The bahuvrīhi

Also known as: the possessive compound

bahuvrīhi literally means “(having) much rice.” In a bahuvrīhi compound, the two compounded words describe an idea that is not explicitly mentioned. Usually, the first word describes the second:

  • महान् रथो यस्य → महारथः
    mahān ratho yasya → mahārathaḥ
    who has a great chariot → “great-charioted,” a great warrior

  • पीतो ऽम्बरो यस्य → पीताम्बरः
    pīto 'mbaro yasya → pītāmbaraḥ
    who has yellow clothes → yellow-clothed

  • दृढा व्रता यस्य → दृधव्रतः
    dṛḍhā vratā yasya → dṛdhavrataḥ
    who holds firm vows → firm-vowed

Or sometimes, the relationship is more complex:

  • चक्रं पाणौ यस्य → चक्रपाणिः
    cakraṃ pāṇau yasya → cakrapāṇiḥ
    in whose hand is a discus → discus-handed

We have many examples of this compound in English: flatfoot, lowlife, yellow-belly, blockhead, kindhearted, evil-minded, and so on.

Why do we describe this compound with a strange word like bahuvrīhi? Part of the reason is that the word “bahuvrīhi” is itself a bahuvrīhi compound:

  • बहुर् व्रीहिर् यस्य → बहुव्रीहि
    bahur vrīhir yasya → bahuvrīhi
    who has much rice → “much-riced,” a wealthy person

Using the bahuvrīhi

The bahuvrīhi is an adjective, regardless of the genders used by its individual words. For example, consider the example below:

  • स्थिता प्रज्ञा यस्य → स्थितप्रज्ञः
    sthitā prajñā yasya → sthitaprajñaḥ
    whose discernment is stable → “stable-discernmented”

prajñā is a feminine word, but sthitaprajña is an adjective that can be used with masculine words.

Ambiguous compounds

The bahuvrīhi often strongly resembles a tatpuruṣa:

  • दृढव्रतः
    firm vow (tatpuruṣa interpretation)
    whose vows are firm (bahuvrīhi interpretation)

In older Sanskrit, bahuvrīhi and tatpuruṣa compounds usually have different accents. But in later Sanskrit, we must rely on context to tell these compounds apart.


This lesson reminds us of a charming verse:

  • अहं च त्वं च राजेन्द्र लोकनाथाव् उभावपि ।
    ahaṃ ca tvaṃ ca rājendra lokanāthāv ubhāvapi ।
    Both I and you, O lord of men, are loka-nāthas (world-lords).

  • बहुव्रीहिरहं राजन् षष्ठीतत्पुरुषो भवान् ॥
    bahuvrīhirahaṃ rājan ṣaṣṭhītatpuruṣo bhavān ॥
    I am a bahuvrīhi, my king, and you are a case 6 tatpuruṣa.

The speaker, due to his poverty, is someone whom the entire world dominates (loko nātho yasya), and the king is an ordinary lord of the earth (lokasya nāthaḥ).