Feb 2, 2015

The Fundamentals of sanskrit grammar

Whenever someone suggests that you translate Yoga Sutras using only a dictionary and without knowing enough about Sanskrit grammar – don’t fall for it! This person is either not aware of what he is talking about and has never been doing it himself, or it is no further than the third or fourth line of the original text that he himself has managed to “advance”. Sanskrit is a fairly sophisticated language which grammar is intricate enough. Words that have been “distorted” in the course of morphologic transformations, including the rules of guna and sandhi, may bear little resemblance to their dictionary forms, while the logic of cases is somewhat different from what we are used to in our languages [Russian and Ukrainian – translator’s note].

In this article I shall try to initiate the reader into some elements of Sanskrit grammar in the scope that is… oh no, of course it shall be insufficient for self-reading and translation since this would require a whole book to write. I shall do this in the scope that is necessary for reading somebody else’s (mine in particular) commentaries and translations and for understanding the basis of choosing this or that meaning of a word or phrase.

So, let us start with morphology.

1. In Sanskrit, like any other Indo-European language, the parts of speech come in three types: the declinable, the conjugated and the uninflected ones, or the indeclinables (avyaya).
The declinable parts of speech include nouns, adjectives (that agree in gender, number and case with the noun which quality they describe; here, just like in Russian, sometimes in the absence of a noun its functions are performed by an adjective); participles – in active and passive voices, pronouns and numerals. All these parts of speech are inflected by gender, number (including the dual that is absent in Russian and that English preserves only some residual traces of) and cases (8 of them in Sanskrit, including vocative). It should be noted that in Sanskrit a participle is rather important because fairly often it assumes the function of a verb. In Yoga-Sutras, just like in a number of other texts (Shiva-Sutra, for instance) verbs are very rare. However, this specific feature is an option. For instance, the style of “Goraksha Shataka” abounds with verbs, them being of “conditional” time.

The conjugated parts of speech, like in Russian, are the verbs. There are 10 “tenses” in Sanskrit. The word “tense” in this context is rather conventional since these ten also include the imperative; moreover, the “tenses” proper are rather sophisticated in their logic. Those who have a good knowledge of Russian, English or some other European language grammar will have no problem in finding the analogues of Sanskrit tenses in their languages; still one can’t stop feeling that what we see in modern languages are just the fragments of the “tense” system that exists in Sanskrit. For instance, in addition to the traditional present, past simple and future simple there is a special “epic” “tense” that is used to describe the events that happened “once upon a time, long time ago” and that could not have been witnessed by the narrator (by the way, this tense is very important because the whole of Mahabharata is based upon it). The distant future describes the events that are likely to happen rather than those that are certainly going to take place. For instance, the phrase “The victory will be ours” would be written in this tense because nobody knows for sure whether this will happen; it is rather some hope than reference to a specific event. In this sense Sanskrit is a language that the masses shall be difficult to manipulate with. Maybe it is because it originally existed among the upper casts.

There is a specific “tense” that from the point of grammar comes as a complex combination of past and future and denotes an action that could have happened subject to fulfillment of some conditions but has already failed to. Such “tense” is convenient for philosophic speculations. There are also some peculiarities about using the imperative that unlike the one in Russian has the form of the first person. Thus it is possible to address to oneself, say, in auto-suggestive formulas. Those who are eager to learn more about this aspect of Sanskrit grammar can read the “Sanskrit Tenses and Moods” by Tavastsherna.

Different tenses and moods are formed by means of suffixes and infixes, sometimes (for example, in the herein mentioned “epic” tense) – by reduplication of the root. The verbs are divided into 10 gaṇas - the classes, each of them having their specifics in conjugation. The exhaustive list of verbal roots can be found in the special directory compiled by Sanskrit grammarians more than 2 thousand years ago – the Dhatupaha [1]. Modern Indian grammarians believe that from those 2000 verbal roots given in Dhatupaha there are 500 that are most important for understanding the language.

The indeclinable parts of speech are the absolutive (the indeclinable gerund), the infinitive and adverbs.

2. A Sanskrit word is formed from the so-called verbal root by means of adding suffixes (primary and secondary), infixes, prefixes and case endings. The roots itself shall be thus in a way transformed. These transformations may refer to the root vowel and the letter (whether vowel or consonant) that immediately adjoins the suffix. There are some other nuances of such transformations.

3. The vowel transformation abides by the rule of “guna” or “vriddhi”. Each of the primary Sanskrit vowels   (i) (u),  (ṛ vowel),  (ḷ vowel) can “amplify” to approximate the sounds of the next (guna) or ultimate (vriddhi [2]) level of “intensity”. The mode of such transformation has been a priori entered into grammar records since every suffix has a marker determining the modifications it shall cause to the root.
One’s understanding of the guna and vriddhi rules shall, for instance, explain the derivation of the noun kleśa (क्लेश) – affliction, contamination – from the verbal root kliś (क्लिश्) – to contaminate, to pollute, with its past passive participle being kliṣa (क्लिष्ट) (the  hereinafter stands for the cerebral  – ट ). 

The rules of guna and vriddhi seem unusual for our [Russian] grammar; but in actual fact their “remnants” borrowed from proto-languages can be found in latent forms in Russian as well as in English languages. In Russian they come out in oral speech. For instance, following the rules of orthoepy we say ‘malAko’ [mǝlǝ’ko] (milk) yet ‘malOchny’ [mǝ’lϽ:ʧni] (milky). The second “o” in the root has been intensified after adding the suffix. In Russian we refer to this as stressed vs unstressed sounds, but the key point – the “intensification” of the root vowel – remains the same. The difference is that in Sanskrit that was originally focused on utterance (followed by correct recording) of sacred texts things are always spelled in the way they are heard. In English the remnants of the rule of guna can be “found” in irregular verbs, because from the point of grammar an irregular verb is a verb in which a vowel is changed after adding a suffix… However, this is my personal theory.

3. What seems even more unusual (yet once again at first glance) is the rule of sandhi (junction of letters). In Sanskrit the letters that come next to each other at the boundaries of morphemes or neighboring words are transformed for the sake of harmonious sounding. Such transformation mainly occurs to the letter to the left, but there are rare exceptions in which it is the letter to the right that is transformed. The rules that govern corresponding letter changes are rather complicated but their crux comes down to phonetic approximation of the letters with regard to respective mouth articulators they are “produced” by. Once again, for those who start learning the language these rule might seem to be something out of the common, but as a matter of fact we have their analogues both in English and Russian languages. Thus, for instance, the Russian [bˈɨk] (‘bull’) when added with respective suffix shall turn into [bᵻʧ’ok] (‘bull-calf’) [if to speak about English, they consider the case of ‘linking R and intrusive R’ to be the examples of external sandhi (oral), while the word ‘sympathy’ as the assimilated from of ‘syn-‘ and ‘pathos’ can be qualified as internal sandhi – translator’s note]. If we are neither scared nor surprised by these – why should we be frightened by sandhi*.

A few words about Sanskrit semantics.

Since for the purpose of reading and understanding classical texts the possibility of interpreting each and every word comes as one of the most important, let us take a retrospective look into Sanskrit semantics. Ancient grammarians believed there were three types of the word meanings.

1. Yogaartha (योगार्थ). The root ‘yuj’ (“to join”, “to unite”) suggests the meaning of the term. The yogaartha significations include the words which meaning derives from their etymology and morphology. For instance, by adding the aforementioned root ‘yuj’ with suffix –a that tends to form masculine nouns with “guna” transformation occurred to the root, and in consideration of the j – g sandhi we shall have the yogaartha meaning of the word “yoga” – the junction, connection.

2. But people who read this blog know that yoga is not only junction and attachment but an esoteric system as well. This is the second type of the word meaning called yogarudhartha (योगरूढार्थ). The meaning of the second-type words can be learnt from dictionaries and context. As a rule they are associated with their etymological meaning, yet, alas, not as obviously as we would like them to. This type of words is the most dangerous from the point of mistakes and “misuse” that may happen. It is here, during translation of these words that additional religious interpretations, ambiguities and misinterpretations occur. I shall give an example. One can take the root mṛ (मृ)– “to die” to form the masculine noun māra: (मार:), its yogaartha meaning being “death”. On the other hand, the yogarudhartha meaning of this word stands for one of the names of Kama, the god of love. Why so? Whether because modern Hindus brought up in the traditions of puritan morality say that “sex kills” or because the French believe that “an orgasm is a little death” (le petit MoRt)? Or maybe because sex, as well as death, lead to transformation? Who knows… But the uncertainty still remains…

3. And finally the third variant of the word meaning called rudhartha (रूढार्थ). These are the words that have no Sanskrit etymology and have been probably borrowed from other languages, often unknown to us. The most complete list of such words was compiled at the dawn of our era and is called Deshinamamala. The meaning of such words can be also found in and understood from the dictionary only.

The system of Sanskrit cases.

Sanskrit has a complex system of cases that is somewhat similar to the Russian one. There are 8 cases in total, including the vocative that Indian grammarians don’t consider to be an independent case though they draw it in respective tables. Unlike Russian, in addition to singular and plural forms Sanskrit, just like the Old Greek, also has the dual with its own specific way of case inflection.
I will now list the Sanskrit cases with their brief (without details) description:

1. Nominative (Nom) - denotes the subject of the action, the one that performs the action.
2. Accusative (Acc) - denotes the object of the action or the objective point.
3. Instrumental (Instr) - denotes what the action is performed with/by.
4. Dative (Dat) - denotes the beneficiary or the one that the action is directed at. For instance, in Surya Namaskar mantras the names of the Sun are given in this very case.
5. Ablative (Abl) - denotes the place from where the move starts, or the reason of the event. In Russian [and English – translator’ note] it is reduced.
6. Genitive (Gen) - denotes the one whom the considered object belongs to.
7. Locative (Loc) - denotes the place. In Russian [and English – translator’ note] it is reduced.
8. Vocative (Voc) - as it is clear from the Latin name, it is used to denote the fact of calling someone. In Russian it has vanished, having been “replaced” by punctuation marks, but still exists in the Ukrainian language [modern English lacks formal vocative and they commonly use nominative case for vocative expressions, setting them off with pauses (commas). Another conversational way of having this form is by using the vocatives like ‘honey’ or ‘dear’, or the “you + adj. + noun” pattern (the vocative with terms of abuse, like, for instance, ‘you bloody idiot’) – translator’s note]. 

Further in my blog I shall be using the names of the cases given in the parentheses.

When speaking about the cases, it should be noted that each of them is characterized by its own case endings (that we actually know them by), these case endings being different for each of the numbers and depending upon the letter that the word ends with (especially in case of vowels). In a number of cases some transformations of the word stem may also occur.

[1] As a matter of fact, there are several Dhatupahas with slight difference between them. But these are details that are important for experts only. In practice most of contemporary grammarians and students use the variant of Dhatupaha that was edited in the late 19th century and is considered to be the generally accepted one.
[2] In Sanskrit “vriddhi” means “maturity”.

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