Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words

Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.
Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.
In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this
रामः वानमं गाच्छति
It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.
This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.
Here is a complicated sentence
भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि
Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.

  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

How the RigVeda is memorized

(This is a guest post by reader Ranjith P, after he saw a RigVeda chanting exercise in a temple near his home)
As you might  know it is a puzzle that how is RigVeda,  a ~4000 year old text is still memorized and chanted without making any mistake. It turns out that  people have made many special exercises to make sure that each person understands each word in detail, and can chant it in any order.  Once such exercise is called vaaram which helps people  learn RigVeda word by word by reciting it in a complex ordered way.
For example, these are the verses from Book 1, Hymn 23

Now watch these being recited
The two persons chanting are Dr. Mannoor Jathavedan Namboodiri (first person) and Mr. Naarayanamangalam Visakh. The second part (second person) is from Rig Veda Book 8 Hymn 11
When you see the video, you will note a few things

  1. In the first few minutes you can clearly see some stones near the person. They use some stones and somehow generate a random number. And using this, they choose a random hymn  in RigVeda and start from there. They don’t pre-plan where to start. That means, they have to know the whole of Veda by heart
  2. They repeat  words like: alpha beta, beta gamma, gamma, delta etc (first word, second word, second word, third word, third word fourth word etc).
  3. At the end of each sentence (and randomly) they have to split words (spitting sanskrit words is tough) .
  4. If you imagine transmitting some information orally, after some generations, very likely that one will goof up long and short vowels. For example,  words like “devaa” could be mistaken for “deva” and “vayoo” for “vayu“. To avoid it, they have developed a way of chanting where they stress the long vowels very clearly by extending it a bit too long so that the “deergham” is very clearly conveyed orally

When the second person chants you can see the first person, using his fingers, at random locations, ask the second person to split words (to test whether he knows)
This vaaram is like a minor day-to-day version of the famous Kadvalloor Anyonyam. vaaram is only one of the exercises and there are many others as well.
PS: This event happened at the Edakkuda temple, Malappuram district, Kerala

A Course on Mathematics in India (From Vedic Period to Modern Times)

In 662 CE, a Syrian bishop named Severus Sebokht wrote

When Ibn Sina (980 – 1037 CE) was about ten years old, a group of missionaries belonging to an Islamic sect came to Bukhara from Egypt  and he writes that it is from them that he learned Indian arithmetic. This, George Gheverghese Joseph, writes in The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics shows that Indian math was being used from the borders of central Asia to North Africa and Egypt.
Though there is a such a rich history, we rarely learn about the greatness of Indian mathematicians in schools. Even our intellectuals are careful to glorify the West and ignore the great traditions of India. A prime example of that was an article by P. Govindapillai, the Communist Party ideologue, in which he lamented that the world did not know about the contributions of the Arab scientist al-Hassan. In response, I wrote an Op-Ed in Mail Today in 2009.
Thus it is indeed great to see that NPTEL ran a course on Mathematics in India – From Vedic Period to Modern Times. The entire series of around 40 lectures is available online. It is there on YouTube as well. It starts with Mathematics in ancient India with the Śulbasūtras and goes past the period of Ramanujam. It goes through various regional scientists including the members of the Kerala School of Astronomy and covers the difference between the Greco-Roman system of proofs and how Indian mathematicians did it. Kudos to Prof. M. D. Srinivas, Prof. M. S. Sriram and Prof.K. Ramasubramanian for making this available to the general public.
PS: @sundeeprao points to this course on Ayurvedic Inhertance of India

The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda

Prof. Subhash Kak has put his book The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda in the public domain (via Michel Danino).  From the introduction of the book

My own discovery was triggered by an essay in a popular magazine in November 1992 pointing out the marvelous coincidence that the moon and the sun are nearly of identical size when viewed from the earth. I had an overpowering feeling that the matter of size had something to do with the structure of the R. gveda. Checking the text in my library, I quickly discovered that the number of hymns encoded facts about the passage of the sun and the moon. The next task was to make sure that the correspondence was not just a coincidence, which required a careful sifting of numerical and textual data. I later found a confirmation of these numbers in the structure of the Atharvaveda and the Bhagavadgita.

There are those who argue that human progress can be measured only in terms of scientific progress. To such people the question of the science of the R. gveda is of much importance, for it is the oldest complete book that has come down to mankind.

Scholarly opinion has often swung between two extreme views on the past: one barbaric, the other idyllic. In truth, the past was much more of a complex affair than suggested by either of these labels. The discovery of the astronomical code not only allows us a new look at the rise of early science, it also focuses on the need to find the developmental process at the basis of the hymns[The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda]

I have not read this book yet, but will do soon. You can download the entire PDF here

Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.
At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.
The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]

The Lost River: Harappans and Vedic People

Michel Danino’s The Lost River (Penguin, March 2010) has been reviewed by V. Rajamani in the well-known scientific journal Current Science (25 December 2010, vol. 99, no. 12, pp. 1842–43)

Part three of the book deals with the important question ‘If Ganges civilization was built upon Harappan legacy, and if so, how much of a legacy?’ By comparing the similarities in architecture, town planning, weights and scales, technology and crafts, the Brahmi script and the religious symbols of Harappan and Gangetic civilizations, the author concluded that: (i) Indianness started with Harappans, (ii) Harappans were Rig Vedic people and (iii) the present Ganges civilization is a new avatar of the Indus– Sarasvati civilization. The discussion to counter the various arguments of several earlier workers to negate the existence of the Sarasvati River in the geographic domain of present-day Ghaggar and its mightiness makes interesting reading for those who believe in the complexities of nature.[Current Science, Dec, 2010]

According to Danino’s book, the Rig Vedic people lived during the Harappan period, but that does not mean that all Harappans were Vedic people. This is what I wrote in my review in the Aug 2010 issue of Pragati.

In the absence of any new Aryan material culture and with genetic studies discrediting an Aryan invasion/migration, Mr Danino argues that there can only be one conclusion: Vedic culture was present in the region in the third millennium BCE. Many Indian archaeologists also argue that Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period. Mr Danino, however, refrains from concluding that the Harappans were Vedic people because such a conclusion can only be made after the Indus script has been deciphered.[The mysterious Sarasvati]

The Queen and Vedic Sacrifice

In one of the Naneghat caves — located in the Western ghats — there are some life size sculptures of few people whose major features have been destroyed. But from the inscriptions we know these members of the Satavahana dynasty (200 B.C.E – 220 C.E): the king Simuta Satavahana, queen Nayanika/Naganika, prince Bhayala, maharathi Tranakayira, prince Haku-Sri, and prince Satavahana[1]

In the same cave there is another inscription which is in three parts: invocation to Brahmin deities, biographical details of an a queen, list of Vedic sacrifices and the donations given. The queen is mentioned as a daughter, as a wife, and as a mother; she was well acquainted with initiation ceremonies, vows and sacrifices. She also performed or was responsible for twenty sacrifices including the Rajasuya and Asvamedha[2].

Women performing Vedic sacrifices? But didn’t we just learn from UCLA 9A course that according to the Manusmriti women were not allowed to listen to the Vedas? If you go by the UCLA chronology, the Manusmriti was compiled during the Satavahana period. So what is the explanation?

Since the original inscriptions are partially destroyed, it is hard to figure out the exact details, but they have not been damaged so bad that we cannot reconstruct what might have happened. According to one interpretation, the queen must have performed those sacrifices in the company of her husband. This agrees with what we see in the Athirathram ceremony even now. But then according to another epigrapher, she performed all the sacrifices as a wife, except the last three which she performed through a priest. In fact she herself gave the sacrificial free of cows. The explanation then was, even though women could not perform Vedic  sacrifices, it was not applicable to women who ruled as regents or ruled without their husband[2].

Now there is no mention of the name of the queen who performed these sacrifices. So how can we assume that it was Naganika and not some one from a local family? One clue is that these sacrifices were expensive affairs. There may not have been many families who could afford it. Among the sculptures on the wall, Naganika is the only woman; she is also the only Satavahana queen to be featured on coins. This indicates that she was unlike any other queen of that dynasty and the majority opinion is that the queen who performed the Vedic sacrifice is Naganika[2].

Now independent of the identity of the person who did the sacrifice, it is obvious that a woman performed the sacrifice and inscribed it for posterity. Was this an isolated incident? Maybe. But it is important that to know that the inscription was carefully written with details of the sacrifice and the donations paid. The queen also made sure that it was written not in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit, so that common people would know about it[2].

So what about the rules in Manusmriti? Here is a better explanation.


  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009). 
  2. Kirit K. Shah, The Problem of Identity: Women in Early Indian Inscriptions(Oxford University Press, USA, 2002).
  3. Thanks to Michel Danino for this comment.

UCLA 9A: The Dark Skinned Dasas

In the lecture on Vedas, as part of the  Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India course at UCLA, the instructor makes few points about the Vedic period which again shows that mostly outdated information or incomplete information is still being taught (Lecture of 10/2/2009). 

When he talks about the Vedic gods — Agni, Varuna, Indra, Ushas — he notes that they are connected to the elements. This, he explains, is not surprising since the Aryans were pastoralists concerned about the whims of nature. Though it looks convincing, the shallowness of this observation can be understood only by reading better books on that period.

The Aryans did not just have a childlike wonder towards the natural forces; they also had a philosophy behind it. The Rg Vedic gods did not just keep order in the physical universe. They also kept moral order[1]. In the Mantras, there are expressions like ‘guardians of rta’ and ‘practicers of rta’. For example Varuna is not just the god of sky and heavenly light, but also the one who fixed the laws of the physical universe which cannot be violated. It is said that no sin escapes his attention[2].

The instructor mentions another point in his confusing Aryan invasion narrative: He says that the Rg Veda notes that

  1. the incoming people attacked forts and citadels
  2. subdued snub-nosed and dark skinned people known as the Dasas.

An analysis of this statement shows there is a Grand Canyon wide gap between what we know now and what the instructor is teaching.

The theory of the forts and citadels comes from the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler. When he saw thirty seven skeletons in Mohejo-daro, Indra stood accused for he was purandara or the ‘fort destroyer’. Later Western archaeologists themselves noted that there was not a single bit of evidence to suggest an armed invasion of Harappa; none of the skeletons were in the area of the citadels. Also to add more nails to this coffin, it was found that the skeletons were from a period after the abandonment of the city and only one skeleton had a lesion caused by a weapon[3].

This nasal debate was started by Max Müller in 1854 based on a solitary reference to the word anasah.He thought this word meant noseless or snub nosed. In 1891, in the eyes of British ethnographer Herbert Hope Risley, this solitary reference became frequent references. By 1967 some Western scholars thought that the word probably meant faceless instead of noseless. Nevertheless they decided to go with Max Müller[3].

A proper response was given by Sri Aurobindo. He noted that the word anasah does not mean noseless. Even if it did mean noseless, he said it could not be a reference to the Dravidian nose which was as good as any Aryan nose. Another possibility is that the noseless description could refer to the tribal people. In fact there is an equivalent word in the language of the Bhil tribe. But the word in Bhil tribe means unethical not noseless[3].

Indian scholars meanwhile read anasah as an-asa meaning devoid of fair speech.This makes sense because the words Arya, Dasa and Dasyu appear mostly with reference to hymns about Indra. The Aryans worshipped Indra while the Dasas or Dasyus were without rites, of different rites, non-sacrificers, without prayers, without Brahmin priests, and without Indra. This word appears in a passage where Dasyus are also described as having defective organs of speech; maybe they were referring to the Dasyus as uncivilized or uncultured[3]

Thus you see two groups of people who disagreed on rituals, but there is nothing to suggest a racial divide. Since the UCLA instructor is a proponent of the Aryan Invasion Theory, there is one version of which suggests that the Dasas were Indo-Europeans who arrived earlier than the Vedic people.

What about the dark skin? This comes from two words — krishna and asikini — which mean black. These words are used to refer to black clouds, black demons, the power of darkness and a demon named Krishna.

According to one Western scholar the krishna is a symbolic expression for darkness. According to Prof. Michael Witzel, for Vedic poets black meant evil and not skin color. In 1999 Hock reexamined all these passages and concluded that this skin color was just a mechanism to justify European imperialism; Ambedkar had made that conclusion much earlier.

For more than a century Indian scholars have challenged this racial interpretation. For more than half a century Western scholars have agreed with this. Still in 2009, Max Müller’s 19th century racial interpretation is being taught. 


  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009).
  2. M. Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy (Motilal Banarsidass Pub, 2000).
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate(Oxford University Press, USA, 2004). 

Who all had horses?

After reading Wendy Doniger’s new book,The Hindus : An Alternative History, Lekhni investigated if Aryans were cattle thieves. In her post she mentioned the symbolism behind the conversation between Sarama and the Panis who stole cattle. This story is important, not just for the issue of cattle stealing, but also for finding out if Aryans really did bring horses to India.

According to the Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi, “the hymn says nothing about stolen cattle, but is a direct, blunt demand for tribute in cattle, which the PaNis scornfully reject. They are then warned of dire consequences.” But it was not just cattle which the PaNis had; they had horses too. Guess who else had horses? The Dasyus whom the Aryans defeated when they invaded/migrated to India

For instance, Indra-Soma, by means of the truth (eva satyam), shatters the stable where Dasyus were holding “horses and cows” (ashvyam goh).65 In another hymn, Indra’s human helpers find the Pani’s “horses and cattle”: “The Angirasas gained the whole enjoyment of the Pani, its herds of the cows and the horses.”

The most striking passage is from the famous dialogue between the divine hound Sarama, Indra’s intransigent emissary, and the Panis, after she has discovered their faraway den, where they jealously hoard their “treasures.” Sarama boldly declares Indra’s intention to seize these treasures, but the Panis are unimpressed and threaten to fight back; they taunt her: “O Sarama, see the treasure deep in the mountain, it is full of cows and horses and treasures (gobhir ashvebhir vasubhir nyrsah). The Panis guard it watchfully. You have come in vain to a rich dwelling.”

Every verse makes it clear that all these treasures, horses included, belong to the Panis; at no point does Sarama complain that these are stolen goods: “I come in search of your great treasures,” she declares at first, and the Panis would not be insolent enough to taunt her with goods seized from the Aryans; yet Sarama considers that Indra is fully entitled to them. [The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

Even though it is not mentioned that the Panis stole the cows and horses, Doniger’s translation makes that statement. Imagine the horse riding Aryans come thundering down the Khyber pass to see the natives treating cattle and horses as treasure. 

In fact one theory explains this from a migrationist point of view. According to the two wave theory  two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them.  These folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[2][3]. Thus the battle between Aryans, Dasas and Panis were actually battles between earlier migrants and the new ones. There is only one problem though: a genetic study published last month from Stanford University found no evidence of migration from the steppes since 7000 years back.

But does this ashva mean the physical horse — the Equus Caballus — or something else? The Rg Veda has quite a few references to the horse which means that if taken literally, we should see horse bones all over North-West India. But we don’t. That is because the horse was a rare animal then as it is now.

So how should one read the text? Sri Aurobindo said you need proper background:

in his time, he said that these [scholars] lacked the background necessary to properly read this largely spiritual literature [Vedas]. Aurobindo spoke on the authority of the native Indian tradition, which prescribes the prerequisites to understand and interpret these texts. In general, anybody who wants to write any commentary or similar work, especially on the Vedas should at the minimum know these Vedangas (literally, the limbs of the Vedas) apart from knowing the Vedas themselves:[Wendy Doniger is a Syndrome]

As far back as 1912, Sri Aurobindo had suggested that ashva would have meant strength or speed before it was named for the horse.

The cow and horse, go and ashva, are constantly associated. Usha, the Dawn, is described as gomati ashvavati; Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn gomati means accompanied by or bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore ashvavati also cannot refer merely to the physical steed; it must have a psychological significance as well. A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and ashva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force….[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]


For the ritualist the word go means simply a physical cow and nothing else, just as its companion word, ashva, means simply a physical horse…. When the Rishi prays to the Dawn, gomad viravad dhehi ratnam uso ashvavat, the ritualistic commentator sees in the invocation only an entreaty for “pleasant wealth to which are attached cows, men (or sons) and horses”. If on the other hand these words are symbolic, the sense will run, “Confirm in us a state of bliss full of light, of conquering energy and of force of vitality.”[The Horse and the Aryan Debate1]

With this symbolism, if we go back to the text which mentions that Dasyus and Panis it can be interpreted  that demons had light and power which they kept for themselves, but it was the duty of rishis to recover it and establish cosmic order. And we are looking for imaginary horses.


  1. Michel Danino, The Horse and the Aryan Debate, Journal of Indian History and Culture September 2006, no. 13: 33-59. 
  2. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  3. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).

The Aryan Debate: Horse

In 1974, archaeologists J. P. Joshi and A. K. Sharma found horse bones in Surkotada, a Harappan site in Gujarat. This was a sensational discovery: first, it was the bones of a horse and second, it was dated to the period 2265 B.C.E. to 1480 B.C.E, which corresponds to the Mature Harappan period[1].

Finding horse remains, especially from India, are always controversial. For example, one of the earliest claims of horse is dated to 4500 B.C.E in the Aravalli range in Rajasthan – the same place from where the Harappans got their copper. This period is the same time when horse was first domesticated in the world. So there are questions: was the artifact obtained from a Bronze Age level even though the site was Neolithic? Was it really a horse — the Equus Caballus —rather than a donkey or onager.?

Due to the large size of bones and teeth of an onager, it is hard to distinguish it from a horse. Also sometimes the reports that come with excavations have insufficient measurements, drawings, and photographs required for independent assessment[1]. Due to this the findings are always suspect; it is always concluded that the horse arrived quite late to India.

Such questions arise because in the Indo-Aryan debate — if Vedic civilization pre-dated, co-existed or followed the Harappan civilization — a key factor is the horse. In this debate the main argument against Harappa being Indo-Aryan can be summarized as follows.

  1. According to the popular version of Indian pre-history, horse — an animal not native to India — was bought to India by the Indo-Aryans when they came in 1500 B.C.E. There is no evidence of horse in India before 1500 B.C.E.
  2. Among the numerous seals found in Harappa there is none which represent a horse, while other animals like the bull, buffalo, and goat are represented.
  3. In Rg Veda, the horse (asva) has cultural and religious significance. Since there is absence of horse in Harappa, it can only mean that the Vedic people arrived after the decline of the Harappan civilization.

The find at Surkotada upset this narrative because it crossed a lakshman rekha into Mature Harappan and also violated the threshold for the Indo-Aryan arrival. Hence the findings themselves became suspect – at least till 1991.

The eminent archaeozoologist, Sandor Bokonyi, was in Pune to attend a workshop on ‘Prehistoric contacts between South Asia and Africa’ at the Deccan College. Following the conference he spent some time in Delhi where the Excavation Branch of the ASI showed him the finds from Surkotada which consisted of six samples, mostly teeth. After examining the artifacts, he concluded that they were not of a half-ass, but a real domesticated horse[7].
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