“SPHOTA” In Indian Philosophy

(Mystico – epistemological significance)

 By Dr. N. V. Kulkarni


1)  Dhvani and sphota compared

According to Bhartrihari, sphota is different from sound as class from individual.  Sphota is characterized as a family or class of sounds related to dhvani.  The sounds may vary widely but sphota remains the same in all environments.

Sphota is the constant element in the varied sounds whereas dhvani refers to the distinctive or non-distinctive sound elements uttered by various speakers in varied tones.

अनेकव्यक्त्यभिव्यङ्ग्या जाति: स्फोट इति स्मृता!

कैश्चिद् व्यक्तय एवास्या ध्वनित्वेन प्रकल्पिता:!!     

Bhartrihari has used the term sphota only nine times in the Vakyapadiya in the first Kanda of it.  Like Patanjali, Bhartihari has also invariably used the term Sphota in relation with the dhvani.

Some believe that the sphota (stands for) the universal (concept) which is manifest-able by many (i.e. varied) individuals (sounds), and corresponding individuals (instances) are what one imagines to be sounds (dhvanis).

Notes :- The varied individual sounds are called dhvanis, whereas the universal nature of these varied individual sounds is considered to be the sphota.

2) WORD’S (shabda) status as per Sanskrit grammarians

Sanskrit grammarians establish that all the words denote the meaning sattā: ‘existence’ and, due to the avidyā (ignorance), the existence assumes the different forms.  It is only secondarily that the words stand for different objects such as cow, horse, etc., whose primary meaning is pure existence.  Following the same line, on the expression side, the grammarians maintain that there is only one supreme eternal word (Ŝabdabrahman).  The Ŝabdabrahman which assumes various forms, due to the avidyā, is expressive of meaning.  To the grammarians, Ŝabdabrahman is the supreme reality.  It is devoid of all qualities and distinctions.  The Ŝabdabrahman is the ultimate principle of existence.  Finally, the supreme word is identified with the supreme meaning.  The Ŝabdatattva is regarded as existence in essence.  That which cannot be subjected to the expression of the supreme sound cannot exist and consequently cannot be content of our thought.  The supreme word gives to an object its existential status.    For Pataňjali and Bhartrihari  the term sphoţa stands for the unit-sound grasped but not necessarily understood.  The later grammarians, however, have shifted the earlier conception of the sphoţa from the feature level of language to the semantic level.  The discussion on the nature of sphoţa, according to the later grammarians, essentially deals with the significance aspect of language.  And, finally, the later grammarians have attributed the metaphysical aspect of word doctrine to the sphoţa.  The higher reality of Ŝabdabrahman is identified with the lower reality of sphoţa.  This ultimately led to the misunderstanding of the modern Sanskritists that the sphoţa doctrine is mysterious.

3) Bhartrihari’s  views on dhvani & sphota

Bhartrihari  in his Vakyapadiya records the three different views regarding  the nature of the relation between dhvani and sphoţa.  He says that some are of the opinion that dhvani is perceived as identical with sphoţa.  The commentators explain this by means of the analogy of the japā-flower.  The redness in the crystal appears to be real, when it is placed next to the japā-flower.  The same is true with regard to the sphoţa which is not distinctly perceived from the dhvani.  Thus the length and other peculiarities of sound are wrongly attributed to sphoţa.

His second view regarding the nature of relation between the dhvani and sphoţa maintains that the sounds, although they are not cognizable by themselves, cause the manifestation of the sphoţa.  The commentators explain this by the analogy of senses.  The senses, without themselves being perceived, cause the perception of the objects.  In the same way the sphoţa is perceived through the sound which is itself imperceptible.

His third view on the relation between dhvani and sphoţa points out that the perception of sphoţa is not identical with the perception of sound.  Sometimes we perceive the dhvanis without perceiving the sphoţa, just as we perceive the light without seeing the flame.

Bhartrihari  also records three different views on the nature of sphoţa.  He says that, according to some, the term sphoţa stands for the initial articulated sounds produced by the various degrees of contacts of the articulatory organs with the points of articulation.

ग्रहणग्राह्ययो: सिद्धा योग्यता नियता यथा!

व्यङ्ग्यव्यञ्जकभावेन तथैव स्फोटनादयो:!!       

The sound belonging to the first moment, according to this view, is the sphoţa, while the sound resulting from the sphoţa and belonging to the succeeding moments, are called śabdajāh abdāh (sounds produced by sounds).  The succeeding sounds (dhvanayah) are regarded as a chain of repetition of the first sound (sphoţa).  These sounds, moving like waves, become weaker and weaker as they spread farther and farther from the sphoţa word.

In another view suggested by Bharthrhari, both the dhvani and the sphoţa are said to be produced simultaneously.  This is explained by the analogy of the flame and the light.  The flame and the light are produced at the same moment.  However, from a distance we see the light without seeing the flame.  In the same manner, from a distance we may hear the sound and not the sphoţa.  According to this theory, there is no interval between the perception of the sphoţa and that of dhvani.  But these two aspects of a word are kept apart from each other, just as the initial sound of a bell and its reverberations are regarded as quite distinct from each other.  These two views mentioned above suggest that the sphoţa is regarded as a transitory sound rather than the eternal entity.

In accordance with the third view, the sphoţa represents the universal nature of individual dhvanis.  It is the individual that helps the manifestation of the universal.  The varied individual sounds are called dhvanis, and the class-nature of these sounds is considered to be the sphoţa.

4) Definition of Sphota

The term sphota is derived from the root sphut which means ‘to burst’ and is defined in two ways: In its linguistic sense, it is normally defined as ‘that from which the meaning bursts forth’, i.e. ‘the word denoting a meaning (sphutati artho yasmat)’.  Secondly, it means ‘an entity manifested by sounds’ (sphutyate varnaih yah i.e. varnabhivyangyah).  Although the sounds are produced serially, the sphota manifested by different sounds is bereft of the time-series-pattern.  Each sound serves to manifest an indivisible unit.  But it is not maintained that each sound reveals a part, because such a theory would lead to the divisibility of sphota

From the foregoing discussion it will be clear that, according to Patanjali and Bhartrihari , the term sphota may refer to a single phoneme or a sound-pattern, which is revealed by dhvaniSphota as the indivisible meaning-bearing eternal word is nowhere suggested in either Patanjali’s Mahabhasya or Bhartrihari ’s Vakyapadiya.  The great masters Patanjali and Bhartrihari, while making pronouncements on sphota, are not engaged in irrational speculations.  However, the later grammarians regard the sphota as an indivisible, meaningful eternal word from which the whole universe evolves.  One may see that their way of describing sphota is almost parallel to that of describing the supreme reality.  All the elaborate terminology – Brahman, satta, avyakta, sakti, avidya etc. – is employed by later grammarians to describe the nature of sphota.  This confusion arises on their part because they identify the metaphysical concept of sabda with the doctrine of sphota

Like Patanjali, Bhartrihari  also uses the term sabda in the Vakyapadiya to mean various things, such as : (i) the supreme reality, the Brahman.  (ii) From the stand-point of communication, sabda represents an indivisible meaning-bearing unit.  At the beginning of the second book of the Vakyapadiya, Bhartrihari  defines the sentence in the words eko’navayavah sabdah: ‘a single undivided speech-unit.’  He maintains that a sentence is indivisible into constituents, because the process of communication is not concerned with the division of sentence into its constituents.  Bhartrihari ’s theory of the indivisibility of the sentence maintains that the listener hears the sentence as an undivided linguistic unit, and does not identify the word-elements like stems and suffixes etc.  while he understands the meaning of the speech-unit.  In other words, the process of understanding the sentence-meaning is indifferent to the constituents and their meanings.  In this sense he says that sentence is over and above the phonemes.

5) History of Sphota

Some scholars believe that the indirect reference to the theory of sphota is found in the view of Audumbarayana quoted by Yaska in his Nirukta 1.1.  Audumbarayana holds that the classification of words into four categories is impossible, because there is no separate existence of words apart from the sound-units that follow each other in quick succession.  The school of Audumbarayana represents the germs of the sphota doctrine which was developed later on by Bhartrihari .

It is claimed that the origin of this theory goes back to Panini’s Astadhayi

अवङ् स्फोटायनस्य   

Which  mentions  the name Sphotayana

Nagesa mentions in his Sphotavada

वैयाकरणनागेश: स्फोटायनऋषेर्मतम्!

परिष्कृत्योक्तवांस्तत्र प्रीयतां जगदीश्वर:!!          

that the grammarian Sphotayana has first propounded the theory of sphota.  However, we do not know for certain who was the first propounder of the sphota doctrine, irrespective of the fact that Panini himself mentions the name of Sphotayana.  The specific mention of the name of Sphotayana neither sufficiently indicates that Panini knew anything similar to the sphota theory as developed by Bhartrihari  in his Vakyapadiya, nor does it point out that this doctrine originally belonged to the sage Sphotayana.  At best, the word may mean a remote descendant of Sphota.

When we come to Patanjali,

एवं तर्हि स्फोट: शब्दो ध्वनि: शब्दगुणः!

ध्वनि: स्फोटश्च शब्दानां ध्वनिस्तु खलु लक्ष्यते !

अल्पो महांश्च केषांचिदुभयं तत्स्वभावतः!!

we find the first reference to the theory of sphota.  The sphota theory was fully developed by Bhartrihari  and the later grammarians; but some of the notions underlying this theory are found in Patanjali’s Mahabhasya.

To Patanjali, the term sphota need not necessarily involve consideration of meaning.  He has used the term sphota (probably “heard sound”) strictly to point out its relation with dhvani (“spoken sound”).

But his argument has been that the significative unit cannot be dissolved into the smallest constituents of language i.e. phonemes.  It deserves to be noted in this connection that, while discussing the meaning-bearing aspect of grammatical units, Patanjali has never used the term sphota, which has become the subject of hair-splitting discussion in the galaxy of later grammarians.

The introductory chapter of the Mahabhasya deals with the definition of sabda.  Patanjali furnishes us with two alternative definitions of the term sabda.  The first definition tells us that the term sabda: ‘word’ stands for a meaningful segment.  According to the second definition, any meaningful or meaningless sound is designated as sabda.  Patanjali says, when the word gauh is uttered, the following concepts come before the listener’s mind: ‘the individual cow having a dewlap, a tail, a hump, hooves and horns, her action, her colour, her form, besides the phonetic shape g-au-h’.  Accordingly, it becomes difficult to ascertain what exactly is denoted by the term ‘word’.  Patanjali finally says: ‘that is a word which, when uttered, brings us the knowledge of the object possessing a dewlap, a tail, a hump, hooves and horns’.  He knows the two-sidedness of words.  One side represents ‘sound’ and the other ‘content’.  When a word is uttered, its sound is heard and its meaning is apprehended.  Therefore, he defines the word as a ‘meaningful sound’.

Patanjali further says that, dhvani: ‘sound’ is a popular term, and sound is designated as sabda: ‘word’.  According to the second definition, any phonetic sequence is considered to be a word which need not necessarily convey any meaning.  This definition points out that the name ‘word’ is given to the articulate sound.

Thus, in modern terminology, the first definition lays emphasis on the morphemic character of a word, whereas the second emphasizes the phonetic character of the word.  According to the commentators of the Mahabhasya, the first definition refers to the sphota word, while in the second definition, the dhvani and sphota aspects are regarded as non-different.

The commentators on the Mahabhasya interpret the word pratitapadarthaka in the second definition differently.  According to them, the sound, which conveys a sense, is called a word.  They maintain that both the definitions refer to the meaning-conveyor sound. 

Patanjali has never used the term sphota to refer to a single indivisible meaning-bearing unit.  The term sphota as used by Patanjali always stands for the structure of expression which may or may not have meaning.  The idea that the meaning-bearing word is the sphota is not implicitly or explicitly stated by Patanjali, although such a concept has occurred to later theorists.

Patanjali makes another important statement about the nature of sabda.  He says sabda is what is perceived by the auditory organs, grasped through intellect, revealed by the sounds pertaining to the region of the sky.  By these three phrases, Patanjali gives an adequate description of the process of communication.  Firstly, sound is revealed by the articulatory process; secondly, it is received by the listener’s ear and finally the auditory perception of the sound is translated into thought.  It is a characteristic feature of Indian thinkers, that language, according to them, is primarily to be looked upon as an auditory system.  It is used to communicate our thoughts to listeners, and accordingly, the perception of sounds by the listener’s ear plays a very important role in the process of communication.  By the term buddhinirgrahyah: ‘grasped by the intellect’, Patanjali indicates that the word is a mental or psychical entity.  The phrase prayagena abhijvalilah: ‘revealed by the sounds’ refers to the sphota aspect of the word.  The term srotropalabdhih: ‘perceived auditorily’ stands for the sound which passes from the speaker to the listener.  Patanjali points out that sabda, in its sphota aspect, represents the auditory image of sound revealed by the articulatory movements.

According to him, the sphota aspect of word, which is suddenly revealed to the listener’s ear, is quite different from dhvani which refers to the distinctive or non-distinctive sound-elements uttered by the different speakers in varied tones, pitches etc.  From Patanjali’s statements, it seems that the term sphota refers to the constant element in the auditory image of the varied articulated sounds, whereas the term dhvani refers to the physical articulated sound which is associated with length, tempos and various peculiarities of the individual speaker.

Patanjali is consistent in maintaining the terminological distinction  between the dhvani and the sphota aspects of words.  According to him, the phoneme (varna) is the sphota which remains the same in all the different modes of utterances.  The term dhvani is used to denote speech-sound, which is associated with all distinctions in the modes of utterances and individual peculiarities.  It manifests the sphota.  The difference in the speeds of utterance does not affect the sphota, but it is felt to be associated with it, due to the difference in the sounds which manifest the sphota.

The word sabda, as used by Patanjali, may stand either for dhvani or sphota on the one hand, or for the meaning-bearing word (samghata) on the other.  While his term sabda is common to all these three, the terms dhvani, sphota and the meaningful samghata are not interchangeable.  His term sphota stands in much more intimate relation with the term dhvani than with the arthasampratyayakasabda.

6) Types of Sphota

The later grammarians have classified the sphota into eight different varieties:

(i)                  Varnasphota

(ii)                Padasphota

(iii)              Vakyasphota

(iv)              Akhandapadasphota

(v)                Akhandavakyasphota

(vi)              Varnajatisphota

(vii)            Padajatisphota

(viii)          Vakyajatisphota

Gurudev comments “Is there any meaning for sentences such as the vakyasphota?”  whether a concept or judgement is the simplest unit of thought was a matter of controversy in Western logic, … The meaning of a sentence will be clear only in a particular context, for example, a book; and then we have to talk of Grantha sphota.  But a book on a particular subject will be perfectly understood only on the background of other books on the same subject and so on ad infinitum till we come to the stage that meaning of a single word, or a simple fact like a flower in the crannied wall, becomes clearest only on the background of the knowledge of the whole of Reality.  Thus epistemologically, ultimate Reality would be the meaning of meanings.

7) Logical significance of sphota

From another point of view, viz., the logical, as Bhartrihari  cleverly saw, Sabda or Sphota is the highest Satta or existence, the Summum Genus.  All genera are merely ‘vanishing species’ of it.  They are merely illusory forms.  The term Vakyapadiya will be ungrammatical for Padavakyiya.  IT is a relation like that of Paramatman to Jivatman.  It is just as in Plato where all ideas are species of the Idea of the Good.  It is this Idea which stands at the apex and confers reality on the intermediate stages in the hierarchy.  The more the participation in the Idea, the more the reality does a thing enjoy.

8) Philosophical Significance of sphota

From the philosophical point of view, all words ultimately mean God.  The Sanyasins use one word Narayana in response to any question asked.  A word does not mean anything exclusively but must be understood first in the universe of discourse in which it is used.  By rising higher and higher it must become a predicate of propositions whose subjects become more and more comprehensive till at last, as Bosanquet says, Reality becomes the only subject of all judgements.  The fullest significance of a word is its place in the world structure and for that, all words have their faces turned towards God.  Thus there are three points of view, epistemological, logical and philosophical.  From any one of these approaches, Sabda or Sphota becomes identical with absolute Reality.  All these approaches, however, are merely intellectual and not mystical.  Panini alone saw the mystical significance of it.  “The eternal word” says Madhava in his Sarva-darsanasamgraha, “which is called sphota and which is without parts is the true cause of the world.”

9) Mystical Significance of Sphota

Gurudev states “Panini alone saw the mystical significance of it (sphota)”.  Later grammarians e.g. Patanjali, Kaiyata and Bhartrihari  failed to catch the mystical significance of sphota.  With them, sphota meant the power of signification of “Meaning” of a word:

स्फुट्यते अर्थः अनेन।

Panini alone said that Shabda which he identified with Sphota (explosion), was the primal energy of the world. स्फुटती इति स्फोट  : “What burst forth” sound.  Sphota is the sound of a word as a whole…

There is a curious passage in Bhartrihari’s Brahmakanda which seems to identify Speech and Brahman.  See Sarva-darsana-sangraha, Bibl. Indi., p. 140 :-

       Anadinidhanam brahma sabdatattvam yad aksharam,

       Vivartate-rthabhavena prakriya gagato yatha.

Brahman without beginning or end, which is the eternal essence of speech,

       Is changed into the form of things, like the evolution of the world.

Here, when examining the Panini Darsana Madhava shows first of all, that the Sabda or word which Panini professes to teach in his Sabdanusasana or grammar, is really the same as Brahman.  ‘The eternal word,’ he writes, ‘which is called sphota, and is without parts, is the true cause of the world.’  It is in fact Brahman, and he adds thereupon some lines from Bhartrihari ’s Brahmakanda, where that grammarian (died 650 A.D.) says:

‘Brahman without beginning or end, the indestructible essence of language,

Which developed in the form of things, and whence springs the creation of the world.’

“For the doctrine of Sphota”, Gurudev continues “We have a number of parallels in the Logos of St. John 1.1, the ‘Let there be light’ doctrine of old Testament. The Yun (let it be done) in Arabic Philosophy, The Vak in Rgveda and the Anahata Nada in Kabir.

Coming proper to Anahat Nada, an ‘auricular manifestation of God’, let us examine various types of these manifestations met with in Gurudev’s works

The manifestations occur as

a)      Mystical Sounds

b)      Mystic Words

c)      Words as names of God

a) Mystical sounds

(i) Divine manifestation

“God is identified not merely with the object of audition, but with the process of audition itself says Mahipati” Gurudev comments on Mahipati’s song Kannara Kanderu.

A very significant contribution of Mirabai to ordinary mystical experience (of various sounds) is when she says the mystic is able to hear all the 36 Ragas without a vocal sound (without the fundamental note).  In this case, what is the object of audition?  Isn’t it God Himself?  Since all Ragas are Chaitanya in ‘esse’, self-realisation is the experience of Chaitanya.

Shri Bhavusaheb Maharaj also had this experience of Ragas and he had composed various Bhajans based on them.

(ii) Charandas tells us that the Anahat is experienced like the humming of a bee, like a conch, like cymbals, like a bell, like a flute, like a kettle drum, and like the terrible rumbling of a cloud.  He also mentions Anahat is heard as a terror-striking sound.

At Nimbal Village, Gurudev had heard a terrific sound and felt as if the empyrean would explode; the ferocity of the “Nada” was such that he felt “as absolutely powerless even to lift his hand from his heart in mortal fear and exclaimed that it would have been much better if he had not been privileged to have that experience …”

(iii) Hansopanishad describes the types of sound

नादो दशविधो जायते! चिणीति प्रथम:! चिंचिणीति द्वितीय:!

घंटानादस्तृतीय:! शंखनादच्श्रतुर्थ:! पंचमस्तन्त्रीनादः! षष्ठस्तालनादः!  

सप्तमो वेणुनादः! अष्टमो मृदंगनादः! नवमो भेरीनादः! दशमो मेघनाद:!

नवमं परित्यज्य दशममेवाभ्यसेत्!

(iv) Hataratnawali mentions the following sounds

आदौ जलधिजीमूतभेरीनिर्झरसंभवा:!  

मध्ये मर्दलशंखोत्था घंटाकाहलकास्तथा!!

अन्त्ये तु किंकिणीवंशवीणाभ्रमरनि:स्वना:!

इति नानाविधा नादा: श्रूयन्ते देहमध्यतः!! हठरत्नावली, .१०११

(v) In all mystical literature right from the Upanishadic time, only ten kinds of sounds are mentioned, while the saint Mahipati mentions twelve kinds of them …  “The eleven kinds of unique sounds are followed by a still more peculiar twelfth sound, all occupying the whole sky with the sound Dhimi, Dhimi, Dhimi ….” States Gurudev.

(vi) It is true that many authors of books on mysticism have regarded भृंगनाद as the culmination of Anahat experience.  However, this is not so.  Who can set a limit to the order or the acme of spiritual experience?  People vainly suppose that they have not reached a high level of Anahat experience, if they have not heard the भृंगनाद.  It is not necessary that the भृंगनाद should be the last to be experienced.  The same mistake is made by many aspirants, when they try to interpret the line in श्वेताश्वतर उपनिषद्नीहारधूमार्कानलानिलानाम्! खद्योतविद्यूत्स्फटिकशशिनाम्!!”.  It is interesting to remember that the Arka or the Sun is here mentioned first, and then the fire, the firefly, and the moon.  Experience in some cases may prove just the opposite.  The point with which the author of this Upanishad was concerned was simply to make a catalogue, and not to give the order, of the photic experiences which the seeker initially experiences on his spiritual journey.  Even so about भृंगनाद.

b) Mystic words

(i) Tukarama, while describing his experience of the whole universe becoming God says “I see Thy feet everywhere.  The whole universe is filled by Thee…. Whatever I hear is the name of God.  Various words are heard.”

(ii) A classical example of alphabets being heard.

Shyeteappa, a disciple of Shri Bhausaheb Maharaj was deaf by birth.  Shri Maharaj told him to carry Dasabodha with him in the woods where he meditated keeping the book open in front of him.  As he gazed at the alphabet one after another, he heard them.  Shri Maharaj remarked to Laxman Bhatji “Letters started bursting to him” about these happenings.

Thereafter Shyetappa could read Dasabodha fluently.

(iii) Divine Names

Dasbodha speaks of three types of realisations (Prachiti) that of Guru, of oneself and as propounded in scriptures.

Gurudev writes about his own experience.  The year is 1920 – “I had got certain experiences and I could not account for them, because there was nobody to explain to me; no books could tell me.  But he (Amburao Maharaj) knew it, and gave me an insight into the meaning of this song (Sai Sai Sadguruvina dayadindelle mai maretunu.)  He asked me to take it down which I did, and it is with me even now.

Finally, let me refer to an important element in the song which we do not find anywhere else.  It is this element which attracted me most and made a very deep impression upon me in the year 1920.  My teacher gave me an insight not merely in the nature of sounds, not merely in the nature of words, but in the matter of the names of God, (nada sabda).  He made me of course, aware of sounds.  Sounds uncaused, Anahatanadas, people do hear; but Sabda, many do not hear at all.  This is exactly what is said about the fact of Sambhasana (conversation) in the case of highly developed mystics.  They may have a talk with the highest Reality; but that is apart.  We cannot say anything about it, unless we have actual experience of that kind.  So, ‘not merely sounds and words but the names of God like Isa, Datta, Digambara were heard.  He thus opened out before me a panorama of the vast number of names of God, any one of which I might choose, either for, myself or for others.  My teacher did all these things for me.’  So the writer of the present poem might have called himself Isa, as I suggested in the beginning.  He might mean thereby that either the poet assumed the name of Isa or that God made his mind stable in the vision of this form of God and of his own form.  The teacher enabled him to hear the Anahata sound, which is by itself a difficult thing; but after that he enabled him to hear the word and finally, he also let him into the secret of the different names of God.” 

What a kudos to Amburao Maharaj who preserved this song as a proof of ‘Shastra Prachiti’.  The process of the unfolding of the Divine name is succinctly described by Kabir as

अजर अमर इकनाम है

जो सुमिरन आवै

On which Gurudev comments “While we are meditating, says Kabir, there is a celestial name which unfolds itself to our auditory sense at the height of meditation”. That name is ‘Ajara and Amara’.  Kabir elsewhere also states “बाजत नाम तिहार” in one of his Doha.  Finally Gurudev says “… there might be no ultimate distinction between Anahat and Shabda …”

10) Antagonists and Propounders of Spotawada

Sphotavada has both warm friends and bitter enemies.  Some raise the doctrine to the skies while others are not prepared to touch it even with a pair of tongs.  A speaker utters a word, a hearer understands its meaning.  Wherein lies the power to express the meaning?  The linguistic-metaphysical view is that it is Sphota.  It is the vehicle of the idea which flashes on the mind or the impression produced on the mind on hearing the sound.  When a word is uttered, the individual constituent letters disappear as soon as uttered.  Each letter comes after its predecessor.  The letters are never simultaneously present.  Therefore a ‘group of sounds’ can not express a meaning.  Nor does an individual letter by itself convey the meaning, for, in that case, other letters in the word will be superfluous.  The Sphotavadins attribute this function of conveying the meaning to Sphota, the Word, which is independent of uttered letters and which lies at the back of them all.  This Word is eternal (नित्य), indivisible (अखंड), not involving sequence (अक्रम).  The uttered letters (वर्णसमूह) are just occasions of the expression of meaning (अभिव्यंजक) while Sphota is what bursts forth (अभिव्यंग्य), when words are uttered.  As such the uttered letters (वर्णसमूह) are secondary (गौण), while स्फोट is primary (प्रधान).  On the same lines the Alankarikas or rhetoricians say that the literal meaning (वाच्यार्थ) is secondary, while व्यंग्यार्थ or ध्वनि suggested by वाच्यार्थ is of primary importance.  For the Alankarikas ध्वनि is the soul of poetry (काव्यस्यात्मा ध्वनि : is what आनंदवर्धन says).  The uttered letters (वर्णसमूह) stand on the level of वाच्यार्थ and स्फोट stands on the level of व्यंग्यार्थ or ध्वनि.  What वर्णसमूह is to स्फोट for the Sphotavadin, is what वाच्यार्थ is to व्यंग्य for the Alankarika.

The above sets one to wonder about Big Bang Theory viz the violent event in which the Universe as we know it was born …. Born out of a superhot, superdense fireball some 15 billion years ago, now confirmed, by the discovery of a faint hiss of microwave radiation, filling the universe, which is the afterglow of the fireball and its powerful rival steady state theory that allowed one to believe that the universe was eternal.  One may discern the terms “Violent” and “faint hiss”.

11) A unique contribution of Indian philosophical thought

Max Muller writes in his ‘Six Systems of India Philosophy’,  Hindu Philosophers have actually elaborated an idea which does not exist in any other philosophy, that of Sphota.  It is true that in Panini’s own sutras the word Sphota does not occur, but the name of a grammarian whom he quotes (VI, I, 123), Sphotayana, shows that this peculiar word Sphota must have existed before Panini’s time.  Derived as it is from Sphut, Sphota must have meant originally what bursts forth.  It has been translated by expression, notion, concept or idea, but none of these renderings can be considered as successful.  It really means the sound of a word as a whole, and as conveying a meaning, apart from its component letters.  The subject has been well treated by Madhava in his Sarva-darsana-samgraha.  Here, when examining the Panini Darsana, he shows first of all that the Sabda or word which Panini professes to teach in his Sabdanusasana, or grammar, is really the same as Brahman.  ‘The eternal word’, he writes, ‘which is called Sphota, and is without parts, is the true cause of the world’, is in fact Brahman. The conventional character of the relation between sound and meaning was fully recognized in India, whether that sound was called Sabda or Sphota.  Nor is it enough that the letters should be the same, they must also follow each other in the same order, otherwise Vasa and Sava, Nava and Vana &c., would carry the same meaning, which they do not.

All this was meant to show that the admission of a Sphota was unnecessary; but we now get the orthodox answer, namely, that the admission of Sphota is necessary, and that all the objections are no more than a catching at a straw by a drowning person, because separate letters would never be a word, as little as flowers without a string would be a wreath.  And as the letters cannot combine, being evanescent as soon as they have been pronounced, we are asked to admit a Sphota, and to accept the first letters, as revealing the invisible Sphota, whereas the following letters serve only to make that Sphota more and more manifest and explicit.

Our philosophical grammarian takes another step, trying to prove that the meaning of all words is ultimately that summun genus (Satta), namely pure existence, the characteristic of which is consciousness of the supreme reality.  And lest it should be thought that in that case all words would mean one and the same thing, namely Brahman oe being, it is remarked that in one sense this is really so; but that, as a crystal is coloured by its surroundings.

Brahman, when connected with different things and severally identified with each, stands afterwards for different species, such as cow, horse, &c., these being first of all ‘existence’ (Satta) or the highest genus, as found in individuals, and then only what they are in this phenomenal world.  In support of this, another passage of Bhartrihari’s is quoted: ‘Existence being divided, as found in cows, &c., is called this or that species by means of its connection with different objects, and on it all words depend.  This they call the meaning of the stem, and the meaning of the root.  This is existence, this is the great Atman (or Brahman), expressed by affixes such as Tva, Tal, &c., which form abstract nouns, such as Go-tva, cow-hood, &c.  For existence, as the summum genus, is found in all things, in cows, horses &c., and therefore all words, expressive of definite meanings, rest ultimately on the summum genus, existence, differentiated by various thoughts or words, such as cows, horses &c., in which it resides.  If the stem-word, the Pratipadika, expresses existence, the root expresses Bhava, a state, or, as others say, Kriya, action.

This will remind us of many of the speculations of Greek as well as medieval logicians; and it is exactly what my late friend Noire tried to establish, that all words originally expressed action, to which I added the amendment that they expressed either an action or a status.  If this true kernel of every word is by Hindu philosophers called the Great Atman (Mahan Atma), and Satta, the summum genus, we must remember that, according to the Vedanta, Brahman is the true substance of everything.’ 

Here we are brought to mind, Nama as the symbol of ultimate reality.

Prof Ranade states: “Let us now consider another important point in which there is a great insistence of Nama as the symbol of ultimate reality.  Now consider into how many difficult and most important provinces of Philosophy this conception of nama leads us.  What is the doctrine of Sphota in Indian philosophy?  When the present writer came to his newly built bungalow at Allahabad, he saw a fruit called फूट which is something like a Tarabuja.  But the peculiar quality of it is that as soon as it ripens, it breaks out into many parts simultaneously.  It develops lines of cleavage.  According to some great Indian Systems of philosophy, it is from the Sphota as the ultimate reality that all the existences in the universe spring.  The Vaiyakaranas say that the ultimate reality is Sphota, while the Mimansakas and the Alankarikas also say that Sphota is the Ultimate reality.  The very opening lines of Panini’s Ashtadhyayi tells us how everything came from the Damaru of Shankara supported by the famous verse from the Kasika नृत्तावसाने नटराजराजो। ननाद ढक्कां नवपत्र्चवारम्.  Similarly, this Nama plays the part of a Damaru, develops lines of cleavage, and ramifies  into different existences.  It is the ultimate reality, the Noumenon as it might be called in Kantian terminology.  It also performs the same function which the Logos does in Christian philosophy, or “Buddhi” in Samkhya philosophy.  What does the Logos do?  ‘In the Beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’ is an utterance from St. John of which everybody is aware.  So the word or Logos is intermediate between man and God.  Similarly in Samkhya philosophy, the reconciler between Prakriti and Purusha is Buddhi.  It interpretes Prakriti to Purusha, and Purusha to Prakriti.  Similarly here, it is the Nama which interpretes Saguna to Nirguna, and Nirguna to Saguna.” 

One more explanation of Nada as we find in Lingadharanachandrika of Nandikeshwara’ translation by M. R. Sakhare is worth noting.

Linga has also another explanation as शब्दब्रह्म other than अर्थब्रह्मशिवपरब्रह्म is the cosmic पुरुष आत्मविमर्ष i.e.  He is conscious of Himself – Divine self consciousness as Gurudev calls it.  He first vibrates in his लीला towards creation.  The vibration is नाद  the first expression as नाम or name.  From this नाद proceeds the बिंदू (dot) i.e. the form.  These two नाम  and बिंदू are what is known so well as ओंकार or प्रणव.



i)                    The Sphotanirnaya – S. D. Joshi

But for the copious scholarly references made available in this treatise, the present writer could not have completed his article.

ii)                  Studies in Indian Philosophy – Prof R. D. Ranade. Edited by B. R. Kulkarni

iii)                Vedanta The Culmination of Indian Thought – Prof R. D. Ranade

iv)                Pathway to God in Hindi Literature – Prof. R. D. Ranade

v)                  Pathway to God in Kannad Literature – Prof. R. D. Ranade

vi)                The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy – Max Muller.

vii)               Q is for Quantum – John Gribbin

viii)             The Fire in the Equations – Kitty Fergusson.

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