Category Archives: h. The Sphoṭa Theory of Language

Sphota Theory and Its Influence on Mantra

In Hinduism there are two dominant views about the connectivity between word meaning (varna) and word sound (dhvani), which make up sabda, or linguistic sound in general (Beck 8). One view is called Mimamsa, which tries to establish that the Veda is divine law and that one can only come to know dharma from Vedic command (Beck 55). This idea relies on the pretences that meaning (artha) and “the Eternal Word” can only exist in the Veda “and does not manifest in any other form apart from the specific linguistic constructions found there” (Beck 63). The theory attempts to explain that individual letters are the main substance of sacred speech (Beck 52). The grammarian view is different in that it allows for Sabda-Brahman [Sabda-Brahman refers to the sonic absolute (Beck 8)] to exist “both in the cosmos and within normal human consciousness” (Beck 63). The concept of sphotavada and the sphota theory were developed by the grammarians and the Mimamsa School discards the sphotavada because it undermines their doctrine that relies on the “reality of Vedic words” (Beck 68). The sphota theory tries to depict “the mysterious manner by which meaning is conveyed in sentences” which is a cognitive approach to the “intuitive perception of the Absolute as Sabda-Brahman” (Beck 52). Sphota also illustrates that words (sabda) and sentences are important in conserving the Vedas (Beck 64).
The sphota theory “refers to the interior apprehension of meaning in language” (Beck 8). Sphota comes from the Sanskrit word sphut which literally means “to burst forth or when applied to language a bursting forth of illumination or light” (Coward 12). This means that words, specifically in Sanskrit, get their meaning from something set intrinsically within them, and literally ‘shed light’ on to what they are referring to. “Probably the simplest and clearest image for the meaning of sphota is that of a light bulb flashing on when one understands (“gets”) an idea” (Beck 67). Sphota has two parts, internal and external, both important, and reliant on one another. One is the sound which the meaning is carried in (dhvani), and the other is the actual meaning that the sound carries (varna) (Coward 12).

Notions of speech as sacred sound are revealed mainly in the Vedic texts, the Brahmanas, the Upanishads, Aranyakas, and the Vedangas (Beck 23). The Rg-Veda, which is the oldest of the Vedic texts, is said to be “impregnated with sacred speech” (Beck 25) and has extended insight into the origins of language (Beck 36). The sphota theory was originally developed by grammarians Patanjali and Bhartrhari who wrote the Mahabhasya and Vakyapadiya respectively (Beck 63). “Wider concepts concerning the philosophy of grammar in India draw mostly from Patanjali and Bhartrhari” (Beck 63). According to grammarians, sphota is a “kind of meaning-bearing sound revelation within normal human consciousness” (Beck 63), and meaning (artha) comes from human consciousness, it is something that comes from the mind, and does not dwell in things or “objective existence” (Beck 63-4). From the Mahabhasya, Patanjali’s definition of a word is “that sound from which there arises the knowledge of things in the affairs of the world” (Beck 64).

Understanding language and meaning is very important in the Hindu religion. Mantras are a major part of their daily life, “the chief instrument of tantrism” (Bharati 101), and are based on the major Hindu texts like the Vedas (Bharati 104). A brief definition of mantra is; a spiritual utterance “to be recited at the time of spiritual exercise” (Bharati 107). There are two uses for mantras, either in a planned ritual or ceremony, or in “spontaneous meditation” (Bharati 121). Mantras like the Gayatri Mantra are used daily.

Language (vak) has origins that are explained in the Rg-Veda. There are three references to vak in the text, “the Goddess Vak…, vak as speech in general, and vak in the symbolism of cows” (Beck 25). The vak explained in the Rg-Veda mentions the meaning that exists in even the sounds produced by birds and beasts (Beck 25). This extends to even the heavens, where thunder is supposedly the voice of Vak (Beck 26). The Rg-Veda contains a tale about the creation of human speech, and how it came to be because of a quarrel between Indra and Vayu. The two Gods went to Prajapati for help, and when the soma that they were fighting over was divided up Indra took offence to his small portion and made it so that the speech of man would be unintelligible to the Gods (Beck 26-7).

There is only one hymn about the Goddess Vak in the Rg-Veda. It asserts her divinity and power, and along with a similar hymn from the Atharva-Veda, is “the earliest document of the personification of speech as a productive principle of energy” (Beck 28). Later Vak is expanded and even has influence on “the earliest meaning of the word Brahman” which was “sacred word.” This shows a direct relationship between language and the primary concepts of Brahman and Hinduism (Beck 29).

Mantras are related to the sphota theory because of the mystic origins of the mantras. There is an assumption that mantras are language because many are often a recitation of Vedic texts, but that does not mean that they are all language (Staal 253). Bija, or seed mantras, like Om and Aum, are probably the best known type, and consist of only one syllable. Stobhas mantras are the Vedic forms of bija mantras, and also only contain one syllable (Staal 227). Both types of mantras do not contain language per-say, but are supposed to be a means of realizing Brahman (Staal 253). The Om syllable is believed to be reminiscent of the child of Brahma with the same name, who defeated the Asuras, or demons, when they were attacking a city. As a reward to the son the make it so “no holy text shall be chanted without Om” (Beck 29).

Sphota is the “transcendent ground in which the spoken syllable and the conveyed meaning find themselves unified” (Coward 13). People use language to think. The great goddess of language, Vak, is even associated with the goddess of learning Sarasvati (Coward 5). And, the Brahmanas point out that the hymn about Vak and language should be recited when students first meet their teachers (guru) (Morgan 282). With such an intrinsic connection between knowledge, language, and meaning it follows that once a person can use a single syllable mantra to calm their mind, and focus on its undefined meaning, then perhaps they can use that to understand Brahma, and find mindful silence and liberation.

Work Cited and Related Reading

Beck, Guy L. (1993) Sonic Theology. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Bharati, Agehananda (1975) The Tantric Tradition. New York: Samuel Weiser INC.

Coward, Harold G. (1997) The Sphota Theory of Language: A Philosophical Analysis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publications.

Morgan, Kenneth William (1953) The Religion of the Hindus. New York: The Ronald Press Company.

Staal, Frits (1996) Rituals and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banardsidass.

Related Websites

Related Research Topics







Vak Goddess

Written by Kathleen Barteaux (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.