Sanskrit compound

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Sanskrit inherits from its parent, the Proto-Indo-European language, the capability of forming compound nouns, also widely seen in kindred languages, especially German, Greek, and also English.

However, Sanskrit, especially in the later stages of the language, significantly expands on this both in terms of the number of elements making up a single compound and the volume of compound-usage in the literature, a development which is unique within Indo-European to Sanskrit and closely related languages.

Further, this development in the later language[a] is an entirely artificial, literary construct and does not reflect the spoken language.[2][3]


In Sanskrit, as in Proto-Indo-European, a compound is formed by the following process:

  • Take the stem-form of the first element, i.e., remove its inflexion;[b]
  • Combine the two elements with a single accented syllable.

In the later language, this process can be repeated recursively—in theory, ad infinitum, with the freshly made compound becoming the first element of a new one.[3][4][5]

The process of 'resolving' the compound, i.e., expounding the meaning using the component words declined as in sentence form is termed vigraha·vākya.[6]

Broadly, compounds can be divided into two classes: endocentric and exocentric.[7]

Endocentric compounds[edit]

An endocentric compound, usually called determinative, is where the compound is essentially the sum of its parts, the meaning being an extension of one of the parts:

  • blackbird → a type of black bird[c]
  • White House → the official residence of the US president[d][8]
  • siṃha·purás → lion-city (Singapore)

Exocentric compounds[edit]

An exocentric compound refers to something outside the components:

  • redhead → someone with red hair[e]
  • pickpocket → someone who picks someone else's pockets[f][7]
  • 'bahu·vrīhi' → lit. 'much-rice', i.e., possessing much rice: an indication of wealth

Indeed, this term 'bahuvrihi' is used both in Sanskrit and standard Indo-European linguistics to denote this type of compound.[9]

Sanskrit expands on these to provide several further distinctions as below:


Traditionally, Sanskrit compounds[g] are divided into the following main classes:[10]

  • Tatpuruṣa
    • Tatpuruṣa proper
    • Karmadhāraya
      • Dvigu
    • Nan tatpuruṣa
    • Prādi and gati
    • Upapada
  • Bahuvrīhi
    • Dvigu
  • Dvandva
  • Avyayībhava

The first two of these, tatpuruṣa and bahuvrīhi, are Indo-European inheritances, the latter two are Indic innovations. Alongside the term bahuvrīhi, tatpuruṣa has also been adopted in mainstream Indo-European linguistics as the technical term denoting this type of compounding.[3]

The following sections give an outline of the main types of compounds with examples. The examples demonstrate the composition of the compound's elements, and the meanings in English generally correspond to them, in most cases being a similar compound as well. Where this is not the case or the meaning is not clear, a further resolution is provided.

Tatpuruṣa (determinative)[edit]

A tatpuruṣa is an endocentric compound composed of two elements, wherein the first one, named the attributive, determines the second one.[11][12]

Based on the grammatical nature of the attributive member, six varieties of tatpuruṣa compounds are identified as seen in the classification above. A further distinction is also made based on whether the attributive is in the nominative or an oblique[h] case.[10][11][i]

Tatpuruṣa proper[edit]

The first member here is an attributive in an oblique relationship with the second, and are therefore termed dependent determinatives.[11][13]

Word Meaning, resolution Relationship
jaya·prepsu victory-seeking Accusative
deva·dattá- god-given: given by the gods Instrumental
viṣṇu·bali Viṣṇu-offering: offering to Viṣṇu Dative
svarga·patitá- heaven-fallen: fallen from heaven Ablative
vyāghra·buddhi tiger-thought: the thought of it being a tiger Genitive
yajur·veda- sacrifice-knowledge: the knowledge of sacrifice Genitive
gṛha·jata- house-born: born in the house Locative

Karmadhāraya-tatpuruṣa (descriptive)[edit]

In a karmadhāraya-tatpuruṣa compound, the first element qualifies the second one adjectively when the latter is a noun. When the second member is an adjective, the qualification is adverbial. Other parts of speech besides adjectives and adverbs may be used to obtain the adjective or adverbial qualification.[14][15]

Word Meaning, resolution
nīl'ôtpala blue lotus
sarva·guṇa all good quality
priya·sakha dear friend
mah'arṣí great-sage
rajata·pātrá silver cup
Dvigu-tatpuruṣa (numerative)[edit]

In essence dvigu can refer to several compound types where the first element is a numeral.[j] Dvigu-tatpuruṣa compounds are a special subcategory of karmadhārayas.[16][17]

Word Meaning, resolution
dvi·rājá- (the battle of) two kings
tri·bhuvana- three-world: the universe
tri·yugá- three ages
tri·divá the triple heaven
daś'âṅgulá- ten fingers' breadth
ṣaḍ·ahá- six day's time
sahasr'âhṇyá- thousand days' journey

dvigu compounds of bahuvrīhi type are noted below.

Nañ-tatpuruṣa (negative)[edit]

In a nañ-tatpuruṣa compound, the first element is a privative, a negator: a-, an- or na-, just like the English un-, Latin-derived in-, non- or Greek-derived a-, an-.[18][19]

Word Meaning, resolution
á·brāhmaṇa non-Brahmin
án·aśva non-horse: not a horse
á·pati not a master
á·vidyā non-knowledge
á·kumāra unyoung: old
á·śraddhā unbelief, non-creed


These are composed of a second member that occurs only in a compound and cannot stand on its own.[k] These are either roots or verbal derivatives from them.[20][21]

Word Meaning, resolution
sa·yúj joining together
su·kṛ́t well-doing, a good deed
kumbha·kāra- pot-maker
sva·rā́j self-ruling: sovereign
manu·já Manu-born, born of Manu, man
svayam·bhū́ self-existent
eka·já only-born
jala·dá water-giving: a cloud
sarva·jñá all-knowing: an omniscient person


In an aluk-tatpuruṣa compound, in contrast to the standard pattern of being in stem form, the first element takes a case form as if in a sentence:[22]

First Element → Word Meaning, resolution Case
ojas → ojasā·kṛtá- done with might [23] Instrumental
ātman → ātmane·pada- 'word for self': the reflexive voice Dative
dyaus → divas·pati 'lord of the sky': a name of Indra [24][25] Genitive
yudh → yudhi·ṣṭhira- firm in battle [26] Locative

Dvandva (co-ordinative)[edit]

These consist of two or more noun stems connected with "and" (copulative or co-ordinative). There are mainly three kinds of dvandva pair constructions in Sanskrit:[27]


The result of itaretara-dvandva [l] is an enumerative word, the meaning of which refers to all its constituent members. The resultant compound word is in the dual or plural number and takes the gender of the final member in the compound construction. Examples:[28][29]

Word Meaning, resolution
mitrā́·váruṇau Mitra and Varuṇa
dyāvā·pṛthivī heaven and earth
vrīhi·yavaú rice and barley
candr'ādityau moon and sun
devā'surā́s the gods and the demons
hasty·aśvās elephants and horses
roga·śoka·parītāpa·bandhana·vyasanāni disease, pain, grief, bondage and adversity


Words may be organised in a compound to form a metonym, and sometimes the words may comprise all the constituent parts of the whole. The resultant bears a collective sense and is always singular and neutral.[30]

Word Literal ⇒ Meaning
pāṇi·pādam hands and feet ⇒ limbs, appendages
āhāra·nidrā·bhayam food, sleep and fear ⇒ vicissitudes, features of life


According to some grammarians, there is a third kind of dvandva, called ekaśeṣa-dvandva ,[m] where only one stem remains in the compound of multiple words.[31]

Compound Resolution Meaning
pitarau mātā ca pitā ca mother and father ⇒ parents [n]
mṛgās mṛgyaś ca mṛgāś ca does and bucks ⇒ deer
putrās putrāś ca duhitaraś ca sons and daughters ⇒ children

Āmreḍita (iterative)[edit]

While not strictly copulative, this is a compound consisting of the same word repeated with the first occurrence accented.

Āmreḍita compounds are used to express repetitiveness; for example, from dív- (day) we obtain divé-dive ('day after day', daily) and from devá- (god) we obtain deváṃ-devam or devó-devas ('deity after deity').[32]

Bahuvrīhi (possessive)[edit]

Bahuvrīhi [o] is an exocentric compound consisting of a noun preceded by a grammatical modifier which, taken together, functions as a single nominalised adjective.

A bahuvrīhi compound can often be translated by "possessing..." or "-ed"; for example, "possessing much rice" or "much-riced". In English, examples of bahuvrīhi would be "lowlife" and "blockhead" (they respectively denote 'one whose life is low' and 'one whose head resembles a block'), or the English surname Longbottom ('one who lives in a long "botham" [valley]').

The second element could essentially have been a noun, which within such a compound, can take on adjective declensions with the compound used adjectivally. Endocentric compounds can thus be transformed into possessives, normally accompanied, and explicitly recognized in the older language, by a change in accentuation:[33][34]

  • indra·śatrú-, 'Indra's killer' ⇒ índra·śatru-, 'having Indra as killer'[p]
  • bṛhad·ratha-, 'a great chariot' ⇒ bṛhád·ratha-, 'having great chariots'
  • sūrya·tejás-, 'sun's brightness' ⇒ sū́rya·tejas-, 'possessing the brightness of the sun'

A few typical examples of such compounds:[36]

Word Meaning, resolution
mayū́ra·roman- peacock-plumed
ugrá·bāhu- strong-shouldered
jīvitá·vatsa- alive-childed: having living children[q]
mádhu·jihva- honeytongue, honey-tongued
pátra·hasta- vessel-handed: holding a vessel in the hand
khara-mukha- donkey-faced


When the first element of a bahuvrīhi is a numeral, the compound is called dvigu.[r] An English example would be a halfwit ('one who has half of their mind').

A few typical examples of such compounds:[38]

Word Meaning, resolution
éka·cakra- one-wheeled
éka·pad one-footed
cátur·aṅga- four-limbed
saptá·jihva- seven-tongued
aṣṭá·putra- eight-sonned: having eight sons
náva·dvāra- nine-doored
śatá·dant hundred-toothed
sahásra·nāman thousandname: having a thousand names

Avyayībhāva (adverbial)[edit]

Avyayībhāvas ('indeclinable') are adverbial compounds composed of an indeclinable element (an adverb, etc.) and a noun, together expressing an adverb or another indeclinable (avyaya) element.[39][40]

Word Meaning, resolution
adhy·ātmam concerning the self
anu·ratham behind the chariots
upa·rājam near the king
praty·agni towards the fire
prati·niśam every night
yathā·śakti per-strength: according to one's ability
sa·cakram simultaneously with the wheel
antar·jalam inter-water: within the water

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "In Vedic, noun compounds are hardly more frequent than in Homeric Greek, but their frequency increases throughout the history of the language.. in the later language the occurrence in a single short sentence of several compounds of four or five members is perfectly normal, and in certain styles compounds of twenty or more members are not thought excessive" - Coulson [1]
  2. ^ This process suggests the possibility of an early stage of Proto-Indo-European where words could appear in a sentence without case terminations.
  3. ^ a particular species, not just any bird that is black
  4. ^ the specific presidential residence, not just any house that is white
  5. ^ that is, not a head
  6. ^ that is, not a pocket
  7. ^ samāsa·vṛtti
  8. ^ accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, or locative
  9. ^ The word tatpuruṣa (a 'that-man', in the sense of 'that person's man', i.e., 'someone's agent') is itself a tatpuruṣa compound.
  10. ^ The word dvi·gu itself is an example of dvigu: lit. 'two-cow', used in the sense of 'worth two cows'.
  11. ^ called a bound form
  12. ^ enumerative dvandva
  13. ^ one-(stem)-remains
  14. ^ compare Spanish padres ⇒ 'parents'
  15. ^ 'much-riced', i.e., a rich person
  16. ^ To illustrate the importance of correct accentuation, the grammarian Patañjali (living around 150 BCE) is said to have cited the story of Vṛtra, who on account of the wrong accent used on this compound ends up instead of being Indra's killer, himself killed by Indra![35]
  17. ^ Indeed in later Sanskrit, the tendency to use compounds instead of verb-based clauses is so strong, in a classical drama, to express gratitude for having children who are alive, one would say the equivalent of 'thank heaven, I'm alive-childed': diṣṭyā, jīvita·vats'âsmi [37]
  18. ^ An example will be the word dvigu itself, which as a bahuvrīhi means '[a] two-cow [person]'; i.e., one who has two cows (dvau gāvau).


  1. ^ Coulson, p. xxii.
  2. ^ Coulson, p. xxi.
  3. ^ a b c Burrow, p. 209.
  4. ^ Whitney, §1246.
  5. ^ Kale, §180
  6. ^ Kale, §184.
  7. ^ a b Adams, p. 35.
  8. ^ Meyer, p. 179.
  9. ^ Fortson, §6.82.
  10. ^ a b Kale, §201.
  11. ^ a b c Coulson, pp. 87.
  12. ^ Kale, §200.
  13. ^ Kale, §203.
  14. ^ Whitney, §1279.
  15. ^ Tubb & Boose, §1.54.
  16. ^ Tubb & Boose, §1.56.
  17. ^ Whitney, §1312.
  18. ^ Whitney, §1288.
  19. ^ Tubb & Boose, §1.58.
  20. ^ Tubb & Boose, §1.59.
  21. ^ Whitney, §1286.
  22. ^ Kale, §208, 215
  23. ^ Kale, §206.
  24. ^ Kale, §215.
  25. ^ Whitney, §361.
  26. ^ Kale, §217.
  27. ^ Kale, §187.
  28. ^ Burrow, p. 217.
  29. ^ Whitney, §1253.
  30. ^ Kale, §188-189.
  31. ^ Tubb & Boose, §173-174.
  32. ^ Whitney, §1260.
  33. ^ Whitney, §1293.
  34. ^ Kale, §246.
  35. ^ Deshpande, p. 24.
  36. ^ Burrow, p. 215.
  37. ^ Coulson, p. 122.
  38. ^ Whitney, §1300.
  39. ^ Whitney, §1313.
  40. ^ Tubb & Boose, §1.48.


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