In Sanskrit kāvya, words have three kinds of meaning. Kavi-karṇapūra’s Alaṅkāra-kaustubha describes these meanings in detail 1. They are abhidhā-vṛtti, lakṣaṇā-vṛtti and vyañjanā-vṛtti. The meanings of these words are best understood through an example.
Consider the words: gaṅgāyāṁ ghoṣaḥ.
The abhidhā or primary meaning of these words is gaṅgāyāṁ: on/in the Gaṅgā, ghoṣaḥ: there is a hamlet.
Putting these words together, one gets the tātparya or sense of the sentence. The abhidha meanings give the sense: [There is] a hamlet on the Gaṅgā.
This meaning, however, does not make sense because the hamlet cannot be inside the Gaṅgā. Then we need to invoke the lakṣaṇā meaning or indicated meaning, which is that gaṅgāyāṁ really indicates ‘on the bank of the Gaṅgā’.
Thus the primary meaning of the words is rejected in favor of an indicative meaning.
However, there is a third meaning, which starts when the primary and indicated meanings are at an end. This third meaning is व्यंजना (vyañjanā), and it gives rise to dhvani. Dhvani, sound that reverbates, is the meaning which cannot be gathered from the primary meaning of the words. This meaning frequently over-rides the primary meaning in works of kāvya. And the Bhagavatam is a work of uttama kāvya, which means that dhvani is all important.
As an example, by saying gaṅgāyāṁ ghoṣaḥ, the author might be implying that the hamlet is pure and has a cool breeze blowing over it. This meaning is obviously not present in the primary nor indicated meanings.
Focus on the literal or primary meaning of kāvya like the Bhāgavatam can completely mislead. This typically happens with those who perform ‘self-study’ of scriptures, instead of learning the scripture from a qualified teacher who has learned it from his or her teacher. The vyañjanā meaning is not obvious from the text and really has to be ‘transmitted’. This is why paramparā is indispensable for understanding Indian scriptures, and why interpretation outside the paramparā distorts the meaning of scripture.
A simple example is the word पाद-रज (pāda-raja). This word literally means ‘foot-dust’. There are many examples of devotees aspiring for the dust of Kṛṣṇa’s feet or a great devotee’s feet, which they want to sprinkle on their head. What does this mean?
Hearing such verses, modern devotees may try to take dust from the feet of devotees, and even fight for it with others. But in most contexts, this word has to be understood in its vyañjanā meaning. The foot is the lowest part of the body while the head is the highest part. Taking the dust on the head signifies simply that one considers one’s best lower than another’s lowest. In other words,
In kāvya, the desire to take the pāda-raja – foot-dust – on the head, is a poetic way to express the desire for दास्य (dāsya) or servitorship.
One can see this from the following verse spoken by the wives of Kāliya (Bh.p. 10.16.36):
kasyānubhāvo ’sya na deva vidmahe tavāṅghri-reṇu-sparaśādhikāraḥ
yad-vāñchayā śrīr lalanācarat tapo vihāya kāmān su-ciraṁ dhṛta-vratā
In the verse, Kāliya’s wives express wonder at Kāliya’s great good fortune. They use the compound word tavāṅghri-reṇu-sparaśādhikāraḥ to explain that he had become qualified (ādhikāraḥ) to touch the dust (reṇu) of Kṛṣṇa’s feet (tavāṅghri). And yet, Kṛṣṇa’s feet were squeaky clean because they had become washed after jumping into the Yamunā. There was no foot-dust! We have to understand that the word foot-dust here means that Kāliya was allowed to serve Kṛṣṇa by providing his hoods in rhythm for each step that Kṛṣṇa took as he danced with the gopīs (according to Sanātana Goswami).
Kṛṣṇa’s rāsa-līlā is another example where the primary meaning can completely mislead. We will take this up in a follow up article.
- भक्ति रसामृत सिंधु lectures, Bhakti Tirtha II, Shri Satyanarayana dasa Babaji, Jiva Institute, Vrindavan. 2017. ↩