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The Sphoṭa theory of language
as Relevation 



by Harold G. Coward, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd. 1st ed. Dehli 1980, reprints Delhi 1986, 1997. ISBN:81-208-0181-4, as given in Google book preview.

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Contents of this page

05. Definition of Sphoṭa  - p071
  Reason for the Phenomenalization of the Sphoṭa  - p078
  Sphoṭa defined as Sentence ( Vākya Sphoṭa ) - p082
  Variations in the Definitions of Sphoṭa  - p085

UKT notes
Ľ Sphota

Noteworthy passages in this file: (always check with the original section from which they are taken.)
Ľ For the Grammarian, the word or sentence when taken as an indivisible meaning-unit is the sphoṭa. The technical term sphoṭa is difficult to translate into English.

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05. Definition of Sphoṭa

UKT: sphoṭa श्पोट [with the first akshara ś , ṣ , s ] on transliteration
is entered as follows in SpkSktDict:
   Skt-Devan: स्फोट  sphoṭa  m. burst, abscess, boil [furuncle] - SpkSkt
The technical term sphoṭa is difficult to translate into English. - H.G.Coward

Wikipedia gives:
Sphoṭa (Skt: स्फोट, 'bursting, opening ') is an important concept in Indian grammatical tradition, relating to the problem of speech production, how the mind orders linguistic units into coherent discourse and meaning.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spho%E1%B9%ADa 101122

Now that its metaphysical background has been surveyed, H.G. Coward proceeds to analyze the logical (fn069-01) possibility of the Sphoṭa theory of language as revelation. Chapter Five begins with a definition of the concept of sphoṭa itself. In Chapter Six the way in which the sphoṭa reveals meaning is examined in detail with regard to both word-meaning and sentence-meaning. Chapter Seven studies Sphoṭa theory in relation to the various levels of language and meaning which are seen to result. Part II concludes with a summary of the major sphoṭa tenets, the logical (fn069-01) possibility of which has been demonstrated. [{p069end}]

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For the Grammarian, the word or sentence when taken as an indivisible meaning-unit is the sphoṭa. The technical term sphoṭa is difficult to translate into English. [UKT Â ]

Sometimes the word "symbol" is used for sphoṭa in the sense of its function as a linguistic sign. One authority on the subject finds that the original Greek conception of logos best conveys the meaning of sphoṭa . G. Sastri argues, "The fact that logos stands for an idea as well as a word wonderfully approximates to the concept of sphoṭa." (fn071-01) The spoken sounds or printed letters of ordinary language are distinguished from the sphoṭa in that the former are merely the means by which the latter is revealed. [UKT Â ]

The term sphoṭa is derived from the Sanskrit root sphuṭ, which means 'to burst forth'. In his Sanskrit-English Dictionary, V. S. Apte defines sphoṭa as : (1) breaking forth, bursting or disclosure; and (2) the idea which bursts out or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered. (fn071-02) [UKT Â ]

In his Sphoṭavāda, Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa describes sphoṭa in two ways : as that from which the meaning bursts or shines forth; and as an entity which is manifested by the spoken letters or sounds. (fn071-03) The sphoṭa may thus be thought of as a kind of two-sided coin. On the one side it is manifested by the word-sound, and on the other side it simultaneously reveals the word-meaning. [UKT Â ]

In a more philosophic sense, sphoṭa may be described as the transcendent ground in which the spoken syllables and conveyed meaning find themselves united as word or śabda, Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa identifies this theory with the teaching of the ṛṣi Sphoṭāyana, who the Grammarians claim to be the traditional formulator of their viewpoint. [UKT Â ]

The original conception of sphoṭa seems to go far back into the Vedic period of Indian thought when, as was shown in the previous chapter, vāk or [{p071end/p072begin}] speech was considered to be a manifestation of the all-pervading Brahman, and the praṇava (AUM) [UKT: ॐ {O─M}] regarded as the primordial speech-sound from which all forms of vāk were supposed to have evolved. This sacred syllable is said to have flashed forth into the heart of Brahman, while he was absorbed in deep meditation, and to have given birth to the three Vedas containing all knowledge. AUM is still chanted today by devout Hindus who find the repetition of it to be at once a means of worship, knowledge, and a way of union with God (mokṣa {mauk~hka.}). Our interest in the Vedic conception of the praṇava is that it seems to have provided the model upon which the later Grammarian philosophers based their conception of sphoṭa. In fact, sphoṭa is often identified with the praṇava. Chakravarti points out the analogy between the two is so striking that Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa does not hesitate to compare sphoṭa with the internal phase of praṇava. (fn072-01)

Although the Grammarians may have modelled their concept of sphoṭa on the Vedic praṇava, their method of approach was strikingly different. Rather than immersing themselves in mystical meditation, they set out to analyze the meanings of words and the means by which such word knowledge is manifested and communicated in ordinary experience. The Grammarian Pata˝jali {pa.ti˝~za.li.} provides the point of departure for such a study when he opens his Mahābhāṣya with the question, "What then is this word, <cow> ?" , and answers "That -- which when uttered, brings us knowledge of the object possessing dewlap, tail, hump, hooves and horns" is a word. He goes on to make clear that it is words spoken for communication purposes in popular language upon which he is focusing. (fn072-02) [{p072end}]

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the joyful revelation of the word-sphoṭa as envisaged by Bhartṛhair. (fn077-01)

Having described the sphoṭa concept, let us now briefly restate its definition in a simple diagram :

It must be emphasized that, according to Bhartṛhair, the sphoṭa is an indivisible and changeless unity. But in terms of its communication or revelation function, it may be heuristically represented (in the above diagram) as having two aspects. It is like a two-sided coin. Its external aspect is the uttered sound or written word which is perceived by our sense organs but serves only to manifest the sphoṭa's inner aspect. The inner aspect is the expressive word-meaning which inherently resides in all beings. When a person wants to communicate an idea or word-meaning, he begins with the sphoṭa  which has been inherently existing in his mind as a unity. When he utters it and produces different sounds in sequence by the movements of his articulatory organs, it appears to have differentiation. But the listener, as he hears the sound sequence, ultimately perceives it as a unity (sphoṭa ), and only then is the word-meaning, which is also inherently present in the listener's mind, identified or revealed. (fn077-02) The question as to just how such a communication of word-sphoṭas can occur will be examined in the next section of this chapter. The point of focus in this definition is simply the Grammarians's contention that the basic unit of language is the given whole (the sphoṭa subsuming both the word-sound and the word-meaning) and the summed sequence of spoken sounds or written letters.[{p077end}]

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In concluding this discussion, let us make one observation regarding Bhartṛhari's definition of sphoṭa. Such direct perception of reality, described above as characteristic of the ṛṣi  {I.■i.ra.■Ú.}, does not properly fall within the scope of Bhartṛhari's definition of sphoṭa. Describing the process of the sphoṭa's manifestation in ordinary communication, Bhartṛhari emphasizes that when manifested by the sounds it is grasped by the mind -- making clear it is only in the buddhi stage where the two aspects appear differentiated that the term sphoṭa can be applied. In the pre-buddhi  stage (the level at which the ṛṣi  functions), there is no separation into the two aspects of word-sound and word-meaning, and the technical term used here is śabdatattva rather than sphoṭa. (fn088-01) [{p088end}]

[End of chapter 05 text.]

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Footnotes : Chapter 05

fn069-01. The reader is reminded that throughout this book the term "logical" is used not in a specialized philosophic sense, but as meaning "defensible on the grounds of consistency" or "reasonably to be believed." fn069-01b

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fn071-01. Gaurinath Sastri, The Philosophy of Word and Meaning, pp. 102-103. Hereafter cited Sastri, Word. fn071-01b

fn071-02. V. s. Apte, The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, p. 1013. fn071-02b

fn071-03. Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa, Sphoṭavāda, p. 5. fn071-03b

fn072-01. P. C. Chakravarti, The Philosophy of Sanskrit Grammar, p. 89. Here after cited Chakravarti, Philosophy. fn072-01b

fn072-02. S. D. Joshi in a recent article argues that Pata˝jali is here
  really offering two different definitions of śabda. The second of these
  defines śabda as dhvani, thus allowing for the possibility of śabda as being
  a mere sound or noise which conveys no meaning. Since the sphoṭa is
  defined in terms of a meaning-unit-whole, says Joshi, this would only
  subsume the first alternative of Pata˝jali's definition. According to Joshi,
  the fact that the second alternative defines word in terms of sound only means
  that Pata˝jali remains open to the Mimāṁsaka view that śabda is the sound
  (i.e., the aggregate of letters) even if it does not convey meaning.
  S. D. Joshi, "Pata˝jali's Definition of Word," in Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute 25,
  (1966), pp. 65-70. fn072-02b

fn077-01. See Chakrabarti, Aesthetics, pp. 146-149. fn077-01b

fn077-02. The above diagram is a modified version of the one presented
  by D. M. Datta, in The Six Ways of Knowing. p. 257. fn077-02b

[Pages 078-087 are not part of this book preview.

fn088-01. See Iyer, Bhartṛhari. p. 180. fn088-01b

UKT: End of Chapter 05 footnotes.

Contents of this page

UKT notes


From Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spho%E1%B9%ADa 101122

Sphoṭa (Skt: स्फोट, the Sanskrit for "bursting, opening") is an important concept in Indian grammatical tradition, relating to the problem of speech production, how the mind orders linguistic units into coherent discourse and meaning.

The theory of sphoṭa is associated with Bhartṛhari (c. 5th century), an early figure in Indic linguistic theory, mentioned in the 670s by Chinese traveller Yi-Jing. Bhartṛhari is the author of the Vākyapadīya ("[treatise] on words and sentences"). The work is divided into three books, the Brahma-kāṇḍa, (or Āgama-samuccaya "aggregation of traditions"), the Vākya-kāṇḍa, and the Pada-kāṇḍa (or Prakīrṇaka "miscellaneous").

He theorized the act of speech as being made up of three stages:

  1. Conceptualization by the speaker (Paśyantī  "idea")
  2. Performance of speaking (Madhyamā  "medium" )
  3. Comprehension by the interpreter (Vaikharī  "complete utterance").

Bhartṛhari is of the śabda-advaita "speech monistic" school which identifies language and cognition. According to George Cardona, "Vākyapadīya is considered to be the major Indian work of its time on grammar, semantics and philosophy."

Origin of the term

While the sphoṭa theory proper (sphoṭavāda) originates with Bhartṛhari, the term has a longer history of use in the technical vocabulary of Sanskrit grammarians, and Bhartṛhari may have been building on the ideas of his predecessors, whose works are partly lost.

Sanskrit sphoṭa is etymologically derived from the root sphuṭ  'to burst'. It is used in its technical linguistic sense by Pata˝jali {pa.ti˝~za.li.} (2nd c. BCE), in reference to the "bursting forth" of meaning or idea on the mind as language is uttered. Pata˝jali's sphoṭa is the invariant quality of speech. The acoustic element (dhvani, audible part) can be long or short, loud or soft, but the sphoṭa remains unaffected by individual speaker differences. Thus, a single letter or sound ('varṇa' {wuN~Na.}) such as /k/ {ka. ■ńn} 'the sound of {ka.}-akshara', /p/ {pa. ■ńn}, or, /a/ {a. ■ńn} is an abstraction, distinct from variants produced in actual enunciation [1]. Eternal qualities in language are already postulated by Yāska (यास्कः) {ya-■~ka:}, in his Nirukta (1.1), where reference is made to another ancient grammarian, Audumbarāyaṇa, about whose work nothing is known, but who has been suggested as the original source of the concept.[2] The grammarian Vyāḍi, author of the lost text Saṃgraha, may have developed some ideas in sphoṭa theory; in particular, he made some distinctions relevant to dhvani are referred to by Bhartṛhari.[3]

There is no use of sphoṭa as a technical term prior to Pata˝jali, but Pāṇini (6.1.123) refers to a grammarian named Sphoṭāyana as one of his predecessors. This has induced Pāṇini's medieval commentators (such as Haradatta) to ascribe the first development of the sphoṭavāda to Sphoṭāyana.


The account of the Chinese traveller Yi-Jing places a firm terminus ante quem of AD 670 on Bhartrhari. Scholarly opinion had formerly tended to place him in the 6th or 7th century; current consensus places him in the 5th century. By some traditional accounts, he is the same as the poet Bhartṛhari who wrote the Śatakatraya.

In the Vākyapadīya, the term sphoṭa takes on a finer nuance, but there is some dissension among scholars as to what Bhartṛhari intended to say. Sphoṭa retains its invariant attribute, but now its indivisibility is emphasized and it now operates at several levels.

Bhartṛhari develops this doctrine in a metaphysical setting, where he views sphoṭa as the language capability of man, revealing his consciousness[4]. Indeed, the ultimate reality is also expressible in language, the śabda-brahman, or the Eternal Verbum. Early indologists such as A. B. Keith felt that Bhartṛhari's sphoṭa was a mystical notion, owing to the metaphysical underpinning of Bhartṛhari's text, Vākyapādiya where it is discussed, but it appears to be more of a psychological notion. Also, the notion of "flash or insight" or "revelation" central to the concept also lent itself to this viewpoint. However, the modern view is that it is perhaps a more psychological distinction.

Bhartṛhari expands on the notion of sphoṭa in Pata˝jali, and discusses three levels:

1. varṇa-sphoṭa, at the syllable level. George Cardona feels that this remains an abstraction of sound, a further refinement on Pata˝jali for the concept of phoneme- now it stands for units of sound.

2. pada-sphoṭa, at the word level, and

3. vakya-sphoṭa, at the sentence level.

In verse I.93, Bhartṛhari states that the 'sphota' is the universal or linguistic type - sentence-type or word-type, as opposed to their tokens (sounds)[1]. He makes a distinction between sphoṭa, which is whole and indivisible, and 'nāda', the sound, which is sequenced and therefore divisible. The sphoṭa is the causal root, the intention, behind an utterance, in which sense is similar to the notion of lemma in most psycholinguistic theories of speech production. However, sphoṭa arises also in the listener, which is different from the lemma position. Uttering the 'nāda' induces the same mental state or sphoṭa in the listener - it comes as a whole, in a flash of recognition or intuition (pratibhā, 'shining forth'). This is particularly true for vakya-sphoṭa or sentence-vibration, where the entire sentence is thought of (by the speaker), and grasped (by the listener) as a whole.

On the other hand, the modern sanskritist S.D. Joshi feels that Bhartṛhari may not have been talking about meanings at all, but a class of sounds.

Bimal K. Matilal has tried to unify these views - he feels that for Bhartṛhari the very process of thinking involves vibrations, so that thought has some sound-like properties. Thought operates by śabdana or 'speaking', - so that the mechanisms of thought are the same as that of language. Indeed, Bhartṛhari seems to be saying that thought is not possible without language. This leads to a somewhat whorfian position on the relationship between language and thought. The sphoṭa then is the carrier of this thought, as a primordial vibration.

Sometimes the nāda-sphoṭa distinction is posited in terms of the signifier-signified mapping, but this is a misconception. In traditional Sanskrit linguistic discourse (e.g. in Katyāyana), vācaka refers to the signifier, and 'vācya' the signified. The 'vācaka-vācya' relation is eternal for Katyāyana and the Mīmāṃsakas, but is conventional among the Nyāya. However, in Bhartṛhari, this duality is given up in favour of a more holistic view - for him, there is no independent meaning or signified; the meaning is inherent in the word or the sphoṭa itself.

Beyond Bhartṛhari

Sphoṭa theory remained widely influential in Indian philosophy of language and was the focus of much debate over several centuries. It was adopted by most scholars of Vyākaraṇa (grammar), but both the Mīmāṃsā and Nyāya schools rejected it, primarily on the grounds of compositionality. Adherents of the 'sphota' doctrine were holistic or non-compositional (a-khanḍa-pakṣa), suggesting that many larger units of language are understood as a whole, whereas the Mīmāṃsakas in particular proposed compositionality (khanḍa-pakṣa). According to the former, word meanings, if any, are arrived at after analyzing the sentences in which they occur. Interestingly, this debate had many of the features animating present day debates in language over semantic holism, for example.

The Mīmāṃsakas felt that the sound-units or the letters alone make up the word. The sound-units are uttered in sequence, but each leaves behind an impression, and the meaning is grasped only when the last unit is uttered. The position was most ably stated by Kumarila Bhatta (7th c.) who argued that the 'sphoṭas' at the word and sentence level are after all composed of the smaller units, and cannot be different from their combination[5]. However, in the end it is cognized as a whole, and this leads to the misperception of the sphoṭa as a single indivisible unit. Each sound unit in the utterance is an eternal, and the actual sounds differ owing to differences in manifestation.

The Nyāya view is enunciated among others by Jayanta (9th c.), who argues against the Mīmāṃsā position by saying that the sound units as uttered are different; e.g. for the sound [g], we infer its 'g-hood' based on its similarity to other such sounds, and not because of any underlying eternal. Also, the vācaka-vācya linkage is viewed as arbitrary and conventional, and not eternal. However, he agrees with Kumarila in terms of the compositionality of an utterance.

Throughout the second millennium, a number of treatises discussed the sphoṭa doctrine. Particularly notable is Nageśabhaṭṭa's Sphotavāda (18th c.). Nageśa clearly defines sphoṭa as a carrier of meaning, and identifies eight levels, some of which are divisible.

In modern times, scholars of Bhartṛhari have included Ferdinand de Saussure, who did his doctoral work on the genitive in Sanskrit, and lectured on Sanskrit and Indo-European languages at the Paris and at the University of Geneva for nearly three decades. It is thought that he might have been influenced by some ideas of Bhartṛhari, particularly the sphoṭa debate. In particular, his description of the sign, as composed of the signifier and the signified, where these entities are not separable - the whole mapping from sound to denotation constitutes the sign, seems to have some colourings of sphoṭa in it. Many other prominent European scholars around 1900, including linguists such as Leonard Bloomfield and Roman Jakobson may have been influenced by Bhartṛhari[6].

UKT: End of Wiki article.

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