The “Shiva Sutras”

In his most famous work, Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight Chapters”), the ancient Indian grammarian Pāṇini laid out his analysis of Sanskrit grammar in a comprehensive and impressively compact manner, outlining rules for everything from noun compounding to accentuation to sandhi.

In sections dealing with individual sounds, the author is able to refer to whole groups of specific vowels and/or consonants in a concise way by making recourse to a handy set of fourteen sutras, which feature all of the phonemes of the Classical Sanskrit language, arranged into logical groups. Each sutra ends with an anubandha (“affix”), a “dummy letter,” whose purpose I will clarify below.

The exact provenance of the sutras is obscure; it is not a guarantee that Pāṇini himself was the first to use them. Since one tradition held that the grammarian was endowed with these mystical verses by the god Shiva directly, the lines became known as the Śivasūtrāṇi (“Shiva Sutras”):

1. a i u
2. ṛ ḷ k
3. e o
4. ai au c
5. ha ya va ra
6. la
7. ña ma a a na m
8. jha bha ñ
9. gha ḍha dha
10. ja ba ga ḍa da ś
11. kha pha cha ṭha tha ca a ta v
12. ka pa y
13. śa a sa r
14. ha l

Note that with only a few exceptions (in particular, rows 2 and 13–14) the Shiva Sutras basically present a sonority hierarchy; going down the list, the sounds become less sonorous or vowel-like—and more consonant-like. The linguist Paul Kiparsky has reflected on the phonological arrangement of the sutras. His 1992 paper Economy and the Construction of the Śivasūtras can be found here.

The sutras allow the user to fashion a pratyāhāra, a noun that refers to a whole sequence of consecutively listed sounds. Take the sound (purple) you wish to start with from the table above and then add the anubandha (blue), one of the dummy letters, at which the sequence will stop.

For example, to refer to all vowels collectively (say, including diphthongs in line 4), begin with a

1. a i u
2. ṛ ḷ k
3. e o
4. ai au c

—and then proceed as far as the anubandha c

1. a i u
2. ṛ ḷ k
3. e o
4. ai au c

Thus we construct the word ac. This resulting pratyāhāra is taken to be the nominative form of a noun, which means “all sounds between a and the anubandha c,” i.e. “any of the set {a, i, u, ,, e, o, ai, au}.” This noun, of course, can be inflected; the locative aci has the meaning “before {a, i, …}”; the genitive aca has the meaning “instead of {a, i, …}.”

Knowing this, we are prepared to make sense of the following very concisely worded rule from Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī, which concerns a basic principle of sandhi that will (after some untangling) be familiar to the beginning Sanskrit student:

इको यणचि । (6.1.77)
ikaya aci
“Instead of ik, ya before ac.”
“Instead of {i, u, , }, it is {y, v, r, l} that come before {a, i, u, , , e, o, ai, au}.”

This beautifully compact utterance captures the fact the short vowels {i, u, , } are realized as their non-syllabic allophones {y, v, r, l} whenever they directly precede any vowel. (E.g. *api avagacchasi “Do you understand?” must become apyavagacchasi अप्यवगच्छसि)

Let’s tackle the next one as well.

एचो ऽयवायावः । (6.1.78)
ecaḥ ay:av:āy:āvaḥ (sc. aci from the previous line)
“Instead of ec, ay-av-āy-āvaḥ before ac.”
“Instead of {e, o, ai, au}, it is {ay, av, āy, āv} that come before {a, i, u, , , e, o, ai, au}.”

Note that the nominative plural form ayavāyāvaḥ is a straightforward, if bizarre-looking, dvandva compound of the speech-sounds {ay, av, āy, āv}; it does not make reference of the Shiva Sutras.

This rule logically follows on the previous one. Whereas in 6.1.77 we are told that certain short vowels must become their non-syllabic counterparts when directly before a vowel, line 78 states that diphthongs {e, o, ai, au}—historically {ai, au, āi, āu}—must be decomposed into a (or ā) with semivowel when they immediately precede a vowel. (E.g. *vane aśvo ‘sti “The horse is in the forest,” must become vanayaśvo ‘sti.)

Pāṇini’s entire Aṣṭādhyāyī can be browsed online here, courtesy of the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf. What other examples of the sutras in action can you find?


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