The “Awful”? (nay, beautiful!) Sanskrit language

My friend Vikram pointed me to this

After I read through it, I realised how very similar Sanksrit was!

First, there are genders. Sometimes illogically assigned. ब्रह्मन् can be both male and neutral. The male ब्रह्मन् refers to the creator Brahma and the neuter ब्रह्मन् to the self (आत्मन्). Thanks to this, we have two interpretations to “aham brahmAsmi” as quoted by SaNkarAcArya. विश्वपा (Caretaker of the World) is masculine, but लता is female, although both end with dIrghaswaras. मति: (the mind) is female, but कवि: (a poet) is masculine. While मति: is feminine, मनस् (mind) is neuter. संस्क्Rतम् (Sanskrit) is neuter, but संस्कRतभाषा (The Sanskrit Language) is feminine! [Please interpret the ‘R’ here as the 7th swara, usually written incorrectly as “ru” or “ri”]

Let’s say we want to translate “that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain.” :D.
खग: = bird, male. (because I can’t recall the gender of the more common word पक्षि: :D)
व्Rष्टि: = rain, female.

German has only 4 cases. Sanksrit has 8!! So which one should I put व्Rष्टि: in? Is it the instrumental (third) case or the Ablative (fifth) Case? I think it should be the ablative, but I decide to escape here and say, “व्Rष्टॆ: कारणात्” which translates to “due to the rain”. That’s a safe Ablative noun now.

In Sanskrit, like in German, the verb goes to the end:
खग: व्Rष्टॆ: कारणात् लॊहकारस्य आपणॆ तिष्टति
( तिष्टति = to stand / to wait )
A literal “anvayArtha:” in English would be:
(The) Bird, due to rain, at the blacksmith’s shop stands.

Thankfully, the adjective isn’t compulsory in Sanskrit.

There are no Sanskrit newspapers, but there are Sanskrit works which are famous for seemingly never-ending sentences with elaborate descriptions, paranthesis, re-paranthesis, re-reparanthesis and so on and finally comes the verb at the very end of such an elaborate description. बाणभट्ट:’s कादम्बरी is famous for this. Each sentence in the significantly simplified abridged version supplied in our textbooks used to be half a page long in small print! It takes several cycles of brain waves and a good knowledge of Sanksrit to interpret every single sentence in the abridged version of the kAdambarI. I studied an extract from the kAdambarI where a bird describes how it was rescued by a maharSi’s children in its childhood. My goodness! Starting from the tree in which the bird was living in, and the calamity that separated the bird from its parents (can’t remember what it was. I think a hunter, described as ‘sAkSAt yama:’ etc.), and the lake in front of the maharSi’s ASram, the maharSi and his ASram – each carried a paragraph full of adjectives (declined in the appropriate case, of course 😉 )! How would an “abridged” bhANabhaTTa have described a modern love-at-first-sight case?

जगत: पंचॊनद्विशतदॆशसुन्दरतमाम् अरुणॊदयसमयपूर्वदिग्वर्णॊत्तरियावस्त्रधराम् आभरणैर्वर्धितसहजसौन्दर्यां स्पर्शानन्दसौभाग्यपात्रपवनाहतकॆशापि रतिसमानसौन्दर्ययुतां शीतलीकरणॊपनॆत्रालंकारभूषितकपालाम् निकासितकॆशशारीरां युवतीम् द्Rष्टवति तस्मिन् आजानुबाहौ कुलीने अतिशयगुणगणैर्भूषितॆ पुष्टॆ व्Rकॊदरसद्Rशकायॆ अतिशयबलादिभूषितॆ तीव्रसमुद्रनीलरागजीन्स्धरॆ युवकॆ तत्क्षणं श्Rंगारस्य लहरी अजनयत्|

This thing took me about an hour, and several references to Monier William’s English-Sanskrit dictionary to craft with my rusty Sanskrit skills. Please excuse my inappropriate use of the anuswAra – I still don’t know how to use SCIM effectively. It hopefully translates phase-by-phrase to:

“Of-the-world 195-countries-beautiful-most dawn-time-east-direction-colour-uppercloth-garment-wearing by-ornaments-increased-natural-beauty-possessing touch-bliss-goodfortune-recipient(?)-wind-fluttered-hair-despite ‘Rati’-equal-beauty-possessing cooling-spectacles-ornament-endowed-forehead removed-hair-body maiden having-seen in-him till-knee-armed belongingtoanoblefamily several-by-goodqualities’-collection-endowed strong vRkOdara-like-bodied extreme-might-etc.-endowed intense-seeblue-colour-Jeans-wearing youth that-instant of-love wave was born.”

I wish I had a reference to quote from bANabhaTTa, but deciphering each sentence was a real challenge – a cryptic puzzle which I used to enjoy to try in vain to solve.

Just as in German, notice that we have the same compound words whose inventors Mark Twain wishes to punish. Unfortunately, this seems to be the only way of creating new words for modern gadgets etc. in a language as ancient as Sanskrit. Fortunately, this adds to the beauty (IMO; definitely not in Mark Twain’s!) to the language. Thanks to this way of compounding words (called समास:), three interpretations of “रामॆश्वर:” (referring to Lord Siva, or Lord Rama) are easily possible:
1. रामस्य ईश्वर: = रामॆश्वर: [षष्टी तत्पुरुष समास:] Rama’s boss = Siva
2. राम: ईश्वर: यस्य स: = रामॆश्वर: [बहुव्रीहि समास:] He who’s boss is Rama = Siva
3. रामश्च असौ ईश्वरश्च = रामॆश्वर: [कर्मधारयसमास:] Rama, who is verily the Lord = Rama
(It seems that though the Gods are happily worshipping each other mutually, their “devotees” fight over “their” God’s superiority. :-P)

This leaves a lot of scope for multiple interpretations, clever, perverse interpretations and mis-interpretations of Sanskrit literature. Adding to that is the same complication of ‘Zug’ and ‘Schlag’. What could the word ‘शिवं’ mean? It could be the accusative of Siva, it could mean auspisciousness and it could, for a pervert, mean the male phallus. (Misinterpret “सत्यं शिवं सुन्दरं”). The reason for this wide variety of meanings is that the root meaning of “Shiva” captures all of these interlinked meanings. Auspiciousness == Lord Siva && Phallus == Representation of Lord Shiva (the male energy) && so on. I beg to differ in my opinion and say that this actually adds beauty to the language. Where else could you say:

कॆ शवं पतितं द्Rष्ट्वा पाण्डवा: हर्षनिर्भरा: |
रुदन्ति कौ-रवास्सर्वॆ हा हा कॆ शव कॆ शव ||

And interpret it in two entirely different, totally uncorrelated, ways!!

Thankfully, we don’t have separable verbs in Sanskrit. But there are prefixes that can mean totally different things when attached to different verbs, just as ‘ver-, ab-, auf-‘ could have varying meanings depending on the root word to which they are prefixed in German. Even worse, sometimes, the meaning of (prefix+verb) and the meaning of the verb alone can be totally uncorrelated. There’s in fact a verse that illustrates this (Sanskrit seems full of verses, probably because facts are easier to remember when in verse form, just like “Thirty days has September…” makes it easy to remember the number of days in each month):

धात्वर्थं बाधतॆ कश्चित्, कश्चित् तम् अनुवर्ततॆ |
प्रहाराहार संहार विहार परिहारवत् ||

It loosely means “Some (prefixes) kill the meaning of the root (of the verb), others reinforce the same, just like prahAra: (???), AhAra: (bringing?), samhAra: (killing), vihAra: (enjoying?), parihAra: (remedying)” [I’d appreciate if someone could help me fill in all the meanings correctly].

While German has just four cases, as stated earlier Sanskrit has 8 cases – which correspond to “vibhakti:” (divisions?) called ‘first, second, third, …, seventh, and vocative’. The cases are mapped to the divisions (forms?) as follows:

  • First = Nominative
  • Second = Accusative
  • Third = Instrumental
  • Fourth = Dative
  • Fifth = Ablative
  • Sixth = Genetive
  • Seventh = Locative
  • Vocative

And probably this is the only language to have the additional complication of a “dual” in addition to a singular and a plural. So, if two people are going to the theatre, they’d say:
“आवां चित्रमन्दिरं गच्छाव: |”
But if three were going, they’d say:
“वयं चित्रमन्दिरं गच्छाम: |”
In English, both would translate to “We go to the theatre”.

This means that the student of Sanskrit memorizes 8 x 3 = 24 forms for words of various endings, various exceptional cases etc. Most words ending with the same syllable, and having the same gender, have similar forms in all 8 cases and 3 numbers, making it easier to remember. But there are painfully weird exceptions like the all-time favourite, and easily-forgettable “पथिन्” (I can’t recall it’s gender. Must be male?) meaning “traveller”, i.e. one who goes on the path (पथ्). It’s the first nightmare that every Sanskrit student encounters – because it’s nominative is nowhere close to पथिन् – the nominative is पन्था, पन्थान्तौ, पन्थान्त: (singular, dual, plural). Yonder lies a huge heap of exceptional cases of the type of “विश्वपा” (आ-ending, male). (Interestingly, although the belief is that there is only one sustainer for the universe, namely Lord Vishnu, this word exists in the dual and plural forms too!)

Somehow, these cases are rather intuitive to many people. I had no problem memorizing 24 forms of several nouns with weird endings in Sanskrit, but had a lot of trouble remembering the 4 x 2 = 8 forms of nouns and adjectives in German! [BTW, even in Sanskrit, the adjective follows the case, number and gender of the noun, and the verb follows the number and gender of the noun. The verb does impose the case of the noun]. Maybe it is because most Indian languages bear some resemblence to Sanskrit in grammar. Probably, people whose mother-tongues are the Germanic dialects would never complain about “die See” and “der See”.

How do we decide which case to use? Somehow, most of it is intuitive if a South Indian language is your mother tongue, but some of it is not immediately intuitive. For instance, while in Kannada, Hindi, Telgu and Tamizh, you use the dative when you say “tell him the news”, you use the Accusative in Sanskrit. This too, somehow, I found intuitive very soon. I still find it difficult to decide whether I should be using “mir” or “mich” with a given verb. The “reflexive” idea works usually, but I can’t handle the exceptions! In Sanskrit, thankfully, all exceptions are well documented by Panini, the authority on Sanskrit grammar. Unfortunately, Panini’s sUtras (“formulae”) describing syntactic rules are totally incomprehensible without context:
“नाज्झलौ”, “तरप्तमपौघ:”, “आद्यान्तवदॆकस्मिन्”, “श्नाताषट्”, “रॊ रि”
Somehow, there are nice ‘eye-catching’ sequences of syllables that one can identify – like ‘tarap’ ‘tamap’ (hey! those are suffixes indicating comparative and superlative degrees!), or ‘ach’, ‘hal’ (referring cryptically to swaras and vyanjanas) but no ordinary human (except maybe SrIdharAnandaSAstry-types) can understand what they mean in totality, IMHO. “सहयॊगेSप्रधानॆ” only misguides me that I should use the sampradAnakArakam (the dative case) when using ‘सह’ because of the similar sound of ‘sampradAna’ and ‘apradhAna’, whereas, I should be using the instrumental case with ‘सह’ (meaning along-with).

I remember “रॊ रि” because it makes absolutely no sense to me, but somehow is supposed to mean that when two ‘र्’s come one after the other, one of the two should be dropped. I can’t think up of an example, but I do remember vaguely that र् + र् = आर्. It is generally easier to remember the exceptions directly than to remember the sUtras.

Thankfully, the “exceptions” with prepositions and the cases that they demand are few – saha, sArdham (along-with) should be used with the instrumental case, nama: (salutations-to) with the dative, antarA (without) with accusative and abhita:, parita: (near, surrounding) with accusative [like German], and somehow they become intuitive with a few examples. The major relief is that there is no distinction between “I place the cup on the table” and “the cup is on the table” in the case used with the object in Sanskrit.

And yes, the same gender-of-parts-of-the-body issue exists with Sanskrit – the eyes are (if I remember right) neutral, the hair is male, the nose is male, the tongue is male, etc. But there’s usually an escape from this, because most parts of the body are two in number, so you could get away by creating the “dual compound” and say “Cleanse your eye-pair”, in which case the pair is always neutral. Thankfully it isn’t as bad that we would be addressing the turnip as ‘he’, and talking about the fishwife and its ashes and how he was buried. [ My my! That tale of the fishwife was Hilarious! I couldn’t stop laughing for minutes as I read that passage!! =)) ]

Somehow this whole ultracomplex structure that Sanskrit has, I notice that many find intuitive. That’s way the (nay, beautiful!) in the brackets. I don’t think it is possible to have so many interpretations of one damn thing in any other language, and there lies the beauty and the ugliness 😀

I should thank Vikram a lot for pointing me to that hilarious article!