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Grabbing Sanskrit by the roots: Yāska’s Nirukta And semantic etymology

Rohini Bakshi
Rohini BakshiMar 01, 2015 | 14:08

Grabbing Sanskrit by the roots: Yāska’s Nirukta And semantic etymology

By the fourth century BCE, Vedic Sanskrit had already become quite ancient, and a lot of the words of the saṃhitas and brāhmaṇas were rather obscure. Vedāṅgas (auxiliary texts) were created to preserve the Vedic language and Vedic rituals. Scholars of the time developed various techniques to ensure semantic continuity and comprehension. Of the six vedāṅgas, more people would know of vyākaraṇa (grammar) because of the fame of Pāṇini. Not as well known, much to my regret, is nirukta (etymology). The foundational text of this vedāṅga is Yāska’s Nirukta. You can it read online for free: https://archive.org/details/nighantuniruktao00yaskuoft.The text has intricate and express instructions on how words must be interpreted and made sense of. Yāska presupposes grammar and argues vigorously for the etymological analysis of every Vedic word. His fundamental notion was that all words can be reduced to an original root and one should never give up on a word as un-derivable.

My 18-year-old son’s first question as he walked past my laptop was – what is the etymology of etymology? Fair question. Sanskrit scholar Johannes Bronkhorst explains; from the Greek etumos (true) and logos (word) it is a “discourse that makes known the true meaning of the word”. From an ancient Indic perspective etymology would have been very important, since our ancients believed that if you knew the name of something, you had power over it. This is expressed in the naming rite (nāmakaraṇa) stipulated by the gṛhyasūtras, whereby a child is given a secret name (nakṣatra nāma) known only to kin, so that no outsider may reach his/her essence and be able to exercise any kind of power over the child.  @haritirumalai confirms “All the members in my family have a nakṣatra nāma known only to us and vyavahāra nāmas for all other purposes.” @Mamdhata reinforces, “The essence of the being is reflected in the name. To possess the name is to possess the complete identity of the being, leaving him/her open to evil, incantations and the like.”

The tension between grammarians and etymologists of the time is apparent in Yāska’s Nirukta. Nothing like some linguistic politics to make academia interesting! But before I digress, let’s focus on what nirukta (etymology) can add to our lives today. Most of us cruise through life “generally” understanding things, as did I, till a few years ago. When I learned Sanskrit, I got into the habit of getting to the root of a word. I felt like I’d been wearing lenses with the wrong prescription all my life. Suddenly everything seemed clearer, and made so much more sense. All because of Sanskrit roots. They are marvelously versatile; each root can generate upward of 2,500 words, through combining with prefixes, primary and secondary suffixes - creating finite verbs, participles, nouns, adjectives; then there are secondary derivations, compounds and the complexity and majesty of the language begin to unfold. But everything stems from those radicals. And understanding them is to understand the world around us.

Rather than use examples from the Nirukta, (I wouldn’t want to pre-empt your impending love affair with Yāska!) I’d like to focus on the familiar, on everyday words. Experts among you might find this terribly pedestrian, but you’ll forgive me since the focus is the beginner. Of course, in an actual nirukta we’d start with the word and work backward to the root, but humour me on this reverse approach to begin with, to get an idea of how satisfying the effort will be. Let’s start with the root √nī – to lead. From √nī we get netra and nayana (eyes), those which lead us; netā – leader, netṛtva – leadership and nīti – guidance, leading (to correct behaviour). Then come the pre-fixes. Sanskrit teacher Rama Iyer explains, “Putting prefixes and roots together is like a chemical reaction. The root meaning remains same, but different prefixes create new and different products.” We get parinītā – married woman, lit. one who is lead around (the fire) from pari+√nī. From upa+√nī we get upanayana the Vedic initiation for a student, lit. led or drawn close to (learning and the teacher).

Now let’s look at the very common root √kṛ – to do, to make. You’ll find √kṛ in everyday words like kārya and kartavya both meaning “that which should be done”; in kāraṇa lit. that which causes something to be done/happen; kartā – the doer; karma – deed, kara – hand, that which does, karuṇa – causing pity or compassion (karuṇā pity, compassion), alaṃkṛta – adorned (enough with the doing, the adorning?), saṃskrita – made perfect and saṃskāra – causing to make perfect. In kumbhakāra, you can see √kṛ in the suffix – one who makes pots; as also in ahaṃkāra – focusing on, making of the self and in antaḥkaraṇa the soul, the self; lit. that which causes from within.

Having seen these few examples from the root to the word, now let us do some nirukta (from nir√vac, explained, made manifest, interpreted). Like before, we’ll focus on everyday words, because that is when you realise how immersed you already are in Sanskrit, unknowingly, every minute of your waking day. You will not only get a sense how to tease the root out of the word, but hopefully will also nod and say – I didn’t know that! The year is called abda and varṣa in Sanskrit, showing us how important rain and water were in ancient times. Abda, giver of water > ap water, da giver, from √dā - to give; and varṣa that (which brings) rain, from √vṛṣ - to rain. The ocean is called abdhi > ap water, dhi a collection of, from √dhā to place.  Ratnākara (ocean) > ratna jewel, riches, kara maker/creator of. Bhāskara (sun) from √bhā and √kṛ that which makes, creates light. Divākara (sun) – that which makes day. Kāśī (Varanasi) the city that shines, from √kāś to shine. Ambu-ja, lotus, born in/of water, ambu water, ja born, from √jan to be born. Likewise dvi-ja, twice born, for a Brahmin, a tooth, a bird.

If you’ve come this far, I’m guessing you’re enjoying nirukta, or to be more precise, nirukti, the etymological derivation or explanation of a word. So perhaps we can do a few more. What about tīrtha (place of pilgrimage)? Can you see the root in there? It’s √tṝ to cross over, from which we also get tarati to swim/get to the other side, and tāraka (helmsman). You are familiar with god being called bhava-tāraka and the goddess bhava-tāriṇī – he/she who help us to cross over this existence. And of course, there is avatāra from ava√tṝ - he who descends, comes across from above. What about bhojana? It’s from √bhuj, to enjoy. And bhakti? It’s from √bhaj, to share, lit. sharing in the divine. As is bhāga share, and bhaga fortune - which is durbhāgya if your share is small, and saubhāgya if your share is substantial. There is also bhartṛ (the bearer, husband) and bhāryā (wife, who is to be borne) from √bhṛ to bear. Well, bhartṛ/bhāryā are begging for a feminist critique, but we’ll have to leave that for another day!

If you’ve enjoyed this exposition, consider learning Sanskrit. There is a thriving community online – in google groups, on Facebook and on Twitter. These platforms flatten any hierarchy you may have concerns about. Of late we have also begun collating institutions and universities which offer Sanskrit courses. You’re sure to find one close to you. If you need a private tutor because you work full time, this can also be facilitated. All you need to do is connect on twitter with @sudarshanhs. Sanskrit is a majestic and beautiful language which adds meaning to our lives. If we’d only let it.

Last updated: March 01, 2015 | 14:08
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