The three types of meanings of Sanskrit words

Three types of meanings are typically accepted for Sanskrit words. Here we list a discussion of the three types of meanings by Sri Babaji in his commentary on Bhagavat Sandarbha, Anuccheda 98:

“All literature, including the Veda, is composed of words. Every Sanskrit word (pada) has a meaning (artha), and there is a relation between the two. A word has a potency by which it conveys its meaning, which is called vṛtti. Primarily the vṛttis of all words can be divided into three groups, called abhidhā (primary or direct), lakṣaṇā (secondary or indicative), and vyañjanā (suggestive). Abhidhā is sometimes also called mukhyā. The meanings conveyed through these three vṛttis are designated with reference to their corresponding vṛtti. For example, the meaning derived through abhidhā-vṛtti is called abhidhārtha or mukhyārtha.

The primary, or abhidhā, meaning is that which springs to mind as soon as the word is heard. This is the popular meaning of the word. This meaning is generally found in the dictionary and some- times from learned people. For example, as soon as we hear the word “cow,” we picture an animal with four legs, a tail, two ears and so on, in our minds. This, then, is the primary meaning of the word “cow,” which is conveyed by the abhidhā-vṛtti.

The abhidhā-vṛtti is of three types:

1. Yaugikī. When a word’s meaning is derived from the combined potency of its constituent roots and suffixes, the meaning is called yaugikī-abhidhā, and the potency is called yaugikī-abhidhā- vṛtti. For example, the word pācaka, meaning “a cook,” is derived from the verbal root √pac (to cook) combined with the ṇvul suffix (pāṇini 3.1.133, ṇaka according to hnv 5.194), giving it the sense of a noun agent. One who knows the rules of Sanskrit grammar would easily understand the meaning, just as an English speaker would recognize the various possible derivations of the verb “to cook,” such as cook, cooker, cooking, etc.

2. Rūḍhi. When the sense of a word is completely independent of the inherent meaning derived from its constituent roots and suffixes, such a vṛtti is called rūḍhi-vṛtti. For example, the word maṇḍapa means a pavillion or a temporary hall, but the meaning according to its constituent words should be, “one who drinks rice water” (maṇḍaṁ pibati), or, “one who guards ornaments” (maṇḍaṁ bhūṣāṁ pāti). Here, the meaning is not dependent on the combined meaning of the word’s individual constituents, but on another sense that has been attributed by custom.

3. Yoga-rūḍhi. This is a mixture of the two previous vṛttis. Although in this case the meaning of a word is rooted in the power of its constituents, it has become associated with only one specific instance of that meaning. For example, according to its constituent parts, the word paṅkaja means, “that which is born out of mud” (paṅkāj jāyate). Although there are many things that grow or arise in muddy water, the word paṅkaja specifically refers only to the lotus.

Lakṣaṇā-vṛtti. When the primary meaning, or abhidhā-vṛtti, fails to render the proper meaning of a word in a particular context, it is abandoned, and a secondary meaning is sought that is related to the primary meaning in some way. As is stated in Nyāya-siddhānta- muktāvali, “When the speaker’s intent is not understood through the primary meaning of the words, then the indicative meaning, lakṣaṇā, is taken.” This will be related to the primary meaning. For example: In the statement, “The Jiva Institute is situated on Jiva Road,” certainly the intent of the speaker is not that the Institute is actually on the road, because such a thing is not possible. Therefore, rejecting the primary meaning of “on the road,” one is expected to understand “beside the road.”

Lakṣaṇā-vṛtti has three divisions, called ajahat-svārthā, jahat- svārthā and jahad-ajahat-svārthā. Ajahat-svārtha means without giving up the original meaning of the word, as in the statement kuntāḥ praviśanti, “the spears are entering.” Here kuntāḥ, or spears, refers to the people carrying spears, kunta-dhārī. In this instance, the meaning of the word kunta has not been dropped (ajahat) but extended to refer to those carrying them.

In jahat-svārtha, the original meaning of the word is dropped, as in gaṅgāyāṁ ghoṣaḥ, where the word gaṅgā drops its original meaning as the river Ganges and is translated as the bank of the river Ganges.

In jahad-ajahat-svārtha, part of the meaning is dropped and another part preserved. The phrase tat tvam asi, “You are That,” is a famous example of jahad-ajahat in Advaitavāda. Here tat refers to Brahman and tvam to an individual being. The two have been equated in the above statement. Yet they cannot be absolutely equal if the literal meaning of the pronouns tat and tvam is taken. The individual being is a conscious entity limited by a material body, whereas Brahman is unlimited consciousness. If the two pronouns that refer respectively to Brahman and the living being are dropped, then what remains is consciousness, and that is what is being equated in this sentence.

Vyañjanā-vṛtti. When the abhidhā-vṛtti and lakṣaṇā-vṛtti have made their respective contributions and yet more meaning is needed to complete the sense, then one looks to the vyañjanā-vṛtti. For example, in the statement about the Jīva Institute, after one has understood its location, further suggested meanings may arise, such as that it is approachable by vehicle. Such a suggested meaning has no relation to the primary meaning of the words themselves. Vyañjanā- vṛtti has thousands of divisions, and it is beyond the scope of this discussion to enter into them. Suffice to say that the two main ones are śābdī, or vyañjanā based on the word, and ārthī, or that based on the meaning.

Of all the vṛttis, vyañjanā is also the most difficult to comprehend. It is used by most learned Sanskrit scholars in their writings. Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, especially the Tenth Canto, is a masterpiece based on vyañjanā-vṛtti.

Some scholars occasionally count gauṇī-vṛtti as a fourth category, as Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī has also done. It is metaphorical in nature, such as siṁho māṇavakaḥ (the lion boy). The boy is not a lion, but has some of a lion’s characteristics, such as courage. In this analysis, which is a more standard one, gauṇī simply forms a part of the lakṣaṇā-vṛtti.

The purpose of the above analysis is to provide a background for the following discussion: When deriving the meaning of a word based on abhidhā-vṛtti or mukhyā-vṛtti, one does not have to resort to any other help, such as logic. The meaning comes directly and naturally from the word. Therefore, the meaning conveyed by the abhidhā-vṛtti is self-authoritative. When, however, one takes the meaning based on the lakṣaṇā-vṛtti or vyañjanā-vṛtti, one has to look to something other than the primary meaning of the word. Though such a meaning is not self-authoritative, it does not imply that such interpretations or explanations are without value. Without recourse to them, it would be impossible to understand the intent of the Vedic literature or to reconcile the contradictions found therein.

Lakṣaṇā-vṛtti is used only when the primary meaning fails to convey a proper sense. When, however, a word directly conveys its sense adequately, it is considered a deviation from the author’s or speaker’s intent to put forth a secondary meaning instead.

Another crucial point to be borne in mind is that without having a primary meaning, there is no possibility that a word could have a secondary or implied meaning either (i.e., lakṣaṇā-vṛtti or vyañjanā- vṛtti).

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  1. Radhe Radhe,
    In SB 12.2.29:
    viṣṇor bhagavato bhānuḥ kṛṣṇākhyo’sau divaṁ gataḥ

    Sri Jiva comments:
    śrī-kṛṣṇa-lokaṁ eva dyu-śabdenāpy āha [8]—viṣṇor iti | yadā guṇāvatārasya bhagavatoviṣṇos tad-aṁśatvād raśmi-sthānīyasya kṛṣṇākhyo bhānuḥ sūrya-maṇḍala-sthānīyaḥ divaṁ prāpañcika-lokāgocaraṁ mathurādīnā m eva prakāśa-viśeṣa-rūpaṁ vaikuṇṭha-lokaṁ gataḥ

    Similarly Srinatha Chakravarti(in Caitanyamata manjusha) comments:

    viṣṇor bhagavato bhānuḥ kṛṣṇākhyo’sau divaṁ gata iti bhagavato viṣṇor api bhānuḥ prakāśakaḥ, sarveśvareśvaratvātkṛṣṇa ityākhyā yasya, divaṁ sva-dhāma

    Is this relating Vishnu(gunavatara) with Krishna like sunrays and the sun an example of Vyanjana vritti? Since other meanings are possible like those given by Sridhara swami and other commentators? Or is it lakshna vritti?

    • vyanjana vrtti is that meaning which is not explicitly present in the primary meaning. Here the primary meaning is clearly taken here: Krsna is the sun (bhanu) of Visnu. So it is also not laksana vrtti. Laksana is done when the primary meaning does not make sense.

  2. Thank you. I asked this because there is no mention of “Vishnu here being Rashm”i of the Bhanu called Krishna. So can this sense be called a derived meaning?

    • I am not sure if it is a derived meaning. Visnu, according to Gaudiyas, is a sva-amsa of Bhagavan. If Krsna is called the sun, what would you call Visnu then?
      You could call it tarka.

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