BHARTRHARI [bhartryhari]—an Indian poet and philosopher from the school of the grammarians (vaiyakaranika), he taught the theory of the Absolute as word, b. around 256, d. 510.

Bhartrhari’s life and identity were subjects of controversy for a long time. According to tradition he was the elder natural brother of King Vikramaditya, and the son of Gandhavasena the rule of Malava. He become a king but gave himself over to such dissolution that the kingdom began to collapse, and he fell into conflict with his younger brother. After the death of his wife Pingali he ceded the kingdom to his brother and went to a hermitage, but from all accounts he left the monastic life seven times to return to the secular state. The Three hundred, verses on the wisdom of the world, love, and renunciation, were a reflection of his spiritual perplexities. He also composed a treatise on grammar (Vakyapadiya) for which he was renowned no less than for his verse. Yijing (635–713) gives 651 as the year of Bhartrhari’s death (hence the year of his birth would be 570); he adds also that he became a Buddhist seven times (this last piece of information turns out to be wrong since the texts show that Bhartrhari was a Shivaite).

That Bhartrhari the poet and Bhartrhari the grammarian were one and the same is questioned on the basis of citations from the Vakyapadiya in the works of Dignaa (around 480–500), and citations from Dignaga’s works in the Vakyapadiya, which can only be explained if the two men were contemporaries. The most widely accepted theory today is that there were two Bhartrharis, and the second one was a poet who lived about 150 years later than the grammarian, but there are also scholars who accepts Yijing’s error. It is not known whether the above biography is that of Bhartrhari the philosopher.

Bhartrhari’s major philosophical work, indeed his only work, is the Vakyapadiya (On propositions and words), a grammatical work in an “analytic” style, but full of a search for a higher spiritual meaning beyond purely technical analyses of the meaning of words. The purpose of Vyakara was to provide a proper interpretation for the holy books of the Vedas and to provide a philosophy of language that would remove doubt as to differences between the ordinary and the deeper meaning of words, both in holy Sanskrit and in secular languages. Bhartrhari’s contribution to the philosophy of language consists in the introduction of three principal conceptions: the metaphysical conceptions of shabda-brahman (Absolute-word) and sphota (the archetype of the word), and a symbolic conception of the function of language.

As a metaphysician, Bharthari accepted a first principle that he called shabda-brahman. The Absolute (brahman), which is one, without beginning or end, has the nature of a word (shabda) and all manifested things come from him. The Absolute is one, but he appears in plurality, since he has many different powers. Among these the most important is time, which is also one, but various divisions are imposed on time and it is the source of all changes. The Absolute is one but contains in himself the seed of all plurality; he appears as a subject, an object, and an act of experience. Shabda-brahman appears primarily as the original word, called sphota (“exploding, becoming opened”). With regard to content and purpose, sphota is identical to shabda-brahman, but ultimately it cannot be called absolute because it always was and is really (and not merely potentially) in relation to all. The world is composed of an infinite number of phenomena ordered in time and space, and is composed of words that are able to express these phenomena. Sphota contains universals (jati) of all these phenomena and contains their words. Universals and words are eternal, for they are nothing other than the sphota; sounds (dhvani) and objects (vyakti) are also eternal, for they do not differ from words and universals. To think that they are as we perceive them is an error, for they are only phenomena for us, but ultimately words, objects, and their relations are eternal. Phenomenal words and objects are imperfect for they depend on individuals of a higher order (propositions, situations). Thus they exist, but not in the same way as they appear, but rather as sphota. There is no difference between sphota and existence.

By their nature words refer to objects. The words of ordinary language are of short duration and so cannot be vehicles of meanings. Therefore they are manifestations of the true language, which is the highest reality. The true language is one, whole, without parts. The whole world of things and words is a manifestion of the true language. Ordinary language is only its imitation. Ordinary language performs a symbolic function. It is a phonetic expression (dhvani) of the true language and only thereby can it have the function of expressing and transmitting information. The meaning of true words is neither the universal nor the individual but pure existence. Objects cannot exist without words if they are objects, that is, if they are knowable. All cognition happens with the participation of words, and therefore the Absolute (pure and perfect consciousness, the object of cognition) is a word.

Bhartrhari makes his grammatical analyses—the distinction in language of propositions (vakya), words (pada), morphemes (varna), and phonemes (dhvani)— according to an analogous principle: empirical forms are a temporal expression (a spatial expression, in the case of writing) of an eternal language. They carry within them the power (shakti) of eternal meaning. This power performs every-day functions and ultimate functions—it brings man close to absolute reality. The empirical world is not a pure illusion, but neither is it reality. It is a manifestation of the Absolute-word (shabda-brahman) as a form of sound vibration. As opposed to the epistemic nature of the Absolute, the empirical word has a more aesthetic nature, closer to the sounds of birds than to pure words. The concepts of existence and non-existence do not apply to the empirical world, and therefore this world is outside the categories of realism and idealism.

Bhartrhari’s analyses were developed by Mandan Mishra and became part of the philosophical heritage of Vedanta against the conceptions of mimamsa.

S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Lo, NY 1923, 19292 (Filozofia indyjska [Indian philosophy], Wwa 1960, II 400); M. Biardeau, La démonstration du sphota, Pondicherry 1958; E. Frauwallner, Landmarks in the History of Indian Logic, WZKSOA 5 (1961), 125–148; B. strof trzykroć po sto [Bhartrhari’s three times a hundred stanzas]m Kr 1980; J. C. Plott, Global History of Philosophy, Delhi 1980, III 162–180; K. Potter, The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Delhi 19832, I 89–92.

Maciej St. Zięba

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