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March 21, 2012 / A

The “Enumeration of Syllables,” or the Shiva Sutras

Nataraja, a form of Shiva

Shiva, whose rhythmic dance was said to inspire the so-called Shiva Sutras. From Wikimedia.

Before the text proper there begins the अक्षरसमाम्नाय (“Enumeration of Syllables”), popularly known as the “Shiva Sutras.” This enumeration closely approximates the traditional alphabetical order and might seem to be a modified version of that original. But in terms of optimality, this list does not depend on the traditional ordering at all. To quote Paul Kiparsky, a Pāṇini scholar at Stanford University:

[The] structure of the Śivasūtras is entirely explicable on systematic grounds. … [No] other principles are needed than those used in the construction of the rest of Pāṇini’s grammar, namely the principle of economy and the logic of the special case and the general case (sāmānya/viśeṣa).
— Paul Kiparsky, “Economy and the Construction of the Śivasūtras

Wiebke Petersen, an assistant professor at the University of Düsseldorf, has also shown that the arrangement used by Pāṇini is mathematically optimal.

The list runs as follows:

अ इ उ ण्
ऋ लृ क्
ए ओ ङ्
ऐ औ च्
ह य व र ट्
ञ म ङ ण न म्
झ भ ञ्
घ ढु ध ष्
ज ब ग ड द श्
ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व्
क प य्
श ष स र्

The list proceeds roughly in alphabetical order. First are the simple vowels, then the medium vowels, then the strong vowels. Following this are (roughly speaking) the semivowels, the voiced consonants, the unvoiced consonants, and the sibilants. There is a certain sort of continuity at play; thus ठ precedes थ and ट precedes त.

The bold letter at the end of each line is an anubandha, an indicatory letter that is used not for its own sake but because it has a special meaning according to the rules of the Ashtadhyayi. Here, an ordinary letter grouped with its anubandha refers to all of the sounds from that first letter to the anubandha. So, अल् refers to all of the sounds in the list, and यण् refers to all of the semivowels. When an anubandha is used like this — to mark the end of a particular list — the combination of the sound and the anubandha is called a pratyāhāra. A pratyāhāra cannot contain just one item, though. Thus हल् refers not only to ह but also to every other consonant in the list. Thus we have terms like हल्सन्धि, the set of sandhi rules that apply to consonants.

Four features of this list stand out:

  • The long vowels आ, ई, ऊ, and ॠ (and लॄ, too) are not featured. In this list, a short vowel refers to the long form as well. Thus अ denotes both अ and आ.
  • Not every group of arbitrary letters can be defined here. The rules are as expressive as needed for the rules of the grammar, but for the sake of economy they don’t need to be any more flexible.
  • ह is used twice, probably for the sake of convenience and economy.
  • ण् is used twice as an anubandha. This is a real ambiguity in the Ashtadhyayi. I have heard that context is enough to distinguish among the uses of ण्.
I found this list to be easy to remember. I found it easiest to repeat the list a few times to get a feel for its arrangement. The ञ म ङ ण न म् row rolls right off the tongue, but ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् still gives me some trouble.


Leave a Comment
  1. Hinduism Ebooks (@Hinduism_Ebooks) / Mar 24 2012 12:10 am


    I congratulate you on your wonderful posts about memorizing and studying Ashtadhyayi. If you have not noticed, one line – ञ म ङ ण नम् – is missing in the Maheswara Sutrani.

    • A / Mar 24 2012 10:48 am

      Oh dear, that’s quite embarrassing. Thank you for the correction!

      • S / May 18 2014 11:40 pm

        Another minor comment: “घ ढु ध ष्” should be “घ ढ ध ष्”.

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