Sounds and Meanings (Vag Artha)

In the Siva Purana, Veda Vyasa uses the words, vagarthaviva samprukthou. As words and meaning are joined.

Kalidasa used this phrase and made a famous verse, dedicating his best play, Abhijnana Sakunthalam to Siva and Parvathi.


This means: I bow to Parvathi and Parameswara who are joined together as word and its meaning.

Sounds, Words and Meaning:

When you were a little boy or girl, your mother and others, would point to some object and make a sound. You learned to associate that sound with that object. Then you learned to make some sounds yourself and started labelling objects too. And your mom and others learnt that if you made that sound, then you meant that object.

Here are some words telugu children learn when they are small.

amma – mother            mama – uncle             maamma – grandmother             attha – aunt           thatha – grandfather             papa – baby         babu –  boy           akka- elder sister       anna – elder brother       nanna – father.    Two things become evident. The sounds are easy. When you repeat the same sounds twice, they have a different meaning.

A Hindi child, however,  will learn that nana means grand father (not father). It will learn that the sound to make for elder sister is didi.

Sounds, pronounced exactly the same way, mean different things in different languages and become different words!

When you were a little bigger, you toddled off to your neighbour’s homes and a little later you went to school. If you are an Indian child, the chances that your neighbours speak the same language that you do, are very  high in villages but very small in cities. So at some point, you come into contact with people who spoke another language.

I learnt Telugu at home, Kannada in my neighbourhood, and English, Hindi, and Sanskrit at school. Hindi shares the same script as Sanskrit, but the letters are pronounced slightly differently in Hindi. Telugu and Kannada are sister languages whose scripts are different, with strong similiarities and significant dissimilarities today. But at one time, they both looked like this.

Accha Telugu - Hale Kannada! I took this picture in Chitradurga

Accha Telugu - Hale Kannada! I took this picture in Chitradurga

This may be the language that Hanuman spoke to the other Vanaras! Though Kannada and Telugu are sister languages, knowing one does not mean that you can understand the other.

Words come to have different meanings in different languages and different places:

Appa – father in Kannada, is another word for elder sister in Telugu. Tondara in Telugu means haste and Tondare in Kannada means trouble. Maa Thaadu in Telugu means our rope, Maathaadu in Kannada means speak. Often the sound Pa in Telugu is replaced by the sound Ha in Kannada – but not always. Paalu in Telugu = Haalu in Kannada = Milk in English. But Papa in Telugu is not Haapa in Kannada!

Do you know any words that mean different things in English and American?

*To interpret any language, soley based on some other language or languages means big trouble, even if it is a sister language* This is a very important conclusion. And I want us to remember this.*

The first time that you go to a place where they do not speak any language you know you can feel quite hopeless. You may use gestures. Or you may keep trying different sound out till someone gets your meaning. When I was lost in Tokyo, I repeated my hotel name and I looked as lost as possible, till a very kind lady, gathered that I was lost and personally escorted me to the hotel. When I looked happy. She gave me a big hug!

What happens if you are trying to interpret an ancient language that very few people speak today? That is the case with Vedic Sanskrit. There is a Western view of Vedic Sanskrit and there is an Indian view of it.

The Europeans tried to interpret Vedic Sanskrit from an Indo-European perspective. They took words that sounded the same in European languages and tried to apply those meanings to the Vedic Texts. They took the European contexts, with their different geographies and cultures and they applied it to the Vedic Texts. When they discovered that the Indian view was different from theirs, they were pretty sure that their Indian subordinates were wrong, or lying or were megalomaniacs, who thought much too much of themselves. At that time, the Europeans were the Phirangis – the ones with the guns – and they ruled India. So many Indian scholars  went along with the Europeans, either out of fear or out of admiration. (Even today if you go to the talk pages or history pages of an article in wikipedia related to Hinduism, you will find that people, who rely on European interpretations have a dominant stance and those who hold the Indian view have a defensive stance.)

Most of the alternate interpretations remained in Indian books and in Brahman Minds (where Indian interpretations have a dominant stance). Indian heroes like Jawaharlal Nehru felt deeply the need for Indians to understand the ancient texts and ancient traditions and publish in English. Swami Dayananda Saraswathi published translations into Hindi. Aurobindo wrote many articles and did sample translations, where he showed that the nomadic, materialistic translations based on philogy (language studies) were wrong and that the spiritual translations were correct.

In my school, we were taught the sanskrit of the Bhagavad Gita, the Valmiki Ramayana and the Puranas. I can read them all relatively easily. But there are some differences from the older Vedic Sanskrit. Having grown up internally translating between 5 languages all the time, I can assure you of one thing. To interpret any language, **soley** based on some other language or languages means Big Trouble, Even If it is a sister language. I cannot stress this enough!

I am attempting to translate the Vedas word by word (how many janmas will I need?) here: Prathama Suktham Take a look!