Mechanism of generating new words in Sanskrit

We elucidated in the first article of this series that words in Sanskrit represent properties while words in the other languages represent objects. Well, this is not entirely true. Probably, every language has some words that represent properties and some that represent objects. And, Sanskrit is no exception to this. But what separates out Sanskrit is the sheerly enormous ratio of Words representing properties to Words representing objects. Let’s call this ratio X.

X = Words representing properties : Words representing objects then we observe that
a) For most languages: Either X < 1 -OR- X = (approx.) 1  -OR- X (slightly) > 1
b) For Sanskrit: X is of the order of lakhs i.e. X~100000

So, even Sanskrit has words that represent objects. But there quantity is negligible in comparison to the words representing properties. Having noted this, let’s start off with generating new words.

The concept of dhAtu (धातु )

As is the case with derivations everywhere, be it theorems in Maths derived from axioms or chemical formulas derived from elements, the words in Sanskrit are also derived from some basic units. Such elementary, indivisible unit is called a dhAtu. Let’s get to the business right away.

In all, there are 2012 dhAtus in Sanskrit. We shall take up one dhAtu as an example for further illustrations. Let’s take the dhAtu कृ which means to do , make , accomplish , cause , prepare or undertake.

Since कृ is a dhAtu it means that its role in Sanskrit is akin to the role of, say, the element Al(Aluminium) in Chemistry. With Al we can form its oxides, nitrites, sulphides etc. With कृ, we can make its कृदंत words. कृदंत words are those, that can be formed by adding a suffix to a dhAtu. For example, कृ + तव्यत् = कर्त्तव्य| Here कर्त्तव्य is a कृदंत word, तव्यत् is the suffix and कृ is the dhAtu. Given below is a list of (probably) all कृदंत words that can be formed from the dhAtu कृ.

Don’t bother yourself in trying to figure out how to derive these words. They require one to apply certain algorithms to the dhAtu कृ. Describing those algorithms is not in the scope of this series. Take home with youself only the fact that so many words can be directly derived from कृ.

List of कृदंत words derivable directly from कृ

कृत = something that is done = completed or finished
कृतवान = someone who has done
कृति = an object obtained as a result of doing
कर्त्तव्य = something that must be done = duty
करणीय = something that should be done
कार्य = something that can be done = doable
कृत्य = something to be done/accomplished
कर्म = work
कर = something that helps accomplish something = a hand
कार = author, composer, source
कर्ता = doer
क्रिया = activity
करण = something that helps in doing = instrument
कारण = something that makes others do things = reason
करिष्णु = someone/something that constantly keeps doing
कृत्रिम = something that is done/made intentionally = artificial
कार्मुक = a catalyst
कर्मठ = clever and skillful in doing
क्रतु = a blueprint of things that are to be done = a plan
चिकीर्षा = desire to do = enthusiasm

All the above words contain the dhAtu कृ exactly once. These words can be derived using the rules of grammar by adding suffixes to the dhAtu. But this is only the beginning. Let’s look at the more advanced ones.

By combining कृत(something that is done) and कर्त्तव्य(something that must be done), we can generate कृतकर्त्तव्य = someone who has done what he must have done = someone who has performed his duty

Similarly, by combining the other कृदंत words we can form many more complex words.
कृतकरणीय = someone who has done what he should have done
कर्मकार = servant, worker
कृतकृत्य = one who has attained an object or purpose
कारणकर = the cause of the reason
कृतकरण= one who has created an instrument
and so on..

The above words contain the dhAtu कृ exactly twice. Note that there is no limit to how many times a dhAtu can occur in a word.

Let’s look at still more complex ones. The words coming next contain the dhAtu कृ and  other dhAtus. The words in the brackets represent the dhAtus that appear in a word.

कृततीर्थ = one who has visited holy places = (कृ) + (तृ)
कृतज्ञ = one who acknowledges past services or deeds =  (कृ) + (ज्ञा)
कृतमार्ग =  one who has made a road or path = (कृ) + (मृग्)
कृत्यशेष = one who has left incomplete, the task he intended to do = (कृ) + (शिष्)
कृतदेश = one whose place is fixed =  (कृ) + (दिश्)
कृतकाल = one who has a commitment at a particular time = (कृ) + (कल्)
कृतव्रत = one who has taken a resolution = (कृ) + (वृ)
कृतिसाध्यत्व = the property of being accomplished by exertion = (कृ) + (साध्)
वृक्षकृतालय = one who has made his house on a tree = (व्रश्च्) + (कृ) + (ली)
लोकक्षयकृत् = one who destroys the world = (लोक्) + (क्षी) +(कृ)
कृतोद्वेगनाद = one who makes sounds due to agitation or excitement = (कृ) + (विज्) +(नद्)
and so on…

As I pointed out earlier, there are 2012 dhAtus in all. But these are the primary dhAtus only. By adding suffixes to a dhAtu, we have formed  कृदंत words above. By adding prefixes to a dhAtu, we can form new dhAtus! For example, प्र + कृ = प्रकृ. Similarly we can have दुःकृ, उपकृ, कुकृ, निकृ, उत्कृ, सुकृ, विकृ, संकृ, आकृ, निःकृ, परिकृ, अवकृ,  पराकृ, अभिकृ, अधिकृ, अपिकृ, अतिकृ, प्रतिकृ,  अपकृ, अनुकृ | And now, the above process of generating कृदंत words and then combining them to form still more complex words, can be initiated from each of these new dhAtus just as it was initiated from कृ ! That is, we can generate 1000’s of words from this dhAtu कृ alone.

Now let’s look at some gems from mahAbhArata and rAmAyaNa.

  • जानु = knee | बाहु = arm | आजानुबाहु = one whose arms reach upto his knees
  • पद्म = lotus | पत्र = petal | अक्ष = eye => पद्मपत्राक्ष = one whose eyes are like lotus petals
  • चर = something that moves | अचर = something that does not move => सचराचर = something having both moving and stationary parts
  • आदि = beginning | मध्य = middle | अन्त = end => अनादिमध्यान्त = something having no beginning, no middle and no end
  • व्यक्त = expressed or manifested | आदि = beginning => अव्यक्तादि = something that is not manifested in the beginning
  • सर्व = everything | भूत = any physical object | भव = the complete existence |  उद्भव = source => सर्वभूतभवोद्भव = one who is the source of all the physical objects and the complete existence (Notice that the dhAtu भू appears 3 times in this word!)
  • भगवत् =  a glorious person/object | गीता = sung => भगवद्गीता = something sung by a glorious person
  • सूर्य = sun | कोटि = crore | सम = same | प्रभ = effulgence => सूर्यकोटिसमप्रभ = one whose effulgence is equivalent to that of a crore suns.
  • ….and this process has no end….

Shri Rama is also called AjAnubAhu, since his arms reached upto his knees!

Q) This is superb! I am really impressed. This mechanism of forming new words is not complex. In fact, it is very simple. And this causes a sort of uneasiness in me. Take, for instance, पद्मपत्राक्ष which when translated to English would become LotusPetalEye. This is meaningless in English. Or as another example, take सूर्यकोटिसमप्रभ which when translated to English would become SunCroreEquivalentEffulgence. Again meaningless in English. Then, why do these compound words have meanings in Sanskrit ? Why can’t this simple mechanism of generating new words be used in English ?

Shri Krishna is also called padmapatrAkSa, since his eyes were similar to lotus-petals. Can you now guess, how did we get the 1000 names of viSNu in viSNu-sahasranAma ?

A) The question you have asked is bang on target. I say this because to answer it we need to comprehend the concept of विभक्ति, which is the single main reason for all the sophistication that Sanskrit possesses. One can not even think of learning Sanskrit without grasping the essence of विभक्ति, and this is what we will try to do in the next article. That would be the climax of this series.

You have asked many questions so far, including those in part 1. Now, let me ask you one for testing what you grasped so far.

Q) We have seen that the most basic unit in the Sanskrit word generating mechanism is called a धातु. If you have some knowledge of Hindi, you might know that, in Hindi, metal is also called धातु . Can you guess why so ?
A)  Hmm. Probably because there is some property which is common to both. Wait! I think, it is because both a metal and the smallest unit of Sanskrit Grammar can be modified and molded into different forms to generate new objects. We have seen that a dhAtu can be used to generate new words by varying its form. Similarly, even a metal can me molded into different shapes to form new objects. Right ?

Yes, you are correct. So now I can say that you have really grasped the essence of the series so far. :P

By the way, stay tuned for the next article where we would introduce the concept of विभक्ति and explain why Sanskrit is probably the shortest among all languages.

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64 Responses to Mechanism of generating new words in Sanskrit

  1. Nagar says:

    Long back, I have read that SANSKRIT LETTERS are so scientifically structured that if you make LETTERS OF SANSKRIT in Wood and blow air from one end, the sound emanating from the other ends will be the PRONOUNCIATION of the SAME LETTER.

    Does anybody have more information on the above? Can anybody throw more light on the above?

  2. skrohida says:

    Thanks for such a lucid explanation. One question: As you say Sanskrit words represent either an idea, property or object . But who decides about the meaning of different dhatu words?


    • gshah says:

      I did not understand your question. Please elaborate.

      • skrohida says:

        Dear gshah sir:
        Different dhatu words represent different ideas or meaning. e.g. Kru means to do; Bhu is to be; Gam mean to go etc. These dhatu words can then be modified and vibhaktified so that we derive words representing properties or the objects. My questions is who decides the meaning of 2012 dhatu words which are the building blocks of the Sanskrit language? Who imparts them the meaning they represent? Another question: Is there is relation between the syntax or structure of the dhatu word and its meaning? to differently put this question: Is there any relation between the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ of the dhatu word ( or for that matter any word?)


        • gshah says:

          “who decides the meaning of 2012 dhatu words”

          No one decides the meaning. The meanings of dhatus are the result of the way the language has evolved. Who decides that ‘Cat’ means a cat ? Same way ‘kru’ means the idea of doing is a result of history or spontaneity.

          Is there any relation between the ‘hardware’ and ‘software’ of the dhatu word ( or for that matter any word?)

          Yes. There is relation.

          rakSaka = rakS + aka = one who does rakS = protector
          gAyaka = gai + aka = one who does gai = singer

          The meaning of ‘aka’ is same in both viz. “one who does”.

          kartavya = kru + tavyat = That which must be done
          bhetavya = bhI + tavyat = That which must be feared.

          So the structure of a word will tell you its meaning. But the meanings of components of a word (components like bhI or aka) have to be remembered.

  3. Vidhushaka says:

    Let Sanskrit take its natural course … No need to infuse life into it or keep it in the ventilator … Sanskrit too has to go the way of all flesh … Romancing with the dead is called necrophilia.

    • gshah says:

      I disagree. Sanskrit is not dead. This is just a bad patch. 200 years from now, Sanskrit will again be in all its glory. Humanity will have turn again to our ancient education system (which requires Sanskrit). If this does not happen, the current education system in English is creating such rulers (democratic politicians and capitalists) who will eventually destroy the world. Terrorism, Climate change, poverty are all the results of Capitalism, which is based on greed and today’s education system in designed to serve the interests of capitalists. This is the root of all problems and is taking humanity towards a mega-disaster. If Sanskrit and Indian education system become dead, believe me, the world will be destroyed in a few hundred years.

  4. glade says:

    To understand what meant of “Bali” in yagna, one have to understand culture were present during Veda period means 5000yrs before.

    Rishis mentioned in Veda about “aahuti” of horse/animal , cow in yagna to praise god, now if we think they to kill horse to praise god then that they should have got kind of “gou-Hatya” paap.

    Now in reality fact that time they use to take part of nail, or hair from animal to present it as “Bali” or sacrifice of that animal.

    Today we have tradition to provide our hair at lord venkatesh., that does not meant we sacrifice our entire body to god.

    But scientifically looking our rishis know that any part of body cell have DNA of person or animal that part represent. And to say god that they sacrifice animal they use to cut hair or nail of animal as representation .

    Please think above explanation in detail , compare how we can write sacrifice as a part of communication to other person then only we can understand what our rishis actually meant to say for sacrifice.

  5. Satyendra Pandey says:

    Hey, Do you have any suggestions for good sanskrit grammar book?

    • gshah says:

      Check out the resources section and thoroughly study the Agniveer Sanskrit series. It is highly suitable for the beginners. Once you are an expert in that then you can think of studying in detail the concepts described on this site.

    • Sumit Garg says:

      U can refer to “Sanskrit for english speaking people” by Dr. Ratnakar Narale ji, Prabhart Publications, an extremely excellent book.cost just 400- 500, depending on discount.

  6. gowmukhi says:

    where can i find meanings of each letter like the word jal, what does ja mean and what does l mean. what would guu meanand what would gu mean? it would be very nice to have a list of letters and meanings. thank you very much.

  7. narsing says:

    original dhatus in sanskrut are 180 and rest are derived of 2012 , is it correct ?

  8. alankar1974Alankar says:

    Thanks you so much to explain this in real simple word. I know many of these things and have strong belief in Sanskrit, Its texts. Misinterpretation has ruined the Sanskrit texts. We translate now as we translate English…but it is not same.
    धर्म is not same as “Religion”.
    खग is not a bird, but whatever has ability to wander (ग) on sky (ख) .
    मृग is not deer, but whatever wanders (ग ) on land (मृ).

    Vedic scriptures are not translated like this, so we are unable to reveal the scintific pearls they have in them. And I believe that stories, Pooja shlokas in Sanskrit are not only praise to God….but has some different meanings thanks to our misinterpretations and ignorance.
    Take Rudrashtadyaayi……..why would one count Ekaschame, Trischame……etc, while doing pooja ?

    Thanks for your work and sharing.

    • Shiva says:

      To my mind it appears that all numbers are odd numbers. One is left out. Rudra is one who is left out to stand and Govern. It means = like the number one, three,five seven etc., you too stand out. I may be wrong.

  9. Carl says:

    What about other classical languages like Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, etc.? Aren’t they also like Sanskrit in that their words also have dhAtus and relate to properties defining an object?

  10. Gnanaboomi says:

    I have a question. While this method is very interesting and seems very good, what is your explanation on the possible confusions it can and has caused in wrongly interpreting the texts which are written ages before. For example, we all know the word ‘Ashwa Medha Yagna’, which literally translates to “Horse Sacrifice Ritual’ or so. So it is interpreted as the Horse is killed (sacrificed!) for the Yagna. This is ridiculous if we check the Vedas, which talks about being vegetarian and protecting all animals. I am sure our forefathers must have thought of this potential pitfall or confusion that the anti-elements can cause by misinterpreting it. At least, in English, a car is a car and we cannot derive it to an elephant. Why is this?

    PS: Please do not think that I am against Sanskrit or anything. This is a genuine question and doubt and I request clarification.


    • gshah says:

      There are two things one should keep in mind while reading Sanskrit.

      1) Context: Words have different meanings in different situations. This true of every language, including Sanskrit. “The present (time) is bad.” “Did you get me a present (gift).” “Let me present (show) the solution.” Similarly, in Sanskrit, ‘go’ means sense organs, cow or rays of light or earth, depending on the context. But what makes Sanskrit different is the fact that in all the situations the property represented by the word ‘go’ is being satisfied. ‘go’ means ‘something that wanders’. Sense organs keep wandering to different objects for enjoyment. Cows keep wandering to different places for grazing, rays of light keep travelling, earth keeps moving around the sun. So when the topic is astronomy, ‘go’ would not mean cow. When the topic being discussed is self-control, ‘go’ would not mean rays of light. Context is very important in any language and much more important in Sanskrit. I do not know the meaning of ashwamedh yajna because the exact meaning would depend on context and I have not read the exact text from vedas or ramayana or mahabharat that discuss the ashwamedha yajna. Those who want to defame Indian culture have tried very hard to translate slokas out of context. I do not believe them unless I myself have read the original text.

      2) Accent: One more important characteristic one should look for is accent. Any vowel in Sanskrit has 3 types of pronounciations. udatta, anudatta and swarita. And the meanings of the words depend on the accent of vowels in it. For example, ‘agniputra’ could mean ‘agni’s son’ or ‘one whose son is agni’ depending on the accent of the vowels. The significance of the accent is almost nil in today’s languages and late classical Sanskrit, but in Vedic Sanskrit accent is very important as it could completely change the meaning. That is why you find accent markers in the text of Vedas. Vedic text without accent markers is incomplete. Here is a sample of text with accent markers.

      • Debabrata says:

        धन्यवाद: । बहु सम्यक् स्पष्टीकरण: ।

      • Himanshu Rathore says:

        Excellent explanation…..

      • Darshan says:

        After Learning from an expert Scholar in Vedas – Sudhakar sharma, got to know the meaning of Ashwa Medha Yaga/Yagna.

        Ashwa also means that which was always there and what will also be there, which in turn means Rastra (Desha, Country).

        Medha means group together or unite.

        Thus the process followed to unite a rastra under one rule is called Ashwa medha yaga.

  11. jagadamba says:

    thank you for your valuable time and information. i enjoyed and learned while reading this article, once again thank you.

  12. ananth says:

    awesome article.

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