Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum
By Ancient Sanskrit we mean the oldest known form of
Sanskrit. The simple name 'Sanskrit' generally refers to
Classical Sanskrit, which is a later, fixed form that
follows rules laid down by a grammarian around 400 BC.
Like Latin in the Middle Ages, Classical Sanskrit was a
scholarly lingua franca which had to be studied
and mastered. Ancient Sanskrit was very different. It
was a natural, vernacular language, and has come down to
us in a remarkable and extensive body of poetry.
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1. The earliest Indo-European poems.
The earliest surviving anthology of poems in any of
the Indo-European languages is in Ancient Sanskrit.
Composed long before Homer's Iliad and Odyssey,
it consists of over a thousand songs of considerable
merit celebrating the riches of nature, whose forces are
frequently deified. The relationship that the poets
describe with their environment is a sophisticated one.
Their hymns serve as talismans, ensuring that the
natural world will continue to provide welfare and
shelter for man. The power of poetry and song is their
||They indeed were comrades of the gods,
||Possessed of Truth, the poets of old:
||The fathers found the hidden light
||And with true prayer brought forth the dawn.
(VII, 76, 4)
The circumstances of the original composition of
these poems remain unknown. Believed to be of divine
origin, this large body of material, in an archaic and
unfamiliar language, was handed down orally, from
generation to generation, by priests in ancient India.
The highly metrical form of the poems, together with
their incomprehensibility, made them ideally suited to
ritual recitation by a religious elite. Faithfully
preserved through the centuries as a sacred mystery, the
text has come down to us in a state of considerable
2. The Veda.
Over time a body of dependent and scholastic material
grew up around the poems, known loosely as 'the Veda'.
Perhaps around 1000 BC (all dating in prehistoric India
is only approximate), editors gathered the ancient poems
together and arranged them, together with some more
modern material, into ten books according to rules that
were largely artificial (see section 4 below). They gave
the collection the name by which it continues to be
known, 'Rig-veda', or 'praise-knowledge'. Other
collections came into being, based on this sacred
material, and they were given parallel names. The
editors of the 'Sâma-veda'
arranged the poems differently, for the purpose of
chanting, and introduced numerous alternative readings
to the text. The sacrificial formulae used by the
priests during their recitations, together with
descriptions of their ritual practices, were
incorporated into collections to which the general name
'Yajur-veda' was given. Later still, a body of popular
spells was combined with passages from the Rigveda,
again with variant readings, and was given the name
'Atharva-veda'. A continuously-growing mass of prose
commentary, called the
Brâhmanas, also came into being, devoted
to the attempt to explain the meaning of the ancient
poems. To the later Brâhmanas
belongs the profusion of texts known as the Upanishads,
which are of particular interest to Indologists, as
Sanskrit scholars today often describe themselves,
because of their important role in the development of
early Indian religious thought.
2.1. Vedic Studies.
The innumerable texts of the Veda continue to be the
subject of extensive study. However, from the point of
view of understanding the Rigveda itself, this
vast body of derivative material has always been, and
continues to be, crucially misleading.
Because the poems were put to ritual use by the
ancient priests, much of their vocabulary was assumed by
the authors of the later texts to refer in some way to
ritual activity. The word
paçú 'beast, cattle' came to designate a
sacrificial victim in texts of the
for example, and juhû´
'tongue' was thought to mean 'butter ladle'. Abstract
words of sophisticated meaning particularly suffered.
The compound puro-lâ´ç
'fore-worship' (from purás
'in front' and /dâç
'worship') acquired the specific sense 'sacrificial rice
cake', despite the fact that the word
vrîhí 'rice', found
in later texts, does not occur in the poems of the
Rigveda. The complex noun
intellectual ability', discussed in the introduction to
Lesson 7, was misunderstood to mean 'sacrifice' by the
authors of the commentaries. Similarly, a number of
important verbs of abstract meaning were thought by the
editors of the Sâmaveda
to be related solely to the production of milk, and to
refer to cows (see section 50 of Lesson 10). Indology
has always used the word 'Vedic', 'of the Veda', to
describe pre-Classical Sanskrit, and the poems to which
the name 'Rig-veda' had been given are studied in the
context of 'the Veda'. Many ancient mistranslations
continue to be maintained with unshakeable conviction by
With major pieces of the jigsaw firmly in the wrong
place, the rest, inevitably, refuses to fit, and the
comparison of passages in the attempt to establish word
meanings appears to be a fruitless exercise. Indology
has concluded that the Rigveda is not only
uninteresting, "describing fussy and technical ritual
procedures" (Stephanie Jamison On translating the
Rig Veda: Three Questions, 1999, p. 3), but that
it is also intentionally indecipherable. "One feels that
the hymns themselves are mischievous translations into a
'foreign' language" (Wendy O'Flaherty The Rig Veda.
An Anthology, Penguin, 1981, p. 16). Stephanie
Jamison vividly portrays the frustrations inherent in
the indological approach for a conscientious scholar.
"The more I read the Rig Veda, the harder it
becomes for me -- and much of the difficulty arises from
taking seriously the aberrancies and deviations in the
language" (op. cit. p. 9). Viewed through the
eyes of Vedic scholars, this most ancient of Sanskrit
texts is by turns tedious, and unintelligible: "One can
be blissfully reading the most banal hymn, whose form
and message offers no surprises -- and suddenly trip
over a verse, to which one's only response can be
'What??!!'" (Jamison, op. cit. p. 10). The
sophistication of the earliest Indo-European poetry lies
buried beneath a mass of inherited misunderstandings
that overlay the text like later strata at an
archaeological site. Not surprisingly, few Sanskrit
scholars today are interested in studying the Rigveda.
2.2. Existing translations.
The poems of the Rigveda are nonetheless of
considerable interest to scholars in other fields, in
particular linguists, archaeologists, and historians.
Linguists regularly refer to Karl Geldner's translation
into German made in the 1920s, which is the current
scholarly standard; it was reprinted by Harvard
University Press in 2003. Geldner's attempt to translate
all the poems was however in his own view far from
definitive, and it remained unpublished during his
lifetime. As he wrote in the introduction to a selection
of passages published in 1923, his versions are 'only a
renewed attempt to make sense of it, nothing
conclusive... where the translation appears dark to the
reader, at that point the meaning of the original has
also remained more or less dark to me'.
Geldner's struggle to make inherited mistranslations
fit necessitates a considerable body of commentary. He
notes, for example, to the third line of I, 162, 3, in
which the word purolâ´ç,
mentioned above, appears to refer to a goat, that the
line is "elliptical. purolâ´ç
(the appetizer consisting of a flat cake of rice in the
ritual, see Atharvaveda 9, 6, 12) is used here
metaphorically to describe the first-offered goat." His
unshakeable conviction that the word has the later
specialisation of sense in the context may seem strange,
but the translation 'sacrificial rice cake' is hallowed
by centuries of later use. To a scholar at home in the
later literature the word can have no other meaning.
Geldner's complete translation, and, more
particularly, the passages where 'the translation
appears dark', forms the basis for much of the selection
into English for Penguin Classics by the religious
historian Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, continuously
reprinted since its first appearance in 1981. The
Penguin selection has been the only version generally
available in English for the past quarter of a century,
and has introduced a generation of readers to the
Rigveda. It perpetuates the belief that these
ancient poems are full of arcane references to
sacrificial practice, and that they are deliberately
The distance of O'Flaherty's interpretations from the
text itself can be simply illustrated by her version of
part of the opening verse of V, 85, "[the god spread the
earth beneath the sun] as the priest who performs the
slaughter spreads out the victim's skin" (op. cit.
p. 211). These twelve words, "as the priest who performs
the slaughter spreads out the victim's skin," translate
'like a worker a skin'. The word 'victim', together with
others, is supplied to give the passage a 'sacrificial'
interpretation (the text of V, 85, 1 is example 277 in
Lesson 9 of this course). Despite the fact that there is
no word for "victim" in the text, her index entry
"victim, sacrificial (paçu)"
cross-refers to this passage (she omits the accent
throughout in conformity with the later language). The
word paçú is not
present; and what is more, the interpretation that she
gives for paçú,
"sacrificial victim," is the later, ritual sense used by
the texts of the Veda. The word
paçú is cognate
with Latin pecus (Umbrian pequo, Gothic
faihu 'money, moveable goods', Old High German
fihu 'cattle', 'Vieh'). See the third verse of the
Lesson 5 text, and examples 318 and 357, for passages
where the word paçú
'beast, cattle' does appear in the poems.
Tradition colours translations in a number of ways
that can be misleading for scholars in other fields. The
archaeologist Colin Renfrew, in his stimulating and
controversial book Archaeology and Language,
chooses Rigveda I, 130, which he quotes in its
entirety in Ralph Griffith's nineteenth-century
translation, as typical of the whole "in its reference
to Soma juice, and in its association of horses and
chariots with the heroic practice of war." Leaving 'Soma
juice' aside for the moment, is the second part of this
conclusion valid? The only reference to human strife in
the poem has svàr
'sunlight' as its prize (verse 8); 'chariots' only
appear in similes describing streams running down to the
sea (verse 5), and wise men fashioning a speech (verse
6); and the Sanskrit word
áçva, related by linguists to other words for
horse in the Indo-European language family, is absent
from the poem. The three adjectives interpreted as
'horse' by the English translator could all have an
entirely different meaning. The problem does not lie in
the choice of a nineteenth-century translation;
Geldner's version of I, 130 is similar, and Louis Renou,
working in the 1960s, supplies a word for 'horse' to his
French translation of this poem in two additional
What of Renfrew's other conclusion, about the typical
reference to 'Soma juice'? Four pages on he quotes the
first verse of Rigveda I, 102, again using
||"To thee the Mighty One I bring this mighty
Hymn, for thy
||desire hath been gratified by my praise.
||In Indra, yea in him victorious through his
||the Gods have joyed at feast, and when the
The picture conjured up is pleasing, calling to mind
Greek gods supping nectar on Mount Olympus, or
Anglo-Saxon heroes feasting in the mead-hall. But "when
the Soma flowed" translates a single word only, the
abstract noun prasavé
(for which see the Lesson 3 text). This same locative
form, prasavé, is
repeated eight verses later in the poem, where Griffith
interprets it entirely differently, as 'in attack': may
Indra make us prasavé puráh
(purás 'in front'
again) "foremost in attack." So is the Rigveda
typically about the drinking of an intoxicating juice
whose identity remains unidentified, or about warfare?
Or is it about neither?
3. The decipherable Rigveda.
As this course is designed as an introduction to
Ancient Sanskrit I have tried to avoid controversy in my
translations, but the misinterpretations permeate the
text, and it has not always been possible. In listing
the nouns in -van I
have included the word
grâ´van, as it is used by Arthur Macdonell in his
Vedic Grammar for Students to illustrate the
declension. But I do not believe, as Vedic scholars do,
that it means 'ritual stone for pressing out the Soma
juice', but that it describes a man who sings (see
section 22 in Lesson 5). The traditional interpretation
'ritual pressing stone' produces translations throughout
the Rigveda that are puzzling in the extreme. The
translation in the first verse of the Lesson 8 text, V,
42, 13, of the feminine plural noun
also differs significantly from that of Indology. My
suggestion 'fertile places' is based on a survey of the
contexts in which the word
vaksánâ occurs. Antiquity
understood the word differently, and as referring to
part of the body, perhaps as a result of V, 42, 13 where
it is traditionally translated 'womb'. But 'womb' fails
to fit the other contexts in which
occurs in the Rigveda, leading to a broad range
of interpretations, and ingenious attempts by modern
translators to explain them. The most recent dictionary
by Manfred Mayrhofer suggests "belly, hollow, entrails;
probably also 'bend of a river' and similar."
Translators add 'udders' (Geldner and Renou, explaining
that the rivers in one passage (my example 76) and the
goddess of dawn in another (III, 30, 14) are pictured as
cows), 'breasts' (Stephanie Jamison at X, 27, 16) and
'wagon-interiors' (Geldner at X, 28, 8, again citing the
authority of a later text). Wendy O'Flaherty offers
'boxes' at X, 28, 8: "[the gods] laid the good wood in
the boxes," but her note shows that she is following
Geldner: "they take [it] home in boxes on wagons." For
another occurrence of vaksánâ
see example 151 in Lesson 6; and see also section 45.1
for the misreading by the Atharvaveda, in
perplexity at a context that is clearly terrestrial, of
the noun here as a participle.
My translation 'fertile places', however, is at
variance with a strong tradition that explains the first
verse of the Lesson 8 text as a description of primeval
incest. This is an idea that Wendy O'Flaherty
enthusiastically embraces elsewhere: she offers, for
example, as an explanation of her perplexing translation
of III, 31, 1 the note, "the priest pours butter into
the spoon, and the father pours seed into his daughter"
(p. 155). Not only is there no word for 'seed' in the
passage glossed here, there is none for 'priest',
'spoon', or 'butter' either.
The Rigveda remains open to imaginative
exegesis because Indologists continue to believe that
its poems are deliberately obscure. "As the
tell us so often, 'the gods love the obscure'... and in
investigating Vedic matters, we must learn to cultivate
at least that divine taste" (Jamison The Ravenous
Hyenas and the Wounded Sun. Myth and Ritual in Ancient
India, 1991, p. 41). But the
came into existence because the meaning of the poems had
become lost. The ancient commentators didn't understand
the Rigveda, and they were trying to work out
what the poems were about. The American linguist William
Dwight Whitney, writing over a century ago, had little
time for "their misapprehensions and deliberate
perversions of their text, their ready invention of
tasteless and absurd legends to explain the allusions,
real or fancied, which it contains, their often
atrocious etymologies" (Oriental and Linguistic
Studies, 1873, p. 110), but to be fair to the
authors of the Brâhmanas,
they lacked modern resources: a written text and a
concordance, for example. Without the ability to compare
contexts decipherment is extremely difficult, and "ready
invention" is a tempting alternative. Indology today,
which has these resources, nonetheless adheres to the
ancient methods of investigation. In her paper quoted at
the beginning of this introduction, Stephanie Jamison
propounds the thesis that "many of the most obscure
images and turns of phrase in the Rig Veda make
sense as poetic realisations of specific ritual
activities, and whole hymns and hymn complexes can
poetically encode the sequences and procedures of a
particular ritual," citing as an example "Joel
Brereton's recent brilliant explanation of the
fiendishly opaque mythology of the divine figures, the
reflecting in remarkable detail the Third Pressing of
the Soma Sacrifice" (p. 7). This is the approach that
first buried the Rigveda from view in ancient
times, and in continuing to apply it modern Indology is
simply throwing earth onto the mound.
As an editorial postscript to an article published in
1965 on the word vidátha,
the Iranian scholar H.W. Bailey commented, "It should
not pass unnoticed that the most recent translation of
the Rigveda by L. Renou... knows nothing of
'congregation'... Each translator tends to read into the
obscure texts his own theories." Only attention to the
text itself, which has been out of print for much of the
past century, will lift the mists that have always
enveloped the Rigveda. Study of the earliest
Indo-European poetry may have languished in recent
times, but the parallel discipline of Old English
studies has notably flourished as a result of the
application of rigorous scholarship, deriving from the
'new philology' introduced into England from Germany in
the 1830s. "The greatest strength of Anglo-Saxon and
Medieval Studies in general, I believe, is that by and
large we have never lost our devotion to the text and to
interpreting texts. We have not let theory estrange us
from the life's blood of our enterprise, the texts and
artifacts at the center of our study." (Fred C.
Robinson, in the introduction to The Preservation and
Transmission of Anglo-Saxon Culture, 1997). The
Rigveda stands alone; unlike Old English it has not
come down to us together with any artifacts that we know
to be dateable to the same remote period in time. But it
constitutes a considerable body of material, and
remarkably, given its antiquity and importance, it
remains largely undeciphered. This course has been
written primarily to give access to the text to scholars
from other disciplines, and to provide the means for a
fresh approach to the decipherment of the earliest
4. The text, and the editorial tradition.
Until very recently the original poetic form of the
Rigveda was also hidden. Luckily for modern
students, this is no longer the case (see below). The
artificial ordering of the poems by their ancient
editors however remains in use today.
Books II to VII (of ten books) are arranged on a
uniform pattern. Hymns addressed to Agni 'Fire' (Latin
ignis) always come first: a frequent epithet of
Agni in the Rigveda is
in front'. The Agni hymns are followed by hymns to
Indra. Within these two groups the poems are arranged in
order of diminishing length. Poems addressed to other
gods form the third group of each book. Book VIII
follows a more natural arrangement, and contains many
poems of early date. The songs of Book IX are a special
case, having been put together because of the similarity
of their vocabulary, notably the obscure verb
/pû, pávate and its
derivatives. They contain many refrains (see section 40
in Lesson 8) that help to identify the groups to which
they originally belonged. Books I and X appear to have
been added later to the core collection. A different
numbering system which is popular in India preserves
this order but divides the material equally into
eighths; still another, followed by Grassmann in his
concordance (see the reading list in section 9), simply
numbers the poems consecutively. (In the introduction to
each lesson text the straightforward numerical
references are also given.)
For much of its history this body of poetry was
passed down orally. Even following the general
introduction of writing, some time before the 3rd
century BC, there was a strong reluctance to write down
this sacred and cabalistic text, which was the exclusive
and secret property of an elite. The date of the
earliest written text that has come down to us, from
which all others derive, is characteristically unknown.
It is a 'continuous' text -- in Sanskrit,
'placed-together' -- in which adjacent sounds combine
with each other across word boundaries according to
strictly applied phonetic rules. This combining of
sounds is known as sandhi, from the Sanskrit
'placing-together' (see section 7). A second ancient
text, the pada or
'word' text, which gives all the words in their original
form, was presumably compiled shortly afterwards. The
surviving manuscripts of these two texts in the
were edited and published in a definitive edition by Max
Müller in the second half of the nineteenth century. It
was clear to Max Müller that the 'continuous' text
obscured the original form of these poems. In 1869 he
wrote, "if we try to restore the original form of the
Vedic hymns, we shall certainly arrive at some kind of
Pada text rather than at a
Sanhitâ text; nay, even in their present form,
the original metre and rhythm of the ancient hymns are
far more perceptible when the words are divided, than
when we join them together throughout according to the
rules of Sandhi." But it was not until 1994 that the
metrically restored text, in a modern transliterated
form, was published by the American scholars Barend Van
Nooten and Gary Holland (see the reading list). For the
first time in its history the Rigveda is clearly
revealed, on the printed page, as poetry.
The system of modern transliteration used by Van
Nooten and Holland is also used in the full Unicode 3
versions of these lessons.
5. A note on methodology.
My aim throughout the grammar sections has been to
provide a description of the language that is as
straightforward as possible. Many factors have
traditionally combined to make the Rigveda
inaccessible to scholars in other fields, one of which
is grammatical complexity. I have opted for the clearest
presentation that I could find. As Arthur Macdonell's
Vedic Grammar for Students is an excellent summary
and remains in general use, I have tended to follow him
in the attribution of verbal forms, but I have, for
example, categorised the types of the aorist following
Whitney, as his description seems more straightforward.
Others may disagree with the choices that I have made,
and I welcome comments. In addition, as Macdonell wrote
in the Preface to his 1917 Vedic Reader (the
immediate predecessor of this course), "freedom from
serious misprints is a matter of great importance in a
work like this." The Vedic Reader never reached a
corrected edition, but one of the advantages of online
publishing is the relative ease with which mistakes can
be put right. I particularly welcome corrections.
Indologists have so far found no common ground for
debate with my approach. I am very grateful therefore to
Ramesh Krishnamurthy for constructive discussion and
advice, and to Alexander Lubotsky for proof-reading the
first four lessons and making some necessary
corrections. Where however Professor Lubotsky urged the
traditional interpretations over my revisions I have
stuck to my guns: for example, in my translation of the
feminine noun usríyâ
in the second verse of the Lesson 4 text (surely not
'cow'), and of páyas
in a number of the examples (not, in my view, 'milk';
see section 50.2). Where my translation of words
occurring in the lesson texts differs from the current
consensus, the translation appears in italics in the
glossaries. (Occasionally translations are in italics
because there is no existing consensus.) Some
retranslations are minor refinements of sense; others,
like usríyâ, and
discussed in section 3 above, are more radical. Wherever
possible, however, I have chosen passages that are free
of problem words, and italicised translations of this
kind are relatively few in number.
My greatest due of thanks is to Professor Winfred
Lehmann and the Salus Mundi Foundation, for
making it possible to put the course online.
6. The sounds of Sanskrit and the Sanskrit alphabet.
The 'dictionary' order of Sanskrit follows phonetic
rules. The vowels come first.
The short vowel a
is pronounced approximately as the a of English
about, and i
and u as in bit
and put (in Classical Sanskrit the short
a sound became even
shorter, and is transliterated as a u sound).
These vowels each have a long equivalent,
û, pronounced as in
English bar, beat and boot. In addition Sanskrit
has a vocalic r sound,
occurs frequently and is pronounced like the r in
British English interesting with accent on the
first syllable, 'íntrsting'.
The word Rigveda itself in Sanskrit begins with
this vocalic r, which is why it is sometimes
transliterated without the i, Rgveda. (In this
course r is
transliterated both as ri and as ar.)
There is also a longer
r, and a vocalic l sound,
l, which is
very rare and is pronounced something like the l
(with silent e) in table.
Four long vocalic sounds classified as diphthongs
The equivalent English sounds are
and au (bout).
The consonants are also arranged phonetically.
These are ordered according to their physical
production in speech. The sounds produced at the back of
the mouth, k,
gh are listed
first, and are described as 'velar' because they are
made with the tongue touching the soft palate (velum
in Latin). 'Palatal' consonants,
jh, are made
slightly farther forward in the mouth, with the tongue
touching the hard palate; 'dentals',
dh, with the tongue
touching the teeth; and 'labials',
bh, with the lips.
This is given in tabular form below. Each sequence or
class comprises a 'voiceless' sound, pronounced without
the vibration of the vocal cords, like
k; the same sound
pronounced with a following h sound; a 'voiced' sound,
g; the same sound
aspirated, gh; and
Between the palatal and dental classes appears
another sequence. The dental
t sound is in fact
like a French t (tout), made with the
tongue touching the teeth. The Indian retroflex sounds
are made with the tip of the tongue curved backwards
(hence the name) behind the upper teeth, and then
flicked forward. To Indian ears the t of try
is more like a retroflex than a dental sound.
The nasals belonging to each class simply represent
the sounds produced in each part of the mouth. English
also has a range of nasal sounds, but they are not
generally reflected in writing. Compare, for example,
the sound of the nasal in these five words, which
changes because of the different adjacent consonants:
hunger (velar), punch (palatal), unreal
(retroflex), hunter (dental), and, with a written
change, lumber (labial).
vowels, as in the word
purolâ´ç mentioned in the first section of
At the end of the alphabet come semivowels and
sibilants, and h:
The semivowels and sibilants are again in phonetic
The semivowels are closely related to vowels:
y corresponds to
v (pronounced like
English w when preceded by a consonant) to
The same close vowel/semivowel relationship is reflected
in the eighteenth-century spelling of persuade, 'perswade'.
In the earliest 'continuous' text the written semivowel
often represents an original vowel. Palatal
ç and retroflex
s are both
pronounced something like English sh, the second
again with the tongue slightly curved backwards.
In addition there are two sounds that occur very
and h, which
are not original but represent other sounds under the
influence of sandhi (see below). In most dictionaries,
that by Monier-Williams for example,
positioned alphabetically according to the original
nasal that it represents, which can be confusing. In the
course glossaries these two sounds have been arranged to
follow the diphthongs and precede the consonants.
is a pure nasal: tám
is pronounced something like French teint.
h is an
unvoiced breathing sound.
7. Sound changes, combination of sounds, or sandhi.
The word sandhi is used to describe the way in which
sounds change as a result of adjacent sounds, both
within words and across word boundaries, and it is a
natural phenomenon in speech. Consider the English nasal
sounds described in the previous section, for example.
Because the extensiveness of its occurrence in Sanskrit
is unparalleled in any other language, the Sanskrit name
'putting-together' has come to be used to describe this
phenomenon in other languages.
The evidence of the Rigveda with respect to
vowel sandhi (see section 45.1 of Lesson 9) suggests
that many of the sandhi changes made by the later
editors were in fact artificial, and the result of the
imposition of fixed rules onto a language that was more
naturally flexible. In English most sandhi changes are
not written, but in Sanskrit they are extensively
reproduced in writing. This, as Michael Coulson mildly
expresses it in his guide to the Classical language,
Teach Yourself Sanskrit, is "not necessarily a good
thing." The complexity of the written sandhi system is
potentially alienating for a beginner. This section
therefore provides only a brief sketch of the principles
involved to prepare the reader for the kinds of change
that he will encounter in the lessons. Appendix 1 at the
end of this course presents, in tabular form, the
changes that occur.
7.1. Sandhi of vowels.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the form in
which these poems were first written applied later rules
of vowel sandhi which the metre indicates were
inappropriate. Final i/î
for example, when followed by another vowel were
systematically turned into the related semivowels
v in order to avoid
hiatus, that is, to give a smooth, continuous sound. But
the syllabic loss that this change entails destroys the
rhythm of the poems and the vowels must nearly always be
restored. A language of a different character emerges.
"The text of the Rigveda, when metrically restored,
shows us a dialect in which the vowels are relatively
more frequent, and the syllables therefore lighter and
more musical, than is the case in classical Sanskrit.
The Homeric dialect differs just in the same way from
classical Greek" (Arnold, Vedic Metre p. 106).
Certain vowels when juxtaposed nonetheless do change
in the Rigveda. Two short vowels that are the
same, for example, -i
at the end of a word followed by
i- at the beginning
of a word, usually combine to give the long vowel, here
-î-. Long vowels,
or a mixture of long and short vowels, combine in the
same way. In example 226,
açvinâ´ in fact represents two words,
açvinâ â´, and in
example 234 â´gât
represents â´ ágât.
This does not always happen: in example 334, for
instance, the two adjacent
a sounds in evá
agníh have not combined, nor in example
136, stotâ´ amatîvâ´.
Sometimes at the end of a line
â´ is written
â´m to make
clear that it does not combine with the initial vowel at
the beginning of the next line. There are examples of
this in the Lesson 4, 5, and 10 texts.
Some combinations of dissimilar vowels also
regularly occur, particularly with final
which may combine with initial
to give e, and with
to give o. In
example 26, for example,
and in example 277
çamitéva = çamitâ´
iva. Again these rules are not invariably
applied: see açvinâ ûháthuh
in example 224.
7.2. Sandhi of consonants.
In the written system consonants are also regularly
subject to change. s
and m are
frequently found at the end of words: nominative
'god', accusative singular
devám. Final m,
the labial nasal, under the rules of sandhi becomes the
pure nasal m
if followed by anything other than a vowel, or another
labial sound. Final s
is regularly given as the unvoiced breathing sound
h by the
editors -- this is the form it always takes at the end
of a phrase or line. It is changed to
r before a 'soft'
sound like a vowel or a voiced consonant. With an
immediately preceding a,
however, it is treated differently:
-o before soft
sounds. Examples of these changes in simple compound
words have already been given: the word
'placed-together', and Rigvedic
Final t also
occurs frequently, as in
tát 'that, it'. When followed by a soft sound it
becomes d, but
before n or
m it becomes
n. This sounds
complicated, but such changes soon become familiar. They
occur naturally when a language is spoken at speed, and
are a good source of the punning jokes beloved of
children (as in "say iced ink very quickly").
The first line quoted in the introduction to the
first lesson, agním
dûtám puró dadhe, shows sandhi effects at the end
of the first and the third word. A word for word version
would read agním dûtám
purás dadhe (the m
of dûtám was
unchanged as it was followed by a labial consonant,
p). The last two
lines of the first lesson text,
||tán no mitró
síndhuh prthivî´ utá dyaúh
with sandhi removed and final
s restored, read
||tát nas mitrás
prthivî´ utá dyaús
All the lesson texts are glossed word for word with
the sandhi changes removed, and sandhi changes are also
regularly explained in square brackets when they occur
in the examples.
Included within the scope of sandhi are changes known
as retroflexion. The sounds
certain circumstances make
n retroflex, n,
even across word boundaries: see example 325,
for prá nas.
Similarly, vowels other than
change s to
example 81, abhí syâma
[abhí syâma], and example 296,
where the s
in turn has made the following
t retroflex. This
occurs very frequently within words:
8. Vowel gradation, or ablaut.
A characteristic feature of Indo-European languages
is the variation of vowels in derivatives from a root.
Found regularly in the verbal system, it also occurs in
nouns, as in sing, sang, sung, and also song.
This vowel variation is known as ablaut. Its occurrence
in Sanskrit was recognised by the ancient grammarians,
who described it as 'strengthening' of the vowel. The
table shows how the simple vowel is strengthened.
Vowel strengthening is found in nominal derivatives,
like the element vaiçvâ-
in the first word of the first lesson text, which is a
derivative of víçva
'all', and pâ´rthiva
'earthly' in the third verse of the Lesson 3 text, which
is a derivative of prthivî´
'earth'. It is a feature of many parts of the verb, like
the causative, viçáti
'he enters', veçáyati
'he causes to enter' (see section 33.1), and the aorist
passive: ámoci 'it
has been released' from
/muc 'release' (see section 48.1).
9. Reading List.
With the exception of the text itself and the two
works by Arnold, all the books listed here are either
still in print or available in a modern reprint.
- Rig Veda. A Metrically Restored Text with an
Introduction and Notes. Edited by Barend A. Van
Nooten and Gary B. Holland. Harvard University Press
- Arnold, E.V. Vedic Metre. Cambridge,
University Press 1905.
The most important resource for studying the
Rigveda is the text itself, and the metrically
restored text published in 1994 is the first to show its
original poetic form. Previous editions of the text are
misleading in masking both form and meaning, as
explained in section 45 of Lesson 9.
Arnold's 1905 study goes well beyond its modest
title, not only in disentangling the original metrical
form but also in using the metre, together with
vocabulary and grammatical forms, to attempt a
chronological arrangement of the poems.
- Grassmann, Hermann. Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda.
Leipzig, Brockhaus 1873.
- Lubotsky, Alexander. A
Concordance. New Haven, CT, American Oriental
Grassmann's dictionary and analytical concordance
remains invaluable; the recent concordance by Lubotsky
is useful in listing all the word forms, without
translation, in the context of the line in which they
occur. Though deriving from Van Nooten and Holland's
metrical edition, the text in Lubotsky's concordance is
quoted in unrestored form.
- Macdonell, Arthur. Vedic Grammar for Students.
Oxford, Clarendon Press 1916.
- Macdonell, Arthur. Vedic Grammar.
Strassburg, Trübner 1910.
- Whitney, William D. Sanskrit Grammar.
Second Edition. Harvard University Press 1889.
- Whitney, William D. The Roots, Verb-forms and
Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language.
Leipzig, Breitkopf und Härtel 1885.
- Arnold, E.V. Historical Vedic Grammar.
[in] Journal of the American Oriental Society,
vol. 18, 1897, pp. 203-353.
As a compendium of Rigvedic grammar, Macdonell's
Vedic Grammar for Students remains extremely useful.
The same author's earlier and fuller Vedic Grammar
is an outstanding work of scholarship, and is currently
available from India as a reprint (Munshiram Manoharal,
2000; the reprint however lacks the last gathering and
therefore much of the index).
In addition to the works by Macdonell, Whitney's
nineteenth-century Sanskrit Grammar, which
includes the early language, is useful in regularly
clarifying what may seem unduly complex. His
supplementary volume, The Roots, Verb-forms and
Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language,
arranges nominal forms under the verbal roots to which
they belong, and is a guide to the regularly transparent
word formation of Sanskrit (see section 49 in Lesson
Arnold's Historical Vedic Grammar, while not
for the beginner, is a rich statistical resource for the
historical study of pre-Classical Sanskrit.
Dictionaries and semantic studies.
- Monier-Williams, Monier. Sanskrit-English
Dictionary. New Edition, Oxford University Press
- Mayrhofer, Manfred. Etymologisches Wörterbuch
des Altindoarischen. [Part I. Ältere Sprache].
Heidelberg, Carl Winter 1992-1996.
All dictionaries contain translations that are
misleading for the Rigveda. With this caveat, the
Sanskrit-English Dictionary by Monier
Monier-Williams, based on the seven-volume Sanskrit-Wörterbuch
by Otto Böhtlingk and Rudolph Roth, is a work of great
erudition. The most recent dictionary of early Sanskrit,
by the eminent linguist Manfred Mayrhofer, is useful for
presenting the Rigveda in its Indo-European
context, and is distinguished by the regular
unwillingness of its author to accept traditional
interpretations without question.
Those interested in the reconsideration of inherited
interpretations may wish to look at my studies of some
of the words mentioned in this introduction. Thomson,
Karen, "The meaning and language of the Rigveda:
Rigvedic grâ´van as
a test case," Journal of Indo-European Studies
29, 3 & 4, 2001, 295-349; "The decipherable Rigveda:
a reconsideration of vaksánâ,"
Indogermanische Forschungen 109, 2004, 112-139;
"Why the Rigveda remains undeciphered: the
example of purolâ´ç,"
General Linguistics 43, 2004, 39-59; and, a
sister paper to the last, "The decipherable Rigveda:
tiróahnyam as an
example," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society,
15, 1, 2005, 63-70 (the words
the temporal adverb
tiróahnyam, misunderstood by the authors of later
Vedic texts as an adjective, frequently occur together).
10. Ancient Sanskrit Lessons
Note: there are great disparities in capability among
personal computers in contemporary use. Unfortunately,
Unicode® and/or the repertoire of
fonts installed on your personal computer cannot be
detected by a web server! Accordingly, we have
prepared multiple versions of each lesson; this set of
lessons is for systems/browsers lacking Unicode
support, or having less than full Unicode 2.0
font support. (You may switch to other versions via
links below.) Lessons:
Rigveda I, 98
Rigveda IV, 53, 1-6
Rigveda III, 33, 4-8
Rigveda VII, 81
Rigveda VIII, 18, 4-12
Rigveda VI, 21, 2-6
Rigveda X, 37, 5-10
Rigveda V, 42, 13-18
Rigveda II, 42 and X, 58
Rigveda VIII, 27, 10-20
Appendix 1: Sandhi
Appendix 2: Index of examples