Words are arrows

One image I’ve encountered in Sanskrit texts on language is that of the arrow standing in for the capacity of words. I think the first time (in secondary literature) I saw this was in K.K. Raja’s Indian Theories of Meaning, when he refers to Abhinavagupta’s characterization of the Prābhākara theory of sentence meaning (anvitābhidhāna). Raja says:

Abhinavagupta refers to this theory as the dīrgha-vyāpāravāda, since according to the anvitābhidhāna theory there is no limit to the extent of the meaning that an expression can convey. Just as the range of an arrow is not limited, but varies with the difference in the power with which it is discharged, so also the range of abhidhā or the expressive power can be extended farther and farther (Raja 1969, 199-200).

The section in Abhinavagupta’s Locana says:

यो ऽप्यन्विताभिधानवादी यत्परः शब्दः स शब्दार्थः इति हृदये ग्रहीत्वा शरवदभिधाव्यापारमेव दीर्घदीर्घभिच्छति तस्य यदि दीर्घो व्यापारस्तदेको ऽसाविति कुतः । (Śāstrī 1940, 64, lines 2-3)

Now the school of anvitābhidhāna holds dearly to the doctrine that “the word’s meaning is that to which the word [finally] leads,” and would have it that the denotative operation continues longer and longer, like the course of an arrow (śara). We ask them: if the operation continues so long, how can it be one, for its objects will be various? (Ingalls et al 1990, 89)

Here Abhinavagupta, in defending the existence of dhvani from the reductionist threat of Prābhākara thinkers, argues that unlike an arrow, which has one object (the target), the denotative operation (abhidhāvyāpara) has multiple. So this is not a fair analogy.

This way of characterizing the Prābhākara view, as an arrow with a “longer and longer operation” (dīrghadhīrgavyāpara) is also found earlier in Jayanta Bhaṭṭa’s Nyāyamañjarī:

वाक्यस्य दूराविदूरव्यवस्थितगुणागुणक्रियाद्यनेककारककलकापोपरक्तकार्यात्मकवाक्यार्थप्रतीतौ इषोरिव दीर्घदीर्घो व्यापारः । (Vidvan 1969, 124, lines 4-6)

As an arrow (iṣu) has a short or long process, i.e., it hits a near or remote object or it pierces and passes through a thin or thick object quickly or slowly, so a sentence quickly or slowly conveys its meaning since the knowledge of the complete meaning depends upon a group of factors, viz, the knowledge of the meanings of words denoting qualities, substances, action, etc.  (Bhattacarya 1978, 93-94)

Jayanta is presenting a Prābhākara retort to the putative pramāṇa of śrutārthāpatti, postulation of what is heard. The idea is that there is no need to postulate anything to complete incomplete sentences, but the words in an otherwise incomplete expression continue to function until he entire meaning is understood. Jayanta will argue that, in fact, some unheard words are responsible for conveying meaning, not just those words that are heard (here he appeals to lopa in grammatical contexts which still have semantic efficacy). This use of the arrow image relies not just on the length of its range, but also its speed, which implies the phenomenological experience of understanding words.

V. K. Chari says that dīrghadīrghavyāpāra is found in the Mahābhāṣya (Chari 262, fn 33) but while roots of the idea may be found there, I could not find the analogy of the arrow in connection with it (perhaps I am just missing it, though).

We can also see Vācaspati in his Nyāyavārttikatātparyaṭīkā discussing the comprehension of words in terms of an arrow, although his point seems to be different–in fact, the opposite!

प्रयोगप्राचुर्याद अत्यन्ताभ्यासेनातिशीघ्रतया सन्न् अपि प्रत्ययक्रमो न लक्ष्यते शीघ्रतरबाणहेतुकशतपत्रशतव्यतिभेदवद् इति चेत । न । …  (Thakur 1996, 435, lines 9-10)

Suppose you say: due to the profuse number of such uses, since they are very common and occur so fast, [secondary meaning understood from the primary meaning], although it is a sequential awareness, it is not recognized as such–just like the explosive appearance of hundreds of feathers caused by hundreds of the fastest arrows (bāṇa). (We reply) no…

Here, Vācaspati is discussing the speed with which we understand the secondary meaning from the primary meaning, such as when someone says “The village is on the Ganges” and we immediately understand them to mean it is on the bank of the Ganges. This illustration is meant to be a counterexample to his claim that the primary meaning of a word is (as Gautama says) the individual, the shape, and the universal altogether. The objector claims that, as with the move from primary to secondary meaning, so in the case of the primary meaning of a word (a universal) which is then understood as its context-specific sense (say, a particular individual), these distinct stages that are just too rapid for us to disambiguate.

Of course, comparing arrows to speech is not just a philosophical occurrence–it’s a trope in poetry, as in the Mahābhārata (and elsewhere)

वाकसायका वदनान निष्पतन्ति; यैर आहतः शॊचति रार्त्य अहानि

परस्य वा मर्मसु ये पतन्ति; तान पण्डितॊ नावसृजेत परेषु (online edition at sacred-texts.com link)

The man hurt by the arrows (sāyaka) of cruel speech hurled from one’s lips, weepeth day and night. Indeed, these strike at the core of the body. Therefore the wise never fling these arrows at others. (Ganguli translation online)

Here, though, the image emphasizes the result of the arrows–their painful effect, in contrast to the earlier analogies focusing on the arrow’s changeable range (in the Prābhākara case discussed by Abhinavagupta and Jayanta Bhaṭṭa) or its rapidity (in Vācaspati’s use). I am not sure, but I wonder if Vācaspati is talking about a very large bow from which many arrows could be shot at a single time (rather than a flurry from a group of archers)–though one hundred may be too many for that!

I’m trying to collect these instances as they occur as examples of philosophical methodology that involves “figurative language” (where it’s an open question how precisely to characterize what’s going on). What’s interesting, too, is that they all use different words for “arrow,” so it suggests that the image–and maybe not an original maxim–is what unites the uses (though this is very tentative). Are there others you would add to the list? Further, has someone already written on this theme (arrows as words in philosophy) and I’ve just missed it? (Somewhat relatedly, there is a recent paper in Dao by Rina Marie Camus with response by Edward Slingerland that takes up the theme of archery as metaphor in Confucius and Aristotle.)

(Cross-posting on my personal blog.)

Sanskrit Sources

Abhinavagupta, Locana, in Paṭṭābhirāma Śāstrī, Ed., The Dhvanyāloka, with the Locana of Abhinavagupta and the Bālapriyā of Rāmaśāraka. Kashi Sanskrit Series 135, Benares: Chowkambha Sanskrit Series, 1940.

Jayanta Bhaṭṭạ. Nyāyamañjarī. Vol 1. Ed. K.S. Varadacharya Vidvan. Mysore: Oriental Research Institute, 1969.

Vācaspatimiśra. Nyāyavārttikatātparyaṭīkā of Vācaspatimiśra. Ed. Anantalal Thakur. Nyāyacaturgranthika Volume III. Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi  Bhāratīyadārśnikanusandhāna Pariṣatprakāśitā, 1996.


Ānandavardhana & Abhinavagupta. The Dhvanyāloka of Ānandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta. Ed. & trans. Daniel H. H. Ingalls, Sr. TransJeffrey Moussaieff Masson, M. V. Patwardhan. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Jayantabhaṭṭa. Jayanta Bhaṭṭạ’s Nyāyamañjarī (The Compendium of Indian Speculative Logic). Trans. Janaki Vallabha Bhattacarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1978.


Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993.

Raja, K.K. Indian Theories of Meaning. Adyar: The Adyar Library and Research Centre, 1969.

Note: I read the passage from Vācaspati with Matt Dasti for the first time, and so my translation is indebted to discussions with him, although it is my own, and he is not to be blamed for my errors!

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

One Reply to “Words are arrows”

  1. Hi, I’m just speculating but I wonder if the use of arrows for conveying messages might have something to do with it. In Tibet we have the phenomenon of the mda’-yig or “arrow letter.” I’m not sure but there may be a Mongolian practice behind it. I’ve wondered about and amused myself with the problem that two Tibetan words brda-yig and mda’-yig are two ways of spelling the same thing (depending on dialect they are likely to be exact homophones). mda’ [pronounced da] means ‘arrow,’ while brda [also pronounced da] means a conveyed message or signal or other understandable sign or gesture (sometimes simply translated as ‘word’). In the case of mda’-yig, the message is actually attached to the arrow (which might be carried by a messenger, not shot from the bow as we are likely to imagine). Anyway, not really relevant to your discussion in any direct way, since I’ve never noticed a discussion that resembles yours in Tibetan literary sources. Will keep my eyes open for it. Btw, a photo of an actual ‘arrow letter’ that now belongs to the British Library can be seen in Melvyn Goldstein’s “A History of Modern Tibet,” p. 291. It appears that a piece of cloth is tightly wrapped around one end of an arrow shaft.

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