On Sanskrit - Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

I am very happy that the Department of Sanskrit has devoted these last two days to the study of the linguistic approach to Vedic Sanskrit. The importance of this subject cannot be over-estimated, since no interpretation of the Veda can be sound which does not rest on sound and secure philological basis.


Linguistics is a discipline of mental science and has its origin in the study of the Veda itself. Indeed towards the close of the 18th century, a fresh linguistic study of the Veda opened up with Sir William Jones' perception of intimate correspondence among Sanskrit, Greek and Latin words. It is true that in the middle of the 19th century, when Max Muller began to exult in the formula, "pita, pater, pater, pater, father", it appeared that the science of language was at the point of self-revelation. This science, however, proved to be so difficult that retrospectively Max Muller's famous formula can now be seen as only a gateway to bankruptcy of the science of the comparative study of languages. The great philologist Renan was obliged in the later part of his career to a deprecating apology for the "little conjectural sciences" to which he had devoted his life's energies. It is again only recently that science of language is now making some headway, but even then we have not been able to investigate rigorously into rules and laws of the development of languages, and we are in need to trace more scientifically the origin and history of them. It is in this context that the study of the Vedic Sanskrit will be found to be of utmost importance.

Considering the importance of the need to establish the correct meaning of the Veda, Sri Aurobindo has suggested a new line of inquiry into the origins of Aryan speech. He has even suggested that it would be profitable to include among these Aryan tongues not only Sanskrit Latin and Greek but also Tamil, without, however, implying any opinion as to the relationship of the four languages or the racial origin of the people speaking them or even of the ethnic origin of the Sanskrit speaking people. Unfortunately, the book he had intended to write on the origin of the Aryan speech remained incomplete for want of time, but it is evident that in his own linguistic analysis of the Veda, he has presented to us mature results of his own research in the origin and development of Sanskrit, and his conclusions were based on the evidence of the Sanskrit language helped out by those parts of the Greek, Latin and Tamil tongues which are cognate to the word-families of Sanskrit.

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

As we know, Sri Aurobindo's interpretation of the Veda has given rise to the psychological theory according to which the Veda has a couple aspect and system of parallelism by which the cosmic powers referred to in the Veda as cosmic deities were at once internal and external powers

 of universal Nature. Sri Aurobindo points out that the Vedic Rishis managed the expression of their thought through a system of double values by which the same language served for their worship in both aspects. His conclusion is that the psychological aspect dominates in the Veda and it is more pervasive, close-knit and coherent than the physical. For him, Veda is primarily intended to serve for spiritual enlightenment and self-culture. In arriving at this conclusion; he has made full use of the ancient and modern systems of interpretation of the Vedic Sanskrit and particularly of Vedic symbolism. As he points out:

Sayana and Yaska supply the ritualistic framework of outward symbols and their large store of traditional significance and explanations. The Upanishads give their to the psychological and philosophical ideas of their earlier Rishis hand down to us their method of spiritual experience and intuition European scholarship supplies a critical method of comparative research yet to be perfected, but capable of immensely increasing the materials available and sure eventually to give a scientific certainty and firm intellectual basis which has hitherto been lacking. Dayananda has given the clue to the linguistic secret of the Rishis and re­emphasised one central idea of the Vedic religion, the idea of One Being with the Devas expressing in numerous names and forms the many sidedness of it's unity.[1]

As Sri Aurobindo points Out, Vedic Sanskrit is, even in its outward features less fixed than any other classical tongue, that it abounds in a variety of forms and inflexions, and that it is fluid and yet richly subtle

 in its use of cases and tenses. He further points out that, on its psychological side, the Vedic Sanskrit had not yet crystallised, was not entirely hardened into the rigid form of intellectual precision and that the world for the Vedic Rishi was still a living thing, a thing of power creative, formative, and therefore it carried within it the memory of its roots. As a simple example, Sri Aurobindo points out that for the

Vedic Rishi “vrika” meant the tearer and therefore, among other application of the sense, a wolf; similarly the word Dhenu meant the fosterer, nourisher and therefore a cow. The basic point is that the original and general sense predominated in the consciousness of the Rishis and that the derived and particular sense was secondary. As Sri Aurobindo explains, it was thus possible, for the fashioner of the hymn to use these common words with a great pliability, sometimes putting forward the image of the wolf or the cow, sometimes using it to colour the more general sense, sometimes keeping it merely as a conventional figure for the psychological conception on which his mind was dwelling sometimes losing the sight of the image altogether. It is against that background that the peculiar figures of Vedic symbolism are to be understood.

[1] Sri Aurobindo: The Secret of Veda, Centenary Edition, Volume 10, page 30-31


Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Sri Aurobindo has suggested that we need to divide the history of the origin of speech origin into two parts: the first part should deal with the embryo of the language and the second part should deal with its structural development. In dealing with the embryonic part, we need to underline the importance of the root in the formation of words in the early language. He pointed out that when philology began its journey in the 19th century, a fatal mistake was committed when the scholars fixed the correlation of formed words such as pita, pater, pater, pater, father as the key. The real key he suggested would be actual correlation that has to be found in the root words such as dalbhi, dalana, dolabra. Dolon, delphr, (cavern or ravine), which leads to the idea of a common mother-root, common word-families, common word-clans, kindred world-nations or languages. He points out that if it had been noticed that in all these languages, — Latin, Sanskrit and Greek, — dala means pretence or fraud and  other common or kindred significance and if some attempt had been made to discover the reason for one sound having these various significant uses, the foundation of a real science of languages might have been formed. He suggests that we would incidentally have discovered, perhaps the real connections of the ancient languages and the common mentality of the so-called Aryan peoples. We would have noted dolabra (axe) in Latin. dolon `(dagger) in Greek, dala (Weapon), dalapa (weapon) and dalmi (Indra's thunderbolt) in Sanskrit were all various derivatives freely developed from the root dal to split, and all were used for some kind of weapon; we would have got hold of a fruitful and luminous certainty. We could have then seen that not the possession of the same identical formed words, but the selection of a root word and of one among the several children of the same root word to express a particular object or idea was the secret both of the common element and of the large and free variation that we actually find in the vocabulary of the Aryan languages.

So far as the structure of the language is concerned, Sri Aurobindo has suggested that it should be correlated with the psychology of the use of the structure. He further suggests that among the Aryan tongues, the present structure of the Sanskrit language still preserve the original type of the Aryan structure and he finds in that ancient tongue alone the original stuff and rules of formation, the skeleton and the entrails of the organism that we call Sanskrit.

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Sri Aurobindo's study of the development of Sanskrit right from the Vedic and earlier times suggests that the whole of the language with all its forms and inflexions is the inevitable result of the use by the Nature in man of one single rich device, one single fixed principle of sound formation employed with surprisingly few variations, with astonishingly fixed, imperative and almost tyrannous regularity but also a free and even superfluous original abundance in the formation. In regard to the inflexional character of Aryan speech, he points out that it is itself no accident but the inevitable result, almost physically inevitable, of the first seed selection and circulation of sound-process, that original apparently trifling selection of the law of the individual being which is at the basis of all Nature's infinitely varied regularities. His conclusion is that in the outward form of Sanskrit, there is the operation of a regular natural law proceeding almost as precisely as Nature proceeds in the physical world to form a vegetable or an animal genus and its species.

Two important features of the early history of Sanskrit that can be discerned in the light of Sri Aurobindo's analysis is that in the first state of language the sound of the word is as living or even a more living force than its idea; sound determines sense. In its last stage the position even reverses; the idea becomes all-important, and the sound secondary. As a result, the intellectual use of language has developed out of the sensational and emotional by a natural law. Words, which are originally vital ejections full of vague sense-potentiality, have evolved into fixed symbols of precise intellectual significances. The second feature of the early history of the language is that it expresses at first a remarkably small stock of ideas and these are the most general notions possible and generally the most concrete, such as light, motion, touch substance, extension, force, speed and others. Afterwards there is a gradual increase in the variety and precision of idea. Progression that is seen is from the general to the particular, from the vague to the precise, from the physical to the mental, from the concrete to the abstract, from the expression of an abundant variety of sensations about similar things to the expression of precise difference between similar things, feelings and actions. It is also noticed that this progression is worked out by processes of association in ideas which are always the same, always recurrent and. although no doubt due to the environments and actual experiences of the men who spoke the language, wear the appearance of fixed natural law of development.

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

One important consequence of these features of the past history of Sanskrit that can be derived in regard to Vedic interpretation is that by a knowledge of the laws under which the relations of sound and sense formed themselves, it is possible to a great extent to restore the past history of individual words. It is further possible to account for the meanings actually possessed by them, to show how they were worked out through the various stages of language-development, to establish the mutual relations of different significances and to explain how they came to be attached to the same word in spite of the wide difference and sometimes even direct contrariety of their sense-values. Again, it is further possible to restore lost senses of words on a sure and scientific basis and to justify them by an appeal to the observed laws of association which govern the development of the old Aryan tongues, to the secret evidence of the word itself and to the corroborative evidence of its immediate kindred.


Vedic Sanskrit has a special quality, and it has been best expressed by a, phrase of Sayana, "the multi-significance of roots". It was this quality which the Vedic Rishis had before them when they composed the Vedic hymns and it served their purpose admirably. That purpose was to express Vedic knowledge through symbols and what may he called algebraic formulas in such a way that while the initiates could get at the secret knowledge in the living form from their illuminated teachers it could be concealed from those who had not gone beyond the ordinary consciousness and could have misused the secret knowledge have been hurt if they had used it prematurely without sufficient training. This multi-significance of roots diminished greatly in course of time then the language became more and more intellectual and precise. But even then Sanskrit of the later days still maintained a good deal of fertility a result of which the classical Sanskrit literature abounds in rhetorical figure of double entendre or shlesha. If we do not take into account this special feature of the Vedic Sanskrit and try to fix the meaning of the Veda without making any effort to go behind the external meaning, the result would be, as it has been in the hands of the Western scholarship, an impression of a mixture of high ideas jumbled with obscurity and sometimes even grotesque abracadabra. On the other hand, if we take up certain key words such as ritam, shravas, krtau and many others, and study them by means of scrupulous care in going to the history of these words and succeed in fixing their esoteric meanings. We shall find that the Veda emerges, in the words of Sri Aurobindo. as "a Scripture not confused in thought or primitive in substance, not a medley of heterogeneous or barbarous element but one, complete and self- conscious in its purpose and in its purport, veiled indeed by the cover, sometimes thick, sometimes transparent, of another and material sense but never losing sight even for a single moment of its high spiritual aim and tendency."[1]

[1] Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol. 10, Secret of the Veda, p.44

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

One of the central key words in the Veda is, according to Sri Aurobindo, the great word "ritam", since the central objective of the seeking of the Rishis was a spiritual or inner Truth, a truth of ourselves, a truth of things, a truth of the world and the gods, a truth behind all we are and of what things are. Instead of fixing its inner meaning, word ritam has come to be interpreted in all kinds of senses according to the convenience or fancy of the interpreter, such as "truth", "sacrifice", "water", "one who has gone", even "food", not to speak of a number of other meanings. By consistently giving it the same master sense, Sri Aurobindo has shown how luminous and sublime meaning emerges wherever this word occurs. A similar result is obtained in respect of all other important words, such as shravas, krtav, go, ashva ghrita, agni, Mitra, Varuna and other names of gods and goddesses such as Sarasvati, Ila, Daksha, and Bharati.


We need to recall that there has been a long and uninterrupted tradition of the view that the Veda contains secret knowledge and that the words of the Veda are secret words, ninya vacamsi, which are expressive to the Rishi. The Rishi Dirghatamas speaks of the Riks, the mantras of the Veda, as existing "in a supreme ether, imperishable and immutable in which al1 the gods are seated," and he adds "one who knows not That what shall he do with the Rik?" (Rigveda 1.164.39) Dirghatamas also refers to the four planes from which the speech issues, three of them hidden in the secrecy while the fourth is human, and from there comes the ordinary word. He, however, points out that the word and thought of the Veda belong to higher planes (Rig Veda I.64.461). Again, in X.71, the Vedic Word is described as that which is supreme and the topmost height of speech, the best and the most faultless. It is, however, stated that the real word is something that is hidden in secrecy and comes out from there and gets manifested. Again, that speech has been said to have entered into true seers, the Rishis, and is to be found by following the track of their speech. It is admitted that all cannot enter into its secret meaning, and it has been remarked that those who do not know the inner sense are like men who while seeing, see not, hearing, hear not, and that it reveals its meaning only to one who is true to it like the beautifully clad ardent wife disrobing her body to her husband.

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

Others unable to grasp steadily the meaning of the Word, it is suggested, move with the Vedic cow as one that gives no milk; to him the word is a tree without flowers or fruits. It is, thus, clear that the Vedic Rishis themselves regarded their hymns as words having secret meaning. All of us, therefore, who are striving to understand Vedic Sanskrit and who are dedicated to the linguistic approach, should not fall short of the deeper research by getting arrested at the superficial and ordinary meanings tangible at the surface.

We need to recall also Yaska who had declared that there is a triple knowledge and therefore a triple meaning of the Vedic hymns, a sacrificial or ritualistic knowledge, a knowledge of the gods and finally a spiritual knowledge. He has further pointed out that the spiritual knowledge is the true sense and when one gets it the others drop out or are cut away. In other words, he considered the spiritual sense as that which saves and the rest is outward and subordinate. He further stated that "the Rishis saw the truth, the true law of things, directly by an inner Vision". In due course, the knowledge and the inner sense of the Veda were almost lost and the Rishis who still knew it had to save it by handing it down through initiation and disciplines, and at last stage outward and mental meanings had to be found through Nirukta and other Vedangas. But even then, as pointed out by Yaska, "the true sense of the Veda can be recovered directly by meditation and tapasya"; and those who can use these means need no outward aids for this knowledge.

It is evident that the scholars who are called upon to interpret the Veda and employ linguistic approach to the Vedic Sanskrit have before them a very difficult task, since scholastic abilities have to be combined inner methods of direct and intimate knowledge by identity.

I am sure that the exercise of distinguished scholars who have assembled here in connection with this Seminar have contributed significantly to a deeper understanding of the Veda. And I like to congratulate the organisers of this Seminar for selecting this difficult subject and for having invited experts who can deal with it competently.

Vedic Sanskrit: A Linguistic Approach 19th February 2000

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