No punctuation in Sanskrit ?

Given below is a section from mahAbhArata, where Arjun explains to Krishna his logic of not fighting the war. Apart from the literary, philosophical and poetic content, one thing is starkly conspicuous in this. Where are the punctuation marks?? No commas, no quotations, no semi-colons and no exclamation marks !! All we see are the single and double vertical lines viz. and . If they are punctuation marks, then why are they appearing at such regular intervals ?

अर्जुन उवाच
यद्यप्येते न पश्यन्ति लोभोपहतचेतसः । कुलक्षयकृतं दोषं मित्रद्रोहे च पातकम् ॥
कथं न ज्ञेयमस्माभिः पापादस्मान्निवर्तितुम् । कुलक्षयकृतं दोषं प्रपश्यद्भिर्जनार्दन ॥
कुलक्षये प्रणश्यन्ति कुलधर्माः सनातनाः । धर्मे नष्टे कुलं कृत्स्नमधर्मोऽभिभवत्युत ॥
अधर्माभिभवात्कृष्ण प्रदुष्यन्ति कुलस्त्रियः । स्त्रीषु दुष्टासु वार्ष्णेय जायते वर्णसंकरः ॥
संकरो नरकायैव कुलघ्नानां कुलस्य । पतन्ति पितरो ह्येषां लुप्तपिण्डोदकक्रियाः ॥
दोषैरेतैः कुलघ्नानां वर्णसङ्करकारकैः । उत्साद्यन्ते जातिधर्माः कुलधर्माः  शाश्वताः ॥
उत्सन्नकुलधर्माणां मनुष्याणां जनार्दन । नरकेनियतं वासो भवति इति अनुशुश्रुम ॥
अहो बत महत्पापं कर्तुं व्यवसिता वयम् । यद्राज्यसुखलोभेन हन्तुं स्वजनमुद्यताः ॥
यदि मामप्रतीकारमशस्त्रं शस्त्रपाणयः । धार्तराष्ट्रा रणे हन्युस्तन्मे क्षेमतरं भवेत् ॥

Arjuna explains Krishna why he wants to back off from the war.

In this article we shall see those features of Sanskrit that compensate for this lack of punctuation marks.  Even the  and  above, are not punctuation marks but are simply ways of arranging the text in the form of verses. Then these verses were memorized by the students in the gurukuls, so that they could apply them in life when the need arises.

Let’s invoke our dear old Q&A format and see what compensates for the lack of punctuation marks in Sanskrit.

Q) So, if that is the case, how do you write flowers, leaves, cows and elephants in Sanskrit ? What substitutes for the comma ?
A) In Sanskrit,
पुष्प = flower
पत्र = leaf
गो = cow
गज = elephant
Hence to write flowers, leaves, cows and elephants, all the words will have to be converted to their plural-first-vibhakti forms viz. पुष्पाणि, पत्राणि, गावः and गजाः which effectively translate to flowers, leaves, cows and elephants respectively. Then these vibhaktified words should be arranged sequentially to form the sentence.

पुष्पाणि पत्राणि गावः गजाः ।

Since there is no ambiguity of any kind, we don’t require commas here.

Q) Are you sure there is no ambiguity ? Let me show you, there is. In the article Similarities between Sanskrit and Programming Languages, you explained that words having the same vibhakti represent the same object, hence the 4 words viz. पुष्पाणि, पत्राणि, गावः and गजाः should represent the same object and not different objects, since they have the same vibhakti viz. first vibhakti. Am I not making a point ?
A) Actually, you are.  Words having the same vibhakti indeed represent the same object. And they represent the same object even here. So पुष्पाणि पत्राणि गावः गजाः । would mean that flowers, leaves, cows and elephants are one and the same thing. To prevent this from happening, we add a  in the end.

So पुष्पाणि पत्राणि गावः गजाः । would mean that flowers, leaves, cows and elephants are one and the same thing, but
पुष्पाणि पत्राणि गावः गजाः  would mean that flowers, leaves, cows and elephants are different things (though they have the same vibhakti). So we see that  is a kind of indicator that tells us that the words preceding it represent different things even if they have the same vibhaktis. There is no word in English that matches the role played by च, but it is often loosely translated by and. The difference between  and and is that while the former negates the effect of vibhakti and usually occurs at the end of the list of objects, the latter is not at all related to vibhakti (since there are no vibhaktis in English!) and occurs before the last word in the list of objects. So the correct translation of
flowers, leaves, cows and elephants is
पुष्पाणि पत्राणि गावः गजाः 
So the word च, along with the vibhaktis, compensates for the absence of commas in Sanskrit! (The word , used in the above passage from mahAbhArata in the manner explained here, has been marked in bold.)

Q) Ok, you explained about the comma. What about the quotation marks ? How do I write, for example,  “I am great”, he said. How will you do away with the quotation marks ?
 First let us give some meanings,
महान् = great
अहम् = I
सः = he
अब्रवीत् = said

So, the sentence “I am great”, he said. would translate to महान् अहम् इति सः अब्रवीत् | We have used the word इति, and not the quotation marks, to quote महान् अहम् . But, the word इति is much more powerful than simple quotation marks. इति is like a packager, which packs the words appearing before it into a single entity and then attributes that entity to the words that follow it. So, in महान् अहम् इति सः अब्रवीत् , “महान् अहम्” is packaged into a single entity by इति and then this entity is attributed to सः |

Q) I still don’t see, how is इति more powerful than quotation marks. Can you elaborate ?
 Sure, let’s take a different example. सर्वम् ब्रह्म इति नरः सुदुर्लभः। The english translation of this sentence would be, A man who thinks/believes/knows that “Everything is brahma” is very rare. Here, इति has packaged सर्वम् ब्रह्म into a single entity and attributed that entity to नरः, hence we know that it is नरः who thinks/believes/knows सर्वम् ब्रह्म. However, in English, the quotation marks package Everything is brahma into a single entity, but do not attribute it to A man. Hence, we need to use the verbs like thinks/believes/knows to attribute Everything is brahma to A man. In Sanskrit, we do not need to use any verbs for this. इति compensates even for the verbs. Similarly, महान् अहम् इति सः could be translated to “I am great”, he says/believes/thinks.

Exercise: Translate इति गच्छति । to english.

Q) Can you give more examples? How would you do away with colons, for example ? Translate Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
A) This is very easy. What does the colon signify here ? The part of the sentence before the colon says that there are three certain things which cannon be hidden. The colon here is used to convey that those three certain things are the sun, the moon, and the truth. Hence, the colon is used to match the (unsaid) three things with their names viz. sun, moon and truth. This can be done in Sanskrit using vibhaktis. In fact, one very basic purpose of vibhaktis is to match related words. Afterall, words having the same vibhaktis denote the same objects. So the Sanskrit version of this sentence should definitely have the same vibhakti for Three things and the sun, the moon, and the truth. The Sanskrit version of this sentence is त्रीणि चिरेण अनावार्याणि  सूर्यशशिसत्यानि ।

त्रि = (property of being) three
चिर = (property of being associated with) a long time span
अनावार्य = (property of) not being able to be hidden

त्रीणि = three objects
चिरेण = for a long time
अनावार्याणि = things which cannot be hidden
सूर्यशशिसत्यानि = the Sun, the Moon and truth

The translation contains no colon because त्रीणि which means Three things and सूर्यशशिसत्यानि which means the sun, the moon, and the truth indeed have the same vibhakti viz. first vibhakti and hence त्रीणि and सूर्यशशिसत्यानि represent the same object(s). Hence, we know that the three things are indeed the sun, the moon, and the truth. In fact, since अनावार्याणि also has the same vibhakti as  त्रीणि and सूर्यशशिसत्यानि, it also represents the same objects that त्रीणि and सूर्यशशिसत्यानि represent! Hence, we know that the objects which are त्रीणि and सूर्यशशिसत्यानि are also अनावार्याणि (means they cannot be hidden).

Q) Ok. And what are । and ॥. You told that they are not punctuation marks.

A)  and  play different roles in poem and prose. In a poem, like mahAbhArata above,  and  are only used to arrange text in the form of verses so that the verses can be easily memorized. In prose,is used to mark the end of a sentence (like a full-stop) and  is used to mark the end of a paragraph. So,  and  can be called punctuation marks if you prefer to call them so. But apart from these two, there are no other punctuation marks in Sanskrit.

Finally, the words like इति and many more are those that neither represent ideas, nor properties, nor objects. There vibhaktis too do not exist. These words are finite in number and are not derivable from dhAtus. These words fall at level 3 in the scheme we developed in the last article and are not derivable from the words of the second level. They usually fall under the category of Conjunctions, Interjections and Prepositions. Given below is the solution to the exercise. In the next article, we shall bust certain misconceptions about Sanskrit. Bye!

Solution to the exercise above
Thinking/believing/understanding/perceiving/knowing this, he goes.

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26 Responses to No punctuation in Sanskrit ?

  1. Nikhil Kalra says:

    this man who started with small steps but ended with tiger leaps will explain you the science behind Sanskrit Language..!!

    Must listen for all those who actually wanna know the reason behind such scientific language that our land is blessed with..

    start doing your bit right from today.. Here is the online library of all the revolutionary speeches by this patriotic scientist —

  2. Thank you, well done. Perhaps you (or some less expert readers) may be interested in these rules of thumb for punctuation in transliterated Sanskrit:

  3. John says:

    Please excuse me, but if someone were to write out a mantra in Sanskrit, such as ॐनमःशिवाय, would a | be at the end, a ॥, or nothing at all?

    • gshah says:

      There is such specific rule. I think both will do.

      • John says:

        Thank you very much for replying. I really appreciate your help. Please, if you have the time, answer this one last question: Would ॥ ॐनमःशिवाय ॥ would be a correct way of writing that mantra? Thank you for your time.

        • gshah says:

          Sorry. I meant, There is NO such specific rule. I think both will do.
          There is nothing wrong in writing ॥ ॐ नमः शिवाय ॥ this way.

          • John says:

            Thank you once again for your help. I really appreciate it. I’ve looked in two Sanskrit primers, one old and one new, but they give very little detail on how to use the। and ॥.

  4. Satyendra Pandey says:

    Awesome! Too good article. Write more of these kind!

  5. Pratyush says:

    Will there be a च at the end of the following sentence considering that we are referring to separate objects.
    त्रीणि चिरेण अनावार्याणि सूर्यशशिसत्यानि

    • gshah says:

      NO. सूर्यशशिसत्यानि is considered a single word which means “the sun, the moon and truth”. Because it is treated as a single word, च won’t come here.

      • Tushar Roy says:

        If one were to use सूर्य, शशि and सत्य in their proper vibhaktis and separately, instead of सूर्यशशिसत्यानि, and without च, would that be correct?

        • gshah says:

          Ideally, you should use ch in that case. But often, in spoken language, if it is clear from the context that they are indeed different objects then ch is not mandatory, but using ch is a good practice and grammatically advisable.

  6. Arjun says:

    Thank you very much for this nice tutorial.

    I would like to know about the question mark “?”.
    Does it also exist in Sanskrit or not ?

    You have not mentioned about it !

    • gshah says:

      ? does not exist in Sanskrit. In fact, no punctuation exists in Sanskrit except | and ||
      In sanskrit, किम् is used to denote a question and not ?.

      • Arjun says:

        Thanks gshah for this information. I have read all your tutorials about Sanskrit. They are too good. I would like to see some more tutorials from you about Sanskrit. Please post some more tutorials on Sanskrit.


      • sannisth says:

        You mean i add a ‘|’ with interrogative words and it becomes a question? But my school textbooks have many ‘?’s in it…. Or it has been there for sake of understanding?

        • gshah says:

          You mean i add a ‘|’ with interrogative words and it becomes a question? The answer is “Yes”.

          Forget school textbooks. Do you find “?” in any Vedas, any upanishads, any puranas, in aryabhatta’s book, in shruruta’s surgery book, in patanjali’s yoga darshan, in bhagawad gita ?

          you will not find any punctuation mark in complete sanskrit literature except | and ||. Many things in school textbooks are wrong, and this is one of them.

  7. M McCarson says:

    if anyone could help, i would love to know how to translate “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth” into sanskrit. I have tried to figure out the colon, and the commas but this will be a permanent usage that I cannot change later; so, I do not want to be wrong. Thank you so much everyone.

    • gshah says:

      Translation: त्रीणि वस्तूनि चिरेणानावार्याणि सूर्यशशिसत्यानि ।

      The sentence without sandhis is त्रीणि वस्तूनि चिरेण अनावार्याणि सूर्यशशिसत्यानि । All the words except चिरेण are in the plural nominative case.
      त्रीणि = three objects
      वस्तूनि = things (this is redundant, but still I have used it because the English sentence contains the word ‘things’)
      चिरेण = for a long time
      अनावार्याणि = objects which cannot be hidden
      सूर्यशशिसत्यानि = The Sun, The Moon and truth
      Since all the words except चिरेण have the same vibhakti (the nominative plural case ending) they point to the same set of objects.

      If we do not use the word वस्तूनि (which is redundant), the translation would become त्रीणि चिरेणानावार्याणि सूर्यशशिसत्यानि ।

  8. Dr. A. Gajanana says:

    Excellent series. I read them avidly. A very new way of seeing and learning Samskritham. A number of lingering doubts were cleared. Where is the continuation of this series?

  9. plz keep on writing about sanskrit..d article is very nice..

  10. Dhritisundar says:

    | is comparable to semicolon, whereas || is comparable to full stop.

  11. Dhritisundar says:

    पुष्पपत्रगोगजाः is an alternative, where the four nouns are conjugated and then pluralised.

  12. vishaw says:

    ati uttam… 🙂

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