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Nirukta ("explanation, etymological interpretation") is one of the six Vedānga disciplines of Hinduism, treating etymology, particularly of obscure words, especially those occurring in the Vedas.[1] [2] [3] The discipline is traditionally attributed to Yāska, an ancient Sanskrit grammarian. Yāska's association with the discipline is so great that he is also referred to as Niruktakāra or Niruktakrit ("Maker of Nirukta"), as well as Niruktavat ("Author of Nirukta"). In practical use, nirukta consists of brief rules (sūtras) for deriving word meanings, supplemented with glossaries of difficult or rare Vedic words.

Nirukta is also the name given to a celebrated commentary by Yāska on the Nighantu, an even older glossary which was already traditional in his time. Yāska's Nirukta contains a treatise on etymology, and deals with various attempts to interpret the many difficult Vedic words in the Nighantu. It is in the form of explanations of words, and is the basis for later lexicons and dictionaries. The Nighantu is now traditionally combined with the Nirukta as a unified text.

A critical edition of the Nighantu and the Nirukta was published by Laskhman Sarup in the 1920s.

Etymology

Nirukta (Sanskrit) from nir forth, out + the verbal root vac to speak, utter. Uttered, pronounced, expressed, defined; as a noun, the etymological interpretation of a word, also the name of such works.

Use of nirukta in rhetoric

The related Sanskrit noun niruktiḥ means "derivation", or in rhetoric, an "artificial explanation of a word."

Flourishes of rhetorical skills in the art of nirukta were considered a mark of commentorial authority. As a result, many Sanskrit commentaries include elaborate variations on possible word derivations, sometimes going far afield of obvious meanings in order to show hidden meanings. The nature of Sanskrit grammar, with its many contractions, gave rise to ample opportunities to provide alternate parsings for words, thus creating alternative derivations.

Many examples of the rhetorical use of nirukta occur in Bhaskararaya's commentaries. Here is an example from the opening verse of his commentary on the Ganesha Sahasranama.[4]

The opening verse includes Gaṇanātha as a name for Ganesha. The simple meaning of this name, which would have seemed obvious to his readers, would be "Protector of the Ganas", parsing the name in a straightforward way as gaṇa (group) + nātha (protector). But Bhaskararaya demonstrates his skill in nirukta by parsing it in an unexpected way as the Bahuvrīhi compound gaṇana + atha meaning "the one the enumeration (gaṇanaṁ) of whose qualities brings about auspiciousness. The word atha is associated with auspiciousness (maṅgalam)." [5] This rhetorical flourish at the opening of the sahasranama demonstrates Bhaskaraya's skills in nirukta at the very beginning of his commentary on a thousand such names, including a clever twist appropriate to the context of a sahasranama.

Notes

  1. V. S. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 556. Apte gives a nirukta sūtra for the word nirukta itself using a traditional definition as नाम च धातुजमाह निरुत्कं which could be translated as "Name and root origins are nirukta".
  2. Monier-Williams. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. p. 553.
  3. Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. p. 142.
  4. Gaṇeśasahasranāmastotram: mūla evaṁ srībhāskararāyakṛta ‘khadyota’ vārtika sahita. (Prācya Prakāśana: Vārāṇasī, 1991). Includes the full source text and the commentary by Bhāskararāya in Sanskrit.
  5. गणनं गुणसंख्यानामथशब्दात्तु मङ्गलम् । कृते तयोर्बहुव्रीहौ गणनाथ इति स्मृतः ॥ ५ ॥

References

  • Lakshman Sarup, The Nighantu and The Nirukta (London, H. Milford 1920-29), Repr. Motilal Banarsidass 2002, ISBN 81-208-1381-2.
  • Rudolph Roth, Introduction to the Nirukta and the Literature related to it, (tr. D. Mackichan), University of Bombay, 1919.

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