Tag Archives: Rig Veda

Yaska and Panini – Part One


Yaska and Panini – Part One


Yaska and Panini are two of the most celebrated scholars of the Sanskrit linguistic sciences.  Yaskacharya is renowned as a Great Etymologist (Niruktakara), whose work, the Nirukta, is looked upon as the oldest available authoritative treatise concerning derivation of certain selected Vedic words. And, Panini, the Grammarian par excellence (Maha-Vaiyakaranah), is reverently addressed as Bhagavata  Pāine Acārya. And, his Grammar Aṣṭādhyāyī (inīktaSūtrapāham), the most distinguished treatise that set the linguistic standards for Classical Sanskrit, is referred to as Paniniyam Maha-shastram.

There is often a tendency to compare the approach and the methods adopted by the two Greats to their respective fields of study.


It is said; Yaska preceded Panini (Ca.5th century B C E) by about a century or, perhaps, more. This is based, rather tentatively, upon the Sutra: Yaska-adibhyo gotre (PS_2.4.63) in Panini’s Astadhyayi. Further, Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashya on Panini’s Astadhyayi, suggests that Yaska hailed from the Paraskara Country – (pāraskara deśa P_6, 1.157) – (?*), on the basis of Panini’s Sutra – Pāraskara-prabhtīni ca sajñāyām (PS. 6.1.157). And often, salutations are submitted to Yaska with the mantra: Namo Paraskaraya, Namo Yaskaya.

 [*According to some,Paraskara corresponds to Tharaparkar in the Sindh region]

It appears during the time of Yaska, the then contemporary Sanskrit, though not the same, was yet somewhat near to the Sanskrit of the ancient Vedas (Chhandas). In fact, Yaska, in his Nirukta (1.1; 1.15), remarks: the Vedic stanzas are still meaningful; because, their words are almost close to the currently spoken Sanskrit. However, understanding certain obscure terms of Vedic Mantras had become rather difficult.

samāmnāyaḥ samāmnātaḥ sa vyākhyātavyaḥ /1.1/.. Atha api idam antareṇa mantreṣv artha pratyayona vidyate / Nir.1.15 /

The Sanskrit, when it was a living language, was evolving and changing from period to period. For instance; the language of the Upanishads is not, in every respect, the same as the language of the Rig-Veda. And again, the language of Classical period differed, substantially, from that of the Upanishads.

Accordingly, by the time of Yaska, the Sanskrit language had changed a great deal since the period of the Vedas; and, was more or less bereft of the characteristic Vedic phonetic and semantic forms.  But, at the same time, the link between the Vedic idioms and the contemporary language had not entirely worn-out.

Nevertheless, in the process, over a period, say by the First millennium BCE, interpretation of certain Vedic terms had indeed become rather vague and imprecise. The tradition had apparently broken down; and, by the time of Yaska, the meaning of some archaic words in the   Vedic Riks could no longer be grasped clearly.

Yaska points out the differences between the Vedic Sanskrit (which Panini calls as Chhandas) and the contemporary language (Bhasha) – Na iti pratiedha arthīyo bhāāyām ubhayam anvadhyāyam (Nir.1, 4)

Yaska described the position then obtaining (Nir.1.20); and, remarked: the Rishis, who envisioned, had direct perception (dṛṣṭayo bhavanti) of the meaning of the Vedic hymns (evam ucca avacair abhiprāyair sīnām mantra dṛṣṭayo bhavantiNir.7.3). But, the later generations had lost that faculty; and, did not fully understand the meaning of certain mantras. Therefore, with a view to helping the future learners in comprehending the meaning of certain difficult passages of the Vedas, the texts like Nighantu and Nirukta were composed.

Upadeśāya glāyanto avare bilma grahanāya imam grantham samāmnāsiur vedaś ca veda agāni ca- // Nir.1.20 //


Yaskacharya believed that every Vedic word has an expressive power to denote a certain sense. And, as a signifier (vacaka), every word is eternal (vyaptimattvat tu sabdasya – Nir.I.2); and, it performs a critical function in helping to arrive at an unerring, definitive meaning of a statement.

Yaska, therefore, remarks that it is essential that one should realize this truth.  And,  in the absence of such realization, a person, who merely recites the Vedas, without comprehending its meaning, would be like a pillar (sthaanu) or a mere load-bearer (bhara-haara). And, it is only he, who fully grasps and appreciates the meaning of what he is reciting (arthajña), that will attain the good – both here and hereafter (sakalam bhadram-aśnute-nākam); having been purged of all impurities by the power of knowledge (jñāna vidhūta pāpmā).

sthāur ayam bhāra-hāra kila abhūd adhītya vedam na vijānāti yo artham / yo arthajña it sakalam bhadram aśnute nākam eti jñāna vidhūta pāpmā (Nir.1. 18)

Yaska goes further; and tenders a sage-like counsel (Nir.1.18): what is taken from teacher’s mouth, but not understood and, is merely repeated, never flares up. It is like dry firewood flung on something that is not fire.

Don’t memorize, seek the meaning / What has been taken [from the teacher’s mouth] but not understood,/ Is uttered by mere memory recitation /  It never flares up, like dry firewood without fire . / Many a one, although seeing, do not see Speech, / Many a one, although hearing, do not hear her/ And many a one, she spreads out [Her] body, like a wife desiring her husband. / The meaning of Speech is its fruit and flower. (Translation by Eivind Kahrs)

Yad ghītam avijñāta nigadena eva śabdyate/  anagnāv iva śuka edho na taj jvalatikarhicit/  sthāus tiṣṭhater artho arter araastho vā / Nir. 1.18 /




As mentioned earlier, in order to instruct , to guide and to help such of those who were ill at ease with the Vedic language; and, those who did not fully comprehend the meaning of the mantras, the texts such as Nighantu  (joined together or  strung together  words) and others were compiled; its plural being Nighantava.  Yaska calls these texts as Samāmnāyam Nighaṇṭava (enumerations)Nir. 1, 1

 [Albrecht Weber (The History of Indian Literature (1892) on page 25) points out that correct name of such texts should be Nigranthu (strung together); and, not Nighantu, as it is generally called]

The Nighantu could briefly be described as a glossary of certain Vedic words – in the exact form in which they appear in the Vedic texts; and, as the earliest known systematic work, clearly dividing the words of the Sanskrit language into the groups of nouns, verbs , prepositions and particles.

[However, Nighantu is not an exhaustive list of all Vedic words. It includes only such words as were considered ambiguous, obscure, or synonymous.]

Durga , the commentator, calls Nighantu  an example (Udaharana) ; and, explains its  purpose  by saying: In order that we get the knowledge of  the meaning of the Vedic verses (mantra-artha-parijnana), the Rishis have composed (sam-amnaya) this text, which in its five parts (pancha-adhyayayi), serves as an example for  forming  a compendium of the Shastras.

Sa Ca Rsibhir mantra-artha-parijnanayo udaharana bhutah, pancha-adhyayayi shastra samgraha bhaven ekasmin amnaye granthikrta ity arthah (1.30;3-4)


The Nighantus, as a class of texts, consist five chapters, which are again divided into three sections.

The first section, comprising the first three chapters, deals mainly with synonyms (Nighantuka-kanda), which, perhaps, is the earliest.

The second section covering the fourth chapter (Naigama or Aikapadika-kanda) dealing with homonyms, contains a list of ambiguous and particularly difficult words of the Veda.

The third section, covering the fifth chapter (Daivata-kanda), gives the names of deities; and, their classification under the three regions, earth, sky and the intermediate space.

The Nighantus, upon which Yaska offers his comments, are the most ancient in a long and hoary tradition of lexicography. Besides the Nighantus and the Nirukta there are the Koshas (vocabularies) and Anukramanika (indexes).

The Nighantu, which mostly lists the archaic words occurring in the Rig-Veda, is also meant to functions as a compliment to the Vyakarana (Grammar).

In addition, it also serves a practical purpose; which is to help and guide the Yajnaka (the one who performs the Yajnas), in unerringly identifying the Devata of a mantra, so that the Yajna is performed well, without a blemish; and, its objective is achieved successfully.



Further, with a view to comprehend and to restore the correct meaning of certain antiquated words appearing in the Vedas, the method of Nirvachana (Nir+Vac = clear explanation of words) was applied to the glossary of Nighantu.

The term Nirvachana, which embodies the principles of etymology, is understood as the study which enables the analysis of a word; its formation; the different senses it  conveys (yathartham), in accordance with its derivation (vyutpattih) (Nirvachanam nama sabdasya yathartham vyutpattih); and, by taking into account the contextual factors (samsarga) , as well.

Such a field of analytical study had  perhaps become necessary; because, almost a quarter of words in the Vedic texts, composed in the Second millennium BCE, appeared just once; and, their meaning and intent had become imprecise.


Nighantu -Nirukta

The related field of learning, which deals with the derivation and semantic explanation of words, came to be known as Nirvachana Shastra or Nirukti, (‘interpretation’ or derivation and semantic explanation of words) a branch of etymology.

It attempted to systematically put forward theories on how words are formed; and, how their meanings are to be determined in the context of the Vedas.  Its related subsidiary texts were known as Nirukta (Nir + Ukta or Nir-Vac = to explain clearly).

And, Nirukta developed into a branch of etymology; offering explanations about the derivation of certain chosen words of the Vedas , in order to comprehend; to determine; and,  to restore their proper meaning. In the process, the Nirukta systematically discussed how to understand the significance of archaic, uncommon words used, mainly, in the Rig-Veda.

Nirukta is very closely connected with the Vedas. The body of Yäska’s work is a commentary on most of the words of the Nighantu; which again is a glossary of certain Vedic words. The main task of the Nirukta of Yaska is to explain most of the rare and obscure Vedic words by resorting to various possible etymologies.

[Sri Sayanacharya , in the preface to his Rig-bhashya, extols the approach of Yaska for explaining the uncommon aspects (Tattvas) of the Vedas; while other Vedangas are engaged in secular subjects – arthāvabodhe nirapekatayā padajāta yatrokta tan Niruktam  

Sri Sayana concluded his exposition of the Nirvachana-shastra with the remark: the Nirukta is useful for grasping the meaning (Artha) of the Vedas – tasmat Veda-rtha ava bodha- upayuktam Niruktam ]


The Brahmana texts

It is said; the Brahmana texts were indeed the earliest attempts made in the study of etymology (Nirukta) of Vedic words.

The etymologies in the Bråhmanas were believed to bring to light the connections that underlie between the explicit and the implicit ideas that are normally concealed. Such revelations also helped to emphasize the fact that words could, often, have multiple etymologies. 

And, with that, it was realized that  certain  words  may possibly  have the potential to function as the  network of ideas; not being confined to merely suggesting the possibility of having a set of synonyms’. 

It is said; the Brahmana texts explain the mantra-passages in ten different ways –Nirvachana; and Vyava-dharana-kalpa.

The advantages of analysing a word or a technical term; and studying it from the point of view of more than one etymology, are said to be, that one gains access to the realities that were till then latent or hidden.  Which is to say; one becomes aware of   the unknown through the known. The knowledge, so acquired through such revelation – the texts emphasize repeatedly – are of great importance: as, it helps to widen the awareness of one who is fired with zeal to learn.

And, Yaska’s work, as also the works of those other Nairuktas, who   preceded him, such as Sakapuni, Aupamanyava, et al, were all said to be based upon the derivations and explanations as provided in the Brahmana literature. That is evidenced by the fact that all the characteristic features of the etymologies in the Nirukta are said to be based in the Bråhmanas. And, the Brähmanas many times provide the narrative background for an etymology given in the Nirukta. Further, Yaska also frequently quotes passages from Brahmana-texts, in support of his etymologies.

Some scholars regard Yaska’s Nirukta as a methodical extension of the   explanations of words, as in the Brähmanas.


Yaska’s Nirukta

Yaska’s Nirukta brings together and presents, with comments, in a cohesive form those matters that were already discussed in other earlier texts. And, the selected Verses of the Rig-Veda, of course, are the main substance that is commented upon and made explicit, by using illustrative passages and the explanations as given in the Nighantu and in the Brahmanas. And, this forms the important part of Yaska’s Nirukta.

Nirukta as a distinct branch of etymology is primarily concerned with the meaning of a word or of a term – Artha pradhana; and, determines the meaning it conveys or is intending to convey, by tracing the roots of its formation.

Sri Sayana gives an analysis of the name of Yaska’s Nirukta: that which fully (nihsesha) provides (ucyante) the various possible (sambhavitah) meanings of the constituent elements (avayava-artha) of each individual word (ekaikasya padasya) by tracing its root (vyutpatti), is called Nirukta.

Tad api Niruktam ity ucyate / ekaikasya padasya sambhavita avayav-arthas tarta nihseseno ucyante iti vyutpatteh /

Here, the context in which the word appears, as well as the function it serves therein, assumes much importance, in order to understand the real significance of a word. Because, the Nirvachana principle, which is adopted in the Nirukta   is , essentially, concerned with  the formation of a word , and meaning in a given context; and , in a different context, the word could give forth a different meaning;  then, the  Nirvacana would also differ.

evam.anyesām.api.sattvānām.sadehā.vidyante/tāni.cet.samāna.karmāi.samāna. NirvacanāniNir. 2, 7

It is therefore, said; a Niruktakara would never handle a word, torn out of its context (Na ekapadani Nirbhuyat- Nir.2.3); because, it would otherwise lead to a mere speculation about  its probable intended meaning.

[Similarly, Bhartrhari clarifies (VP.1.59): all the elements extracted from the word in the course of linguistic analysis are valid in their own context. The elements that are relevant in the context of one activity may not be valid in the context of another. That is to say; each kind of activity, i.e. each kind of communicative situation, has its own reality , which in some ways might differ from the realities of other situations.

bhedenāvagṛhītau dvau śabdadharmāv apoddhṛtau/ bhedakāryeṣu hetutvam avirodhena gacchataḥ  (VP.1.59)  ]


Yaska’s Nirukta is not a ‘basic text’ of a Nirvacana-shastra from which a certain tradition of interpretation distinct from Vyakarana develops. It is, initially, a commentary on the Nighantu texts, which, again is a glossary of Vedic words; and, subsequently, it is an explanation of certain selected passages from the Rig-Veda. Thus, the two traditions – Vedic and Nighantu- are intertwined in Yaska’s work.

According to Yaska, every Vedic word has a meaning; and, denotes an appropriate sense. A mantra, for the Nirukta, suggests the activity of the mind (mantro-mananath).  Here, speech is regarded as the vehicle of thought; and, whatever that comes within the purview of thought also comes within the purview of speech.  In other words; Nirukta belongs to class of texts that are designed to intellectually explore and present the precise meaning of the Vedic mantras.

The aim of Yaska’s etymology is to understand the real significance of a word. It is not a subject of antiquarian interest; but, is of great importance to the study of meaning of Vedic mantras by countless generations that succeeded Yaska.

Besides that, the etymology featured in the Nirukta is of great importance for the study of Sanskrit language, in general. Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya, very frequently  refers to Yaska’s Nirukta; and,  so does  Sri Sayanacharya , in the later times.

Nirukta is important for several other reasons, as well. Firstly, it presents the type of the earliest classical style that was used in the Rig-Veda; and, secondly, it is the oldest known attempt in the field of Vedic etymology.

As regards the importance of the etymology, the Nirukta, Yaska asserts , right at the commencement of his work : without this science, one cannot gain the precise meaning of certain Vedic terms; and , therefore, one cannot clearly understand and grasp of the import of Vedic mantras, as well.

Samāmnāyah samāmnāta sa vyākhyātavya/ idam antarea mantre vra artha pratyayo na vidyate iti Nir. 1,1

[ Please do not fail to read the remarkable study on the Language of the Nirukta by Dr. Mantrini Prasad (DK Publishing House – 1975). It is very thorough, detailed and authoritative; and, is imperative for anyone earnestly undertaking the study of Yaska’s Nirukta.]


Word (Sabda) and Meaning (Artha)

Yaska uses the term Sabda to denote ’the word’ as also ‘the sound’. The sound could either be (a) inarticulate (various natural sounds) – dhvanya-tmaka; or (b) articulate – varnat-maka

The articulate sounds (varnat-maka sabda) can be comprehended by the listeners without much effort – (Vyāptimattvāt tu śabdasya aīyastvāc ca śabdena sañjñā karaa vyavahāra artham loke – Nir.I.2) .

And, it again, has two forms (i) Sarthaka (meaningful); and (ii) Anarthaka (meaningless). Here, Yaska mentions about the meaningless particles (Nipata) used as expletives; such as:  kam, im, id and u (Nir.I.9) – nipātā ucca avaceṣv artheṣu nipatanti (Nir.1.4). Yaska’s list contains 23 Nipatas; and, an additional two Nipatas (total being 25)

Atha ye pravrtte arthe amita aksaresu granthesu vākya pūranā āgacchanti pada pūranās te mita akarev anarthakāh kam īm id v iti (Nir.I.9).

He has discussed, at length, about the words which are formed from the articulate (varnat-maka), natural, meaningful sounds, (Sarthaka).

It is said; the word (Pada) is the signifier (Vacaka); and, the meaning (Padartha) that is signified is (Vachya). That relation – Vacya-vacaka bhava – is determined by the primary function or Abhidha of a word. And, the essence of a word lies in its denotative or expressive power (Shakti).


Nirukta –Vedanga-Vyakarana

In the linguistic traditions of ancient India, Vyakarana, of course, occupied a preeminent position. But, at the same time, the value of a parallel system of linguistic analysis – Nirvachana shastra or Nirukta – which served a different purpose – was also well recognized.

Both these traditions are classed among the six Vedangas, the disciplines or branches of knowledge, which are auxiliary to the study of Vedas; and, which are designed to preserve and to carry forward the Vedas to the succeeding generations, in their pristine purity.

As said earlier; the Nirukta is reckoned as one among the six Vedangas, the ancillary Vedic sciences or disciplines related to the study of Vedas; the other five being: Vyakarana, Shiksha, Chhandas, Kalpa and Jyotisha.

Of these, the study of Nirukta is closely related to Vyakarana (Grammar). The Nirukta and Vyakarana are unique to each Veda; whereas, the other VedangasShiksha, Chhandas, Kalpa and Jyotisha – are common for all Vedas.

Though, the study of Nirukta is associated with one of the Vedangas viz., Vyakarana (Grammar), each of the two has its own focus. And, though they are divergent, they also overlap in certain areas.


As mentioned, the main task of the Nirukta of Yaska is to explain most of the rare and obscure Vedic words, by way of pointing out various possible etymologies.

Here, his Nirukta focuses on linguistic analysis to help establish the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in the Vedic texts. In such etymological explanations, Yaska has stressed on the meaning of the word (Artha nitya parīketa kenacid vtti sāmānyena- Nir.2.1), than its grammatical modifications.

Further, Yaska’s work is, culturally and intellectually, closer to the Samhitäs and Brähmanas, as compared to the Astadhyayi of Pänini.

The scope of Vyakarana, the Grammar, is much wider than that of the Nirukta; and, it covers all formats of the language. For instance; Panini discusses both the Vedic language (Chhandas) as also the bhäsä, the contemporary language, in general, spoken by the well-educated.

The term Vyakarana is defined as: Vyakriyate anena iti Vyakarana – Grammar is that which enables us to form and examine words and sentences; and, it is both that which is to be described (lakshya) and the means of description (lakshana). Patanjali explains; that which is to be described is the word (sabda); and the means of description is the rule (Sutra),consisting of general and specific statements .

A Grammarian determines the meaning of a word by tracing the process of its formation.

An etymologist determines the formation of a word by tracing the meaning it conveys or desires to convey.

Durga, the commentator, remarks: the Grammar (Vyakaranam) is an independent (svatantram) precise and logical system of knowledge (vidyasthanam). It deals with linguistic analysis – Lakshana pradhana – to establish the exact form of words to properly express ideas. For that purpose, it lays down the general and specific rules, which enable us to understand the exact meaning of the words (artha-nirvacanam).

Svatantram e vedam vidyasthanam artha-nirvacanam Vyakaranam tu laksana-pradhanam

And, Nirukta is the explanation of the meanings; it focuses on linguistic analysis in order to help establishing the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in the Vedic texts.


And yet, the Nirukta complements the study of Vyakarana; since, it explains the words that are not analyzed by the Vykarana.  And at the same time, it accomplishes its own purpose, which is to provide a clear understanding of the portions of the Rig-Veda text it commented upon.

Yaska asserts that the prerequisite to the study of Nirukta is the proper learning of Vyakarana. (Grammar) * .

 [*But, at the same time, Yaska remarks: while deriving the meaning of a word, in its own context, one should try to stick to the rules of the Grammar (Vyakarana) as far as possible; but, if this is of no avail in bringing out the hidden meaning of the term in question, then one should abandon such rules – na saskāram ādriyeta  / viśaya-hi vttayo bhavanti (Nir.2.1)]


Thus, the Nirukta, as a class of texts, is intimately related to several branches of studies, such as:  the Vedas; the Brahmanas; the Nighantu; as also to the Grammar (Vyakarana) in general.


Niruktas of the pre-Yaska period

Yaska recounts the several  Schools of Grammar or the  Grammarians who flourished before his time : Agrayana; Aindra; Apisali; Aupamanyava; Aurnabhava ; Chakravarmaa;  Galava ; Gargya;  Kashyapa ;Kaaktsna ; Katthakya ; Kautsa Kraustuki; Kuaravaava ; Sakalya; Sakaayana; Senaka ;Shakapuni; Sphoayana and others.

And, it appears; by about seventh or sixth century BCE, many of these Grammarians had compiled Nirukta texts. But, sadly, all those earlier versions of Niruktas disappeared gradually in the course of time.  It is only the Nirukta that was composed by Yaska that has survived; and, has come down to us.

Yaska, in his own Nirukta, refers to the views (either in his support or to show their divergence)  that were offered by as many as sixteen compilers (Nirukta-karas) of the Nirukta class of texts that were in existence and in circulation prior to his time (Ca. 6th century BCE) .

[Hartmut Scharfe in his  Grammatical Literature remarks : one of the interesting parts of the Nirukta is that it gives us more information on early Grammarians than any other source. And, it is all the more valuable, since almost all other information on Pre-Paninian Grammarians in the later literature is rather suspect.

In course of his work, Yaska mentions twenty four great teachers and seven different schools by name; in addition to referring to some others in a general way]

      • (1)Agrayana (1.9; 6.13;10.8);
      • (2) Audumbarayana (1.1);
      • (3) Aupamanyava (1.1; 2.2; 2.5; 2.11; 3.8; 3.11; 2.19; 5.7; 6.30; and, 10.8);
      • (4) Aurnavabha (2.26; 6.13; 7.1; 12.1; and, 12.19) ;
      • (5) Katthayaka (8.5; 8.6; 8.17; 8.10; 9.41; and, 9.42);
      • (6) Kusta (1.15);
      • (7) Kraustuki (8.2);
      • (8) Gargya (1.3; 1.12; and,1.25);
      • (9) Galava (4.3);
      • (10) Karmasiras (3.15);
      • (11) Taitiki ( 4.3 ; 5.27 );
      • (12) Varshyayani (1.2);
      • (13) Satabalaksa Maudgalya (9.6);
      • (14) Sakatayana (1.12; 1.13);
      • (15) Sakapuni (Nir.3.11 ;3.13 ;3.19; 8;  4.15;  5.3 ; 5.28; 7.14; 7.28; 8.5; 8.6; 8.10; 8.12; 8.14; 8.17; and, 12.40); and,
      • (16) Sthaulashtivi (7.14; 10.1).

Source: (pages 62 to 90) , of Sri Bishnupada Bhattacharya  ‘s scholarly work Yaska’s Nirukta  and the science of etymology  (1958)]

Of the many such Nirukta-karas; Yaska, in his Nirukta, frequently cites the explanations provided by Aupamanyava; Aurnavabha; and, Katthayaka. But, Sakapuni Rathitara is the most frequently quoted Nirukta- teacher. His views are cited by Yaska as many as about twenty times. 

It is believed; each of the Nirukta-karas, who preceded Yaska, had his own Nighantu text. And, perhaps, Yaska too had his own Nighantu.

But, such works – Nighantus as also Niruktas – of all those savants, who preceded Yaska, are lost. And, it is only the Nirukta of Yascacharya that has stood the test of time for over two thousand seven hundred years; and, is acclaimed, for its excellence, as the most authoritative text in its class.


Manifold approaches to the study of Vedas

There are several approaches or methods that are generally applied for the systematic study, analysis and interpretations of the Samhita texts (the Vedas). Yaska also recognized that the Vedic texts presented multiple aspects; and could be studied and interpreted in various different ways.

Accordingly, the Samhitas were analyzed and interpreted, in varied ways, by earlier authors adhering to different sets of  disciplines , such as: Yajnika (ritualists); Nairuktas (etymologists); Aithihasika (those who traced the historical traditions); Naidana (mix of history and etymology); Parivrajaka (ascetics); the Dharma-shastrika (those who interpreted books of moral code and conduct); and, the Vaiyakaranas (Grammarians)  – Aitihasikah, Nairuktah, Kathakam, Naidanah, Parivrajakah, Yajnikah and Vaiyakaranah.

The Yajnika-s, whose primary interest was the performance of the Yajna, were more concerned the sequence of the rituals to be conducted during the course of the Yajna, and the proper utterance of the related Vedic mantras; than with the meaning of the mantras that were recited by them.

The Aithihasikas, on the other hand, try to relate a hymn or a Vedic passage to an event or an account concerning a deity, as narrated in a mythical story. (This, of course, is totally different from the historical analysis of the present-day.)

The Naidanas’ (said to be specialists on the theory of causation) approach was similar to that of Aithihasikas.

The Parivrajaka, the wandering philosophers, Adhyatma-pravada, try to interpret almost every aspect of a Samhita text in terms of spiritual or mystical context.

The Dharma-shastrikas search for points of Law or precedence in the accounts narrated in the Vedas.

The Vaiyakaranah, the Grammarians are mostly interested in the linguistic analysis of the Vedic texts


In contrast, Yaska chose to adopt the method of Nirukta, which analyzes the words used in the Vedic mantras; and determines their precise meaning (Nirvachana) in their proper context.

Some scholars regard  Yaska’s Nirukta as not only a work on etymology; but, also as a work on the most fascinating branches of philology, the study of language in oral and written historical sources.

But, the type of etymologies that Yaska adopted, does not typically establish a link with the mythological or historical realm; nor does it, as a rule,  reveal hidden layers of language.

It is explained; such a semantic etymology is to be distinguished from a historical etymology.

A historical etymology presents the origin or the early history of a word in question. It tells us; for example, how a word in a modern language is derived from another word belonging to an earlier language, or to an earlier stage of the same language.

A Semantic etymology does something quite different. It attempts to connect one word with one or more others which are believed to elucidate its meaning. The semantic etymologies tell us nothing about the history of a word, but something about its meaning in a particular context.

[Dr.Saroja Bhate remarks: though some scholars interpret the term Nirvachana to mean Etymology, it is, in fact, different from the modern concept of Etymology. Yaska’s etymologies do not attempt historical analysis of words.]

In his remarkable work Nirukta,  which also serves as a commentary on the Nighantu, Yaska attempts to establish the proper meaning of certain selected Vedic words, in the context of ‘how, where, when and why’ it is stated in the text .

Thus, the essential feature of Yaska’s commentary is the semantic interpretation of words based on their derivation (Nirvachana).

[As Peter M. Scharf explains in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics (11,2) : at times; Yaska provides a familiar synonym for an obscure word, in addition to its etymological derivation. For instance; in vayāḥ śākhā veteḥ (Nirukta 1.4) – the obscure word Vayāis explained through a familiar word śākhā  (the branches) ; and, Yaska says that vayā  is derived from the root vī  (to move).

But, some etymologies in the Nirukta are less explicit; they utilize semantic statements from which a phonetic analysis is easily inferred. For instance; Nirukta 2.14 explains the six words contained in Nighaṇṭu 1.4.

svar ādityo bhavati. su araṇaḥ. su īraṇaḥ. svṛtaḥ rasān. svṛtaḥ bhāsam jyotiṣām. svṛtaḥ bhāseti vā.

The first, svar, is explained as follows by Sarup (1920–27: part II, p. 30): Svar means the sun; it is very distant, it has well dispersed (the darkness), it has well penetrated the fluids, it has well penetrated the light of the luminaries, or it is pierced through with light.’ It is said; the explanations imply that derivation from the preverb su plus the word araṇa ‘distant,’ īr ‘set in motion,’ or the root ṛ ‘go.’ The word araṇa is itself a derivation from the verb ‘go.’ ]


As Johannes Bronkhorst observes in his Etymology and magic: Yāska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the riddle of semantic etymologies 

One way to account for the validity of such semantic etymologies based on the similarity between words (for those who accept this validity) would be to claim that there are ultimate meaning bearers, such as individual sounds or small groups of them, each with its own specific meaning

[For instance; as per its etymology, the term Indra denotes the one who, by his power (Indriya), energises or kindles the vital airs (prana). The Satapatha Bråhmana  says, since he kindled (indh), he is the kindler (indha ). But, cryptically, he is called Indra

sa yo yam madhye prāa | ea evendrastānea prāānmaindra ityācakate paro
am paro ‘kakāmā hi devāsta iddhā sapta nānā puruānasjanta –

Besides the etymology of Indra, as above (from Indh), the Taittiriya Bråhmana ( offers an altogether different explanation: “No one can withstand this power (idam indriyam) in him; and, that is why he is called ‘Indra’.”

Different etymologies of one and the same word (often a name) are frequently met with, sometimes even in one and the same text. For instance;

The two different etymologies of the word Indra occur in one and the same passage at Satapatha Bråhmana

So’rcañcrāmyaścacāra prajākāma sa ātmanyeva prajātimadhatta sa āsyenaiva
jata te devā divamabhipadyā sjyanta taddevānā devatvayad divamabhipadyā sjyanta tasmai sasjānāya divevāsa tadveva devānā devatvayadasmai sasjānāya divevāsa
1.1.6.[7] ]


[According to Prof. Jan E.M. Houben, this is what Yaska said about the methodology that he adopted in the Second Chapter of his Nirukta, commencing with – Atha Nirvachanam, which states the characteristic features of Nirvachana.


With reference to this, the words, the accent and the  grammatical  form of which are regular and accompanied by a radical modification which gives a hint, should be derived in the ordinary manner.

But, If the meaning is not perspicuous; and, if there is no radical modification which gives a hint, one should investigate [the word to be explained], taking one’s stand on the meaning, according to a similarity (of a verbal root with a suitable meaning) – (Sama-artha-svara-samskara)- to the derived from (i.e., to the word to be explained). 

Even If no similar [verbal root] is found, one should explain [the word] according to a similarity in syllable or phoneme – (Arthanityah parkseta kenchid vrtti samanyena)

But, never should one abstain from explaining [by deriving it from some root], one should not be attached to the grammatical form [too much], for the derived forms (i.e., the words to be explained) are full of uncertainties

Nir.2,1:atha.nirvacanam : tad.yeu.padeu.svara.saskārau.samarthau.prādeśikena.vikārea(guena.Bh).anvitau.syātām.tathā.tāni.nirbrūyād;atha.ananvite.arthe.aprādeśike.vikāre.artha.nityaparīketa.kenacid.vtti.sāmānyena;avidyamāne.sāmānye.apy.akara.vara.sāmānyān.nirbrūyāūyāt;na.saskāram.ādriyeta.viśayavatyo.(hi.Bh).vttayo.bhavanti ]


Yaska’s Nirukta -structure

As mentioned earlier, Nirukta is the systematic creation of a glossary; written in archaic Sanskrit prose, which discusses how to understand antiquated, uncommon words used mainly in the Rig-Veda.

For the purpose of his study, Yaska chose about 600 stanzas from the Rig-Veda; and, created a well organized vocabulary to understand the meaning; and, to interpret, particularly, the archaic, uncommon words used in the Vedic texts (artha nitya parīketa kenacid vtti sāmānyenaNir.2.1).

But, all the Mantras that he quotes are not fully explained by him. Often, Yaska passes past some mantras by saying: this mantra is self-explanatory – iti.sā.nigada.vyākhyātā (Nir.6.5). It is said; there are about 13-14 such mantras.

[Although, Yaska’s Nirukta hardly needs a commentary, in the later times, many commentaries came to be written. Of these, the commentaries that are very well known are: (a) Skandaswamin’s Nirukta-bhashyatika (14th century), supplemented by Maheshwara’s Vivarana (15thcentury); and, (b) Durga-simha’s Rjvarta (14th century). Durga’s comments are more frequently cited by the later scholars.]


Yaska’s Nirukta comprises twelve Chapters (Parishishta) divided into two broad sections: Purva-shatka (the first six Chapters); and, Uttara-shtka (the latter six Chapters).

These again are grouped into three Kandas (Cantos):  Naighantuka Kanda; Naigama Kanda; and, Daivata Kanda.

A. Under the Purva-shatka, which has six Chapters:-

(1) The Naighantuka Kanda, comprises three Chapters (1 t0 3) – Kanda-trayatmaka; and, it comments on the Fourth Chapter of the Nighantu (Naigama Kanda), treating of the words used in the Rig-Veda – commencing with the Gau and ending with Apara.

In this section, Yäska discusses the aims and methods of the Nirukta, as a branch of learning; and, refers to different teachers and contemporary disputes concerning the language and the  meaning/s.

Chapter 1 (and part of chapter 2) of Yaska’s Nirukta deals with some important theoretical aspects which gives an insight into Yaska’s overall philosophical and linguistic approach;  such as :

: – importance of knowing the meaning   of the Vedic mantras;

:- Parts of speech (Padas) classified into four groups  (Jatis) (Bheda-chatushtaya)- (1)Nama (noun); (2) Akhyata (verb); (3) Upasarga  (preposition);  and, (4) Nipata  (particles) – (Catvari padajatani Nama-Akhyate cha  Upsarga Nipata-shcha)

: – Verb-root principle – asserting that the nouns are derived from verbs (dhatuja / akhyataja).

: – Language variation, its causes, forms, and effects

: – Principles of Nirvachana (etymology)

(2) The second Kanda, Naigama Kanda : while the first three Chapters dealt with synonyms (Ekartham-aneka-sabdam); the three Chapters (4 to 6), here, explain the homonyms (Aneka-arthani-ekasabdani); and the Vedic words whose derivation is obscure (Anavagata-samskaran -nigaman). This is called Aikapadikam. This Kanda covers the selected words of the Rig-veda beginning with Jahā and ending with Ulbam  bīsam.

agni purana cropped

(B) Under the Uttara-shatka or the Second Section of Nirukta:-

The Daivata Kanda, in its six Chapters, comments on the Fifth Chapter of Nighantu (Daivata Kanda). It is a systematic exposition of the nature; the symbolism; the forms’ interpretation etc., of the prominent Deities (Devata) of the three regions, of the Earth (Prithvi-sthana), of the Sky (Dyu-sthana); and, of the intermediate space (Madhyama-sthana). It commences with Agni and ends with Deva-patnyah (consorts of gods).

Of those three regions; the Prithvi-sthana covers the deities from Agni to Urjahuti; the Madhyama-sthana covers from Vayu to Bhaga; and, the Dyu-sthana, from Surya to Deva-patnyah.

[Yaska_charya defines a Deva as one who gives gifts (devo daanad), who is effulgent (devo dipanaat), who illumines (devo dyotanad), and who resides in heaven or the celestial world (dyusthane bhavati  iti).


After discussing the three different views (namely, they have form, they do not have form, and a combination of these two views), the Nirukta concludes that, in reality, there is only one Devata who can be addressed in various ways depending upon the temperament of the aspirant. Yaska_charya confirms by saying Eka atma Bahudha Stuyate (Nir.7,4meaning there is only One God and many praise by different names.

ekam.sad.viprā.bahudhā.vadanty.agnim.yamam.mātariśvānam.āhuh/”(RV.1,164,46) imam.eva.agnim.mahāntam.ātmānam.ekam.ātmānam.bahudhā.medhāvino.vadanti/ Nir.7.18 /

He further says ; the many forms of gods are manifestation of the atman, One Reality – Ekasya atmanah anye devah pratyangani bhavanti . He emphasizes that the Sat Vastu  includes in itself different deities. 

māhābhāgyād.devatāyā.eka.ātmā.bahudhā.stūyate,.ekasya.ātmano.anye.devāḥ.pratyaṅgāni.bhavanti- Nir.7.4

Sri Sayanacharya in his Rig_bashya_bhumika  says praise of any god  leads to the same tat (entity) – Tasmat sarvairapi parameshvara eve huyate .]

Nighantu-Nirukta chart

[ Devaraja (15th-16thcentury) , a commentator, in the introduction to his work says : Yaska, in his Nirukta, explained, individually , and in their entirety, only the words of which a list is given in the Fourth and Fifth Section of the Nighantu (Naigama and the Daivata Kandas)]

Yaska deals with the etymology proper (Nirukta), with commentary on the related portions of the Nighantu; starting from Chapter 2, Section 2 of Naighantuka Kanda.

Yaska’s commentary (bhasya) commences with a discussion on synonyms (Ekartham-aneka-shabdam). But, later, he devotes more space to elucidating the Nighantu words of obscure nature (Anavagata-samskaran -nigaman), which suggest more than one meaning.

The most interesting portion of the Nirukta is the discussion which covers the whole of the First book and a part of the Second, as well as the Seventh book of the Nighantu, which was as an admirable introduction to the study of the Veda

Yaska’s study included a system of rules for forming words starting from roots and affixes. According to Yaska, every word is derived from a root (Dhatu); and, by analyzing the root, its tendency and the suffix, it is possible to establish the relation between word and meaning.

For Yaska, every term is embedded with meaning (Artha); and, Nirvachana provides the device for doing so. In other words; the meaning is secured by the term itself by Nirvachana analysis, which indeed is the objective way of determining what meaning is ascribed to each word.


As Johannes Bronkhorst   writes in Etymology and magic: Yāska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the riddle of semantic etymologies

A number of rules are formulated in the Second chapter of the Nirukta that should help the student to find etymologies on his own. The most important among these rules is, no doubt, the one that etymologizing should, first of all, be guided by the meaning of the word concerned; phonetic considerations play a less important role:

One should examine a word, being intent upon its meaning, with the help of some similarity in function with other words. When not even such a similarity is present one should explain on the basis of similarity (lakshana) in a syllable or in a single sound.” (Nirukta 2.1).

Tad yeu padeu svara saskārau samarthau prādeśikena vikārea  guena  anvitau syātām tathā tāni nirbrūyād / atha ananvite arthe aprādeśike vikāre artha nitya parīketa kenacid vtti sāmānyena / Nir.2,1/

 In the case of unknown words, therefore, one looks at the context in which they occur (usually a Vedic hymn), so as to get a first impression as to their meaning. Subsequently one looks for other words (they have to be verbal forms, according to the Nirukta) which are more or less similar to the word under study

Semantic considerations, however, come first. Therefore, a verbal form which is less similar but closer to the expected meaning is to be preferred to a more similar verbal form which does not support the desired meaning. And words which are known to have several meanings have also several etymologies

An example is the word gau “The word go is a synonym for ‘earth’; because, it goes (gata) far; and, because living beings go (gacchanti) on it. Or else, it could be a name of something which moves (gåti). The syllable ‘au’, in the word gau , is a nominal suffix. Moreover, the word gau is the name of an animal (the cow) for this same reason. 

Also a bowstring is called gauh; because it sets arrows in motion (gamayati) Gavyā cet tādhitam,  atha cet na gavyā gamayati isūn iti (Nirukta 2.5).


As a part of his exposition, Yaska makes a clear distinction between the Vedic and the spoken language. But, he also observes that sometimes a word used in one is derived from a root belonging to the other. He makes a similar observation with regard to the dialects of regional language (Prakrita)

Atha-apy.bhāikebhyo dhātubhyo naigamā kto bhāyante damūnā ketrasādhā iti –Nir.2.2…Atha-api praktaya eva ekeu bhāyante viktaya ekeu –Nir.2.2


The Nirukta, as a discipline , which attempts to determine the essential significance of a Vedic passage (mantrartha), recognizes five kinds of changes that a word in common usage [with Noun (Nama), Verb (Akhyata), Preposition (Upasarga) and Particle (Nipata) ] could undergo to become a Vedic word ; and, to be included in the Nighantu:  (1) A letter may be freshly added on to the word (Varna-agama); (2) A letter may be altered (Varna-viparitya); the form of the letter may be distorted (Varna-vikara); (4) A letter may be omitted (Akshara-lopa); and, (5) the root of may get over stressed (Yoga).


Catvari padajatani

In his Nirukta, Yaska tried to explain (Nirvacanam) such Vedic words from the perspective of various linguistic aspects like Noun, Verb, preposition, particle, general definition, special definition, synonyms, homonyms (words that share the same pronunciation but convey different meanings), common and obscure grammatical forms, words and their meanings, and the etymology of these words. Yaska terms such analytical method as samaskara (treatment) or sastrakrto yogah (grammatical combination)

In that context, Yaska mentions about the classification of the four groups of parts of speech (Catvari padajatani) such as:  Noun (Naman), Verb (Akhyata), Preposition (Upasarga), and Particle (Nipata). Of these, the first two are established by definition; and, the remaining two by enumeration.

Catvāri pada jātāni nāma ākhyāte ca upasarga nipātāś ca tāni imāni bhavanti ...Nir .l.l iti imāni catvāri pada jātāni anukrāntāni  nāma ākhyāte ca upasarga nipātāś ca tatra nāmāny ākhyātajāni iti śākaāyano nairukta samayaś ca – Nir. 1, 12/

It appears that Audumbarayana, another ancient authority, had not agreed with such four-fold classification of parts of speech

(indriyanityam vacanam Audumbarayanah tatra chatustam Na papayate Nir.1.1-2). 

Yaska opposes the stand taken by Audumbarayana; but then, he goes on to talk about a totally different concept, Bhava – the being and becoming (Bhu) of verbs from their roots. Yaska, in that context, mentions six modes or forms of transformations (Sad bhava vikarah) of Bhava-s from the indistinct (A-vyakta) to explicit (Vyakta) and then to disappearance (vinasa). These phases are: coming into existence (jayate); existence (Asti); transformation (viparinamate); growth (vardate); decay or wane (apaksiyate); and, ceasing to exist (vinasyati).

These are the six phases of changes (parinama) that do occur in all forms of life or of any entity.


Between the Noun and the Verb, Yaska treats the Verb as the nucleus of a sentence. 

Here, though the Noun is named first, it is the Verb that is evidently more important. The Verb expresses action (Kim karoti?), the becoming (Bhava); while Noun, fundamentally, denotes the existing thing – (Sattva – ‘being’).

Here, Sattva is the static aspect of the meaning (as it exists); and, Bhava, the dynamic aspect, is action (Kriya) as it takes place in temporal sequence – (bhavah karma kriya dhatvartha ity anarthantaram).

In other words; a Verb (AkhyataBhava pradhana) – is mainly concerned with Bhava (action). Whereas, the Nouns (Naman) have Sattva (substance or existence of an object – Asti- Satva pradhana) as the chief element in their meaning (Bhava-pradhanam akhyatam; sattva-pradhanani namani Nir. l.l).  

According to Yaska, Verb (Akhyata) is the vital unit of language through which we express our intentions and actions; and, a sentence without a verb serves no purpose (tad.yatra.ubhe.bhāva.pradhāne.bhavata– Nir. l. l

bhāvapradhānam ākhyātam/ sattvapradhānāni nāmāni/ tad yatrobhe bhāvapradhāne bhavata pūrvāparībhūta bhāvam ākhyātenācaṣṭe/ vrajati pacatīti/ upakramaprabhtyapavargaparyanta mūrta sattvabhūta sattvanāmabhi/ vrajyā paktir iti/ ada iti sattvānām upadeśa/ gaur aśva puruo hastīti/ bhavatīti bhāvasya/ āste śete vrajati tiṣṭhatīti –  Nir. l.l 


Of the four parts of speech (Catvari padajatani) , Yaska gives greater importance to Nouns and Verbs (Naman, Akyata) – which are employed independently – than to the Prefix or Prepositions  (Upasarga – Nanavidha vishesha artha pradhana) and the Particles (Nipata – Upamarthe pada puranartha – for the purpose of drawing comparisons),  which cannot present a clear meaning when detached from Nouns or Verbs – na nirbaddha upasarga arthannirahuriti Sakatayanah –Nir.I.3.

According to Yaska; Sakatayana held the view that the prepositions are indicative (dyotaka) rather than denotative (vacaka) — (nama-akahyatayostu karmopa-samyoga-dyotaka bhavanti~ Nir.I.3)

With regard to pre-verbs, Yaska refers to the views of Sakatayana and Gärgya: According to the former, the prepositions do not have a meaning of their own; and, when detached from a Noun or a Verb, they do not distinctly express a meaning. But, they do help in highlighting a secondary relation with the object of the Noun or Verb. 

But, according to Gärgya, prepositions do have various meanings (even when they are detached from a Noun or a Verb). Their meaning implies a modification in the meaning of Noun and Verb. For instance; Upasarga which is described as Nanavidha vishesha artha pradhana – can provide a special meaning to a word as in A-hara, Vi-hara and Sam-hara.

And, even in its isolated condition, a prefix is capable of modifying the sense of a Verb or a Noun. For instance; the preposition  ’A ’ can express the sense of limit , say as in,  Apara ( limitless)  as opposed to  Para (limited). The prepositions Ati and Su indicate excellence, while Nir and Dur are the reverse of the two; Ni  and Ava indicate downward-ness, while Ud is the reverse of the two ; and, similarly , Sam indicates junction or togetherness , while Vi and Apa are the reverse of Sam.

Yaska seems to have gone along with Gargya’s view . he enumerates twenty Upasargas. 

nāma.ākhyātayos.tu.karma.upasamyoga.dyotakā.bhavanty / ucca. avacā. Pada . arthā.  bhavanti iti Gārgyas /āhur.ime. tam. Nāma. Ākhyātayor artha vikaraam/ ā.ity.arvāg.arthe.pra.parā.ity.etasya.prātilomyam – Nir.1.3 .

When that logic is extended, it leads to say:  the phonemes and syllables are not independent entities conveying their own meaning.  Nevertheless, they are the essential parts of the word. But, the meaning of the word does not solely arise out of them. The Meaning is the function of the word as a whole.

[Patanjali, in his Mahabhashya puts forward a similar argument.

For the purpose of illustration; he cites the three words Kupa (well); Supa (soup); and, Yupa (sacrificial post).

Here, Patanjali points out; the first letter of each of those three words differs; but, the other letters that follow are identical. These are, in fact, three separate words that are distinguished by the substitution of one phoneme, for another phoneme

 However, the object signified by each one is distinct from the objects signified by the other two words. Each of the three words signifies a different object.

Patanjali says; each of the phonemes – K; S; and Y- does not by itself carry a meaning. Similarly, the set of other letters in the three words (- upa) also, by itself, does not make any sense. It is only when they combine, a word carrying a meaning, is put forth.

Patanjali compares this fact to a chariot made of several parts; where, each of its parts, by itself, is incapable of moving.  It is only when all the parts combine systematically and form a single entity that the chariot can move.

Thus, Patanjali argues that phonemes have a differentiating significance within the units which bear the meaning. Such a unit, he considers it as saghāta, a single entity which is ‘indivisible and one’. A phoneme, thus, plays a significant role in distinguishing one word from the other, each pointing to a different object.]

 In Yaska’s Nirukta, the Upasargas were used with the nouns and also with Verbs nāma.ākhyātayos.tu.karma.upasamyoga.dyotakā.bhavanty (Nir.1.3).

[Yaska enumerates twenty prepositions, along with their meanings: ati-;adhi-;anu-;apa-;api-;abhi-;ava-;aa-;ut-;upa-;dus-;nis-;nir-;paraa-;pari-;pra-;prati-;v; sam-;and su-. And, to that list, Sakatayana adds three more Upasargas: accha-; srad-; and antar-. Later marut-; and dur- were added; thus making it to 25.]


One of the main features of Nirukta is that Yaska agrees with Sakatayana that all nouns are derived from a verbal stem (mula); and, all nouns are regarded as related to an activity expressed in language by a verbal form – tatra nāmāny ākhyātajāni iti śākaāyano nairukta samayaś ca / na sarvāi iti Gārgyo vaiyākaraā-nāś ca eke – Nir. 1, 12/

Yaska says:  any Noun can be traced back to a root (Dhatu), similar in form and meaning – samāna karmāo dhātavo dhātur dadhāte. And with that, all words come under the purview of the Nirukta.

[As compared to that, Panini left aside the irregular formations. Further, Nirukta also comments on those Vedic passages, words and their forms , which were not analyzed in the texts of Grammar.  And, therefore,  Saroja Bhate remarks, the function of Nirukta starts when that of the Grammar ends. And, therefore, Yaska aptly describes his work as ‘the completion of Grammar’- vyākaraasya kārtsnyam- [tad idam vidyasthanam vyakaranasya kartsnyam svartha-sadhakam ca . (Nir. 1,15) ]

Yaska considers the verbal roots (Dhātu) to be the bases (prakṛti), and their  noun-forms to be the modifications of them (vikṛti); and, he calls the latter as ‘born’ from the former.

As the nouns, often, have verbal roots (Dhatu), they attempt to explain ‘Why something is called what it is called ‘, by linking it to some activity; thereby establishing its relation to a verb or verbal-root. In fact, Yaska treats every noun as an information-invoking singular term.

 For instance; the Nirukta states that the noun Cittam (mind) is derived from (the root) its activity cit (to know) – cittaṃ cetateḥ (Nirukta 1.6)

The logic behind Yaska’s assertion appears to be: man keeps creating more new words to conceptualize and to describe verities of actions; which is to say, both the meaning and the etymology of words are always context-sensitive.

Thus, His main view is that the name of an object is to be determined by its actions, as also by the contextual factors (samsarga etc.)


The proposition that the Nouns are derived from Verbs (dhatuja/akhyataja) was opposed by many grammarians, including Gargya. They argued that if all nouns were derived from verbs, every person who performs a particular action should have the same name. [Kartri (a doer) from Kri (to do); Pachaka (cook) from Pach (to cook), and so on]

Yaska rebutted such criticisms by pointing out: Not everyone gets the same name by performing the same action.  For instance; a carpenter performs many other actions (takati karoti karmā), besides cutting the wood. The term ‘Carpenter’, here, signifies a person, who possesses a distinctive skill; and, perhaps follows a particular profession for his living. It does not, however, refer to any one particular person. It could refer to a whole class of such persons, in general.

 But, anyone or everyone who cuts wood cannot be called a carpenter (takā).  

Thus, though one is involved in many different activities, one gets his name from a particular action in which he is engaged. Therefore, objects are named depending upon the specific actions they perform.

yaḥ kaś ca tat karma kuryāt sarvam tat attvam tathā ācakṣīran /  yaḥ kaś ca adhvānam aśnuvīta aśvaḥ sa vacanīyaḥ syāt / atha api cet sarvāṇy ākhyātajāni nāmāni syuḥ  / Nir.1,12


It is said; the Grammarians classify the meanings of a word under three categories:   Yaugika; Yogarudha; and, Rudha.

When a word expresses its etymological sense, it is called Yaugika (derivative);

When its etymological meaning and its conventional meaning are the same, it is called Yogarudha (derivative and conventional) ; and,

When the conventional meaning, the one that is used in day-to-day affairs, is either not directly connected with its etymological derivation or it is different, then it is called Rudha (conventional).

But, as rule, the conventional meaning is regarded as stronger as and more acceptable than the etymological meaning (yogad rudhir baliyasi sighravrttitvat).

For instance; the etymological meaning of the term Asva is that which pervades or occupies; but, Asva in common usage denotes a horse. Similarly, Pankaja etymologically means that which is born in slush; but, it is commonly used to indicate a lotus flower.

The other is the Ashva-karna a type of leaf; but literally, the ears of a horse. In all such cases, it is the meaning in common usage that is generally accepted; and, the literal meaning is treated as faded metaphor.

Following the same principle, and citing the same instances, Matanga, in his Brhaddeshi,   explains: whatever might be its other meanings, the word Raga (derived from the root ranj = to please), effectively suggests, here, as that which generates delight: Ranjana-jjayate ragau.

Ithevam raga-shabdasya utpatthir abhidiyate I Ranjana-jjayate ragau utpatthih samudahrutah II283II Ashva-karnadi vidha rude yaugikau vaapi vachakah I Yogarudosthva raage jneyam pankaja-shabdavat II 284II

[Panini also said that the meanings of the words were bound to change with the passage of time, as also in varying contexts. He recognized the fact the people who spoke the language and used it in their day-to-day lives were better judges in deriving, meaning from the words.

Strangely, that came true in the case of Panini himself. For instance; in the Astadhyayi (6.1.147), the word ‘Ascharya’ is explained as that which is not-permanent (Anitya) or rare: āścaryam-anitye. And, Katyayana, a couple of centuries later, corrected that meaning to imply ‘Adbhuta’ – something that is wondrous, miraculous or unprecedented. The meaning of the term ‘Ascharya’, as interpreted by Katyayana has, of course, prevailed; and , is in common use now.

The term Aranyaka is interpreted by Panini to mean ’a forest dweller, a man who lives in the forest’- arayān-manuye (P S 4.2.129).  And, Katyayana expanded its  meaning to include a class of Vedic texts. But, somehow, it is not applied for referring to forest elephants, jackals and other wild animals that also live in the forests.

Bhartrhari, in his Vakyapadiya, therefore, emphasizes the importance of contextual factors in the determination of the meaning of expressions. Etymology is without doubt important in its own context; but, in the day-to-day conversations (rudi) the conventional meaning (Vyvaharica-artha) takes precedence over the etymologically derived sense

It is often said; a Grammarian may have control over the Lakshana (the rules); but, not always over the Lakshya, the way the language is used in the outside world. The quality of such language is almost excellent, when it is immediately close to the grammatical rules. But, many a times, the Lakshana becomes subservient to Lakshya. ].

[The American Dialect Society, which studies the evolution of language, has voted
the neutral pronoun “they” as the word of the present decade. “They” is used in English by a growing number of non-binary individuals, people who do not identify as either male or female. They prefer the plural neutral pronoun to bypass the traditionally male “he” or female “she”. Thus, it is said “they” has become an indication of “how the personal expression of gender identity employed by an increasing part of our shared discourse.”]


After explaining the evolution of speech; and, the fourfold stages of speech, Yaska takes up the question:  — ‘whether the words are eternal or ephemeral, merely created for the time being’.

Besides the issue of the eternity of words, Yaska also talks about the infallibility of Vedic words, the impermanence of human knowledge etc., – karmasampattir mantro Vede– Nir.I.2.; Purusa vidya nityatvat Nir.I.2

Yaska asserts that the word, the meaning and their mutual relations are eternal (nityam vacanam)

Yaska brushes aside the prima facie view (Purva-paksha) or the objections raised by Audumbarayana and such others; and, argues: If we admit the impermanence of words, then the mutual relation and the grammatical relation of words are not possible. Therefore, the functions of words are possible only if we admit they are everlasting, in their nature.

Following the Mimamsakas, Yaska also supported the doctrine of the eternal nature of the words – ‘vyaptimattvat tu sabdasya’ (Nir.I.2)

In this way, Yaska believed in the idea of the eternity of words; and, then he engaged in the Sphota theory.  This Doctrine (Sphota-vada) puts forward the view:  When a word is uttered, it reaches the mind of the listener through her/his ears; and, on its acceptance, the mind absorbs and understands the sense of verbal-sounds it received. Thus, the uttered words, which travel through the air, perish. Yet, the meaning conveyed by them resides permanently in the mind of the listener.

Yaska was, perhaps, one among the earliest authorities to make a reference to Sphota-vada.  Bharthari (11th century) in his celebrated work Vakyapadiya acknowledges Yaska’s reference to the Sphota concept.  Bhartrhari explains the Sphota as: a spontaneous process where a latent idea or thought arising out of the consciousness or the mind of the speaker is manifested by the sounds (Dhvani) of the spoken words employed in the sentence; and, it is directly grasped, through intuition (Prathibha), by the mind (Buddhi) of the listener.

In this context, Yaska mentions that the words, obviously, carry a meaning; but, in the course of time, a word might acquire a meaning that is different or even quite opposite to the one it had earlier. Such a change of meaning possibly comes about due to various reasons. That might be because, in the later times, it may to have to indicate a different type of action, object or an usage. And, that often happens; because the name of an object is to be determined by its actions. Therefore, the contextual factors (Samsarga) , in their current time, become important in arriving at the new meaning of a term.

Answering the question –  how an object could be called by a certain name, when it is performing a different action than that is indicated by its  name, Durga, commenting on the Nirukta, says: šabda-niyama svabhāvata eva loke – “in spoken language, in the world , the usage of  the word (Sabda-vrtti) follows its own nature”.

According to Durga , this svabhāva is an inherent characteristic of the word, as a meaningful entity. It has its own existence; and , can  ,therefore, be applied to any object at will by a speaker, thus creating a new contextual meaning; because, the word in its semantic aspect, continues to carry its own significance .

Durga remarks: the use of words, their role and the intended effect are context sensitive. The same word could be employed in any number of ways; each performing its role its own context. Therefore even on the purely communication level, the word acts as a meaningful entity, influencing and creating the society of man, which is nothing but a product of this communication.

The Scholarly Paper Yaska’s discussion of the meaning of a word in relation to objective reality, explains:

A word persists in its own reality beyond the reality of time and space. Since we live, act, see, understand the world using our linguistic reality, the name once given to the object, whether it was relevant or seemed to be relevant for a particular speaker, could remain for a longer time, even if it had very little to do with the current  action of the object. The reason why this or that name was given to the object was not in order to satisfy an objective reality. But, rather, it was a subjective one; for, it was named by a speaker imposing his wish, opinion, knowledge or will on the object. Once the name has been used, it would persist in memory until a new name effaces or changes it; or even, it might perhaps, last longer.


Finally, as Eivind Kahrs in his Indian Semantic Analysis: The Nirvacana Tradition  sums up his review of Yaska’s work, says:

What is really important about the Nirukta is that it is the single text we possess which applies a certain method designated to give semantic analysis of nouns, in the widest sense of the term. Moreover, Nirukta contains lengthy discussions of linguistic and philosophic import.  As compared to Panini’s formal grammatical attitude, keeping out the philosophical notions; Yaska’s interest in philosophy is remarkable.

Though the  main task of the Nirukta of Yaska is to explain most of the rare and obscure Vedic words by pointing out various possible etymologies , there are also discussions of general nature, on the concept of eternity and infallibility of Vedic words, (karma-sampattir mantro Vede Nir.I.2);  the impermanence of human knowledge (purusa-vidya-anityatvatNir.I.2) and so on. Thus, Yaska’s commentary is not restricted to derivation of Vedic words, but covers a much wider field.


Before go proceed to talk about Panini, let us briefly, in a capsule form, jot down the significant differences between the Nirukta of Yaska and the Astadhyayi of Panini.

(1) Nirukta is a glossary commenting and explaining the meaning of certain chosen mantras of the Rigveda, based mainly on the Nighantu and the Brahmana texts. Its focus is on the Vedic language.

Astadhyayi is an independent and an original treatise, seeking to construct a systematic analysis of all speech forms.

(2) The main task of the Nirukta is to provide the exact meaning of antiquated terms of the Rigveda that were no longer in use. It, basically, is rooted in the past.

The Astadhyayi is, principally, concerned with the language that is alive and is evolving. It deals with the then present status of the language; refining its form and usage. It strives to ensure the correct treatment of the words by purifying (Samskrita) the language (bhasha) – literary and spoken (vaidika and laukika) – that was in use during its days.

It also serves as authoritative guidelines, for the future generations, for understanding the language, speaking it correctly and using it, as it should be.

The content and the scope of Astadhyayi is much wider, as compared to that of the Nirukta.

(3) Yaska’s Nirukta is written in easy flowing prose. It hardly needs a commentary, to explain or to interpret its content.

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is composed in Sutra form-terse and tightly knit; rather highly abbreviated. The text does need a companion volume to explain it. Therefore, generations of Grammarians and scholars were engaged (and continue to be engaged) in commenting upon and in elucidating Panini’s text.

Yaskapranitam.2 jpg

References and Sources

  1. The Nighantu and the Nirukta by Sri Lakshman Sarup
  2. Text of the Nirukta – Based on the edition by Sri Lakshman Sarup
  3. Ashtadhyayi or Sutrapatha of Panini
  4.  A critical study of some aspects of Nirukta by Tarapada Chakrabarti
  5. Etymology and magic: Yaska’s Nirukta, Plato’s Cratylus, and the riddle of semantic etymologies by Johannes Bronkhorst
  6. Grammatical Literature by Hartmut Scharfe
  7. Indian Semantic Analysis: The Nirvacana Tradition  by Eivind Kahrs
  8. Yaska’s discussion of the meaning of a word in relation to objective reality
  9. Pānini and Yāska : Principles of derivation  by Saroja Bhate
  10. Yaska’s Nirukta and his reflections on language
  11. The Nirukta and the Aitareya Brahmana by Prof. Viman Ch. Bhattacharya
  12. The History of Indian Literature (1892) by Albrecht Weber
  13. Introduction to the Nirukta and the literature related to it by Rudolph Roth
  14. Panini and his place in Sanskrit by  Theodor Goldstücker
  15. Yaska’s Nirukta by Prof. S. K. Ramachandra Rao
  16. All images are from Internet


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Varuna and his decline – Part One


Abstract and Intro

(1) The saga of Varuna is truly amazing. Though his story started with a bang; it sadly ended in a whimper. Perhaps very few other gods– Vedic or otherwise – witnessed such vicissitudes in the turn of their fortunes.

The Varuna story covers a very large canvass – in content, space and time. The story of his pre-eminence has its roots in the pre-Vedic era; it flourishes in the early Rig Veda inspiring awe and reverence; and as it flows into other Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads, Varuna’s associations with the sky, the water and the order in the universe as also in the ethical conduct of men,  all these, acquire new dimensions with mystical connotations. Till then, he is the highest lord in the Vedic pantheon, the most virtuous and the most powerful all-pervading god.

Varuna, up to a point, is the nearest equivalent to the Supreme, as he is projected as the creator and sustainer of all existence; the lord of Space, the maker of Heaven and Earth. His glory spreads far and wide into the Gathas and into the Bhrigu lore. The treaties entered  by the Mitanni kings of the distant Sumerian region (in about 1500 BCE) are sworn in the name of Varuna and his peer-Vedic –gods.

However, with the parting of ways of the ancient sages Bhrigu and Angirasa, Varuna becomes exclusively the Great God of the Aryans to the west of the Sindhu River, while Indra takes over as the King of the Devas. Varuna is eclipsed in the Vedic pantheon.

(2) Commencing with the Taittiriya Samhita ( which identifies Varuna mainly with night and darkness; his career takes a steep nosedive. Initially, he loses his sole kingship over the sky ; and,  then has to share his authority with another god who is younger and more energetic – Mitra.  Varuna gets  disassociated with the day sky ; which symbolizes clarity, brightness and brilliance; and , he is made the god of only the night sky. His ethical role diminishes.

With that, Varuna draws nearer to night, darkness and death. Varuṇa’s dark associations bring him close to gods of negative traits such as Yama, Nirṛti, Soma, and Rudra. His character and disposition too undergo a marked change for the worse. From a benevolent and graceful god, he turns into a spiteful, malevolent and stern judge cum punisher.

His physical appearance too turns ugly: he is now pictured as a fat, bald ugly looking cruel man with yellow or brownish red eyes, protruding teeth and wielding a noose.

One after another, his powers and authority steadily depart from him. Varuna eventually ends up in the Puranas as a demigod in charge of local water bodies, and as the guardian of the west where the sun sinks into darkness and from where the night takes over.

(3) The story of his pre-eminence in the pre-Vedic and in the early Rig Veda era; the modifications that came about   in his profile during the later ages; his fall from elevated position; and his eventual eclipse, is truly astounding. In a manner of speaking, the course of Varuna’s career epitomizes the dynamic character of the Indian mythological lore. And, it also traces graphically the evolution, the development and the vicissitudes that came about in the corkscrew course of Indian theological history in response to the needs , changes and challenges it encountered at each stage of its unfolding over the millennia.

(4) Varuna saga should not be viewed in isolation. It is better appreciated when it is placed against the background of the scheme, process or the phenomenon that swept across the world of Vedic mythology in the distant past. That process spread over long centuries totally convulsed the sedate world of Vedic gods. It was akin to churning the ocean. It disturbed the old order; threw out the old set of gods; created and magnified a set of new gods; and restructured the entire Indian pantheon.

Under this process of reorganizing the world of Indian mythology… those Vedic gods who had been ‘minor’ in the Rig Veda but who held great potential and offered rich scope for enlargement and glorification were re-modeled into much greater gods.

Later, those gods came to represent larger segments of life and experiences; and to mobilize greater strength and significance. The virtues and powers of numerous other gods merged into those select gods. They are today the Super Gods in the Indian pantheon.

At the same time, gods whose characters, functions and achievements had been too vividly described in Rig Veda and who held out little scope for further enlargement were steadily reduced in their status and rank And those  gods whose profile was too dim and had very little potential for growth were allowed to fade out quietly.

In this scheme or the process of restructure, the gods that adopted best to the changing needs of times survived and thrived. One way that was done was by underplaying their Vedic characteristics   which were rather sketchy and unsuitable.  And, another was by aligning them along with tutelary gods that were already being worshiped. …..In this period of transition, popular sectarian gods were gradually replacing the older Vedic gods. This new approach to the gods redefined the status, character and attributes of the older gods.

This was also a process of absorption of several gods into One; and, it culminated in the emergence of the triad, of which the two: Vishnu and Shiva inherited all the rich, adorable and living traits of all the gods that preceded them. They were also endowed with infinite potential and capacity to imbibe the traits of all the gods to come.

(5) The sequence of gods changing – growing or diminishing in significance – indicates the continual influx of new ideas and a creative conflict within the existing system of thoughts. This complex and dynamic interplay of light and shadow is a distinctive feature of the Indian pantheon.

inverted treeThe growth and development of Indian mythology and thought resembles the imagery of the inverted tree – of which our ancients were very fond – with its roots in the sky and its branches spreading down towards the earth. Its roots are ancient but its growing shoots, leaves, buds, flowers and fruits are ever green, tender and fresh. The roots of our philosophy, religion and culture are in the very distant Vedic past.  Though those roots are no longer visible to us the braches and extensions of those roots in vivid forms that have come down to us are very alive; and its fruits are within our experience.


The idioms of Indian thought are thus dynamic, living and vibrant. They are linked to the spiritual urges and the changing needs, desires and aspirations of its people. The gods, faiths and the worship practices too keep evolving, changing, without parting with the essence of its fundamentals. Therefore, growth, change and adaptation are essential aspects of the Indian thought and living. It is distinguished by continuity with change; as also by its resilience and diversity. That is the genius of the Indian traditions.

The Varuna saga, albeit a painful one, has to be appreciated in that context.

maze negetive

(6) Varuna of Rig Veda had a rather disappointing end; but, he did leave behind a rich legacy of wonderful concepts and norms of behavior in personal and social life (Rta) that have endured even to this day. Those laws are universal; applicable at all times and therefore eternal. 

The concept of Rta asserts that the order in nature is self regulated and operates by its own laws (svabhava); and, not necessarily by the will of gods. Ensuring the perpetuation of the order and harmony in nature is as sacred  and as important as  it is in conduct of one’s life. That is because; Rta emphasizes the integrity of all forms of life and ecological systems. The principle of Rta recognizes our oneness with our environment and our unity with all life on earth. It is the framework that binds together man, nature and god.  Rta is thus the Dharma – the order – that pervades and protects all life. It asserts the principle that the physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe; Rta is both.

When that order and harmony is ruptured, the disruptive elements of disorder, chaos and falsehood (an-rta) step in, bringing in their wake ugliness, dishonesty and, decay into life.

It is explained; a sin is any inharmonious action done with avarice to gain some immediate and temporary gain. Thus, injuring the harmony that exists in nature and among men is indeed the sin; and it attracts punishment. The sin arises because of frailties and human weaknesses; and not because of demons. The evil in the hearts and minds of men are the real demons.

Sin is compared to unpaid debt (rna); it is a burden and an act of bad faith. The best way to cleanse the sin is to come face to face with it; own it; confess to it; and seek forgiveness with a promise not to err again. Cleansing is in the heart, mind and deed; not in the rituals. That is the Varuna’s way.

Paschatapa – ‘after the burning heat’ – signifies the purifying fire of repentance. The life-giving waters over which Varuna presides also signifies purity. Varuna is intimately associated with the both. Thus the Varuna-principle stands for purity in life.


(7) Let’s in the following five articles trace the journey of Varuna from the Rig Veda through the other Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads as also Mahabharata and the Puranas. Let’s also later see his connection with Ahur Mazda of the Gathas.


A. Varuna in the Rig Veda

The encompasser

1.1. Varuna of Rig Veda, the one who encompasses (var) the whole world, is one of the oldest Vedic deities. He belongs to the older generation of gods than Indra; and, his origins go back to the pre-Vedic era. It is said, Varuna was uncreated or unborn; he existed before the very dawn of creation and he manifested himself along with the wake of the world. That perhaps is a poetic way of suggesting that Varuna had been recognized as a sovereign ruler even before the dawn of Rig Vedic age.

1.2. He is the mightiest of the early Rig Vedic gods. He is celebrated in the Rig Veda variously as: the universal monarch; the king of all gods, the sovereign who dwells in all the realms ; the best among the Adityas the solar deities ; the lord of the sky; the god of heavenly light; the overlord who established and governed the cosmic order Rta; the guardian and upholder of righteousness – Dharma , Dharmanaam pathi; the stern but merciful judge who judges all men and punishes the wrongdoers; the healer with thousand remedies;  the omnipresent and  omniscient, possessing limitless knowledge; kavi, the seer par excellence ;  there is none wiser than he; the wielder of divine power and wisdom Maya; the controller of the destinies of mankind; one who forges the magical and speculative relationship between god and man; the lord of water element , clouds, seas and rivers Sindhu-pathi; and as the king of waters Ambu -raja.

Everything is subject to Varuna’s authority and control; nothing happens without his knowledge; and he takes everything.

1.3. No other Vedic deity is invested with such grand attributes and authority 9. Together with Mitra, Varuna more than any other god is in charge of the established order of the universe, the fixed rules of conduct – both physical and moral- ‘dhtavrata’.  Varuna inspired awe and reverence.

Lord of Ethics

2.1. The attributes and functions ascribed to Varuna impart to his character a moral elevation and sanctity far surpassing that attributed to any other Vedic deity. His extreme concern is the morality of human beings.

2.2. While the hymns addressed to other gods seek long life, wealth, and power; the prayers submitted to Varuna pray for purity of heart, forgiveness, and release from sins and for moral strength not to err again. They are replete with humble confessions of guilt and repentance. The hymns in praise of Varuna ‘the most impressive deity among all the Vedic gods’ are lofty, devout and ethical in tone. The hymns rise to a pitch of exaltation when they sing the splendor of Varuna.

In these hymns Varuna, more than any other Vedic god, appears mighty and merciful. He is feared as a severe judge. He terrifies the guilty; but is most compassionate to the virtuous.

The resplendent god

3.1. Rig Veda describes Varuna’s appearance in glowing terms: as the most resplendent god of radiant- sky-blue complexion, with Agni in his face and Surya in his eye. He is far sighted (uru-chaksasa). He is the eye of all the worlds (jagath-chakshu- RV.1.25.5). He has soft and beautiful hands (supani) in which he holds lotuses and   an auspicious noose. He is splendidly adorned in golden mantel (drapi) and a shining robe. His chariot dazzles brilliantly like sunrays (ghabasti suro nadyauth – RV.1.122.15).Varuna and Mitra ride the golden chariot like floating clouds in the blue sky, drawn by well yoked steeds. (Rv.5.62.7). in the midst of vast heavens urukşhaya (RV 1.2.9) he is seated on a splendid throne placed in his  golden palace of thousand pavilions, thousand columns (RV 2.41.5) and thousand doors (RV 7.88.5).  From his glittering throne, the monarch (samrajnya) watches over the deeds of all men and gods (pastyasu)- (RV 1.22.11-12).

Verily all of you are very great

4.1. The Mandalas of Rig Veda do not attempt stacking up its gods in a graded order; but strive to discover the Great One (Mahat) that is the source of all. There are no inferiors or superiors among the Vedic gods.”There is no one among you Oh Devas..! who is an infant or a boy .Verily all of you are very great” (na hi vo astyarbhako devaa so na kumaraha, visve sato mahanta iti – RV 8.30.1).

No one god in particular was regarded as the superior deity guiding and controlling the rest. But, all gods of Rig Veda were of co-ordinate power; and no one among them was recognized as supreme God per se, even though some gods were more imposing than others. Such gods included, particularly, Indra, Agni and Varuna, the gods of the warriors, of the yajna and of the pious devotees, respectively.

4.2. You come across in the Vedas, the hymns where a particular deity is lauded in glowing terms and   celebrated as the highest among the gods. There is also a tendency to elevate now this god and later another to the highest pedestal and to look upon him as the greatest power. It is explained; in all such instances the high praise and tributes paid are truly addressed to the Absolute, the Supreme principle; and, not to the god in question who merely is a manifestation of That One. Thus, all gods of Rig Veda are of equal status.

The Mighty King

5.1. The equitable status accorded to all gods, as explained above, was generally in the context of the younger gods, the Devas. But, Varuna belonged to the older generation wherein he was honoured with a very special status and hailed as the greatest god, Asura Mahat. Varuna continued to occupy that elevated pedestal until his demise or until the rise of Indra. Therefore in the early hymns of the Rig Veda, Varuna occupies a special and an exalted position. He alone is hailed as the king (Raja) (RV 7.87.6), kshatra (secular power, sovereignty and kingship) and Kshatriya; the king of gods (MS 2.21); the king of the territories (raja-raastranam) (RV 7.34.11); an independent ruler (svaraja) (RV 1.28.1); the self-dependant ruler (svaraat), and samraja the universal monarch (RV 1.36.1; 8.42.1).

5.2. As the emperor, Varuna is mighty and awe-inspiring. He is Risadas the destroyer of enemies (RV 1.2.7), tuvijata and uruksaya mighty (RV 1.02.9). His might and speed are unequalled (RV 1.24.8) . He rules over both men and gods; and presides over the relationship between man and the gods. His sovereignty pervades both the physical and moral domains, where his laws are equally eternal and inviolable.”Indra protects from external foe; Varuna protects and upholds the moral order rtaRV 7.83.9”. Even a god does not dare transgress his immutable ordinances (vrataani).He restricts and fetters the wrong doers with his bonds that he has at his command.

mitraṁ huve pūtadakṣaṁ varuṇaṁ ca riśādasam |dhiyaṁ ghṛtācīṁ sādhantā || 1. 2.07

kavī no mitrāvaruṇā tuvijātā urukṣayā |1,002.09

ṛtena mitrā-varuṇā-vṛtāvṛdhāvṛtaspṛśā |kratuṁ bṛhantamāśāthe || 1. 2.08

vṛtrāṇy anyaḥ samitheṣu jighnate vratāny anyo abhi rakṣate sadā |7,083.09

5.3. He is not only the supreme kshatra, supreme Asura, the wise king, the best of the Adityas but he is also the abode of life (visvayu). The term Asura (one who controls asu = breath or life) meaning the Lord of Life is particularly applied to Varuna (RV 2.8.27).  Prayers are submitted to him to grant an enjoyable  life-span of hundred Shrad-ritus, better than the life lived by their forefathers – śataṃ no rāsva śarado vicakṣe, acyāmāyūṃṣi sudhitāni pūrvā (2.27.10).|He is celebrated as the all knowing Asura (asuro visvavedaha –RV 8.42.1), and as the wise and attentive king (asurah prachetah –RV 1.124.14). In some passages the scope of the term is extended by adding the title ‘the king’ (RV 1.24.14; 10.132.4) or even stronger ‘the universal king ‘(RV 8.42.1).

His dominant position is declared by stating Varuna is the Asura and the king of all gods (RV 2.27.10).  “I am king Varuna; these powers (Asurya) were first given to me”- (ahaṃ rājā varuṇo mahyaṃ tāny asuryāṇi prathamā dhārayantaRV 4.42.2). Mitra and Varuna are described as the two noble (Arya) Asuras (or lords) of the Devas – Devanaam asurah – (tā hi devānām asurā tāv aryā tā naḥ kṣitīḥ karatam ūrjayantīḥRV 7.65.2)

tvaṁ viśveṣāṁ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥ | śataṁ no rāsva śarado vicakṣe’śyāmāyūṁṣi sudhitāni pūrvā || 2.27.10 ||

5.4. In the Rig Veda, the totality of godly powers is called asuratvam; and it is called Mahat the great one. Varuna is Asura- mahat (Mahat devaanaam asuratvam ekam – RV 3.55.1-2). He is also regarded as the sovereign who created the Universe: The All-Wise Varuna – asuro visvavedaha-Rig Veda 8.42.1”. He also put in place the cosmic order and governed the physical as also the moral aspects of existence. He is also the punisher and a fearsome destroyer.

5.5. Thus, Varuna of Rig Veda, heralded as the most exalted god (though only for a brief period) is endowed with these powers and authority. And, with his omniscience and omnipotence he is the nearest approximation to the structure of a Supreme Being, the Almighty God – the creator, preserver and destroyer. But, the text stops short of declaring him or any other deity as the Supreme God. The powers and virtues attributed to Varuna were later crystallized and appropriated among the Trinity of the mythologies which came up later.


6.1. Rig Veda celebrates the glory of Varuna in myriad ways ; and describes him as : the Great One (Mahat); the vast (brahat); the mighty (bhuri);the immense (prabhuti);  the abode of life (visvayu); the knower (vidvas); the wise (medha);the intelligent (dhira); the discriminating (pracetas); the clever (grtsa); the adept , dexterous (sukratu); the inspired (vipra); the seer (kavi); the great-poet (kavitara); the greatest of poets (kavitama).

Amarakosa has five synonyms for Varuna :  (1.1.142) pracetā varuṇaḥ pāśī yādasāṃpatir-appatiḥ

Besides these, Varuna has other sets of titles as being the lord of waters, the lord of Rta;   and as the king and judge. We shall see more of those in the next sections.  He has too many epithets. I admit, it is rather confusing.


[Before going further, a short explanation of the term Asura in the early Rig Veda:

7.1. The term Asura was used in the Rig Veda to indicate the powerful or the mighty one. Its application was more as an adjective than as a noun. This term was applied not only to gods but also to other powerful individuals. In the early Books of Rig Veda, Asura as a designation appears only in the singular or in dual form (as in Mitra-Varuna). Asura in that context did not refer to a cult or to a group or  to a class of gods, just in the manner it referred to group of Devas , as  in the case of visve devah. In other words, Asura was a title of highest lordship or honor assigned to certain gods who were regarded mighty, powerful and worship- worthy. These gods in general were also addressed as Devas. The older deities celebrated as Devas were often addressed as Asura, just to emphasize their power and might.

For instance; in Rig Veda, Indra the king of Devas is addressed in about sixteen hymns as Asura, possessing Asurya or Asuratya. His deeds are described as Asurani– the powerful, as those of Asuras . Similarly, the three other mighty deities of Rig Veda: Agni, Varuna and Mitra (in company of Varuna) are called Asura. Rudra is described in accusative form as devam asuram (RV. 42.11), the Asura possessing Asurya or bestowing it. Dayus the ancient sky-god too was called Asura. Some other Vedic deities too were at times called Asura, as in the case of : Savitar, Surya, Vayu, Maruts, the Adityas and Apam Napat. Ushas the goddess of dawn was said to possess Asuratva.

7.2. There are no cases in Rig Veda where a god is called Asura in respectful sense in one instance and then called an Asura in the demonic sense in another instance. Hence the change that came about was truly in the usage of the term and the meaning assigned to it at different times; and, it did not signify a change in the nature or the character of the god to whom the term was applied.

As said earlier, Asura meant highest lordship. Dayus the old sky-god was the earliest Asura. But, since Dayus , more and more , came to mean the physical sky and not the Great God, the epithet then was applied to Varuna the new sky-god; and later to Indra and other gods. But, the term Asura was applied particularly to Varuna to signify his supreme lordship over men and gods (viśveṣāṃ varuṇāsi rājā ye ca devā asura ye ca martāḥRV 2. 27.10). Aditi, the mother of gods, it is said, produced Mitra and Varuna for Asurya – Might or mightiness.  “This Asura rules over the gods”: mahad devānām asuratvam ekam – RV_3,055.01 to 22

[Sage Kapila , said to be the founder of the Samkhya system of Philosophy, is often addressed as Asura. And, his son or disciple is Asuri , another great Samkhya philosopher.]

No other Vedic god is described in this manner (anyad-anyad asuryaṃ vasānā ni māyino mamire rūpam asminRV_3,038.07 ) . It is explained; the Asurya and the dignity connected with being Asura in the case of Varuna is his original characteristic. That suggests; Varuna was a sovereign ruler even at the dawn of Rig Vedic age. However, in the case of Indra, it is said, his Asurya   was inherited from Varuna; it was not Indra’s own. When Indra is called Asura or invested with Asurya , it is done merely because Indra happened to succeed Varuna as the king of gods.

7.3. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.1), Mahabharata (shanthi parva: 33.25) and Amarakosha all describe Asuras , the sons of Diti, as the elder brothers or the older gods, while the Devas are the younger ones.

7.4. The sea-change that came about in the meaning assigned to the term Asura can also be explained in the context of the religious history of the Vedic people.

When the Aryan community was undivided, the terms Asura and Deva both denoted gods of high respect. The gods were referred to Asura as also Deva. But at a certain phase of their history, the Vedic people became divided along the lines of affiliation to two great and ancient sages Apam Napat and Angirasa. These sages belonged to the pre –Vedic period. The parting of their ways came about mainly because of the stand each took on issues such as: monotheism; worship of God through formless medium; use of icons in worship; and above all, on the question of the status to be accorded to the old god Varuna.

The Bhrigu clan who generally were to the west of the mighty Sindhu River continued: to regard Varuna as the Greatest and the only God – Asura Mahat; to favor worship through the formless medium of fire and honor the principle of Rta the moral order governed by Varuna as the highest good of all .

The Angirasas who were the preceptors of the dominant Aryans on the east of the Sindhu, on the other hand, elevated the more energetic and vibrant younger gods the Devas (Indra and others) to exalted positions and treated all Devas as equally great .These Devas were personified and described as having forms. Besides, the Angirasas relegated the passive old gods such as Varuna to very low positions in the Vedic pantheon, and also soft peddled Rta principle the moral order governed  by Varuna.

( We shall talk a bit more on these issues in the last part of this article.)

7.5. The parting of their ways was hardly a sweet-sorrow; it was laced with rancor and hate. The Bhrigu and the Angirasa clans each ascribed its own chosen words of abuse to the terms Asura or Deva, depending on to which side of the Sindhu they belonged. In the later Vedic texts Asuras came to mean demons.

Towards the later books of the Rig Veda (6, 7, 8 and 10) the term Asura underwent extraordinary semantic change. It not only became a noun from an adjective; but also acquired a totally different meaning of demon or demonic. And in the sixth Book of Rig Veda (RV 6.022.09), Indra for the first time came to known as janasya divyasya rājā, the king of gods. And the idea, of course, became more popular and crystallized later in the Puranas.

In the Brahmanas of Krishna Yajur Veda , the term Asura was used in the sense of anti-god. It then was usually expressed in plural to suggest a group of beings opposed to gods. And, when it was used in singular (in the same sense) it was expressed as aasura. In the Shatapatha Brahmana the terms Asura and Rakshasa came close to each other.]

The Varuna – hymns

8.1. Varuna is indeed one of the mighty gods of Rig-Veda, though he is celebrated exclusively in just about ten hymns (RV 1.24. 25; 2.28; 5.85; 7.86 to 89 and 8.41 to 42).Besides, he is praised along with Mitra (Maitra –varuna) in twenty-three hymns; and with Indra (Indra-Varuna) in nine hymns. These numbers are rather small as compared to the numbers of hymns addressed to Indra and Agni, which are about six-fold greater. For instance, in Book Three  no hymn is addressed to Varuna while twenty-two are devoted to Indra. Similarly, in Book eleven there is only one hymn to Varuna while twenty-three are addressed to Varuna. For some reason, Varuna is less frequently mentioned in the last book than in the earlier books of Rig Veda.

That does not in any manner diminish the importance, might, glory and power of Varuna as depicted in Rig Veda.

8.2. If Varuna is so great and important why is it that only a handful of hymns are dedicated to him in the Samhitas?

That might be because of the dark traits associated with him. Varuna was not wholly benevolent like Indra in the early Rig-Veda. Varuna is rather an ambivalent character – now favourable; and now unfavourable. He was a judgmental god who inspired awe and fear. Yet, Varuna was essentially a god of placid nature. And the Vedic poets were decidedly in favor of uncompromisingly good gods who protected people from enemies, diseases and draught. That process perhaps eventually led to Indra replacing the old god Varuna and taking charge as the chief of the Devas.

8.3. The Varuna – hymns are remarkably varied in their content and scope. They portray range of Varuna’s attributes; but, they project, mainly, four of his functions: as the universal monarch and lord of the sky; as the upholder of the cosmic order Rta; as related to water element (apah); and, as omniscient deity with unique magical knowledge (Maya)   who oversees men’s’ actions.

We shall discuss each of his main attributes and functions in the next part of in this article.

Continued in Part Two


References and Sources

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. Usha Choudhuri; Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

2. The Indian Theogony by Dr.Sukumari Bhattarcharji, Cambridge University Press, 1970

3. Asura in early Vedic religion by WE Hale; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, 1986

4. Goddesses in ancient India by PK Agrawala,; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,1984

5. The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathustra by JM Chatterji; the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, Calcutta, 1967;

6. Outlines of Indian Philosophy –Prof M Hiriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2005

7.Original Sanskrit texts on the 0rigin and history of the people of India, their region and institution By J. Muir;Trubner & co., London, 1870.

8. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature byJohn Dowson; Turner & co, Ludgate hill. 1879.

9. Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantharangachar; DVK Murthy, Mysore, 1968

10. Sri Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G. Gnanananda

11. Zarathustra Chapters 1-6 by Ardeshir Mehta; February 1999


All images are by courtesy of Internet


Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Varuna


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Rudras Eleven


Namaste! Thank you for the wonderful note on Dvarapalas. Can I ask you for one more? Could you please give me info – texts, descriptions or images – of 11 forms of Rudra? I am artist, I need to draw and paint them, but I don’t know how they look. Thank you. Atma-Raga

Dear Atma-Raga, Welcome. Thank you for asking. This again is an interesting question ; and is  a tough one to answer. It needs a rather lengthy explanation.  But at the end, I fear, it might leave you a bit disappointed. There are various versions of the origin of Rudra, etymology of the term, types of Rudras, their names, attributes and their iconographic representations. It is virtually impossible to detail all the versions in a blog. One has therefore, by sheer necessity, to be very selective. That might not please all or answer all questions. Further, the descriptions of the features of the Rudras in various texts are not uniform. And, in many cases they are incomplete too.

In any case, please read on…

 May I suggest you  listen to  Rudram while you read?,  You may  Please   select rudra namakam chamakam    by Sri M.N. Venkata Sastry   on

A. Rudra

Rudra in Vedas

1.1. The earliest mentions of Rudra occur in the Rig Veda, where three entire hymns are devoted to him.

It is said that there are as many as seventy-five references to Rudra in the Rig-Veda Samhita. Most of those occur in the First and the Second Books.

[For details please see Notes below@]

Rudra is a divinity of the mid-sphere

2.1. Rig Veda mentions a set of thirty-three deities. According to Yaska-charya, the thirty-three gods are divided equally in three different planes of existence namely the celestial plane (dyuloka) the intermediate region (antariksha-loka) and the terrestrial region (bhur-loka) each plane having eleven gods.

There is however a slight variation among the different traditions in naming the thirty-three most eminent deities (trayastrimsati koti). According to the Shatapatha Brahmana, these thirty-three deities include eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Dyaus, and Prithvi.

aṣṭau vasavaḥ | ekādaśa rudrā dvādaśā-adityā ime eva dyāvā-pṛthivī trayastriṃśyau  trayastriṃśadvai devāḥ – Sp.Br.

While, Yaska-charya mentions: eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas and two Asvinis.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad the Rishi Yajnavalkya at one stage says “The eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapati are the thirty-three gods”.

aṣṭau vasava ekādaśa rudrā dvādaś-ādityāḥ ta ekatriṃśad aindraś caiva prajāpatiś ca trayastriṃśāv iti || BrhUp_3,9.2 ||

2.2. In Rig Veda, Rudra is one of the intermediate level gods (antariksha devata). He is a divinity of the subtle world, the sphere of space, the mid sphere between the spheres of  earth and the Sun (Rig Veda 5.3).

Rudra (the howling one) as a divinity associated with winds represents life-breath (prana-vayu). Rudra is thus the principles of life.

Rudra is the intermediary between physical elements and the intellect.

Rudra is thus a deity of the intermediate stage. He presides over the second ritual of sacrifice, the mid-day offering, the second period of man’s life (say from 24 to 50).

[ Another interesting feature is that in the hymns of the Rig-Veda specially devoted to Rudra (RV: 1.114  (imā rudrāya tavase); 2.33 (pra jāyemahi rudra prajābhiḥ); and 7.46 (imā rudrāya sthiradhanvane)  the proper name of Rudra never appears either in the beginning or at  the end of the Pada  ; but , it is always hidden in the middle , often suggested by its sound -hints.

For example; the hymn 2.33 contains fifteen instances of Rudra ( once in each stanza); but, none at the beginning or the end of the Pada (line). Let’s say, the first Pada of 2.33.1 commences with the address Pitar_Marutam (Father of Maruts). In the fourth Pada of the same stanza the name ‘Rudra’ is hidden between the noun Praja (Praja-yemathi Rudra Praja-bhih) meaning:  ‘ we want to be reborn  Oh Rudra in our children.’ Similarly, in stanza 2.033. 4a: ma tva Rudra cukrudhamanamobhir ma duÍeuta vaÍabha ma sahat (Let us not anger thee, O Rudra, with our improper praise …)  is hidden in the middle. ]

The howler

3.1.Yajnavalkya, in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, queries :  Katame  rudra  iti:   “Who are the Rudras?” ; and , then  goes on to explain “The ten senses and the mind make eleven. These are the Rudras.””When the senses and the mind leave the body, they make one cry in anguish.” While a person is alive, these eleven: the senses and the mind, subject the individual to their demands, and make him cry in agony if he violates their laws.

katame rudrā iti | Dasame puruse prana atma-ekadashah te yadasmath sariram martyad utkranta-mantyatha rodhayanti tad yad rodhayanti tasmad Rudra iti – Br.Up: 3.9.4

Chandogya Upanishad also calls Rudra the howler or the red one as  Prana , the cause of tears, because : ”verily, the vital breaths are the cause of the tears, for on departing they cause everyone to lament in tears” (Chandogya Upanishad 3.16.9).

Prana vava Rudra ete hidam sarvam rodayanti


4.1. The etymology of the word Rudra is interpreted variously; and at times it is rather confusing. Its etymology has led the  scholars into all sorts of wild chase.

Rudra, in Rig-Veda, is a god of the storm, the wind, and the hunt. His distinctive characteristics are his fierce weapons and his medicinal powers. He is the ‘archer’ (sarva – sarv – which means ‘to injure’ or ‘to kill’), the ‘bowman’ (dhanvin) armed with fast-flying arrows (ashu – bana-hastha).

The name Rudra has been translated as ‘roarer’, ‘howler’, ‘wild one’, ‘the fierce god’ and ‘terrible’. The alternate etymology suggested as derived from the root rud is: ‘to be Red, Brilliant’, ‘to be ruddy’ or ‘to shine’. Rudra is sometimes identified with the god of fire-Agni.

Rudra is also used both as a name of Shiva, synonymous with Bhava, Sarva, Ugra and Mahadeva.

Rudra also means ‘Father of the Maruts’ (ā te pitar marutāṃ – RV 2.33.1); and collectively “the Rudras” is used to mean ‘the sons of Rudra’ or the Maruts.

According to a commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama (ascribed to Sri Sankara?)  , Rudra means ‘One who makes all beings cry at the time of cosmic dissolution’. Alternatively, Rudra means ‘One who gives speech’. Rudra also means ‘one who drives away sorrows’. And , finally Rudra relieves  one of worldly woes (Kapardin)

There are also other sublime interpretations of the term Rudra.  It is said:

– Rudra is one who dispels (Dravayati)   illusions or maladies (Rujum) through his light (Ru).

– Rudra is one towards whom all the words of praise (Ru) are directed (Draghatau)

– Rudra is one who bestows (Rati dadati) knowledge (Rut) – Rut jnanam rati dadati iti Rudrah

In other contexts, Rudra can simply mean ‘the number eleven’.

C. Rudra in the Rig-Veda Samhita is a highly complex divine character

5.1.  Rudra in the Rig-Veda Samhita is a highly complex divine character with contradictory qualities; and yet harmonizing within himself all contradictions.

(I) The magnificent verses composed by the Rishi Grisamada (RV. 2.33) hails the merciful (jalasa) Rudra as the ‘best of all the physicians (bheajebhi, bheshaja shiromani ) –Vaidyanatha (RV 2.33.4).  He is said to possesses healing remedies – jalasa-beshaja (RV 1.43.4); and, thousand medicines and strengthening balms (jálāabheajam) – (RV 7.46.3). 

His gracious hand bestows health and comfort.

Prayers are submitted to Rudra : “Do thou with strengthening balms incite our heroes”. He is requested not to afflict children, men and cattle with disease (RV 7.46.2); and , to keep villages free of illness (RV 1.114.1).

:-  pashunam ma bhermaro mo eshham kinchanamamat ; :-Manastoke tanaye ma na ayushhi ma no goshhu ma no ashveshhu ririshhah ; :- Aratte goghna utta purushhaghne kshayadviraya sumnamasme te astu

Rishi Grisamada adores Rudra as the blissful god of all created beings, the mightiest of the mighty who rests in his own glory. In him, the sovereign (Isana) of this world; the power of divinity (Asurya) is inherent; and, from him that power never departs. The hymns beseech Rudra to ‘transport us over miseries to well-being’. He prays to Rudra: ‘As one who finds shade in blazing sun, may I , unharmed, win the grace of Rudra ‘ (RV.2.33.6)

ghrnī̍va cchā̱yāma̍ra̱pā a̍śī̱yā vi̍vāseya ru̱drasya̍ su̱mnam II 2.33.06 II

Rudra is also Shiva the auspicious one who is easily pleased (Ashutosha) with simple adulation. He is also Prachetasa (exceedingly wise); Midustama (the highest of all); and Ishana (the overlord).  Rudra is also Svayambhu (self-generatedRV.7.84.4 –  and Trayambaka  (three eyed like the Sun or as having three mothers) – RV.7.59.19.  

Rudra is known for his wealth.  He is also associated with Aditya (sun) and Agni. He is addressed as the thousand-eyed one (saharaksha) holding thunderbolts. He is associated with the dramatic fierceness of the thunderstorm and lightening which strike at men and cattle, but which through the rain brings forth peace and plenty.

As for the fierce power of the Rudra , all the four hymns mention it; and pray to Rudra not to inflict his wrath upon the humans and the animals ; and , at other times requesting Rudra to ward off evil and to provide protection against wicked forces. . In a hymn (7. 46), Rishi Vasistha admires the wise and compassionate Rudra wielding a firm bow and swift arrows to chasten the unrighteous. Thus, even while Rudra is ferocious, he acts as the upholder of the moral order ; and the protector of the good .

 imā rudrāya sthira-dhanvane giraḥ kṣipreṣave devāya svadhāvne |  aṣāḷhāya sahamānāya vedhase tigm-āyudhāya bharatā śṛṇotu naḥ ||RV_7,046.01 ||

(II). And, Rudra is also “fierce like a formidable wild beast” (RV 2.33.11).     He is associated with  thunderstorm and lightening; traverses everywhere like lightening – arhann idaṃ dayase viśvam abhvaṃ na vā ojīyo rudra tvad asti . He is fierce  Goghana,  Purushagna  and  Kasyad-vira RV. 1.114.10 – (slayer of animals and men; and lord valiant heroes).  He is not purely benefic like other Rig Vedic gods, but he is not malevolent either. Rudra is thus regarded with a kind of cringing fear and respect . He punishes and at the same time he rescues his devotees from trouble. One appeals to “mighty Rudra, the god with braided hair (kapardin)” for mercy and protection (RV 1.114).

imā rudrāya tavase kapardine kṣayadvīrāya pra bharāmahe matīḥ |RV_1,114.01|

Rudras as a group

6.1. Rudra is not merely the proper name of a deity; but it also is one that refers to a collection of Rudras ( Rudra-gana) . And, the Rudra-s as a group also signified a powerful host (Gana) of destructive deities often associated with storms (Marut). The Rudra-s represented not only the awesome, destructive fury of the tempest but also the benevolence of fertility, healing and welfare.

6.2. The  collective form , the Rudra-s , had two aspects; the fierce , terrible aspects(ugra) ; and the gentle , benevolent aspects (sowmya) – (dve tanu tasya devasya).

Thus, Rudra is a fierce deity of stormy winds, deafening thunderbolts, devastating floods and raging epidemics. Rudra is also benevolent; he is wealthy; he reassures the frightened ones and cures deceases.

D. The glory and splendor of the Rudra

7.1. The Rig Veda sings the glory and splendor of the Rudra. The Rig-Veda Samhita has four hymns (RV.1.43; 1.114; 2.33; and 7.46) comprising 39 verses dedicated to the Rudra.

In the hymns of the Rig-Veda, Rudra  appears in innumerable forms and colors (puru-rupa). Rudra is depicted as the ever youthful, most powerful, malevolent and terrifying deity , Lord of thunderstorms and lightning, presiding over the entire existence. Rudra who is endowed with strong arms, lustrous body decorated with ornaments and having flowing golden hair is said to be brown or tawny (Bablusha) or blue (Neela) in complexion; shining like sun and glittering like gold is endowed with sturdy limbs (vajra-bahu), charming lips . And, he is adorned with beautiful ornaments such as necklaces (nishika) of dazzling brilliance; and is crowned with mop of braided locks of hair (Kaparin). 

Rudra Blue

Rudra is described as fierce; armed with the mighty bow (pinaka), and a quiver holding unending array of arrows and missiles which are terrifyingly swift and penetrating. His fast-flying arrows, ‘brilliant shafts run about the heaven and the earth’ (RV 7.46.3).

Pinaka the powerful, sturdy bow with a wide span, bending along the course of the Sun , is said to be  the symbol of Rudra, the Isana (Lord); and,  his supremacy over all others. In the later texts, Pinaka is also known as Ajagava, the southern part of the Sun’s path. (Ajagava is also explained as a bow made of the horns of goats.)

Oh, the devoted to the devotees, always travelling in the chariot, ever young, fierce like the lion, vanquisher of the enemies, May the devotees pray to you. May you make us happy. May your armies fight against the enemies and be merciful towards us. There is none that matches him in strength. He is the Ishana the Master of the world; he is the father of worlds (Bhuvanasya pitaram).He commands men and entrusts tasks. He sets things in motion and makes flow like a river. He is medhavi, intelligent and the compassionate one. He is praised as midvah, for his generosity. As he is an auspicious one, he is called Shiva. (RV: 2-33-7; 6-49-10; 7-46-2)

Stomam vo adya rudraya shikvase I Kshaatadiraya namasa didistana…| Yebhih Shivah svavam yevayabhihi I  Divaha sishakti svayasha nikamabhihi.||  (RV: 10-92-9)

7.2. The Rig Veda sings the glory and splendor of the Rudra:

Chief of all born art thou in glory, Rudra, armed with the thunder, mightiest of the mighty (2.33.03) – śreṣṭho jātasya rudra śriyāsi tavastamas tavasāṃ vajrabāho |

To him the strong, great, tawny (Bhabru Varna), fair-complexioned, I utter forth a mighty hymn of praises. We serve the brilliant God with adorations, we glorify, the splendid name of Rudra.(2.33.08) – pra babhrave vṛṣabhāya śvitīce maho mahīṃ suṣṭutim īrayāmi

With firm limbs, multiform, the strong, the tawny adorns himself with bright gold decorations: The strength of Godhead never departs from Rudra, him who is Sovereign of this world, the mighty.(2.33.09) – īśānād asya bhuvanasya bhūrer na vā u yoṣad rudrād asuryam 

Worthy, thou carry thy bow and arrows, worthy, thy many hued and honoured necklaces.

Worthy, thou cut here each fiend to pieces: a mightier than thou there is not, Rudra.(2.33. 10) – rhann idaṃ dayase viśvam abhvaṃ na vā ojīyo rudra tvad asti

Praise him the chariot-borne, the young, the famous, fierce, slaying like a dread beast of the forest (2.33.11) –  stuhi śrutaṃ gartasadaṃ yuvānam mṛgaṃ na bhīmam upahatnum ugram

E. Father of the Maruts

8.1. Rudra is the father of Maruts the “storm gods”; hence they are called Rudriya. They are the deities who bring havoc, associated with the atmosphere The Maruts (immortals) are described as restless troops of flashy young men, transporting in space the hordes young warriors called martyus (mortals)

Maruts are war-minded close knit bunch of exuberant youth. “They have iron teeth, roam like lions, hold bows and arrows and round projectiles; they speed away in golden chariots drawn by tawny stallions. They dwell in the North.”(RV 1.153.6).

Riding on the whirlwinds, singing loudly, they direct the storms. Clad in rain, they spread rain, pushing away storm. When they move the mountains tremble and trees fall (RV 1.39.5; 5.53-54)

They are known for moral and heroic deeds. Often brutal, though usually good humoured, they are feared by everyone.

8.2. The number of Maruts varies. They are a group of gods, supposed to number usually either eleven or thirty-three. The Rig Veda speaks of them as twenty-one (RV 1.133.6) as twenty-seven or forty-nine (seven groups of seven each) or one hundred and eighty (triḥ ṣaṣṭis – three times sixty in RV 8.96.8.).



9.01. In Rig Veda, as it is often said, the term Shiva occurs eighteen times. And, each time it is used as an adjective, an epithet standing for “an auspicious one” (mangalakara) in the sense of being “propitious” or “kind” (śivaḥ svavāṃ10.92.9). Shiva, in Rig Veda, is not the name of any god. It is a quality found in many gods.

9.02. It is said, that Rudra’s identification with Shiva came much later; and for the first time in  Svetasvatara Upanishad and later in  Yajur Veda (Taittiriya samhita, 4-5-1 – satarudriya section). Vajasaneyi samhita (3-63) also identified Shiva with Rudra (tam Shiva namasi). Satapatha Brahmana too said Shiva was known as Bhava, Mahadeva, Sarva, Pashupathi, Ugra and Ishana. Panini (say 4th century BCE) in his Grammar- Ashtadhyayi (1-49; 3-53; 4-100; 5-3-99) mentions that Rudra was called variously: Mrida, Bhava, Sarva, Grisha, Mahadeva and Trayambaka.

Patanjali (in Mahabashya) also mentions icons of Shiva along with those of Skanda and Visakha. By Patanjali’s time (say 2nd or 3rd century BCE), I reckon,   Shiva as god with his attributes was well established.

9.03. Thus ,  an interesting reversal had taken place. Rudra, who  till then  signified a deity, became an epithet or an aspect of Shiva ; while Siva which term till then meant a benevolent or gracious virtue became the name of a great deity.

By the time of the Puranas, the aspect of  Rudra had  merged  with Shiva , one of the Grand Trinity ; and , Rudra  represented  Shiva’s terrific  aspect as the destroyer. Not surprisingly, Rudra came to be  closely associated with the god of death, Yama; with the god of fire, Agni; and with the magical drink, soma. At the same time, he was  also an aspect of Shiva the Lord of the universe, the cosmic dancer, the Supreme yogi and master of all yogis.

G. Legends of Rudra

10.01. The myths and legends that allege the origin of the Rudra abound. There are a variety of stories. I do not propose to discuss them here. Suffice it to say, all those legends have in common the Shiva, anger, howling or crying out loud.

10.02. Rudra who stands for all the intense feelings associated with the entire spectrum of surging emotions, ranging from piteous wail of the one weeping in excruciating pain to the terrifying thunder-clap emanating from clashing universes. It appears; Rudra had his origins in the pre-Vedic distant past lost in the antiquity. It is said;  he forcibly entered into the Vedic fold . Since then he has been celebrated and as one the fundamental and Supreme deities of the Vedic lore. In the Agamas of the post Vedic period, we witness the metamorphosis of the Rudra into benevolent Shiva the auspicious; Mahadeva, the Great Lord; and Parameshwara, the Supreme Lord of all Universes.

H. Rudra Prashna

11.1. Apart from the 39 verses dedicated to Rudra in the Rig-Veda Samhita, the  highly celebrated Rudra-adhyaya (the chapter on the Rudra) or the Shata-rudriya  (the hundred names of Rudra) , or the famous Namaka  hymn of Rudra Prashna  also appears in the  Vajasaneyi Samhita of  Shukla  Yajurveda  and as also  in the Taittiriya Samhita of Krishna Yajurveda.

The version of Rudra-adhyaya as in the Vajasaneyi Samhita of Shukla Yajurveda (chapter 16) comprises 66 mantras (here known as kandikas). Many of these kandikas are drawn from Rig-Veda Samhita. The other version of Rudra-adhyaya appearing in the Taittiriya Samhita of Krishna Yajurveda (Kanda 4; Praparthaka 5) is more comprehensive having as many as 170 mantras, including the 66 kandikas of the Vajasaneyi Samhita.

11.2.The 170 Taittiriya Rudra mantras are grouped into eleven Anuvakas (sub –sections meant for recitation) in which all the splendorous aspects of and attributes of Rudra as the Vedic divinity have been elaborated magnificently. This highly charged, inspired piece of grand poetry is rendered with great gusto and devotion by the worshippers on all occasions. The style, diction, rhythm, word structure and itintesity of the Rudra-prasna are truly matchless. It truly is a grandest ode to the all-powerful Lord of the Universe, the Rudra.

Here, Rudra has been elevated to the height of a sublime Vedic divinity. He is equated with ancient Vedic gods such as Aditya (sun) and Indra (Sahasraksha); and is celebrated as the presiding deity of the forest of evergreen trees (kaksanam pati), as the architect of the universe (stapathi), as also as the commander-in – chief (Senani) of a large army of followers (ganas) possessing countless number of horses (Asvapathi) , the presiding lord (Sabapathi), the minister (mantri), the trader (vanija) and the sharp-shooter (krtsna-vit) and so on.

11.3. Rudra is also described through various other terms related to forest-dwellers, hunters and artisans. Rudra is the a steel–blue (Nilagriva) coloured mountain-dweller (Girisha);  protector of hills (Girisanta); a blacksmith (Karmara)  who crafts  (taksa) bows and arrows(Dhanvakrt and Isukrt); a hunter (Mrgayu)  with a fearful pack of hounds (Saravani); a bird-catcher (Punjista) ; and , a potter (Kulala) etc

11.4. Rudra is also addressed through several epithets that are not laudatory; and some of them are even derogatory. He is called lord of robbers (stayunam pathi), the chief of gang of thieves (taskaranam pathi), a cat-burglar (stenanam pathi), a marauding butcher (prakrnta) waiting in the dark shadows holding a deadly chopper, and such many other names.

11.5. Rudra ultimately is the Supreme entity encompassing all forms and colours (Visva-rupa) of the limitless space and harmonizing within him all the contradictions in whole of existence.

[ It is said; when the name Rudra is invoked in the Svetavatara Upanishad, it is  NOT with the same sense as in the hymns of the Rig-Veda; rather, Rudra, here, represents the Supreme Being – both as the personal god (Deva) and as the Lord of all existence (Isha); and, above all, Rudra stands for the impersonal Absolute Brahman. The Rudra in the Svetavatara Upanishad is thus not limited or restricted to the sense a deity. And, Rudra as the Supreme Being manifests in countless forms and is called by multitude of names. In the Advaita outlook of the Svetavatara Upanishad everything emerges from Rudra (Brahman) , exists in it and merges back within it.]

11.6. The Sanat –kumara-samhita (7.7) aptly remarks that the ways of the Rudra who is endowed with inconceivable powers (achintya-bala) and valour are beyond comprehension (achintyan). The elusive power (Ajnanam) of his Maya cannot fathom either. Rudra is a beloved of his devotees (bhakthi-vatsalam) and is quickly pleased with devotion (Asuthosha)

Achintya–niyamo Rudro achintya-bala–purushah achintyan cha tad ajnanam na sakyam bhakthi-vatsalam

11.7. In the Shata-rudriya, or the hundred names of Rudra, or the famous Namaka hymn of Rudra Prashna found in the Vajasaneyi samhita of Yajurveda:

” Rudra is described as possessing many contradictory attributes; for example, he is a killer and destroyer; he is terrible, fierce ( ugra), inauspicious ; he is a deliverer and saviour; he causes happiness, and prevents disease ; he has a healing and auspicious body (siva tanuh); he is yellow-haired, brown- coloured, copper-coloured, ruddy, tall, dwarfish; he has braided locks (kapardin), wears the sacred thread, and is clothed in a skin ; he is blue-necked and thousand-eyed; he dwells in the mountains, and is the owner of troops (gana-pati) of servants who traverse the earth obeying his orders ; he is ruler and controller of a thousand Rudras who are described as fierce and ill-formed (virupa); he has a hundred bows and a thousand quivers; he is the general of vast armies; he is lord of ghosts, goblins, and spirits; of beasts, horses, and dogs; of trees, shrubs, and plants; he causes the fall of leaves ; he is lord of the Soma-juice; he is patron of thieves and robbers, and is himself present in a thief, robber, and deceiver; he presides over carpenters, chariot-makers, blacksmiths, architects, huntsmen; he is present in towns and houses, in rivers and lakes, in woods and roads, in clouds and rain, in sunshine and lightning, in wind and storm, in stones, dust, and earth.”

– -Monier-Williams (of the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford University)

11.8. Rudra is thus all pervading and present in every aspect of creation- moving and non-moving; conscient or sub-conscient. Rudra bestows upon us the magnificence of his nature.

[The Rudra-Prashna is usually recited along with another passage called ‘Chamakam’  (taken from the Yajurveda -TS 4.5, 4.7) which is composed with words ending with “Cha’ requesting Rudra to grant many, many things in life and beyond. The Chamakam (Just as the Rudra-Prashna) has also eleven sections (Anuvak); and, its each Anuvak corresponds to a force of each of  eleven  Rudras.

In the Anukak-s 1 to 10 of the Chamakam, the devotee prays for almost everything needed for human happiness. And in the 11th Anuvak of Chamakam  the devotee prays for the desired things not specifically but in the sequence of numbers, first in terms of odd numbers from 1 to 33 and later in multiples of 4 from 4 to 48, as follows:

      “Eka cha me, thisrascha may, pancha cha may, sapta cha may, Ekadasa cha may, trayodasa cha may, panchadasa cha may, saptadasa cha may, Navadasa cha may, ek trimshatis cha may, trayovimshatis cha may, Panchavimshatis cha may, saptavimshatis cha may, navavimshatis cha may, Ekatrimshatis cha may, trayatrimshatis cha may, panchatrimshatis cha may, Chatasras cha may, ashtou cha may, dwadasa cha may, shodasa cha may, Vimsatis cha may, chaturvimshatis cha may, ashtavimshatis cha may, Dwathrimashatis cha may, shatstrimshas cha may, chatvarimshas cha may, Chatuschatvarimshas cha may, ashtachatvarimshas cha may”

This means:

“Let these be granted to me. One, three, five, seven, nine, eleven, thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty one, twenty three, twenty five, twenty seven, twenty nine, thirty one and thirty three as also four, eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty, twenty four, twenty eight, thirty two, thirty six, forty, forty four and forty eight – to ensure food and its production, its continuity, and the urge to enjoy, the origin of all productions, the sun, the heaven, the head of all, the infinite, the all-pervading like the sky, time and the like present at the end of total consummation exists at the end of it on the earth as universal form, the Antaryami the immortal, the inner ruler of everything, the Omni present and Omni potent”.

The sequence of odd and even numbers carry many interpretations.

Some have tried to present these numbers in graphic form. The entire square is divided in to 16 small squares and 64 triangles. If the entire square is folded in the Middle, both sides are symmetric; that is the place where the number 33 crossed the Middle of the square.  Each small square is symmetric with crossed lines forming triangles.                                       

Even Numbers are 4,8,12,16,20,24,28,32,36,40,44,and 48. Each number explains the number of cumulative triangles in each square.


[For more please check ]


The recitation of eleven sections of Rudra-Prashna followed by eleven section of Chamakam is called Nyasam. This is the normal or the general mode of recitation of these passages.

There are other peculiar and complicated patterns of the recitation of Rudra-Prashna and the Chamakam.

:- Rudra-Ekadashi – the Rudra-Prashna is recited 11 times. At the end of each recitation one Anuvak of Chamakam is recited. (That is Rudram 11 times and Chamakam once)

:-  Laghurudram – The Rudra -Ekadashi is repeated 11 times (that is the Rudra-prashna is recited 11×11 = 121 times  ); and , Chamakam is recited 11 times

: – Maharudram – The Laghurudram is recited 11 times – that is, 11X11X11  =  1331 times ; and Chamakam is recited 11×11 = 121 times

: Then there is the Atirudram – 11 Maharudram-s are recited (that is, Rudram is recited 11X11X11X11 =  14641 times); and, Chamakam is recited 11X11X11 =  1331 times.]

I. The Rudras Eleven

12.1. The Rudras are said to be truly infinite (shatam anantam bhavati, asankhyakam). They are present everywhere, manifest in millions of forms in as many abodes; and influence every aspect of creation (sahasrani sahasrasho ye rudra adhi bhumyam…); and they are there even in the food we eat and drink we consume (ye anneshu vividhyanti prateshu pibato janan...). They are immanent within us. They are the protectors of the beings and the created world; the decay and destruction sets in when they refuse to support. Pray therefore to the Rudras for protection and benevolence; and to alleviate our troubles. (Shata rudriyam- Rudra prashna).

12.2. Sri Krishna in Bhagavad-Gita declares, among the eleven Rudras I am Lord Shiva.

The Rudras are however talked in terms of sets of eleven- Ekadasa Rudra, inasmuch as the term Rudra has virtually come to represent ‘the number eleven’. However, each tradition, each text has its own set of eleven Rudras, according to its priorities. Their names and attributes differ from one text to another. There is thus, virtually, a plethora of Rudras. But, each of them represents a certain aspect of Shiva or Rudra.

12.3. The following are some instances of the names of the eleven Rudras according to different authorities:

Shatarudriya hymns celebrates Rudra in his eleven forms as : Aghora (benevolent); Kapardi (with matted hair); Girisha (Lord of mountains) ; Bhima( terrible) ; Nilagriva (blue throated); Trayambaka (three eyed); Sabhapathi (master of the assembly); Ganapathi (leader of the hosts);  Senani(commander of forces);  Samkara(doer of good ); and Shambhu (appearing for the welfare of all).

Rudra Prasna (3.5): Bhava; Sharva; Pashupathi; Nilagriva; Shithikanta; Kapardina; Vyupta-kesha; Shasraksha; Shatadhanva; Girisha ; and Shipivista.

Rupa-mandana (a text of Shilpa sastra) : Isana; Tatpurusha; Aghora; Vamadeva; Sadyojatha; Mruthyunjaya; Kiranaksha;Srikanta;Abhirbhudhya;Bahurupa; and Tryamkaka.

Visvakarma Shilpa (a text of Shilpa sastra): Aja; Ekapat; Abhirbudhya; Virupaksha; Revata; Hara; Bahurupa; Tryambaka; Suresvara; Jayanta; and Aparajita.

Amsumad bheda agama ( a text of Shilpa sastra): Mahadeva; Siva; Rudra ;Sankara; Nilalohita; Isana; Vijaya; Bhima; Deva -Deva; Bhava ; and Kapali.

Padma Purana: Rta-dhvaja; Manu; Manyu; Ugra-retas; Mahan; Siva; Bhava; Kala; Mahinasa; Vamadeva; and Dhrta-vrata.

Mahabharata (Adi Parva): Mrigavyadha; Sarpa; Niriti; Ajaikapat ; Abhivardhana ; Pinaki ; Dahana ; Iswara ;Kapali ;Sthanu ;and Bharga.

Valmiki Ramayana (4.43): Aja; Ekapada; Abhirbhudya; Hara; Shambu: Tryambaka; Aparajita; Isana; Tribhuvana; Twasta; and Rudra.

Srimad Bhagavata (3.12.12):Manyu ; Manu; Mahinasa; Mahan; Siva; Rta-dhvaja; Ugra-reta; Bhava; Kala; Vamadeva; and Dhrta-vrata.

Agni Purana (Ch 18) :Aparajita; Hara; Bahurupa; Tryambaka; Vrsakapi; Shambu; Kapardina; Raivata; Mriga vyadha; Sarpa; and Kapali.


According to Jothish Sastras (Astrology ) : Kapali; Pingala; Bhima; Virupaksha;Vilohita; Shasta; Ajapada; Abhirbudhnya; Shambu; Chanda ;and Bhava.

These rule the eleven-division chart called Rudramsha, which indicates the struggles and strife’s of the horoscope. There are prayers to appease the specific Rudras.

12.4. Corresponding to eleven Rudras, there are eleven consorts for them. They are said to emanate from the feminine half of the Shiva’s body. For instance, Dhi; Vritti; Usana; Uma; Niyuta; Sarpi; Ila; Ambika; Iravathi; Sudha; and Diksha are the eleven Rudranis mentioned in Vishnu purana (1.7).

J. Iconography of the Rudras

13. 1. The Iconographic details of the Rudras as provided in the various texts are not uniform. And each text follows its own set of eleven Rudras. The treatment of the subject across the text is rather irregular. For instance, some texts (like Rupa mandana) provide details of the features of the Rudras, their ornaments and the weapons they carry. The Visvakarma Shilpa provides details of only the weapons. In most other texts the information provided is incomplete or is meagre.

13.2. But, as a rule, all Rudras are said to possess forms similar to Shiva. They weave their matted hair in the form of a crown, to which a crescent moon is stuck.

Vishnudharmottara, a text dated around 5-6th century, too states that the images of the Rudras should be made as in the form of Mahesvara (Part Three; Ch 72; verses 1-8).It gives elaborate description of how Mahadeva or Mahesvara should be depicted.

13.3. Rudra is described sometimes as tawny (bablusha) ruddy complexion. The term also means a bull (as in Bhabru-vahana). Rudra is therefore often depicted as riding a bull and carrying a trident or shooting arrows.

13.4. Vishnudharmottara states that Mahadeva should be have a moon like complexion and seated on a bull. Sadyojata (earth), Vamadeva (water), Aghora (fire) and Tatpurusha (wind) should be shown as his four faces; and Isana (sky) should be his fifth face. His four faces should all be looking placid and the fifth one facing south should be fierce wearing a garland of skulls. All four faces with the exception of the north face (Vamadeva two eyed) should be three –eyed. On the crest of the matted locks of the north face should be the crescent moon, and on top of it should be the fifth face .A serpent should serve as his sacred thread. He should be provided ten arms. His right hands carrying rosary, a trident, an arrow, a staff and a lotus. In his left hands a citron, a bow, a mirror, a water-pot and skin roll. 

13.5. The Shilpa text Karanagama prescribes that Rudra should be represented as white complexioned (kailasabha), five- faced, three-eyed, and four-armed carrying rosary and water pot and gesturing boons and protection. He is clad in tiger skin and is decorated with snake ornaments. He wears matted hair with crescent moon in it.


13.6. Another text Amsumad-bheda-agama states that all Rudras are to be represented as standing in a well balanced posture (samapada-sthanaka) on a lotus pedestal, bedecked with ornaments and flowers; four armed and three eyed; with matted hair done as a crown. They are to be shown as fair complexioned; draped in white garments. They carry in their upper hands battle axes (parashu) in one and black antelope (krshna mriga) in the other. The lower right hand gestures protection (abhaya) and the left bestowing the boon (varada).

13.7. Another Shilpa text –Sanathkumara Samhita (shiva-175-178) provides slightly different iconographic details of Rudra: as having a pearl, moon or jasmine like soothing–bright complexion; four arms; three eyes glowing like embers; and having a coiled mop of hair (jata-makuta) decorated with crescent moon. He is clad in tiger skin and garlands of Arka flowers and snakes. His front two hands bestow blessing (varada) and assurance or protection (abhaya).His upper two hands hold battle axe (parashu) and deer.

The text prescribes that Rudra could be depicted in seated (aasana) or standing (sthanaka) posture. When Rudra is seated he should be made to face East or West. A standing Rudra could however face any direction. The text also cautions that Rudra should never be depicted in lying down (shayana) posture.

13.8. Rupa-mandana, Karanagama and other Shipa texts provide totally different iconographic details of the Rudras. For instance:

Isana (sun): Five faced; ten armed. Crystal white complexion; matted hair done like a crown with a crescent moon in it; ten arms carrying rosary, trident, skull-cup, goad and gesturing assurance (on the right);gesture of protection;. Skull-cup, book, rope and damaru drum.-(karanagama).

Tatpurusha: Yellow garments; two arms; three eyed; the right holding rosary and the left carrying a fruit (maatulinga)-(Rupamandana)

Aghora: Complexion resembling blue-lotus; reddish eyebrows; three eyes of yellow tinge; fierce face with sharp tusks; all ornaments including sacred-thread made of snakes; garland of scorpions; band of skulls (kapala mala) round the matted hair yellow in colour done like a crown; eight arms –the hands on the right holding trident, battle axe, sword and cudgel; while the left hands hold khatvanga, skull cup, shield and noose.—(Rupamandana)


Vamadeva : the body, eyes, garments, ornaments and sacred thread – all done in red; three eyes; broad face; long nose; two arms carrying sword and shield.—(Rupamandana)

Sadyojatha:   the body, garments, garlands etc are all done in white like jasmine flower, moon or conch. He is joyous and of handsome appearance. He is three eyed and two armed; the hands gesturing protection and boons; and carrying a book and a rosary. His crest is adorned by crescent moon.


Bahurupi Sadashiva: Five faced each with three eyes; endowed with eighteen arms holding various weapons-axe, bow, arrow, khatvanga etc; skull-cup, book, rosary, water-pot, lotus, and gesturing assurance and benediction. His five faces glow with crystal like luster; Vamadeva face has yellow tinge; Aghora face in blue with sharp fierce tusks; Tatpurusha face is red like lotus with divine grace; Isana face is dark and handsome; and Sadyojatha is clear and bright like a crystal.- (Rupamandana and Kalika purana).

Mrutyunjaya : fair complexion; tiger-skin garment; garland of skulls; six arms; two hands held on the lap in yoga posture; other hands carrying trident and rosary (right) and skull-cup and water-pot (kamandalau) in the left.

Kiranaksha: fair complexion; dressed in white; four arms –two gesturing protection and boon and the other holding rosary and a book.

Srikanta: garments of variegated colour; well decorated with ornaments; handsome face; four arms carrying bow, arrows; sword and shield.

Virupaksha: has expanded eyes, a bright face, hairs erect, two hands and a yellow beard. His limbs are reddish –dark in colour; he wears dark garments; holds a majestic staff (death) and is richly ornamented .He rides a camel representing delusion.

Bhima: is shown having a garland of skulls and carrying a khatvanga (skull –staff). He is jackal faced with terrible fangs and looking angry. He has deep red complexion.

Aja , Ekapada, Revata, Hara, Trayambaka, Suresvara, Jayanta and Aparajita are described with sixteen arms. They hold, in various combinations, the instruments such as: shula, ankusha, kapala, damaru, sarpa, mrudanga, akshamala, chakra, bana, dhanus, ketaka, gadha, khatvanga, pattisa, ghanta, shakthi, parashu, kamandalu, tomarara and pattika etc.

[The descriptions given in other texts vary from the above considerably.]

13.9. The other texts like Kalika purana, Padma purana, Vishvakarma samhita, Aparajita puccha, Shilpa rathna, Shiva agama etc too carry their own descriptions of the Rudras. They vary from each other in regard to details such as the number of faces, arms, postures, colour and countenance of the faces. It is virtually not possible to list out and illustrate each of those interpretations. But, all depictions are based in Shiva and his attributes; and are made in the form of Shiva.

13.10. In the popular depictions of the Rudras  all Rudras are made to look like the central figure of Shiva. But, one cannot make out which are those Rudras, their names or special attributes, because all are made to look alike. That surely is easier but lacks authenticity.

K.  At the end:

14.1 There is no standard set of Rudras. Each school, text or authority identifies its own set of eleven Rudras according to their priorities. The details of iconography of Rudras vary greatly across the texts and traditions. There is a considerable flexibility in the choice of the attributes, the physical forms, the postures and the ornaments/weapons.

14.2. It appears, you too may have to select your team of the Rudras Eleven from across the spectrum of Rudras in each category, according to your preferences. Or you may select a particular text and follow its tradition of depiction.

For that purpose , you might take the aid of books like Siva Kosa (two volumes) and Indian Iconography (three volumes) authored by Prof SK Ramachandra Rao ; or similar other books , to explore the subject. In case it is possible, you may even consult Shilpa texts such as; Rupasampada, Karanagama, Shilpa ratna, Vishvakarma Samhita or Aparajita puccha etc. These texts do provide interesting iconographic details and, at times, illustrations too. I reckon many of the major libraries in the continent have books on ancient Indian sculpture.

14.3. Else, you may treat this blog as a hint or a place to commence your pursuit; and to improvise your creations based on the few details given here and in the resources I referred to.

14.4. I am not sure I have been of much help to you. If you have read up to here, I admire your patience.

Thank you for asking. Writing this article has been a sort of education to me. Kindly let me know if I can be of any assistance. God Bless you.

Warm Regards.

[ Notes @ :

It is said that there are as many as seventy-five references to Rudra in the Rig-Veda Samhita. Most of those occur in the First and the Second and Books; and some in the Seventh Book. The following are some instances

RV 1.43 Rishi: kaṇva ghaura; Devatā: Rudra, 3 Rudra, Mitrāvaruṇā ,  7-9, Soma; Chandas: Gāyatrī, 9 Anuṣṭup

: – What could we sing to Rudra, strong, most bounteous, excellently wise, that shall be dearest to his heart? –  kád rudrā ya prácetase mīḷhúṣṭamāya távyase vocéma śáṃtamaṃ hṛdé– ( RV 1.043.01)

:- May that  Aditi may grant the grace of Rudra to our folk, our kin, our cattle and our progeny – yáthā no áditiḥ kárat páśve , nŕ̥bhyo yáthā gáve yáthā tokā ya rudríyam –  (RV 1.043.02 )

:- May that Mitra ,  that Varuna,and  that Rudra  remember us-  yáthā no mitró váruṇo yáthā rudráś cíketati yáthā víśve sajóṣasaḥ– (RV 1.043.03)

:- To Rudra Lord of sacrifice, of hymns and balmy medicines, we pray for joy ,  health and strength-  gāthápatim medhápatiṃ rudráṃ jálāṣabheṣajam tác chaṃyóḥ sumnám īmahe – (RV 1.043.04)

:- He (Rudra)  shines in splendour like the Sun, refulgent as bright gold . he is   the best among the gods – yáḥ śukrá iva sū riyo híraṇyam iva rócate śréṣṭho devānãṃ vásuḥ – ( RV1.043.05)

:- May He  (Rudra) grant health to our steeds;  well-being to our rams and ewes; as also  to our  men, women, and to young ones – śáṃ naḥ karati árvate sugám meṣā ya meṣíye nŕ̥bhyo nā ribhiyo gáve – (RV 1.043.06)

[kad rudrāya pracetase mīḷhuṣṭamāya tavyase | vocema śantamaṃ hṛde ||
 yathā no aditiḥ karat paśve nṛbhyo yathā gave | yathā tokāya rudriyam ||
 yathā no mitro varuṇo yathā rudraś ciketati | yathā viśve sajoṣasaḥ ||
gāthapatim medhapatiṃ rudraṃ jalāṣabheṣajam | tac chaṃyoḥ sumnam īmahe ||
 yaḥ śukra iva sūryo hiraṇyam iva rocate | śreṣṭho devānāṃ vasuḥ ||
śaṃ naḥ karaty arvate sugam meṣāya meṣye |nṛbhyo nāribhyo gave ||
 asme soma śriyam adhi ni dhehi śatasya nṛṇām | mahi śravas tuvinṛmṇam ||
 mā naḥ somaparibādho mārātayo juhuranta |  ā na indo vāje bhaja ||
 yās te prajā amṛtasya parasmin dhāmann ṛtasya | mūrdhā nābhā soma vena ābhūṣantīḥ soma vedaḥ ||]

RV 1.114 Rishi: kutsa āṅgirasa; Devatā: Rudra; Chandas: Jagatī, 10-11 Triṣṭup

: – To him, the mighty Rudra, the Lord of heroes , adorned with with the braided hair , we submit our songs of praise- imā́ rudrā́ ya taváse kapardíne kṣayádvīrāya prá bharāmahe matī́ ḥ yáthā śám ásad dvipáde cátuṣpade víśvam puṣṭáṃ grā́me asmínn anāturám – ( RV 1.114.01)

: – Be gracious unto us, O Rudra, bring us joy: May we enjoy that O Rudra, under you leadership – mṛḻā́ no rudra utá no máyas kr̥dhi;  kṣayádvīrāya námasā vidhema te yác cháṃ ca yóś ca mánur āyejé pitā́ ; tád aśyāma táva rudra práṇītiṣu –(RV 1.114.02)

: – O Bounteous One, O Rudra, Ruler of valiant men.,  come to our families, bless them bliss: aśyā́ma te sumatíṃ devayajyáyā kṣayádvīrasya táva rudra mīVhuvaḥ  (RV 1.114.03 )

:- Rudra, of Flaming Power, May he throw far away from us, the wrath of gods.   what we seek of him is sublime thoughts-  vayáṃ rudaráṃ yajñasā́ dhaṃ vaṅkúṃ kavím ávase ní hvayāmahe – (RV 1.114.04)

:- Father of Maruts, the sweetest of all; O Immortal, Amṛta, grant us the mortal enjoyment ; be soft to us; to our offspring and our future generations,  – idám pitré marútām ucyate vácaḥ svādóḥ svā́ dīyo rudarā́ ya várdhanam –  (RV 1.114.06)

: –  O Rudra, harm not , either great or small of us, harm not the growing boy, harm not the full−grown man. Slay not a sire among us, slay no mother here, and to our own dear bodies, Rudra, do not harm – mā́ no mahā́ ntam utá mā́ no arbhakám mā́ na úkṣantam utá mā́ na ukṣitám – ( 1.114.07)

: – Harm us not, Rudra, harm not our progeny; harm us not in the living, nor in cows or steeds, Slay not our heroes in the fury of thy wrath. Bringing oblations evermore we call to thee – mā́ nas toké tánaye mā́ na āyaú mā́ no góṣu mā́ no áśveṣu rīriṣaḥ– (RV 1.114.08)

: – We, seeking help, have spoken and adored him.  May Rudra, hear our prayers – ávocāma námo asmā avasyávaḥ śr̥ṇótu no hávaṃ rudró marútvān – (RV 1.114.11)

[ imā rudrāya tavase kapardine kṣayadvīrāya pra bharāmahe matīḥ |
yathā śam asad dvipade catuṣpade viśvam puṣṭaṃ grāme asminn anāturam ||
 mṛḷā no rudrota no mayas kṛdhi kṣayadvīrāya namasā vidhema te |
 yac chaṃ ca yoś ca manur āyeje pitā tad aśyāma tava rudra praṇītiṣu ||
 aśyāma te sumatiṃ devayajyayā kṣayadvīrasya tava rudra mīḍhvaḥ |
 sumnāyann id viśo asmākam ā carāriṣṭavīrā juhavāma te haviḥ ||
 tveṣaṃ vayaṃ rudraṃ yajñasādhaṃ vaṅkuṃ kavim avase ni hvayāmahe |
āre asmad daivyaṃ heḷo asyatu sumatim id vayam asyā vṛṇīmahe ||
 divo varāham aruṣaṃ kapardinaṃ tveṣaṃ rūpaṃ namasā ni hvayāmahe |
 haste bibhrad bheṣajā vāryāṇi śarma varma cchardir asmabhyaṃ yaṃsat ||
 idam pitre marutām ucyate vacaḥ svādoḥ svādīyo rudrāya vardhanam |
 rāsvā ca no amṛta martabhojanaṃ tmane tokāya tanayāya mṛḷa 
mā no mahāntam uta mā no arbhakam mā na ukṣantam uta mā na ukṣitam |
mā no vadhīḥ pitaram mota mātaram mā naḥ priyās tanvo rudra rīriṣaḥ ||
 mā nas toke tanaye mā na āyau mā no goṣu mā no aśveṣu rīriṣaḥ 
 vīrān mā no rudra bhāmito vadhīr haviṣmantaḥ sadam it tvā havāmahe ||
 upa te stomān paśupā ivākaraṃ rāsvā pitar marutāṃ sumnam asme |
bhadrā hi te sumatir mṛḷayattamāthā vayam ava it te vṛṇīmahe 
āre te goghnam uta pūruṣaghnaṃ kṣayadvīra sumnam asme te astu |
mṛḷā ca no adhi ca brūhi devādhā ca naḥ śarma yaccha dvibarhāḥ ||
 avocāma namo asmā avasyavaḥ śṛṇotu no havaṃ rudro marutvān |
tan no mitro varuṇo māmahantām aditiḥ sindhuḥ pṛthivī uta dyauḥ ||]

RV 2. 33. Rishi: Gṛishmada (Aṅgirasa Saunahotra paścād) , Bhārgava śaunaka; Devatā: Rudra; Chandas: Triṣṭup; Anuvāka IV

: – Father of Maruts , let thy bliss approach us – ā ́ te pitar marutāṃ sumnám etu , prá jāyemahi rudara prajā́ bhiḥ – (RV 2.033.01)

: – O Rudra, with your most benignant means of healing, may I enjoy hundred winters – tvādattebhiḥ śaṃtamebhiḥ bheṣajebhiḥ,], śatam himā āśīya –  (RV 2.033.02)

: – You are, O Rudra, the best in glory, the best of all who are born here in the body, you are the strongest – śréṣṭho jātásya rudara śriyā́ si tavástamas tavásāṃ vajrabāho párṣi ṇaḥ pārám áṃhasaḥ suastí víśvā abhī́ tī rápaso yuyodhi – (2.033.03)

:- Let us not anger thee, O Rudra, with our improper praise; the strongest among gods let’s not displease you with mingled invocations. You are indeed the best of the physicians . Heal our heroes – mā́ tvā rudra cukrudhāmā námobhirhih,  mā́ dúṣṭutī , vṛṣabha,  mā́ sáhūtī ún no vīrā́m̐ arpaya bheṣajébhir bhiṣáktamaṃ tvā bhiṣájāṃ śṛṇomi – (RV 2.033.04)

:-   May I with my invocations  win that Rudra’s favour who is adorned with gifts and invocations. hávīmabhir hávate yó havírbhir áva stómebhī rudaráṃ diṣīya – 2.033.05

:- As he who finds a shade in hot sun  may I, uninjured,  win the protection and  bliss of Rudra- ā vivāseyam rudrasya sumnam, ; ghṛṇīva chāyām arapā aśīya (RV 2.033.06)

:- Where is that compassionate  hand of yours, O Rudra, which heals, delights; showers benifits and dispels sins ; have mercy upon me – yo asti bheṣajo jalāṣaḥ? kúva syá te rudara mr̥̄ḷayā́ kur hásto yó ásti bheṣajó jálāṣaḥ – (RV 2.033.07)

: – To him the strong, great, the cherisher (of all), tawny, fair−complexioned, I utter forth a mighty hymn of praises. The Flaming One we sing your glorious name and pray earnestly- prá babhráve vr̥ṣabhā́ ya śvitīcé mahó mahī́ṃ suṣṭutím īrayāmi namasyā́ kalmalīkínaṃ námobhir gṛṇīmási tveṣáṃ rudrásya nā́ma (RV 2.033.08)

:- the , the Supreme Ruler , the strong-limbed  lord of this world , the One with infinite forms, of  fierce  golden red  complexion who has decorated himself with bright gold ornaments – sthirébhir áṅgaiḥ pururū́ pa ugró babhrúḥ śukrébhiḥ pipiśe híraṇyaiḥ ī ́ śānād asyá bhúvanasya bhū́ rer ná vā́ u yoṣad rudarā́ d asuryàm- (RV 2.033.09)

: – Nothing is stronger than you, , O Rudra- ná vā́ ójīyo rudara tvád asti  (RV2.033.10)

:- O Rudra, praised, be gracious to the singer. Let thy hosts spare us and smite down another. mr̥̄ḷā́ jaritré rudara stávāno anyáṃ te asmán ní vapantu sénāḥ (RV 2.033.11)

:- To you Rudra  I have surrendered myself, just as a boy  approaches  his respected father . The Lord of all existence, I beseech you ! Please bestow upon us the cure to our ills– kumāráś cit pitáraṃ vándamānam práti nānāma rudaropayántam bhū́ rer dātā́ raṃ sátpatiṃ gr̥ṇīṣe stutás tuvám bheṣajā́ rāsi asmé  – (RV2.033.12)

 :- I crave from Rudra his  pure and luminous curing powers , for our gain and welfare – yā́ vo bheṣajā́ marutaḥ śúcīni yā́ śáṃtamā vŕ̥ṣaṇo yā́ mayobhú yā́ ni mánur ávr̥ṇītā pitā́ nas tā́ śáṃ ca yóś ca rudarásya vaśmi – (RV2.033.13)

: – May the flaming darts of Rudra be diverted away from us- pari ṇo hetī rudrasya vṛjyāḥ! pári ṇo hetī́ rudarásya vr̥jyāḥ – (RV 2.033.14)

: – Rudra, listen to our invocation. Loud may we speak, with heroes, in assembly-  havanaśrún no rudarehá bodhi br̥hád vadema vidáthe suvī́ rāḥ  (RV 2.033.15)

[ā te pitar marutāṃ sumnam etu mā naḥ sūryasya saṃdṛśo yuyothāḥ 
abhi no vīro arvati kṣameta pra jāyemahi rudra prajābhiḥ ||
tvādattebhī rudra śantamebhiḥ śataṃ himā aśīya bheṣajebhiḥ |
vy asmad dveṣo vitaraṃ vy aṃho vy amīvāś cātayasvā viṣūcīḥ ||
śreṣṭho jātasya rudra śriyāsi tavastamas tavasāṃ vajrabāho 
parṣi ṇaḥ pāram aṃhasaḥ svasti viśvā abhītī rapaso yuyodhi 
mā tvā rudra cukrudhāmā namobhir mā duṣṭutī vṛṣabha mā sahūtī |
un no vīrāṃ arpaya bheṣajebhir bhiṣaktamaṃ tvā bhiṣajāṃ śṛṇomi 
havīmabhir havate yo havirbhir ava stomebhī rudraṃ diṣīya 
ṛdūdaraḥ suhavo mā no asyai babhruḥ suśipro rīradhan manāyai ||
un mā mamanda vṛṣabho marutvān tvakṣīyasā vayasā nādhamānam |
ghṛṇīva cchāyām arapā aśīyā vivāseyaṃ rudrasya sumnam 
kva sya te rudra mṛḷayākur hasto yo asti bheṣajo jalāṣaḥ |
apabhartā rapaso daivyasyābhī nu mā vṛṣabha cakṣamīthāḥ 
pra babhrave vṛṣabhāya śvitīce maho mahīṃ suṣṭutim īrayāmi |
namasyā kalmalīkinaṃ namobhir gṛṇīmasi tveṣaṃ rudrasya nāma 
sthirebhir aṅgaiḥ pururūpa ugro babhruḥ śukrebhiḥ pipiśe hiraṇyaiḥ 
īśānād asya bhuvanasya bhūrer na vā u yoṣad rudrād asuryam ||
arhan bibharṣi sāyakāni dhanvārhan niṣkaṃ yajataṃ viśvarūpam |
arhann idaṃ dayase viśvam abhvaṃ na vā ojīyo rudra tvad asti ||
 stuhi śrutaṃ gartasadaṃ yuvānam mṛgaṃ na bhīmam upahatnum ugram mṛḷā jaritre rudra stavāno ‘nyaṃ te asman ni vapantu senāḥ 
kumāraś cit pitaraṃ vandamānam prati nānāma rudropayantam |
bhūrer dātāraṃ satpatiṃ gṛṇīṣe stutas tvam bheṣajā rāsy asme ||
yā vo bheṣajā marutaḥ śucīni yā śantamā vṛṣaṇo yā mayobhu |
 yāni manur avṛṇītā pitā nas tā śaṃ ca yoś ca rudrasya vaśmi 
pari ṇo hetī rudrasya vṛjyāḥ pari tveṣasya durmatir mahī gāt 
ava sthirā maghavadbhyas tanuṣva mīḍhvas tokāya tanayāya mṛḷa 
 evā babhro vṛṣabha cekitāna yathā deva na hṛṇīṣe na haṃsi 
 havanaśrun no rudreha bodhi bṛhad vadema vidathe suvīrāḥ]

RV.7.46 Riṣi: vasiṣṭha maitrāvaruṇi; Devatā: viṣṇu; Chandas: triṣṭup

:-We sing to the glory of Rudra the sovereign Lord wielding a firm and strong bow discharging swiftly-flying shafts – mā rudrāya  sthiradhanvane  ghiraḥ  kṣipreṣav e devāya svadhāvne (RV 7.46.1)

:-The Wise, the Conqueror whom none may overcome, armed with sharp-pointed weapons: may he hear our call – aṣāḷhāya sahamānāya vedhase tighmāyudhāya bharatā śṛṇotu naḥ ( RV.7.46.2)

:-O Rudra, Come willingly to our doors that gladly welcome thee, and heal all sickness, Rudra., in our family  – avannavantīrupa no duraścarānamīvo rudra jāsu no bhava – (RV .7.46.4)

:-Thou, very gracious God, hast thousand medicines: inflict no evil on our sons or progeny – sahasraṃ te svapivāta bheṣajā mā nastokeṣutanayeṣu rīriṣah  (RV 7.46.6)

:-Slay us not, nor abandon us, O Rudra, let not thy noose, when thou art angry, seize us mā no vadhī rudra mā parā dā mā te bhūma prasitau hīḷitasya – (RV.7.46.7)

:-Give us trimmed grass and fame among the living. Preserve us evermore, ye Gods, with blessing – ā no bhaja barhiṣi jīvaśaṃse yūyaṃ pāta  (RV.7.4.8)

imā rudrāya sthiradhanvane giraḥ kṣipreṣave devāya svadhāvne |
aṣāḷhāya sahamānāya vedhase tigmāyudhāya bharatā śṛṇotu naḥ 
sa hi kṣayeṇa kṣamyasya janmanaḥ sāmrājyena divyasya cetati 
avann avantīr upa no duraś carānamīvo rudra jāsu no bhava ||
Ryā te didyud avasṛṣṭā divas pari kṣmayā carati pari sā vṛṇaktu naḥ 
sahasraṃ te svapivāta bheṣajā mā nas tokeṣu tanayeṣu rīriṣaḥ 
mā no vadhī rudra mā parā dā mā te bhūma prasitau hīḷitasya |
ā no bhaja barhiṣi jīvaśaṃse yūyam pāta svastibhiḥ sadā naḥ ||]

[Source: Hymns to Rudra- Vedic Studies- Vladimir Iatsenko and Nishtha ]


References and sources

I gratefully acknowledge the painting by Acharya Shri S Rajam

And the line drawings by Dr. G Gnanananda from his wonderful book Rupa Lakshana sangraha

And other pictures from the internet

Shiva Kosa by Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao


Posted by on September 29, 2012 in Iconography, Indian Philosophy, Rudra


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,