भ्रेमुर् ववल्गुर् ननृतुर् जजक्षुर् / जगुस् समुत्पुप्लुविरे निषेदुः !

(bhremuḥ vavalguḥ nanṛtuḥ jajakṣuḥ / jaguḥ sam-ut-pupluvire niṣeduḥ!)


"[They] roamed about, [they] leaped, [they] danced, [they] laughed / [they] sang, [they] jumped together, [they] rested". Whoa there, that's more action in these two pādas than there is in two cantos of some mahākāvyas! What's happening here? All words are verbs, and in the third-person plural of the past tense (liṭ lakāra). Guess for a moment who might have done all this, and read on!


This phrase is taken from the Rāvaṇavadha of Bhaṭṭi, more famously known by its eponym, the Bhaṭṭikāvya. We know very little of Bhaṭṭi -- he probably lived sometime between 1400-1800 years ago, near the city of Valabhi in modern day Gujarat. What we do know is that he was a brilliant grammarian, much respected through the centuries. There is a legend that he was once teaching grammar in his āṣrama, when something very inauspicious happened, and he could not teach for a full year. He could not bear to sit idle, and so wrote the Rāvaṇavadha instead.

The Rāvaṇavadha is a very curious work. At first glance, it is a simplified and much shorter version of the Rāmāyaṇa. The story is pretty much the same,  and the poet sticks mainly to action with little temptation to lapse into long descriptive passages that plague many Sanskrit works. But that is only the surface -- beneath it lies a veritable ocean of grammatical teaching. Each canto, each section, and even each verse contains some grammatical specialty that stands out, and can be focused on for instruction. Some cantos deal with noun forms, some with verbs, some with participles, some with figures of speech and some with specific Pāṇiṇi sūtras. What is certain is that there is a "minimum guarantee" down to each verse that some important grammatical concept is being espoused. Bhaṭṭi cleverly left the job of finding just what that specific concept is to his commentators though, and by this masterstroke, has kept debate about his work alive for a millennium and half! The work became so popular that as far away as Java, Bhaṭṭi's work was the one chosen to be translated as the Kakawin Rāmāyaṇa[1].

The Rāvaṇavadha is a great example of an important quality that appears over and over again in all classical Indian works. The same work reveals a deeper and deeper meaning as one reads it at more and more advanced stages. In a sense, the work is expected to be read repeatedly at different stages of advancement, and it grows with the reader like a childhood friend. We saw an example with the story of Sāvitrī and Satyavān in the last chapter -- a story that was engaging as a child was still as engaging, but at a much deeper level, as an adult; the entire Mahabhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, and the most parts of the kāvya tradition have the same quality. Let us consider the present work, for example. To a young or beginning reader, what is likely to stick is the story itself, the picturization and the dramatic action. For example, consider this description of clouds during the monsoon season:

निराकरिष्णवो भानुं दिवं वर्तिष्णवो ऽभितः ।

अलङ्करिष्णवो भान्तस् तडित्-वन्तश् चरिष्णवः ।7.3।

nirākariṣṇavo bhānuṃ divaṃ vartiṣṇavo abhitaḥ |

alaṅkariṣṇavo bhāntaḥ taḍit-vantaḥ cariṣṇavaḥ |7.3|

“Rebuking the sun, [the clouds] moved about in the sky everywhere, decorating it with flashing lightning.”

A beginning reader would notice the imagery, and the sonorous, repeated “iṣṇu” sounds and accept the meaning without question. A more advanced reader would start asking questions. What are the vibhaktis (case declensions) of a word that ends in ‘u’, like vartiṣṇu does? The grammarian happily steps in, and teaches how a word like ‘guru’ is expressed in the 7 vibhaktis. A even more advanced reader would wonder about the form of the word “-iṣṇu” -- what does it mean, exactly? The grammarian is overjoyed to help -- it is the “iṣṇuc” suffix, which means “having as its nature”. So “alaṅkariṣṇu” is something that decorates by its very nature. “Viṣṇu”means “that which pervades (viśḷ) by its very nature”. “Jiṣṇu”means “that which wins (ji) by its very nature”. The most advanced readers will ask why ‘bhānu’ and ‘diva’ are in the 2nd vibhakti, and what the roots of the participles used are, and the process continues.

This kind of a “fit for all levels” writing is conspicuously absent in most of modern writing, where specialized “child”, “tween”, “teen”, “young adult” and “mature” markets exist. Noticing a couple of exceptions would help identifying the rule. In the Harry Potter legend, there is a scene where Harry is looking into the Mirror of Erised. The mirror is capable of showing visually what a man yearns for in his thoughts. Being an orphan, Harry yearns for parental love, and he sees a picture of him happily laughing with his family. Dumbledore the headmaster cautions him against spending too much time looking at the mirror -- it shows neither the truth nor knowledge, and men have wasted away their lives pondering their desires. He then tells Harry, “The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would look into it and see himself exactly as he is.”

The young reader would probably notice the simple things, like how Erised is “Desire” mirrored, and the general mood of the conversation. But the idea that too much of pondering upon our desires is like a never-ending pit, and that at some level making peace with oneself is essential, is worthy of the greatest epic.

In another example, in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, there exist “seeing stones” called ‘Palantir’s that can show anything happening anywhere, but with one fault: they show evil more starkly than they show good. A good wizard, Saruman, used his Palantir to see the army of the evil Sauron, and saw an unassailable force. He decided there was no way he could win, and converted to the evil side. Writing about the stress that the Internet and free access to information brings to our life in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik uses this idea brilliantly[2]:

For the Internet screen has always been like the palantír in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”—the “seeing stone” that lets the wizards see the entire world. Its gift is great; the wizard can see it all. Its risk is real: evil things will register more vividly than the great mass of dull good. The peril isn’t that users lose their knowledge of the world. It’s that they can lose all sense of proportion. You can come to think that the armies of Mordor are not just vast and scary, which they are, but limitless and undefeatable, which they aren’t.

These examples are striking because it is so rare to find a popular modern work that is re-readable at multiple levels.

Back to Bhaṭṭi now. The work is not just about grammatical forms, it also abounds in rich poetry. Here is an example praised by virtually all ālankārikas as a great example of the ekāvali figure of speech, where one phrase qualifies the next:

न तज् जलं यन् न सुचारु-पङ्कजं

न पङ्कजं तद् यद् अलीन-षट्पदं ।

न षट्पदो ऽसौ न जुगुङ्ज यः कलं

न गुञ्जितं तन्न जहार यन् मनः ।2.19।

na tat jalaṃ yat na sucāru-paṅkajaṃ

na paṅkajaṃ tat yat alīna-ṣaṭpadaṃ |

na ṣaṭpado asau na juguṅja yaḥ kalaṃ

na guñjitaṃ tanna jahāra yat manaḥ |2|19|

“It’s no water that doesn’t have lovely lotuses in it.

It’s no lotus that doesn’t have a bee by it.

It’s no bee without a mellifluous buzzing.

It’s no buzzing that doesn’t give the mind joy”

We can go to great lengths to define precisely and objectively what is good, and form long chains of detailed specifications, but ultimately, at the core of all judgment is the question of whether it gives joy.

Even this lovely verse isn’t entirely free of grammatical interest -- the bahuvrīhis are delightfully formed, and the past perfect ‘jugunja’ is used to illustrate an alternative way of giving a similar meaning as the participle ‘guñjitaṃ’.

Going further, the whole of Canto 10 is devoted to describing figures of speech -- the first 21 verses are varying kinds of ṣabdālaṇkāra, mostly yamakas, and the rest show different kinds of arthālaṇkāra.

Canto 11 is all about classical poetry, in particular the style of mādhurya (sweetness). The dawn over Lanka  is described in various ways, from the openings of lotuses in ponds to lovers waking up after a night’s exhaustion. In one instance, a young damsel who’s just woken up is startled by a bee which is looking for freshly opened flowers:

विलोलतां चक्षुषि हस्त-वेपथुं

भ्रुवोर् विभङ्गं स्तन-युग्म-वल्गितम् ।

विभूषणानां क्वणितं च षट्पदो

गुरुर् यथा नृत्य-विधौ समादधे ।11.37।

vilolatāṃ cakṣuṣi hasta-vepathuṃ

bhruvoḥ vibhaṅgaṃ stana-yugma-valgitam |

vibhūṣaṇānāṃ kvaṇitaṃ ca ṣaṭpado

guruḥ yathā nṛtya-vidhau samādadhe |11.37|

“It caused her eyes to flutter, her hands to tremble,

her brows to contract, her bosom to jump,

and her ornaments to tingle --

as if the bee had become her dance master!”

This chapter’s phrase appears in the 13th canto, just as the monkey army completes the bridge over the ocean and lands in Lanka:

भ्रेमुर् ववल्गुर् ननृतुर् जजक्षुर्

जगुस् समुत्पुप्लुविरे निषेदुः

आस्फोटयां-चक्रुर् अभिप्रणेदू

रेजुर् ननन्दुर् विययुस् समीयुः ।13.28।

bhremuḥ vavalguḥ nanṛtuḥ jajakṣuḥ

jaguḥ samutpupluvire niṣeduḥ |

āsphoṭayāṃ-cakruḥ abhi-praṇeduḥ

rejuḥ nananduḥ viyayuḥ samīyuḥ |13.28|

(Upajāti metre, 12 syllables per line)

"[They] roamed about, [they] leaped, [they] danced, [they] laughed

[they] sang, [they] jumped together, [they] rested,

[they] slapped their arms, [they] saluted,

[they] glowed, [they] rejoiced, [they] moved apart, [they] came together!”

This is brilliant at so many levels. The choice of using only verbs, 13 lip-smacking action words, is perfect. It’s a momentous event: a bridge over the very ocean has been constructed! Sītā will be rescued any moment now! The toil of a long time is finally bearing fruit! Not to forget, it’s an army of monkeys! Would we expect them to spout a demure mandasmita, purse their bimbādhara, fold their karapankaja into a dhyānamudra, gently close their nalinīdalākṣī and ponder war strategy in a sragdharā verse? Hell no! That fluffy nonsense is for later poets, this here scene is exploding with action!

All verbs are in the past tense, in a particular form called liṭ ("parokṣa bhūta"). This form is used when referring to a past action that the speaker did not witness personally, and is most often used in narrations and third-person speech. It’s a tricky one because its conjugation is not as simple as the more usual present and simple past tenses, and Bhaṭṭi’s demonstration of several kinds of verb-roots here is very helpful.

After all this, in the end, we may ask, why is so much energy exerted on grammar? What’s so great about it? Isn’t using the language more important?

The answer lies in a balance between knowing a tool and using it. Grammar, at its core, is a form of introspection, of examining one’s own facilities. Even today, we have little idea how language originates in us. We know that it’s automatic and unconscious -- virtually all of us can tell instantly if a new speaker of our language is making a mistake; most of us can tell the correct form, but few can tell precisely why the wrong form was wrong, and why the right form is right. In a sense, grammar is like any science, trying to understand the mysteries of nature and trying to decode its “rulebook”. In this case, the object of enquiry resides in our own heads and in society’s commons.

This kind of exploration takes on a whole new level of meaning when Sanskrit’s massive linguistic infrastructure is analyzed. To give an analogy, Sanskrit grammar is like an extraordinarily well-equipped kitchen as big as a palace: you have stoves, ovens, microwaves, grills, barbecues, tandoors, woks, fireplaces; every kind of utensil you can imagine, every kind of spice, seasonings, oils and condiments, all neatly arranged and ready to be used. Whatever material you could possibly bring into this kitchen, you can rest assured that a dizzying variety of treats can be prepared from it. But its very immensity itself is its enemy -- even a seasoned cook can be easily bewildered by the vast array of options at hand. Works like Bhaṭṭi’s are like combined user manuals + cookbooks, which deal with very simple materials that everyone knows about, and demonstrates how different elements of the kitchen can be used. Take rice, cook it in this fashion, add this seasoning, and voila! You have a meal. But now, take the same rice, put it in a grinder, use this pan and oil, and you have an entirely different meal. It’s a perfect combination of familiarity of the material and novelty of the process.

In contrast, the grammar of modern languages appears more akin to a two-slot toaster. Sure, you can make a lot of stuff with it and even rejoice in its simplicity, but to anyone who has tasted better, it is safe to say that it’s a tad unsatisfying!


Sanskrit has a rich history of riddles and word puzzles that stretches back to the times of Bhaṭṭi. Here’s one:

वृक्षाग्र-वासी न च पक्षिजातिस् त्रि-नेत्र-धारी न च शूल-पाणिः ।

त्वग्-वस्त्र-धारी न च सिद्ध-योगी जलं च बिभ्रन् न घतो न मेघः ॥

vṛkṣāgra-vāsī na ca pakṣi-jātiḥ trinetra-dhārī na ca śūla-pāṇiḥ |

tvag-vastradhārī na ca siddha-yogī jalaṃ ca bibhran na ghato na meghaḥ ||

"Sits on treetops, but isn't a bird;  Has three eyes, but isn't Śiva. Wears clothes of bark, but isn't a Siddha-yogī. Carries water, but isn't a pot or a cloud."

What are we talking about?

[1] Consider for example this very well-done “Google Ramayana”, which takes the Indonesian version and converts it into the format of Google’s Prodcuts: http://goo.gl/X4o2ky

[2] Adam Gopnik, The Information: How the Internet gets inside us (The New Yorker, Feb 2011): http://goo.gl/tmHxSo