Unmasked

13 01 2011

Sanskrit is an easy language. While Latin has seven cases, and Classical Greek a troubling five, Sanskrit readers need only bother themselves with learning eight. What is more, while Latin primers expect their students to memorise five declensions, and Greek primers present us with a bothersome three, the student of Sanskrit need only memorise sixteen-or-so declensions in order to cover the range of possible nominal forms. That’s too easy! Don’t even get me started on the script. Greek has twenty-four characters. Latin has twenty-three characters. Sanskrit, however, only has thirty-three consonant signs and twelve vowel signs, with variations on eleven of those vowels if they do not occur at the beginning of a word. If you include ligatures, most of which need to be learned separately, the number of consonants is brought up to a paltry one-hundred-and-seventy-eight. I could learn this in my sleep.

And so, in order to make it just a little bit difficult, Sanskrit also features a phenomenon known as Sandhi. It’s quite simple really: when a word ends in any one of eleven consonants and the following word commences with any one of thirty consonants, or one of the twelve vowels, the final letter of the first word changes in accordance with its particular, sometimes unique, relationship with the first letter of the following word. If there is no following word then, with only one exception, Sandhi does not occur. But never fear! There is also an internal Sandhi. Makes Hebrew look rather boring, doesn’t it?

Fortunately, as several of the ligatures actually are quite derivative, and as the readings that we have been given are fairly repetitive and not grammatically complex, much progress has been made. Allow me to then share with you an interesting story about a donkey. This is taken from Hitopadeśa, which is the first Sanskrit book ever published in the Devanāgarī script (1803). “Hitopadeśa” means “Salutary Instruction” (acc. to J.S. Sheldon, Reading Sanskrit: A Course for Beginners, Sydney: Sydney Grammar School Press, 1998), and constitutes a collection of forty-three fables. This one (Hitopadeśa 3.5) is entitled “The Ass in the Tiger Skin”. Originally composed over five hundred years ago, a short section of it runs as follows (the Devanāgarī script runs from left to right):

अस्ति हस्तिनापुरे विशालो नाम रजकः । तस्य गर्दभो ऽतिवाहाद् दुर्बलो मुमूर्षुर् अभवत् । ततस् तेन रजकेनासौ व्याघ्रचर्मणा प्रच्छाद्यारण्यसमीपे सस्यमध्ये मोचितः ।

asti hastināpure viśālo nāma rajakaḥ | tasya gardabho ‘tivāhād durbalo mumūrṣur abhavat | tatas tena rajakenāsau vyāghracarmaṇā pracchādyāraṇyasamīpe sasyamadhye mocitaḥ |

asti – “there is”
hastināpure – “Elephant City”! (masc. sg. loc.)
viśālo – “Vishala” (nom.)
nāma – “name” (neut. sg. nom./acc.)
rajakaḥ – not to be confused with rājā, which means “king”, but similar: a “washerman” (masc. sg. nom.)

“In Elephant City, there is a washerman named Vishala.” We’re off to a good start.

tasya – 3ms pronoun, gen.
gardabho – “donkey” (masc. sg. nom.)
‘tivāhād – “excessive burden” (masc. sg. abl.)
durbalo – “weak” (adj. masc. sg. nom.)
mumūrṣur – “on verge of death” (adj. masc. sg. nom.)
abhavat – hooray! A verb! “Being, to be” (3rd sg. imp. act. – “was”)

“His donkey, from excessive burden, was weak [and] on the verge of death.”

tatas – “then”
tena – 3ms pronoun, instr.
rajakenāsau – “washerman” (masc. sg. instr.) + dem. pronoun
vyāghracarmaṇā – “tiger” (masc. sg. nom.) + skin (neut. sg. instr.)
pracchādyāraṇyasamīpe – Yikes. This is a verb, “to cover” (gerund) + “forest” (neut. sg. nom./acc.) + “proximity” (neut. sg. loc.)
sasyamadhye – Another compound: “crop” (neut. sg. nom./acc.) + “middle” (neut. sg. loc.)
mocitaḥ – “to release” (the textbook lists this as a 3rd sg. past ptc., but we haven’t covered those yet. What do you want from me: it’s been four days.)

“Then the washerman, covering the donkey with the skin of a tiger near a forest, released it in the midst of the crops.”

What happens next? Well, if I could be bothered typing out the rest of the story, you would learn of the flight of the farmers, who think that there is a tiger in their midst. But you would also learn of the lone farmer who took up a position nearby, with the intention of slaying the tiger with an arrow. When the donkey saw the farmer, covered as he was in a grey cloak, he thought that the farmer was a female donkey and, with a braying noise, ran towards him. The game is given away, and the farmer kills the donkey. Why would the farmer kill the donkey? As my rebbe used to say, you don’t ask questions about a story! Especially not when it has a moral:

सुचिरं हि चरन्मौनं श्रेयः पश्यत्यबुद्धिमान् ।

suciraṃ hi caranmaunaṃ śreyaḥ paśyatyabuddhimān |

suciraṃ – “very long” (adv.)
hi – indeed! (That’s actually what it means: “indeed!” But I am excited.)
caranmaunaṃ – “to experience” (masc. sg. nom. pres. ptc. active. This is one that we have learnt! Or that I have learnt, anyway, reading ahead…) + “silence” (neut. sg. nom./acc.)
śreyaḥ – “better” (adj. masc. sg. nom.)
paśyatyabuddhimān – “to perceive” (gerund) + “witless man” (masc. sg. nom.)

“Indeed, from long experience, the witless man perceives that silence is better.”

And there you go. If only the stupid donkey had kept his mouth shut, he would have been slain by an arrow from a distance instead. Perhaps that’s just what you get, trying to be a donkey in the city of elephants.

PS: Contrary to my (un)educated guess, the meaning of “Sanskrit” is not the title of this post at all, but actually derives from संस्कृता वाक् (saṃskṛatā vāk), via infernal internal Sandhi, and means “refined speech”.

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4 responses

14 01 2011
S

WOW. That’s an amazing amount of progress for four days. You serious? It took me several months to be able to read at that level (and I’d still need a dictionary to figure out what the “vāha” in “ativāhād” meant). Good luck with your Sanskrit studies; they can be rewarding eventually. :-)

(BTW, “abhavat” is “became” rather than “was”, I think.)

14 01 2011
Simon Holloway

Thank you, S! The primer that I am using features a running dictionary, and also includes a translation of this particular story, against which I was able to check my own. I would never have been able to translate a compound like प्रच्छाद्यारण्यसमीपे without assistance! (Also, अभवत् as “became” makes more sense. Is that a general rule, or is it the context here that demands it?)

15 01 2011
S

अभवत् is generally “became”; “भवति” is generally “becomes” (or “comes into being”) etc. There is some semantic overlap with “be” — occasionally, Sanskrit uses “bhavati” where in English we would use “is” — but this is perhaps just a different way of seeing the world in a different language. (Dictionary entry: it does list “to be”, but…)

BTW, if may ask out of curiosity: why are you learning Sanskrit?

15 01 2011
Simon Holloway

Thank you for the information: my primer doesn’t seem to go into that much detail for that particular word.

Why Sanskrit? Eh, it seemed like a fun way to spend the summer :) They were offering languages at Summer School for only $190AUS a class (only $135AUS for Sanskrit, incl. the reader), so I enrolled in Intermediate Latin and Intermediate Greek as well. But in the fullness of things, I would like to cultivate a deeper understanding of the development of the Indo-Iranian languages.

Going to stick with the Semitic languages for the time being, and hopefully start bridging the divide once my thesis is out of the way… Yourself?

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