Bhartrhari’s Vakyapadiya and Jacques Lacan’s Theory of Subjectivity

Bhartrhari (7th century AD) is the leader of the grammarian school of linguistic philosophers. This school focused on the problem of language and meaning. Bhartrhari’s main text is the Vākyapadīya (Of Sentences and Words), on Sanskrit grammar and linguistic philosophy. This text became the basis of Sphota theory in Sanskrit linguistics. Meanwhile, Jacques Lacan is a prominent psychoanalysis theorist. His famous line in “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious; or Reason Since Freud” is “[p]sychoanalysis discovers in the unconscious … the whole structure of language”. He also talks about the role of language/ signification in the structure of material reality.

Bhartrhari views language in a holistic way. This means that language and the universe referred by it cannot be separated. There is no independent meaning as meaning is inherent in sphota. He also believes that all knowledge is ‘penetrated’ and ‘illuminated’ by words. thus “all knowledge is linguistic, and the distinctions of objects are traceable to distinctions among words.” (Britannica)

Further, as regards the question of the bearer of the meaning of a word or a sentence in Indian philosophy, the grammarians postulated that the word is the bearer of meaning. Thus the word becomes the sphota. When the addressee hears a word, his or her perception quickly removes possible misunderstandings. From one unit of sound to another, the hearer tries to grasp the meaning of the word.

There is causal relation between the word and the object. The object that exist within the form of the word is the cause while the externalized word is the effect (p. 18). This is also mentioned in verse I.44, “[i]n the words which are expressive the learned discern two elements: one is the cause of the real word which, the other, is used to convey the meaning.”

In the grammarians’ theory of word monoism, a sentence is neither a group of words nor an ordered collection of them. The sentence-sphota is the main unit of meaning and a word is an abstraction from a sentence. There is no reality other than consciousness.

If we are to compare Bhartrhari’s concept of language and Jacques Lacan’s theory of subjectivity, we must look into the idea of consciousness. Vakyapadiya verse I.41 says that ‘[o]ne who has recourse to Tradition which shines uninterruptedly like the ‘I’ consciousness cannot be diverted therefrom by mere reasoning.’ Here the subject has the sense of ‘I am’ which cannot be undercut by the authoritative person’s influence. This is because the sense derives from spontaneous and eternal consciousness. Tradition also cannot be violated by rules. It is considered as the right and therefore universal for cultured people. In Lacan, how the subject forms its subjectivity relies on the ‘authoritative person’, or the Law of the Father. Once he acquires language, he identifies that he is a separate entity, different from his reflection on the mirror.

There is also a metaphor about reflection in Bhartrhari which we can compare to Lacan as well. The gross sound, or nada, is a sequence of sound. It suggests the word (sphota). The sounds produced by articulatory organ create the sense that sphota comprises some parts. The relation between sphota and nada is like a reflection, for example the reflection of the moon on the surface of water. The relation is due to the movement of the water. But even if there the reflection does not move by itself, it has the quality of the movement. The word also has the qualities of the sound—short or long, slow or fast. According to this view, the reflection is identical with the object. In Lacan’s mirror stage, there is a question of the difference between the ‘I’ and the ‘Other’.

Bhartrhari believes that a person is born carrying linguistic intuition that he or she inherits from  the previous generations. He imagines a prototype of language that expresses and shapes itself according to the culture. This linguistic intuition is perhaps what Lacan means when he says that “we cling to the illusion that signifier answers to the function of representing the signified…that the signifier has to answer for its existence in the name of signification whatever.” Lacan says that “no signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification” and so “there is no language in existence for which there is any question of its inability to cover the whole field of the signified.” Bhartrhari goes on to say that all knowledge depends upon the word and that a child knows this because of the residual knowledge from its previous birth (I.121). So Bhartrhari assumed that the word, or language, can cover all knowledge.

Another thing that can be compared in terms of signification is that Bhartrhari views that before the signifier (the name) is connected with the signified (the named), it is connected with its form as the meaning. Developing Saussure’s theory, Lacan proposes that we must pay attention to the reference of significations to one another, rather than assuming the correlation between the signifier and the signified. That the signifier functions to represent the signified is only an illusion, metaphysical.


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