Significance of अन्वय  in संस्कृतम् ।

We are all familiar with Shloka - श्लोक.  We see them in all our scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata, the Puranas etc.

We seek to address these questions in this article.

But before we start, an apocryphal story. (Thanks to Reader's Digest....a couple of decades ago)

There was an ancient monastery founded by a wise and renowned Teacher centuries ago. The Teacher had meticulously inscribed all his teachings in a sacred manuscript known as the Green Book. Every student who entered the monastery was entrusted with the task of studying and memorizing the profound wisdom contained within its pages.

As time went by, the Green Book began to show signs of decay, causing great concern among the monastery authorities. To preserve its invaluable contents, a decision was made that from that point onward, new students would have to meticulously copy the teachings from their senior monks who had already transcribed the book.

Many generations passed, and one day, a remarkably bright and inquisitive student joined the monastery. True to tradition, he was asked to copy the teachings from his seniors. However, this student, driven by his relentless curiosity, made an audacious request to copy directly from the Original Green Book. After much deliberation, the teachers reluctantly granted his wish.

Eager and excited, the student entered the hallowed Great Room where the sacred Green Book was meticulously preserved. He began the arduous task of copying its profound contents with utmost care and reverence.

But as he immersed himself in the process, a sudden realization struck him like a bolt of lightning. He jumped up from his seat, unable to contain his astonishment, and sprinted towards the monastery courtyard, shouting at the top of his lungs, 'It's "Celebrate"... not "Celibate"!

A small typo can have disastrous consequences.

What is the possibility that such errors have crept into our texts?  Especially since most of Samskrita texts have been handed down through the Oral tradition, and written texts (manuscripts) and printing came recently. (See End Note 1).   

This aspect of Quality Control will also be covered in this article.

What is a श्लोक?  Is it different from a sentence - वाक्य?  If so, how?

A श्लोक can be compared to an IKEA package. A large book case or cot is packed flat so that it can be carried easily.  The tools and instructions to assemble it are given along with the packing.  Anyone with reasonable skills can unpack the items, use the provided tools and instructions to assemble and use them.

A श्लोक is similar.  

A Samskrita श्लोक is not a sentence.  A श्लोक can contain multiple sentences or it can even be half a sentence. 

A श्लोक is a construct built on the basis of specific rules.  We need to know these rules to understand how a श्लोक is built.  Knowledge of these rules also help us in understanding how to de-construct it and understand the meaning.

A श्लोक is a poem which has (normally) 4 equal Padas (पाद – legs - parts). When we say four equal Parts, what it means is that the number of syllables - अक्षर - in each of the four parts should be equal.   While we will be using the word "अक्षर" in the rest of the article, only स्वराs are used for the counting.   This is an elaborate topic in itself and hence we will not be covering it here.

Obviously, each of the पादs contains words, but the definition focusses on the number of syllables.

Let us take the first श्लोक of Ramayana and illustrate this.

तपःस्वाध्यायनिरतं तपस्वी वाग्विदांवरम्।

नारदं परिपप्रच्छ वाल्मीकिर्मुनिपुङ्गवम्।।

Every श्लोक, therefore, has a defined number of अक्षर  In the above example it is 32 अक्षर।  However, there are श्लकs which have 24 अक्षर, 28 अक्षर, 32 अक्षर, 36 अक्षर, 40 अक्षर, 44 अक्षर and 48 अक्षर,

There are 24,000 श्लोकs in the Ramayana and the majority of the श्लोकs meets this criterion.  The above श्लोक has 32 अक्षरs - letters.  The श्लोक with 32 अक्षर is called अनुष्टुप.  Similarly, श्लोक with other अक्षर limits have their names (गायत्री, पङ्क्ती, बृहती etc.)

The 32 अक्षर अनुष्टुब् however is the most popular across the scriptures.

How is a श्लोक constructed?

The rules for constructing a श्लोक are covered by a discipline called Chhandas - छन्दस्।  छन्दस् शास्त्र is a very vast discipline and is in fact one of the Six वेदाङ्ग - limbs of the Vedas.  (For more details of this see Endnote 3)

The rules of छन्दस् not only prescribe the number of अक्षर in each पाद and the total number of पादs (as explained above), but also prescribes a number of additional constraints.

It specifies, for example, the type of letter that should be in a specific location within the पाद.  This needs a little more explanation.

Every letter in संस्कृत has two values (1 or 2) called Maatraas - मात्रा. Those that have a value of 1 are called Laghu (लघु) and those that have a value of 2 are called Guru (गुरु) 

The rules of छन्दस् would dictate that, for example, the 5th अक्षर of each पाद should be a गुरु.  Or, the 6th अक्षर of alternative पादs should be a लघु.  It would thus specify for a few locations within the श्लोक and then leave the rest to the writer's freedom.

An example of the markings of लघु and गुरु for the popular श्लोक "शुक्लांबरधरं विष्णुं शशिवर्णं चतुर्भुजम्' is given in (See Endnote 4)

As many may not be familiar with Samskrita, we will attempt to demonstrate the complexity by creating a श्लोक in the English language.  We will make up similar rules.  Please note that these made up rules are arbitrary and are not real.  

Creating an English example:

The first rule that we described above was the limitation of number of अक्षर - letters in each श्लोक।  Therefore, we pick the number 80 letters in four पाद - each having exactly 20 अक्षर। Why 80?  Why not 32 or 50 or 60।  It is arbitrary.  We can pick up any other number.

We need to bring in an important point here and that is about spaces.  In English or other languages, spaces are very important as that is the only way to distinguish between two words - the end of one word and the beginning of the next.

Samskrita does not need such spaces.  We will discuss this topic and explain how Samskrita solves this problem a little later in this article.

For the purposes of our example, we will consider only 80 अक्षर and will ignore spaces.

As the first step, let us create a sentence which comprises exactly 80 अक्षर and fit them in 4 पाद of exactly 20 अक्षर।

"We are attempting to create Ramayana in twenty four thousand lines each having eighty syllables"


Now, we move to the next step which is to create constrains similar to that of लघु and गुरु that we described earlier.  Obviously, English does not have the concept of लघु and गुरु, and therefore we need to create a rule that is similar to it to illustrate the impact.

The second rule, therefore is: " every 7th letter of each पाद will begin as a new word. (See Endnote 5) 

We can achieve this rule in two ways:

1. Re-arranging the words in the sentence to meet the requirement:

Let us take the first approach.  We will re-organise the words in the sentence to meet the requirements of the new rule.

The new sequence of our above sentence will be:

“Create Attempting Each Twenty Ramayana We Are To Having Thousand In Four Eighty Syllables Lines"” 

Obviously, this sequencing, while complying with the rules of छन्दस् does not make sense at all.   

This is the same with the श्लोक।  That is why when we try to translate word for word from Samskrita to English or any other language, it does not sound right.

This is the implication of the statement "A श्लोक is not a sentence".   A श्लोक is an aggregation of words that meets the syntactic requirements of the छन्दस्

Isn't it a difficult way of organising words?  Why should it be organised in this way?  Would it not mislead the readers?

It does not.  The reason is that in Samskrita, word order is not important.  Word order is important in almost every other language.

What does "word order is not important" mean?

Let us take an example.  "Rama killed Ravana".  If this sentence is re-ordered as "Ravana killed Rama" then the meaning would be entirely different, isn't it?

In Samskrita, the sentence is: रामः रावणं हन्ति।

This sentence can be re-ordered in the following six ways and the meaning of all the variations will be the same - Rama killed Ravana.

रामः रावणं हन्ति।

रामः हन्ति रावणं।

हन्ति रामः रावणम्।

हन्ति रावाणं रामः।

रावणं रामः हन्ति।

रावणं हन्ति रामः।

Therefore, it does not matter where the word is located.  It conveys the meaning clearly.

2. Use synonyms for the words to meet the requirements:

Samskrita is a word generator.  Detailed rules are specified to create new words from the basic set of approximately 2,000 roots - धातु।  (But that will be for a different post).  Hence, multiple synonyms can be created using various combinations.  In fact, this feature makes the language that much richer!

There are different thesauri or thesauruses that give complete listings of alternate words.  Some of them are अमर कोश - Amara Kosha, वैजयन्ती कोश - Vyjayanti Kosha etc.  Multiple synonyms can be found for the same entity with different number of letter counts.  For example, here is a list of synonyms with different word counts.

A combination of both of these options are selected by the poets to construct a श्लोक.

We have thus far seen what a श्लोक, some rules / constraints to build a श्लोक and also illustrated this by creating a श्लोक in English.   We have also explained how word order is not important in Samskrita and how the integrity of the meaning is sustained even though the words are re-ordered.

The first श्लोक of Ramayana:

We will now take the first श्लोक of Valmiki Ramayana to illustrate the point that we are making.

The श्लोक is:

तपस्स्वाध्यायनिरतं तपस्वी वाग्विदांवरम्।

नारदं परिपप्रच्छ वाल्मीकिर्मुनिपुङ्गवम्।।

First, we will identify the individual words in the same sequence as is found in the श्लोक and give its meaning in the same sequence.

Always Immersed in Penanace and Self Study Tapasvi Good at speech Gifted Narada Asked Valmiki The Best Among Sages

We have colour coded the above to distinguish separate words in the श्लोक।

With a word to word translation, we get the impression that Narada asked Valmiki (words 5, 6 and 7).  However, we have to re-order the words through the process of अन्वय - Anvaya.  When we do that, the new order of the words will be as under:

The natural question is: "We have two people here - Valmiki and Narada.  How do you identify whether Valmiki asked Narada or is it the other way around?"

Valmiki is referred to as वाल्मीकिः whereas Narada is referred to as नारदम्।

This gives the indication that Valmiki is the doer of the act of speaking and this was told to Narada.  (However, this is not as simple as it sounds)

The words "तपस्वी", "तपःस्वाध्यायनिरतम्", "वाग्विदाम्", "वरम्" and "मुनिपुङ्गवम्" are adjectives - विशेषण। Which of these adjectives would you associate to Valmiki and which of these would you associate to Narada?

These are again identifiable if we understand the rules of Construction of the श्लोक.

The question of spaces - Or the Delimiter

We had alluded to the fact that Samskrita does not require spaces to distinguish between one word and the next.  The reason for this is that in Samskrita a word is precisely defined.  The Sutra defining a word is " सुप्तिङ्न्तम् पदम्" (१-४-१४ - 14th Sutra of the 4th Part of the 1st Chapter).

सुप् तिङ् अन्तं पदम्।

A word पद is one which ends with either a सुप् or तिङ्

Going into what सुप् and तिङ् are is way beyond the scope of this article.  A brief explanation is in order, though.  Every word in Samskrita is a combination of two parts - the root - प्रकृति and a suffix - प्रत्यय.

There are different kinds of प्रत्ययs।  Word endings are सुप् and तिङ् प्रत्ययs।  These are finite in number - 39 to be precise (with further classifications within them).

Therefore, every word in Samskrita will have either of the two प्रत्ययs.  Another way of looking at it is that if the ending is not one of these 39 प्रत्ययs, then it is not a word.

How do you recognise them?  Simply parse through the string of letters in a श्लोक and the moment you identify one of the 39 प्रत्यय, you identify that as the end of the word.

Why was the structure of the श्लोक used? / What are its benefits of this structure?

We now come to the last part of this article.  Why was this elaborate structure created.  What are the benefits.

We list three important benefits:

1. Quality Control:

We go back to the apocryphal story narrated at the beginning of this article.  We had asked: "What is the possibility that such errors have crept into our texts?  Especially since most of Samskrita texts have been handed down through the Oral tradition, and written texts (manuscripts) and printing came recently?"

It should be clear by now that the rules relating to लघु and गुरु that were elucidated earlier, will make modifications to the contents of the श्लोक very difficult.  

Changing even one अक्षर of a word has implications on other words -- the need to retain the अक्षर count as well as retain the लघु and गुरु placements.  Every letter is part of a web and attempting to change one of them can unravel the entire web.

Changing a word would require complete modification of the श्लोक itself.  ((For a further discussion on this See Endnote 5 .

Insertion or deletion of an entire Shloka is definitely possible.  Over a period of time, a number of Shlokas tend to get added.  Entire stories are added.  It is for this reason that the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute did a thorough review of all the Recensions of the Mahabharata and have come out with the Critical Edition. (For some elaboration please See Endnote 6 

2.  Brevity:

In End note 2, we have provided a glimpse of the brevity achieved in contrast to English.  While this may sound puerile, it does give a glimpse.  Another way to look at it is that the entire teaching of the Bhagavad Gita is packed in 700 श्लोक।  And volumes are written to explain the content of these 700 श्लोकs.

3.  Aid to memorisation and retention:

This is a very important point.  Children were taught the texts by rote even though they don't understand the meaning.  Subsequently, they were taught Grammar (again by rote).  Over a period of time, both the text and the rules to understand them become part of the memory and can be recalled at any time.

Click here to see a clip from the movie "Maya Bazaar".  We talked about सुप् and तिङ् प्रत्ययs when we discussed word endings.  In this clip, students are taught to memorise सुप!

I hope that the above has given you a glimpse of the wonderful world of the Samskrita श्लोक Obviously, this is the tip of the tip of the iceberg.  

Instead of looking at a श्लोक from a religious / spiritual point of view, if we look at it as a tool of holding and transferring knowledge, we can obtain significant benefits.  If we can construct श्लोकs containing basic principles of all subjects - any thing from Astronomy to Zoology, students can memorise them in their childhood.  Subsequently, they can be taught how to understand / de-code the श्लोक.

Significant Knowledge retention can be achieved.


I have been fortunate to learn this under my teacher, Dr Sridhar Subbanna.  He continues to fascinate me with the depth of his learning.    

You can visit his website here.

A clear disclaimer is in order.  If there is anything accurate here, credit goes to my teacher.  If there are errors, they are entirely mine.  

Endnote 1:

The first Sanskrit book to be printed was the "देवनागरी शारदा स्वरमाला" ("Devanāgarī Śāradā Akṣaramālā"), a primer on the Devanagari script, which was printed in 1772 in Calcutta, India. The book was printed by the British East India Company's printing press under the supervision of a British scholar named Charles Wilkins. Wilkins was a pioneer in the study of Sanskrit and was instrumental in the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, which played a key role in the study and preservation of Sanskrit literature.

This link provides more details.  

Endnote 2:

The entire Ramayana is covered by Valmiki in just about 24,000*32 = 768,000 अक्षर / letters.   Here is a link to a Facebook page which tells that the English translation of Valmiki's Ramayana by Shri Bibek Debroy is published in three volumes and contains around 5 lakh words.  Assuming on average, 8 letters per word, this would mean around 4 million letters. 

Endnote 3:

Chhandas (छन्दस्) is one of the six Vedangas or parts of the Vedas.  ChatGPT generated the following response on describing the six Vedangas. The six Vedangas are six auxiliary disciplines of Vedic study that are designed to aid in the understanding and interpretation of the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures.

Endnote 4:

Let us take this very popular श्लोक

शुक्लाम्बरधरं विष्णुं शशिवर्णं चतुर्भुजम्।

प्रसन्नवदनं ध्यायेत् सर्वविघ्नोपशान्तये।।

This is in अनुष्टुप् छन्दस्।  The rules for this are:

In addition, it has the following rules:

This is one of the thousands of छन्दस् combinations.  Therefore, when a poet is composing in this combination, he has to pick words that comply with these rules.

Endnote 5:

You can keep adding any such complexities to have more fun.  Some of the constraints can be - each word should begin with the same letter; the nth letter of each पाद should be the same letter,  the nth letter of each पाद should only be a vowel / consonant etc.

Shri Bannanje Govindacharya while discussing a philosophical point in his Kannada book on Bhagavad Gita – Volume 2, page no 21, brings out this point.  In the third Shloka of Chapter 2, Arjuna is referred to as “Partha”.  Another scholar opined that Arjuna should not be referred to as “Partha” but should be referred to as “Kaunteya”. (Of course, we are not getting into the philosophical discussion here).

The Shloka reads: “क्लैब्यं मा स्म गमः पार्थ....”

If we indeed have to have “Kaunteya”, then the पाद has to be re-written as “मा क्लैब्यम् गच्छ कौन्तेय”

The above is to illustrate that making even one change would have repurcussions on other words used in the Shloka.

Hence the claim that all our texts have come down to us uncorrupted through the ages

Endnote 6:

(Some details of this project can be found here)

-- Madhava Madanapalli

Madhava Madanapalli is amongst the first set of students of Vidyasvam. He is an insurance-tech professional with over 35 years of work experience both in India and outside. Fortunate to be a college dropout, with no fancy degrees, he is a student of Yoga and Samskrita. He believes that Samskrita is core to retaining Bharateeyata.