Semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic expressions, and more specifically the study of the literal meaning of linguistic expressions (in contrast with pragmatics, the study of the use of linguistic expressions going beyond their literal sense). The study of meaning has always held an important place in the Indian linguistic tradition, deriving from the original goal of linguistic analysis, the preservation and correct interpretation of the early Vedic texts.
The tradition of nirvacana or nirukta (Kahrs 1998) represents the earliest systematic attempt to study semantics in India, evolving from the earlier semantic speculations of the Vedic Brāhmaṇas. This was fundamentally a tradition of etymology, which nevertheless made important contributions to the development of linguistic thought. Yāska’s Nirukta, the only surviving primary text of the tradition, may slightly predate Pāṇini.
Two philosophical traditions, Mīmāṃsā (≈ritual exegesis) and Nyāya (logic), made important contributions to the study of linguistic meaning, beginning from perhaps the late first millennium BC. The concern of Mīmāṃsā was the correct interpretation of ritual injunctions in the Vedic texts, while Nyāya concerned itself with the structure of argumentation. Due to the importance of language to these traditions, they necessarily engaged with the linguistic theorizing of the tradition of Vyākaraṇa (grammar), and in certain respects diverged from it.
Although semantic concerns are relatively subordinated in Pāṇini, the influence of the interaction between the philosophical schools and vyākaraṇa can be identified already in Patañjali, and by the time of Bhartṛhari (c. 5th century AD) the grammatical tradition was beginning to systematize its own linguistic philosophy as a counter particularly to that of Mīmāṃsā. This flourishes in the later grammatical tradition, particularly in the works of Bhaṭṭojidīkṣita, Kauṇḍabhaṭṭa, and Nāgeśa, into a sophisticated integration of grammatical and semantic analysis across a range of topics in what might be broadly considered lexical and compositional semantics.