Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Sentence Holism and Intuition With special focus on verbal incompleteness yet complete meaningfulness in sentences

The title of the paper suggests, to a large extent, the purpose of the present enquiry. In essence, the present paper would try to figure out the actual reason of the comprehension of the meaning in cases where the sentences are not complete. How does this happen that, at times, one understands and acts on the sentences which are not even half complete? Is it because, as Bhartrhari would argue, sentences are intrinsically indivisible/ holistic; is it purely intuition; or is there something else which the grammarians wont discuss because it is mundane yet hazardous to their philosophy, things like habit or experience? What do we do of those cases where no sentence is used and yet the acts take place, for instance, in cases where a strict disciplinarian gets everything he wants on time, without any utterances whatsoever? In light of Bhartrḥari’s philosophy, how far is it commendable that there be an incomplete verbal utterance but the apprehension of the meaning is complete? These are some of the questions which would be discussed here in light of Bhartrḥari’s Vākyapadīya II.

This paper is roughly divided into three sections. The first section discusses Bhartrḥari’s stand on sentence holism, the second analyses the concept and role of Intuition or pratībhā in the process of communication (this section would also address the question: if pratībhā is something innate or intrinsic to all beings then what goes wrong in case of failed communication?), and the last section analysis the commonsensical reasons of the cases where sentence incompleteness does not hinder the action prospects.

For a humble beginning it would suffice to say that Bhartrḥari’s Vākyapadīya II carries with it, the view that the sentential meaning is an indivisible idea grasped in an intuitive flash, and the individual words in a sentence have no independent prominency whatsoever. Before getting to elaborate on the task at hand, it would be interesting to trace the historical origin of the need to address language in general and grammar in particular. As I interpret, Bhartrḥari assumed that there is a descriptive task about reality that uniquely belongs to grammar. And further that the passing time has corrupted the usage and understanding, thus hindering the possibility of revelation through grammar. These might have been the reasons that prompted Bhartrḥari to take up the task of analyzing and interpreting cognition as revealed by language in usual communication.


Bhartrḥari’s philosophical position was monistic. Language, according to him, is spanda, i.e. the vibration of inner consciousness. He asserts that there is a single content in a sentence, and also that the meaning of a sentence is to be taken as one entity. And this according to Bhartrḥari is both, externally and internally existent. Internally, a sentence is a piece of cognitive awareness received in a flash; and externally, it is a solid linguistic unit bound by a tone. K.A. Subramania Iyer, in his book Bhartrḥari gives a lucid account of akhaņdapakşa, a position held by Bhartrḥari in opposition to sakhaņdapakşa ( a view held by Mīmāmṣakas which looks upon the sentence as a whole having parts, where the parts are as real as the whole). He writes;

Bhartrḥari puts forward the view that the sentence and the sentence-meaning are indivisible units and that they alone are real and fit for communication…the indivisible sentence is either external or internal. When it is fully manifested through utterance, it is external. Before that, when it is still in the speaker’s mind, it is internal. In either case, it is an indivisible unity.

Another prominent scholar Dr Malaya Gangopadhyay, explains the stages and development of language in Bhartrḥari. She writes;

…language is the mediator of the inner and the outer world. When a logical construct (meaning) and a sound/graphic construct (form) are cognized in an intuitive flash (pratibhā), the message is conveyed, the reality or object is revealed or communication takes place.

Now if this account is true of Bhartrḥari, then it would also be granted that this flash of insight which causes the grasp is indescribable in ordinary language, that is, if there be any non verbal cognition, then its substratum would be pratibhā. In historical parlance, the objectives of all brahmanical systems were to establish the truth exemplified in the śruti. Bhartrḥari’s holistic approach exposes the monistic view. Well, if language is monistic then what rationale supports the plurality in language? Bhartrḥari would say that the plurality in language is the product of analytical faculty of human mind. His ideas clearly convey that the non-verbal cognition and the verbal utterances are the gradual process of revelation. His account of language and grammar establishes that the ‘speech potency’ (śabda bhāvana) is latent in consciousness. And though Bhartrḥari accepts the reality of individual word, he does so only in a pragmatic sense. Words are required because of grammatical necessity. Besides, the individual words change their forms according to the meaning requirement. The meaning is dependent on the speaker’s aim/intention.

B.K. Matilal in his book The Word and the World labels Bhartrḥari’s akhandapakşa as ‘Sentence Holism’ and provides valuable insights to the fundamental question- ‘How is a sentence constituted?’, and ‘how is the meaning of a whole sentence cognized by the hearer after the utterance is made?’ To even begin thinking about answering this question (which, by the way, would also resolve the age long debate regarding the primary units of meaning, and the contextuality of meaning), it only makes sense that we first see what sentence holism means and how far does it corroborates the other essential facts about the indivisibility of sentence and sentence meaning. Matilal observes that in sentence holism, sentences are wholes and they are the unanalysable units of meaningful discourse.

But why would sentence be an unanalysable unit of meaningful discourse? Bhartrhari’s genius lies in the answer that he provides to this question. The answer to this question is also the one where the indivisibility of sentence is emphasized the most. Bhartrhari asserts that the chief component of communication is a sentence, not words. The thoughts in the speaker’s mind and the words which he would employ to express the thoughts are united in a very special way. And this special unity is the sentence. So, when the adamant grammarian splits up the sentence into words and the words into roots or stem and suffixes, all he is doing is unnecessarily complicating the communication process. It is so because, as Subramania Iyer also mentions, with these completely differentiated elements, there cannot be communication…there cannot be worldly transaction (lokavyahāra).

So, we see that though for Bhartrhari everything is a manifestation of the ultimate reality (the Brahman Śabdatattva), he does not bring in this metaphysics while explaining the practicality of sentence and sentence meaning. He is very clear when he says that the communication is most effective when it submits to lokavyavahāra, i.e. communication leading to worldly transaction. Of course, śāstravyavahāra which justifies the splitting up of sentences into words and stems et cetera is important too, but not so much for the practical purposes.

Now, the indivisibility of sentence proves alongside, the divisibility of words. In order to understand fully, Bhartrhari’s concept of sentence, it would be interesting to brief up the debate between the Mimamsakas or the padavādins on the one hand and Bhartrhari or vākyavādins on the other. In normal day to day circumstances, everyone would agree that, for all practical purposes, there are times when a substitution of the meaning of a word is needed. But this can be possible only when the word is taken as an expresser (independently of a sentence). It so happens that at times we don’t find the exact expresser (word) and thus substitute some other meaning similar to the primary meaning. The meaning known by such imposition of the primary meaning is called a substituted meaning or ‘pratinidhi’. Taking this as a lead, the padavādins argue that if words are not the real, independent expresser, and if the whole indivisible sentence is the expresser, then hoe can we account for the process of substitution? For instance the case of performing rites with the help of rice. If there is an absence of rice then this means that we can substitute the rice with other some other ingredient. But if the indivisibility of the sentence is true then that means that substitution of rice with anything else is not allowed because in such cases the meaning and consequences of whole ritual will change. Thus the padavādins show that substitution is justified only if word (pada) is taken independently as an expresser.

Mīmāmsakā’s second objection to Bhartrhari’s notion of indivisibility of sentence is that, in case of sentences which are not so clear to the hearer, why is it that the hearer asks the meaning of the particular word (which is unclear to him) and not the meaning of the whole sentence? Such an enquiry into the meaning of particular words shows that words, not sentences, are the chief units in grammar and language.

These are the two important objections against Bhartrhari’s indivisibility thesis. Bhartrhari for his turn, gives a host of arguments in order to turn down the padavādins position and to establish his own. In brief, Bhartrhari’s stand is that as the cognition revealed by the sentence is indivisible, sentence as a meaning-revealing unit is also indivisible awareness. It is only for grammatical or practical purposes that an indivisible is divided by grammatical analysis into words, and then further into stem, suffixes or prefixes, which are explained differently by different persons. Bhartrhari asserts that just as there is no actual division in light, yet in lamp, bulb, lightening, heater, etc, the indivisible light is taken to be different; similarly a sentence, reveling indivisible cognition is an indivisible unit and is made understandable by artificial divisions of it into different words, etc.

As to the first objection of the problem of substitution of meaning of a word, Bhartrhari says that substitution (pratinidhi) is for practical purposes, and this phenomenal divisions of sentences into words and other further divisions, is accepted as grammatically real. The problem arises when this artificial division is confused as real. D.N. Tiwari in his book The central Problems of Bhartrhari’s Philosophy analyses the proposition through an acute analogy. He writes:

From the point of view of cognition and communication, to search a word (pada) in a sentence (vākya) is similar to searching ‘naratva’ and ‘simhatva’ in “nŗsimha” which is a compound word conveying an integration of meaning of a sentential meaning.

As to the second objection Bhartrhari answers that the person is deluded for sure if he thinks that he is doubtful about the meaning of only a word out of the whole sentence because, in such a case, it is not the single word but the meaning of the whole sentence that is doubted.

The whole debate between padavādins and the vākyavādins is based on an acute distinction. Whereas padavādins are concerned with explaining the sentence from a syntactical point of view, Bhartrhari aims at explaining communication; the padavādins (constructionists) explains sentential meaning on the basis of the word as the original/real unit of language, the sententialists (akhandvākyavādins) try to explain language as the meaning of indivisible sentence.

Establishing sentence holism, Bhartrhari opines that meaning is more than a semantic unit. His theory is different from other sententialists who interpret sentential meaning as a meaning different from the meaning of a sentence. Meaning, for Bhartrhari, is a cognitive being. Sentence, for him, is an inner, indivisible and a real unit of awareness in nature, i.e. sphota and a sentential-meaning is that which it reveals non-differently. A flash of awareness in the mind, for which Bhartrhari uses the word pratibhā, is sentential meaning. This brings us to our second section on Intuition (pratibhā). But discussing pratibhā, it should be remembered that ‘sphota’ for Bhartrhari is sentence, and the meaning it expresses in the mind is ‘pratibhā’.


Bhartrhari sustains grasp as a flash of insight, a kind of inner flow of the inner consciousness, which exists in all living beings, it is a divine endowment, it is the ground and source of language. This is pratibhā. Bhartrhari defines pratibhā in the following manner:

When the meanings (of the individual words) have benn understood separately, a flash of understanding takes place which they call the meaning of the sentence, brought about by the meanings of the individual words. It cannot be explained to others as such and such. It is experienced by everyone within himself and even the subject (of the experience) is not able to render an account of it to himself.

The doctrine of pratibhā is comprehensively discussed during the enumeration of the pramāņas. When it is logically established that the knowledge gained through sense contact is fallible, the question arises: is there any other kind of knowledge which is reliable? Bhartrhari answers that there is. And the peculiarity of that knowledge is that it is rooted in our very own self. It works even when we are occupied with the fallible process of sense contact. Bhartrhari points out that all sentient beings, from highest to the lowest, have it, and he declares it to be ‘pratibhā’(intuition). It so happens that when we have understood the meaning of the words of a sentence, a flash of understanding of the meaning of the whole sentence takes place. Another interesting dimension to the notion of pratibhā is that the meaning of a sentence is understood even before the whole sentence has been uttered. But it is really nearly impossible to explain this flash of understanding to others. So, just because it cannot be explained doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Pratibhā can be grasped only through experience. There is absolutely no other way. The chief effect of pratibhā is that binds or connects together meanings conveyed by different words in a sentence. This is where pratibhā is found. So, even it is indefinable, we have an idea as to how and where lies its substratum.

The above account makes it clear that Bhartrhari conceives pratibhā as something very comprehensive. It is a flash of understanding which takes in a situation and prompts one to do something to meet the situation. Subramania Iyer mentions that pratibhā includes the intelligence of a higher order, intuitive knowledge, the instinct of birds and animals, and the spontaneous activities of newly born babies. He also reinforces the ancient seer’s claim that this kind of knowledge is far more reliable. It comes from within.

Bhartrhari further suggests that pratibhā arises in us in many ways, and of them, six causes and therefore six kinds of Intuition is recognized. The six causes are: svabhāva (nature), caraņa (vedic school), abhyāsa (practice), Yoga, adŗşţa (indivisible force from previous births), and viśişţopahita (grace of special person). These are the six causes of pratibhā; pratibhā arises through these various mediums in all beings, at all levels. Without going into the details of each source, it would only suffice if we could somehow answer the question posed in the beginning of the paper: if pratībhā is something innate or intrinsic to all beings then what goes wrong in case of failed communication?

I understand that Bhartrhari would try and relate this question to the padavādin’s error of taking word to be the final, indivisible unit. Pratibhā functions well provided that we do not commit the error of attaching with it, something that is not real but pure construction. The whole complexity of meaning misapprehension comes into being because of diversion from the real, defined path of sentence holism and unitariness in sentential meaning. If, as Bhartrhari asserts in Vākyapadīya I, revelation comes through the correct apprehension of grammar, then it explains to a large extent, the reasons why there are cases of miscommunication. Miscommunication happens when I fail to grasp the essence of the sentence; and this failure comes from the admission of everything except the fact that it is actually the sentence and the sentence-meaning which is a unitary, indivisible whole. This brings us to our third and the last section, where there is an analysis of the commonsensical reasons of the cases where sentence incompleteness does not hinder the action prospects.


Sentence holism and the doctrine of pratibhā (intuition) taken together give us a good toast of the way in which we can successfully detect the vulnerable areas in grammar and work accordingly to move towards enlightenment. The chief question addressed here is: which force is at work when in spite of incomplete sentences, we grasp (guess?) the intended meaning? Is it mere chance or luck? Is it co-incidence? Is it because of habit? Or is there something inherent, innate which is at work all the time? Bhartrhari, of course, would choose the last option as the answer to the question. His contention would be that it is solely because of pratibhā that sentence is grasped. The sentence-meaning is nothing but pratibhā. The reason why he would say this has already been dealt with in the previous section. The thing to be discussed, briefly, here is that why cannot it be the other things mentioned? Why can’t it be a matter of habit, or why can’t it be a freakish co-incidence all the time? If we grant that the reason why we grasp the sentence meaning even after the entire sentence is unknown to us, is because we have somehow inculcated it in us via habit, this would still remain problematic because then there would never be surety or certainty in the knowledge claim. We cannot grant the reason of there being co-incidence in such cases because the very word ‘co-incidence’ means something which happened to meet/fit this one time, and might not fit the very next time.

Bhartrhari or any grammarian for that matter would never ever admit of such excuses because it would shake their entire foundational belief system to ground. If philosophy was nothing but a matter of habit or co-incidence then, there is absolutely no point in looking for concrete truths and the means to reach them. In such cases, phenomenal truths would be enough to grant ad hoc revelation. But since philosophy is much more than habit and speculation, the eternal journey on paths leading to truth would continue to grab attention for many more years to come.

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