Vakya Vichara (वाक्यविचारः)

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Vakya (Samskrit: वाक्यम्) is a combination of words having certain meaning. Annambhatta in his Tarkasangraha says that a Shabda is that which has the significative relation; Vakya (वाक्यम्), a sentence, is a group of such words. Nyayasutras discussed mostly about word-meaning and its relationships and not until the later commentaries do we see the sentence meaning mentioned. Most of the early Vaiyakaranas and Naiyayikas opined that the sentence meaning merely constitutes the sum of the individual word-meanings. It is the Mimamsa school that started a detailed study of sentences and developed an elaborate siddhanta for interpretation of sentences. The analysis of words and the sentences they form and the cognition of things is called Shabdabodha. Many language and cognition theories have been long debated chiefly by Mimamsakas, Vaiyakaranas and later day Naiyayikas.[1]

परिचयः ॥ Introduction

The first mention of a Mimamsa type of definition of the sentence seems to be found in the Katyayana Shrauta sutra

तेषां वाक्यं निराकाङ्क्षम् २ मिथः सम्बद्धम् ३ (Katy. Shrau. Sutr. 1.3.2-3)[2]

A sentence is that which is niraakanksha (निराकाङ्क्षम्) that is to say 'something which has no requirement of expectation of words outside itself to complete its meaning.' It is explained as mithah sambandha or 'mutual relationship' among the word-meanings in the sentence. It is in the Mimamsasutras of Jaimini that we first come across the definition of a sentence or vakya.[1]

The construction of an intelligible sentence must conform to four auxillary conditions. They are

  1. yogyata (योग्यता । fitness)
  2. akanksha (आकाङ्क्षा । expectancy)
  3. aasatti (आसत्तिः । proximity)
  4. tatparya (तात्पर्यम् । import)[3]

A few facts about sentences and their nature are summarized as follows

  • It is a composition of single or more meaningful words.
  • The arrangement or order of words is not significant in languages such as Samskrit.
  • It is the building block unit of language used for communication.
  • It may be complete or incomplete in relation to a particular context.
  • It necessarily carries a sense of action explicitly or indirectly.
  • It is also a composition of meaningful phonemes.
  • It is the basic source of expression of ideas and emotions; of attainment of pleasure, feelings, tastes and amusements.
  • It involves mental (a metaphysical element) aspect rather than physical effort.

Conditions for a Meaningful Sentence

The most important contribution of ancient linguists to the theories of language is the concept of Akanksha. First brought forth by the Mimamsa school (Purva) this concept explains how the sense of a sentence is effected from the analytical and associationist standpoint, thereby achieving syntactic unity among the various isolated words that comprise a sentence. This concept explains the cementing factors which unite the different words, with their individual meanings, when they form a single sentence.

आकाङ्क्षा ॥ Mutual Expectancy

Akanksha is derived from the dhatu काङ्क (kank) used in the meaning of desire. Akanksha or mutual expectancy (or verbal expectancy) consists in a word not being able to convey a complete sense in the absence of another word; literally it is the desire on the part of the listeners to know the other words or their meaning to complete the sense. The scope of akanksha, however, depends on the intention of the speaker because there is no end to the curiosities aroused in the minds of the listeners extending the desire to seek answers.

For this reason a collection of words like 'गौरश्वः पुरुषो हस्तीति । cow, horse, man and elephant' does not convey a complete sense and is thus not a sentence as there is no connection between them owing to the lack of mutual expectancy among them and the absence of connecting verbs such as come, walking etc. To convey the meaning of noun in a sentence, a verb is always required.[4][5]

The akanksha or expectancy that holds between words in a sentence is a grammatical one. It is required for syntactic completeness of the sentence. The two schools of Mimamsa give two different sets of akanksha according to the difference in the interpretation of the psychological factors involved in an injunction. This concept forms the basis of psychological akanksha which is clearly distinct from a grammatical view. Mimamsa extends this concept of psychological expectancy to the definition of a Mahavakya (compound sentence) on the basis of mutual expectancy between sentences or clauses that comprise it. Thus in the formation of a Vakya, akanksha defines the interdependence of words in a sentence, while in the formation of a Mahavakya, akanksha defines the interdependence of sentences or clauses that makes up a prakarana or a topic.[4]

योग्यता ॥ Compatibility

Yogyata or compatibility (or congruity) is the next important consideration to be fulfilled to impart meaning to a sentence. Yogyata is defined as the logical compatibilities of consistency of words in a sentence for mutual association. It calls for the judgment of the sentence's sense; a determination of whether a statement has a sense or is non-sense. It involves the consistency between the meaning of the word and the actual experience.[4]

For example, 'अग्निना सिञ्चति । spray with fire' is not a meaningful sentence as the two words are lacking in consistency since fire being the instrument for the act of spraying is not compatible with the idea of wetting. In the sentence 'पयसा सिञ्चति । spray with water' there is yogyata, or consistency of meaning, since wetting is generally done with a liquid like water, the sentence is consistent with the act of spraying.[4][5]

सन्निधि आसत्तिर्वा ॥ Proximity

Sannidhi or Asatti is generally explained as the condition that the words in a sentence should be contiguous in time. Words uttered at long intervals of time cannot produce the knowledge of any interrelation among them, even if there be akanksa and yogyata. Thus contiguity ir proximity is the uninterrupted utterance or unbroken apprehension of words when they are in juxtaposition. In case of words separated by the intervention of irrelevant words also the connection of the meaning cannot be understood. For example, if the words गाम् and आनय are uttered one by one with an interval of an hour between them and not together, then the two will not become a sentence.[4]

वाक्यलक्षणम् ॥ Vakya Lakshana

In the history of Bharatiya Darshanas, the study of language has never been the monopoly of vaiyakaranas even though Vyakarana has been the foundation of use and refinement of language. Almost all schools of thought have developed their own siddhantas of language to defend their own metaphysics and defend their siddhantas. Various darshanas have given their perspectives of what the nature of a sentence is.

The simple definition of a sentence as a collection of words is found as early as in the Brhaddevata (2.117) पदसङ्घातजं वाक्यम्।; but it is in the Mimamsa-sutras of Jaimini that we first come across the lakshana of a sentence: A group of words serving a single purpose forms a sentence, if on analysis the separate words are found to have akanksha or mutual expectancy (Mima. Sutr. 2.1.46). This principle was enunciated by Mimamsakas in dealing with the prose passages of the Yajurveda, where it was sometimes found difficult to ascertain how far a certain sentence extended. This concept of akanksha thus effects syntactical unity or arthaikatva of one complete Yajus-mantra.[1]

Samkhya Darshana

The Sānkhya school accepts that letters which are non-eternal are denotative of the meanings. In this connection they reject the theory of sphoța accepted by the vaiyakaranas and the theory that letters are eternal accepted by the Mīmāmsaka-s. Like the Naiyayika-s, the Sānkhya school admits that the group of letters is a word and the group of words is a sentence.[6]

Yoga Darshana

According to the Yoga system, we falsely superimpose an identity among a word, its object and the idea conveyed. Conditioned by conventional meaning, the letters are uttered in a particular order and they become the content of a single cognition and thus constitute a single unit, i.e. the word. The word appears to be indivisible; it does not have any reference to the sequence of letters. It is manifested by the operation of the recognition of the final letter. Thus the Yoga system accepts the nature of a sentence similar to that of the Grammarians.[6]

Purva Mimamsa

Like the Naiyāyikas, generally, Mīmāmsakas accept that the group of articulate alphabetic phonemes is a word and the group of words is a sentence. But they maintain that the articulate phonemes are eternal, while the Naiyāyikas treat them as non-eternal. Accordingly there is a subtle difference in the mode of interpretation of the varnas attaining the form of words and sentences.

Sabara in his commentary on Jaimini Sutra says and affirms the view that such a group of words are each one dependent upon the other word for its meaning. Each word having mutual expectancy or Akanksha (which is not used as a technical word in the Jaimini Sutra 2.1.46), with the other word constitutes an important aspect of a sentence.

अर्थैकत्वादेकं वाक्यं साकाङ्क्षं चेद्धिभागे स्यात्।।46।। (Jaim. Sutr. 2.1.46)[7]

अतुल्यत्वात्तु वाक्योयोर्गुणं तस्य प्रतीयेत।।26।। (Jaim. Sutr. 2.2.26)[8]

Again in his commentary on the above sutras Shabara mentions

अर्थैकत्वादेकं वाक्यमिति। एतस्माच्चेत् कारणादेकवाक्यता भवति तस्मादेकार्थः पदसमूहो वाक्यम्। (Bhas. Jaim. Sutr. 2.1.46) [7]

यावन्ति पदान्येकं प्रयोजनमभिनिवर्त्तयन्ति, तावन्त्येकं वाक्यम्। (Bhas. Jaim. Sutr. 2.2.26)[8]

Summary: Shabara states that the words which will serve a unitary purpose constitute one sentence. He states that the group of words conveying a single meaning is the sentence. From this it is clear that according to Sabara a sentence is a group of words.[6]

Kumārila too subscribes to the above view. Sālikānātha in his Prakaranapañcikā declares that according to Prabhakara a sentence is the group of words. And the sentence-meaning is the collection of word-meanings. The Mīmāmsakas do not admit a word as distinct from letters (varna-s or articulate letter-sounds) and also a sentence as distinct from words. Extensive arguments are supplicated by Shabara explaining the manner in which the letters attain the state of a word and a sentence.[6]

Tarka Lakshana

Annambhatta describes Vakya as वाक्यं पदसमूहः। sentence is a collection of words. This is further clarified by Keshava Mishra who aptly summarizes the lakshana of a sentence.

वाक्यं तु आकाङ्क्षा-योग्यता-सन्निधिमतां पदानां समूहः। (Tark. Bhas. 59)

Vakya (sentence) is a collection of words which have the three characteristics (at the same time); namely Akanksha, Yogyata and Sannidhi.[5]

Vedanta Darshana


The Advaitins and others reject the doctrine of sphota (speechbuds or language potentials) and admit that the letters which are the objects of recollection that results from the latent impressions born out of the cognition of each letter is the word or the sentence. Prakāśātman in his Šābdanirnaya states so. Sankara in his commentary on the Vedāntasūtra 1.3.28 states:

Although all the letters in a word are cognised, still like the ants thanks to their sequential configuration generate in us the idea of a line in a definite order, the letters generate in us the notion of a word thanks to their definite sequence.

From this it is known that it is only letters in a specific order that constitute a word. And the letters or words in a due order constitute a sentence.[6]


The Visistādvaitin-s too accept that the letters manifested in a single cognition constitute a word and the words manifested in a single cognition constitute a sentence. Vedāntadeśika in his Tattvamuktākalāpa and in his commentary Sarvārthasiddhi thereon sets forth this view.[6]


The Dvaitin-s too subscribe to the view that letters constitute a word and the words constitute a sentence. Vyāsatīrtha in his Tarkatāndava states that Jayatīrtha in his Pramānapaddhati has defined a word as letters having a termination of inflectional ending of a case or of the person of a tense or mood at their end, and a sentence as words having syntactic expectancy, congruity and proximity.[6]

Vyakarana Shastra

The final conclusion of the Grammarians is that an utterable linguistic unit which is indivisible is the sentence. Punyarāja in his commentary on the Vākyapadīya states that according to Bhartrhari the Grammarians view a sentence to be of the nature of sphota; it is an indivisible unit; the sentence-meaning is pratibhā and the relation between a sentence and its meaning is the superimposed identity (adhyāsa).[6]

Nature of a Sentence

There are various view regarding the nature of a sentence as a divisible or an indivisible unit. Bharthari in his Vākyapadīya has set forth eight views regarding the nature of a sentence; and, they are as follows:[6]

  1. A word having a verbal suffix at its end is a sentence: This does not mean that only the single word with a verbal suffix is a sentence, because that would contradict the common experience of viewing a sentence as the group of words terminating in either sup or tin, as for instance, "Steer the cow with a stick, O! Devadatta". What is meant here is that sometimes even the word having a verbal suffix at its end suffices as a sentence. There are certain cases where there arises the verbal cognition from the mere use of a verb. For example the use of the word "shut" (pidhehi). Here, even without the noun expressive of the notion of a case (kāraka), there arises the cognition of the sentence-meaning, viz, shut the door.
  2. A group of words is a sentence: According to this view the mere word "shut" is not a sentence. But there is the importation of the word 'door' and it is the group of these two words that must be viewed as a sentence. And just as a verb by itself does not constitute a sentence, even so a mere word having a case-ending such as 'door is not a sentence, as the activity of shutting is not invariably known by the utterance of the word 'door'.:
  3. The universal, present in words is a sentence: According to this view there is a universal or generic feature in a group of words; and it is a sentence significative of the sentence meaning
  4. An indivisible word is a sentence: According to this view a sentence is one unit devoid of parts. And letters or words have no real existence therein.
  5. The order of words is a sentence: The words in succession constitute a sentence (vākyasphota). According to this view, the latter is divisible and is generated by the group of words.
  6. The imaginary aggregate of words in the intellect is a sentence: Division of words is only a conceptual construction in our intellect according to this view. The real sentence is undivided and does not have words in it. The sentence as structured exists only in our minds.
  7. The first word is a sentence: According to this view a sentence is divisible and is generated by a group of words. And the first word in the group is the sentence. The other words of the group are helpful in identifying the significative relation of the first word to its meaning. For example, the expression sāksāt kriyate. Here the word sākṣāt conveys the meaning of perceptional knowledge (pratyaksha jnana). And the word kriyate is only indicative of the significative relation of the word sākṣāt to its meaning.
  8. Each word having expectancy with the other word constitutes a sentence: Jaimini sutra (2.4.46) affirms the view that a group of words each one dependent upon the other word for its meaning is a sentence, i.e., set of words having akanksha (आकाङ्क्षा । expectancy) between each other constitutes a sentence.

The author of Vārttika (Kātyāyana) defines a sentence in two ways: 1) the verbal suffix qualified by avyaya and kāraka, and, 2) the one which has a single verb. These two definitions do not differ from the definition set forth earlier, viz. a sentence is a group of words.

Of the eight definitions of sentence, those described under the heads 3, 4 and 6 treat a sentence as a indivisible unit; and those described under the heads 1, 5, 2, 7, 8, as a divisible one.

Cognition of Sentence-Meaning

On hearing the words of a Vakya (sentence), we get a unitary sense which is the meaning of the sentence. Three aspects govern the unitary sense of cognition of sentence.

  1. Individual words satisfying the conditions of a meaningful sentence.
  2. Recollection of word-meanings (padartha)
  3. Mutual relationship of word-meanings

There are two main siddhantas explaining the import of a sentence meaning expounded by Mimamsakas. However, we include the unique concept proposed by Bhartrhari regarding the cognition of vakyartha here


This concept was given by Kumarila Bhatta of Mimamsa school of darshanas. It is advocated in Nyaya and Vedanta systems. The commonplace statement in linguistics that the sentence is the unit of speech is comparable to this theory. According to this theory, the meaning of a sentence is construed by the synthesis (anvaya) of the meanings of the individual words composing it. Abhihita or knowing the meaning of the individual words precedes the construction and comprehension of a sentence. The meaning of the sentence is based on the word-meanings.[3]

When we hear or read a sentence, we make an effort to first understand the individual word-meanings one after the other. Then by putting together the meanings of all the words, according to their yogyata, akanksha and asatti, we comprehend the meaning of the whole sentence. As to how the different meanings which are successively expressed by the words are put together, it is said to happen due to memory.[3]

Arguments in Support

  1. If words and sentences have no separate meanings of their own, then the classification of words into nouns, adjectives, verbs etc becomes meaningless as each class of words have their role in a sentence.
  2. Prior understanding of the component words is a prerequisite to comprehend a sentence meaning.
  3. If meaning of a sentence is independent of the meaning of the component words, then any sentence could convey any meaning.
  4. Comprehending a new sentence rests on the knowledge of the constituent word-meaning without which the new sentence will ever remain unintelligible.


This siddhanta was proposed by Prabhakara of the Mimamsa school. It was advocated by Vaiyakaranas also. The followers of this school do not accept that words convey a meaning except in the context of a sentence. The meaning of a sentence is made up of the individual word-meanings and their mutual relationship, both conveyed by the words themselves. This theory admits that words are real, have a definite meaning and are constituents of a language. However, according to them, the role of a word is limited to serving as a part of the sentence. Additionally every sentence means an action (kriyartha). Here in a sentence there is first a construction (anvaya) of the words with one another and then an expression (abhidhana) of the construed meaning of the whole sentence[3].

This siddhanta stresses on the natural method of learning a language, where a child observes activities of elders or others to comprehend the meaning of words. Hence, kriya or verb is the central unit of a sentence. The words in a sentence possess a meaning pertinent to the action meant by the sentence. One person addressing another says "Bring the cow (gaam aanaya)"; the latter thus addressed immediately brings the cow. A child observing the former's statement and the latter's actions in response to the statement, infers that the meaning of the sentence is a command to carry out the act of bringing a cow. At this stage a child understands the sentence level signification only. Only when he hears another statement "Bring a horse (asvam aanaya)" and observes the latter bringing a horse does he infer the difference in the objects and on comparing the two sentences he understands the term "bring(aanaya)" is the command for the action "to bring" and the terms "cow (gaam) and horse (asvam)" must refer to the two different animals. The mental process of "anvaya or inclusion" and "vyatireka or exclusion" thus plays a role in bringing about the general idea about the meaning of individual words. This process is a natural phenomenon and is not a deliberate and conscious act such as to learn the meanings of words. Later by the process of substitution a child is able to understand meanings of new sentences by substituting the words that he has already come across.[4]

The controversy between Kumārila and Prabhākara has not only been popular but has also attracted deliberations from great scholars in the Indian Philosophical tradition. The critics observe both as incomplete and mistaken. For instance, Jainas, Buddhas and Vedāntins criticize Kumārila theory of abhihitānvayavāda, and construct their own interpretation of same in the forms of saṃsargavāda, nirākānkṣapadārtha. Prabhākara’s theory of verbal cognition, anvitābhidhānavāda, is an exception, none of the schools follow it.[9]

On a conclusive note, it can be said that from the point of analysing verbal cognition from a teaching perspective, the anvitābhidhānavāda of Prabhākara is a very consistent and convincing theory and from the of learner’s or listener’s perspective the ‘abhihitānvayavāda of Kumārila is equally convincing. Although both vehemently criticised each other yet they both have their importance according to the teaching and learning pattern respectively.[9]


According to Bhartṛhari, a flash of awareness, which he calls pratibhā is sentence-meaning. Sphoṭa is then language and the meaning is pratibhā. Pratibhā as a sentence-meaning is known as being revealed non-differently by language (sphoṭa). Pratibhā as meaning is a communicable being. The same pratibhā is revealed and is communicated through different verbal-noises or sentence-tokens. It also functions as an incentive to an action to do or not to do when it is revealed.[9]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kunjunniraja, K. (1988) Mimamsa Contribution to Language Studies. Calicut: University of Calicut.
  2. Katyayana Shrauta Sutra (Adhyaya 1)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Chatterjee. Satischandra, (1950 Second Edition) The Nyaya Theory of Knowledge, A Critical Study of Some Problems of Login and Metaphysics. Calcutta: University of Calcutta. (Pages 336 - 357)
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Raja, Kunjunni K. (1977 Reprint) Indian Theories of Meaning. Madras: The Adyar Library and Research Centre.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Iyer, S. R. (1979) Tarkabhasa of Kesava Misra, Edited with Translation, Notes, and an Introduction in English. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia (Pages 121-122)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 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
  7. 7.0 7.1 Shabara Bhashya (Adhyaya 2 Pada 1)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Shabara Bhashya (Adhyaya 2 Pada 2)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Hurdoyal. Vedika Mati, (2017) Ph.D Thesis: ŚĀBDABODHA: A Critical Analysis Of Language-Understanding In Indian Philosophy. Chennai: University of Madras (Chapter 2)