Vedic Language (वैदिकभाषा)
The subject of Vedic interpretation is highly technical requiring a specialized knowledge of not only the language of the Vedas but also the vast Vedic and Post-vedic literature together with a thorough grounding in the exegetical, grammatical, religious, cultural, philosophical, philological, lexicographical, and historical studies connected with them.
Although there are numerous apparent similarities between vedic language and classical sanskrit, the difference between them in respect to grammar, vocabulary, style, matter and spirit are very conspicuous. 
परिचयः || Introduction
When we presume that Samskrit is the language of Veda, we get into trouble in understanding the text. There is difficulty in understanding the meanings of words and sentences. Even those words which appear to be common to both the languages denote different meanings in the earlier Vedic language and the later samskrit language.
A few nuances of samskrit used in Vaidika bhasha (वैदिकभाषा) and Laukika bhasha (लौकिकभाषा) such as differences in syllables, words, meanings, sentences and thoughts worthy of note are placed in the reader's perspective.
Vedic Language - A Few Nuances
We bring forth in the following section the subtle differences in Vedic Language (वैदिकभाषा) with examples, far different from the present day language, and the associated interesting points that are raised.
अक्षरम् || Akshara (Alphabet)
A single Akshara makes a difference in the meaning of the same word and same rk (ऋक्), in different sections of Veda as seen below
|इळामग्ने | iḷāmagnē |
(Rig. Veda. 3.1.23)
|इडामग्ने | iḍāmagnē |
(Tait. Samh. 4.2.4)
|परीणसो | parīṇasō |
(Rig. Veda. 8.84.7)
|परीणसि | parīṇasi |
(Sama. Samh. pūrv. arcika. 34)
|प्र यं राये | pra yaṁ rāyē |
(Rig. Veda. 8.103.4)
|प्र यो राये | pra yō rāyē |
(Sama. Samh. pūrv. arcika. 58)
|यात्यग्निरा | yātyagnirā |
(Rig. Veda. 10.8.1)
|भात्यग्निरा | bhātyagnirā |
(Atha. Veda. 18.3.65 & Tait. Aran. 6.3.1)
How can one explain the change of aksharas, when the texts are being carried from the very beginning, to this day without any distortion by oral tradition?
पदम् || Pada (Word)
For instance, the words svaha (स्वाहा), svadha (स्वधा), and vashat (वषट्) are very common in Veda but their precise meaning is not known.
- स्वाहा॒ स्तोम॑स्य वर्धना॒ प्र क॑वी धी॒तिभि॑र्नरा | svāhā stomasya vardhanā pra kavī dhītibhir narā | (Rig.Veda. 8.8.5)
- यज्ञोवै स्वाहाकारः | yajñovai svāhākāraḥ | (Shat. Brah. 184.108.40.206)
- वषट्कारेण जुहुयात् वषट्कारेव | vaṣaṭkāreṇa juhuyāt vaṣaṭkāreva (Shat. Brah. 7.2.3)
What these sentences mean can be fully understood, only when the exact meaning of the words svaha (स्वाहा), svadha (स्वधा), and vashat (वषट्) are known.
There are rks with a single akshara as a complete word:
ऊ॒र्ध्व ऊ॒ षु णो॑ अध्वरस्य होत॒रग्ने॒ तिष्ठ॑ दे॒वता॑ता॒ यजी॑यान् । (Rig. Veda. 4.6.1)
ūrdhva ū ṣu ṇo adhvarasya hotar agne tiṣṭha devatātā yajīyān |
One cannot understand the rk mantra context without knowing the meaning of words comprising of single akshara which is a unique feature of the Rigveda.
अर्थः || Artha (Meaning)
Apart from the unique words seen in vedic texts, some words such as those given below are seen both in Vedic and Classical texts but with different meanings.
|Word||Meaning in Vedic Samskrit||Reference||Meaning in Classical Samskrit|
|Sachi (शची)||Speech, Skill and Activity||One of the 57 names for Vak
(सप्तपंचाशत् वाङ्नामानि |११| saptapaṃcāśat vāṅnāmāni |11| Nighantu 1.11)
One of the 11 names for Prajna
(एकादश प्रज्ञानामानि | ९ | ekādaśa prajñānāmāni | 9 | Nighantu 3.9)
One of the 26 names for Karma
(षड्विंशतिः कर्मनामानि | १ | ṣaḍviṃśatiḥ karmanāmāni | 1 | Nighantu 2.1)
|Wife of Indra (Chief of Devatas)|
|Ashma (अश्मः)||Mountains and Clouds||अश्मः, पुं, पर्ब्बतः । मेघः । वैदिकशब्दोऽयं ॥ aśmaḥ, puṃ, parbbataḥ । meghaḥ । vaidikaśabdo'yaṃ ॥||Stone (पाषाणः, शिला | Pashana, Shila)|
|Gaya (गयः)||House, Progeny, Wealth||One of the 22 names for House
(द्वाविंशतिः गृहनामानि | ४ | dvāviṃśatiḥ gṛhanāmāni | 4 | Nighantu 3.4)
One of the 15 names for Progeny
(पञ्चदश अपत्यनामानि | २ | pañcadaśa apatyanāmāni | 2 | Nighantu 2.2)
One of the 28 names for Wealth
(अष्टाविंशतिः एव धननामानि | १० | aṣṭāviṃśatiḥ eva dhananāmāni | 10 | Nighantu 2.10)
|Name of an Asura (असुरभेदः | asurabheda), Place called Gaya (गयाप्रदेशः | gayapradesha)|
Some Vedic words like mutra (मूत्रम्), purisha (पुरीषम्) etc. even convey repugnant or repulsive meanings. By quoting Sanskrit meanings, some of the modern writers are even entering the area of pornography in explaining Vedic statements.
वाक्यम् || Vakya (Sentence)
- मा छन्दः॑ | mā chandaḥ (Tait. Samh. 4.3.7)
- अन्नं॒ वै च॒न्द्रमाः॑ | annaṁ vai chandramāḥ (Tait. Brah. 3.2.3)
- स॒हस्र॑शृङ्गो वृष॒भो जा॒तवे॑दाः | sahasraśr̥ṅgō vr̥ṣabhō jātavēdāḥ (Tait. Brah. 3.7.2)
Although the words in the sentences above appear to be understood, a meaningful sentence cannot be comprehended. If they are viewed as traditional samskrit words, the translated sentences will not convey relevant meanings.
विचारः || Vichara (Thought)
- अ॒ग्निम॒भिप॑वते | agnimabhipavate | अ॒ग्निम॒भिसंप॑वते | agnimabhisaṁpavate | (Tait. Brah. 2.3.9)
Is there any significant difference in the above two statements? Does a mantra need repetition to just add an adverb, sam (सम्) (Upasarga) to the verb ‘pavate (पवते)’, when latter sentence alone could have done the job, particularly when we know Veda uses minimum words with maximum efficiency?
- म॒नो॑ गायत्रि॒यै | गा॒य॒त्री त्रिष्टुभे॑ | त्रि॒ष्टुब्जग॑त्यै | जग॑त्यनु॒ष्टुभे॑ | manō gāyatriyai | gāyatrī triṣṭubhē | triṣṭubjagatyai | jagatyanuṣṭubhē | (Tait. Brah. 3.7.6)
What is the underlying thought of such often seen repetitions?
- वाचेन्नम् | ब्रह्मण ओदनम् | vācēnnam | brahmaṇa ōdanam | (Tait. Aran. 3.10)
What is Veda conveying in these two repeated sentences?
प्रातिशाख्य-ग्रन्थाः ॥ Pratishakhya Granthas
Many such questions arise in understanding Vedas, thus making their interpretation difficult. These variations suggest that Vedic language is different from conventional languages that we know and use. Veda talks about the importance of akshara at many places. There are many rk (ऋक्) and Yajus mantras emphasizing the importance of akshara. 11th anuvaka of 7th prashna in 1st kanda of Taittiriya samhita is all about aksharas, starting with
अग्निरेकाक्षरेण वाच मुदजयत् | agnirekākṣareṇa vācha mudajayat
Earlier Vedic scholars (Shaunaka, being one of them) wrote books on the language structure of Veda, called as Pratishakhya Granthas. Each one of those books deal at length about akshara. Hence, one has to thoroughly understand the speech system and become eloquent in vedic grammatical rules to interpret Vedic language.
वैदिकभाषाविशेषलक्षणानि ॥ Characteristics of Vaidika Bhasha
Vaidika samskrit bhasha (वैदिकसंस्कृतभाषा) contains certain unique features which differentiates it from the laukika bhasha that has been in vogue in the recent centuries. Some of these features are completely lost from the laukika bhasha. Shiksha granthas deal extensively the phonetic aspects of the Veda mantras.
Features of Vaidika bhasha include certain characteristic pronunciation of varnas, usages such as Anunasika (अनुनासिकः), Visarga (विसर्गः), Jihvamuliyas (जिह्वामूलीय), grammatical processes such as Svarabhakti (स्वरभक्तिः) and Abhinidhana (अभिनिधानम्), Vyuha (व्यूहः) and Vyavaya (व्यवायः). We find some unique words only in the vedas such as japhari (जफरी), tuphari (तुफरी). Grammatical rules pertaining to Vibhaktis (विभक्तिः | Case endings), Lakaras (लकाराः | Tenses and moods), Sandhis (सन्धिः | Conjunction), Samasas (समासः | Compound) are different for vaidika and laukika samskrit.
वैदिकभाषानिर्माणांशाः ॥ Basic Units of Vaidika Bhasha
It is seen that a complex interaction of grammatical rules, only a very few of which are given above, is involved in the construction of vedic texts. The concept of Bijakshara (बीजाक्षरम्) is unique to the vedas and the associated literature. Unlike any other language, vaidika samskrit propounds the existence of a meaningful and powerful combination of aksharas (sound syllable) called Bijakshara. Of the many uses, they are used as whole or a part of mantras to invoke the deities during various rituals. The following section gives a glimpse into the fundamental units of the language structure of vaidika bhasha.
अक्षरज्ञानम् || Knowledge of Akshara
Every akshara has a specific and significant position in the matrix. Also nature and intensity of effort involved in uttering, differ from akshara to akshara and also from one group to another. All the variations and characteristics of each akshara are reflected in its meaning.
When we speak or hear, the speech sounds are aksharas. When we put them into writing, their name is alphabet. Vedic alphabet is shown below as per their articulation points in the speaking machine (mouth): Only articulation points (and not all aksharas) are shown below. The akshara kha (ख) has no separate point of touch. The articulation point is the same as ka (क). Similar is the case with other aspirants – cha (छ), jha (झ) etc.
|Vowels (प्राण-s)||Consonants (स्पर्श-s)||ऊष्म-s||अन्तःस्थ-s|
|a (अ)||ka (क)||ca (च)||ṭa (ट)||ta (त)||pa (प)||ha (ह)||ya (य)|
|i (इ)||ga (ग)||ja (ज)||ḍa (ड)||da (द)||ba (ब)||ṣa (ष)||ra (र)|
|u (उ)||ṅa (ङ)||Ña (ञ)||ṇa (ण)||na (न)||ma (म)||śa (श)||la (ल)|
|sa (स)||va (व)|
- The arrangement of the positions of articulation in the mouth, either from left to right or from top to bottom is shown above. Everyone can verify themselves the arrangement.
- Main Vowels only are shown as the remaining vowels are just combinations of the prime vowels:
a + i = e (अ + इ = ए)
a + u = ō (अ +उ = ओ)
a + e = ai (अ + ए = ऐ)
a + ō = au (अ + ओ = औ) and
a + a = ā (अ +अ = आ); i + i = ī (इ + इ = ई); u + u = ū (उ +उ = ऊ)
- Vowel "a (अ)" is added to each consonant (k – क् | k + a = ka | क् +अ = क) to make it an akshara. Combination of vowel and the consonant results in an akshara, a separate recognizable sound unit. This automatic combining capability of both the vowel and consonant is innate in every man. Consonant sound alone cannot be sustained for more than half matra (मात्रा) duration (matra is the time period required to utter an akshara to be clearly audible and recognizable). Veda calls this natural union, samhita (संहिता). It is the vowel sound that gives prana (प्राणः) – life and makes the consonant stand the full matra period. The vowel – consonant combination is the fundamental samhita on which the entire speech system depends.
- The live energetic vibrant akshara matrix, embedded in the mouth of every human being, is the basis on which the Vedic language is built.
- When we look at the matrix, we notice an orderly system in the arrangement of the akshara positions:
- There are three main rows with eight aksharas in each row and a fourth subsidiary one with two aksharas.
- If we look from top to bottom, they are separated into three broad groups, vowels in the left (1 column), consonant (stops) aksharas in the center (5 columns). The last two column (7th & 8th) are different from both vowels and stops. Sanskrit linguists call 7th column aksharas ushma (ऊष्मः) type and of the 8th column, antastha (अन्तःस्थः) type. The ushma – aksharas require more air to utter. The nature of effort to pronounce antastha akshara is different from that all other types. Sanskrit grammar texts refer consonants in the middle as sparsha (स्पर्शः) aksharas and the Vowels as prana aksharas.
- Vowel speaking area is spread from the throat to the lips and indicates the boundaries of the speaking machine. Similarly, the limits of active area for of each group is clear, both in length and breadth from the orderly arrangement of the articulation points in the mouth.
- The sparsha aksharas are in three horizontal lines. First line consists of aksharas with minimum resonance, the second with those of higher resonance and the last highest resonance. (नासिका | Nasal sounds) .
- The arrangement is so scientific and perfect, that the tongue can jump to any point and pick up the consonant before the vowel sound comes to join.
पदज्ञानम् || Knowledge of Word
In laukika bhasha and other languages of the world, only word has a meaning but not its component aksharas. Vedic word is a combination of Vedic aksharas and the meaning of the word is summation of their individual meanings. The meaning of the word can be deduced by linking the meanings of individual aksharas in a logical way.
The word akshara (अक्षरम्) is in itself a combination (samhita) of the following aksharas:
- All the svaras (vowels) we can speak are represented by a – अ
- All sparsha-aksharas (stops) are represented by k – क्
- All ushma-aksharas (aspirants) by ṣa – ष
- All antastha aksharas (semivowels) by ra – र
- All nasikya aksharas (nasals) by ṁ – म्
Samhita’s capability is indicated by compound akshara kṣa – क्ष. The word not only indicates all the audio capsules which mouth can produce, but also its samhita capability. The word akshara literally means what it sounds!
One more example to indicate how Vedic words are coined : om is a very common word in Veda and ॐ इति एकाक्षरं ब्रह्म । ōm iti ekākṣaraṁ brahma – is an often quoted sentence from Veda. akshara ō – ओ is the result of combining vowels a – अ and u – उ. Thus, om represents Brahma through its manifestation, having the properties of a – अ, u – उ and ṁ – म्.
संवादः || Discussion
Interesting questions raised by Shri. Achyut Karve and discussed in the Bharatiya Vidvat Parishad may also be on the minds of many people:
- Is vedic language a tongue of any particular group viz. ethnic, geographical or of any particular race?
- Do we know of any other language which is not considered to be the tongue of a community and yet is a fully evolved literary language?
Although the answers to such questions calls for research which will only establish the historicity of the language, Indians have been attached to the Vedas and Sanskrit for millennia and have been nurturing and nourishing it for millennia. No other place did that. This discussion may be followed on Bharatiya Vidvat Parishad.
Akshara in Vedic Language
A few thoughts of Sri. Rayalu Viswanatha, regarding Aksharas of the Vedic Language.
How does Veda apportion meaning to each akshara?
Our life is a continuum of actions and events. Area of articulation is the main area where actions and events are taking place. Every action is an yajna. Shatapatha Brahmana says वाग्हि यज्ञः । vāghi yajñaḥ i.e., our ideas, intentions and desires are converted into aksharas in the yajna shala – the place of action. The speech action is representative of all actions in our life.
The sparsha aksharas are in three rows. Human existence has three aspects. First one refers to activities associated with our daily routine. The second one is connected with our ideals, dreams, goals and emotions. The third is the world of knowledge, thinking and awareness. Aksharas in the three rows are correspondingly used in Vedic language. All nasikyas (nasal sounds are used to identify and describe the various jnana activities. The akshara ma (म), last in the line, is reserved for mind (manas) .
The ushma aksharas are used to identify prana area (forces responsible for living).
Man has four traits. Four antastha aksharas are used for the four traits as given below:
- Man always does one thing or the other— (ya – य) .
- He is an individual, separate jiva — (ra – र) .
- He is not the same individual but a different one when he is dreaming to achieve his / her goals, gripped by deva bhava (देवभावः) — (la – ल).
- Can speak to express himself, vak (वाक्) — (va – व) .
We can see that the matrix is the miniature audio picture of man himself and Vedic language expands it into a full-blown audio picture.
Vowels are spread over the entire yajna shala. The akshara a – अ is located at the entrance, i – इ in the middle and u – उ at the end. They are taking part in the formation of every akshara. They represent the time and the potential needed for the yajna.
Broadly there are three stages of time for any incident or event (yajna) – past, present and future. Veda attributes the three stages to the three prime vowels a – अ, i – इ and u – उ respectively since their positions of articulation are in the same order. a – अ is also used for the ever-present tense since when we open our mouth to speak, first sound that comes out is that of a – अ and is present when other vowels are not in operation.
- agnim īḻe purohitaṁ | अ॒ग्निमी॑ळे पु॒रोहि॑तं |
The above is the first sentence of Rigveda and agni is the first Word. The word starts with a – अ. So agni is ever present. The word ends in i – इ. The word agni is now being used in the yajna. Whatever may be the meaning of the word, two features of the object meant by the word agni are clear. Rigveda starts with agni, the ever present force and constantly in use with every yajna (action) . Rigveda deals with all aspects of yajna up to the point of start. Yajnas in Veda cover the entire spectrum of actions in life and the resulting behavior. Yajna is an attempt to improve ourselves from the existing state. When the yajna is completed successfully, the driving force agni, invoked for the purpose becomes a part of us. Then it will be agna and NOT agni. So Samaveda which deals with final stages of yajna starts with the word agna – agna āyāhi vītaye – अ॑ग्न॒ आया॑हि वी॒तयॆ॑ ( Sama. Samh.1). Agni, the driving force of the achievement has become agna, ever present in us as a new capability achieved. But for the change of vowels in this word, we will not know the two different states of Agni.
i – इ indicates present tense (time during which yajna is conducted) and u – उ,the future. Yajurveda, which describes implementation of procedures in detail, begins with both these vowels in the first two sentences.
- iṣetvorjetvā – iṣe tvā + ūrje tvā | इ॒षॆत्वॊ॒र्जॆत्वा॑ – इषॆ त्वा + ऊर्जॆ त्वा |
All our actions (yajnas) are only with a purpose to achieve iṣa – our present requirement, hence starts with vowel i – इ. The word urja (ऊर्जा) is our hopefully achievable future wants and has to start with u – उ. The two sentences are combined into one (samhita) to indicate that human nature is to keep an eye on future while working for the present !
- Ram Gopal. (1983) The History and Principles of Vedic Interpretation. New Delhi : Concept Publishing Company
- Sri. Rayalu Viswanadha's Article on Vedic Language
- Aryamantavya Article : From Vedic to Classical Sanskrit (Development or Decay)
- Nighantu Shastram (Adhyaya 1)
- Nighantu Shastram (Adhyaya 3)
- Nighantu Shastram (Adhyaya 2)
- Shabdakalpadruma (See अवधिः)
- Shabdakalpadruma (See Gaya)
- Taittriya Samhita (Kanda 1 Prapathaka 7)
- Upadhyaya, Baldev. (1958) Vaidik Sahitya.
- Bharatiya Vidvat Parishad Discussion : Origins of Vedic Language