The Mīmāṃsā Doctrine of Arthavāda

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All over Vedic texts, the world is described as “sound” or “text”. The source of this world is stated to be the original meaning, called “knowledge”. This original meaning then expands to create various other types of meanings, which are all partial knowledge.

The Mīmāṃsā system of philosophy gives this doctrine a name–Arthavāda–or the doctrine of meaning. I often use the term “semanticism” instead. The following selection from Mīmāṃsā Sutras gives a glimpse into various aspects of this doctrine of meaning, such as

  • Mantras are universal meanings,
  • Material objects are representations of these meanings,
  • All computation in nature occurs based on these meanings,
  • This semantic view of reality is the basis on which atheism is rejected,
  • On this basis the possibility of a textual representation of the truth is established,
  • The principle of unity in diversity is established by this meaning,
  • The Vedic texts being the truth as they establish the unity in diversity is proven.

The following few Sutras cover this enormous ground and illustrate the nature of semanticism.

Sūtra 1.2.40

अविशिष्टस् तु वाक्यार्थः

aviśiṣṭas tu vākyārthaḥ

aviśiṣṭah—the non-specific; tu—but; vākyārthaḥ—meaning of statements.


The meaning of mantra statements is but non-specific or universals.


This sūtra clarifies that chanting of mantras gives us the aviśiṣṭa. The term viśiṣṭa refers to the individual things which are instantiations of ideas. Likewise, it refers to the leaves and twigs of the tree of knowledge, instead of the roots. Thereby, the term aviśiṣṭa refers to the universal ideas and the abstract ideas. By the chanting of these mantras, the mind acquires these abstract and universal ideas. These ideas are the pure and perfect forms, and many mantras are presented in Vedic texts to gradually elevate a person from the contingent to the abstract, and from the individual to the universal. Since these universals are organized in a hierarchy, there are many levels of mantras—some more advanced than others. Those who have seen the forms of contingent ideas mentally can practice the mantras that depict the abstract forms. The goal of the mantra is never to obtain individual material instances of the ideas (e.g., some instance of wealth, power, beauty, health, etc.). It is rather to understand the abstract ideas—i.e., what do we mean by health, wealth, beauty, or power? These ideas have pure forms which are illuminated by the mantra chanting. If such pure ideas are obtained, then even the instances of these ideas are judged correctly. For instance, grains, milk, land, and jewels are understood as far superior types of wealth than paper money, stock market paper, or government bonds. Likewise, one understands the true meaning of beauty, the perfect use of power, and the correct way to obtain a healthy body and mind, and so on.

Sūtra 1.2.41

गुणार्थेन पुनः श्रुतिः

guṇārthena punaḥ śrutiḥ

guṇārthena—by the meaning of material qualities; punaḥ—repeated; śrutiḥ—so says the śrutī.


(The non-specific or universals) are repeated by the meaning of material qualities, so says the śrutī.


The mantras are called śabda-brahman and the material objects are called artha-brahman. They are related as words and meaning. The word represents the universal, and when someone chants the mantra, there are individual instances of that universal in their mind. The mantra—as a statement—is, therefore, a universal that embodies the idea, and the chanting of the mantra is the instance of that universal. Likewise, the material nature encodes the same idea. Of course, the material nature also elaborates that idea in greater detail whereas the idea is summarized in the mantra and our mind. Thus, the two meanings of aviśiṣṭa as abstract and universal are converted into their opposites—detailed and individual—by the material modes. We can call the mantra summarized information and the world detailed information. The world can be manipulated by injecting summarized information just as altering the instructions in a computer program changes the working of the computer. This creates a new kind of technology where the world is altered, controlled, and organized just by utterances. However, as we have noted, this is not the primary goal of the mantras; the primary goal is the purification of the mind. When the primary goal is abandoned, then the mantras stop working as the quality of chanting declines.

Sūtra 1.2.42





Calculation (is based on the non-specific or universals).


Numbers in modern thinking are quantities, but to count we need the ability to distinguish, identify, and order things. For instance, to count to apples, we must draw a boundary around each apple, then identify that boundary as being of the type apple, and then select one apple ahead of the other. The quantity is the byproduct of distinguishing, identifying, and ordering. The Vedic system assigns numerosity to the cause—i.e., the concepts that assist the distinguishing, ordering, and counting—while the modern system assigns numerosity to the effects—i.e., the quantity. Accordingly, the calculations in the Vedic system pertain to the concepts, which are called non-specific universals. Each number in this view is a meaning and the combinations of numbers are also meanings. The rules of combination pertain to the meanings, or elementary meanings are combined to produce complex meanings. Similarly, even the calculation of material properties involves the use of the same universals. Therefore, we could also say that the calculation is based on the modes of nature.

Sūtra 1.2.43

अर्थवादो वा

arthavādo vā

arthavādah—the doctrine of meaning; vā—alternatively.


Alternatively, this is the doctrine of meaning or semantics.


In Vedic philosophy, material reality is a text, and descriptions of reality are also text. A text has the property of being able to refer to another text. For instance, we could say “that sentence is false”, in which “that” refers to another sentence. Similarly, our minds are texts, that can refer to other minds, other things, or other sentences. Thus, everything is meaningful, because everything is text. It can be true or false meaning, but it always exists as some text. This is the broader doctrine of semantics which is called arthavāda in this sūtra. This sūtra identifies with that doctrine and establishes the equivalence of previous sutras (which noted universals or aviśiṣṭa and individuals or viśiṣṭa, followed by the calculation based on these universals and individuals) with arthavāda.

Sūtra 1.2.44

अविरुद्धं परम्

aviruddhaṃ param

aviruddhaṃ—not opposed; param—the supreme truth.


(The doctrine of arthavāda) is not opposed to the supreme truth.


Modern atheism is the result of treating reality as physical entities that exist but have no meaning. This meaning takes three forms—concept, context, and purpose. Each thing is associated with a concept or a universal, as that thing is the instance of that universal. This concept also acquires additional contextual properties which are attributable to the role the object is playing. And the universal is instantiated with a certain purpose, and therefore, it has some unique properties that are not part of the universal. Modern science strips the world of these meanings. When the meaning is removed, life becomes purposeless. With the removal of purpose, choices are denied, and with that rejection, the soul—as the source of choices—is denied. Then God is also rejected because the soul was earlier rejected. The sequence of steps that lead to atheism, therefore, begins in the non-semantic view about matter. If matter is understood semantically, then all successive steps that lead to atheism will also be disproved.

This sūtra notes that the semantic doctrine is not opposed to the idea of the supreme truth, which means that one may not be devoted to God, but one cannot deny God’s existence. Materialism, in contrast, is fundamentally opposed to God’s existence (even though some materialists have tried to superimpose the idea of God upon materialism, and continue to do that even to this day).

Sūtra 1.2.45

संप्रैषे कर्मगर्हानुपालम्भः संस्कारत्त्वात्

saṃpraiṣe karmagarhānupālambhaḥ saṃskārattvāt

saṃpraiṣe—in the sacrificial invitation; karma—actions; garhān—censure; upālambhaḥ—prohibition; saṃskārattvāt—due to the purifying impressions.


Due to the purifying impressions (created) in the sacrificial invitation, the censure of actions is prohibited.


Vedic texts often talk about ending the cycle of birth and death. They state that this cycle is created by our actions. These actions in turn arise from desires. We cannot desire what we don’t know about. We desire what we are familiar with. This means that the world creates impressions in us, and then we desire them. This perpetuates the cycle of impressions, desires, and actions. To end the cycle of birth and death, therefore, a common injunction is to end the impressions which will then create desires in us. This injunction is upheld by the renunciates who talk about abandoning the world and getting self-absorbed. They say that worldly action binds us to the cycle of birth and death. The endeavor for liberation requires us to end this cycle giving up worldly action.

This sūtra however rejects this conclusion. It states that sacrificial actions do not fall into the category of actions binding a person to the world because they create purifying impressions. Even if we desire those impressions again, we will be desiring more purification. The cause of repeated cycle of birth and death is desire for impure impressions. Thus, there are pure and impure actions and the pure actions are liberating while the impure actions are binding.

The renunciation of action only pertains to the binding actions. Sacrificial performances are not causes of bondage. Hence, their renunciation is forbidden by this sūtra. Thus, after stating in the previous sūtra that Arthavāda is not opposed to the supreme truth, this sūtra states that it can assist the attainment of supreme truth, if the purpose of the actions is also supreme truth. Since everyone may not act with the supreme purpose, therefore, their actions can be binding. But this is not a fault of Arthavāda itself. Arthavāda is simply saying that the world is meaningful. It is not saying that all meaning is the supreme truth. Thus, through Arthavāda we can understand both binding and liberating actions. If the purpose is supreme, then the action is liberating, otherwise, not.

Sūtra 1.2.46



abhidhāne—in the teaching; arthavādaḥ—of arthavāda.


(The refutation of the objections to Vedic instructions about actions) are in the teaching of arthavāda.


This sūtra expands the scope of Arthavāda and states that it is not merely a doctrine about reality, but also one that defeats any doctrine of inaction. We can also include in this refutation any other rejection of meaningful actions given in the Vedic texts. Many people are fond of calling ritualistic actions mythology or mumbo-jumbo because they don’t know that meaning resides in the action. Some actions create purifying impressions while others create impure impressions. The former lead to ascent and the latter to descent. Thus, we judge the actions by their uplifting and downgrading effects. Those who talk about inaction cannot create purifying impressions and they will be dragged down by former impure impressions. Those who talk about the meaninglessness of all actions will still not create purifying impressions and will be dragged down by the impure impressions. Thus, Arthavāda has two roles—(a) clarify the role playing by meaningful impressions, and (b) use that to establish why the Vedic texts prescribe certain types of purificatory processes for our upliftment.

Sūtra 1.2.47

गुणाद् अप्रतिषेधः स्यात्

guṇād apratiṣedhaḥ syāt

guṇāt—due to qualities; apratiṣedhaḥ—non-opposition; syāt—possibility.


(By arthavāda) there is the possibility of non-opposition due to qualities.


All over Vedic texts, the material qualities are described as hindrances to the attainment of the supreme truth. But this sūtra states that there is a possibility of removal of these hindrances by the doctrine of Arthavāda. How? The answer is that these material qualities instantiate universals. Therefore, if these qualities become reflections of the supreme truth, then they are not hindrances.

The material world can be viewed as a thing or as a picture. If it is viewed as a thing, then it becomes a source of bondage. But if it is seen as picture, then we can ask: What is it a picture of? Again, it could be a picture of purity or impurity. If it is a picture of purity, then a transcendent reality is reflected in the picture. If instead the world is seen as a thing, then the questions about transcendence don’t arise. Thus, a picture is a thing, but a thing is not a picture. The picture-view of reality doesn’t reject the reality of the world, but it gives it meaning. Semanticism thus leads us from this world to another world. If instead the world is viewed as a thing, then it doesn’t lead us to a transcendent reality. Again, the journey from the mundane to the transcendent is a possibility and not a necessity. Some people can theoretically accept that the world is a reflection of the transcendent, and still remain disinterested in the transcendent.

Sūtra 1.2.48

विद्यावचनम् असंयोगात्

vidyāvacanam asaṃyogāt

vidyāvacanam—statements of knowledge; asaṃyogāt—due to disparate.


Due to the disparate statements of knowledge (arthavāda is necessary).


After stating the benefits of Arthavāda (namely, that by it we establish the distinction between liberating and binding actions), this sūtra states that the seemingly contradictory Vedic statements cannot be understood without Arthavāda. For example, the same supreme truth is said to be all-pervading as well as localized. Just as the concept cow is a specific form, and yet, it pervades in all cows, similarly, the supreme truth is localized and all-pervading.

A physical entity cannot be both all-pervading and localized, but a semantic entity can be both. Similarly, many contradictions in the Vedic statements are perceived when reality is conceived physically, but these contradictions disappear when we adopt a semantic understanding of reality. Hence, such an understanding is necessary even to understand the diverse Vedic statements.

Sūtra 1.2.49

सतः परमविज्ञानम्

sataḥ paramavijñānam

sataḥ—the eternal truth; paramavijñānam—is supreme knowledge.


The eternal truth is supreme knowledge.


After stating that the understanding of Vedas depends on semanticism, this sūtra states that the supreme truth is also a meaning. That meaning pervades everything, and yet, it is localized. The localized entity has a form because it is a meaning. And the all-pervading entity also has a form, although it is present within each individual thing. Thus, the supreme truth should not be viewed as a thing, but as an idea. That idea is ‘supreme knowledge’. Ordinary knowledge is divided into many departments such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology, economics, etc. All these are knowledge, but knowledge is not physics or chemistry. In that sense, the idea ‘knowledge’ is present in each department of knowledge, but ‘knowledge itself’ is beyond all these departments. The term ‘supreme knowledge’ refers to that transcendent idea which each department of knowledge reflects partially. All the departments of knowledge therefore collectively form a picture of knowledge. That supreme knowledge is present in each department, but not equal to that department. Since physics is knowledge, but knowledge is not physics, therefore, the supreme knowledge is beyond all the individual types of knowledge. This knowledge is also a form and meaning, and hence by the reconciliation of various Vedic statements, we begin to understand the nature of knowledge itself.

Sūtra 1.2.50

उक्तश् चानित्यसंयोगः

uktaś cānityasaṃyogaḥ

uktah—stated; ca—also; anitya—temporary; saṃyogaḥ—the union.


(The supreme knowledge) is stated to be the union of the temporary.


After noting that semanticism is necessary to reconcile the disparate Vedic statements and that the supreme truth is also knowledge, this sūtra states that this supreme truth is the union of the diversity of the temporary world. However, this union is conceived semantically rather than physically. For example, if different fields of knowledge such as physics, chemistry, psychology, sociology, economics, etc. cover different domains of experience and embody different kinds of ideas, then the supreme truth is that which combines all these ideas into a single and coherent understanding of reality. Similarly, if there is diversity imbued with duality—e.g., beauty is poor and power is unjust—then the union of these qualities is the perfect truth because it combines all ideas.

Modern science also tries to unify the diversity by formulating a single theory, idea, or understanding of reality but in all cases, it is far from obtaining such union. Every field of modern science is riddled with contradictions between theories that are individually successful in explaining some limited domain of experience. Similarly, there are numerous contradictions between these varied fields of science. If we put all these fields of knowledge together, along the individually successful theories within them, then we will find hundreds of contradictions between them. These contradictions, as already noted, are also present in the Vedic texts. However, Arthavāda resolves these contradictions. Therefore, the supreme truth is conceived in a scientific sense as the reconciliation of diverse domains of experience, and neither as the rejection of this experience nor as the acceptance of contradictions in explaining diverse experiences. By recognizing the diversity of experience, this doctrine is realist. But by recognizing only that idea, theory, or meaning which unites all the types of experiences into a single understanding, it is quite different from present materialistic doctrines. Hence, this type of realism is also semantic, and not physical.

When reality is conceived as meaning, judgments of truth are based on the truthfulness of meaning, rather than merely the evidence of existence. For instance, false books can exist, and their existence doesn’t prove their truth. Likewise, the observability of something is only evidence of its existence, not its truth. All these things are also temporary. The truth is that which exists eternally. Likewise, the supreme truth becomes the source of all this (true and false) diversity, and the diversity appears by the division of the supreme truth.

In short, if the supreme truth is the combination of all semantic variety, then it is the cause of the variety by separating things from the combination. Quite simply, the opposites of this world—such as beauty without wealth or wealth without beauty—are the results of the separation of wealth and the byproducts of the separation of meanings from the supreme truth. This separation leads to contradictions, which are also called duality, but the union of all these dualities is non-dual. Finally, the goal of life is the attainment of perfect unity. In a mundane sense, any truth that is not beautiful is not as true as the beautiful truth. But to the extent that such dualities are only imaginable in the material world, and possible only in a transcendent sense, the goal of life is transcendence.

Therefore, once we understand the nature of the supreme truth, we establish two corollaries: (a) the supreme truth is the source of all the diversity, and (b) the supreme truth is the goal of all diversity. Thus, diversity is aiming for perfection by the elimination of dualistic, separated, and incomplete nature. Both united and separated natures are semantic because that which is separated is sourced from that which is united and the flaws in it are the result of separation. The separated diversity gets perfection by uniting with what it lacks.

Sūtra 1.2.51

लिङ्गोपदेशश् च तदर्थवत्

liṅgopadeśaś ca tadarthavat

liṅgopadeśa—the teaching of forms, symbols, or representations; ca—also; tadarthavat—just like that meaning.


The teaching of forms is also just like that meaning.


When people see the forms of God, commonly represented as deities, they imagine that people are worshipping idols when these are material realizations of meaning-forms. The meaning is not destroyed if you break the idol, just like the idea of chair is not destroyed if you break a chair. The chair is only an embodiment of the idea. Since most people cannot understand meaning forms, they are converted into sense-perceivable forms. Ideas such as beauty, justice, power, and wealth are meaning-forms, but we don’t see them. To make these forms visible to us, instances of these forms are created as beautiful things, enactments of justice, illustrations of power, and instances of wealth. The supreme truth, according to this sūtra, is also a meaning-form, and He appears like various forms that we can perceive. By associating with these forms, we get an understanding of the nature of beauty, wealth, power, justice, etc. The meaning of ‘supreme truth’ is that it is the combined form of all the other forms.

In this world, beauty is not always wealthy, and power is not always just. Therefore, the meaning forms are separated in this world, and by that separation, the material world is called ‘duality’. But in the supreme truth, these forms are combined, which means that there is beauty but it is not poor; there is power but it is not unjust. The ‘supreme truth’ is also a form, but that form combines all the individual forms that we perceive separated in the material world.

Even if these forms are separated, whatever is created by that separation still has some form. It may be the form of wealth without beauty, or the form of power without justice. We can call these ‘ugly’ truths or ‘evil’ reality, but it is a source of partial truth—in so far as we can see parts of the whole truth. Therefore, this world is also a symbolic representation of meanings, although the meanings we see in this world are partial, as some of the forms are missing. What we call evil or ignorance or suffering is also sourced from the same supreme truth, but it becomes undesirable because of separation of forms. Thus, power without justice, or wealth without beauty, are undesirable and can be called ‘evil’, but even that evil is a partial symbolic representation of the supreme truth. The purported contradictions between transcendent and mundane realities are therefore not true in an absolute sense, although there is indeed a transcendent or united reality distinct from the mundane or divided reality.

Sūtra 1.2.52



ūhaḥ—inferencing and concluding.


(The supreme truth) inferences and concludes (the variety of forms).


The diversity of this world is produced by the divisions of a single source. In that source, all the forms are combined, just like in the idea of beauty, all the various types of beauties (e.g., a beautiful flower, a beautiful theory, a beautiful mind, etc.) are combined. The diverse forms separate from the original form by a process of self-division. That division separates the original form into many diverse and seemingly contradictory forms—as we noted above, beauty can be poor, and power can be unjust. The diversity manifested from the unity is not just many things, but also many mutually contradictory things due to the presence and absence of various forms. This contradiction was previously noted in the case of the statements of the Vedic texts, and the diversity of the material world. But it was stated that this diversity is unified by the supreme truth. Therefore, after stating that unity reconciles diversity, this sūtra states that unity produces diversity and that production is a logical process of inferencing and concluding from a complex idea (that combines many ideas) to simpler ideas (that are separated). It is easier to understand the ideas of beauty, power, justice, and wealth separately, and harder to understand their combination. Therefore, inferencing is the process of clarifying and expositing a complex nature.

Sūtra 1.2.53

विधिशब्दाश् च

vidhiśabdāś ca

vidhi—procedures; śabdāt—from the scriptures; ca—also.


The procedures from the scriptures are also (manifest from supreme truth).


After establishing the transcendental source of the material world, this sūtra states that the Vedas also have a transcendental source. The order is important here. If we say that the Vedas are transcendental, but the world is mundane, we create a discrepancy about how transcendental knowledge arises in the mundane world. If instead, we establish a transcendental source of the material world, then questions about the transcendence of the Vedas become moot. The question only remains: What is that text that combines all the previously noted forms such as beauty, justice, power, wealth, etc.? What is that text that doesn’t see a contradiction between these forms? And what is that text that tells us how such seemingly contradictory and disparate ideas can be reconciled?

The Vedas are material in so far as these forms are separated, and they are transcendent in so far as these forms are combined. Factually, in any text, we can only discuss these forms one after another. While discussing the nature of truth, for instance, we are unable to discuss the nature of beauty, and truth and beauty seem disparate and separated. But this is the nature of texts—they are serialized information. The text as a whole, combines all these ideas. Therefore, if we gather these ideas by reading the texts, then we can combine them in our minds and that combination is indeed the vision of the supreme truth.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Mīmāṃsā Doctrine of Arthavāda," in Shabda Journal, June 17, 2021,