Yaska’s Nirukta and his reflections on language

Considering the depth and breadth of knowledge expressed through Yaska’s work, it is safe to say that Yaska is not only an etymologist par-excellence, he is also a semanticist and philosopher-grammarian.

“The person, who is able to recite the Vedas, but does not understand its meaning is like a post (sthaanu), or a mere load-bearer (bhaarahaara); but he who understands the meaning will attain all good here and hereafter, being purged from sins by knowledge.” ~ Yaska


The history of the science of linguistics in India can be traced back to the age of the Vedas, some 3,500 (or more) years ago. The necessity of ensuring that no corruption or modification should creep into the Vedic texts (and language itself) led Indian scholars to discuss, debate, and put forward theories of language, and discourse. Some of the prominent among those early scholars were Panini, Yaska, Katyayana, Patanjali, Bhartrihari, Shaktayana, Gargya, Audambarayna, etc.

Yaska is known for his pioneering work in the science of etymology, the Nirukta. The exact date of Yaska’s existence in not known, but Saroop puts him at least a century earlier than Plato. Kapoor, on the other hand, puts him much earlier. “Indians have not been a biographical people and details of an individual’s life have not really mattered. What matters is the relative chronology of ideas” (Kapoor, 2010). Kapoor (2010) also mention a ‘meta-rule in Indian thought — “Not to mention Buddha is not to know Buddha and not to know Buddha is to have been born before Buddha.” It is important to note that neither Yaska, nor Panini mention Buddha, but Panini does quote Yaska. Based on this, Kapoor (2010) places him in the 9th century BCE, though he could have been much earlier.

Yaska is the first writer on etymology and he is the first scholar to treat it as an independent science. Nirukta, written by Yaska, is a commentary on Nighantu. Yaska himself compiled a list of classified ambiguous or opaque Vedic words, based on meaning, for his Nighantu. As such, many consider Nighantu as the earliest work in lexicography. Nirukta is also considered one of the six Vedangas. The Vedangas (literally, the ‘limbs of the Vedas’) are the ancillary disciplines, a prerequisite of sorts, for mastering/understanding of the Vedas. The six Vedangas include shiksha (phonetics), kalpa (rituals), vyakarana (grammar), nirukta (etymology), chhanda (meter), and jyotish (astronomy).

Indian Knowledge Tradition

The Vedas consist of eternal words and the mantras, out of which, it is believed an entire universe can be created. Vedic scholars believe that a universe of objective realities exists because humans can express it through language. Nothing exists without language. Every element, every object, every idea in this world exists because it can be expressed through a language (includes sounds, words). Rooted in this worldview, Vedic mantras were recited by the priests at the altar during rituals and ceremonies to produce desired results, say for example, rain. Since language was so central to the Vedic worldview, its purity, correct pronunciation, intonation, etc. was paramount in getting desired results. Despite the preeminence of the Vedas in the Indian Knowledge Tradition (IKT), there were fierce debates about the efficacy of the Vedic mantras itself. Yaska, in his Nirukta mentions Kautsa (another grammarian) who believed that Vedic mantras were meaningless. To counter Kautsa, Yaska asserts that Vedic texts cannot be studied in isolation. In order to get the meaning of the Vedic texts one has to study ‘with the system’, ‘in the system’. Besides a prerequisite of the six Vedangas, one must also understand the three basic concepts of the Vedas – (1) who the rishi (seer) is of the specific section (who is saying?), (2) to which devata the mantras are dedicated (for whom it is being said?), and (3) how is it set to meter or chhanda (how is it being said?). Considering the centrality of language in the IKT, it is no surprise that three of the six Vedangas (Shiksha, Vyakarana, and Nirukta) are directly related to the science of language.

Origin of Language

The question of the origin of language was hotly debate in the IKT. Yaska belonged to the school of Etymologists (Nairukt) whose primary belief was “all words are derived from original roots”. Though it may appear sometimes that Yaska believed in the Grammarians’ (Vaiyakaranas) viewpoint as he does accept the principle of onomatopoeia (Anukarana) as a phenomenon of language. But he seems to have taken the middle-path when he asserts that onomatopoeia is found only in the names of birds. The word dudumbhi is alternatively explained by Yaska as onomatopoeic – dudumbhir iti shabdanukaranam. Yaska often quotes Audambarayana’s extreme view in this regard where he had denied outright the role of onomatopoeia in the origin of language. Plato, on the other hand, considers onomatopoeia as the most important factor in the formation of language and finds a counterpart in India in Panini who too accepts this phenomenon. But Yaska, does not assign any significant role to onomatopoeia in the foundation of language. He remains a committed adherent of the root theory. Yaska believed that there are some words in the language that are formed by mere imitation of the sounds of nature, mostly birds. However, these words, he believed, can be derived otherwise as well.

Eternity of Words

In the IKT, both grammarians and philosophers alike, hotly debate the idea of the eternity of words. Katyayana, in a commentary on Panini, makes reference to two opposite schools of thought – Naityashabdika and Karyashabdika. It is to be noted that shabda in the IKT, refers to word, sound, and the language itself. Panini and Katyayana believed that words were eternal in nature. Audambarayana, as quoted by Yaska, held the contrary view where words were considered transitory in nature, that is, they last only so long as they are uttered – indriyanityam vachanaudambarayanah. But Yaska doubts the transitory nature of the words. He claims that it would be difficult to have a four-fold division of words (Vaikhari, Madhyama, Pashyanti, and Para) without considering them eternal. The Taittiriyas, the followers of the Taittiriya Pratishakhya, also seem to hold the same view that defines lopa as vinash or annihilation.

Parts of Speech

Pada, in Vajasneyi Pratishakhya, has been used to indicate meaningful sounds (arthaah padam). Panini describes pada as subant and tingant. Group of varnas has also been described as pada. Such definitions enable Yaska to use the term pada for his group of words listed in Nirukta. Yaska divides his group of words (padas) into four groups (chatvari padajatani namakhyate chopsargnipatashch) – (1)nama (noun), (2)akhyata (verb), (3)upasarga (preposition), and (4)nipat (particles).

  1. Nama (Noun): Nama, according to Yaska, has ‘being’ (satva) as its fundamental notion. Yaska believed that nouns are derived from verbs (dhatuj/akhyataj). This assertion, however, wasn’t without controversy. Many grammarians, including Gargya, argued that if all nouns were derived from verbs, every person who performs a particular action should have the same name. Yaska presents several counter arguments to Gargya’s criticism. For example, Yaska says, everybody who cuts wood is not called a carpenter. Similarly, a carpenter performs many other actions besides cutting wood. Therefore, objects are named for one specific important action.
  2. Akhyat (Verb): Yaska defines verbs as having bhava (becoming) its fundamental notion. It is the avastha, or the state, that is the determining factor between a noun and a verb. While verbs are sadhya, nouns are siddha. Yaska’s ‘becoming’ has both the notion of action and the notion of time. Yaska lists six modifications of verbs – (a) genesis, (b) existence, (c) alteration, (d) growth, (e) decay, and (f) destruction.
  3. Upasarga (Preposition): Yaska defined Upsargas as words that bring into prominence the subordinate meaning of nouns and verbs. Sanskrit grammarians differed in whether or not upsargas had meaning of their own. Yaska believed upasargas did have meaning of their own. In Nirukta, he lists 20 upsargas with their meaning. They are aa, a, para, abhi, prati, ati, su, nir, dur, ni, ava, ut, sam, vi, apa, anu, api, upa, pari, adhi.
  4. Nipat (Particles): The fourth parts of speech discussed in Nirukta is nipat (particles). Yaska says that particles occur in three senses – (1) comparative, (2) Conjunctive, and (3) expletive. Yaska gives a list of particles in each group, and explains their meanings. He even provides quotes from Vedic literature to illustrate their usages. There are several particles, but Yaska choses to list twenty-four of them. They are aha, a, it, iva, ima, u, ut, kam, kila, khalu, cha, chit, tvat, ha, nanu, nu, nunam, ma, na, sasvat, sim, ha, and hi.


Yaska’s Nirukta is the pre-eminent work on etymology. It is probably the first work on the subject and the first one to treat it as a separate scientific subject. Nirukta is listed as fourth of the six Vedangas in the Taittiriya Upanishad. Nirukta in itself is not an independent treatise. It is a commentary on Yaska’s earlier work Nighantu, which is a compilation of classified list of Vedic words.

Nighantu is organized in five chapters. Chapters 1-3 are called Naighantuka Kanda, which deals with synonyms, and contain 1,341 words. Chapter 4 is called Naigama Kanda and it contains homonyms. This chapter lists 278 words. The 5th chapter, the Daivata Kanda, deals with the names of deities. The Daivata Kanda has 151 words. Out of the three chapters of Naighantuka Kanda, the first deals with physical objects like earth, water and objects of nature like cloud, dawn, day, and night. The second chapter of the Naighantuka Kanda deals with human beings and its anatomy such as arms, limbs, fingers, as well as qualities associated with humans such as wealth, anger, etc. The third and final Naighantuka chapter deals with abstract qualities such as heaviness and lightness of objects.

Many scholars consider Nighantu as the earliest attempt at lexicography. Organization of chapters of Nighantu, at the very least, represents some sort of arrangement. However, it does not contain the exhaustive list of all Vedic words. It contains only problematic words – words that are ambiguous, opaque, or synonymous. Also, words are listed in the exact form in which they appear in the Vedic texts. A word may have a repeat entry if it has the same form but different meaning.


Nirukta is considered the oldest Indian treatise on etymology, philology, and semantics. However, Nirukta remains the pre-eminent work on etymology.  Yaska’s Nirukta is not only the first work on etymology, it is also the first work to treat etymology as a science. Yaska considers etymology as integral to the understanding and analysis of the Vedic texts and samhitas and as such a complement of grammar. Yaska goes so far as to claim that etymology is science, and it should be studied for its own sake, for the knowledge is commended, and ignorance is condemned (Chapter 1, 15-20).

Yaska considers dhatu, or root, as the primordial element of a word. Every word has a root as its origin. In tracing the root, Yaska follows three basic rules. First rule has to do with the laws of phonology. For example, it is easy to trace the origin of words such as pachak, and bodh from the root pach, and budh respectively. However, such phonological connections aren’t always easy to make. As his second rule, Yaska then goes on to suggest considering the meaning of the word and try to derive the root from some similarity of form. In the absence of any such similarity, he recommends considering even a letter or a syllable. Yaska also had the foresight to see the misuse of this rule by the amateurs. He emphasizes the importance of context. He warns that single words isolated from their context should not be thus derived. Finally, Yaska claims that that the roots should be derived in accordance with their meaning. “If their meanings are the same, their etymologies should be the same, if the meanings are different, the etymologies should be different.”

Nirukta has 12 chapters and Yaska deals with etymology proper starting with chapter 2, section 2. Chapter 1 (and part of chapter 2) of Nirukta deals with some very important theoretical aspects which gives us an insight into Yaska’s overall philosophical and linguistic approach. Those theoretical aspects can be grouped together as follows (Kapoor, 2010)

  1. Primacy of meaning, importance of the knowledge, and the meaningfulness of the Vedic mantras.
  2. Parts of speech.
  3. The verb-root principle.
  4. Language variation, its causes, forms, and effects.
  5. Principles of Nirvachana (etymology).

Additionally, types of hymns and philosophy of gods is also discussed (in Daivata Kanda).

Nighantu Chapters

Categories Covered

Nirukta Chapters & Sections

Chapter 1, Naighantuka Kanda Synonyms Chapter 2
Chapter 2, Naighantuka Kanda Synonyms Chapter 3, sections 1-12
Chapter 3, Naighantuka Kanda Synonyms Chapter 3, sections 13-22
Chapter 4, Naigama Kanda Homonyms Chapters 4, 5, and 6
Chapter 5, Daivata Kanda Names of deities Chapters 7-12.

Table: Organization of Nighantu and Nirukta chapters.

Word entries in Nirukta follow a painstakingly elaborate process. This speaks volumes for the level of sophistication and understanding of the subject matter which cannot be mastered without the presence of a longstanding framework and tradition. For a typical Nirukta entry, Yaska takes a word, derives its verb-root, provides the meaning of the verb root, and then based on the verb-root meaning provides the meaning of the derived word. Further, Yaska illustrates the words with examples. In doing so, he cites the appropriate Vedic hymns. Additionally, he also provides social, historical, geographical, and philosophical information as well as explanation. When Yaska encounters a controversial (or a potentially controversial) word, in the true IKT tradition, he first provides purvapaksha (the counter opinion) followed by powerful arguments of his own against that opinion. Here is an example of a typical Nirukta entry (Nirukta, Chapter 2, section 5) (Saroop):

The word gauh, is a synonym for ‘earth’ (so called) because it goes very far, or people go ever it (root gam). Or it may be derived from (the root) ga with the suffix au (ga+au=gau). Moreover, it is a synonym of ‘an animal’ from the same root also. Further, in the latter meaning, there are Vedic passages where primary forms (of gauh) are used in a derivative sense: ‘Mix soma with milk’, i.e., (gauh is used in the sense) of milk. Matsarah means soma; it is derived from (the root) mand meaning to satisfy. Matsarah is a synonym of greed also: it makes man mad after wealth. Payas (milk) is derived from (the root) pa (to drink), or from pyay (to swell). Kshiram (milk) is derived from (the root) kshar (to flow), or it is derived from ghas (to consume) with the suffix ira, like ushira (root of a plant). ‘Milking soma they sit on a cow-skin’, i.e., (gauh is used in the sense) of cow-skin for sitting on. Amshuh (soma is so called because) no sooner than it goes in, it is agreeable, or it is agreeable for life. Charma (skin) is derived from (the root) char (to move) or (it is so called because) it is cut off (from the body). ‘Thou art girded round with skin and phlegm, be strong’, this (is said) in praise of a chariot. Moreover, it means tendon and phlegm: ‘Girt with tendon and phlegm, it flies when discharged’; this is in praise of an arrow. Bow-string is called gauh also: if it be gavya, it is the derivative form; if not (it is causal), i.e., it sets arrow in motion.


Considering the depth and breadth of knowledge expressed through Yaska’s work, it is safe to say that Yaska is not only an etymologist par-excellence, he is also a semanticist and philosopher-grammarian. Yaska’s reflections on language and language philosophy, and his work on Nighantu and Nirukta points to an intellectual endeavor unparalleled in any knowledge tradition of the world. Yaska was acutely aware of the dialectical and regional variations in the spoken language. Yaska had the awareness of the existence and the foresight of the possible existence of other modes of expression. But he gives the articulate speech primacy over the others. Yaska, through his treatise, is able to conclusively settle some of the old controversies (verb-root controversy) of his time. His was also the first known attempt at developing a method for the interpretation of texts.


Kapoor, Kapil. Dimensions of Panini Grammar: the Indian Grammatical System. New Delhi, D.K. Printworld, 2005.

Sarup, Lakshman. Nighantu and the Nirukta, the Oldest Indian Treatise on Etymology, Philology, and Semantics. Sanskrit Text with an Appendix. 1927.

USCCollege. “Kapil Kapoor Saturday Keynote Speaker.” YouTube, YouTube, 8 Nov. 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=urj_cyh24Jk. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

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