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Sanskrit Grammar

Sanskrit Grammar

by William Dwight Whitney

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As Latin is key to the study of Western classics, so Sanskrit is the gateway to understanding ancient Indian literature. One of the few Sanskrit grammars currently available, this meticulously researched and thoughtfully assembled guide to the language’s basics will prove valuable to students of Indian culture and history.
Focusing on the fundamentals of


As Latin is key to the study of Western classics, so Sanskrit is the gateway to understanding ancient Indian literature. One of the few Sanskrit grammars currently available, this meticulously researched and thoughtfully assembled guide to the language’s basics will prove valuable to students of Indian culture and history.
Focusing on the fundamentals of Sanskrit as revealed in literary classics, the text follows the forms and constructions of the older language, as exhibited in the Veda and the Brahamana. It begins with an introduction to the Sanskrit alphabet, followed by a treatment of the accent — its changes in combination and inflection, and the tone of the individual worlds. Succeeding chapters discuss declension, conjugation, parts of speech, and formation of compound stems. A helpful appendix, Sanskrit index, and general index conclude the text.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Language Guides Series
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5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

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By William Dwight Whitney

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-31726-7


Brief Account of the Indian Literature.

It seems desirable to give here such a sketch of the history of Indian literature as shall show the relation to one another of the different periods and forms of the language treated in the following grammar, and the position of the works there quoted.

The name "Sanskrit" (samskrta, 1087 d, adorned, elaborated, perfected), which is popularly applied to the whole ancient and sacred language of India, belongs more properly only to that dialect which, regulated and established by the labors of the native grammarians, has led for the last two thousand years or more an artificial life, like that of the Latin during most of the same period in Europe, as the written and spoken means of communication of the learned and priestly caste; and which even at the present day fills that office. It is thus distinguished, on the one hand, from the later and derived dialects — as the Prakrit, forms of language which have datable monuments from as early as the third century before Christ, and which are represented by inscriptions and coins, by the speech of the uneducated characters in the Sanskrit dramas (see below), and by a limited literature; the Pali, a Prakritic dialect which became the sacred language of Buddhism in Ceylon and Farther India, and is still in service there as such; and yet later and more altered tongues forming the transition to the languages of modern India. And, on the other hand, it is distinguished, but very much less sharply and widely, from the older dialects or forms of speech presented in the canonical literature, the Veda and Brahmana.

This fact, of the fixation by learned treatment of an authorized mode of expression, which should thenceforth be used according to rule in the intercourse of the educated, is the cardinal one in Indian linguistic history; and as the native grammatical literature has determined the form of the language, so it has also to a large extent determined the grammatical treatment of the language by European scholars.

Much in the history of the learned movement is still obscurse, and opinions are at variance even as to points of prime consequence. Only the concluding works in the development of the gramatical science have been preserved to us; and though they are evidently the perfected fruits of a long series of learned labors, the records of the latter are lost beyond recovery. The time and the place of the creation of Sanskrit are unknown; and as to its occasion, we have only our inferences and conjectures to rely upon. It seems, however, altogether likely that the grammatical sense of the ancient Hindus was awakened in great measure by their study of the traditional sacred texts, and by their comparison of its different language with that of contemporary use. It is certain that the grammatical study of those texts (çakhas, lit'ly branches), phonetic and other, was zealously and effectively followed in the Brahmanic schools; this is attested by our possession of a number of phonetico–grammatical treatises, pratiçakhyas (prati çakhambelonging to each several text), each having for subject one principal Vedic text, and noting all its peculiarities of form; these, both by the depth and exactness of their own researches and by the number of authorities which they quote, speak plainly of a lively scientific activity continued during a long time. What part, on the other hand, the notice of differ cences between the correct speech of the learned and the altered dialects of the vulgar may have borne in the same movement is not easy to determine; but it is not customary that a language has its proper usages fixed by rule until the danger is distinctly felt of its undergoing corruption.

The labors of the general school of Sanskrit grammar reached a climax in the grammarian Panini, whose text-book, containing the facts of the language cast into the highly artful and difficult form of about four thousand algebraic-formula-like rules (in the statement and arrangement of which brevity alone is had in view, at the cost of distinctness and unambiguousness), became for all after time the authoritative, almost sacred, norm of correct speech. Respecting his period, nothing really definite and trustworthy is known; but he is with much probability held to have lived some time (two to four centuries) before the Christian era. He has had commentators in abundance, and has undergone at their hands some measure of amendment and completion; but he has not been overthrown or superseded. The chief and most authoritative commentary on his work is that called the Mahabhashyagreat comment, by Patanjali.

A language, even if not a vernacular one which is in tolerably wide and constant use for writing and speaking, is, of course, kept in life principally by direct tradition, by communication from teacher to scholar and the study and imitation of existing texts, and not by the learning of grammatical rules; yet the existence of grammatical authority, and especially of a single one, deemed infallible and of prescriptive value, could not fail to exert a strong regulative influence, leading to the avoidance more and more of what was, even if lingering in use, inconsistent with his teachings, and also, in the constant reproduction of texts, to the gradual effacement of whatever they might contain that was unapproved. Thus the whole more modern literature of India has been Paninized, so to speak, pressed into the mould prepared by him and his school. What are the limits of the artificiality of this process is not yet known. The attention of special students of the Hindu grammar (and the subject is so intricate and difficult that the number is exceedingly small of those who have mastered it sufficiently to have a competent opinion on such general matters) has been hitherto mainly directed toward determining what the Sanskrit according to Panini really is, toward explaining the language from the grammar. And, naturally enough, in India, or wherever else the leading object is to learn to speak and write the language correctly — that is, as authorized by the grammarians — that is the proper course to pursue. This, however, is not the way really to understand the language. The time must soon come, or it has come already, when the endeavor shall be instead to explain the grammar from the language: to test in all details, so far as shall be found possible, the reason of Panini's rules (which contain not a little that seems problematical, or even sometimes perverse); to determine what and how much genuine usage he had everywhere as foundation, and what traces may be left in the literature of usages possessing an inherently authorized character, though unratified by him.

By the term "classical" or "later" language, then, as constantly used below in the grammar, is meant the language of those literary monuments which are written in conformity with the rules of the native grammar: virtually, the whole proper Sanskrit literature. For although parts of this are doubtless earlier than Panini, it is impossible to tell just what parts, or how far they have escaped in their style the leveling influence of the grammar. The whole, too, may be called so far an artificial literature as it is written in a phonetic form (see grammar, 101 a) which never can have been a truly vernacular and living one. Nearly all of it is metrical: not poetic works only, but narratives, histories (so far as anything deserving that name can be said to exist), and scientific treatises of every variety, are done into verse; a prose and a prose literature hardly has an existence (the principal exceptions, aside from the voluminous commentaries, are a few stories, as the Daçakumaracarita and the Vasavadatta). Of linguistic history there is next to nothing in it all; but only a history of style, and this for the most part showing a gradual depravation, an increase of artificiality and an intensification of certain more undesirable features of the language — such as the use of passive constructions and of participles instead of verbs, and the substitution of compounds for sentences.

This being the condition of the later literature, it is of so much the higher consequence that there is an earlier literature, to which the suspicion of artificiality does not attach, or attaches at least only in a minimal degree, which has a truly vernacular character, and abounds in prose as well as verse.

The results of the very earliest literary productiveness of the Indian people are the hymns with which, when they had only crossed the threshold of the country, and when their geographical horizon was still limited to the riverbasin of the Indus with its tributaries, they praised their gods, the deified powers of nature, and accompanied the rites of their comparatively simple worship. At what period these were made and sung cannot be determined with any approach to accuracy: it may have been as early as 2000 B. C. They were long handed down by oral tradition, preserved by the care, and increased by the additions and imitations, of succeeding generations; the mass was ever growing, and, with the change of habits and beliefs and religious practices, was becoming variously applied — sung in chosen extracts, mixed with other material into liturgies, adapted with more or less of distortion to help the needs of a ceremonial which was coming to be of immense elaboration and intricacy. And, at some time in the course of this history, there was made for preservation a great collection of the hymn-material, mainly its oldest and most genuine part, to the extent of over a thousand hymns and ten thousand verses, arranged according to traditional authorship and to subject and length and metre of hymn: this collection is the Rig-VedaVeda of verses (rc) or of hymns. Other collections were made also out of the same general mass of traditional material: doubtless later, although the interrelations of this period are as yet too unclear to allow of our speaking with entire confidence as to anything concerning them. Thus, the Sama-VedaVeda of chants (saman), containing only about a sixth as much, its verses nearly all found in the Rig-Veda also, but appearing here with numerous differences of reading: these were passages put together for chanting at the soma-sacrifices. Again, collections called by the comprehensive name of Yajur-VedaVeda of sacrificial formulas (yajus): these contained not verses alone, but also numerous prose utterances, mingled with the former, in the order in which they were practically employed in the ceremonies; they were strictly liturgical collections. Of these, there are in existence several texts, which have their mutual differences: the VajasaneyiSamhita (in two slightly discordant versions, Madhyandina and Kanva), sometimes also called the White Yajur-Veda; and the various and considerably differing texts of the Black Yajur-Veda, namely the Taittiriya-Samhita, the Maitrayani-Samhita, the Kapisthala-Samhita, and the Kathaka (the two last not yet published). Finally, another historical collection, like the Rig-Veda, but made up mainly of later and less accepted material, and called (among other less current names) the Atharva-VedaVeda of the Atharvans (a legendary priestly family); it is somewhat more than half as bulky as the Rig-Veda, and contains a certain amount of material corresponding to that of the latter, and also a number of brief prose passages. To this last collection is very generally refused in the orthodox literature the Name of Veda; but for us it is the most interesting of all, after the Rig-Veda, because it contains the largest amount of hymn-material (or mantra, as it is called, in distinction from the prose brahmana), and in a language which, though distinctly less antique than that of the other, is nevertheless truly Vedic. Two versions of it are extant, one of them in only a single known manuscript.

A not insignificant body of like material, and of various period (although doubtless in the main belonging to the latest time of Vedic productiveness, and in part perhaps the imitative work of a yet more modem time), is scattered through the texts to be later described, the Brahmanas and the Sutras. To assemble and sift and compare it is ncjw one of the pressing needs of Vedic study.

The fundamental divisions of the Vedic literature here mentioned have all had their various schools of sectaries, each of these with a text of its own, showing some differences from those of the other schools; but those mentioned above are all that are now known to. be in existence; and the chance of the discovery of others grows every year smaller.

The labor of the schools in the conservation of their sacred texts was extraordinary, and has been crowned with such success that the text of each school, whatever may be its differences from those of other schools, is virtually without various readings, preserved with all its peculiarities of dialect, and its smallest and most exceptional traits of phonetic form, pure and unobscured. It is not the place here to describe the means by which, in addition to the religious care of the sectaries, this accuracy was secured: forms of texts, lists of peculiarities and treatises upon them, and so on. When this kind of care began in the case of each text, and what of original character may have been effaced before it, or lost in spite of it, cannot be told. But it is certain that the Vedic records furnish, on the whole, a wonderfully accurate and trustworthy picture of a form of ancient Indian language (as well as ancient Indian beliefs and institutions) which was a natural and undistorted one, and which goes back a good way behind the classical Sanskrit. Its differences from the latter the following treatise endeavors to show in detail.

Along with the verses and sacrificial formulas and phrases in the text of the Black Yajur-Veda are given long prose sections, in which the ceremonies are described, their meaning and the reason of the details and the accompanying utterances are discussed and explained, illustrative legends are reported of fabricated, and various speculations, etymological and other, are indulged in. Such matter comes to be called brahmana (apparently relating to the brahman or worship). In the White Yajur-Veda, it is separated into a work by itself, beside the samhita or text of verses and formulas, and is called the Çatapatha-Brahmana Brahmana of a hundred ways. Other similar collections are found, belonging to various other schools of Vedic study, and they bear the common name of Brahmana, with the name of the school, or some other distinctive title, prefixed. Thus, the Aitareya and Kausitaki-Brahmanas, belonging to the schools of the Rig-Veda, the Pañcavinça and Sadvinça-Brahmanas and other minor works, to the Sama-Veda; the Gopatha-Brahmana, to the Atharva-Veda; and a Jaiminiya- or Talavakara-Brahmana, to the Sama-Veda, has recently (Burnell) been discovered in India; the Taittiriya-Brshmana is a collection of mingled mantra and brahmana, like the samhita of the same name, but supplementary and later. These works are likewise regarded as canonical by the schools, and are learned by their sectaries with the same extreme care which is devoted to the samhitas, and their condition of textual preservation is of a kindred excellence. To a certain extent, there is among them the possession of common material: a fact the bearings of which are not yet fully understood.


Excerpted from SANSKRIT GRAMMAR by William Dwight Whitney. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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