When we speak quickly, we make many kinds of small and subconscious changes to the way we speak. These small changes let us speak more quickly and smoothly. For example, some native English speakers will not pronounce the final “g” sound of words like “walking” and “going.”
These kinds of changes also occur in Sanskrit. Vowels can combine, consonants can change, and some sounds are dropped entirely, all so that we can speak more quickly and more smoothly. In Sanskrit, these sound changes are called sandhi, which means “joining” or “junction.” (The word sandhi refers to what happens at the junction of two sounds.)
Every language has its own sandhi changes. But Sanskrit sandhi is unusual because it is often written down. For example, the Sanskrit words gajo and gajas have exactly the same meaning (both mean “elephant”), but we write gajo in front of some sounds and gajas in front of others.
In this lesson, we'll learn a few basic sandhi rules. Studying these rules will also help us build up our awareness of different Sanskrit sounds.
The basic principle of sandhi
Generally, the basic principle of sandhi is that sandhi makes it easier to speak quickly and smoothly. If you remember this basic principle, you can save yourself hours of time.
We also encourage you to read the examples below out loud. Read them slowly, and read them quickly. Notice which sounds are easy to say and which are difficult. Your mind and your body will develop an intuition for how sandhi changes should feel and how these changes might have felt to the people who first used them.
Vowel sandhi is the name for sandhi rules between two vowels.
Actually, we have studied most of vowel sandhi already. When we studied the different vowel combinations, what we were really studying were vowel sandhi rules. As a reminder, here are some examples of vowel sandhi:
सीता अश्वम् इच्छति → सीताश्वम् इच्छति
sītā aśvam icchati → sītāśvam icchati
Sita wants a horse.
सीता इषुम् इच्छति → सीतेषुम् इच्छति
sītā iṣum icchati → sīteṣum icchati
Sita wants an arrow.
सीता एतम् इच्छति → सीतैतम् इच्छति
sītā etam icchati → sītaitam icchati
Sita wants this.
सीता उदकम् इच्छति → सीतोदकम् इच्छति
sītā udakam icchati → sītodakam icchati
Sita wants water.
सीता ओदनम् इच्छति → सीतौदनम् इच्छति
sītā odanam icchati → sītaudanam icchati
Sita wants rice.
And a few more, with a different first vowel:
शबरी अश्वम् इच्छति → शबर्य् अश्वम् इच्छति
śabarī aśvam icchati → śabary aśvam icchati
Shabari wants a horse.
शबरी इषुम् इच्छति → शबरीषुम् इच्छति
śabarī iṣum icchati → śabarīṣum icchati
Shabari wants an arrow.
शबरी ओदनम् इच्छति → शबर्य् ओदनम् इच्छति
śabarī odanam icchati → śabary odanam icchati
Shabari wants rice.
visarga sandhi is the name for sandhi rules where the first sound is the visarga. For now, we will give some basic examples of visarga sandhi.
One common change is that the visarga becomes śa if followed by the letters ca or cha, and sa if followed by the letters ta or tha:
गजाः चरन्ति → गजाश् चरन्ति।
gajāḥ caranti → gajāś caranti.
The elephants walk.
गजाः तिष्ठन्ति → गजास् तिष्ठन्ति।
gajāḥ tiṣṭhanti → gajās tiṣṭhanti.
The elephants stand.
The idea is that the visarga, which is pronounced at the soft palate, changes to match the point of pronunciation used by ca, cha, ta, and tha. When these sounds match, we can pronounce them more easily.
Another common change is that the visarga disappears in front of voiced sounds. Just as a drop of water vanishes when it touches a hot pan, the unvoiced visarga vanishes when it touches a voiced sound:
गजाः गच्छन्ति। → गजा गच्छन्ति।
gajāḥ gacchanti. → gajā gacchanti.
The elephants go.
गजाः नदन्ति। → गजा नदन्ति।
gajāḥ nadanti. → gajā nadanti.
The elephants roar.
गजाः आम्रम् पश्यन्ति। → गजा आम्रं पश्यन्ति।
gajāḥ āmram paśyanti. → gajā āmraṃ paśyanti.
The elephants see a mango tree.
But one important exception is that aḥ becomes o in front of voiced consonants. There is a complex explanation for this change. But, it is faster and simpler to just memorize it:
रामः युध्यते → रामो युध्यते
rāmaḥ yudhyate → rāmo yudhyate
रामः जयति → रामो जयति
rāmaḥ jayati → rāmo jayati
रामः हसति → रामो हसति
rāmaḥ hasati → rāmo hasati
Consonant sandhi is the name for sandhi rules where the first sound is a consonant. Here we will give one small example of consonant sandhi. When the sound m is followed by a consonant, it becomes the anusvāra:
रामः सागरम् गच्छति → रामः सागरं गच्छति।
rāmaḥ sāgaram gacchati → rāmaḥ sāgaraṃ gacchati.
Rama goes to the ocean.
रामः वनम् गच्छति → रामो वनं गच्छति।
rāmaḥ vanam gacchati → rāmo vanaṃ gacchati.
Rama goes to the forest.
रामः चन्द्रम् गच्छति → रामश् चन्द्रं गच्छति।
rāmaḥ candram gacchati → rāmaś candraṃ gacchati.
Rama goes to the moon.
Remember: the anusvāra is often used as a shorthand way to write down different nasal sounds. For example, the two sentences below are written differently, but they are often pronounced identically:
रामः सागरं गच्छति
rāmaḥ sāgaraṃ gacchati
रामः सागरङ् गच्छति।
rāmaḥ sāgaraṅ gacchati.
If we keep this in mind, then we have the same principle as before: m changes to match the point of pronunciation used by the following sound. When both sounds use the same point of pronunciation, we can pronounce them together more easily.
Finally, you may sometimes see this symbol when you read Sanskrit:
This symbol is called the avagraha, and it is not pronounced.
The avagraha is similar to the apostrophe (') symbol that we use in English. Just as we use an apostrophe in “don't” to show that the “o” in “not” was removed, we use the avagraha in Sanskrit to show that a vowel (usually a) was removed due to sandhi:
रामः अयोध्याम् गच्छति → रामो ऽयोध्यां गच्छति।
rāmaḥ ayodhyām gacchati → rāmo 'yodhyāṃ gacchati.
Rama goes to Ayodhya.
Different authors have their own preferences on whether to use the avagraha or not. So although it is useful, do not assume it will always be present.
Most sandhi changes follow simple principles that are easy to understand. When in doubt, speak out loud.
Earlier in this this lesson, we wrote that most sandhi rules follow a basic principle that can save you a lot of time. What is that basic principle?
How does the phrase kausalyā icchati change due to sandhi?
How does the phrase arjunaḥ tiṣṭhati change due to sandhi?
How does the phrase arjunaḥ gacchati change due to sandhi?
How does the phrase arjunaḥ vanam gacchati change due to sandhi?