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January - March 2023

Time according to Bhartrhari – An Overview Vidya Jayaraman

The notion of time and its nature has preoccupied thinkers, philosophers and sages from time immemorial. Some Greek thinkers like Xeno argued that time is a measure. Other Greek philosophers like Aristophanes argued that time is an illusion. These arguments were repeated in the Middle ages in Europe and as a result, have made their way into the current books of philosophers and physicists alike. More often than not, the Indian contributions to the philosophy of time do not find their rightful place in the history of philosophy.

Our sages had a profound yet practical understanding of time as revealed in the Vedas. Since then, our darśana śāstrakārās, ṛṣis, with their inner vision and insight, have given valuable viewpoints of time.

Most people recall the name of Bhaṛtṛhari as the author of the triad of hundred didactic verses (śatakatrayam) Vairagya Satakam, Niti Satakam and Sringara Satakam. However, Bhaṛtṛhari is also the author of Vākyapadīya, a philosophical text on grammar and a super-commentary on Bhagavān Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣyam, referred to as Dīpikā. The basic philosophy of Vākyapadīya is firmly and fundamentally rooted in the Vedānta of the Upaniṣads within the central tenet of non-dualism. Many of the ideas examined in this text predate many modern ideas in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy in the Western world.

In this text, Bhaṛtṛhari has laboriously collected traces expressed in Patanjali’s Mahābhāṣyam, enriching them with his own vision. These seeds (“bhaṣya bījas”) are scattered across the vast field of the Mahābhāṣyam. Thus, in the Vākyapadīya, he not only provides a cohesive summary of

the ideas of different darśanas or viewpoints/schools of thought that prevailed during that time but also expresses eloquently what his own ideas are. The text is reflective, allowing a reader to wonder and ponder over various viewpoints.

The text of the Vākyapadīya is organised in three chapters (Kāṇḍa) – Brahma Kāṇḍa, Vākya Kāṇḍa and Prakīrṇa Kāṇḍa (also known as Pada Kāṇḍa). It is in this third chapter that we find the chapter on time or kāla. The text is terse and profound. Often, it is only through the commentaries that it can be properly understood. The two commentaries that are widely known are Helarāja’s Prakīrṇa Prakāśa and Pandit Raghunath Sharma’s Ambākartrī. In the course of

his discourse on time, Bhaṛtṛhari gives

several viewpoints on time according to various philosophical schools, both āstika and nāstika; āstika darśanas are those that accept the veda as authority and nāstika darśanas include mostly Bauddha and Jaina authors.

What is time?

Bhaṛtṛhari considers time as a power (śakti) of Brahman. Due to nescience (avidyā), time operates. However he also gives a variety of viewpoints regarding time that prevailed among philosophers. Some say it is power (śakti), others say it is ātmā, and some others say time/kāla is devata. He further says time is the first step in avidyā. What is meant by this is that the Brahmatattva is one, undivided and eternal. It then appears as though it is many, divided and subject to the limitations of time and space. Thus the power of time, due to avidyā, makes our perception limited.


Time according to the Nyāya-Vaisheshika View:

Bhaṛtṛhari explains that according to the Naiyāyikas & Vaiśeṣikas, Time is a substance (dravya), it is eternal (nitya), and is all- pervasive (vibhu). It is also the common cause for other non-eternal substances. The divisions of time such as hour and day are only superimposed from various kriyas or activities upon it.

He then adds other measures such as a unit of length (diṣṭi), a unit of capacity (prasthā) and a unit of weight (suvarṇa) and says that time is the measure of activity (kriyā). Time can be understood through the relations of prior and after. Time also divides activities into components such as creation (utpatti), sustenance (sthiti) and destruction (vināśa). We say that a pot did not exist prior to its creation, say Time T1. It exists for the duration of time T2 and we say that it does not exist after it is destroyed at time T3. Thus time divides these activities such as creation, existence and destruction.

Time holds the strings of the puppets:

He then elaborates his own viewpoint. Bhaṛtṛhari too holds that time is one. It is the activities that are many and the manifold nature of these activities cause time, that is, one to be treated as many. However, we also see and experience things as many in our world of transactions. So this has to be accounted for. They say that it is due to this superimposition caused by avidyā that time appears to be perceived as many. This is based on the Vedāntic principle as well.

According to Bhaṛtṛhari, time has distinct functions: abhyanujña (permission / release) and pratibandha (suspension). Imagine an endless sequenceless flow of

activities. Time stops some activities from happening. Time allows some things to happen. This  is  what  is meant by

abhyajnujña and pratibandha. Thus due to these two functions, time also acquires sequence (krama), and the three aspects of past, present and future are discussed in detail.

Bhaṛtṛhari gives a beautiful analogy and likens the universe (loka) to a puppet (a yantra) and time as the puppeteer who holds the strings. Thus time suspends and releases like the puppeteer who controls the puppet with his movements. The puppet’s movements occur and its eyes open or close due to his motions. Likewise, time conceals and reveals and thus establishes the idea of “before” and “after”.

तम् अ लोकय  सू’5धारं चt”ते ।

  तब ानु ाj तेन व ं वभ ते ॥ 4

tam asya lokayantrasya sūtradhāraṃ pracakṣate । pratibandhābhyanujñābhyāṃ tena viśvaṃ vibhajyate ॥ 4 ॥

Time is the controller of this loka-yantra. This universe is divided by time by means of suspension and release.

Without time, there is no sequence and the states of a being would be confused. Hence time functions and this, the commentator, Helarāja says, is what causes the perception of intervals large and small. We understand intervals such as a period of a manu – manvantaras, to years, months and days and nights to smaller units such as kṣana, lava and kāṣṭa. Thus time brings about the markedness of these divisions.

Time as a waterwheel – Jalayantra

The analogy applied to Time is that it is like a water wheel driving a water clock. A water wheel controls the inflow/outflow of the water through a clock and the amount of water that flows through is used to measure and mark time. Here, he says just as a water wheel regulates and drives all the parts of a


water clock, time pervades everything and drives the various parts of the world through its repetitive motions and is thus known as Kāla. Here, Pandit Raghunatha Sharma, in his Ambākartrī Vyākhyā alludes

possesses sequence. This is very similar to the basic notion of the śabdabrahmavada in the philosophy of the grammarians, where the vākya is truly sequenceless and parts such as words, letters, grammatical prefixes


to  the  Charpaṭa  Panjarikā  Stotram  of

and suffixes are valid only i n the


Bhagavatpāda ( popularly known as Bhajagovindam) and quotes this motion of the clock (ghaṭī yantra) showing cycles of day and night (ahorātra) and says,

पुनरिप रजनी पुनरिप दवसः सायं ातः पुनरायातः कालः ड त ग ायुः तदिप न मु ाशावायुः ।। (भज गो वम् भज गो वम् )

punarapi rajanī punarapi divasaḥ sāyaṃ prātaḥ punarāyātaḥ.

kālaḥ krīḍati gacchatyāyuḥ tadapi na

muñcatyāśāvāyuḥ ..

(bhaja govindam bhaja govindam)

The commentator Helarāja says here that the ātmā of the universe is but one and all-pervading parabrahma. The one being drives and thus manifests successive beings.

Time as a net:

Bhaṛtṛhari indicates that the web of time ensnares beings. Bird catchers use small birds such as sparrows and make them move in order to attract and ensnare larger birds like eagles and kites. They tie strings to the legs of smaller birds, releasing them and loosening them as needed when they have to catch larger birds. Likewise time operates and brings about the creation of the universe, sustenance and release and then is destroyed. Through its movement through activities, beings are held in this net.

Time and Sequence:

Then the question of what existence means and how time gets a sequence is taken up. Even if the universe has no sequence (akrama) , it is perceived as though it

transactional (vyavahārika) realm of the grammar (śabdaśāstra).

For example when we use the vākya, “pustakam paśyati”, we may for our own convenience say that pustakam is one word and paśyati is another. A grammarian for the purposes of grammatical analysis, may still dissect the words and say that pustaka is the base and -am is the affix indicating the object-case or dvitiyā vibhakti. Similarly such analysis can be done for the verbal root as well. This again can be further broken d ow n i nto e a c h i n d i v i d u a l s o u n d constituting each word such as “p” (pakāraḥ) , “u” (ukāraḥ), “s”(sakāraḥ) , “t” (takāraḥ), “a” (akāraḥ), m (anusvārahaḥ). Yet the grammarian philosophers recognised and were emphatic in stating that this division is merely practical convenience (saukarya) created for the purpose of vyavahāra (usage);the purport of the vākya is a unity and a vākya is understood as one indivisible whole without any sequence.

It is this same theory that they bring into the understanding of time. Sequence, Divisions etc are perceptions and practical conveniences but time in its fundamental nature is one indivisible whole.

Is Time a single entity?

To illustrate this one indivisible nature of time, Bhaṛtṛhari gives another example. He explains this by using the idea of a single a g e n t – t h e s a m e p e r s o n g e tti n g designations of a carpenter or a blacksmith when he is cutting and working with wood and when he works with iron.


Likewise the single time, gets different designations such as the name and sequence of each season such as Vasanta kāla. The seasons are known through various signs that manifest them. If one hears the cry of the cuckoo bird or sees the signs of the sprouting of leaves and flowers, they know it is Spring. Though these manifestations and signs may differ, and give us the perception of division, the underlying time is one.

The idea of past, present and future:

For grammarians, the notion of past, present and future and the usages of various tenses and moods are central to the discussion. Samskrta language has present tense, the varieties of past tense (adyatana – past activities limited to the present day, anadyatana – past activities not limited to the present day, parokṣa – a distant past typically used for something one has not experienced directly – commonly used in epic narrative). Similarly there are the types of future tense and moods for conditional expressions (If he had studied, he would have passed). Are these real? What do these signify?

Some of these ideas expounded on by Bhaṛtṛhari can be found in their seed form in the commentary of the Mahabhashya on the sutra of Panini regarding present tense, “वत माने लट् “. This is a sutra that defines the affix ‘laṭ’ after a verb when denoting ” present tense” ( vartamāna). The commentary writer usually elaborates on each word of the sutra and examines them and then illustrates through examples. Asking what exactly is this present tense or Vartamāna kāla, Bhagavān Patañjali says that according to grammar, it refers to an activity that has been started but has not yet attained completion. For example, a person who is cooking rice would take the rice, wash and rinse it, light the stove, place

it in water and wait for it to cook. Even though all of these different activities are done, from the moment she takes the rice, the act of cooking is said to have been started and until the softening of the rice happens it continues.

Bhaṛtṛhari discusses these forms and explains the underlying philosophy. He says that the past, present and future are like three paths without any sequence but it is through the association with beings, who are like travellers that travel on them. It is through this association with beings that the sequence is associated with them.

He then addresses the question of how these three can co-exist and the view of the Yoga system is examined. According to the Yogaśāstra, they believe that time is composed of parts with a specific purpose and the buddhi cognises these as a collection. They also believe that the trigunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) are connected with the powers of the past, present and future.

Activities – Continuous and Constituent Activities:

Just as we saw the example of the verb cook being used to encompass a variety of constituent activities, another example is used in the Mahābhāṣya. For activities like cooking that are marked by characteristic completion, the division of time can be understood. What about the activity of merely existing? How do we understand time when we say “A person existed”. Here too the states are recognised and remain through various signs such as growth, ageing, decay and death even though it may not be perceptive due to mere existence. The next question is raised as to how time division applies to mountains and rivers which do not show any measurable sign?


The answer given is that these too can be measured through reference to other external activities such as activities of kings. So even existence and places where the activity of “standing” is unchanging can be measured using such external activities. Likewise, in activities such as eating or cooking that are composed of many small components there is still a marked notion of accomplishment of the final purpose of that activity. Activities with intermediate actions also have an end result and thus the notion of past, present and future can be understood.

Time and perception of sounds:

The role of the buddhi / intellect in perception of concepts has long been understood by Indian thinkers. The question of how sounds or varnas can be perceived as short (hrasva), long (dīrgha), or prolonged (pluta) is raised. Bhaṛtṛhari answers this from the standpoint of the manifested sound, these attributes are due to what manifests it and not the nature of the manifested sound itself. This also secondarily accounts for speed of utterance. For example, when someone says “kā” quickly and another person says the same word slowly, it does not alter the actual word. The difference is due to how the sound is manifested. Thus he goes on to say that wherever a larger amount of time is perceived, such as the perception of a minute, as a collection of seconds, it is done through the operation of the buddhi. What is seen through our eyes and heard through our ears, the intellect operates and it is there that perception happens.

The flow of Time:

तृणपण”लतादी न यथा ोतोऽनुकष” त

 वत”य कालोऽिप मा’5ा मा’5ावतj तथा ।।

tṛṇaparṇalatādīni yathā sroto’nukarṣati । pravartayati kālo’pi mātrā mātrāvatāṃ tathā ॥

Another poetic example that is given is the concept of “Flow of Time.” Just as a stream or river takes along the grass, leaves and creepers along in its flow, likewise, time too allows the beings to flow. The stream of water moves along its course, some things away from where they are, replaces others, releases them back in another place etc. Likewise time operates in the world of beings.

Is there an internal biological clock?

Today, we refer to the idea of our bodies being regulated by its own internal rhythm or a biological clock. This idea was alluded to by Bhaṛtṛhari, when he talked of perception of time in the absence of an external activity. If time can only be perceived through external activities (kriyas) what then of the contemplative yogis who are inward (antarmukha)?

The explanation here is that, even in the absence of any external activity, the flow of life-force (prāṇa) through the human body that will enable their intellect to perceive the flow of time. He adds that even those who are not yogis can observe this flow of prana and can calculate the number of inhalations and relate it to the number of nāḍikās. (nāzhikai). Conclusion:

The Kārikas of Bhaṛtṛhari provides us a bird’s eye view into the depth and breadth of what our shastras have to offer in terms of metaphysics, philosophy, language. Further, Bhaṛtṛhari also acquires great significance in the Advaita Vidyā Sampradāya. Śrī Sadāśivendra Sarasvati (Śrī Sadāśiva Brahmendra) in His Jagadgururatnamāla dedicated to the Achāryas of the Kāmakoṭi Guru Parampara salutes Bhaṛtṛhari among the gurus of Advaita Vidyā Sampradāya. Bhaṛtṛhari as per the Advaita Sampradaya was the Pūrvāśrama son and disciple of Śrī Govinda Bhagavatpāda, the guru of Śrī Śankara Bhagavatpāda.


 भवात् परमाथ-” सङ् हा णय- ानम् अमु rस-rश ः ।

 वरत-rt” त-रt”णो वर हhररंहो मम तृंहतj -श १२

prabhavāt  paramārtha- saṅgrahācca

praṇaya-sthānam amuṣya siddha-śiṣyaḥ । virata-kṣiti-rakṣaṇo viraktyā hariraṃho

mama tṛṃhatāṃ sva-śaktyā ॥ 12 ॥


Being the ś i ṣya of the former ( Śrī Govindabhagavatpāda) on account of being His son in His Pūrvāśrama and learning the Brahmavidya from Him, he became king and then in the spirit of vairāgya, renounced and became a great Jñāni. May that Bhaṛtṛhari remove my sins due to His tapas śakti.