The compound system

Compounds (samāsa) are words that are made by combining multiple words together. Usually, two words are combined at a time.

Since compounds are also words, we can combine compounds with other words to make a new compound. And we can repeat that process again and again. Some styles of Sanskrit literature use very long compounds.

Why do we use compounds at all? After all, compounds are ambiguous and lose information:

  • गजस्य फलम् → गजफलम्
    gajasya phalam → gajaphalam
    The elephant's fruit → Elephant fruit

  • गजानां फलम् → गजफलम्
    gajānāṃ phalam → gajaphalam
    The elephants' fruit → Elephant fruit

But although compounds lose information, they are compact and short. If the context is clear, they save a lot of time. And if a sentence is very complex, compounds can even make the sentence clearer and easier to follow.

Four types of compounds

Sanskrit compounds come in four basic types. Each of the next four lessons will examine one of these types in more detail.

First is the dvandva, which we saw in our series of core lessons. Any set of words that could be combined with the word “and” can be combined into a dvandva:

  • रामः सीता च → रामसीते
    rāmaḥ sītā ca → rāmasīte
    Rama and Sita

  • रामः सीता लक्ष्मणः च → रामसीतालक्ष्मणाः
    rāmaḥ sītā lakṣmaṇaḥ ca → rāmasītālakṣmaṇāḥ
    Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana

Second is the tatpuruṣa, which we also saw in our series of core lessons. The idea is that the first word modifies the second in some way, just as a chessboard as a type of board (and not a type of chess):

  • रामस्य माता → राममाता
    rāmasya mātā → rāmamātā
    Rama's mother

  • रामस्य पुत्रः → रामपुत्रः
    rāmasya putraḥ → rāmaputraḥ
    Rama's son

Third is the bahuvrīhi. This is similar to English examples like ”graybeard” (a person whose beard is gray) and “blockhead” (a person with a block-like head). The idea is that both words, together, describe someone who is not explicitly mentioned in the compound:

  • महान् रथः यस्य → महारथः
    mahān rathaḥ yasya → mahārathaḥ
    whose chariot is great → “great-charioted,” a great warrior

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

Fourth is the avyayībhāva. This creates uninflected words. Usually, the first word is itself an uninflected word:

  • उप + कृष्ण → उपकृष्णम्
    upa + kṛṣṇa → upakṛṣṇam
    near + Krishna → near Krishna

  • यथा + उक्त → यथोक्तम्
    yathā + ukta → yathoktam
    according to + said → as it was said

How to tell compounds apart

Each of the compounds above has exactly two words. So how can we tell them apart? As you read more Sanskrit, you will be able to do so instinctively. But until then, here are some basic tips.

The words in a dvandva compounds are usually all of the same “type”: all people, all animals, all kinds of weapons, and the like:

  • रामः सीता लक्ष्मणः च → रामसीतालक्ष्मणाः
    rāmaḥ sītā lakṣmaṇaḥ ca → rāmasītālakṣmaṇāḥ
    Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana (all people)

The first word of an avyayībhāva is usually an uninflected word:

  • यथाशक्ति
    yathāśakti
    According to one's power

A bahuvrīhi and a tatpuruṣa are very similar. But a bahuvrīhi is an adjective. For example, a bahuvrīhi might describe a masculine noun, but its second word might come from a feminine noun. This happens in the example below:

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

When you see this mismatch, then you know that the compound is a bahuvrīhi. Otherwise, notice what other words the compound agrees with — that is, what other words it matches in gender, case, and number. For example, consider the compound in the sentence below:

  • दृढ-व्रतो रामो गच्छति।
    dṛḍha-vrato rāmo gacchati.
    Firm-vow Rama goes.

This compound has two interpretations:

  • Rama, who is a firm vow, goes. (tatpuruṣa)

  • Rama, who is of firm vows, goes. (bahuvrīhi)

But only the bahuvrīhi option makes sense here.