scriptural word was there to instruct people on how to perform proper ritual and moral duties. epistemology and ontology. meaning had to be eternal. Thus the poetic aspect of language goes well beyond the levels of lexical and metaphorical meanings.com/routledge/M/Meaning. It is a property whose possession by an entity is the necessary and sufficient condition for a given word to be used to refer to that entity. and argued that a valid sentence was a true picture of a state of reality. These interpretive difficulties nudge one away from the primary meaning of the expression to a secondary meaning which is related to that primary meaning. 4 in grammatical theory. and hence at showing the emptiness of everything. Scholars of Sanskrit poetics were interested in the poetic dimensions of meaning. See also: Interpretation. The sentence-meaning becomes an object or content of a single flash of cognition (pratibhā). a lovelorn young wife instructs a visiting young man: 'My dear guest. causing one to look for a secondary meaning.%20Indian%20theories%20of. Thus we understand the expression as referring to a colony of cowherds on the bank of the Ganges. and heightens aesthetic pleasure through such suggestions. M. was eternal. It is the third level of meaning. They were more interested in demonstrating how language fails to portray reality. 2010 6:55:20 PM . but had little interest in ontology. (1967) Th&eacuteorie de la connaissance et philosophie de la parole dans le brahmanisme classique (Theory of the Understanding and Philosophy of the Word in Classical Brahmanism). philosophy of. This would clearly go against the intention of the speaker. because its word par excellence.html June 17.(A comprehensive discussion of theories of meaning and their evolution and interaction in the traditions of http://www.' The suggested meaning is an invitation to the young man to come and share her bed. Consider the following instance of poetic suggestion. The foremost goal of Mīmā˱sā was to interpret and defend the Vedic scriptures. Nyāya-Vaiśe˷ikas were primarily interested in logic. Paris: Mouton. Lak a āvʖtti (the 'secondary signification function') is invoked in situations where the primary meaning of an utterance does not appear to make sense in view of the intention behind the utterance. the Vedic scriptures. or vya&ntildejanāvʖtti ('suggestive signification function'). Grammarians were interested in language and cognition. on the other hand. The Buddhists. However. uncreated and unrelated to a person's intention. For example. 5 Some important conceptions The terms śakyatāvacchedaka and pravʖttinimitta signify a property which determines the inclusion of a particular instance within the class of possible entities referred to by a word. uncreated and beyond any authorship. For them. Here it is argued that one obviously cannot have a colony of cowherds sitting on top of the Ganges. Language. but have no reality in communication.

discussion of a wide range of issues in Indian philosophy of language. but still very accessible. (1963) Indian Theories of Meaning. Mīmā˱sāand Nyāya-Vaiśe˷ika.html June 17. The Hague/Paris: Mouton.(A somewhat dated. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.) Matilal.(Very readable general introduction to Indian approaches to meaning. B. M.texttribe.K. Language and Reality: An Introduction to Indian Philosophical Studies.(The bulk of the book is an annotated translation of a seventeenth-century Sanskrit text on the meaning of nouns. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.com/routledge/M/Meaning.K. logic and language.(More extensive. Adyar Library Series 91. but still very useful. The introduction covers the history of a number of semantic theories in Sanskrit grammar and philosophy. K.) Matilal.M. (1971) Epistemology. (1992) The Meaning of Nouns: Semantic Theory in Classical and Medieval India. Madras: Adyar Library and Research Centre.) Deshpande. B. 2010 6:55:20 PM .%20Indian%20theories%20of. no English translation is available as yet. Logic and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis.) Raja. 5 Sanskrit grammar. (1985) Logic. account.) http://www.