Self/Consciousness Is Talking to Yourself

By Lucy May Constantini

For those of us whose brains occasionally freeze around the finer points of linguistic philosophy, the notion of talking to oneself, or, less crudely, possessing a subtle inner language, is a good signpost to the theme of the Sanskrit Reading Room of May 23rd, led by Dr. Marco Ferrante. Dr. Ferrante joined us at SOAS from Oxford, where he is the Berggruen Fellow in Comparative Philosophy. His research interests focus on South Asian epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of language, with a focus on the Sanskrit grammarian Bhartṛhari and non-dualist traditions.

The title of this Reading Room was “Knowledge, Consciousness and Language: a dialogue between Bhartṛhari and the Pratyabhijñā”. Dr. Ferrante traced the relationship between the work of Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta (a couple of generations apart from one another in the Pratyabhijñā lineage of the branch of Tantra that is Kashmir Śaivism) and the thinking of Bhartṛhari, who was the fourth in the line of great Sanskrit grammarians which began with Pāṇini, and whose work predates that of Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta by about five centuries. Dr. Ferrante began with the questions “Is knowledge conceptual?”, the view maintained both by Bhartṛhari and by the Pratyabhijñā school, “Or is it indeterminate?”, the position maintained by the Buddhists.

Key to this debate is the relationship between perception and language. For Bhartṛhari, knowledge cannot be devoid of linguistic form, and his propositional view holds that every perception is conceptual. Buddhist thinkers such as Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, on the other hand, maintain that perception is always sensory. For them, concepts are later super-imposed on these sense perceptions, but do not form part of the initial cognition. Indeed, it is this super-imposition of concepts on our sensory cognitions that leads to suffering. This, however, poses a soteriological conundrum: from this indeterminate standpoint, eliminating suffering requires recognising that perception is all that exists, but this recognition is itself a concept – which, by this definition, is not real – hence the paradox. The third position, which straddles the other two, is that favoured by Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā thinkers. For them, cognition has two stages: pure perception followed by a conceptualisation.

Dr. Ferrante pointed out common features in the viewpoints of Bhartṛhari and the Pratyabhijñā lineage: namely a non-dual approach to reality and the belief that language is the most important aspect in dealing with that reality. He encouraged us to consider the following questions:

  • What is meaning?
  • What is the relationship between sound and meaning?
  • Is meaning found in the word or the sentence? (an idea also touched on by Dr. Vincenzo Vergiani in the Reading Room he led last January on Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya)
  • Why is language so important? And in what sense?

He pointed out that Kashmir Śaiva thinkers are indebted to Bhartṛhari for the notion that all experience is imprinted with language; that no experience is possible without language. Language here, however, does not refer only to fully-formed words and sentences, because it is clearly false to posit that a person who cannot speak, hear or read has no cognition. Both the grammarians and the Pratyabhijñā school explain experience in terms of varyingly subtle layers of “languaging,” as Dr. Ferrante termed it, the subtlest of which long precede the manifestation of human communication in its most concrete forms of words or sentences.

Furthermore, for them, every cognition involves some aspect of self-awareness. So, for example, when I look upon that stalwart of Sanskrit metaphysics, the ubiquitous pot, my subjectivity is inescapable. Modern philosophers, according to Dr. Ferrante, mostly disagree, but for the Pratyabhijñā teachers, I not only perceive the pot but simultaneously perceive that I am perceiving. So in perceiving the pot, there is always a sense of “I”, of the self that is doing the perceiving; there can be no awareness of the pot without the awareness of the self that perceives it. And in all this, consciousness remains language-informed.

2010EA6766_2500 pot v and a
Domestic round pot with raised head. 400BCE-600CE. Terracota, Kausambi, India. Victoria and Albert Museum. Ceramics, South and Southeast Asia Collection.

We began with a section[1] of the Īśvarapratyabhijñāvimarśinī, composed by Utpaladeva, as a refutation of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self. The commentary is by Abhinavagupta, and together they span the 10th and 11th centuries C.E. Utpaladeva tells us that consciousness (citi) is self-reflexive awareness (pratyavamarśātmā), the supreme word (parā vāc), arises of its own will (svarasoditā), is free (svātantryā) and has the quality of the sovereignty of the Supreme Self (aiśvaryaṃ paramātmana). The essential nature of pratyavamarśātmā, Abhinavagupta explains in the commentary, is camatkāra, a disputed term taken to mean self-savouring or wonder, in which the cognitive experience occurs hand-in-hand with an awareness of the self doing the perceiving. A pot, he tells us, has no self-savouring, is not conscious of itself and does not shine. This is not the case for Joe Bloggs (the generic Caitra, in Sanskrit), who possesses a luminous self-awareness, is able to attend to his mental states and, unlike our pot, is able to perceive things outside himself and be conscious of this. For Abhinavagupta, pratyavamarśātmā consists of what Dr. Ferrante called “languaging” (śabdana). This subtle inner speech, the capacity for language, is independent of more concrete linguistic conventions, for Abhinavagupta tells us the supreme word exists at different levels, both supreme and not supreme (parāparaṃ). Dr. Ferrante stressed that this relationship to subtle language is an important characteristic of self-reflexive awareness in the Īśvarapratyabhijñāvimarśinī.

Moving backwards through time, and with time in the Reading Room running short, we turned to Chapter 1, verse 123, of Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya (5th century C.E.). The commentary is traditionally held to be composed by him too, though some scholars now dispute this. Nonetheless, as Dr. Ferrante remarked, if you want to contradict 1500 years of tradition, you need to be pretty sure of your arguments, so for the purposes of the day, we went along with tradition. Bhartṛhari tells us that all knowledge shines by language, both the luminosity and the relationship between language and knowledge clear forerunners of the Pratyabhijñā arguments we saw earlier. The commentary explains that all cognition is penetrated by language; for example, the perceptions of a person running are an indeterminate state of cognition in which the seeds of verbal potentiality become manifest. The objects experienced by the runner are given shape by an understanding imbued with language; they are rendered comprehensible by language. These seeds of linguistic potentiality sprout into words; an object becomes knowable when it can be denoted by language. Bhartṛhari argues for the necessity of a linguistic continuity, that there is a linguistic imprinting on our inner state, and therefore consciousness itself must carry this linguistic imprint. This notion was later seized upon and expanded by the likes of Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta in the Pratyabhijñā tradition.

For those of us who love language and are drawn to enquire into the nature of consciousness, this was fascinating stuff. Two hours was, of course, too short a time to do more than scratch the surface of such intriguing material. We hope we will not be left talking to ourselves for long and that Dr. Ferrante will return to the Sanskrit Reading Room. We thank him for the patience, generosity and clarity with which he answered our questions and shared his absorbing work.

The audio file of the session will be available in our audio archive soon.

For further work by Dr. Marco Ferrante, see:

Ferrante, Marco. 2017. ‘Studies on Bhartṛhari and the Pratyabhijñā: The case of svasaṃvedana’. Religions. 8, 145.

Ferrante, Marco. 2017. ‘Bhartṛhari and verbal testimony. A hyper-antireductionist approach’ in D. Cuneo–E. Freschi–C. Formigatti (eds.). Not Far Afield: Asian Perspectives on Sexuality, Testimony and Print Culture. A Coffee Break Project. Kervan 21: 227-246.

[1] Karikā 13 of the 5th sub-chapter of the 1st chapter.


Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa: A Fish Saves Manu from the Flood


By Dr. Lidia Wojtczak

On Wednesday, May 16 2018, the Sanskrit Reading Room welcomed Dr Yūto Kawamura, JSPS Overseas Research Fellow at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Dr Kawamura is working with Prof Diwakar Acharya on Vedic culture, Pāṇinian grammar, and linguistics.  He  is  now  conducting  an  examination  into  a  linguistic  theory  developed  by  Yāska  in  the  Nirukta  and  the  theology  based  on  this  theory. Dr Kawamura decided to take us through the short story of how the fish saves Manu from the flood in the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa (ca. 7th c. BCE).

The session was not intended to be a presentation of Dr Kawamura’s present work. Instead it was conducted as a class or workshop on Vedic grammar and accentuation. Every sentence of this ancient prose text was taken apart and analysed as Yūto took us through the complex issues of syntax, word-formation and accent from the points of view of both Pāṇinian grammar and modern linguistics.

The Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa belongs to the so-called White Yajurveda, traditionally situated in North-Eastern India. The myth of the flood can be found in ŚB and in very terse statements tells the story of how Manu, the first man, came to be the only survivor of a catastrophic deluge that swept all life from the face of the Earth.

The reading was so rich and thorough that the resulting blog post cannot really do it justice. The participants left with a far superior knowledge of not only Vedic Sanskrit but also of the more general fields of derivation, etymology and syntax which we will continue to apply as we read our own texts. Since we worked very closely to the Brāhmaṇa, in what follows below I have decided to concentrate on the minutiae and to regularly refer to the text. I encourage everyone to listen to the full, two-hour recording of the session for more details.

ŚB mánave ha vái prātáḥ | avanégyam udakám ā́ jahrur yáthedáṃ pāṇíbhyām avanéjanāyāháranty eváṃ tásyāvanénijānasya mátsyaḥ pāṇī́ ā́ pede ||

mánave ha vái prātáḥ | avanégyam udakám ā́ jahrur

And indeed, in the morning, they brought the washing water to Manu,

This first sentence, though deceptively simple, is in fact a trove of information on Vedic word-formation and accentuation. The first matter Yūto touched upon was that while every word in Vedic Sanskrit should generally carry an accent, this is subject to certain conditions. Here, the finite verb, jahrur (3rd p, pl., Perf., P of √hṛ) remains unaccented while the preverb, ā́ , has an accent and is written separately. This is because, as Yūto pointed out, in Vedic Sanskrit the verb in the main sentence will never be accented and thus, the accent in the form must always fall on the preverb. This is logical when we think about the cadence of relative and main clauses in English and many other Indo-European languages (as well as Japanese!). The relative clause will always end in a higher pitch, indicating that there is something more to come, whereas the main clause always ends on a lowering of pitch, indicating the finality of the statement. As Yūto pointed out in later correspondence, the preverb ā is “sometimes used to convey the meaning of ‘in, on’ (something related to a place) … [it] often governs locative forms in Vedic.”

On the topic of the verb, we also learned that the adverbial vai which is used for emphasis, is only ever deployed to emphasise the verb and that the particle ha (unaccented because it is an enclitic form), is frequently used with the Perfect tense in Vedic Sanskrit. Dr Kawamura underlined that the composers of the text probably used the Perfect tense as their narrative tense because it is used to relay actions that happened unobserved by the speaker, as is indicated by Pāṇini’s rule parokṣe liṭ Ā.3.2.115 (where liṭ is the “code name” used for the Perfect tense).

Another issue we looked into was the formation of the adjective avanegyam which qualifies the water (udakam) that was brought to Manu. While this form structurally seems to be a gerundive (from ava-√nij), this would theoretically require us to translate it in a way that doesn’t fit into the context – water that “should be washed (down)” as opposed to water which “is used for washing (down)”. Dr Kawamura walked us through the possible solutions for this problem. The first was based on a series of unattested forms – the theoretical action noun *avanega, the act of washing, could be turned into an even more theoretical adjective with the suffix –ya. While this is a possible reasoning, Yūto noticed that the Pāṇinian sūtra on the gerundive and the derivative –ana suffix LyuṬ, kṛtya-lyuṭo bahulam Ā.3.3.113, suggests that gerundives (kṛtya) can be used with a variety (bahulam) of kārakas, or “action participants” (these overlap with cases, for the most part). Therefore, Pāṇini himself gives us leave to understand the kāraka of this particular gerundive as the karaṇa, or Instrumental.  This is a much more straightforward path of reasoning to follow than that of the unattested forms.

yáthedáṃ pāṇíbhyām avanéjanāyāháranty

just as they bring [water] for washing one’s hands now.

We continued on to the subordinate clause. Here, the first thing Yūto pointed out was that the verb, āháranti, is accented – this is because it is the main verb in a subordinate clause. We also discussed the problematic nature of the dual pāṇíbhyām – we might expect that the water would be for the washing “of the hands”, i.e. that the hands should appear in the Genitive case. However, here they are clearly in the Instrumental, Dative or Ablative. Dr Kawamura explained that this could be a Dative form which is used as a type of explanation (“[water] for the hands, for washing”) or caused by a process called case attraction – the Dative of pāṇíbhyām is a result of the Dative case used in avanéjanāya.

eváṃ tásyāvanénijānasya mátsyaḥ pāṇī́ ā́ pede ||

Thus, a fish fell into the hands of [the man] who was washing [them]

The ambiguity here is in the Genitive structure: we can choose to read this as either a Genitive Absolute – “as he was washing his hands, a fish fell into them”; or as a Genitive of possession (see my translation). The preverb ā in ā́ pede really seems to have the sense of location or direction mentioned in a previous paragraph. Again, since ā́ pede is a finite verb in a main clause, the verb itself remains unaccented in contrast to its preverb.

ŚB sá hāsmai vā́cam uvāca | bibhhí mā pārayiṣyā́mi tvéti kásmān mā pārayiṣyasī́ty aughá imā́ḥ sárvāḥ prajā́ nirvoḍhā́ tátas tvā pārayitā́smī́ti káthaṃ te bhŕ̥tir íti ||

sá hāsmai vā́cam uvāca |

And indeed it said these words to him

Our attention was brought to the lack of accent on the dative pronoun asmai in this sentence. The lack of accent happens when pronouns such as asmai or asya are topical, i.e. when they refer to something which had already been mentioned in the context.

bibhhí mā

“Nurture me.”

By now we could already guess why the personal pronoun was unaccented – it is an enclitic form! As Yūto explained, the accent on the verb bibhhí, unexpected since it is in the main sentence, appears when a verb opens the sentence.

pārayiṣyā́mi tvét

“I will protect you.”

The verbal form in this sentence has quite an interesting derivation. It comes from the root √pṛ which does not belong to the tenth root class. However, as Dr Kawamura pointed out, it cannot be understood as a Causative form either since √pṛ is transitive and the root itself already caries a causal sense (“to save” as opposed to “to be saved”). In fact, this verbal form is created using the so-called -aya- formation and while we had not time to go into this in the session, Yūto referred us to a 200-page-long monograph by Stephanie Jamison on the function of the –aya– formation in Vedic Sanskrit (see bibliography).

kásmān mā pārayiṣyasī́ty

“What will you protect me from?”

aughá imā́ḥ sárvāḥ prajā́ nirvoḍhā́

“A flood will carry away all of these creatures.”

The second sentence of the above is clearly a main clause, yet the verb, nirvoḍhā́ (3rd p., sg Perif. Fut. P. of nir-√vah) is accented – this goes against what we had seen earlier. Dr Kawamura thankfully had a very clear explanation for this, as well. While the Periphrastic Future is a regularly inflected verb form, it is derived from the agent noun. Therefore, as far as accentuation is concerned, it is treated as if it were a noun and so, like every other noun in a Vedic Sanskrit sentence, must carry an accent.

We were quite intrigued by this choice of Future form. Just a few sentences earlier, the fish and Manu had been using the regular Future tense – why the shift? Yūto clarified that the Periphrastic Future seems to be used when the exact time of an event is known to the speaker. So, when the fish is prophesising that a deluge will sweep away all of the creatures on Earth, it has a time-frame in mind. It continues using the Periphrastic Future in the following sentence.

tátas tvā pārayitā́smī́ti

“That is what I will protect you from.”

káthaṃ te bhŕ̥tir íti ||

“How do I nurture you?”

This second question, uttered by Manu, allowed Dr Kawamura to bring out yet another important matter connected with accentuation. The word bhŕ̥ti is created using the –ti– suffix, used to form abstract nouns. An abstract noun created using the –ti– suffix can carry an accent on the stem or the suffix and the meaning changes depending on which is the case. Generally speaking, if the accent falls on the stem, like in our example, the meaning is more concrete – nurture. However, if it were to fall on the suffix, bhr̥tír, the meaning would be of an abstract “gerund” in English – nurturing. In our context, there is a discrepancy between the way we would like to translate – action noun: nurturing; and the place of the accent – the stem: concrete meaning. However, Yūto brought our attention to the monograph by Lunquist (2015), in which the author proves that by the times of the ŚB, the difference in meanings based on accent placement in nouns derived using the –ti suffix had disappeared.

ŚB sá hovāca | yā́vad vái kṣullakā́ bhávāmo bahvī́ vái nas tā́van nāṣṭrā́ bhavaty utá mátsya evá mátsyaṃ gilati kumbhyā́ṃ mā́gre bibharāsi sá yadā́ tā́m ativárdhā átha karṣā́ṃ khātvā́ tásyāṃ mā bibharāsi sá yadā́ tā́m ativárdhā átha mā samudrám abhyáva harāsi tárhi vā́ atināṣṭró bhavitā́smī́ti ||

sá hovāca | yā́vad vái kṣullakā́ bhávāmo bahvī́ vái nas tā́van nāṣṭrā́ bhavaty

And it said: “as long as we are small, we experience great danger.”

In these sentences, Dr Kawamura pointed out the form nāṣṭrā. While it is clear that this noun is straightforwardly derived from the root √naś using the instrumental suffix –tra, we must account for the lengthening of the root vowel. This is easily done if we read this noun as derived from the causative stem of √naś and thus understand this literally as “something which causes our destruction”, i.e. danger. The non-standard syntax of the second sentence is also worth noting – usually, we would expect the relative and correlative to begin their respective clauses – that is the case in the relative yāvat clause here. However, the second clause must begin with bahvī́ and the demonstrative, tāvat, comes only later. Yūto theorized that this may have been done in order to emphasise the word bahvī́, large. The dangers that await baby fish are really, very serious and this idea is expanded in the next sentence.

utá mátsya evá mátsyaṃ gilati

“Moreover, fish eat fish!”

This sentence brings up a very interesting point – some of us had looked up the root √gil, only to be redirected to √gir. While we may have come across this before (e.g. √car/√cal) I must admit, I had never given it a second thought and simply assumed that these were regional or temporal variations of the same root. In fact, as Yūto pointed out, the “l”-option is known as a Magadh-ism and is usually used when there is something negative about the action. And sure enough, in our sentence, the situation is truly one of danger.

kumbhyā́ṃ mā́gre bibharāsi

“First, you must nurture me in a pot.”

We started by looking at the verb – it is made from the root √bhṛ which we had seen a few times already, however we instantly noticed the extra length before the verbal termination that we needed to account for. Finally, the Vedic Subjunctive mood had made its appearance. The formation of the Subjunctive is quite simple, the stem is made by adding an extra “a” to the tense-stem of the root and then the appropriate tense endings are added. However, √bhṛ is third class and the strong present stem is bibhar– (bibharṣi) so in the Subjunctive mood, the form should be bibharasi – where does the extra length in the penultimate syllable come from? It turns out that the Subjunctive lends itself to “over-characterization”, a mechanism by which additional short “a” are added to the stem. This is what has happened here and hence the long –ā– before the Present tense, 2nd person Parasmaipadam ending –si. The Subjunctive is used either to express a strong intention or a conviction that something will happen. It seems the fish is using it with the former in mind.

Another interesting point to be made here is on the noun kumbhī, pot. While we were all aware of kumbha, the masculine noun, the reason behind the long –ī used for the feminine was not clear at first. Yūto enlightened us by remarking that, according to Indian grammarians, feminine, long –ī versions of nouns are used when indicating that something is large, as opposed to the masculine, which we use when something is small, and the neuter, when size is not of importance, or middling. Dr Kawamura gave the examples of nadī, nadaḥ and nadaṃ which can be used to indicate a large river (all of the great rivers are feminine), a small river and a middle-size river respectively. Therefore, the composers of the text were saying that the pot that was supposed to house the fish was to be quite large.

sá yadā́ tā́m ativárdhā átha karṣā́ṃ khātvā́ tásyāṃ mā bibharāsi

“When I outgrow it then dig a hole and nurture me in that.”

Both of the finite verbs in this sentence are in the Present Subjunctive. The first, ativárdhā, has been obscured by sandhi, the original form being ativárdhai, which is in the Ātmanepadam, 1 p. sg. Pres. Subj. of ati-√vṛdh. The personal pronoun sá must refer to the fish and Yūto suggested we try to understand it as “I, as such.” The pronominal adverb yadā́ should be read as, “as soon as” in Vedic Sanskrit and obviously introduces a relative clause, hence the accent on ativárdhai.

sá yadā́ tā́m ativárdhā átha mā samudrám abhyáva harāsi

“As soon as I outgrow that, you must throw me in the ocean…

tárhi vā́ atināṣṭró bhavitā́smī́ti ||

… then I shall be above all dangers.”

Yūto brought our attention to accentuation of the compound atināṣṭró, “above danger.” We wanted to translate it as an adjective for the fish. However, following classical Pāṇinian grammar, we would need to read the compound atināṣṭró as a Tatpuruṣa – “I am the above-danger”! This would not do, of course, and Dr Kawamura clarified that this is what linguists call a governing compound. It is characterized by the fact that the first member, although technically grammatically subordinate to the second, must be understood as governing over the second. In our atināṣṭró, the prefix ati-, above, is being qualified by nāṣṭra, danger. So, although it is accented like a Tatpuruṣa compound, we are allowed to understand it as an adjective rather than substantive.

ŚB śáśvad dha jhaṣá āsa | sá hí jyéṣṭhaṃ várdhaté ‘thetithī́ṃ sámāṃ tád aughá āgantā́ tán mā nā́vam upakálpyópāsāsai sá aughá útthite nā́vam ā́ padyāsai tátas tvā pārayitā́smī́ti ||

śáśvad dha jhaṣá āsa

It was soon a large fish.

Our attention was brought to the word jhaṣa, a type of large fish. Yūto is currently working with Prof. Diwakar Acharya who will soon publish a paper on this mysterious “big fish.” Apparently, this is actually a dolphin!

sá hí jyéṣṭhaṃ várdhaté ‘thetithī́ṃ sámāṃ tád aughá āgantā́ tán mā nā́vam upakálpyópāsāsai

It really did grow to be large. “In such a number of years the flood will come; once you have built a boat you should wait for me. …”

Interestingly, the verb várdhaté has two accents. This is unexpected, especially since this looks like a verb in a main clause and should have no accents at all. To explain this, we need to know that the particle hi, to be understood as “For”, introduces a relative clause in Vedic Sanskrit. The second accent on the final –e of the verb is the product of sandhi. When várdhate and (what must have been) áth- met, the necessary elision of initial short “a” took place. Although the vowel disappeared, there was no reason for the accent to be elided so it travelled regressively to rest on the final vowel of the proceeding word. Hence, the two accents on várdhaté.

We also discussed the adjective itithī́ṃ, which is made by adding the –tha suffix of cardinal numbers (e.g. caturtha) to the indeclinable iti, “this much, this many times, thus”. The main verb of this sentence, upāsāsai, is another example of a Subjunctive formed with additional “over-characterization” (o.c.). In this case, multiple short “a” have been added to the Ātmanepadam form. It was created from the root √ās which has the form āse in the second person Present tense (always Ātmanepadam): upa-√ās -> upās + a (Subj) + a (o.c.) + se (2sg. Pres. Ā) infixed with –a– (o.c.). The additional infixation of the –a– into the verbal ending –se is not always noted and sometimes the ending of the Subjunctive is simply given as –sai (e.g. Macdonell 1910:316).

sá aughá útthite nā́vam ā́ padyāsai tátas tvā pārayitā́smī́ti ||

“… When the flood rises, you should climb into the boat and I will save you from it.”

Here, the verb ā́ padyāsai was made analogously to upāsāsai in the previous sentence.

ŚB tám eváṃ bhr̥tvā́ samudrám abhyáva jahāra | sá yatithī́ṃ tát sámāṃ parididéśa tatithī́ṁ sámāṃ nā́vam upakálpyopāsā́ṃ cakre sá aughá útthite nā́vam ā́ pede táṁ sá mátsya upanyā́ pupluve tásya śŕ̥ṅge nāváḥ pā́śaṃ práti mumoca ténaitám úttaraṃ girím áti dudrāva ||

tám eváṃ bhr̥tvā́ samudrám abhyáva jahāra |

He nurtured it and threw it into the ocean.

sá yatithī́ṃ tát sámāṃ parididéśa tatithī́ṁ sámāṃ nā́vam upakálpyopāsā́ṃ cakre

When that year which had been mentioned came, in that year he built a boat and waited.

This cliff-hanger was unfortunately the final sentence we managed to translate in the two-hour Sanskrit Reading Room session. Yūto pointed out two important issues. First, the fact that the preverb pari– was used with the root √diś. While Monier-Williams tells us that this combination simply means, “to point out”, Yūto noticed that pari– introduces a meaning of cyclicality and in this context, it fits well with the image of years passing.

The main verb, upāsā́ṃ cakre, was also of interest because, as the verb in a main clause, this Periphrastic Perfect form of √kṛ should not be accented. The accent appears because the semantic element, upāsā, has the Accusative singular ending of a feminine noun. Therefore, like the Periphrastic Future in earlier sentences, it is accented as if it were a proper noun. The question of why this Periphrastic Perfect was used also arose, and the answer is simple – the root √ās tends to use the Periphrastic Perfect in order to avoid the formation of confusing forms in the Perfect tense. After all, the reduplicated form of √ās would be āse and this could either be 1st p. or 3rd p. Perfect (2nd p. is also a possibility) but also 1st and 2nd p. Present tense.

Please see Dr Yūto Kawamura’s page for related articles.


Acharya, Diwakar, forthcoming, “Dolphin Deified: The Celestial Dolphin, Upaniṣadic Puzzle, and Viṣṇu’s First Incarnation.”

Jamison, Stephanie W., 1983, Function and Form in the –áya– Formations of the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingnen.

Lundquist, Jesse, 2015, “On the Accentuation of Vedic –ti– Abstracts. Evidence for Accentual Change,” in: Indo-European Linguistics, 3 (2015), pp. 42-72.

Macdonell, Arthur, 1910, Vedic Grammar, Verlag von Karl. J. Trübner, Strassburg.

The Vedānta of Vīraśaivas

By Rohini Bakshi

Dr Jonathan Duquette

Dr. Jonathan’s Duquette’s SOAS Sanskrit Reading Room session had a very intriguing title. It was the first time that I had ever heard Vedānta and Vīraśaivism spoken of in the same breath. While most of us have some idea of Vedānta and have at least a glancing familiarity with its key proponents – Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja and Madhva, Dr. Duquette’s almost rhetorical question – ‘Had any of you heard of Vīraśaivas prior to receiving this handout?’ landed on its mark.

He went on to explain that Vīraśaivas were a small, highly localised but visible sub-sect of South Indian Śaivism, situated in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Dr. Duquette’s focus was less on such identification and more on the highly technical and practically unknown Sanskrit texts that this community produced in the late medieval and early modern period. A Marie Curie Fellow at Oxford, his research of late has centred on Śivādvaita Vedānta, particularly on the works of 16th-century polymath Appaya Dīkṣita, whom he considers a central figure in the promulgation of this school of thought. As he talked us through the larger canvas of Vedānta, a picture began to emerge.

Flourishing after Śaṅkara (circa 8th century CE) Vedānta was dominated in the early centuries by Vaiṣṇava schools. Dr. Duquette marvelled at Vedānta’s unbroken tradition of creating new schools, all the way from the 8th century to the present day. However, not all of them received the same attention as Madhva’s or Rāmānuja’s. He pointed out that there were new schools, such as the 19th-century Anubhavādvaita, which have not received any attention at all. The Vedānta of Vīraśaivas seems to have suffered similar neglect.

necklace with linga
A Vīraśaiva necklace containing a liṅga

Vīraśaivism, Dr. Duquette told us, began approximately in the 12th century CE as an anti-brāhminical movement which rejected caste hierarchy, the sacrificial system, complex rituals, temple worship and the mediation of priests between devotee and deva. Their main devotional corpus were ‘Vacanas’ composed by poets, saints and mystics, including female mystics. Vīraśaivas suggested that anyone, irrespective of caste or gender could achieve liberation through bhakti (devotion) to Śiva alone.

The militancy of this movement, however, gradually gave way to the validation of Brāhminical social norms and caste identities. And this is where we were introduced to the core matter of Dr. Duquette’s talk. On the intellectual level, this shift was reflected in the composition of an increasing number of Sanskrit works that acknowledged the authority of the Vedas. They gradually integrated Vedānta terminology and concepts until such time as the scholars were able to articulate and defend a distinctive Vīraśaiva Vedānta.

While scholar-saints of the Vaiṣṇava tradition had been writing commentaries on the Brahmasūtras for a few centuries, the first such Śaiva text was possibly written in the 14th -15th century by Śrīkaṇṭha. Entitled Brahmamimāṃsābhāṣya it was the first commentary on the Brahmasūtras in which brahman was identified with Śiva. This text remained largely unnoticed for the next century or so, till Appaya Dīkṣita leveraged it for defending a definitive Śivādvaita position against Rāmānuja’s school.

One of the first Vīraśaiva texts to show a Vedānta imprint was the 15th-century Anubhavasūtra of Māyideva, which expounded the Vīraśaiva doctrine of a-sthala, the six stages or stations a devotee has to go through before achieving union with Śiva – called śivaikya or śivajīvaikya. While the Anubhavasūtra traces its origin not to the Vedānta tradition but to the Śaivāgamas, it displays a clear Vedānta influence, presenting Śiva as a non-dual absolute echoing the non-dual brahman of Vedānta. At the same time, it presupposes a  Śaiva metaphysics – the thirty-six tattvas recognised in practically every Śaiva school, the inseparability of Śiva and Śakti and so on. The text tells us that bhakti is important if you want union with Śiva, but jñāna, knowledge or gnosis, was essential too.

Before turning to the 18th-century Vīraśaivānandacandrikā of Maritoṇṭadārya, Dr. Duquette took us through excerpts from other Vīraśaiva texts written between the 15th and 18th centuries. This gave us a flavour of how the miśraṇa (blending) of Vedānta concepts and Śaiva bhakti was presented by Vīraśaiva scholars. The first was the aforementioned Anubhavasūtra of Māyideva (1.3):

avācyātmasvarūpāya śivabhāvapradāyine |

namaḥ sadgurunāthāya ṣaṭsthalabrahmamūrtaye ||

Obeisance (nama) to (that one) who is the embodied form of the six-station-brahman, lord of good teachers, whose nature is beyond speech [and] who grants devotees with the state of Śiva.

Here we see brahman, but not just any brahman – a a-sthala brahman, the concept of a-sthala (six stations or stages) being quintessentially Vīraśaiva. Elsewhere in the same text Māyideva praises Vedānta vākyas, i.e., the Upaniṣads. This short text influenced another important Vīraśaiva text: the Siddhāntaśikhāmaṇi of Śivayogi Śivācārya (15th-16th century), which expands the sthalas to 101 stations (ekottaraśatasthala) – each one related to Vīraśaiva doctrine or ritual. But at the same time, it goes further than the Anubhavasūtra in its acceptance of Vedic-Upaniṣadic texts and holds that Śiva is identical to the Upaniṣadic brahman; that Śaiva teachings are in perfect conformity with Vedic texts and have the same object as the Veda. Siddhāntaśikhāmaṇi (5.12-13ab) states that Śivāgamas (Śaiva scriptures) are vedasammata, i.e., in conformity with Vedas. They are veda-dharma-abhidhāyin (teach Vedic dharma) and veda-bāhya-virodhin (oppose that which is outside the Veda). It stresses the aikyam (unity) and ekārtha (singular goal) of Veda and Siddhānta.

Using a textual lens, we got to see how over a period of some four centuries Advaita Vedānta concepts were articulately melded with Śaiva concepts by Vīraśaiva scholars. This is the legacy that Maritoṇṭadārya upholds in his 18th-century text, the Vīraśaivānandacandrikā. Commissioned by the then ruler of Kelāḍi Karnataka, only one kāṇḍa of this massive text has been published (vāda-kāṇḍa) while the other two (kriyā- and kathā-kāṇḍas) are still in manuscript form. Dr. Duquette marvelled at the quality of the prose in this text. Whereas just four or five hundred years previously Vīraśaivas had been antagonistic to brahmin-hegemony, we now have this beautifully complex prose in the language of the brahmins par excellence – Sanskrit.

Vāda, Dr. Duquette explained, is a technical term typically used to denote a discourse where the intent of someone is merely to understand the “truth” of the matter, not destroy rival viewpoints. Structured in the form of a doxography, Maritoṇṭadārya’s vādakāṇḍa, which has twenty-five sections, is anything but what the term signifies! After laying out his general position in section one, the author goes on to discuss various aspects of Vīraśaiva ritual (Sections 2-9). Systematically rejecting other schools (Sections 10-24), including Vedānta (17-18), he explains in section 19 that Śiva is supreme. The author acknowledges the authority of the Śaivāgamas (20) but rejects Śaiva purāṇas as ‘tamasic’ (21). While acknowledging the need for Advaita, he rejects Śrīkaṇṭha’s Vedānta (22). In section 23 he rejects aikaśāstrya (the idea that pūrva and uttara mimāṃsā form a unified whole, a position held by Rāmānuja as well as Śrīkaṇṭha). Finally, in section 24, he agrees that Advaita Vedānta is desirable, but not in its current form – because what is really needed is the ‘Vīraśaivamata’ (25).

Once they are published and translated, it would be interesting to see how the other two kāṇḍas inform us about Vīraśaivism. Dr. Duquette stressed the need to read Sanskrit texts, so that we could find new ways of looking at things. His passion for Sanskrit was very apparent when he took us through some readings from the Vīraśaivānandacandrikā. Here is a sample from section one – the general position of Maritoṇṭadārya. By helping us to identify the verb, the subject, the object and some instrumentals, Dr. Duquette helped us make sense of what initially looked like an impenetrable maze, the length of the compounds being reminiscent of Bāṇa:


The denominative verb ‘vyākulayanti’ indicates that plural kartṛ-s are confusing or confounding the most excellent of Vīraśaiva scholars (budhavarān). To find out how, we look for the instrumental that ends with parihāreṇa. Under Dr. Duquette’s able guidance, we saw that two sets of scholars, avaidika and vaidika, were the ones who were perplexing Vīraśaiva scholars. Let us see who they are and how they confound. The avaidikas are cārvāka, four types of Buddhists (caturvidha) – sautrāntika, vaibhāṣika, yogācāra and mādhyamika – as well as the Jainas (arhata). The vaidikas were of four types – jaiminīya, sāṃkhya-yoga, tārkika, and tāntrikas, the last being further subdivided into pāśupatas and pañcarātras.

How did they confound? By getting rid of (parihāreṇa) [internal] contradictions (virodha), doubts (saṃdeha), contrary cognition (viparyāsa), which were born from (janita) reflections (paryālocana) on the way (paddhati) that is the [Advaita Vedānta] doctrine (siddhānta) of vivarta-vāda – which held that the world is an apparent transformation of brahman – and this is in direct contradiction with what Śaivādvaita holds – which is that Śiva is dynamically the world, that there is a real transformation of Śiva into the world.

And how are the most excellent of Vīraśaiva scholars (budhavarān) described? They are the ones by whom the real meaning of the doctrine [revealed by] Śiva is worshipped (upāsita-śivasiddhānta-sārān) and those who have faith (śraddhā) linked to (anubaddha) the truth (tattva) of the six-stations (ṣaṭ-sthala). Further they follow (anukūla) the deep intent (tātparya) of Bādarāyaṇa muni who is the author (praṇetṛ) of the Brahmasūtras, a text which bestows wealth (sampatti-sampādaka), [the wealth that lies in] the correct interpretation (eka-vākyatā) of the means of knowlege (pramāṇa), which here is to be understood as the Upaniṣads. As we can see, Maritoṇṭadārya marries Vīraśaiva thought unequivocally and seamlessly to Vedānta to create a distinctive Vīraśaiva stance on this tradition.

Two hours were not long enough for us to get around to larger questions. How significant were Sanskrit texts in the Vīraśaiva community? How were they received? Were they revered by the lay community as well as the monastic order – in a manner so familiar in the larger Hindu milieu? How did the Sanskrit texts stand in relation to the Vacanas which continue to be the central devotional corpus of the Vīraśaivas, a community also known as the Lingāyatas? Although these questions were outside the purview of Dr. Duquette’s talk, he has placed us in a very good position to further explore various aspects of this little known Śaiva community.

Further reading:

Duquette, J. 2015. ‘Is Śivādvaita Vedānta a Saiddhāntika School? Pariṇāmavāda in the Brahmamīmāṃsābhāṣya’. In Journal of Hindu Studies, 1-28. Available on

Carakasaṃhitā: The value of multiple editions

By Sanyukta Shrestha

Now in its second year, Sanskrit Reading Room is an academic forum for Sanskrit researchers at SOAS, London, and beyond. This February 21st was special as it brought back Professor Dominik Wujastyk to SOAS, where he once taught, from the University of Alberta in Canada. His discussion was titled ‘Caraka on the special knowledge relating to flavours (rasa): applying hermeneutic techniques and digital humanities to the reading of ancient Āyurveda texts’.

Professor Wujastyk’s application of technology-assisted research in Āyurveda, and his decades of experience in scrutinising Sanskrit terminologies with reference to the history of Āyurvedic science is a treasury of knowledge for his audience. In reading Caraka’s seminal work, Caraksahitā, Professor Wujastyk could have focused on any one of his multiple interests from Indology to the history of medicine to the digital humanities. He chose to share some details of his research process while at the University of Vienna, where he spent around six years contributing to the study of the philosophy of medicine in precolonial India.

Professor Wujastyk described computer-generated stemmatic modelling of manuscript genealogy, similar to DNA modelling such as Philip Maas’s 2009 work. He also presented some of the innovative strategies for indicating variant readings, and technologies like the TeX system.

Carakasahitā consists of 128 adhyāyas grouped into larger units, the eighth and last of which, Vimānasthāna, is as big as all the rest put together. This section is prominent in the history of the birth of logic, which may have resulted from the work of Nyāya and Buddhist logicians, and it contains a great deal of philosophical and eristic material. Having researched the critical edition extensively, Professor Wujastyk translates the 1941 vulgate translation by the great yet much overlooked scholar Vaidya Yādavaji Trikāmji Āchārya. While the great Āchārya had consulted eleven manuscripts for the Bombay publication, the Vienna Project was able to consult 250 manuscripts. With recourse to both the critical edition and the vulgate, Professor Wujastyk is able to make, cumulatively, a very nuanced reading. It is here that with new technologies – algorithm and display systems – it may in the future be possible for readers to consult the archive directly for variant readings.

We read chapter one of the Vimānasthāna about tastes and their impact on our health. Analysing the relationship between the six canonical tastes (sweet, tangy, salty, bitter, spicy, acerbic) and the three canonical humours (wind, bile, phlegm), the text offers important explanations of how those equations help us define what is good for you and appropriate diet. Examples include whether one should laugh whilst eating (the answer depends on the variant readings) and why one should offer madhura – sweet flavour – to babies to knit together the fabric of their bodies.

Professor Wujastyk also discussed the challenges of translating Sanskrit texts. For example, he suggested that instead of ‘nature’ one might choose ‘affinity’ or ‘acquired nature’ as a better translation of the term sātmya. One of the many reasons for avoiding a translation of ‘nature’ is its complex nexus of meanings in English: ‘Boldly speaking, I believe that there is no concept of ‘nature’ in Sanskrit literature’. In what sounded like a continuous dilemma for Sanskritists (such as Francis Zimmermann translating the term rasa as ‘savour’ as opposed to Professor Wujastyk’s now-favoured ‘flavour’) the term vimāna in Vimānasthāna itself is problematic. Professor Wujastyk argued that, in this instance, the near to accurate translation of vimāna is ‘special knowledge’. Referencing mā-dhātu usages (‘to know’ rather than ‘to measure’) he considers vimāna a companion word to anumāna (inference) and pramāṇa (means to knowledge).

Professor Wujastyk argues that in a sense translation is technically impossible. He outlined the translation theory of Venuti and ‘the translator’s invisibility’; his aim is to understand completely in Sanskrit and to reproduce that understanding in English.

On this occasion we are fortunate to have a video recording of the full lecture. This recording is available on our Facebook page ‘Sanskrit Reading Room’ and an audio version will be on this website shortly. Please also look out for Professor Wujastyk’s forthcoming translation of the Vimānasthāna Chapter One.

Further readings

Dominik Wujastyk, 2003. The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. Penguin Books.

Vaidya Yādavaji Trikāmji Āchārya, ed. 1941. Caraksahitā. Nirnaya Sagar Press, Mumbai, India.

Jīvānanda Vidyāsāgara Bhattācārya, ed. 1877. Caraksahitā. Sarasvati Press, Kolkata, India.

The Rise of the Caitanya Moon

By Suhas Mahesh

The Sanskrit Reading Room welcomed Dr. Rembert Lutjeharms, Librarian at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, on Wednesday 14 February 2018. The focus of the session was Caitanya-Candrodaya, an allegorical play by the 16th-century Vaiṣṇava poet Kavikarṇapūra. Dr. Lutjeharms is an expert on Kavikarṇapūra, and we were treated to some very enjoyable and illuminating commentary as we took turns reading a selection from the play.

The Life of Caitanya. Colour lithograph. Kolkata, circa 1895. British Museum.

The Caitanya-Candrodaya is an allegorical play. In simple terms, what this means is that various abstract virtues and vices of the mind are cast on stage as dramatis personae. The resultant factions, frictions, hypocrisy, humor and pedantry are used to paint a lively picture of the roilings of the human mind. The author usually guides the plot to underscore the philosophical message of his own school. The exemplar of this genre is the Advaitin Kṛṣṇamiśra’s Prabodhacandrodaya (The Rise of the Wisdom Moon), a delightful comedy, which does an extraordinary job of marrying dogma and drama. The full delights of the original are preserved in Matthew Kapstein’s Clay Sanskrit Library translation, which Dr. Lutjeharms recommended to us. Like the Gītagovinda, the Prabodhacandrodaya has been imitated by poets of different affiliations over a dozen times, but never surpassed. Our play of interest, the Caitanya-Candrodaya, is a prominent member of this genre launched by Kṛṣṇamiśra. As an aside, this appellation ‘allegorical’ has no counterpart in the Indian tradition. Strangely enough, Sanskrit poeticians, usually self-indulgent in categorisation, do not recognise the allegorical play at all.

The Caitanya-Candrodaya is a play (nāṭaka) in ten acts that describes the life of Caitanya. The nature of the play demands firm grounding in both literature and theology for a full appreciation. Keeping this in mind, Dr. Lutjeharms started the session with a brief introduction to Kavikarṇapūra and Caitanya, who were roughly contemporaneous. As with most Sanskrit poets, there is relative poverty of information on Kavikarṇapūra’s life. We glean some information from the Caitanya-Caritāmṛta, which narrates a few incidents from Caitanya’s final years in which the young Kavikarṇapūra was involved. A certain young Paramanandadas is said to have spontaneously composed a beautiful āryā in the presence of Caitanya, earning from him the title Ear Ornament of Poets—Kavikarṇapūra.                 

śravasoḥ kuvalayam akṣnor

añjanam uraso mahendra-maṇi-dāma


maṇḍanam akhilaṃ harir jayati

The blue lotus on their ears,

the kohl on their eyes,

the sapphire necklace on their chest—

all glories to Hari,

the entire ornament of the women of Vṛndāvana.

(Translation by Rembert Lutjeharms)

Dr. Lutjeharms explained that this connection to Caitanya makes the tradition treat Kavikarṇapūra as an extraordinary poet whose poetic talents flow from the grace of Caitanya. He certainly was extraordinary in many ways— he wrote his Caitanya-caritāmṛta-mahā-kāvya at the age of eighteen! Kavikarṇapūra has written at least five other works that are confidently his: the Caitanya-caritāmṛta-mahā-kāvya, the Gaura-gaṇoddeśa-dīpikā, the Ānanda-vṛndāvana, the Kṛṣṇāhnika-kaumudī and the Alaṃkāra-kaustubha.

Dr. Lutjeharms also pointed out that Kavikarṇapūra is one of the few poets who also had a foot in alaṃkāraśāstra. His technical skill is undeniable. His Ānanda-vṛndāvana-campū is especially ornate, with nearly every page being dotted with yamakas (a poetic device of repeating sounds or words that have different meanings). This proclivity for ornateness and śabdālaṃkāra also shows up in the Caitanya-Candrodaya from time to time. The Caitanya-Candrodaya even begins with an ornately compounded passage that calls into doubt the stage worthiness of the play. Kavikarṇapūra even performs śabdālaṃkāras in Prakrit, which is unusual for a poet of his era. However, such sections are few; the Caitanya-Candrodaya is not a difficult read for those familiar with the kāvya register.

Dr. Lutjeharms briefly summarised the first act for us, which features Kali, the personification of the Kali age. Kali is seen with his henchman Unrighteousness (Adharma), lamenting the loss of his power with the appearance of Caitanya. He laments that all his henchmen, all various vices, are no longer in his control. However, as we see in the next act, Kali’s power has not completely waned.

The second act was the selection for the day. The act begins with the appearance of a depressed Dispassion (virāga), who is looking for shelter without success. He laments the loss of his friends – purity, truth and others – who seem to have vanished without a trace in the Kali age. He then goes on to lament the degenerate state of affairs with an attitude highly reminiscent of the cantankerous Kṛśānu from Viśvaguṇādarśacampū. He berates the Brahmins of the Kali age for their single-minded devotion towards gifts, and says that only they remain brahmacārins whom no one is willing to marry. This section elicited much laughter from the room.

Dispassion then successively meets a logician, an Advaitin and a yogin, who all fail to impress him. Dispassion proceeds to berate each one. Kavikarṇapūra handles these situations with a certain tasteful lightheartedness. Dr. Lutjeharms had explained to us that Kavikarṇapūra has the tendency to throw yamakas into charged situations, and sure enough, they were there:

atra hi bhūrayo rayojjvalapratibhāpratibhānti vidvāṃsaḥ । tadamī avagāhyāḥ vāhyā avāhyā vā ।

In the end, all three are summarily swept aside as being unsuitable for Dispassion. Kavikarṇapūra privileges Bhakti over all other, and this attitude shows up many times in Caitanya-candrodaya. According to Kavikarṇapūra, others, especially the Advaitins and the Naiyayikas, are guilty of empty debate that leads to delusion. Their lack of devotion in Kṛṣṇa is their failing.

While this was all good fun, Dr. Lutjeharms explained that Dispassion’s helplessness has a deeper significance: it foreshadows Caitanya’s renunciation in a later act, when Dispassion finally finds shelter in him. This renunciation is also mirrored in the language of the play— after the fifth act, the language too takes on a sober and ascetic character. The play was written in the later years of the poet, and is the work of a mature mind that weaves many strands of narrative together at once.

As Dispassion struggles to find a suitable refuge, he meets Goddess Devotion (Bhaktidevī), who informs him about Caitanya. With the appearance of the Goddess, the clock struck five and the session had to come to an end. I’m sure most of us went back home and read through to see if Dispassion finds Caitanya— I certainly did!

Dr Lutjeharms is preparing a translation of the Caitanya-Candrodaya. To read more of his work, see:

Lutjeharms, R., 2018. A Vaisnava Poet in Early Modern Bengal: Kavikarnapura’s Splendour of Speech. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Image credit: British Museum, 2003,1022,0.16. Printed in Kolkata. Album of popular prints mounted on cloth pages. Colour lithograph, lettered, inscribed and numbered 16. The print is subdivided into ten smaller images, each depicting Caitanya. He is portrayed several times with devotees, meditating, and performing darśan.


Bhartṛhari’s Vākyapadīya: grammar and metaphysics

By Ruth Westoby

vakyapadiya sadhanasamudesha
Vākyapadīya. Cambridge University Library. MS Add.876

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.






Balarāma Drags the River Yamunā


By Dr. Peter Singer

The Sanskrit Reading Room welcomed Dr Simon Brodbeck from Cardiff University on 17 January 2018. It was the second time we had hosted a scholar from that institution and, as on the previous occasion (with Dr James Hegarty), we were treated to a fascinating and illuminating presentation based on a work-in-progress translation of a classical Sanskrit text – this time the Harivaśa of Vyāsa.

In strikingly lucid and thoughtful style, Dr Brodbeck, after first outlining the nature and structure of the Harivaśa (and drawing our attention to the basic issues in the text’s manuscript tradition), presented us with a detailed analysis of one particular episode, from section 83 of the work – the dragging of the river Yamunā by Balarāma – which he also contextualized within the broader narrative structure in order to highlight its salient themes. Three major strands in recent interpretation of the text were identified, and Dr Brodbeck’s own analysis – focussing especially on sexual violence as well as on psychological or psychosocial themes in the text – placed in relation to those.

The Harivaśa is a tailpiece to the Mahābhārata; it can be characterized in a way as a supplement containing the episodes of the legend not found elsewhere in the great epic (those which had nothing to do with the war between the Kauravas and the Pāņḍavas), and offering a range of other stories concerning Kṛṣṇa.

Our session had one particular episode from the Harivaśa at its centre, namely that in which Kṛṣṇa’s brother Balarāma drags or ‘ploughs’ the river Yamunā. At one level, the story is clearly an aetiological myth explaining the present course of the river and the fact that it fertilizes the plains of Mathurā and Vṛndāvana. But the narrative is replete with sexual imagery – Yamunā becomes a woman whom Balarāma violently assaults – as well as raising questions of the role and function of Balarāma in the narrative, especially in relation to his brother Kṛṣṇa; and it is these aspects especially that were explored.

Here, we considered Balarāma as an elder brother whose deeds and status are problematically ‘overstepped’ by the younger brother, Kṛṣṇa (with reference to parallel cases of such overstepping, e.g. that of Yudhiṣṭhira by Arjuna, which is central to the Mahābhārata). There is a psychological dimension here – how does Balarāma react to his younger brother’s exploits? – and it is relevant to observe how differently their exploits and experiences are presented in the narrative.

The Yamunā episode is immediately preceded by fight scenes against Jarāsandha, in which Balarāma’s plough plays an important role, and by Balarāma’s return to Vṛndāvana, which is presented as a sort of coming-of-age.

We may, however, contrast the depiction of Balarāma ‘enjoying himself’ in the forest with that of Kṛṣṇa. In an extraordinarily sensual scene, the latter is shown revelling in pleasures, including sexual ones, in a way that Balarāma is not. There is significance, too, in the way that the consensual nature of the activity is highlighted in this scene of Kṛṣṇa’s sexual abandon – he is presented, in quite explicit terms, as the object of sexual attention of a large number of cowgirls – and that this is thrown into relief by a scene immediately following (with bulls and heifers) highlighting the possibility and nature of non-consensual sexual activity.

When we come to the episode involving Balarāma and Yamunā itself, the sexual as well as the non-consensual nature of the encounter is clear. The plough itself seems clearly to be represented at some level as a phallic image. On some levels it is an incongruous choice of weapon, but one constantly associated with Balarāma in literature and iconography; indeed the name Halāyudha, one of several used for him in the narrative, derives from this. It is also conceived (from as early as the Ṛgveda) as distinctively the weapon against the wilderness, that which tames – again with specifically sexual connotations.

In this context it was interesting to consider the myth of Sītā emerging from a furrow ploughed by the king, her father Janaka, and the various interpretations that can be placed upon it. Should such a mythical account be taken ‘at face value’ – or perhaps as somehow co-existing with a natural birth account? Or should it be taken as purely metaphorical? In discussion some pointed to the prevalence of such non-sexual accounts in divine births throughout Indian mythology, and it was also suggested that there are kings who plough and sow in other Indian myths; Dr Brodbeck pointed to the sexual imagery in play in this use of ‘ploughing’, as well as to the standard linguistic usage associating ‘field’ with ‘wife’, and suggested that we should take the myth of Sītā’s birth as metaphorically representing natural, sexual reproduction.

To return to the episode itself: Balarāma’s importunate address to Yamunā, her intriguing response to it – where, in her reluctance to comply, she is described as ‘confused by her nature as a woman’ (strīsvabhāvena mohitā) – and the further verbal exchange between them at the end of the episode all rewarded further exploration.

Dr Brodbeck drew attention especially to the interpretive approaches of Couture, Vemsani and Sanford. Couture emphasizes the nature of Balarāma and Kṛṣṇa as aspects of Viṣṇu, and, in a deep theological interpretation, suggests that the destabilized behaviour of Balarāma in our scene – his tendency to invert the natural cosmic order – is due to his temporary separation from his brother. Vemsani meanwhile stresses Balarāma’s association with fertility cults, suggesting (what is not explicit in the text) that his main purpose was to reroute the river through Braj. Dr Brodbeck’s own interpretation was closer to that of Sanford, who pays attention to the psychosocial aspect of the episode, pointing out its violent dissonance with the ‘Braj pastoral’, and highlighting the themes of rape and of the plough as phallic image.

What, though, are we to make of that puzzling phrase strīsvabhāvena mohitā, with its implication that things could have been different if Yamunā’s response had been different – or, indeed, of her impassioned plea to be returned to her previous course after the assault (something dissonant with the sexual metaphor, since sexual acts in their nature cannot be undone)? Problematic, too, is Balarāma’s response to this, which seems to suggest that she should be happy, or at least at peace, because his fame will endure through her.

The first of these problems is particularly challenging. It seems to be implied that some response was possible whereby Yamunā was neither taken by force nor complied voluntarily – but what response? And is it that she does not see this possibility because she is a woman, or that she does see it, but because she is a woman, decides not to pursue it? The text is mysterious. Whatever the precise interpretation, it seems unavoidable to conclude that some deficiency is being attributed to the female Yamunā – a ‘deficiency’ which can, for the contemporary reader, serve at best as the mote which throws into violent relief the beam of Balarāma’s transgression.

Those present were grateful to Dr Brodbeck for a highly engaging textual analysis which at the same time provoked thought in relation to a number of areas – brother-brother relations, sexual imagery and sexual violence, metaphorical or literal interpretations of birth narratives, patrilinearity, the religious and psychosocial function of mythic characters – far beyond the confines of this particular text.

Dr Peter Singer is Research Fellow in Classics at Birkbeck, University of London.


For further work by Dr Brodbeck please see:

Brodbeck, Simon Pearse. The Mahabharata Patriline: Gender, Culture, and the Royal Hereditary. Routledge, 2017.

Brodbeck, Simon, and Black, Brian, eds. Gender and Narrative in the Mahabharata. Routledge, 2007.