Category Archives: Devotion

Sarasvati Namastubhyam

A tutee and I have begun a special project. We’re going through some of the ślokas she was urged to memorize as a kid in (Hindu) Sunday School and deciphering their Sanskrit meanings. The first one we’re re-learning is no doubt one of the most popular of such ślokas: it’s a simple verse praising Sarasvatī and recited at the beginning of one’s studies. It goes like this.

सरस्वति नमस्तुभ्यं वरदे कामरूपिणि ।
विद्यारम्भं करिष्यामि सिद्धिर्भवतु मे सदा ।।

sarasvati namastubhyaṃ varade kāmarūpiṇi
vidyārambhaṃ  kariṣyāmi siddhirbhavatu me sadā


Praise to you, Sarasvatī, who grants wishes and takes shape at will.
As I begin my studies, may my goals always be [accomplished].


सरस्वति (f., sarasvati) — Sarasvatī [vocative]

नमस्तुभ्यं (namastubhyaṃ) — honor (नमस्, namas) to you (तुभ्यम्, tubhyam)

वरदे (f., varade) — granter of wishes [vocative of वरदा, varadā]

कामरूपिणि (f., kāmarūpiṇi) — who takes shape (रूपिणी, rūpiṇī) at will (काम, kāma)

विद्यारम्भं (m., vidyārambhaṃ) — the beginning [accusative of अारम्भ:, ārambhaḥ] of studies [विद्या, vidyā, knowledge]

करिष्यामि (kariṣyāmi) — I will do [1st person singular future of कृ, kṛ — to make/do]

सिद्धिर्भवतु (siddhirbhavatu) = सिद्धिः (siddhiḥ)+ भवतु (bhavatu) [analysis below]

सिद्धिः (m., siddhiḥ) — goal, aim, accomplishment

भवतु (bhavatu) — may it be [3rd person singular imperative of भू, bhū — to be]

मे (me) — my [genitive singular personal pronoun]

सदा (sadā) — always [indeclinable]


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A Little Monday Gītā

Last week, in search of tattoo material for the aforementioned friend, I browsed through the Gītā and found this gem. It might already be a quite popular verse — I’m not sure — but in case it isn’t, I thought I would share it here. If you know me, you know that I tend to give the Gītā the side eye, primarily because it’s so seldom read in the context of the Mahābhārata (which, in my view, it should be). But this verse really is great:

यो मां पश्यति सर्वत्र सर्वं च मयि पश्यति ।
तस्याहं न प्रणश्यामि स च मे न प्रणश्यति ।।

yo māṃ paśyati sarvatra sarvaṃ mayi paśyati
tasyāhaṃ na praṇaśyāmi sa ca me na praṇaśyati

The one who sees me everywhere
And sees everything in me —
For that one, I am not lost
Nor is that one lost for me.

यो (originally यः / yo, originally yaḥ) = the one who [nominative singular masculine relative pronoun]

मां (originally माम् / māṃ, originally mām) = me [accusative personal pronoun]

पश्यति (from पश् / paśyati, from paś, to see) = he/she/it sees

सर्वत्र (sarvatra) = everywhere

सर्वं (originally सर्वम् / sarvaṃ, originally sarvam) = everything [neuter accusative]

च (ca) = and

मयि (mayi) = in me [locative singular personal pronoun]

तस्याहं (tasyāhaṃ, originally तस्य +अहम्, tasya + aham) = of that one (tasya), I (aham)

न (na) = not

प्रणश्यामि (praṇaśyāmi, from प्र + नश्, pra + naś) = I am lost

स (sa, originally सः, saḥ) = That one [masculine singular nominative correlative pronoun]

मे (me) = for me [accusative, dative, or genitive singular personal pronoun]

प्रणश्यति (praṇaśyati, from प्र + नश्, pra + naś) = he/she/it is lost

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The Sacred Syllable

So I know I said the other day that I wasn’t even going to touch ॐ, but… too bad. In preparation for tomorrow’s yogasūtrāṇi study group (Yoga Sole peeps FTW!), I was reading the awesome Bryant Yoga Sūtras book and came upon a very interesting sūtra about ॐ that I thought would be fun to dissect on this forum. Patañjali is talking about Iśvara (god, whom he calls a “special” or “distinctive” soul — puruṣaviśeṣa) when he says that तस्य वाचकः प्रणवः (tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ). Its (तस्य, tasya), designation (वाचकः, vācakaḥ) is प्रणवः (praṇavaḥ, which means ॐ). I, having never been schooled in much of the religious business, had never seen the word praṇavaḥ refer to ॐ. But there it was, and I was curious.

Luckily, Bryant does a bomb-diggity job of explaining what praṇavaḥ actually means. The commentary that he cites is Śaṅkara’s — Śaṅkara being wonderful at all things divinity, of course — and it turns out that Śaṅkara gives an interesting “popular” (i.e., according to Bryant, not necessarily true but widely understood) etymology for the word. [This is all on page 108 of Bryant’s Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali and Commentary, which I highly advise you to read for yourself.]

Before diving into Śaṅkara, let’s just look at the simple formulation of the word. It’s a verbal noun stemming from the very old verb नु (nu, 1P, 2P, or 6P), meaning “to shout” or “to praise.” With the addition of the prefix प्र (pra), the meaning is further refined to include “mutter the syllable ॐ.” [This is all from MacDonnell, by the way.] To the cynic, this is nothing but bad reasoning: Why does praṇavaḥ mean “the syllable ॐ”? Because it comes from pra + nu, which means “to mutter the syllable ॐ.” Why does pra + nu mean “to mutter the syllable ॐ”? Because people had already been calling ॐ the praṇavaḥ (literally, “the shout”) for a long time and they needed to add this special meaning to the verb so that the noun would have an elegant etymology. Speaking personally, I don’t think it really matters if praṇavaḥ only eventually came to be the proper name for ॐ. There are a lot of words in Sanskrit that mean “to shout” or “to make noise,” so if people gradually started using pra + nu to refer to making the sound ॐ (and none of the other possible meanings of pra + nu, including “to shout” or “to praise”), then that’s fine by me.

The interesting thing here is what Śaṅkara does with the prefix प्र (pra). According to Bryant, Śaṅkara says that pra actually stands for प्रकर्षेण (prakarṣeṇa — the instrumental form of प्रकर्ष, prakarṣa), meaning “with perfection” or “with thoroughness” or “with intensity.” Then he merges this new pra with the regular old meaning of the verb nu (to shout, to praise), making the noun praṇavaḥ mean something like “to shout/praise with perfection.” For Śaṅkara, that’s ॐ.

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Attack of the Gāyatrī Mantra: Part 2

After yesterday’s cliff hanger of a translation, it’s time to look at the Gāyatrī Mantra in greater detail. Let’s go word-by-word, starting with the second line (which, as I explained in my last post, is actually more like the first line). Then we’ll try going phrase-by-phrase before piecing the whole thing together.

तत् (n., tat) = that
→ Singular neuter pronoun in the nominative or accusative case

सवितुर्  (m., savitur) = of/from the divine solar power
→ This word is the singular ablative or genitive form of  सवितृ, savitṛ. I recently learned that savitṛ is an entity separate from the sun itself — though obviously related to it, since savitṛ seems to give sūrya (the sun) its energy.

वरेण्यम् (adj., vareṇyam) = to be desired, i.e., the best
→ This word seems to be a gerundive form of the verb वृ (vṛ), “to choose” — hence meaning something like “the choicest.” Most likely singular neuter nominative or accusative, though it could also be singular masculine accusative. (See how fun Sanskrit is??!)

भर्गो (bhargo / original form — भर्गः, m., bhargaḥ) = brilliance, radiance
→  Comes from the verb भृज् / भ्रज् /भ्रज्ज् (bhṛj/bhraj/bhrajj) and all of its other random forms, which pretty much all mean “to burn.” In any case, masculine singular nominative.

देवस्य (m., devasya) = of god, of the gods, of the divine
→ Genitive form of देव (deva), a word with which most of us are familiar. :)

धीमहि (verb, dhīmahi) = let us give / we ought to give
→ I found a good deal of controversy about this word in my rudimentary research on the Gāyatrī Mantra, and it SEEMS to be an older form of the verb धा (dhā, to put/place/give) in the first person plural optative. But I’m still fairly in the dark about it, so feel free to enlighten me at any point!

धियो (dhiyo / original form — धीः, f., dhīḥ) = thought
→ Before sandhi [the process of binding words together in Sanskrit and changing their beginnings/endings appropriately, depending on what comes before/after the word in question], this word is धियः (dhiyaḥ), which definitely comes from धीः (dhīḥ) but could be any number of things. I’m taking it as the plural accusative, but it could also be the plural nominative, singular ablative, or singular genitive.

यो (yo / original form — यः, m., yaḥ) = That which / he who
→ Relative masculine pronoun in the singular nominative.

नः (naḥ) = our
→ First person plural pronoun. Here I’m taking it in the genitive case (as “our”), but it could also be accusative or dative.

प्रचोदयात् (verb, pracodayāt) = let it inspire / it ought to inspire
→ This verb seems to be the third person singular causative optative form of the prefix प्र (pra) added to the verb चुद् (cud). Taken alone, cud means things like “to impel” or “to animate” or “to hasten.” With the prefix pra, the verb means something more like “to set in motion.” You can see that this verb is causative because of the य (ya) that follows the चोद (coda). [It could also be a tenth class verb, and thus merit the य (ya), but I am fairly sure it’s not, so it must be causative here.] The अात् (āt) ending tells us that the verb is third person singular optative.

Beginning to put it all together, we note that there is a relative clause (यो, or yo, and everything that agrees with it) and a correlative clause (तत्, or tat, and everything that agrees with it). Now I’m just going to warn you that my use of relatives and correlatives in my translation is REALLY sloppy — so please don’t hold me to grammatical perfection here, since we are talking about very old Sanskrit after all — but I will try my best to be as precise as I can.

In an example of said sloppiness, I’m going to go ahead and put the correlative clause before the relative clause and begin with the तत् (tat) phrase. तत् (tat / that) seems to agree with वरेण्यम् (vareṇyam / excellence) since they are both singular neuter accusative [again, they could be nominative, but I’m taking them as accusative here]. सवितुर् (savitur), then, modifies vareṇyam — giving us something like “that excellence of the solar energy.” Remember, savitur could be genitive or ablative, but I’m taking it as genitive. So that’s the first line — but it’s only part of an independent clause (we still need a subject and a verb and possibly some other stuff!) so let’s keep going.

Next I’m going to take धीमहि (dhīmahi, may we give) as the subject and verb of that clause. You could then say that the word धियो (dhiyo, originally dhiyaḥ, or “thoughts”), as a plural accusative, is acting as a sort of direct object. Whose thoughts? नः (naḥ) — our — thoughts. “May we give our thoughts.” To what? “To that excellence of the solar energy.” [But that sounds ugly and somewhat misleading, so I’m going with “to that perfection of the mystery behind the sun.” Blech, translations are always so difficult.] Grammar freaks will note that the object of a “giving” verb should probably be dative, and they are right. But what about if we take धीमहि (dhīmahi) as something more like “let us direct”? Then the thing that we are directing something towards could really be in the accusative — just like the object of a “going to” verb is always in the accusative. Far-fetched, maybe, but it could work.

तत् सवितुर् वरेण्यम् (tat savitur vareṇyam) — that excellence of the solar energy — is then identified with the subject of the relative clause. This clause is marked by यो (यः) / yo (yaḥ), the masculine singular nominative pronoun, and everything that agrees with it. Here, the only thing that agrees with it in case, number, and gender is the word भर्गो (भर्गः) / bhargo (bhargaḥ), or “brilliance.” The word देवस्य (devasya, “of the divine”) modifies it, making the whole phrase something like “that brilliance of the divine.” Finally, “that brilliance of the divine” serves as the subject of the last verb, प्रचोदयात् (pracodayāt) — may it inspire.

Remembering that the two clauses must be linked together, we have something like the translation that I posted yesterday: May we give our thoughts to that perfection of the mystery behind the sun, that such brilliance of the divine might inspire.

Lingering question of the day: Is it just me, or does the first line of the Gāyatrī Mantra have only SEVEN syllables, and thus not live up to the eight-syllable gāyatrī meter after which the prayer is named? Either I am an idiot and not counting syllables correctly, or this is some strange Vedic Sanskrit blip. Help!

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Attack of the Gāyatrī Mantra: Part 1

Earlier this evening, when I was racking my brain trying to find a focus for Day 2 of the saṃskṛtasādhana here on Sanskrit NYC, I got a text message from one of my best friends. This dear friend of mine has been asking me for years to help her find a great Sanskrit poem — or phrase, or something — that she can tattoo somewhere (in?)appropriate on her body. Now: There is a 99% chance that today’s poem will NOT be what my friend picks for her  tattoo. But the search has still been a great adventure for me, and I am grateful for her prompt.

The request? “I need a Sanskrit prayer that reminds me the world is beautiful and truth is worth seeking.” In a sea of Sanskrit writings on these topics — many of which are, I am sure, coming to the minds of my readers — I realized that, embarrassingly enough, I didn’t know any off the top of my head. So, after (literally and figuratively) digging through the old and yellow files of Sanskrit classes in years gone by, I found a few that might begin to fit the bill.

The first that came to mind is the much-beloved Gāyatrī Mantra:

ॐ भूर्भुवः स्वः
भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि
धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात्

Om bhūrbhuvaḥ svaḥ
bhargo devasya dhīmahi
dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt

It would be difficult to overstate the extent to which I cannot do justice to the first line of this badass prayer. “Om” is bad enough, explanation-wise. I’m not even going to try. Then it’s followed by the names of the three most important realms of the universe — earth (bhūr), air (bhuvaḥ), and heaven (svaḥ) — in a mystical-magical Vedic formula. These three words are so crucial to Vedic prayer that they are called the mahāvyāhṛti (“the great utterance”). In any case, it’s good to remember that while these words are awesome (and hold great meaning, I’m sure), they are somewhat tangential to the body of the prayer. I’m including them here because the Gāyatrī Mantra is always recited with those words at the outset.

My attempt at a translation of the rest: May we give (dhīmahi) our thoughts (dhiyo naḥ) to that perfection (tat-vareṇyam) of the mystery behind the sun (savitur), that that brilliance (bhargo) of the divine (devasya) might inspire (pracodayāt).

Tomorrow we’ll dive into the individual words — and I’ll offer a bunch of alternative translations, since there seem to be lots of possibilities for this one. Hang on for the ride. :)

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चाप (m., cāpa) — Bow

Also: Anything in the shape of a bow, i.e., an arc.

Add: इन्द्र (m., indra) — Indra (a god, particularly of rain and thunderstorms)

New word: इन्द्रचाप (n., indracāpa) — Indra’s bow, i.e., a rainbow.

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