The Shiva Sutras

Many of Sanskrit's sandhi rules apply only to specific groups of sounds. Some might apply only to simple vowels. Others might apply only to consonants that are neither semivowels nor nasals. And still others apply to more specific groups.

So as we begin to create our system, we must answer a vital and fundamental question: How might we refer to different groups of sounds concisely?

Let's enter the Pāṇinian system by seeing how it answers this question.

A list of sounds

Suppose we visit a market that sells different kinds of fruits. Perhaps it sells the following:

  • mangoes

  • coconuts

  • jackfruit

  • oranges

  • apples

  • lychee fruits

  • papayas

Suppose that we want to buy mangoes, coconuts, jackfruit, and oranges. One way to ask for these would be to just name each fruit we want. That would be fine, but it would take a long time to say. But if the sellers at the market know the list above, we can just say “mangoes to oranges” to get the fruits we want.

Now suppose we want to buy just mangoes, jackfruit, and papayas. These items are spread out far apart in our list. We can't say something like “mangoes to papayas” because that includes too many fruits that we don't want.

What we learn from this is that the ordering of fruits in our list is important. If we order our list well, we ensure that common orders can be made quickly. If we order it poorly, we create extra work for ourselves.

Pāṇini organizes the Sanskrit sounds in a similar way to this list of fruits. By ordering the Sanskrit sounds carefully, he can easily and efficiently make the groups he needs. And if we know how to use his list, we can use it to concisely and precisely refer to different groups of Sanskrit sounds.

First, here is the list:

  • अ इ उ ण्
    a i u

  • ऋ ऌ क्
    ṛ ḷ k

  • ए ओ ङ्
    e o

  • ऐ औ च्
    ai au c

  • ह य व र ट्
    ha ya va ra

  • ण्
    la

  • ञ म ङ ण न म्
    ña ma ṅa ṇa na m

  • झ भ ञ्
    jha bha ñ

  • घ ढ ध ष्
    gha ḍha dha

  • ज ब ग ड द श्
    ja ba ga ḍa da ś

  • ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व्
    kha pha cha ṭha tha ca ṭa ta v

  • क प य्
    ka pa y

  • श ष स र्
    śa ṣa sa r

  • ल्
    ha l

Some say that this arrangement was inspired by the beat of Shiva's drum. So these rules are often called the Shiva Sutras. But how do the Shiva Sutras actually work?

How the Shiva Sutras work

Each rule in this list has two parts. The black letters are ordinary sounds. And the red letters at the end of each rule are special letters called its. These it letters are not part of our list of sounds. Instead, they just mark the end of each rule.

Suppose that we want to refer to all of the vowels. We start by choosing the first item we want, which is a. Then we choose one of the it letters to mark the end of our list. So we would choose c, since c follows the last vowel in the list. The combination of these two is ac. So that is the name for all of the Sanskrit vowels: ac.

Likewise, we can quickly refer to other groups of sounds:

  • ल्
    al
    all letters

  • ल्
    hal
    all consonants

  • श्
    jhaś
    all voiced stop consonants

  • ष्
    jha
    all voiced aspirated stop consonants

  • र्
    khar
    all unvoiced sounds

But before we continue, perhaps you've noticed a few strange features of this list:

  • The vowels ā, ī, ū, and are missing. We will explain this in the next lesson. For now, just know that a refers to both the short vowel a and the long vowel ā. Likewise for the other vowels.

  • ha appears twice. The second ha makes it easier to quickly refer to the four sibilant sounds (śal). And when we use this list, any new name we create must include more than one sound. So hal will always refer to all consonants, and never to just the sound ha.

  • ends two different rules. This is a real ambiguity, and we must rely on context and commentaries to make the usage clear. Perhaps Pāṇini ran out of it letters and was forced to reuse one.

Review

Overall, the Shiva Sutras give us a clean and concise way to refer to different groups of Sanskrit sounds. How well does it actually work for the rest of the Pāṇinian system? According to one mathematician, this arrangement is mathematically optimal.

Even so, we still have some important open questions:

  • In the Shiva Sutras, why does the sound a refer to both short a and long ā?

  • What is an it letter, really?

The next two lessons will answer each of these questions in turn.