When I read ‘The Secret of Veda’ by Sri Aurobindo around 5-6 year ago, I had not read Nirukta of Yaska then and accepted his assessment of etymology of Yaska. However, after studying Nirukta, when I revisited the same text again, it became apparent that Sri Aurobindo was being unfair to Yaska in his assessment or he didn’t study Nirukta thoroughly.
Aurobindo writes in ‘The Secret of Veda’:
“Yaska the etymologist does not rank with Yaska the lexicographer. Scientific grammar was first developed by Indian learning, but the beginnings of sound philology we owe to modern research. Nothing can be more fanciful and lawless than the methods of mere ingenuity used by the old etymologists down even to the nineteenth century, whether in Europe or India. And when Yaska follows these methods, we are obliged to part company with him entirely. Nor in his interpretation of particular texts is he more convincing than the later erudition of Sayana.”
While it can be accepted that Sayana’s interpretation is much more erudite, one has to consider the scope of the work of Yaska. The objective of Yaska was not to write bhasya (commentary) on Veda-s but to find the etymology and meaning of words which appear in Samhita-s while interpreting only those mantra-s which helped him in illustrating the meaning of words under the consideration. But agreement with the views of Aurobindo on the etymological methods of Yaska is difficult considering his methods were not only far advanced compared to his time but comparable to modern philology which Aurobindo considers a scientific discipline. Though a detailed discussion on these aspects have been done by Dr. Lakshman Sarup and Dr. Siddheshwar Varma, I’ll give some of the examples to showcase how Aurobindo’s assessment was not accurate.
Yaska broadly follows three principles in finding the etymology of a word: 1. If the verbal root can easily be identified in the word and the word can be derived from the verbal root following the rules of grammar, the etymology should be done on the basis of verbal root. 2. If the verbal root can’t be identified clearly, or the verbal root identified has a different meaning contrary to the meaning of the word, different forms of verbs need to be compared with different forms of verbal roots. 3. When no such similarity can be found, the etymology can be done by finding common syllables between the identified verbal root and the word.
Out of the three methods explained above, the first method is still the backbone of modern linguistics and well accepted. The second method is prone to errors while the third is non-standard. In reality, the third method is not employed by Yaska too often but he followed that because he was so committed to etymology that he believed that the meaning of every word can be found by following the methods of etymology. But if Yaska committed errors by following the latter two rules in some cases, does the modern linguistics get these aspects right?
The answer is unfortunately, no. Comparative philology which Aurobindo rated very highly borrows rules such as Change of Syllable, Elision of Syllable, Metathesis etc. from Phonology. Take the example of elision of syllable in which one or more sound may be omitted by native speakers. If I take the example of English, speaking ‘cannot’ as ‘can’t’ is one such example. But this method when employed in comparative philology for finding the etymological meaning is imperfect as elision of syllables is not consistent across even within the languages of same language family.
The genius of Yaska can be understood from the fact that the primary method which he followed for etymology is still the primary method for the etymology of Sanskrit words. His etymology is more often connected to a definite meaning. For example, the way he transfers the meaning of the same word to mean vagina and space in different contexts or same word denoting cow or rays of sun signifying the transfer of meaning based on similar actions is a work of pure genius. Yaska didn’t only surpass his predecessors, but most of his successors as well.
(This article was first published on the author’s blog on December 12, 2020 and has been reproduced here with the consent.)