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April 21, 2012 / A

Sanskrit insults and idioms

My struggles with 2.1 continue, mostly due to a lack of time. But while studying, I was rather delighted to find some examples of how Sanskrit was used as a natural language.

The form of Sanskrit found in most literature tends to follow the model of Patanjali, who likely studied Sanskrit after the language’s last native speakers had already died. According to S. D. Joshi, this would explain why Patanjali does not understand the idiomatic use of वा as a “preferable” condition, which led later tradition to treat वा, विभाषा, and अन्यतरस्याम् as essentially synonymous terms. But Panini was probably closely connected with the community of native speakers; perhaps he was a part of it himself. For that reason, many of his rules reflect certain idioms and expressions that we rarely see in later Sanskrit, except in highly elaborate forms.

Here I focus on rules 2.1.44, 2.1.47, and 2.1.48. These come in a section describing the use of locative (सप्तमी) तत्पुरुष compounds.

2.1.44 संज्ञायाम्
(Case 7 words are compounded with case-inflected nouns) in the sense of (providing) a name (and the result is called तत्पुरुष);
2.1.47 क्षेपे
(Case 7 words are compounded with case-inflected nouns) in the sense of abuse (and the result is called तत्पुरुष);
2.1.48 पात्रेसमितादयश्च
And words in the list starting with पात्रेसमित  (are called तत्पुरुष when implying abuse).


Sanskrit compounds are particularly handy for capturing idioms and natural expressions. Some of these are familiar already. For example, a king can be a नृप or नरप, a protector of men. Or he can be a नरेश or नरपति, a lord of men. Most Sanskrit students have probably seen words like this already.

But what is more remarkable is that these compounds can work in strongly idiomatic ways that are not always predictable from a non-Sanskrit perspective. The examples here are all instances of अलुक्समास:

(A person) like sesame seeds in the forest; a person who fails to live up to expectations
(A person) like beans in the forest; a person who fails to live up to expectations
(Things) like किंशुक flowers in the forest; things found unexpectedly
(Things) like wood-apple trees in the forest; things found unexpectedly
(Things) like demons in a well; things found unexpectedly


But I find the insults much more interesting. What qualities did Sanskrit speakers think were insulting? Wild action:

अवतप्तेनकुलस्थितं तवैतत्
You’re acting like a mongoose on hot ground.

polluting the natural order:

Like peeing in a stream

And perverting religious ritual:

Like offering in ashes

But the पात्रेसमित words are much more fun:

A fly for a certain type of tree; a person with limited interest.
A man only with regard to his mother; “cowardly bully” (Monier Williams), “motherfucker” (S. D. Joshi).
पिण्डीशूरः , गेहेशूरः
A hero only with regard to a ball of food, or within his own home; a lazy bum

I enjoy these small clues to how vibrant and colorful Sanskrit used to be.



Leave a Comment
  1. bach / May 6 2012 7:57 am

    अवतप्तेनकुलस्थितं तवैतत् !! Good one 🙂


  1. The affix णमुल् « अवग्रह

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