Western and Indian Theories of Communication – A Comparative Analysis

Syed Ali Mujtaba*


Communication as such has traveled a long journey, from Johannes Gutenberg (1468), who invented the first printing press, to Steve Jobs (2011), who pioneered personal computers and smartphones. The origin of the modern communication studies can be traced to the invention of the telephone. Since then the uses and understanding of communication has come a long way. In the current context, communication is labeled as cyber age, information age, networking age, 3G, 4G age etc.

It was the studies of the propaganda warfare during World War II that the power of communication strategies first gained importance. Since then governments have started taking keen interest in communication studies. Besides, business and industry too are acknowledging its value and providing support to communication studies for the development of their advertising and marketing strategies.

The rapid growth of the mass media has also influenced the communication studies. In fact, print media, broadcast media i.e. radio and television, and the Internet, all have contributed towards the study of communication.

In India, the discipline of communication was developed with the government support for the need of propagating the message of family planning, social development, and national integration. The application of communication today in India is mostly in the areas of advertising and mass communication.

In terms of theoretical understanding, Indian communication study is still grounded in the ancient literature, fine arts, custom and traditions and the freedom struggle discourses.

Indian communication study is heavily dependent on the western model of communication theories, and as such is in an infant stage of development. There is a huge scope for theoretician to research on communication studies and come up with Indian communication theories to set new benchmarks in the field of communication studies in India. It is widely believed that Indian theories of communication can help strengthen the foundations of building modern India.

This paper intends to draw a summary of arguments to further develop the Indian theories of communication.

What is Communication?

The English word communication is derived from the Latin noun communis, and the Latin verb communicare which means to make common. In an attempt to define the term communication the ideas that crop up are: interaction, interchange, transaction, dialogue, sharing, communion and commonness.1

Communication in its simplest sense is a human relationship involving two or more persons who come together to share, to dialogue, and to commune, or just be together. Communication thus is an act of social and cultural togetherness.2

A common language is a prerequisite for communication but that necessarily does not bring people together. Other factors like shared culture and a common interest which brings about a sense of communality are important for communication. 3

Communication, therefore, is not isolated entities sending discrete messages back and forth, but encompasses a multitude of experiences, action and events, as well as a whole variety of happenings. 4

The study of communication, in its multitudinous forms, whether it’s human or technological, has now taken the characteristics of an inter-disciplinary and multi disciplinary subject and therefore needs a close scrutiny. 5

Western Theories of Communication

According to the western communication theory, the primary goal of communication is to influence through persuasion. Greek philosopher Aristotle’s ‘Rhetoric,’ dating 4th century BC, is a treatise on the art of persuasion and perhaps the first book that deals with the subject of communication.  According to ‘Rhetoric,’ communication is made up of three elements- the speaker- the speech and the listener. The aim of communication is the search of all possible means of persuasion.

Harrold D Lasswell- This American political scientist stated that the convenient way to describe the act of communication is to answer the following question. Who – communicator – says what- message- in which channel – medium – to whom- receiver- with what effect?

The Lasswell model of communication process is mechanistic and effects approach to communication. It sees communication performing three functions. Surveillance of the environment, co-relationship of components of society and cultural transmission between generations are essential to understand the notions of transfer of information for intended effects. 6

Berelson and Steiner: They see communication as an act or process of transformation of information ideas, emotions, skills etc by the use of symbols, words, pictures figures, graphs etc. 7

Charles Osgood’s definition of communication is we communicate whenever one, (the system), (the source) influences another, (the destination) by manipulation of alternative signals which can be transferred over the channel connecting them. 8

Wilbur Schramm defined communication as sharing of information, ideas or attitudes. He endorsed the idea that communication always requires the three elements- source, message, and destination.  He stressed on encoding and decoding and explained microphone for encoder and earphone for decoder. Wilbur Schramm suggests that communication is circular in nature, where both sender and receiver are equal partners in the exchange of ideas. 9

Shannon and Weaver model developed in 1949 conceives communication as a system composed of five essential parts plus Noise. 1- Information source 2 – a transmitter 3- a channel – 4- the receiver 5 destination. 10

David Berlo in 1960 created the SMCR Model of Communication. The Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver Model of communication separated the model into clear parts. Berlo saw communication as a process and the events and relationship of this process as dynamic, on-going, ever changing and continuous. He termed it as the bucket theory of communication. In this, the ideas are dumped from a source into a bucket and the reviver picks them up through such mediums. According to him buckets are newspaper, radio, television, Internet etc.11

Semiotic Models of Communication

In recent years there has been a shift in the western communication theories. It has moved to those with communication relationship and the communication experience and is called Semiotic Models of Communication.

Semiotic models look at communication as social interaction through messages. The focus of attention in these models language (both verbal and non verbal) as a sign system; how meaning is generated and understood is central to this approach.

The crucial questions the semiotic model try to address is; what is sign? What is the meaning of sign? What is the relationship between, signs, users and external reality?

The users are seen as active, as creator of meaning, as ones who make their own meaning. Meaning is thus not so much in the words, gestures or symbols, (the text) but in cultural interpretation of the participants (the readers) of the communication experience. 12

Indian Theories of Communication

Indian communication theories are rooted in Indian religious literature, Indian philosophy and fine arts.  It was first used in the 10th century commentary called “Natyashastra” by Bharata, the principle source of information for the Indian theory of communication.

The closet word to communication in Indian classical literature is “Sadhranikaran.” This Sanskrit term comes closest to the sense of common or commonness usually associated with communication.

The most important assumption in the process of “Sadhranikaran” is that it can only be understood by the ‘Sahridayas’. It literally means one heart, or one who has the capacity to receive the message.

Communication according to “Sadhranikaran” is a relationship based on common and mutual understanding and feeling for Sahridaya. This innate ability is acquired through culture, adaptation and learning. 13

The primary focus in the Indian tradition of communication is an inward search for meaning, a process leading to self awareness, then to freedom and finally to truth. Thus it transcends language and meaning and is interpretation or reception oriented. The intra-personal communication is of greater importance then inter-personal communication.

The goal of “Sadhranikaran” is not persuasion but the very enjoyment of disseminating and receiving the message. Here the source is perceived as having the higher status, and the relationship is hierarchical of domination and subordination. The source is held in high esteem by the receiver of the information, a relationship that is idealized and romanticized. 14

Some argue that the asymmetrical aspect of “Sadhranikaran” helped the blooming of Indian civilization in earlier times through efficient communication. However, others argue that it has resulted in a highly rigid and hierarchal closed social structure. The debate continues.

Apart from literature, Indian communication theories are also grounded in fine art traditions. It is composed of permanent mood called “bhava” and illustrated through the dance form. The essence of communication lay in achieving commonness and oneness as stressed in Bharata’s Natyashastra. 15

These moods are capable of arousing corresponding sate of feelings. There are nine permanent moods that give rise to nine forms of aesthetic pleasure. For example; ‘harsha’ joy, ‘hasya’ laughter, ‘irsha,’ jealousy, ‘karuna’, compassion etc

The entire range of human emotions is compressed in this categorization.  The nine permanent moods are accompanied by many feelings and are secondary moods that are common to several dominant moods. It serves the purpose of completely manifesting the permanent mood and make the communication process complete. 16

Indian communication theories are also identified through mass communication. It is synonymous with the simplification and illustration. Saints and Sufi’s propagated their message of peace and harmony through simplification and illustration of their messages.

During the freedom struggle, India’s political leaders such as Gandhji used the similar communication methods for mass communication. Use of social religious symbols was made to connect with the masses. The utter simplicity of such messages charged them and they came out in hordes because of the effectiveness of the communication that made great impact on them. Such practice continues even today and can be found in the modern discourse of communication being made through mass media

Communication in India’s Freedom Struggle

Communication might appear to be a well-studied subject, but its role in India’s Freedom Struggle remains unexplored. There are verbal and non verbal communication methods used by the freedom fighters during the freedom struggle. In this respect communication as a subject is rich in content.

The person who has a towering influence over India’s freedom struggle is undoubtedly M.K Gandhi, who earned the title of Mahatma only because of his able communication skills.  It is observed that Gandhi stands out among the pack of freedom fighters only due to various strategies he adopted to communicate with the masses. 17

The idiom of communication adopted by Gandhiji needs a careful study. It is said that Gandhiji left an impact on the people he met and what he spoke was simply electrifying. He attracted crowds who came to hear him and some merely watched him amongst them. All those who came to him were not a band of educated people but ordinary folks who were magnetized by his persona. This affirms the theory that Gandhiji was as a communicator par excellence. 18

There are two facets of Gandhiji’s personality. More than the leader of a freedom movement, he was a social reformer. In course of communication he played the two roles with great felicity. In both the roles he assigned the greatest value to asceticism and spiritualism that had great psychological and socio-cultural appeal on the masses. 19

It is often observed that Gandhiji had developed an idiom with which the common man could identify easily. He made use of the idioms drawn from Indian’s belief system and his strong religious orientation. 20

As a social reformer he asked the masses to wear khadi, eschew alcohol, not to practice untouchability etc. He coined the term Harijan which referred to one belonging to an oppressed caste.

On political side, he talked about non-violence, togetherness, and harmony. He used the idiom Raam Raajya to denote an ideal state. Swaraj meant self-rule. Ahimsa meant non-violence, Satyaagraha denoted non-cooperation with the oppressor and Sarvodaya, meant “rise of all”.21

Gandhiji’s verbal message was simple. There was no ambiguity in his language, no hedging behind words. He spoke directly what he thought about some matter. In fact, it is this directness that made his communication forceful.

Even when Gandhi interacted with educated and the sophisticated class, he used simple, direct language and was clear in his mode of communication. He eschewed rhetoric and harshness and his words were polite that reflected the sincerity and genuineness of purpose. The simplicity of his language, the balanced structure of his words made his communication very effective. 22

If we apply Gandhijis methods of communication on the western model of communication, the credibility of the source (of the message) is very high; the message is reduced to a great extent to the source. In case of Gandhiji, the source “communicates” by mere presence, rather than by language or any other communicative mode. It is more semiotic in a western sense. 23

Communication theorists in their attempt to build communication models often neglect the interest value of what is being communicated. The Indian model of communication, as espoused by Gandhiji, suggests that it is the content element that has a more abiding impact on the people than something else.

The communication theorists should consider that the success of communication can only be possible through the content of the message being communicated and not by some mechanical indicators.


Western theories of communication have been largely linear, a mechanical notion of communication as transmission of information from active source to passive receivers. The individual-based model assumes that communication is an act, a static phenomenon, privileging the source and not a dynamic process, involving all elements of social relationship. 24

Indian communication theories are more grounded in the Hindu philosophical perception that is governed by the law of Dharma. The universal law of Dharma regulates human existence and governs relations of individual. 25

The western theories of communication are confined to the study of surface structures with features such as verbal language, body language, non-verbal gestures facial expression etc. 26

Whereas it is the deep structure features that make a critical difference to the understanding of Indian theories of communication. The deep structure is shaped by the cultural and metaphysical assumptions. 27

Western model of communication theories are reflective of western thought and culture. The distinctive mark of this philosophy is categorization, classification liner sequencing and rational logic. 28

Indian model of communication on the other hand is characteristically complex and plural. It is holistic and intuitive, and believes that reality is one. Individualism and manipulation have no place in Indian communication tradition that is marked by asceticism and spiritualism. 29

The New Visual World

Communication studies today are dominated by a new phenomenon called the new visual world. It has added another dimension to the conventional theories of communication studies. 30

The new visual world actually shaped up when the internet opened the gates of communication highway and e-mails and voice-mails dominated the cyber space. Today this communication is overtaken by the webcams whose application is found in an array of activities. Further, the technologies like 3G and 4G have enhanced the speed of such communication. 31

In the new visual world communication is happening face-to-face through touch screens and keyboards, bridging the time and space. This is definitely a sign of change that has come to stay as a new mode of communication.

The new visual world has thrown open a window of opportunities but it is filled with challenges for communication. It requires the basic skills of visual communication to be an effective communicator. What are these skills is the new theme of communication studies. 32

Communication in the new visual world is bringing the world closer, catapulting a global society. The space for nationalism is shrinking as globalization is surging ahead. This is another theme for exploration in the field of communication studies. 33

All this explains that communication studies are providing vistas of knowledge waiting to be explored. There is a vast scope for researchers to make forays in this field of knowledge.


In the comparative study between western and Indian theories of communication, it is found that the Indian communication theory is dominated by the content and emotions whereas the western communication theories are more mechanical in nature with some consideration to semiotics. It is this aspect of communication that separates the two theories. However, in the new age of communication that is increasingly driven by information technology the comparison between the western and Indian communication theories has become redundant.  Now the communication theorists have to give priority to the IT communication and the phenomenon called the new visual world. It is assumed that based on such experiences new theories of communication are going to be developed that will be universal in nature. It this aspect of communication studies that is going to dominate in the future.


  1. Fiske, John (1990). Introduction to Communication Studies. Routledge, London.
  2. Denis Mac quail- Towards a Sociology of Communication – London, collier Macmillan 1975
  3. Ashley Montague and Floyd Maston, “The Human Connection” New York, McGraw Hill, 1979 – Also see James A Cary – Communication as Culture
  4. David Crowley and David Mitchell (Eds) Communication Today, Cambridge; Polity Press 1994
  5. Robert A White – The significance of recent developments in the field of mass communication, paper presented at the 1985 meeting of the foundation for mass communication research in the Netherlands, March 1985
  6. Wilbur Schramm – Mass Media and National Development, Stanford University Press, 1964
  7. Robert A White – The significance of recent developments in the field of mass communication, paper presented at the 1985 meeting of the foundation for mass communication research in the Netherlands, March 1985
  8. The semiotic approaches to communication are based on the works of C.S Pierce, who established the American tradition of semiotics, C.K Ogden and I.A Richards of Britain, and Ferinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist.
  9. I.P Tewari – Sadharanikaran Indian Communication Theory, India Foreign Review, June 1980
  10. I.P Tewari -Towards an Indian Communication Theory, Communicator, New Delhi  March 1992, pp 35-38
  11. JS Yadav, – Trends in Communication Research- Paper presented at the national seminar on communication research: Trends and Priorities, New Delhi, Indian institute of Mass Communication research 1984
  12. Rudolph, S.H. and L.I. Rudolph. Gandhi. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  13. Chakravarty, Nikhil (1995). “Mahatma Gandhi: The Great Communicator”, Gandhi
  14. MacArthur, Brian (1996). The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches. Penguin Books, London.
  15. Mukherjee, Rudrangshu (ed.)(1993). The Penguin Gandhi Reader. Penguin Books India
  16. Publication Division, Government of India (1994).All Are Equal in the Eyes of God (Selections from Mahatma Gandhi’s Writings). Publications Division, New Delhi. (Second Reprint) (First Published: 1964).
  17. Gandhi, Rajmohan (1995). The Good Boatman. Viking, Penguin books India, New Delhi.
  18. Parekh, Bhikhu (2001). Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, New York.
  19. Achal Mehra-  Western  Communication theory An Asian Critique – paper presented at the IAMCR
  20. T.B Saral – Hindu Philosophy of Communication pp 47-58
  21. Achal Mehra-  Western  Communication theory An Asian Critique – paper presented at the IAMCR
  22. T.B Saral – Hindu Philosophy of Communication pp  47-58
  23. Achal Mehra-  Western  Communication theory An Asian Critique – paper presented at the IAMCR
  24. T.B Saral – Hindu Philosophy of Communication pp 47-58
  25. Rothwell, J. Dan (2010). In the company of others: an introduction to communication (3rd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533630-6.
  26. Kenneth Louis Smith (2005). Handbook of visual communication: theory, methods, and media. Routledge. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-8058-4178-7
  27. Jamieson, G. H. Visual Communication: More Than Meets the Eye. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84150-141-3. p.16.

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