Sunday, January 30, 2011

Oru oorile oru raja

Kids throw tantrums. There are a few ways to handle it - shout them down, calm them down in nice words, bribe them with iPhone or Wii games or divert their attention. The last is probably the most effective because kids' attention span is so less but comes with boundless energy, it is just easier to deflect that energy than to confront it. I have one effective way of diverting a kid's attention - say "Once upon a time...". The tantrum stops and I get back the question: "Are you going to tell me a story now?..."

Whom doesn't a fairy-tale delight when begun with "Once upon a time there was a princess..."? But have we ever been tired of listening to "Once upon a time there was ..."? Upanishads recourse to hilite very powerful concepts of Brahman, Atman using stories like that of Nachiketas and Shvetaketu. Some stories like Panchatantra and Hitopadesha are very simple. Some stories, like modern soaps and mega-serials just try too hard to impress. All the wealth of the showtime industry is based on just one thing: people's willingness to give an ear to hear a story, isn't it? Whatever be the case, its hard to resist the tagline "Once upon a time...".

Once upon a time in India lived a poet called Bana Bhatta. He probably must have listened to "Once upon a time..." a thousand times and got tired of the same gag. So he starts his Kadambari with a stylish introduction:

आसीत् अशेष नरपति-शिर: समभ्यच्चित्त शासन: पाकशासन: इवापर: चतुरुदधि माला मेखलया भुवो भर्त्ता प्रताप अनुरागवानत समस्त सामन्तचक्र: चक्रवत्तिलक्षणोपेत: चक्रधर इव करकमलोपलक्ष्यमान शंखचक्र लाञ्छन: हर इव जितमन्मथ: गुह इवाप्रतिहतशक्ति: कमलयोनिरिव विमानीकृतराजहंसमण्डल: जलधिरिव लक्ष्मीप्रसूति: गङ्गाप्रवाह इव भगीरथपथप्रवृत्त: रविरिव प्रतिदिवसोपजायमानोदय: मेरुरिव सकलोपजीव्यमानपादच्छाय: दिग्गज इवानवरतप्रवृत्तदानाद्रीकृतकर: कर्त्ता महाश्चर्य्याणाम् आहर्त्ता क्रतूनाम् आदर्श: सर्वशास्त्राणाम् उत्पत्ति: कलानाम् कुलभवनम् गुणनाम् आगम:काव्यामृतरसानाम् उदयशैलो मित्रमण्डलस्य उत्पातकेतुरहितजनस्य प्रवर्त्तयिता गोष्ठीबन्धानाम् प्रत्यादेशो धनुष्मताम् धौरेय: साहसिकानाम् अग्रणीर्विदग्धानाम् वैनतेय इव विनतानन्दजनन: वैन्य इव चापकोटिसमुत्सारितसकलारातिकुलाचलो राजा शूद्रको नाम ।

आसीत् there was
अशेष नरपति-शिर: समभ्यच्चित्त शासन: bowed by all the kings without any exception
पाकशासन: इवापर: like a second Indra (Indra killed an asura named paaka, so he is called paakashaasana)
चतुरुदधि माला मेखलया भुवो भर्त्ता husband of the earth who is encircled by four oceans as a garland
प्रताप अनुरागवानत समस्त सामन्तचक्र: always in the company of warm-friendship of neighboring princes
चक्रवत्तिलक्षणोपेत: with the lakShaNa of a cakravarttI
चक्रधर इव करकमलोपलक्ष्यमान शंखचक्र लाञ्छन: like Vishnu, with a comparable lakShaNa of cakra and shaMkha(discus & conch) in the hands
हर इव जितमन्मथ: like Siva, the conquerer of manmatha
गुह इवाप्रतिहतशक्ति: like kaarttikeya, undefeated in might
कमलयोनिरिव विमानीकृतराजहंसमण्डल: like Brahma,
जलधिरिव लक्ष्मीप्रसूति: like the Ocean, who is the source of lakshmI
गङ्गाप्रवाह इव भगीरथपथप्रवृत्त: like Ganga, who followed Bhagiratha
रविरिव प्रतिदिवसोपजायमानोदय: like Sun, who rises freshly everyday
मेरुरिव सकलोपजीव्यमानपादच्छाय: like the Meru mountain, his foot honored by all living beings
दिग्गज इवानवरतप्रवृत्तदानाद्रीकृतकर: like the elephants, always a stream of generosity
कर्त्ता महाश्चर्य्याणाम् one who offers sacrifices
आहर्त्ता क्रतूनाम्
आदर्श: सर्वशास्त्राणाम् a mirror of all the Sastras (ie one who follows Sastras)
उत्पत्ति: कलानाम् a creator of all arts
कुलभवनम् गुणनाम् abode of virtue amongst his scion
आगम:काव्यामृतरसानाम् a spring of nectar of poetry
उदयशैलो मित्रमण्डलस्य the brightest sun among all the suns
उत्पातकेतुरहितजनस्य a comet to his enemies
प्रवर्त्तयिता गोष्ठीबन्धानाम् founder of poetic or literary societies
प्रत्यादेशो धनुष्मताम् a terror to archers
धौरेय: साहसिकानाम् chief among the brave men
अग्रणीर्विदग्धानाम् prominent among the wise
वैनतेय इव विनतानन्दजनन: like the Garuda who brought happiness to his mother
वैन्य इव चापकोटिसमुत्सारितसकलारातिकुलाचलो
राजा शूद्रको नाम a king called shUdraka.

The main point constitutes the beginning and end of the sentence -

"aasIt raajaa shUdrako naama - Once there was a king called Sudraka".

The rest forms the attributes of the king in complex samasa-s and beautiful alankara-s. This is a free translation and is bound to be inaccurate. I have even given up translating a few as the metaphors are just not translatable.

Thus goes Kadambari, a fascinating story, with multi-hierarchical-flashbacks, delightful puns and plot-twists and a fairy-tale ending with some of the longest sentences written in Sanskrita literature.


I tried not naming this blog in Tamil, but I could not feel the effectiveness in any other language. "Oru oorile oru raja" roughly translates to "Once upon a time there was a King", "Ek gaon mein ek raaja thaa", "Ondu oorinalli ondu raja idda" etc. - Pick the one of your mother tongue that delights you the most!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Trivikrama Panditacharya

Anyone who scouts the streets of India to buy cheap reprint books, be it Mumbai Churchpark, Bangalore Jayanagar, Connaught Place in Delhi or Mount Road in Chennai, would surely have come across the hugely popular "A brief history of time" by Stephen Hawking. Although it contains several interesting theories, it had one dampening remark: "in modern times, to do something in Physics, one has to be already at the top". In other words, if one wants to make a name in Physics, one has to thoroughly know pretty much all fields - mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, magnetism, optics, relativity, astronomy, cosmology, plus the word 'quantum' randomly prefixed to any of the above. If you create a new theory, there is just too much scrutiny from fellow Physicists waiting to fire-drill it.

Rewind to the period of 7th to 14th centuries in India. Europe may have been in dark ages, but not India. She was a cauldron of richness in physical, financial and intellectual wealth. Sanskrita literature was fluorishing with some of the greatest minds ever, each with their own sobriquets. On one hand were the dramatists and poets - be it Captain of similies Kalidasa, Word-player Dandin, Master-blaster of meanings Bhaaravi, All-rounder Magha, Word-machine Bana bhatta and more. On other hand were great aachaarya-s like Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and a host of others who are known more for their philosophies than for the  mastery of Sanskrita, that is taken for granted. If we look at only the religious meaning and not understand the beauty of the language handled by them, we will be missing something very important. The carrier is as compellingly fascinating as the content.

During these times, to be declared as a Pandita, one had to be knowledgeable in several fields - the four veda-s, all the six angas of veda (siksha, kalpa, nirukta, vyakarana, jyotisha, chandas) vedanta, nyaya, mimamsa, kavya, alankara and what-not. Just like the difficulty to be recognized in field of Physics these days, it would have been hard for one to be recognized as a kavi, let alone be called maha-kavi, vara-kavi, kavi-ratna, kavi-raja, kavi-sekhara, kavi-kesari and not the least kavi-kula-tilaka "the foremost among the society of poets".

One such luminary was Sri Trivikrama Panditacharya. You wont find his name mentioned among "Classical Sanskrita literature", but poets like him made significant contributions to the language. He was born near Mangalore to Subrahmanya Suri, around 13th century. His elder brother was Shankara Panditacharya. His son Narayana Panditacharya wrote the grantha sumadhva-vijaya, of which we saw one spectacular sloka earlier. Not for no reason Trivikrama Panditacharya holds the distinction of being called as kavi-kula-tilaka. Even as a young man he had written a maha-kavya called "Usha-haraNa". His mastery of Sanskrita seems to be inborn as can be seen from the following story:

Once a bhikshuka (beggar) came to his house for alms. As a boy, Trivikrama replied with the following sloka:

एक क्षपणक शाक कर्ता बहव: क्षपणक शाक दादा: ।
यत्र क्षपणक बहु शाकादा: तत्र क्षपणक शाक शाक ॥

eka kShapaNaka shaaka kartaa bahava: kShapaNaka shaaka daadaa: |
yatra kShapaNaka bahu shaakaadaa: tatra kShapaNaka shaaka shaaka ||

Meaning: Only one mendicant (his father) is the money-maker; Other mendicants (relatives) are there just to eat. Where there is one money-maker and many to eat, in that place what food are you really expecting?

In other words, we ourselves are like beggars, what are you begging us for?

Trivikrima Panditacharya became a disciple of Sri Madhvacharya following a 15-day debate in which the former accepted the superiority of Madhva's tattva-vada. His famous work is Harivayu stuti (a stuti on Sri Madhvacharya) which consits of spontaneously composed 41 slokas. It is in a fascinating meter (vritti) called sragdharaa (srak = garland, dharaa = wearing/moving). It has 21 syllables per quarter, with a pause after every 7th syllable, making it 84 syllables per sloka! Sri Vedanta Desikan has also handled this meter in his Tatva mukta kalaapam and Nyaya Vimsati. Kalidasa (abhijnana shaakuntalam) and Bhartrhari (trishataka) also have handled this meter.


Source of the quoted sloka: Vayustuti Pravachana by Sri Vyasanakare Prabhanjanachar,

Monday, January 17, 2011


If you observe the Sanskritized words in regional Indian languages, you can see specific modifications to word endings, which can usually identify the speaker's state orientation. Tamilians say rAman or kriShNA with a "an"-ending or elongation of a. In Telugu it becomes rAmudu. North Indians say it as rAm, with the last "a" disappearing altogether. Bengalis prounounce "a" with a tendency towards "o", so pArtha becomes pArtho, ajay becomes ajoy. But what is the correct pronounciation of अ itself in Sanskrita? What is the effort put to say अ ?

अथ शब्दानुशासनम् । This is how Panini begins his aShTaadhyaayI. His work revolves around word formations. Panini's work relies on earlier literature of Vedanga called शिक्ष or प्रतिशाख्य that deals with phonetics. Two factors influence production of each varNa: aasya (place of sound) आस्य and prayatna प्रयत्न (effort). Prayatna in-turn is classified into aabhyantara-prayatna आभ्यन्तर-प्रयत्न  (effort during origination of sound) and baahya-prayatna (effort during ending of sound). aahbyantara prayatna is of 5 varieties (स्पृष्ट: touched, इषत्-स्पृष्ट: somewhat touched, विवृत: open, इषत्-विवृत: somewhat open and संवृत). baahya prayatna is of 11 varieties, we will see those some other time.

Consonants are classified as "touched", because the toungue touches other parts of the mouth during pronunciation. All vowels are classified as vivRuta - "open" because the mouth is open during pronunciation. That is, all vowels except "a". "a" should be pronounced with the same time taken to prounounce the a in "cut", "but", but not as in "fast", "mask". This effort is called saMvRuta. It singularly belongs to the varNa अ.

If you have the Vaman Shivaram Apte's Sanskrit-English dictionary, check out the very first meaning of "a", which itself is the very first entry.

Meanwhile let us look at a sloka.

याम: श्रयति याम् धत्ते यैन यात्याय याच्च या ।
याऽस्य मानाय यै वान्या सा मामवतु पादुका ॥
That which viShNu takes up, that which bears viShNu on itself, that which moves about because of viShNu, that which is for viShNu, that which originated from viShNu for his purpose, that which secures respectability for viShNu, that which is attainable to us at viShNu, may that pAduka protect me.

Notice in the sloka that there is not a single mention of the word viShNu or even any other name of the Lord, yet the sloka seems to refer the Lord continuously. Is the word viShNu hidden? Really? Hmm...

The key to any sloka is in splitting the sandhi-s correctly. Slokas like this need commentaries. Let's first split the sloka and then analyse.

याम् अ: श्रयति या अम् धत्ते या एन याति आय या आत् च या ।
या अस्य मानाय या-ए वान्या सा माम् अवतु पादुका ॥

Once we split the sandhi, the sloka is pretty straight-forward in meaning. All the yaa's refer to "that which" which is qualified later by "saa paaduka". Sri Vedanta Desikan, the creator of this sloka, plays on the letter, actually a shabda in this context, अ  and conjugates different vibhakti-s on it. Sanskrita students may remember the vibhakti-s of अकारान्त पुंलिङ्ग एकवचन राम शब्द:  as राम:, रामम्, रामेन, रमाय, रामात्, रामस्य, रामे etc. Now instead of राम शब्द, conjugate just for ’अ’ शब्द. The vibhakti-s are अ:, अं, एन, आय, आत्, अस्य, ऐ ! Since we know that अ means viShNu, the conjugations simply mean viShNu (subject), viShNu (object), by viShNu, for viShNu, from viShNu, of viShNu, in viShNu respectively.

Meanwhile, vishnu sahasranama mentions a thousand names of Vishnu. So is अ one of the names there? You betcha! The 25th sloka says:

आवर्तनो निवृत्तात्मा संवृत: संप्रमर्दन: ।
अह: संवर्तको वह्नि: अनिलो धरणीधर: ॥
From this we can extrapolate the meaning of saMvRuta: as one whose prounounciation is that of अ who is viShNu !

So much for a simple अ ! Those who are interested, may pursue why paaNini ends his ashtaadhyaayI with a mind-blowing sUtra with just two characters:

अ अ ।