The Vedic Philosophy of Language

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The Six Systems Known as Upaveda

It may surprise many people to know that the Vedic tradition never created dictionaries or rules of grammar. However, since time immemorial, there are six systems of study, collectively called Vedāṅga (and sometimes Upaveda), that include Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa, which are erroneously translated as dictionary and grammar. The broader set of six Vedāṅga includes the following:

Vedāṅga Meaning Philosophy
Nirukta Meanings of sounds Sounds represent groups of elementary potential meanings
Vyākaraṇa Meanings of sentences Potential meanings are filtered by combining potential meanings
Śikṣā Phonetics and prononciation There is a proper pronunciation of each atomic sound-meaning
Chanda Meters and prosody Meaning is easily memorized for transmission by using meters
Kalpa Rituals and processes Uttered meaning is enhanced by gestures and actions called rituals
Jyotiṣa Time and date Specific things are spoken and done at specific times and places

For the present, we will limit ourselves to Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa, to discuss the philosophy of language. The essence of this philosophy is that whatever we call language is also called śabda-brahman, which literally means a “sound person”. By understanding this philosophy, we will see how Nirukta is not a dictionary and Vyākaraṇa is not a grammar, although they can often be used as such.

The Philosophy of Personalism

A person in Vedic philosophy is defined by six aspects: a willing individual, intention, emotion, cognition, conation, and relation. Each of these is a collection of many potentials. But at a given moment, a will selects and combines subsets of those potentials. Hence at each moment, we see one aspect of a person. Each word is also a person that can express all the six aspects of a person. However, at a given moment, we see one facet of that word that represents one speaker, one purpose, one mood, one meaning, one activity, for one audience.

A person expands into words through a specific combination of six potentials. A word is also a specific combination of six potentials. But that specificity is not universal. It is tied to one utterance. Just as a person can expand into a sound-person, similarly, the sound-person can expand into more sound-persons. This latter process is called “writing a commentary on a text”. A commentary is an expansion both of a person and of a sound-person, so it a person’s understanding of the sound, compatible with the possible meanings of the sound.

Now we have to think of a word as a collection of potential meanings. However, the possible meanings of that word are greatly reduced when that word comes from a specific person, in a specific mood, with a specific intention, denoting a specific idea, as a specific activity, for a specific audience.

The Meaning of Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa

What we know from Nirukta is what the word cannot mean. The term Nirukta comprises two roots, nih or not, and ukta or spoken. Our common conception of a dictionary is that it gives us what the word means. That is not Nirukta because Nirukta means “that which hasn’t been said”, “that which cannot be meant”, or “that which is outside the potential meanings”. Nih also means lower. We can think in terms of foreground and background or prioritized and deprioritized. Nirukta now means the deprioritized background. For instance, if we talk about a bird, it includes many bird varieties, but it excludes cow and tree varieties. Hence, by calling something a bird, we are saying that it is not a cow and not a tree. We are not referring to a specific bird variety. This is Nirukta, which means that we are negating cows and trees. They have become the deprioritized background against which something may be prioritized as foreground later.

Conversely, what we know from Vyākaraṇa is what the word means. The term Vyākaraṇa comprises two roots, vyā or a veil and sieve, and karaṇa, or instrument. What the word means is decided by who uttered the word, in a specific mood, with a specific intention, denoting a specific idea, as a specific type of activity, for a specific audience. These are the “veils” and “sieves” of the word. They have surrounded the word and reduced its possible meanings to an actual meaning, quite like a person surrounded by his children stops being the boss in the office but surrounded by his colleagues he stops being a father. Our common conception of grammar is that it gives us the rules by which words are combined. But that is not Vyākaraṇa because Vyākaraṇa means determining the specific meaning of a word by looking at a word through veils or sieves to reduce the possible meanings to an actual meaning.

Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa are two kinds of choices. With Nirukta, we say that something is not a cow and not a tree and that negation is the meaning of bird. With Vyākaraṇa, we say that the thing in question is an Eagle because it was referred to earlier or is being referred to later. Nirukta rejects what something cannot be, and Vyākaraṇa selects what something is, from a collection of possibilities allowed by the Nirukta exclusion. Together, the process of rejection and selection narrows the possible meanings to an actual meaning.

Contrasts to Mathematical Idea of Concepts

If we contrast this to the mathematical construction of concepts, then Eagle is a class of individual things, and bird is a class of classes like Eagle and Parrot. When concepts are constructed by aggregating individuals, then we can never fully define a concept because such individuals are infinite, and they include past and future members of a set, which can never be aggregated into a set at any moment in time. An infinity is an integral part of every set-theoretic construction. Since nobody can know infinity, hence, nobody can know any concept. Negations of concepts are also problematic. For instance, is not-bird a finite set of birds (e.g., that excludes past and future birds) or a set of horses? We don’t know. All set-theoretic concepts are unknowable because neither infinite nor finite are knowable.

But the definition of concepts based on other concepts doesn’t suffer from that problem because a concept can be defined by an ideal. What is a bird? It means an ideal bird. It is not an infinite set of birds. It is one ideal bird. That ideal can vary in our imaginations, but such personal ideals can be compared and contrasted. Through contrasts, we can prove which ideal is better than others. Ultimately, there is a best ideal even among personal ideals. Thus, even a child can know the meaning of bird and not-bird, but the biggest supercomputer cannot comprehend those meanings because its knowing requires completing the impossible task of constructing infinite sets.

The Use of Ideal and Non-Ideal

When we apply concepts to ordinary things, which are not ideal, then we must use contrasts. For instance, when we call something a bird, even when it is not the ideal bird, we mean that it is more alike the ideal bird than anything else. It is also unlike the ideal cow or tree. This family resemblance requires a contrast between multiple ideals, to claim that something is closest to one ideal. We can narrow this further by saying that something is closer to an Eagle than a Parrot. But every Eagle or Parrot is unique. Even if we contrast some non-ideal Eagles to non-ideal Parrots, the contrast doesn’t mean that all Eagles or all Parrots are identical. Since they are not identical to each other, therefore, ultimately, the use of the word Eagle or Parrot can also mean a specific individual which is unlike everything else in the universe, including the ideals of everything, and the non-ideal resemblances to the ideal.

The ideal bird is a universal because there is only one. The non-ideal birds, known by contrasts to cows and trees, are many. They constitute the contextual meaning of bird. Finally, if something is not ideal and contextual contrasts have been used successively to narrow the family resemblance, then bird simply means a specific bird, which is so unique as to not be identical to anything else in the universe. Thus, we go from the universal to the contextual to the individual, using the same word in three ways, almost imperceptibly. These three uses of the same word can never be equated. For instance, in “the bird is black”, we are talking about an individual bird because blackness is not a feature of all birds. However, in “bird flies”, we are talking about a contextual contrast to trees and horses.

What is Etymology and Grammar?

Among these three meanings of words, the ideal is disregarded by Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa but emphasized by Kalpa and Jyotiṣa. The words used in rituals always refer to the ideal at appointed places and times. Nirukta focuses on the contextual contrast (i.e., what a word cannot mean) and Vyākaraṇa focuses on the actual meaning (i.e., what the word means in this particular case). Śikṣā and Chanda deal with purely phonetic aspects of pronunciation and composition and don’t play a direct role in the determination of the meaning.

Since Nirukta always defines words through contrasts, ultimately some words must invoke the ideal meanings. For instance, if we say that a bird is not a cow, then cow must be defined as an ideal form. We cannot define a bird by contrasting to a cow, when nobody knows what a cow means. For a word to mean anything, we have to invoke some ideals. Hence, we can never get rid of all ideals. We certainly cannot get rid of all contrasts. And we cannot stop distinguishing individuals from each other. The answer to set-theoretic problems of concepts requires the use of ideal universals and contextual contrasts along with specific individuals. We begin with some ideals. Then we define some things non-ideally by contrasting them both to their ideals and other non-ideals. Finally, we refer to a unique individual.

If we translate Nirukta into “etymology” and Vyākaraṇa into “grammar” we commit grave mistakes because we conclude that (a) Nirukta gives us what the word means when it tells us what it does not mean, and (b) Vyākaraṇa gives us the rules of combining words when it tells us how the potential meanings of a word must be filtered through instruments that act like a sieve to get the actual meaning. We have to define what a word cannot mean in six ways and we have to filter the possible meanings of a word in six ways. Those same six ways are used to define what a person is not and what a person is in a specific case. Hence, each word is also a “sound person” or śabda-brahman.

The Sūtras of the Pāṇini Vyākaraṇa

Let’s apply this idea of Vyākaraṇa to the first two Sūtras of the Pāṇini Vyākaraṇa. Sūtra 1.1.1 says vṛddhirādaic which means “it can also be greater than the original”. Sūtra 1.1.2 says adeṅguṇaḥ which means “it can end its qualities”. Every word has many potential meanings. Some of these meanings can be prioritized and emphasized, while other meanings can be terminated or deemphasized. The job of a sieve is to hide something. What is left over after hiding something, is greatly emphasized, precisely because other things have been hidden.

Concepts of Dominant and Subordinate

In Sāñkhya, we call this “dominant” and “subordinate”. Let’s consider two words—”science” and “economy”. There is a “science of economy” and there is an “economy of science”. The difference arises because some word precedes or follows other words. What comes prior is, in this case, prioritized over whatever follows. Economy is a part of science when we speak of the “science of economy”. Science is a part of economy when we speak of the “economy of science”. The container is dominant and the contained is subordinate.

Likewise, there is a “science of psyche” and a “psyche of science”. Science is dominant and psyche is subordinate in the “science of psyche”. Psyche is dominant and science is subordinate in the “psyche of science”. The container is the sieve, filter, constraint, or veil that enhances some meanings and reduces other meanings in whatever is contained. While talking about the “psyche of science” we will not be occupied with the mathematical details of a theory. We will just be occupied with deep-seated attitudes such as materialism. This is the result of the word “psyche” filtering the word “science” to select a smaller subset of meanings of science while ignoring the others.

Likewise, if we talk about the “economy of science” we will not be interested in the mathematical details of a theory, nor will we dwell on its deep-seated attitudes. Rather, we will talk about how science is funded by a military-industrial complex that benefits from its theories.

Thus, “science” has many meaningful aspects, such as mathematical theories, deep-seated attitudes, and economic interactions. One such meaning is selected when a sieve, filter, or constraint is applied to science. That filtering mechanism is then called an instrument.

Using Personalism for Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa

The dominant words are instruments for the subordinate words. The subordinate words are objects being perceived through the instrument. What is dominant or subordinate is often impossible to tell in grammar. For instance, the sentence “I saw a man on a hill with a telescope” has many possible interpretations including those cases where (a) a man is an “instrument” looking into a telescope and (b) a man is an object being looked through an “instrument” called a telescope. The telescope and the man can both be “instruments” and “objects”. We cannot settle this dilemma in a grammar. But we can settle this dilemma in Vyākaraṇa because one of the many possible meanings is filtered by a sieve to get one specific meaning. There are six methods of filtration hence there are six different kinds of sieves.

The modern interpretation of Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa is influenced by Western language dictionaries and grammars and made to conform to them. Under this influence, the Western philosophy of language is applied to Sanskrit. Everyone consults a dictionary and calls that Nirukta. Everyone reads Pāṇini Sūtras and calls that the rules of grammar. By this, they cannot understand śabda-brahman or the “sound person”. Even those who depersonalize Brahman into “oneness” cannot understand why an enormously variegated language is called Brahman. Only a philosophy of personalism can even concord with the literal meanings of words such as Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Vedic Philosophy of Language," in Shabda Journal, August 29, 2023,