The flexibility of Sanskrit

Just as you change your worn-out clothes, so do you change your worn-out body. Afterall, the body is just a set of non-living chemicals and you are beyond them. This conjecture forms the foundations of Indian Philosophy. And above all, this belief is not unscientific. In fact, though unprovable, it is consistent with Observation/Science. 

Did you know, Sanskrit is a highly word-order free language ? What does this mean ? It means that you can take a Sanskrit sentence, jumble its words the way you wish and there is good probability that the resulting sentence would still mean the same as the original one. Don’t believe ? Here is an illustration. All the sentences given below mean exactly the same.

वासांसि जीर्णानि विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरः अपराणि ॥
विहाय जीर्णानि वासांसि नवानि गृह्णाति नरः अपराणि ॥
नरः विहाय वासांसि जीर्णानि गृह्णाति अपराणि नवानि ॥
विहाय वासांसि जीर्णानि नरः नवानि अपराणि गृह्णाति
गृह्णाति नवानि अपराणि नरः विहाय वासांसि जीर्णानि ॥
जीर्णानि विहाय वासांसि गृह्णाति अपराणि नरः नवानि
and so on…till thousands of permutations are exhausted!

The above sentence(s) mean(s) “A man abandons worn-out clothes to wear other new ones.

Try to change the position of even a single word in the English version and you will see the sentence become meaningless. What feature of Sanskrit makes such tremendous word-jumbling possible ? I bet you know the answer. It is our same old vibhakti!

Let’s understand how such cruel word-jumbling becomes possible through a conversation  between you and me 😛

So can you shed some light on this jumbling thing and explain how it works ?

Sure. But before I give you the light, I need to explain a very basic concept of linguistics. That concept is Inflection.

Ok. Go ahead.

English is a weakly inflected language. This means that given a word in English, it will not have many different forms. Take the word Dog, for example. There are only two forms of it. (1)Dog (2)Dogs. The word Dog has no other forms. Form(1) gives the information that there is one dog, while Form(2) gives the information that there are more than one dog. Form Information provided
one dog
more than one dog

Similarly, consider the word Happy. It has the following forms. Form Information provided
someone is happy
someone is less happy than the happier person
everyone is less happy than the happiest person
someone is not happy
the feeling of being happy
the feeling of not being happy

For the word Write, we have Form Information provided
present tense
something is already written
past tense
possible to write
someone who writes

The words dog and dogs are called inflections of Dog. The words happy, happier, happiest, unhappy, happiness and unhappiness are inflections of Happy. The words writes, wrote, written, writer and writable are inflections of Write.

An inflection of a word is a different form of that word and is used for enhancing the meaning of the original word.

When we say that English is a weakly inflected language, we mean that, on an average, the words in English have few inflections. That means, English rarely uses different forms of a word, to convey enhanced meanings of that word. Instead, it uses totally new unrelated words to convey the enhanced meanings. For example, to convey “the meat was eaten by a dog“, we are using a totally new unrelated word by’, instead of using a different form of the word ‘Dog’. Similarly, to convey “If I were Newton, I would have discovered the laws of motion“, we are using 2 new unrelated words would’ and ‘have’, instead of using a different form of the word ‘Discover’. This is what makes English a weakly inflected language. Similarly, Hindi and Mandarin are also weakly inflected. Mandarin is even more weakly inflected than English.

In contrast, we have what are called highly inflected languages, such as Arabic or Greek. Highly inflected languages are those which depend heavily on inflections to convey the enhanced meanings of a word. For example, the sentence “the meat was eaten by a dog” written in Sanskrit, would be
मांसं          खादितं         कुक्कुरेण ॥
The meat was eaten by a dog .

In English, to convey the information that dog is the agent by whom the action(of eating) is being performed, we are using a totally new unrelated word by. But in Sanskrit, we are using a different form(inflection) of the word कुक्कुर . Here, कुक्कुरेण is an inflection of the original word कुक्कुर, which conveys the extra information that कुक्कुर is the agent by whom the action is being performed. Similarly, while English used the word was to convey that the meat is already eaten, Sanskrit uses खादितं  – a different form of the word खादन – to convey that the action(खादन) is already performed. The word  खादितं is an inflection of the original word खादन . Even vibhakti is a type of inflection.
Now, having known this, I think you are able to figure out why such intense word jumbling is possible in Sanskrit and not in English. In fact,  मांसं खादितं कुक्कुरेण ॥ can be correctly written as  खादितं कुक्कुरेण मांसं॥ or as कुक्कुरेण मांसं खादितं॥  This can’t be done in English!

Intuitively, I am getting a feel of this word-jumbling thing. But can you clear the haze ?

No problems. Let’s try to see what happens when we jumble the words in the English sentence. Consider the word was in the sentence The meat was eaten by a dog. The word was performs 2 functions here.
1) By appearing after the word meat, the word was conveys that it is meat on which the action(of eating) is performed.
2) By appearing before the word eaten, the word was conveys that the action(of eating) has already been performed.
Jumbling the words in English would nullify these functions

In Sanskrit, these 2 functions are performed by the vibhakti (inflections) and not by word-order.
1) Because मांसं & खादितं have the same vibhakti, we know that they apply to the same object. Hence, खादितं applies to मांसं and not कुक्कुरेण, whatever be the order of words in the sentence! So we know that, it is मांसं on which the action is performed.
2) To show that the action(of eating) viz. खादन has already been performed, Sanskrit uses an inflection of खादन viz. खादित. The information that खादन has been performed is ingrained in the inflection खादित, irrespective of the position of खादित in the sentence!

Because each word in a Sanskrit sentence is an inflection of an original word, it represents not only the original word but also some enhanced meanings of it. These enhanced meanings are not conveyed by other unrelated words (as in English), but are embedded in the inflection itself, hence the enhanced meanings remain unchanged irrespective of the word-order!

Ok. I get it. Interesting. But what will one get by jumbling the words ? Don’t you think it’s useless.

I don’t think so. Let me show you some benefits of the flexible word-order. From a literary point of view, flexible word-order makes creating poetry, slokas and other forms of literary art easier. No wonder, a large part of Sanskrit literature is thrown in the form of poetry. In fact, mahAbhArata which is the world’s longest poem (1,00,000 slokas!) is actually a story! Writing a long story like mahAbhArata in the form of a poem would have been more difficult in English. Even Aryabhatta has written his mathematical and astronomical theorems in the form of slokas and not prose. maharSi baudhAyana explains what the Europeans call as Pythagoras’s theorem in the form slokas(poetic couplets). Slokas are not only sweet to the ears but also make memorizing their content easier, so that theorems can be recalled and applied without errors!
And above all, this flexible word-order makes Sanskrit easier to be understood by a computer because when a sentence is fed to the computer it need not analyse the order of words while processing the sentence!

I think I should donate some time to learning Sanskrit properly, apart from learning some foreign languages. Sanskrit seems to be much more advanced than the impression I got about it from the school course.

You are right. Not only Sanskrit, but most Indian languages, I feel are linguistically and grammatically more advanced than English, contrary to the impression that our British-designed education system gives us. Our education system gives us a biased one-sided view of India (and its languages), resulting in confused and apologetic Indians.

Finally, to end the article, take home what you learnt today. Sanskrit is one of the most highly inflected languages in the world. Possibly, more than any other. The concept of vibhakti (which is a type of inflection) is the single main feature responsible for all the sophistication that Sanskrit possesses. In fact, any language that makes extensive use of vibhaktis is bound to be more robust than the one that does not use it (meaning of robust is given in the next para). Languages like German, Latin, Greek, Arabic (that make comprehensive use of vibhaktis) are more sophisticated than, say, English, Hindi or Mandarin (that don’t).

Baba Ramdev is actually not a baba as the media tries to malign him. He is what I call a maharSi of the modern yuga. Very few know that Baba Ramdev started doing research in Yoga only at a later date. His original field of study is Sanskrit! He is a scholar of the Paninian Grammar which is still not fully understood by modern Linguists.

Vibhakti is, perhaps, the most groundbreaking linguistic discovery ever made. It makes a language short and computer friendlyreduces the need for punctuation, also reduces the need of using unnecessary verbs and, above all, provides the support base for creating new words. It also makes a language word-order free as we have seen in this article. In the view that English is weakly inflected, I reckon the rise in popularity of English in the last 2 centuries (mainly due to British invasions and not because English is inherently advanced) has been a regressive phenomenon for humanity, atleast from a linguistic perspective.

Coming back to the topic, Sanskrit makes use of vibhaktis much more  extravagantly than do Greek, Arabic and others. No wonder, it is highly sophisticated. Below I quote the words of Sir William Jones, a European linguist, about Sanskrit.

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.

In the upcoming articles, apart from other aspects, we will also look at the revival opportunities for Sanskrit. The future of Sanskrit seems great, if my (political) calculations carry substance.

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12 Responses to The flexibility of Sanskrit

  1. sir, mzaa agya
    kai baar sochta hun ki main shayad akela hun……jo desh ko bachne mein laga hun……kai baar vishwas tootata hai….magar aapke articles se mulaqat hui toh hosla badha …..main bhi desh, hind aur sanskrit premi hun…….main apna sara jeevan desh-nirman mein lagana chahta hun….abhi 21 saal ka hun….josh bhi h aur howsla bhi…..apse milke irade aur mazboot hogae.

    jai hind
    vande mataram

    • gshah says:

      tum akele nahi ho, baba ramdev bhi desh ko bachane me lage hai. desh bachega kaise ? uska ek maatra tarika hai ki hame angrezon ki banai hui shiksha vyavastha ko badal kar apne rishiyon dwara nirmit vedic shiksha vyavastha ko punah sthapit karna hoga. baba ramdev yahi kar rahe hai. unhone gurukul khola hai jisme aadha din sanskrit me vaidik shiksha aur adha din modern education(CBSE) me padhai hoti hai. kuch saalon me aise gurukul har district me honge. jab vedic shiksha grahan kiye hue log desh par raaj karenge, tab hi desh bach sakta hai. desh ko bachane k anya saare prayaas asaphal hi honge, kyonki jab tak desh pe raaj karne waale log angrezi manasikta k rahenge, tab tak desh ki buri haalat hi rahegi.

      agar desh k liye kuch karna hai, to ek sujhaav deta hoon. Baba ramdev k bharat swabhiman andolan se jud jaao, mujhe is andolan se kaafi ummiden hai, kyonki baba ramdev ne desh ki mool samasya – angrezi maansikta waale log, jo angrezi shiksha vyavastha me tayaar ho rahe hai – pe hamla kiya hai. jab sanskrit padhe likhe, rishiyon ki tarah sochne waale, log desh ki neetiyan banayenege, tab hi desh ka uddhar hoga. iske alava desh ka uddhar ho hi nahi sakta.

      hame phir se chanakya, chandragupta maurya, arjun jaise logon ko tayaar karna hoga, jiske liye gurukuliya shiksha vyavastha zaroori hai.

      jai bharat.

  2. Hello, i am a native resident of Greece, and independent researcher in programming languages and natural/artificial languages. I really admire your work in here, it is amazing really! I cannot stretch enough, how happy i am of reading your articles.

    I have a lot of questions for you, but i will try to restrain myself. By the way i am enriching my knowledge of ancient greek and reading the comparative study of Latin-Greek-Sanskrit of Ferrich.

    So, i am watching a video of Baba Ramdev and i am focusing on the phonetics side of the language, but this person uses it to make rituals, and speaks quickly not really helping me there.

    Does any songs exist like that greek one, that speak clearly so as to study the phonemes of it? If possible not religion chorus. I cannot say i am particularly happy with religions.

    If you cannot find a pure Sanskrit one, could you help me with the closest dialect of it?

    Thanks again. If it is not much of a hassle for you i would like to tell me which programming languages have you studied/used apart from the mainstream ones. Maybe i could give you some ideas.

    • gshah says:


      I am not a student of languages, I have only learnt Sanskrit and some linguistics amateurly out of interest on my own, by comparing Sanskrit texts with their translations without the help of any tutor, so whatever you find on this blog comes out of my informal analysis and may not be authoritative or 100% accurate from a linguistic perspective.

      I do not know if you realize or not, the baba ramdev video that you have mentioned in your comment is in Hindi and not Sanskrit.
      Search for something like “vedic chants” on youtube, you may find some video containing the accent. I will search and let you know later as I am busy right now.

      As for programming, I am familiar with two languages – C++ and Java.

      And thanks for appreciating the articles :). By the way, I plan to learn ancient Greek and Classical Arabic in future. I am also interested in linguistics, though my background is engineering.

  3. Arjun says:

    i would like to know something more about LAKAAR. I have heard that there are only 3 tenses in Sanskrit i.e. लट लकार, लृट लकार & लङ्ग लकार। So how can we use present continous, past continous, past participle, etc.

    How can we say “He is going” or “वह जा रहा है” in Sanskrit?
    “सः गच्छति” means “He comes”.

    How can we say “He has done his work” or “वह अपना कार्य कर चुका है” in Sanskrit ?


    • gshah says:

      The verbal system of Sanskrit is totally different from English, so the first thing you should do is NOT see Sanskrit verbal system form the English lens. There is no present continuous tense in Sanskrit. For that effect you may use present participle but it is not a tense, it is a participle.

      वह जा रहा है may be written as सः गच्छन् or गच्छन् सः. Here गच्छन् is the present participle.

      As for tenses, there are 6 tenses in Sanskrit.
      1) Present
      2) Immediate Past (just a few minutes ago or just today)
      3) Recent past (yesterday or a few days, months or years back)
      4) long-time-ago in the past (centuries, millenia, yugas ago)
      5) Near future (about to happen or tomorrow or after few days or months)
      6) Far in future (after centuries or millenia)
      There are no other tenses in Sanskrit.

      Note that there are 6 tenses but 10 lakaars.

  4. Carl says:

    Sanskrit needs to be able to survive for one generation, that’s all. After that it will take off tremendously. In order to survive, it needs enthusiastic and intelligent new young “converts” who become lovers of this language.

    In the meantime, no need to abolish English from our education system – it provides an economically and technologically vital interface with the current global system and a comparative advantage.

    jayatu saMskRtam!

  5. ProfR.Swaminathan says:

    Excellent piece of writing, ofcourse already known to sanskrit lovers/knowers, what I honestly feel at this 70th yr of age, is that such focuses/ elaborations must be spread widely among younger generations esp in downsouth where a poisonous message is spread that Sanskrit is a caste promoting language confined to Aryans. Kudos! to ur service!!rs

    • gshah says:

      Unfortunately, we Indians could not prevent the british from playing the divide and rule card and, in their fanatic search for sensual pleasures, from vilifying Sanskrit. But let’s rebuild that great pre-invasion Bharatavarsha once again, now that we have thrown out the invaders. One important step in that process will be to eliminate the current british made education system and create one compatible with our needs. This is also one important aim of the Bharat Swabhiman Andolan (of Swami Ramdev).

  6. csrajan1937 says:

    Excellant. We already learnt about the uniqueness of VIBHAKTHI through the earlier topics. Anyway thanks for enlightening me more about the case endings. C.S.Rajan.

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