How to use a Sanskrit-English dictionary

A Sanskrit-English dictionary lets you search for Sanskrit words and see their definitions in English. If you plan to learn Sanskrit through English, a good Sanskrit-English dictionary is invaluable.

There are two Sanskrit-English dictionaries worth knowing about. These are:

  • V. S. Apte's The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary, which is especially clear

  • The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary. This is the main dictionary used by English-speaking Sanskrit scholars in the West.

Both of these dictionaries were created in the 19th century. But thanks to the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Dictionaries project, both of these dictionaries are freely available and searchable online.

In this lesson, we'll learn how to use the Cologne interface to search for different words. Let's search for the following two words:

  • कृष्णस्य

  • अकुर्वत

Step 1: Find the root or stem

Sanskrit is a highly inflected language. A nominal stem can use dozens of different endings, and a verb root might have thousands of different forms.

Rather than store all of these forms, these dictionaries store just the essential information. For verbs, they store the verb root. For nominals, they store the nominal stem.

So our first step is to convert the words above to their stem and root forms.

  • कृष्णस्य → कृष्ण
    kṛṣṇasya → kṛṣṇa

  • अकुर्वत → कृ
    akurvata → kṛ

Step 2: Transliterate your word

Many dictionary programs understand only a small number of different scripts. The Cologne interface understands Devanagari and romanized Sanskrit. But if you don't have an IME available on your computer, it is more convenient to enter your search in Harvard-Kyoto:

  • कृष्णkRSNa
  • कृkR

Step 3: Search!

By default, the Cologne interfaces expect Harvard-Kyoto and produce output in Devanagari. If you like these settings, you can try searching for your word in either the Apte dictionary or the Monier-Williams dictionary.

Final thoughts

Once you get used to an online dictionary, it's difficult to go back to paper books. With practice, you can quickly and accurately find the information you need.