Any study of sanskrit should begin with a study of the sound system. For an excellent lesson on the sound system of sanskrit, please refer to:learnsanskrit.org - Sanskrit Vowels
This resource includes audio clips to give the correct sound for each of the sanskrit letters beginning with the simple vowels and following through to the consonants by way of the ‘next’ links. Getting the basic sounds correct takes a little practice (of course it helps if you speak an Indian language as you mother tongue in which case you will already be familiar with the sounds and much of the vocabulary of sanskrit).
Once you are familiar with the basic sounds things become more interesting as we move on to constructing some very simple sentences. Occasionally we will be able to refer to sanskrit texts such as the Bhagavad Gita in which the beauty of sanskrit verse is utilised. Also, as we progress you will be introduced to the basic use of nouns, verbs and various items of grammar.
अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ए ऐ ओ औ
First and foremost, let’s begin with the sanskrit sound system. In the following table the main letters of the ‘devanagari’ script are represented. Devanagari is the most commonly used script for writing sanskrit.
The vowels ऋ and ऌ are deliberately excluded for now. These are rarely used except for the following exceptions of words starting with ऋ (ṛ):
ऋग्वेद - ṛigved 'Rig Veda'
ऋणं - ṛṇ 'debt' (pronounced 'rrin')
ऋतुः - ṛtuh 'season' (pronounced like 'rituh')
ऋश्य - ṛśya 'a white-footed antelope' (pronounced like 'rishya')
ऋषभः - ṛṡabhah 'a bull' (pronounced like 'rishabha')
ऋषिः - ṛṡih 'a sage, seer' (pronounced like 'rishi')
Each consonant is followed by an inherent ‘a’ vowel. That’s an ‘a’ as in ‘mama’.
The text version of these tables is available in the PDF version (link at bottom of page).
|Simple Vowels and Dipthongs|
|Consonants and Semi-vowels|
It is advisable to practice the sounds of the sanskrit ‘alphabet’ repeatedly until they become correct. Once the main sounds and letters are mastered, we can then deal with basic sounds that combine a consonant with another vowel (other than the inherent ‘a’ sound which we have already seen in the previous table).
The following table represents most of the main sounds in which a consonant (in this case 'k') is combined with the main vowels.
|Consonant and Vowel Combined|
The same process can be applied to the other consonants, for example गा गि गै and गं ग: ग् र्ग
The ् is called virama which cuts off the trailing vowel as in ‘tam’ तम् ‘him’
The anusvāra ं is used as a final ‘m’ as in ‘ahimsāh’ अहिंसाः ‘non-injury’
Visarga : represents a final ‘h’ as in ‘taih’ तै: ‘by them’
Some conjunct consonants take on unique forms, the most common of which are in the following table (let’s not get overwhelmed by too many at this stage).
|Special Conjunct Consonants|
For a more comprehensive list please refer to:
learnsanskrit.org - Sanskrit Letters
There are a number of aspects of sanskrit which make it particularly difficult for the beginner, compared to other languages.This is particularly so for people from a non-Indian background. However, the awkward aspects of sanskrit are not without a very useful purpose.
Sandhi which probably means ‘conjunction’ or ‘joint’ (as it does in a physiological sense in ayurveda) is the way in which words join together. This can make reading words a little difficult in the beginning as the spelling of words changes when joined with other words. Of course, this only refers to the written language. Sandhi occurs naturally in all spoken languages, but in sanskrit the changes are reproduced in writing (something which is rare in almost all other languages). Following is an example of sandhi:
वाय्वर्कसोमानां - vāyvarkasomānām
Now if we remove sandhi and break this down into individual words we get vāyu, arka and somānām which in sanskrit letters (devanagari) will be:
वायु-अर्क-सोमानाम् - vāyu arka somānām
As you can see the result is very different. Most people find this a little awkward. To add to this, notice that soma has a suffux added (-ānām). Because vayu, arka and soma are joined together in a compound word, the plural possessive ending -ānām (suffix) is added to it. Of course this doesn’t make sense until you add the rest of the phrase (or sentence).
वाय्वर्कसोमानां गतिः - vāyvarkasomānām gatih
The paths (gatih) of vayu (wind), arka (sun) and soma (moon).
Of course sandhi can get a bit more complicated than this. Examine the following:
yastvalpamapyupayuktamudarashirogauravakaasashvaasaprasekacchardigaatrasadanaani - whew! give me a break!
Following is the break down into individual words (without sandhi).
य: तु अल्पम् अपि ऊपयुक्तम् ऊदर-शिरो-गौरव कास अश्वास प्रसेक छर्दि गात्र-सदनानि
yah tu alpam api upayuktam udara-shiro-gaurava kaasa shvaasa praseka cchardi gaatra-sadanaani - that's better
The words translate loosely and literally as, ‘which indeed little also applied stomach-head-heaviness cough breathlessness salivation vomiting limbs-weakness’. It doesn’t make much sense by itself, but the context is an explanantion of ‘mandagni’ or ‘reduced digestive fire’. This piece also illustrates the difference of syntax (word order) in sanskrit, but then all languages have their own peculiar syntax.
Hindi (which uses exactly the same script) does not use sandhi, and there is a tendency these days for modern users of the sanskrit language to avoid the awkward application of sandhi. Sandhi is a feature of ancient texts, especially where the verses were intended to be chanted, whereby pronunciation and rhythm were required to remain exact and unchanging. It was for the purpose of avoiding the process of colloquialisation and helped to ensure the language remained pure and unchanging for well over two thousand years.Verbal Prefixes
Let’s take a verbal root ‘gam’. This element is also known as a dhātu (just as you have a ‘dhatu’ in ayurveda). The root (or dhātu) ‘gam’ means ‘to go’, or ‘to move’ in general (it is not used as a word in its root form). Now there are many verbal prefixes in sanskrit, but let’s just deal with a few for the sake of illustration. The following examples are all present tense, third person singular. They use the following prefixes - ati, adhi, abhi etc.
ati - beyond, over etc
अतिगच्छति - atigacchati ‘go beyond’
adhi - over, above etc
अधिगच्छति - adhigacchati ‘go over’
abhi - to, against (often forcefully)
अभिगच्छति - abhigacchati ‘to go near/against’
ā - reverse (of the normal meaning)
आगच्छति - āgacchati ‘to come’
ud - up, above
ऊद्गच्छति - udgacchati ‘to go up’
sam - together, along with
संगच्छते - samgacchaté ‘to go together/join with’
There are about twenty verbal prefixes which in a lot of cases change the meaning of the verb completely. Using these prefixes with verbal roots, an almost limitless number of verbs can be constructed, which is why you will not find all of the prefixed verbs in any sanskrit dictionary. One needs to understand the use of the prefixes and the verb roots in order to have a good understanding of sanskrit. This is another one of those difficulties of the sanskrit language which at the same time is one of its most powerful attributes (but notice how Latin is similar eg tribute, attribute, contribute, distribute etc).Verb Classes
In the above example, the root ‘gam’ plus ‘ati’ becomes gacchati (not ‘gamati’) which is an exception to the normal rule for this class of verb. The root ‘gam’ effectively has become ‘gacch’ for all practical purposes.
There are about ten classes of verbs. They are all constructed from the verb root according to certain rules (with exceptions) for that particular class of verb. The verb root changes (according to certain rules of sandhi etc) depending upon the ending (suffix) which is applied to it. In the above examples you see that the third person singular ending is ‘ati’. The first person singular will be gacchāmi ‘I go’, and the third person plural will be gacchanti ‘they go’.
One only needs to be familiar with characteristic examples. By using the language regularly, one gets a feel for the correct usage. Of course there are other languages with this type of construct, I believe Russian is one such language.Masculine, Feminine and Neuter Gender of Nouns
Another awkward aspect of sanskrit is the use of masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. Of course this occurs in many other languages also, including Hindi. The gender of the noun also affects the adjective that qualifies it.
अधर्मोभिभवात्कृष्ण प्रदुष्यन्ति कुलस्त्रियः
स्त्रीषु दुष्ठासु वार्ष्णेय जायते वर्णसङ्करः
adharmorbhibhāvat-Kriṣṇa praduṣyanti kulastriyah
striṣu duṣṭāsu Vārṣṇeya jāyaté varṇasañkarah
In this verse (from the Bhagavad Gita), the feminine noun ‘stri’ is used. It is used in the locative plural case strīṣu meaning ‘amongst women’ and the adjective duṣṭa meaning ‘corrupted’ qualifies this noun. Therefore the adjective duṣṭa acquires the same ending (suffix) which reflects the case, number and gender of stri as in strīṣu duṣṭāsu (‘corruption amongst women’).
These days tremendous resources have become available for learning and preserving this ancient, profound and beautiful language. There are many other websites I would like to refer to, but for the beginner it is best to stick with one such resource, such as learnsanskrit.org, and follow it through to the end.
Often PDF files are made freely available online for the beginner. There are many excellent examples, some of which are listed as follows:
An excellent reference for the finer points of the devanāgari script and sanskrit grammar by Charles Wikner (1996):
SANSKRIT - An Introductory Course Based on Srila Jiva Goswami’s Grammar
... and there are many other options.