Sound Vs Shabda – difference

Forums Sāńkhya Philosophy Sound Vs Shabda – difference

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    Dear Ashish sir,

    It is difficult for me to comprehend the difference between ‘Sound’ in modern science and ‘Shabda’ in vedic science.

    According to modern science, sound is a sensation produced when our ear drum vibrates, which is caused by the vibration in air (or compression and decompression), which is caused by some other external objects vibration.

    You have written that sound is a vibration in space. But modern science refers those vibrations as electromagnetic waves. Also we cant hear the any sound in a vacuum space (space with no air, liquid or solid). We need at-least air medium to hear sound.

    Please show me some light on this.



    The term śabda is loosely translated as “sound”, just like vāyu is translated as “air”. This doesn’t mean what most people think it does. Vāyu, for example, means that which produces a push and pull force but it cannot be seen. This vāyu is called “dark matter” and “dark energy” in science. It is dark because it cannot be seen. This is translated as “air” because when the wind blows, it exerts a force although you cannot see the wind. So, that which exerts pressure but cannot be seen is called “air”. But this “air” is not “wind”. In Sanskrit, “wind” is called by another word pavanVāyu and pavan are not the same. The problem is that in English, there are two words (air and wind), but both mean the same thing. So, whatever word we use, we always end up in a misunderstanding.

    Similarly, there are other words such as svara and nāda, which denote ordinary sounds that we hear. And śabda is not that sound. But in English, the distinction between svaranāda, and śabda is not present. There is only one word called “sound”. So, when śabda is translated into English, then we create confusion because English doesn’t have the distinctions. Then people think that śabda is sound, and sound is svara, and svara is vibration, so śabda must be the vibration we hear.

    The term śabda means a symbol of meaning. However, when that śabda becomes a nāda then the ears can hear it, but the ears cannot understand the meaning. Thereby, a difference between word and meaning is created. Then we need a dictionary for word meanings. But śabda is not nāda. The former is meaning and the latter is sound. Only the mind perceives the śabda. As a result, if the mind is purified, then it understands śabda. But if the mind is contaminated, then śabda is not understood. Then we hear nāda and try to grasp śabda mentally, but it is not very easy.

    So, śabda is mentally perceivable meaning, and nāda is perceived by the ear. Since there is no word for distinguishing between śabda and nāda, therefore, the same word “sound” is used which creates confusion. This confusion is resolved if we understand that śabda is mental and nāda is sensual.

    Then, there is another distinction between nāda and “sound vibration” in modern science. For example, svara is a type of nāda and it is described using 7 types called sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni. But science will say that it is a “frequency”. However, science cannot explain why some frequency is considered melody while another frequency is not. Why? Because svara and nāda are measured by their effects on our senses, while “frequency” is measured in relation to a physical object.

    So, even svara and nāda are not the “sound vibration” of physics. Each person has a unique base note or sa and it is not a fixed scale. Based on the context, a different vibration becomes a sa. Thus, factually, any frequency can be sa. And based on that, all other notes are defined contextually.

    So, what are notes? They are like the words first, second, third, etc., not one, two, three. For example, in your exams, the boy who stands first may get 500 marks, then the boy who stands second may get 475 marks, and the boy who stands third may get 470 marks, etc. By the cardinal system of counting (one, two, three, ..) they got 500, 475, and 470 marks. But by the ordinal system of counting (first, second, third, …) they get a rank. The rank is not the same as the marks. So, svara and nāda are like the rank (first, second, third), and the “sound vibration” of physics is like the marks (the frequency of first, second, third). They are related, but they are not the same thing.

    So, don’t try to mix śabdanādasvara with the “sound vibration” of physics. This mixing is the unfortunate consequence of the absence of words in English, but it cannot be helped today.

    According to our philosophy, the “sound vibrations” in physics are not reality. They are effects. Effect on what? A measuring instrument. This effect is called kriya and it is produced by a quality called guna. The reality is the guna and it produces an effect called kriya. But modern science ignores the guna and models the reality on the same lines as the physically measured effects. For example, in atomic theory, by extension of observation or kriya, the reality is called the “quantum of action”. But we don’t agree with that. A quantum is a guna and the kriya is an effect.

    So, when modern science talks about vibration, they are extending the observed effect or kriya into a conception of reality. But when the Vedic science describes that same vibration, then it says: The appearance is not the reality; the reality is guna and its effect is a kriya. This kriya can be measured by physical instruments and modern science converts kriya itself into reality. But Vedic science tries to explain this kriya based on guna. The result is this. Kriya can be described both as qualities and quantities. For example, the activity of running can be described as some physical motion. But guna can never be described as physical properties. So, when modern science makes reality a kriya, then it makes the kriya physical properties, and then we get an incomplete description. That incompleteness is the many problems in science, for example, quantum incompleteness.

    However, in Vedic philosophy, they say that kriya must be explained by guna, which is never to be described in terms of physical properties. So, we get a qualitative explanation (guna) of something that can be measured as quantities, although it could also be described as qualities (e.g., running). Hence in Vedic philosophy, both guna and kriya are qualities. But because kriya can also be measured as quantities, therefore, when this kriya is extended back into reality, then we get a physical conception of reality. This confusion is resolved when we understand that what we are observing is kriya or an effect, and it is the effect of quality or guna and not quantity.

    Now, we can return to the question of what śabda is. It is qualities or guna. These qualities combine to produce qualitative meaning. This meaning can be grasped by the mind. Even svara and nāda are qualities for our senses. However, if you measure the effect of svara and nāda on a physical instrument, then you are measuring the kriya and then converting that kriya to a quantity. That effect is not the reality or śabda. The confusion of translations is that the śabda is converted into nāda, then nāda is converted into svara, then svara is converted into kriya, and then the kriya is measured using physical instruments rather than the senses, and we get a quantity called “frequency”. Meanwhile, due to the absence of words in English, everything is called “sound”.

    But if we study properly then we can understand the differences. The difference between guna and kriya is discussed in Vaiśeṣika. Similarly, śabda is described as meaning everywhere. And nāda and svara are studied in music. Once we study all these things, then there is no confusion. Otherwise it is nothing but confusion. These confusions are partly due to English and mostly due to the lack of understanding of how reality can be described qualitatively rather than quantitatively.


    This is my understanding: Like color and forms are properties (tanmatra) of the sensation sight, similarly nada/sound is a property of  Shabda. As you have written in your books, everything is concepts. Shabda is hierarchically higher concept than sound/nada, like sight is higher concept than color, forms or color is higher concept than red, green. Sound is the description of Shabda, shabda is description of mind, mind is description of intelligence and so on. is my understanding correct?

    And still there is a doubt:

    Nada is manifest from shabda. The material element for Shabda is Ether. So nada should be independant of other elements, but nada is dependant on air to be heard by the ear. This makes me confuse.

    Please clarify this Prabhu.


    This is a good question, and I don’t know the answer fully. You are asking why light is perceived even in a vacuum and why sound isn’t. What I can say is that space has some paths by which a relationship between things is established. In a vacuum (or what we call the vacuum) some of these paths are absent, due to which the effects of sound are not perceived, and some other paths are still present due to which the effects of light are still perceived. From these differences, we can understand that there are different kinds of paths for different kinds of properties.

    What we call the vacuum breaks some paths and doesn’t break other paths. Why some paths are absent while others are present, is something I don’t understand today. For example, sound travels through metal but light does not. Similarly, the effect of smell is not perceived in a vacuum and perceived in a non-vacuum. We can feel the gravitational pull in a vacuum. So, some properties are perceived in a vacuum (e.g., light and gravity) while others are not (e.g., sound and smell).

    The general principle of perception in Vedic philosophy is that the senses connect to their objects, and this is sometimes called the “movement of the senses” due to prana. This prana requires some paths. If there is no path, then the senses cannot perceive certain sensations. Based on this principle, by controlling prana the communication of the senses is cut-off from the objects. A yogi can for instance cut off the sensation of pain. Analgesic drugs also attain something similar. So, Analgesic drugs are cutting off the movement of some type of prana by which pain feeling is stopped.

    The basic principle of communication inside the body also applies to communication outside the body. And both types of communication involve the transfer of information via some path.

    So, what we call a “vacuum” stops the movement of some prana but not the other prana. Smell and sound are examples of communication that is stopped, and light and gravity are examples of communication that are not stopped, in a vacuum. So, it is a specific type of cut-off. We already know that there are five kinds of prana and they “move” in different ways. Some movement is said to be bottoms-up and something is top-down. Some movement is said to be lateral and some movement is said to be circular. But which type of movement is connected to which type of information transfer requires a deeper understanding, which I don’t have presently.

    This requires a deeper understanding of the nature of prana, the various types of communicative paths, and how some paths are established or broken, and how information is communicated using different kinds of paths and different types of prana that move in different paths and ways. You have a good question, and I’m sorry but I don’t have the complete understanding to answer it.


    In Vedic cosmology, there are planets like Rahu and Ketu which we cannot see (i.e., the light doesn’t travel from them to the Earth) but they are still said to exert influences on our lives. Similarly, there are many upper and lower planetary systems that exist although we cannot perceive them.

    This non-perception of certain planets and planetary systems can be understood by the restrictions to the movement of prana outlined above. In short, there is a different kind of “vacuum” in which light doesn’t propagate but other effects propagate. This is also the principle upon which we can understand dark energy, where there is an effect, although we cannot perceive it by our eyes. So, these are examples of “light vacuum” but not the total vacuum of all kinds of communication.

    So, there is a science of communication in which there are various kinds of paths in space, and on those paths, different kinds of information are communicated. We don’t understand that science fully today, but there are problems in modern science (dark energy and dark matter) that require such a theory. And on the same principles, we can understand the flow of prana in the body. For example, we are generally not aware of how the food is digested in the stomach, but we can become aware. Likewise, we are aware of pain often, and we can become unaware. The basic principles are the same in all these cases, but the details of these mechanisms need more understanding.


    I just searched Srimad Bhagavatam. There is a sloka 3.26.37 speaks exactly related to the subject matter we are discussing. Srila Prabhupada writes as below:

    Our sense of proprietorship over action is also due to the activity of the air. If the air circulation is stifled, we cannot approach a place after hearing. If someone calls us, we hear the sound because of the air circulation, and we approach that sound or the place from which the sound comes. It is clearly said in this verse that these are all movements of the air. The ability to detect odors is also due to the action of the air.

    Can you please try to explain this purport.

    I think this subject matter is very important. My mind cant be peaceful without an answer. So please help me Prabhu.


    Begin by reading this post: The Tortoise Model of Perception.

    Your normal view of perception is sound is emitted, it moves toward your ears, and then it enters the ears, and then the brain, where it is recognized. This model of perception is not accepted in the Vedic scriptures. The senses are like the limbs of a tortoise. They are moving out, coming into contact with the sense objects, and by that contact, sense perception is created. The result is that if we control our senses, then we will not perceive the world. By sense control, we will only perceive what we want to perceive. Like I said in the earlier response, consciousness can be withdrawn from pain.

    There are many equivalent descriptions of this process. In a simple sense, we can say that our consciousness “goes out” to attach to the world. In a more sophisticated sense, we can say that the senses are “going out” to attach to the world. And an even more sophisticated description is that the prana is moving. What Prabhupada calls “air” is prana. You have to see the prior sentence.

    We can perceive the action of the air when the branches of a tree move or when dry leaves on the ground collect together. Similarly, it is only by the action of the air that a body moves, and when the air circulation is impeded, many diseases result.

    The “action of the air” means that there is prana and it has an effect. The tree branches and leaves move as a result of this prana. Matter exists in a state of potentiality and it doesn’t move automatically. It is moved by prana, which acts in the control of Causal Time, guna, karma, and chitta. So, five agencies are responsible for the movement. Ultimately, guna, karma, chitta, and prana are present only if a soul is present. Hence, consciousness must always be present. Similarly, Causal Time is also consciousness. So, everything moves due to that consciousness.

    When a sound is perceived, there is–(a) a channel of communication, and (b) information transacted on this channel. You can think of the client-server model of communication. The source of sound sends a request to the receiver: Do you want to listen? If the ear is eager, it accepts the request, and a connection is established, and sound is received. If the ear is withdrawn, that request is ignored, and then the sound doesn’t enter our ears, and then the sound is not heard.

    Prabhupada states the same thing as follows: “If the air circulation is stifled, we cannot approach a place after hearing”. What is “after hearing”? It is received request: Do you want to hear? What is “approach a place”? It is the information received after connection establishment. This information exchange cannot occur “if the air is stifled”. Everything is very precisely presented.

    All this seems hard because we are accustomed to think in terms of motion of matter. But in Vedic philosophy, matter doesn’t move. The consciousness moves from one place to another. So, when you hear an object, sound is not moving. Rather, the consciousness is moving to the sound. To make the consciousness move, there has to be an attract, a “request”. That request is not movement of matter but the movement of prana under the influence of another consciousness. In short, even that “request” is another consciousness interacting with our consciousness to create a connection. Thus, everything is easy if we know that matter is not moving; only the soul is moving.

    You can think of a flood, cyclone, or storm. Many things are destroyed but some things are not. The things that are protected, are saved because the flood sends a request to each thing: Should I affect you? If there is bad karma, then it is automatically approved. But those who know how to control the prana or those who don’t have the bad karma decline this request. Then there is no effect.

    All these things require a peaceful mind. Impatience will not produce any realization. You can read Time and Consciousness when you have time. It discusses this process in detail.


    In the Sri Vaishnavism tradition, there is a beautiful story about a devotee of Lord Vishnu. A time comes when Saturn has to affect this devotee for 7.5 years. This period is called sade-sati in Indian astrology. But Saturn cannot act automatically. So he approaches the devotee and seeks his permission: Can I affect you? And the devotee says: No. Then Saturn begs the devotee: I have to do my job, and by my duty, I have to affect you for some time. Then the devotee agrees for 7.5 minutes. Out of compassion for Saturn’s position, the devotee agrees, and Saturn starts his effect.

    During this effect, the devotee is holding some ornament of the Lord, and that ornament falls from the devotee’s hands and it rolls over underneath the deity. Suddenly, some visitors come into the temple and they find this ornament missing, and they accuse the devotee of stealing it. This circus goes on for 7.5 minutes. Then, someone finds the ornament under the deity, and the devotee’s reputation is restored. By Saturn’s effect, there is disrepute for the devotee, for 7.5 minutes.

    The main point is that nothing is happening automatically if we know how to control things. It is always happening by the movement of consciousness. Even planetary actions are due to consciousness. And they might affect us against our will because we don’t have sense control. Otherwise, even demigods have to consult the devotee before they can affect them. If the devotee agrees, then the effect is created, only for the time that the devotee has permitted. So, we must understand how powerful this process is even from a material perspective. Nothing can happen to you until you grant your permission. This is the meaning of saying that the soul can control matter. This control is not for everybody. It is available for those who have mastered sense control.


    Hare Krishna Prabhu. You are explaining everything very nicely. You are bringing out the great secrets of Vedic science for everyone to understand in this age of Kali. I have been searching for the origin and meaning of this existence for very long time. And my desire is slowly being achieved by reading your writings. Though I could not fully grasp what you have written above, I hope one day I will get the complete understanding gradually. Definitely I will read the article and book that you shared and follow patience, sense control and focus on Krishna.


    Yes, this understanding comes to us slowly. There is a truth within us, but it is covered by three false things–materialism, voidism, and impersonalism. Materialism says there is no quality; everything is a physical quantity. Voidism says that even though there are qualities, they are contradictory, and the self is a quality, therefore, by removing all contradictions, the result must be nothingness. And impersonalism says that qualities are contradictory, but the self is non-qualitative and hence non-contradictory. And we are saying that there are qualities, the self is also a quality, in the material world these qualities are contradictory, and in the spirit they are non-contradictory.

    By accepting the presence of qualities, we reject materialism (the non-qualitative view of reality). By accepting that the qualities are contradictory in this world we explain how the soul is struggling with contradictions and hence can never be happy. However, by accepting that the self is qualitites, but they are non-contradictory, we reject voidism which says that the self must not exist due to contradictions, and impersonalism which says that it exists devoid of all qualities and hence contradictions. So, the rejection of materialism, voidism, and impersonalism is based on a single idea that everything is a quality but there are contradictory and non-contradictory qualities.

    So, we have to first understand how matter is qualities rather than quantities. These are called guna of prakriti. Then we have to understand how guna are contradictory, and the world evolves due to inner contradictions between qualities (not logical consistencies). Then we have to understand that the soul is seeking a state free of contradictions, because that is the only way it can be happy. And then we have to understand how these qualities can become non-contradictory. What we call the Supreme Person is all the qualities but devoid of all contradictions. If we serve this Supreme Person, then by becoming a part of His existence, we become free of contradictions.

    So, these are the simple basic propositions of our philosophy. These are not difficult to understand (provided they are explained properly). But they are very difficult to accept. Why? Because in our heart materialism, voidism, and impersonalism are also present. The confusion exists because these three ideas exist in us. So, we have to gradually remove them by studying philosophy, cultivating detachment, and practicing devotion. These are called jnanavairagya, and bhakti.

    Even though each of these three individually can be sufficient and produce the other two, the fact is that the absence of the other two creates many problems. So, bhakti without jnana and vairagya becomes impersonalism. Jnana without vairagya and bhakti becomes materialism. And vairagya without jnana and bhakti becomes voidism. Western materialism is the result of pursuing jnana without vairagya and bhakti. And so-called Eastern mysticism is the result of pursuing vairagya without jnana and bhakti. And a lot of pseudo-religious thinking in India is the result of bhakti without jnana and vairagya. Each of these three things is a trap. And one trap leads to another trap, and the soul cycles between these three kinds of traps, until it accepts all three.

    In simple words, cultivate, bhaktijnana, and vairagya, or devotion, knowledge, and detachment. By that combination, everything will be slowly attained, but there will be no reversal.


    Sure, Prabhu. I will cultivate bhakti, jnana, and vairagya. Thank you so much for this nice instruction.

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