Research in Brief

Indic theories of meaning were, and still increasingly are, one of the most widely addressed sets of philosophical queries interested to philosophers and linguists in particular and to Indologists in general. As one of such theories, arguably as the most underlying one, a doctrine known as sphoṭa was developed by Sanskrit grammarians to disprove divisibility of our ideas into words but sentences. It thus avers that transforming an innate proposition into a linguistically recognizable expression is a subtle process as a result of which we speak only ‘sentences’ in both semantic and phonetic terms. Consequently the sphoṭa theory refutes compositionalists who contend that phonemes and morphemes are building blocks of a word and words are again building blocks of a sentence. Nor does it defend pluralists who argue that both a word and a sentence can be divided into smaller constituents ontologically independent and semantically true. Put differently, the primacy of word and word-meaning in practical communication is disproved but that of sentence and sentential meaning is ascertained by the sphoṭa doctrine.

As attested in the literature, the sphoṭa doctrine has been of much interest to a large number of Sanskrit grammarians of the mainstream Pāṇinian tradition and Indian philosophers from the past to date. The wealth of original works on the sphoṭa and commentaries thereon reveals the breadth and depth of its role in the philosophy of Sanskrit grammar. A considerable volume of literature in English, several other international languages and Sanskrit itself hitherto on the sphoṭa doctrine has diversely highlighted its philosophical import but very few works have scholarly honed in on the linguistic and semantic lessons it may teach us.

My study of the sphoṭa doctrine is based on a comparatively recent work titled Sphoṭatattvanirūpaṇa along with a self-commentary by Śeṣakṛṣṇa, a renowned grammarian and poet from early modern Benares under the reign of Akbar the Great and his successors. Śeṣakṛṣṇa was a scion of the prestigious Śeṣa family in Benares and his lineage included several grammarians both significant in and thereby highly influential on the history of Sanskrit grammar. Further, his works became subject to criticism and discussion among the flourishing intellectuals in India during 16th and 17th Centuries and thereafter. The Sphoṭatattvanirūpaṇa is fairly a concise work but theoretically dense enough to be analyzed in order for us to understand how the sphoṭa doctrine was treated in the recent history and why such a work was required at that time of intellectual renaissance in Benares. Its Sanskrit text with the self-commentary of Śeṣakṛṣṇa has been edited and published recently but still remains untranslated into any other language. This work itself has never been subject to any in-depth research thus far while the re-emergence of the sphoṭa theory in early modern India especially after a considerable period of silence deserves scholarly examination.

In summation, my study examines the sphoṭa doctrine as presented in the Sphoṭatattvanirūpaṇa and re-examines our current understanding of it. The findings would provide us with a more complete picture of the sphoṭa doctrine being discussed in the recent history and would reveal in particular the views of Sanskrit grammarians in 16th and 17th centuries thereon.

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