Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya: grammar and metaphysics

PublicationSanskrit Reading Room
Date19 February 2018

Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya: grammar and metaphysics

At the end of January 2018 Dr Vincenzo Vergiani travelled from Cambridge to London to share his expertise with a Sanskrit Reading Room packed with vyākaraṇa – Sanskrit grammar – enthusiasts. Dr Vergiani has been studying Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya for many years. He is shortly to publish a translation and study of the Sādhanasamuddeśa from the third book of the Vākyapadīya with the commentary of Helārāja. In this session we read some of the introductory verses of the Sādhanasamuddeśa after Dr Vergiani introduced the way in which Bhartṛhari deftly moves from the technical matters of grammar to the highest metaphysical concepts.

Despite being a philosopher with a complex metaphysical vision Bhartṛhari is associated with the Grammarians rather than a philosophical school. Bhartṛhari is the fourth in the Pāṇinian lineage following the trimuni and is dated to c. 5th century CE. Regardless of this association with Pāṇini the Brahmanical tradition was slow to incorporate his ideas, which first attracted the attention of the Buddhists led by Dignāga. Helārāja commented on the third book of the Vākyapadīya and it is Dr Vergiani’s contention that Helārāja sustains the popularity of Bhartṛhari, contributing to his influence on Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta’s Pratyabijñā or Recognition School in the 10th century.

Book one of the Vākyapadīya, the Brahmakāṇḍa, sets the scene which is developed in books two and three. Book two, the Vākyakāṇḍa, describes Bhartṛhari’s theory of language. Bhartṛhari’s most important contribution is his contention that the real unit of verbal communication is not the word but the sentence. This has various metaphysical implications and reflects a key aspect of the early grammatical tradition – the close observation of actual lived experience of human beings: we have an idea, we say words, and we understand them as a whole concept. Despite the basic unit of communication being for Bhartṛhari a sentence, he had to reconcile this with the Pāṇinian tradition which deals mostly with words. He argued we cannot describe language through sentences because they are innumerable and unique, so we should work with words on an analytical level. Thus Bhartṛhari links these two levels, words and sentences, with the presuppositions of Pāṇinian grammar.

Bhartṛhari’s central idea is that language and intellect are two sides of the same coin. The famous Vākyapadīya 1.131-2 states that there is no knowledge that does not conform to language. All knowledge is transfixed by language. Despite the disagreement of all other schools Bhartṛhari argues that even at the stage of reception of sensory data the mind organises it by linguistic categories. Even our sense of self is defined by linguistic categories: I and not-I.

Thus language and cognition cannot really be separated. And language is brahman, brahman is śabda. This nondualist view holds that language is the real, ultimate nature of brahman. Language is the organising principle of reality and the whole universe is the evolute of language. Language and cognition are never false or inferior. Recent Indian tradition and Indology have claimed that Bhartṛhari is a proto-Advaita Vedāntin. Dr Vergiani argued that though Bhartṛhari is a Vedāntin he in no way presented language as detached from ultimate truth. For Bhartṛhari the human mind is unable to grasp reality in its entirety: we can only operate by carving out whatever is immediate to our needs. Yet despite these limitations our language is still a reflection of the universal consciousness. Ordinary experience is of no less value than, say, yogic experience, it is simply fragmentary. There is no knowledge without language – it is not possible to have even the most basic instant of awareness without having language as an organising principle which gives it shape.

The mind is unable to grasp that everything is one with brahman and operates through distinctions: the subject and object. Even regarding the objects of the world (as a silent polemic against the Buddhists) we never get to know the thing itself. Because language steps in to give shape to the sensory data. We understand through received notions and expectations.

In the reading at hand Bhartṛhari develops the distinction the mind makes in cognising reality between things and actions. This is deeply rooted in all languages, expressed in grammatical terms as nouns and verbs. This fundamental distinction underlying things and processes is raised to a metaphysical principle which for Bhartṛhari is crucial: when brahman unfolds into the phenomenal reality (which is a beginningless process), the first powers to manifest are time (kālaśakti) and space (dikśakti).

Both Pāṇini and Bhartṛhari are cautious around the definitions of nouns and verbs. Pāṇini, Aṣṭadhyāyī 1.2.45, defines dravya (substance) as anything that can be indicated by a pronoun. Bhartṛhari, Vākyapadīya 3.4.3, defines dravya as anything that is referred to by a pronoun. Often what we are referring to is a whole series of events that can in no way be a substance. In relation to action, for Bhartṛhari, whether complete or incomplete in itself, it can be expressed as sādhya, ‘to be completed’. Patāñjali has a very interesting idea of action, accepted by Bhartṛhari, that real actions (‘he is making a pot’) are beyond perception because they are mentally constructed. Since action has temporal development (beginning, middle, end), perception only grasps the object in the various stages that it goes through but is never put together as a whole. The whole is put together by the mind. To take for example the sentence, as Patāñjali does in his Mahābhāṣya, ‘devadatta edhaiḥ sthālyām odanaṁ pacati’ (‘Devadatta cooks rice in a pan with firewood’). Whilst apparently a very ordinary sentence the event that is described is composed of several intermediate stages – the carrying of firewood, the drawing of water from the well, etc. This leads Bhartṛhari to the idea of the semantics of verbs. There is a core meaning which is the process that cannot be missed if you are using that term: e.g. √pac – something that was hard and inedible becomes soft and edible. In a sentence such as odanaḥ pacyate “rice is cooking”, that meaning is present even though there is no reference to human agency.

Dr Vergiani’s explanation of the opening verses of our reading, Vākyapadīya 3.7.1-2, was that Bhartṛhari emphasises what was found in the Mahābhāṣya: at any given moment we nominally focus on whatever is of immediate concern or benefit to our senses. The world goes on when we are not paying attention, and when we pay attention we carve something out and enumerate it.

Vākyapadīya 3.7.3 elaborates this to explain that the verbal expression of factors of action is based on states of mind. The mind perceives distinctions whether real or unreal in things. Dr Vergiani explained that the way we conceptualise and express any event in the world is a mental construct. The distinctions are the basic ones intrinsic in language. The example in 3.7.4 is where the speaker separates the Pāñcālas, which he had previously conceived as being with the Kurus, and now perceives them as moving away. In the Mahābhāṣya the ablative is used as a comparison of discussion – ‘the Pāñcālas are more refined than the Kurus,’ kurubhyaḥ pañcalāḥ abhirūpatarāḥ. Having put them together, then mentally separated them on the basis of certain characteristics, one group has a greater measure than the other.

Questioned about the pramāṇas of this text Dr Vergiani suggested that whilst you could distinguish pramāṇas for discursive purpose you could not really separate them because pramāṇas are infused with linguistic categories. When you see (pratyakṣa) a tree you only see the front – it is actually informal inference (anumāna) to assume it’s a whole tree. Dr Vergiani shared that what he liked about Bhartṛhari was that many of his comments appeal to common sense.

On the nature of action, sādhanatva, 3.7.38 states that whether agency is identical with or different from its substratum it is expressed as different; the world or common people consider language a reliable source of knowledge, and this śāstra follows that common sense. Common sense is the Grammarians’ – and Bhartṛhari’s – vantage point. Even if you are a yogin, and have gone beyond the concept of self, when you speak with someone you will have to call yourself ‘I’, and them as ‘you’. When grammarians look at language, cognition and epistemology, the direct reflections are always very close to the actual experience of people. The insight that understanding occurs to us in a flash, pratibha, rather than words strung together individually, is not an abstract idea but appeals to experience.

Whilst awaiting the publication of the translation and study of the Vākyapadīya if you would like to review the work of Dr Vincenzo Vergiani please see:

Vergiani, V., 2017. ‘Bhartṛhari on Language, Perception and Consciousness’, in Oxford Handbook of Indian Philosophy. Eds. J. Ganeri. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 231-252.

Vergiani, V., 2016. ‘Helārāja on omniscience, āgama and the origin of language’, in Around Abhinavagupta: Aspects of the Intellectual History of Kashmir from the Ninth to the Eleventh Century. Eds. Eli Franco and Isabelle Ratié. Berlin: LIT Verlag, pp. 531-608.

Vergiani, V. and Cox, W., eds., 2013. Bilingualism and cross-cultural fertilisation: Sanskrit and Tamil in medieval India. Pondicherry: Institut français de Pondichéry: École française d’Extrême-Orient.

This includes Dr Vergiani’s ‘The adoption of Bhartṛhari’s classification of the grammatical object in Cēṉāvaraiyar’s commentary on the Tolkāppiyam’, pp. 161-197.

Image caption: Vākyapadīya. Cambridge University Library. MS Add.876