Vakyapadiya (study of the concept of Sentence)

by Sarath P. Nath | 2018 | 36,086 words

This page relates ‘Definition of Sentence (vakya)’ of the study on Vakyapadiya by Bhartrhari and his treatment of the Concept of Sentence in Language. Bhartrhari was a great grammarian and philosopher who explored the depth and breadth of Sanskrit grammar. These pages analyse the concepts and discussions on sentence and sentence-meaning presented in the Vakyapadiya, against the different systems of knowledge prevalent in ancient India (such as Mimamsa, Nyaya and Vyakarana).

Bhartṛhari interprets the concept of sentence in a two-dimensional way. On one side, he gives a working definition of sentence as the group of syntactically connected words, while on the other side, the term vākya as a synonym of śabda. Bhartṛhari begins his discussion on sentence by presenting available theories and definitions of sentence from various schools of thoughts.

In the first two verses of the Vākyakāṇḍa, he enumerates eight different views about sentence held by the ancient thinkers.

ākhyātaśabdaḥ saṅghāto jātiḥ saṅghātavartinī eko' navayavaḥ śabdaḥ kramo budhyanusamhṛtiḥ.
padamādyaṃ pṛthak sarvaṃ padaṃ sākāṅkṣamityapi vākyaṃ prati matirbhinnā bahudhā nyāyavādinām
  —(Vākyapadīya, Vākyakāṇḍa 2.1-2)

According to various views, sentence may be defined as:

  1. the verb,
  2. the collection of words,
  3. the universal inhering in the collection of words,
  4. the one indivisible word,
  5. the sequence of words,
  6. the unification in the mind,
  7. the first word and
  8. each word requiring the others. (Vākyapadīya, 2.1-2, trans. KAS Iyer).

These definitions may not describe all the aspects of sentence, but they can be taken as different ways of looking at sentence by different thinkers.

1. Saṅghātaḥ Vākyam

The word 'Saṅghāta' literally means 'a collection of something'. In the present context, saṅghāta can be taken as a group of words, the meanings of which are interconnected. Thus, according to this view, sentence is the saṅghāta or the group of words. This view can be traced in the aphorism " samarthaḥ padavidhiḥ" of Pāṇini (2.1.1), which says that the vidhi related with the words depends on sāmarthya or the capability. While commenting this aphorism, Patañjali remarks that words are equally capable of forming sentences and compounds[1].

Bhartṛhari sets forth his view on this definition in the following verses:-

kevalena padenārtho yāvānevābhidhīyate vākyasthaṃ tāvato' rthasya tadāhurabhidhāyakam.
sambandhe sati yattvanyadādhikyam upajāyate vākyarthameva taṃ prāhuranekapadasamśrayam
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.41-42)

K A S Iyer translates these verses as:

“It has been declared that a word, as part of a sentence, expresses the same extent of meaning as it does when it is in isolation. Whatever extra meaning is understood when the words (in a sentence) are connected together, is the meaning of the sentence and it rests on many words.” (Vākyapadīya, 2.41-42).

A word, which expresses its meaning when it is in isolation, expresses the same individual meaning in the sentence also. But in a sentence, it is connected syntactically as well as semantically with the other words in the sentence and thus we understand the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Here, it should be noted that, when we understand the complete meaning of a sentence, it is different from the aggregation of individual word-meanings. Therefore, Bhartṛhari calls it as ādhikyam in the above verse. According to this view, just as the cooking can be done with many instruments and as a vehicle travels with the help of its parts, interconnected words together denote the meaning of a sentence.

Patañjali also says what we get from a sentence as 'extra' can be treated as its meaning:

yadatrādhikyam vākyārthaḥ saḥ,
  —(Mahābhāṣya, under Pāṇini 2.3.50).

2. Kramaḥ Vākyam

This view is well explained by Bimal Krishna Matilal as the sentence is nothing but the 'sequence' of words and the sentence meaning belongs to this sequence (1992, p.95). The followers of this school argue that, there is no separate entity called sentence, but the mere sequence of the words is expressive.

Bhartṛhari gives a clear picture of this definition in this verse:

santa eva viśeṣā ye padārtheṣu vyavasthitaḥ
te kramād anugamyante na vākyam abhidhāyakam
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.49)

The particularizations which exist already in the word-meanings are understood from their sequence and there is no expressive sentence beyond that (Vākyapadīya, 2.49, KAS Iyer). In fact, a sentence refers to the proper placement of words. Since this is not possible without accepting a definite order, Krama or the sequence of words is to be accepted as a sentence. What is worthy of note here is that the sequence is a property of time.

But how can the sequence of words alone be expressive? A word also is nothing other than the sequence of phonemes and audibility is also common for phoneme and word. Then why can't we say that sequence of phonemes is also expressive?

Bhartṛhari criticizes this view upon this point. He says:

"padākhyā vākyasamjñā ca śabdatvaṃ neṣyate tayoḥ"
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.52).

While commenting this verse, KAS Iyer clarifies that:

"The phoneme and the word are audible but mere audibility does not entitle them to be called śabda. For that, they must convey the meaning, they must be vācaka. They are not. Only sequence is so."
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.52).

Both phonemes and words are audible entities and hence both of them can be treated as śabda. But sequence of phonemes cannot express the sentence meaning. It is understood only from the sequence of words. Thus, sequence is the sentence and sentence meaning is understood by the inter connection of word meanings.

Puṇyarāja also supports this view in his commentary on Vākyakāṇḍa:

tat kramaścaiva vākyam, samsargo vākyārtha iti,
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.53).

3. Ākhyātaśabdaḥ Vākyam

The word ākhyāta literally means kriyā or verb. Yāska also states " bhāvapradhānam ākhyātam" (2002, p.4), which can be translated as: ākhyāta is that word, in which kriyā has prime significance. The word bhāva signifies kriyā.

Bhaṭṭojidīkṣita supports this view, saying that

" vyāpāro bhāvanā saivotpādanā saiva ca kriyā"
  —(Vaiyākaraṇasiddhāntakārikā, 1.5).

The words vyāpāra, bhāvanā, utpādanā and kriyā are used synonymously. Hence the above definition says that, a sentence must have a finite verb or in several contexts, the finite verb is the sentence. The verb is considered to be the prime factor in a sentence as all the other words in the sentence are connected to the verb to give a unified sense. Because of this prime position of the verb in a sentence, Bhartṛhari puts forth the view that ākhyātaśabda or the verb can be called a sentence.

He explains this in the verse:-

vākyaṃ tadapi manyante yat padaṃ caritakriyam.
antareṇa kriyāśabdaṃ vākyādeva hi darśanāt
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.325)

This verse gives a vivid picture about the word ' ākhyātaśabda'. He says that even a noun impregnated with the idea of action can be treated as a sentence. According to Bhartṛhari, the word ' ākhyāta' signifies not verb, but the idea of an action. Hence a sentence need not be consisted a verb, but an idea of action should be present there.

This is evidently known from the verse:-

yāvat sidham asidhaṃ vā sādhyatvenābhidhīyate
āśritakramarūpatvāt sā kriyetyabhidhīyate
  —(Vākyapadīya, 3.8.1)

Bhartṛhari describes verb as a group of actions performed in a sequential manner. No matter it is siddha or asidha or sādhya and hence a verb or kriyā is that word, which signifies an action.

By defining sentence as "ākhyātaṃ sāvyayakārakaviśeṣaṇaṃ vākyam" (Kātyāyana, under Pāṇini, 2.1.1), Kātyāyana also seems to be in favour of this view. He opines that a verb qualified by avyaya, kāraka and viśeṣaṇa can be called a sentence. Sometimes even in the absence of these qualifiers, a single verb also can be a sentence. In the absence of qualifiers, they can be supplied naturally through a device called adhyāhāra. In most of the cases, a sentence will not be complete without a verb. At this point Bhartṛhari puts forth a different dimension that a sentence can make sense even in the absence of verb, but the idea of action should be present. Anyway,

4. Padamādyaṃ Vākyam

Those who hold the view that the first word is sentence opine that a word in an expression or sentence is not a separate entity but it is syntactically connected with other words in the sentence or it is sākāṅkṣaṃ. Hence words in a sentence do not convey their individual meaning, but a connected meaning which arises from their mutual connection. Each word expresses a meaning in connection with another word which can be called a connected meaning.

Bhartṛhari explains this view as:

viśeṣaśabāḥ keṣāñcit sāmānyapratirūpakaḥ
śabdāntarābhisambandhād vyajyante pratipattṛṣu
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.17)

A word does not convey its individual meaning in the sentence, though it seems to be the same as in another expression. It conveys a meaning as connected with the other words in the expression. So the meaning of the sentence is already contained in, though only vaguely, the first word. Thus the first word in a sentence can also be treated as a sentence.

An objection may be raised here that, if the very first word itself denotes the meaning of the sentence, the remaining words would be useless. Bhartṛhari answers this saying that the remaining words in the sentence make the sentence meaning expressed by the first word clearer. Hearers understand the meaning better when all the words are uttered.

This is explained in the verse:-

teṣāṃ tu kṛtsno vākyārthaḥ pratibhedaṃ samāpyate
vyaktopavyañjanā sidhirarthasya pratipattṛṣu
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.18)

This verse states that the whole of the sentence meaning is contained in each word and hearers understand the meaning better when all the words in the sentence are uttered (Vākyapadīya, 2.18, trans. KAS Iyer). Hence we can say that the meaning of a sentence is the meaning of its first word as connected with the meanings of other words (sākāṅkṣaṃ). Here, the Vṛtti says that the very first word expresses its meaning as connected with the meanings of the other words and hence the remaining words denote no new meaning apart from the connected meaning of the first word. But they only make the meaning of the sentence clearer which is already expressed obscurely by the first word. Thus from the hearer's point of view, the sentence meaning is clear only when all the words are uttered. The followers of this view state that no word conveys a meaning which is not connected with the meanings of the other.

5. Pṛthak Sarvaṃ Padaṃ Sākāṅkṣaṃ Vākyam

This definition of sentence is only a modified view of the above, which says that each word in the sentence contains the whole sentencemeaning and hence each word can be called a sentence. Bhartṛhari puts forth this view in the same verse, which is cited above (Vākyapadīya, 2.18). Those who hold this view says that the whole sentence-meaning is concentrated not only in the first word, but in each word in a sentence.

6. Eko' navayavaḥ Śabdaḥ Vākyam

Bhartṛhari introduces this view saying that a sentence is not formed by the mere aggregation of words. A sentence is an indivisible unit of language. It is for the sake of convenience as well as for facilitating our learning and understanding of a language, that we split the indivisible sentence into smaller parts called words and phonemes[2]. Hence, even though a sentence appears to have sequence, it is really without any. This indivisible sentence is either internal or external to the language-user[3]. When it exists within the speaker before utterance, it is internal and as it is manifested through speech process, it is external also (Vākyapadīya, 2.19). This indivisible unit, which is expressive of meaning, might be understood as the indivisible sphoṭa. Here, Bhartṛhari elaborately expounds his views of sentence sphoṭa.

According to this view, sentence is the indivisible external sphoṭa, which is eternal. To explain this unique concept, he describes an example of citra-jñāna or the cognition of a multi-colored picture.

In Bhartṛhari's words:-

citrasyaikasvarūpasya yathā bhedanidarśanaiḥ
nīlādibhiḥ samākhyānam kriyate bhinnalakṣaṇaiḥ
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.8)

Just as a multi-colored picture is explained through its different colors which belong to its parts, the sentence, which is self-sufficient and complete, is explained through individual words which require one another (Vākyapadīya, 2.8-9, trans. K A S Iyer). A picture can convey a complete sense of understanding in its whole, but can be explained through the different colors in it. The same is happening in the cognition of a sentence also. A sentence is self-sufficient and self-expressive of a complete thought, but is explained through individual words. Hence the appearance of divisibility of sentences and sentence-meanings is deceptive. Matilal mentions that this view is like the 'cognition of multiplicity' (Matilal, 1992, p.97).

This view gets clear as we go through the commentary of Puṇyarāja on the verse 2.7. It says:

Bhartṛhari really wants to set forth the following view; the sentence is the sphoṭa either external or internal. It is external when it is clearly uttered. Till then, it is internal. In any case, it is indivisible. It has two aspects: the sound aspect and the meaning aspect, which are identified with one another. It is essentially in the nature of knowledge or consciousness because it illuminates an object. Because of articulation, it assumes the form of sound. Though indivisible, it appears to have divisions just as our complex cognition, though one, it appears to have inner differentiation because of the objects in it. The picture is one, but we seem to see different colors within it. That is what happens with the sentence and the sentence-meaning. Both are indivisible like the flavor of a cold drink, or the juice in a pea-hen's egg, or the form of a picture, the narasiṃha, the gavaya and our perception of a picture. The indivisible sentence is sphoṭa and the indivisible sentence-meaning is Pratibhā. But both appear to have divisions. (Vākyapadīya, 2.7, trans. K A S Iyer).

Grammarians accept this view as the Akhaṇḍavākyasphoṭa theory. They accept sphoṭa, which is manifested through uttered sounds and is indivisible. According to them, words and syllables are only imaginary tools for explaining the sentence.

Bhartṛhari clearly states his view about sentence-sphoṭa in the first kāṇḍa itself: -

pade na varṇā vidyante varṇeṣvavayavā na ca
vākyāt padānām atyantaṃ praviveko na kaścana
  —(Vākyapadīya, 1.73)

What we can deduce from this verse is that the syllables in a word and words in a sentence are not real, but only conceptual. So we cannot differentiate a sentence into words.

Nāgeśa also refers to this theory in his Paramalaghumañjūṣā as:

tatra prativākyaṃ saṅketagrahāsambhavād vākyānvākhyānasya laghūpāyenāśakyatvācca kalpanayā padāni pravibhajya pade prakṛtipratyayabhāgān pravibhajya kalpitābhyāmanvayavyatirekābhyāṃ tattadarthavibhāgaṃ śāstramātraviṣayaṃ parikalpayanti smācāryāḥ.
  —(1985, p.6).

7. Jātiḥ Saṅghātavartinī Vākyam

In this view, Bhartṛhari states that the universal of the constitutive group of words can be assumed as a sentence.

It is well described by Bhartṛhari as:—

yathākṣepaviśeṣe' pi karmabhedo na gṛhyate
āvṛttau vyajyate jatiḥ karmabhirbhramaṇādibhiḥ
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.20)

Bhartṛhari explains this view by elucidating an example of rotating an object. A movement like rotating or turning consists of a series of momentary movements. While rotating an object, it starts from a point and ends at the same point and the next rotation replaces it. Each rotation is unique in their speed etc. and hence they cannot co-exist and form a whole, of which they would be parts. Hence we may consider the universal of the movement called rotation for the cognition of the whole. There are other movements such as lifting etc occurs during the process, but because of the resemblance between these actions and rotation, this universal is capable of producing the cognition of the whole rotation. The process is similar in the cognition of a sentence also. In an utterance, syllables, words and sentences are expressed by Dhvanis and the listener grasps the whole meaning of the utterance. Though the listener grasps the sphoṭa of phonemes, words and sentences, which may differ from another, the manifesting sound appear to be the same.

It is clearly stated in the Vṛtti of Vākyapadīya as:—

śabdajātereva vākyatve bhramaṇatvādayo dṛṣṭāntatvenopanyastāḥ. varṇatvapadatvavākyatvāni hi tulyātulyopavyañjanāni yāvat tulyopavyañjanasannipātaḥ tāvat buddhibhedam kurvanti. katham? apacitadhvanivyaṅgyastāvad eko varṇaḥ, tasyābhivyaktinimittaiḥ sadṛśairanyaiśca śrutibhinnairekam niravayavam ca padam vyajyate thataiva tulyātulyaiḥ pracitatamairvākyamiti.
  —(the Vṛtti of Vākyapadīya of 2.21).

Puṇyarāja opines that this definition is what Bhartṛhari elaborates as Jātisphoṭa while the former as Vyaktisphoṭa.

8. Budhyanusamhṛtiḥ Vākyam

Both the above definitions refer to the external sphoṭa, which is described under 2.1.7. Among the definitions explained above, the former (Eko' navayavaḥ śabdaḥ) regards the sentence as a particular whole while the latter views it as a universal (Jātiḥ Saṅghātavartinī). The later grammarians called them as vyakti-sphoṭa and jāti -sphoṭa respectively. This is evidently stated by Puṇyarāja as:-" evaṃ tāvad bahīrūpaṃ vyaktisphoṭaṃ jātisphoṭaṃ vā vācakam āśritya vākyaṃ vyākhyātam" (Vākyapadīya, 2.29).

The view that sentence is Budhyanusamhṛti represents the internal sphoṭa.

In this definition, the term ' budhyanusamhṛti' can be explained as:

'anukrameṇa samhṛtiḥ anusamhṛtiḥ, kalpitānām padabudhīnām anusamhṛtiḥ budhyanusamhṛtiḥ',

Which means the words in a sentence are only imaginary and are dissolved or unified in the cognition. The sentence is the real word and the words are only for the purpose of analysis (apoddhāra). This real word is an inner entity which is one, indivisible and without any inner sequence. This inner entity cannot be separated as sentence and meaning; while it consists of consciousness.

All these views are discussed by Bhartṛhari as:-

yadantaḥ śabdatattvaṃ tu nādairekaṃ prakaśitam tamāhurapare śabdaṃ tasya vākye tathaikatā
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.30)

What is peculiar to this view is that the thoughts or ideas, which are communicated by uttered words, are also referred to as language by Bhartṛhari. Thus, he enunciates a psycho-linguistic perspective of language in this view of sentence.

The external aspects of the word, Jāti and Vyakti have already been pointed out under the definitions ' Jātiḥ saṅghātavartinī' and 'Eko' navayavaḥ śabdaḥ' respectively. It can be seen in the Vṛtti that this external sentence is like the written symbols (akṣaracihnavat). Sometimes we mistake these symbols to the real word. It is only a symbol of the real sentence which is an inner entity and is an indivisible unit (Vākyapadīya, 2.30).

Bhartṛhari again points out that not only sentence, but the meaning of sentence is also indivisible (" arthabhāgaistathā teṣām āntaro' rthaḥ prakāśyate. " Vākyapadīya, 2.31). It says that the inner meaning or the sentencemeaning is manifested by the parts of the sentence. Word and meaning are inseparable divisions (apṛthaksthitau) of the one inner principle (Vākyapadīya, 2.31). Hence both sentence and its meaning are inner entities and are identical. After explaining this, Puṇyarāja puts forth a relevant question. It is well known and accepted by all the philosophers that word is 'the expression' and meaning is 'what is expressed'. According to the verse cited above, if both the inner entities and identical, how can they said to be distinguished as expression and expressed to each other?

Bhartṛhari, keeping this doubt in mind proceeds to next verse:-

prakāśakaprakāśyatvaṃ kāryakāraṇarūpatā
antarmātrātmanastasya śabdatattvasya sarvadā
  —(Vākyapadīya, 2.32)

The inner word-principle has got both the powers of being expressive (prakāśaka) and of being expressed (prakāśya). In other words, the same word-principle can be the cause as well as the effect. In short, the 'One Word-Principle' contains the seeds of all manifestations (Vākyapadīya, 2.32).

This is well stated in the first kāṇḍa of Vākyapadīya:—

ekasya sarvabījasya yasya ceyamanekadhā
bhoktṛbhoktavyarūpeṇa bhogarūpeṇa ca sthitiḥ
  —(Vākyapadīya, 1.4)

The language principle śabdatattva, which acts as the cause of all utterances is one, but manifested as many, like bhoktā, bhoktavya and bhoga.

We may have a vivid perception of this view as we go through the Vṛtti of 2.31, which interprets the process of hearing and understanding of an utterance.

When an utterance is heard, the process of understanding is like this:

It is well known that the word principle is mainly the indivisible inner entity and that it is grasped through its indefinable and unreal parts. Similarly, the meanings reflected in the intellect are experienced as identical with the external objects. This is according to the view that it is eternal; it manifests itself according to the power of sequence of the intellect. An external object is not fit for practical purposive usage without the intellect with which it is wrongly identified. All worldly usage is done with objects which have been grasped in the intellect. Thus both the word and the object are in the intellect. (Vākyapadīya, 2.31, trans. K A S Iyer).

It is clear from this description that ultimately the external form of word and external objects are transient as well as unreal, but at the same time they inspire the intellect. Even though intellect is without any sequence, it has the power to grasp things in a sequential manner. Hence when an external object is perceived, it inspires the intellect, where meaning and word are identical.

Footnotes and references:


The interpretation of Patañjali has already been elaborately discussed under 2.3.3 in this thesis.


Bhartṛhari introduced a unique method for the analysis of a sentence into its parts, which is named as apoddhāra. This is a mental process, through which, words are differentiated from the sentence. In reality, sentence is a unified whole, but when the meaning of the sentence is cognised; the hearer differentiates the words from it afterwards.


Modern scholars explain the concept of sphoṭa as the language symbol or as an 'auditory image', which is sequence-less and underlies the uttered speech. The listener first grasps this language symbol through the uttered speech, which is sequential nature. This is known as the external śabda or sphoṭa. Later, this language symbol or sphoṭa transforms into meaning as a flash of understanding known as Pratibhā. This intuitive level of śabda is the internal sphoṭa.

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