Shabda Bodha (शाब्दबोधः)

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Shabdabodha (Samskrit : शाब्दबोधः) refers to the awareness and information of things hitherto unknown (to the listeners), to convey which, a speaker utters words generated by shabda arranged in intelligible sentences. The awareness generated by such shabda — in the form of a sentence – is called "Shabdabodha", which is cognition of sentence meaning or awareness of the relation (of word-meanings). Almost all schools of darshanas, vyakarana and alankara shastras have dealt with this topic extensively.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

Language is an instrument of communication of thought and the concept of Shabda is the very foundation of theories of language. They deal with the concepts pertaining to sound (including letters, words and sentences), its origin, qualities, relationship with listener and its validity as a pramana. Hence understanding a word and subsequent knowledge-from-word forms the basis of Shabdabodha. Shabda according to various texts broadly refer to meaningful "words (शब्दाः)", and their combination in the form of "sentences (वाक्यं)". While individual words have their meanings, the process through which the cognition of the sentence-meaning arises, involves processes such as yogyata (योग्यता । fitness) akanksha (आकाङ्क्षा । expectancy), aasatti (आसत्तिः । proximity) and tatparya (तात्पर्यम् । import). Alankarikas such as Vishvanatha have clearly defined a sentence as that group of words having yogyata, akanksha and aasatti.

वाक्यं स्याद्योग्यताकाङ्क्षासत्तियुक्तः पदोच्चयः । (Sahi. Darp. 2.1)[2]

Bharthari says:

अर्थप्रवृत्तितत्त्वानां शब्दा एव निबन्धनम् । तत्त्वावबोधः शब्दानां नास्ति व्याकरणादृते ।। 13 ।। (Vaky. Brah. 13)[3]

It is words that form the bases of meanings, purposes, activities and truth. Knowledge of Vyakarana is the only recourse to understand the truth (तत्त्वावबोधः) embedded in the shabda.[1]

Here, in the present article, we engage in a discussion about shabdas (varnas), padas (words) and vakyas (group of words) and their role in comprehension of knowledge.

  • ध्वनिविज्ञानम् ॥ Science of Dhvani: It includes the understanding shabda (shabda vichara), origin and propagation of sound, classification of sound etc. validity and distinction of Shabda (or verbal testimony) as a pramana.
  • पदविज्ञानम् ॥ Science of Padas : It includes nature of a padas (pada vichara), their formation from shabdas, padarthas and their kinds, import of words.
  • वाक्यविज्ञानम् ॥ Science of Vakyas : It includes construction of a sentence (vakya vichara), factors involved in the cognition of the vakyartha, import of sentences.
  • अर्थविज्ञानम् ॥ Science of Comprehension : It includes an overall perspective of how a meaning is grasped from sentences and is a combined effort of all the above factors leading to comprehension.

ज्ञानम् ॥ Cognition

अर्थः (Artha) means purpose, meaning, wealth etc. Here with reference to the present context of "meaning" it is of two types - वस्तु (real) and बौद्धार्थ (imaginary). Generally, the word ज्ञानम् (Jnanam) is used to relate to the concept of Cognition whereas knowledge is represented by the word विज्ञानम् (Vijnanam).[4]

The analysis of the cognition obtained from language is known broadly as शाब्दबोध (Shabdabodha). This term is used to denote the cognition episode of the hearer, along with the theories involved in the cause and process of cognition. It includes a thorough examination of the meaning of the component items of a sentence and their relationship, and the resulting cognition as a paraphrase centred on meaning.[5]

A sentence or statement by itself is not sufficient to give us any knowledge of things; mere utterance of sentence does not suffice. Nor does perception of the words of a sentence lead to any knowledge about objects; mere hearing of sentence does not suffice. We may summarize the aspects involved in Shabdabodha as

  1. Expression : Presence of Shabda (written or spoken forms or by gestures)
  2. Reception : Perception of Shabda (visual or auditory sense-organs)
  3. Instrument : Knowledge of constituent words/padas (Padajnana)
  4. Validation : Validity of Shabda (based on trustworthiness of the person giving the statement)
  5. Cognition: Understanding the meaning of sentence (it is a conditional factor)

वाक्यार्थज्ञानम् ॥ Vakyarthajnana

वाक्यार्थज्ञानम् (Vakyarthajnana) or शाब्दबोध (Shabdabodha) means verbal comprehension, is the outcome of knowledge of the meanings in a sentence. Shabdabodha is the purpose or result of Shabda Pramana. A sentence or proposition consists chiefly of two parts: a subject (उद्देश्यः) about which is the context and a predicate (विधेय) which is a clause or words that tell something about the subject.[6]

According to the Nyaya siddhanta the meaning of the subjective part in the nominative case (प्रथमान्तार्थः) is the principal concept (the मुख्यविशेष्यः), to which the meanings of all other words join up directly or indirectly. However, an additional element is conveyed by the sentence as a whole over and above the concepts of the different words. There is the intended relation of the various individual concepts (पदार्थसंसर्ग), which is brought forth not by the significative force of the words, but by the syntactic juxtaposition of the various words. A sentence like चैत्रः पद्भ्यां ग्रामं गच्छति would give rise to a शाब्दबोध like पादकरणक-ग्रामकर्मक-वर्तमानकालीनगमनाभिन्न-कृतिमान् चैत्रः in its simplest form. This is called कर्तृमुख्यविशेष्यबोधः where the action denoted by the verb qualified by all its adjuncts rests on the prinicipal concept, the subject and this the distinctive feature of their Shabdabodha.[7]

Vaiyakaranas do not accept the Naiyayika view of shabdabodha. They hold that in Shabdabodha the action denoted by the verb is the principal concept and the meanings of all other words including the subject are subordinate to it. This is called आख्यातमुख्यविशेष्यबोधः. The above sentence would according to them, give rise to a judgement like पादकरणक-ग्रामकर्मक-चैत्रकर्तृक- वर्तमानकालिकगमनाभिन्नकृतिः. What is to be noted is the fundamental difference between the Naiyayikas and the other schools; whether the principal concept in a verbal judgement is the subject or the predicate.[7]

Following account of major views about the meaning conveyed by a sentence helps one understand the importance of this concept.[5]

  • Saṅsargavākyārtha : According to this view, words independently express the universals and they are recollected through memory by association giving rise to the unified sentence-meaning. Vakyarthajnana is an outcome of Saṅsarga (association), while words-meanings are vācyārtha and sentence-meaning is lakṣyārtha. The later is figurative meaning while the former is literal (śaktyārtha or vācyārtha)
  • Nirākankṣapadārtha-vākyārtha : According to this view, sentence-meaning is the word-meaning (padārtha) satisfying akanksha (expectancy) involved in the cognition of a complete sense. This theory does not consider association but the meaning of words-reposed for an individual meaning as sentence-meaning.
  • Prayojanavākyārtha : In this theory, the intention of the speaker involved in using the words is the sentence-meaning which is known neither by expectancy nor by inference but by purpose involved in the use of the expression. This theory assumes that words express their independent meanings by their natural power (abhidhā-śakti).
  • Kriyā-vākyārtha : According to this theory, an action is sentence-meaning and is expressed by the verb.
  • Pratibhā-vākyārtha : For Vaiyākaraṇas, a sentence is an inner, indivisible and a real unit of awareness in nature i.e. sphoṭa and a sentential-meaning is that it reveals non-differently, it is a flash of awareness for which Bhartrhari uses the word ‘pratibhā’ which is sentence-meaning. Thus, sphoṭa, is language as awareness and the meaning is pratibhā, a clear and a distinct flash.[5]

शब्दप्रमाणम् ॥ Shabda Pramana

Shad Pramanas are the very foundation of Bharatiya Darshana shastras. Shabda Pramana is one of them. According to Nyayadarshana, 'Shabda', used in the technical sense of a sentence (that can be a means of knowledge) is defined by Gautama as that which is uttered by a trustworthy person. Shabda here literally means verbal knowledge. It is the knowledge of objects derived from the words or sentences, however not all verbal knowledge is valid. Hence, Shabda as a pramana, is defined in Nyaya as valid verbal testimony. It consists in the assertion of a trustworthy person.[6]

A trustworthy person is one who has the discerning knowledge of objects to attain what is beneficial and avoid what is harmful. Such a person may be a seer, a virtuous man, a foreigner (mleccha); and the sentence uttered by them consisting of words having syntactic expectancy (yogyata), congruity (aakanksha) and proximity (sannidi or aasatti) is a valid verbal testimony or Shabda Pramana (शब्दप्रमाणम्).[1]

शब्दस्य अप्रामाण्यत्वम् ॥ Not a Pramana by Charvakas

The Charvaka school considers Pratyaksha (प्रत्यक्षप्रमाणम्) or Perception alone as and does not admit either Shabda (Verbal Testimony) as a distinct pramana. According to Charvakas, there is no logical ground or justification for our believing in anything simply on the statement of another person for the following reasons.

  • विमतः शब्दः आप्रमाणम्, शब्दत्वात् । Doubt and erroneous words are also words.
  • A statement by trustworthy person is classified as Anumana pramana (truth of the statement is inferred based the character of the man) and Anumana pramana is not accepted as a valid source of human knowledge.

शब्दस्य अनुमानत्वम् ॥ Inference by Vaiseshikas and Buddhist School

Shabda as a form of knowledge is to be included in Anumana pramana, since the ground of our knowledge is the same in both. In Anumana, we get the knowledge of an unknown object (Sadhya), which is not known through Pratyaksha, on the basis of inference (hetu) of a related known object. Similarly Shabda also, which is known through auditory perception, gives rise to the cognition of its meaning that does not come within the range of pratyaksha.

Further, in the case of anumana, the hetu and the sadhya are related to each other. And from the cognition of the hetu, there arises the recollection of the relation between the hetu and the sadhya. Similarly in the case of Shabda too, the words (pada-s) constituting the shabda (vakya) are related to their respective meanings. Then there arises the cognition of the sentence-meaning (vakyartha) through the recollection of the relations between the words and their meanings after there arises the auditory perception of the shabda, i.e., vakya or statement. On this ground too, shabda is not a pramana distinct from anumana. Nyaya sutras explain this purvapaksha before going on to explain why it considers Shabda pramana as a distinct pramana.

शब्दः अनुमानं अर्थस्य अनुपलब्धेः अनुमेयत्वात् ।। ५० ।। {पूर्वपक्षसूत्र} (Nyay. Sutr. 2.1.50)[8]

शब्दस्य पृथक् प्रामाणत्वम् ॥ Distinct Pramana by Naiyayikas

Nyayasutrakara rejects that Shabda is Anumana and admits that it is a distinct pramana. Simply put technically Shabda Pramana is आप्तोपदेशः शब्दः।।७।। āptopadeśaḥ śabdaḥ[9], the Shabda are the utterances of a trustworthy persons (such as Rshis, Mantradrastas). Naagesha in his Laghumanjusha further explains that an Apta (आप्तः) is one who will not utter falsehood. This expression is explained in two ways, in order to accommodate both testimony without any speaker (Apaurusheya) as well as that which is spoken by a person:

  1. Upadesha (उपदेशः) that is Apta (आप्तः): A verbal testimony, an instruction that is beneficial, as in the Vedas which contain instructions that are beneficial to everyone here and hereafter. This also imbibes the concept of Apaurusheyatvam (without any speaker)
  2. Upadesha (उपदेशः) by an Apta (आप्तः): A verbal testimony, a statement uttered by a trustworthy person.

Shabdabodha is extensively dealt with in establishing Pramanas by the Darshanikas (different schools of thought). Shabda Pramana is the primary basis for a seeker of Alaukika (that which is beyond the world/direct perception) knowledge and thus Shruti (Vedas) is considered as the direct valid means of knowledge. It is well known that the subject of Vedas is, that knowledge which is, beyond the grasp of physical senses and just like how a chemistry student, not having witnessed a scientist's experiments' with his eyes, accepts the words of scientist as "True"; a seeker of deep tatvasiddhanta studies (Paravidya), not having witnessed the source of this knowledge, accepts the words of a Mantradrashta or Rshi as "Truth" because they are trustworthy.

All pramanas in astika darshanas discuss about shabda pramana in one form or other and primarily differ in this point from the nastika darshanas. The nastika darshanas such as Charvakas do not admit the validity of Shabda Pramana itself, some like Buddhist schools admit it as Anumana Pramana. Naiyyayikas considered it as a distinct independent pramana and Vaiseshikas do not admit Shabda as an independent pramana, they classify it under Anumana pramana (inference).

Summarizing the above points, the constituents of Shabdapramana or steps through which jnana of a particular object is apprehended include [6]

  1. the word or utterances (articulate letter sounds) having a meaning or signifying power (shakti)
  2. the sentences (articulated words) having syntactic expectancy (yogyata), congruity (akanksha) and proximity (sannidhi)
  3. these words are uttered by a trustworthy person (Mantradrashtas or seers)
  4. they are heard by the sense of hearing or perceived through gestures (as discussed in Nrsimhaprakasika commentary given on Tarkasangrahadipika the verbal cognition arises even in absence of a sentence from the gestures shown by one who observes the vow of silence).
  5. they are comprehended through understanding the relation among the meanings of words or sentence-meaning
  6. this meaning gives rise to the knowledge (purport) of objects about which the words are uttered.

Summary of Darsanika Views About a Sentence

Various schools of thought have evolved their explanations about what constitutes a sentence according to their siddhantas. Summarizing a few aspects below[1]

School of thought Vakya Lakshana Siddhantas Accepted or Rejected
Samkhya Sentence is a group of words Reject Sphota
Yoga Accepts the nature of a sentence similar to that of the Vaiyakaranas.
Nyaya Sentence consists of several units in the form of two or more words (Vatsyayana bhashya on Nyayasutra 2.1.54) Varnas are the ultimate constituents of a sentence
Vaiseshika Sentence is a group of words (Udayana in Nyayakusumanjali 5.6)

Words not having syntatic expectancy, etc do not constitute a sentence.

Rejects Shabda as independent Pramana; Places it under Anumana Pramana
Mimamsa Words which serve a unitary purpose constitute a sentence (Sabara bhashya on Mimasa Sutra 2.2.26)

Sentence is a group of words conveying a single meaning (Sabara bhashya on Mimamsa Sutra 2.1.46)

Shabda is an independent Pramana

Kumarila's school rejects Sphota

Advaita Vedanta Letters or words in a specific order constitute a sentence (Sankara bhashya on Vedanta Sutra 1.3.28) Rejects Sphota
Visistadvaita Vedanta Words manifested in a single cognition constitute a sentence (Vedantadesika in Tattvamuktakalapa) Rejects Sphota
Dvaita Vedanta Sentence is made up of words having yogyata, akanksha and aasatti (Jayatirtha in Pramanapaddhati) Rejects Sphota
Vyakarana Sentence has the nature of sphota; it is an utterable linguistic unit which is indivisible. Proponents of Sphota

शब्दलक्षणम् ॥ Shabda Lakshana - Nyaya Darshana

Gautama in his Nyāyasūtra defines sabda or verbal testimony as

आप्तोपदेशः शब्दः।।७।। āptopadeśaḥ śabdaḥ (Nyay. Sutr. 1.1.7)[9]

The communication/assertion made by a reliable person is Shabda (word).

आप्तः खलु साक्षात्कृतधर्मा ।... (Vats. Bhas. of Nyay. Sutr. 1.1.7) [10]

That person is called 'Apta', 'reliable' who possesses the direct (साक्षात्) and right knowledge of things (Page 30 of Reference[11]). The word upadeśa etymologically means "that" through which something is communicated. And "that" is the sentence that gives rise to the cognition of something unknown hitherto.[1] In discussion about the connection between the word and the object signified by it, just as in inference there is a certain connection between the mark (smoke) and the thing signified by it (fire) the purvapaksha lays down that shabdapramana and Anumana pramana are not any different. However, the uttarapaksha clarifies the differences therein.

आप्तोपदेशसामर्थ्यात्शब्दातर्थसम्प्रत्ययः ।। ५३ ।। {सिद्धान्तसूत्र}

पूरणप्रदाहपाटनानुपलब्धेः च सम्बन्धाभावः ।। ५४ ।। {सिद्धान्तसूत्र} (Nyay. Sutr. 2.1.53-54)[12]

Summary : The connection between the word and object signified by it is not a natural one. While acknowledging that a word indicates a certain object, the object is not necessarily or naturally connected with the word. Hearing, for instance, the, word "cow," we think of the animal signified by it, nevertheless the word and the animal are not connected with each other by nature or necessity. However, in case of inference the sign (smoke) and the thing signified by it (eg. fire) is natural and necessary and the basis for it is obvious to perception. In the case of verbal testimony, we rely on the unseen matter such as, celestial beings, saptadvipas, apsarasas etc signified by a word, because the word has been used by a reliable person. We accept them as realities not because they are known through words but because they are spoken of by persons who are reliable. Hence it is significant to note that Anumana is not based on Aptopadesha and is based on perception whereas in Shabdapramana the special point is to decide whether the sign (word) comes from a reliable person.[13]

While the Nyayasutra itself does not elaborate on the nature of Shabda, Vātsyāyana in his commentary on the Nyāyasūtra 2.1.54 explains that a sentence consists of several units in the form of two or more words. Thus shabda or verbal testimony is that which gives rise to the valid cognition of the sentence-meaning. And it is of the nature of a sentence consisting of a group of words.

The Naiyaayikas admit that the articulate alphabetic sounds are the ultimate constituents of a sentence. There arises the auditory perception of each and every articulate alphabetic sound when it is uttered. One construes two or more sounds in the form of a word. From the cognition of the word one arrives at the cognition of its meaning. One then construes two or more words in the form of a sentence and from the cognition of it, one gets at the cognition of the relation of the word-meanings - the relation which is the sentence-meaning. The conclusive view of the Naiyaayikas is that a word is a group of articulate alphabetic sounds and a sentence is a group of words. A group or aggregate is not distinct from the units comprising it. Even when it is said that a word consists of several articulate alphabetic sounds and a sentence consists of several words, it comes to this, that articulate alphabetical sounds manifested in a single cognition constitute a sentence.

बौद्धार्थः ॥ Imagination

Artha (अर्थः) or Meaning is of two types - वस्तु (real) and बौद्धार्थ (imaginary). For the Vaiyakaranas, the meaning of a word is closely related to the level of understanding. Whether or not things are real, we do have concepts that form the content of a person’s cognitions derived from language. Without necessarily denying or affirming the external reality of objects in the world, grammarians claimed that the meaning of a word is only a projection of intellect (bauddhārtha, buddhipratibhāṣa).[5]

Patanjali in पस्पशाह्निकम्, explains the meaning of शब्दशब्द as -

येनोच्चारितेन सास्नालाङ्गूलककुदखुरविषाणिनां संप्रत्ययो भवति स शब्दः ।

So संप्रत्ययः (ज्ञानम्) of an अर्थ is to be attained through Shabda (शब्दः)।

By बौद्धार्थः words such as शशशृङ्गम् and वन्ध्यापुत्रः are also Shabdas and they are understood although there they mean a thing that is not tangible such words can be taken as a प्रातिपदिकम् (stem)।

Patañjali says सतो बुद्धिविषयान् प्रकाशयन्ति (they express things that are there in the mind) which clearly supports ‘बौद्धार्थ’। बुद्धौ कृत्वा सर्वाश्चेष्टाः कर्ता धीरस्तन्वन्नीतिः’ (the scholar, who has got an intellect that spreads, would imagine all the process, i.e. related to prior and latter, the relationship within the intellect) is the statement of Patañjali which also establishes the बौद्धार्थ. Words like शशशृङ्गम् (a hare's horn), गगनकुसुमम् (a flower in the sky) express things that are बौद्ध (imaginary) rather than real. For such words no बाह्यार्थ (outside / real thing) exists but due to the capacity of Śabda the cognition is generated.[4]

In निरालम्बनवाद (श्लो १०७-११३) of श्लोकवार्त्तिक Kumārila clearly states that अलातचक्र alātacakra (the illusory wheel we get while rotating a firebrand at high speeds) and others such as शशशृङ्गम् is बौद्धार्थ।[4]

स्वप्नादिप्रत्यये बाह्यं सर्वथा न हि नेष्यते ॥ १०७ ॥

सर्वत्रालम्बनं बाह्यं देशकालान्यथात्मकम् । जन्मन्येकत्र भिन्ने वा तथा कालान्तरेऽपि वा ॥ १०८ ॥

तद्देशो वान्यदेशो वा स्वप्नज्ञानस्य गोचरः । अलातचक्रेऽलातं स्याच्छीघ्रभ्रमणसंस्कृतम् ॥ १०९ ॥

गन्धर्वनगरेऽभ्राणि पूर्वदृष्टं गृहादि च । पूर्वानुभूततोयं च रश्मितप्तोषरं तथा ॥ ११० ॥

मृगतोयस्य विज्ञाने कारणत्वेन कल्प्यते । द्रव्यान्तरे विषाणं च शशस्यत्मा च कारणम् ॥ १११ ॥

शशशृङ्गधियो मौण्ड्यं निषेधे शिरसोऽस्य च । वस्त्वन्तरैरसंसृष्टः पदार्थः शून्यताधियः ॥ ११२ ॥

कारणत्वं पदार्थानामसद्वाक्यार्थकल्पने । अत्यन्ताननुभूतोऽपि बुद्ध्या योऽर्थः प्रकल्प्यते ॥ ११३ ॥ (Sloka. Vart. 107-113)[14]

Patañjali advocates a third category, i.e., other than Prama (प्रमा) and Bhrama (भ्रम) called Vikalpa (विकल्प). प्रमा is यथार्थज्ञान (authoritative cognition) achieved through Pramāṇas. Bhrama (भ्रम) or विपर्यय is the usage (and the connected cognition) that follows but without the existence of the thing in question – शब्दज्ञानानुपाती वस्तुशून्यो विकल्पः (यौ सू १-९) is the sūtra of Patañjali. शशशृङ्गम् etc. are examples. Such a cognition is possible when there is बौद्धार्थ. There is no बाह्यार्थ (outside / real thing) but due to the capacity of Śabda the cognition is generated. The same is expressed by Kumārila in Slokavartikam (श्लोकवार्त्तिकम्) (चोदनासूत्रम् – ६)[4]

अत्यन्तासत्यपि ज्ञानमर्थे शब्दः करोति हि।

It means that even if the real thing is absolutely absent Śabda generates the cognition.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Dr. N. S. Ramanuja Tatacharya. (2005) Shabdabodhamimamsa. An Inquiry into Indian Theories of Verbal Cognition. Volume 1: The Sentence and its Significance. New Delhi : Rastriya Sanskrit Samsthan
  2. Sahitya Darpana by Vishvanatha (Pariccheda 2)
  3. Vakyapadiyam by Bhartrhari (Brahmakaanda)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Paper Presentation by Prof. K. Subrahmanayam titled Pramāṇas in Indian Philosophy
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Hurdoyal. Vedika Mati, (2017) Ph.D Thesis: ŚĀBDABODHA: A Critical Analysis Of Language-Understanding In Indian Philosophy. Chennai: University of Madras (Chapter 1)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Chatterjee. Satischandra, (1950 Second Edition) The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge, A Critical Study of Some Problems of Logic and Metaphysics. Calcutta: University of Calcutta. (Pages 317 - 321)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Iyer, S. R. (1979) Tarkabhasa of Kesava Misra, Edited with Translation, Notes, and an Introduction in English. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia (Pages 135-140)
  8. Nyaya Sutras (Adhyaya 2 Bhaga 1)
  9. 9.0 9.1 Nyaya Sutras (Adhyaya 1 Ahnika 1)
  10. Pt. Gangadhara Sastri Tailanga. (1896) The Nyayasutras with Vatsayana's Bhashya and Extracts from the Nyayavarttika and the Tatparyatika. (Page 48 of PDF) Benares : E. J. Lazarus & Co
  11. Mm. Ganganatha Jha. (1939) Gautama's Nyayasutras With Vatsyayana Bhashya. Poona : Oriental Book Agency. (Page no 20)
  12. Gautama's Nyaya Sutras (Adhyaya 2 Prathamabhaga)
  13. Mm. Satisa Chandra Vidyabhusana (1913) The Nyaya Sutras of Gotama (English Translation). Allahabad: The Panini Office. (Pages 37-39)
  14. Slokavartika of Kumarilabhatta (Full Text)