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Ancient Sanskrit Online

Lesson 1

Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum

Agni, the god of fire whose name also means fire itself, is the messenger god, mediating between mankind and the other gods. He traditionally appears first in the Rigvedic pantheon: agnm dtm pur dadhe 'I place Agni the ambassador at the head' (VIII, 44, 3), and agnm le purhitam 'I praise Agni, who is placed first', the opening line of the Rigveda (I, 1, 1). The word agn is cognate with Latin ignis, from which English ignite and igneous derive. Agni represents fire in all its forms, and in this poem is invoked as the universal fire of heaven, which at dawn signals the approach of day and the renewal of life, which Agni also represents: "fire has entered all the plants" (verse 2).

Reading and Textual Analysis

This short poem, I, 98 (98), is from the first book of the Rigveda. The metre is tristubh, verses of four lines of eleven syllables each, which is the most common metre in the Rigveda. The poem concludes with a refrain: nineteen of the poems in Book I end with the same two lines. Also characteristic of the style of the Rigveda is the repetition of ss 'he' in the last line of the second verse, literally 'He us by day, he from harm may protect by night'. In a highly inflected language the nominative form of the pronoun is rarely required by the grammar, but it is repeated here to both to stress Agni's importance and to give the line symmetry. In this first lesson the frequent parallels with more familiar Indo-European languages (English, Latin and Greek) are noted.

vaivnarsya sumata siyma
rj h kam bhvannm abhirh
it jt vvam idm v caste
vaivnar yatate sriyena

  • vaivnarsya -- noun; genitive singular masculine of <vaivnar> for all men, universal -- of the Universal One # Originally a compound adjective vaiv-nar 'for all-men', but often, as here, used as a name of Agni. The first element is a derivative of vva 'all', which occurs in line 3 and again in verse 2, and the second is cognate with Greek anr 'man'.
  • sumata -- noun; locative singular feminine of <sumat> good thought, favour -- in the favour # The noun mat (f) 'thought', related to Latin mens, mentis and English mind, with prefix su- 'good', like Greek eu-.
  • syma -- verb; 1st person plural active optative of </as, sti> be -- may we be # The metre tells us that this was pronounced as three syllables, restored in the verse line (siyma).
  • rj -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <rjan> king, ruler -- king # Familiar as modern rajah, and the cheeky use of the word Raj by the British in India; cognate with Latin rex, regis.
  • h -- particle; <h> for, because -- for
  • kam -- particle; <kam> indeed -- indeed # Often follows h; compare Greek gar d.
  • bhvannm -- noun; genitive plural neuter of <bhvana> being, existence -- of beings # From the verbal root /bh, bhvati 'become, be'; compare English be and being.
  • abhirs -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <abhir> sustainer -- sustainer
  • its -- adverb; <its> from here -- from here
  • jts -- verbal adjective; nominative singular masculine of past participle of </jan, jnati> produce, create, bear -- born # Compare English genesis and genetics.
  • vvam -- adjective; accusative singular neuter of <vva> all -- all
  • idm -- demonstrative pronoun; accusative singular neuter of <aym, iym, idm> this -- this # Used here with special meaning 'this world', like its earlier in the line.
  • v caste -- verb; 3rd person singular middle present of </caks, cste> see + preverb <v> apart -- he views
  • vaivnars -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <vaivnar> for all men, universal -- the Universal One
  • yatate -- verb; 3rd person singular middle present of </yat, ytate> take one's place -- takes his place
  • sryena -- noun; instrumental singular masculine of <srya> sun -- with the sun # As with syma in the first line, the metre tells us that this was pronounced with an extra syllable.

prst div prst agnh prthivym
prst vv sadhr vivea
vaivnarh shas prst agnh
s no dv s rish ptu nktam

  • prsts -- verbal adjective; nominative singular masculine of past participle of </prach, prchti> ask, ask for -- invoked # Compare the Latin deponent verb precor 'ask for, supplicate'. Agni is repeatedly supplicated in this verse.
  • div -- noun; locative singular masculine of <dy, dv> sky, heaven, day -- in heaven
  • agns -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <agn> fire, Agni -- Agni
  • prthivym -- noun; locative singular feminine of <prthiv> earth -- on earth
  • vvs -- adjective; accusative plural feminine of <vva> all -- all
  • sadhs -- noun; accusative plural feminine of <sadhi> plant -- the plants
  • vivea -- verb; 3rd person singular active perfect of </vi, vite> enter, come to rest + preverb <> (intensifies or reverses meaning) -- he has entered
  • vaivnars -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <vaivnar> for all men, universal -- the Universal One # Here, where it occurs in the same line as Agni, almost with its adjectival sense.
  • shas -- noun; instrumental singular neuter of <shas> might -- with might, mightily
  • agns -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <agn> fire, Agni -- Agni
  • ss -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular masculine of <ss, s, tt> that; he, she, it -- he # (The sandhi of ss is exceptional; the final s is dropped before all consonants.) Cognate with Greek o, , to. Note the characteristic repetition of the pronoun in this line (see Textual Analysis).
  • nas -- personal pronoun; accusative/dative/genitive enclitic form of <vaym> we -- us # Compare Latin nos. The word enclitic means 'leaning'. An enclitic word cannot stand first in a sentence or line. It 'leans' on the previous word, and loses its accent.
  • dv -- adverb; <dv> by day -- by day
  • riss -- noun; ablative singular feminine of <rs> harm -- from harm
  • ptu -- verb; 3rd person singular active imperative of </p, pti> protect -- let him protect
  • nktam -- adverb; <nktam> by night -- by night # Compare Greek nux, nuktos, Latin nox, noctis, English nocturnal, night.

vavnara tva tt satym astu
asmn ryo maghvnah sacantm
tn no mitr vruno mmahantm
ditih sndhuh prthiv ut dyah

  • vavnara -- noun; vocative singular masculine of <vaivnar> for all men, universal -- O Universal One # Note that the accent has moved from its usual position over the fourth syllable of this word to the first; see section 5 below.
  • tva -- personal pronoun; genitive singular of <tvm> you -- of you # Compare English thou, French tu.
  • tt -- demonstrative pronoun; nominative singular neuter of <ss, s, tt> that; he, she, it -- that
  • satym -- adjective; nominative singular neuter of <saty> true -- true # From a participle of the verb /as 'to be' (see next word), like Greek ta onta.
  • astu -- verb; 3rd person singular active imperative of </as, sti> be -- may it be
  • asmn -- personal pronoun; accusative of <vaym> we -- us # Compare English we and us.
  • ryas -- noun; nominative plural masculine of <ray> possession, treasure -- treasures
  • maghvnas -- adjective; nominative plural masculine of <maghvan> gracious -- gracious
  • sacantm -- verb; 3rd person plural middle imperative of </sac, scate> accompany -- may they attend # Compare the Latin deponent verb sequor 'follow'.
  • tt -- demonstrative pronoun; accusative singular neuter of <ss, s, tt> that; he, she, it -- that # Note that with sandhi tt followed by a word beginning with n becomes tn.
  • nas -- personal pronoun; accusative/dative/genitive enclitic form of <vaym> we -- for us
  • mitrs -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <mitr> friend, Mitra -- Mitra # The god Mitra, who regularly appears together with Varuna, as here.
  • vrunas -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <vruna> Varuna -- Varuna # The name is possibly related to Greek Ouranos.
  • mmahantm -- verb; 3rd person plural middle imperative of </mamh, mmhate> effect, bring about -- may they effect # The plural verb here joins the two final lines together. If the subject had simply been Mitra and Varuna it would have had a dual, not a plural form.
  • ditis -- noun; nominative singular feminine of <diti> freedom, Aditi -- Aditi
  • sndhus -- noun; nominative singular masculine/feminine of <sndhu> river -- Sindhu # Here deified.
  • prthiv -- noun; nominative singular feminine of <prthiv> earth -- Earth
  • ut -- conjunction; <ut> and -- and
  • dyas -- noun; nominative singular masculine of <dy, dv> sky, heaven, day -- Heaven # Cognate with Greek Zeus.

Lesson Text

vaivnarsya sumata siyma
rj h kam bhvannm abhirh
it jt vvam idm v caste
vaivnar yatate sriyena

prst div prst agnh prthivym
prst vv sadhr vivea
vaivnarh shas prst agnh
s no dv s rish ptu nktam

vavnara tva tt satym astu
asmn ryo maghvnah sacantm
tn no mitr vruno mmahantm
ditih sndhuh prthiv ut dyah

Translation

May we be in the favour of the Universal One
For indeed he is king, sustainer of beings.
Born from here he views all this world,
The Universal One takes his place with the sun.
Agni, invoked in heaven, invoked on earth,
Invoked, he has entered all the plants.
The Universal One, Agni is mightily invoked,
Let him protect us day and night from harm.
O Universal One, of you may it be true,
May gracious treasures attend us.
May Mitra, Varuna, Aditi, Sindhu
Earth and Heaven, effect that for us.

Grammar

1. An introduction to the verb /as 'be'.

The fundamental words of a language, like the verb 'be', are the least liable to change, and offer the most valuable evidence in establishing relationships between languages. Compare the singular of the present tense of the Sanskrit verb 'be', smi, si, sti, with Homeric Greek eimi, essi (later ei), esti or esti, and with Latin est, Gothic ist, and English am and is.

Present Indicative   Singular   Dual   Plural
1   smi   [svs]   smsi
2   si   sths   sth
3   sti   sts   snti
             
Optative   Singular       Plural
1   sym       syma
             
Imperative   Singular       Plural
3   stu       sntu

In addition to the usual forms of the present tense, a sample of frequently occurring optative and imperative forms is given above. These 'moods' of the verb express wishes, entreaties, or even commands. In the poems of the Rigveda appeals to the gods are common. The most frequently occurring form of the optative, the mood of wishing, is found in the first line of the lesson text, syma 'may we be'. The third person singular imperative in the first line of verse 3, stu, is also a common form: tva tt satym astu 'of you may it be true'.

These forms of the verb 'be' are worth committing to memory, as the endings are largely standard for the active voice (compare, for example, the third person singular imperative ptu in the last line of verse 2). There are exceptions, but this is a guide to the endings:

Present Indicative   Singular   Dual   Plural
1   -mi   [-vas]   -masi, -mas
2   -si   -thas   -tha
3   -ti   -tas   -anti
             
Optative   Singular       Plural
1   -yam or -ym       -ma or -yma
             
Imperative   Singular       Plural
3   -tu       -antu

The plural is only used where the subject numbers three or more. The use of the dual is obligatory, as observed in the penultimate line of the poem, where the plural verb mmahantm leads the reader to look for further subjects in the last line. The gods are addressed singly and as a group, as in this poem, but also in pairs: yuvm kav sthah [sthah] 'you two are sages' (X, 40, 6). (The retroflexion of the initial s and then of the following dental of the verb is caused by the preceding vowel, as described in section 7.3 of the Series Introduction.)

In the table the accented forms of the verb /as 'be', are given. In the lesson text, however, as in the example just quoted, the verbs are unaccented. The verb tends to lose its accent when it is the principal verb in the sentence; in other words, when it is not in a subordinate clause. Being able to identify the main verb is helpful when first looking at a passage.

2. The personal pronoun.

Although the verb is highly inflected, nominative forms of the personal pronoun occur frequently, unlike in Latin. In the example just given 'you two are sages', the personal pronoun yuvm 'you two' is not strictly necessary: kav sthah would have conveyed the same meaning. The personal pronoun and the verb 'be' are often interchangeable, and the verb is frequently omitted. yuvm kav would have meant the same: 'you two (are) sages'.

The table shows a number of enclitic forms in addition to the accented forms. These often do duty for more than one case, as, for example, me, used for both the dative and genitive of ahm 'I'. There are clear parallels in English, Latin, and Greek. vaym and English we are related, as are asmn and us, and yym and you. Compare also nas and vas with Latin nos and vos, and the dative singular forms mhya and tbhya with mihi and tibi. me and te are cognate with Greek moi and toi, and English me and thee have the same origin.

1st Person   Singular   Plural
Nom   ahm 'I'   vaym 'we'
Acc   mm, m   asmn, nas
Ins   my   asmbhis
Dat   mhya, mhyam, me   asmbhyam, asm, nas
Abl   mt   asmt
Gen   mma, me   asmkam, nas
Loc   myi   asmsu, asm
         
2nd Person   Singular   Plural
Nom   tvm 'you (sing)'   yym 'you (pl)'
Acc   tvm, tv   yusmn, vas
Ins   tvy   [yusmbhis]
Dat   tbhya, tbhyam, te   yusmbhyam, vas
Abl   tvt   yusmt
Gen   tva, te   yusmkam, vas
Loc   tv   yusm

Duals of the first person are uncommon, but duals of the second person occur frequently, as the gods are often invoked in pairs: nominative yuvm, as in the example yuvm kav sthah 'you two are sages', accusative yuvm, instrumental yuvbhym and yuvbhym, ablative yuvt, genitive/locative yuvs, and accusative/dative/genitive vm. Some forms that will soon become familiar are given in the sample passages below, which can also serve to illustrate the use of the oblique cases (instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, locative). The use of the cases is parallel to their use in other ancient languages, with the addition of the instrumental, which is also found in Old Norse, Old English and Russian. This 'with' case indicates accompaniment, association, or means: see example 10 below, and 27 in section 4. Many of the words in these sentences can be found in the lesson text. Where the effect of sandhi might be confusing the word form is given in square brackets. The verbs are all unaccented.

  • ahm rj vrunah (IV, 42, 2) 'I (nom sing) (am) King Varuna' [1]
  • td n [t] nktam td dv mhyam huh (I, 24, 12) 'that indeed they have said to me (dat sing) by night, that by day' [2]
  • tvm saty [satys] indra (I, 63, 3) 'you (nom sing) O Indra, (are) true' [3]
  • tvm naksanta no [nas] grah (VIII, 92, 27) 'let our (gen pl, unaccented form) songs reach you (acc sing)' [4]
  • tbhyem [tbhya im] vv bhvanni yemire (IX, 86, 30) 'to you (dat sing) all these beings stretch out' [5]
  • vavnara tva tt satym astu (lesson text, verse 3) 'O Universal One, of you may it be true (gen sing)' [6]
  • tv pi kratr mma (VII, 31, 5) 'in you (loc sing) my (gen sing) power' [7]
  • vaym devnm sumata syma (VII, 41, 4) 'may we (nom sing) be in the favour of the gods'. Compare the first line of the lesson text. [8]
  • asmn ryo maghvnah sacantm (lesson text, verse 3) 'may gracious treasures attend us (acc pl)' [9]
  • sustutr [...] asmbhis tbhya asyate (III, 62, 7) 'good praise through us (ins pl) is proclaimed to you (dat sing)' [10]
  • asmbhyam rma yachatam (I, 17, 8) 'extend shelter to us (dat pl)' [11]
  • asm vo [vas] astu sumat [sumats] cnisth (VII, 57, 4) 'may your (gen pl, unaccented form) most gracious favour be for/upon us (dat or loc pl)' [12]
  • m s te asmt sumatr v dasat (I, 121, 15) 'let not (the prohibitive m, like Greek m) that favour of yours (gen sing, unaccented form) fade away from us (abl pl)' [13]
  • tvm asmkam tva smasi (VIII, 92, 32) 'you (nom sing) (are) ours (gen pl), we are yours (gen sing)'. This line illustrates the interchangable use of personal pronoun and verb 'be'. [14]
  • s no [nas] dv s rish ptu nktam (lesson text, verse 2) 'may he protect us (acc pl, unaccented form) day and night from harm' [15]
  • ndro vah [vas] rma yachatu (X, 103, 13) 'may Indra extend shelter to you (dat pl, unaccented form)' [16]

The simple unaccented forms occur the most frequently. vas 'you', the form that serves as the accusative, genitive and dative plural, as in the last example, appears over 500 times in the Rigveda.

Note that in all the above examples the object of the sentence, when there is one, precedes the verb, unlike in English. The verb is most often found at the end of the line, as in the last example: 'Indra (subject) to you (indirect object) shelter (object) may he extend (verb)'.

3. Nominal stems in -i and -u.

The masculine declension of the adjective ci 'pure, bright', a frequent epithet of Agni, is given to illustrate the forms usually found.

    Singular   Dual   Plural
Nom   cis   c   cayas
Acc   cim   c   cn
Ins   cy, cin   cibhym   cibhis
Dat   caye   cibhym   cibhyas
Abl   ces   cibhym   cibhyas
Gen   ces   cyos   cnm
Loc   cau   cyos   cisu
Voc   ce   c   cayas

Many nouns follow the -i declension, the majority of which are masculine, like agn 'fire' and kav 'sage', or feminine, like sumat 'good opinion' and diti 'Aditi' in the lesson text. Most of the feminine endings are the same as the masculine, although the instrumental singular shows irregularity, with alternative forms c and ci, and the feminine accusative plural ending is -s, not -n. The neuter forms differ from the masculine only in the nominative/accusative/vocative singular and plural: singular ci, plural c, ci or cni.

The declension of nominal stems in -u, like sndhu 'river' (m/f) in the third verse of the lesson text, is parallel to the -i declension in the masculine and feminine. Compare the singular forms occurring of mnu (m) 'man, mankind': nominative mnus, accusative mnum, instrumental mnun, dative mnave, ablative/genitive mnos, locative mnau, and the plural forms mnavas (nominative) and genitive mnnm. The parallel vowel gradation shown in the declension, -i (-e, -ay) -u (-o, -av), has been described in section 8 of the Series Introduction.

There is some variation in the neuter endings of the -u declension. In addition to the parallel forms for the dative, ablative/genitive and locative singular, -ave, -os, -au, the following are also found: from mdhu 'sweet, sweetness' dative mdhune and ablative/genitive mdhunas, and from snu 'top, summit' the locative snuni. These alternative endings, -ne, -nas, -ni, come to prevail in the later language.

4. Verb inflection: active and middle forms of the present tense.

Half of the finite verbs in the lesson text, caste, yatate, sacantm and mmahantm, are in the middle, not the active voice. Middle forms of the verb occur as frequently as active forms, and some verbs are only found in the middle voice. The usual endings of the present active tense have already been given above, and here they are repeated with the usual endings of the middle voice in parallel.

        Active           Middle    
    Singular   Dual   Plural   Singular   Dual   Plural
1   -mi   [-vas]   -masi, -mas   -e   -vahe   -mahe
2   -si   -thas   -tha   -se   -ethe or -the   -dhve
3   -ti   -tas   -anti   -te   -ete or -te   -ante or -ate

Some examples follow of verbs in the present tense together with nouns and adjectives from the -i and -u declensions. Parts of the verb 'be' and some personal pronouns will also by now be familiar.

  • kavn prchmi (I, 164, 6) 'I ask (1 sing active of /prach, prchti) the sages' [17]
  • td d agn [tt t agns] raksati (III, 5, 6) 'that indeed Agni protects (3 sing active of /raks, rksati)' [18]
  • rj [...] apm rmm sacate sndhusu (IX, 86, 8) 'the king accompanies (3 sing middle of /sac, scate) the wave (rm, masculine) of waters in the rivers' [19]
  • agnm vv [vvs] abh prksah sacante (I, 71, 7) 'all refreshments accompany (3 pl middle of /sac) Agni' [20]
  • tbhyam arsanti sndhavah (IX, 31, 3) 'the rivers flow (3 pl active of /ars, rsati) for you' [21]
  • v te [...] bhmsah uce caya [cayas] caranti (VI, 6, 3) 'O bright one (Agni), your bright beams spread (3 pl active of /car, crati 'move' with preverb v 'apart')' [22]
  • ptih sndhnm asi (X, 180, 1) 'you are the lord of rivers' [23]
  • agnm dtm pur dadhe (VIII, 44, 3) 'I place (1 sing middle of /dh, ddhti) Agni the ambassador at the head (purs 'in front, at the head')' [24]
  • agnm dtm vrnmahe (I, 12, 1) 'we choose (1 pl middle of /vr, vrnt) Agni as ambassador' [25]
  • scethe avinossam [avin ussam] (VIII, 5, 2) 'O Ashvins, you two accompany (2 dual middle of /sac) the dawn' [26]
  • purutr h vm matbhir [matbhis] hvante (VII, 69, 6) 'for they call upon (3 pl middle of /h, hvate) you two in many places with thoughts' [27]
  • h [...] mnavah smsi (VIII, 18, 22) 'because we are men' [28]
5. The Rigvedic accent.

Most words in the Rigveda carry an accent, which had disappeared by the time of Classical Sanskrit. The accent is an integral part of the word, and has nothing to do with the verse form. It frequently falls on the same syllable as in Greek, as for example, ptn, potnia 'lady', tats, tatos, 'stretched', suggesting that the language from which these two derive may have been similarly accented. The accent is described as 'musical' by grammarians; that is, it represents vocal pitch, not stress.

Some accented words lose their accent under certain circumstances. The verb usually loses its accent when it is the main verb in the sentence, as we have seen. In all but the last three examples above the verb is in a main clause, and is unaccented. In the last two the verb is in a subordinate clause following h 'for, because'. In VIII, 5, 2, however, scethe avinossam [avin ussam] 'O Ashvins, you two accompany the dawn' (26), although the verb is the main verb in the sentence it keeps its accent because it is the first word in the verse line. A main verb also retains the accent if it is the first word in the grammatical sentence - often, but not necessarily, the same thing.

Vocatives are usually unaccented, like the dual avin in the line just quoted, and indra in I, 63, 3, tvm saty indra 'you (are) true, O Indra' (example number 3). But, as with main verbs, if the vocative is the first word in the verse line or grammatical sentence, it carries an accent. When a vocative is accented the accent invariably falls on the first syllable: the vocative of agn is gne. So in the lesson text the word vaivnar 'the universal one' is usually accented on the fourth syllable (verse 1 lines 1 & 4, and verse 2 line 3). But at the beginning of the last verse the word is in the vocative case: vavnara tva tt satym astu 'O Universal One, of you may it be true' and the accent has moved to the first syllable.

As described in section 2, some monosyllabic forms of the personal pronoun are unaccented. They are enclitic, and cannot stand first in the sentence. There are a few other short words that never carry an accent and are enclitic. Two examples that occur very frequently are ca 'and' (compare Greek te, Latin -que), and iva 'like'. iva always follows the word with which the comparison is made, and is treated in the Pada text of the Rigveda as if it were suffixal: mnus tkmeva [tkma iva, Pada tkma-iva] rohatu (X, 62, 8) 'let mankind spring up (/ruh, rhati) like young corn'.