Sanskrit Appellations

(Attention North Indians: Do not swallow the schwa when you read the Devanagari in this post. If you do, many examples will not make sense. For example, अर्जुन is Arjuna, not Arjun)

Sanskrit has this system where you can be addressed by a name formed by your father’s name, mother’s name, the name of one of your prominent ancestors, or even the place where you are from. This name can be used along with your given name, or in place of it.  There are some characters from some of the Itihaasas we know only using their appellations, and we don’t know their given names at all.

For example, अर्जुन, the son of पाण्डु, is a पाण्डव, though the term is more commonly used as a collective term for the five brothers. He is also referred to as पार्थ and कोैन्तेय after his mother’s names पृथा and कुन्ती, and those two terms seem to be reserved for him, though there were three others who could be called  पार्थ and कोैन्तेय.  Krishna addressed him as भारत when he made the promise to reincarnate himself, acknowledging his descent from the emperor भरत. Of course, he could also have been called कौरव as he was a descendent of kuru, but that term was reserved for his cousins. There was another अर्जुन before this one. He was the one who made  Parashurama lose his shit and  go off on a Kshatriya killing spree. He was the son of कृतवीर्य and is known to us as कार्तवीर्यार्जुन. Likewise, कृष्ण, the son of वसुदेव, was known both as वासुदेव कृष्ण and just वासुदेव. He was also referred to as यादव, indicating his descent from यदु, though this term was used for the entire clan as well. 

Among women, we know सीता, the daughter of जनक as जानकी. We also know her as मैथिली because she came from मिथिला. Being addressed by the place of their origin seems to have been common for women, and there are many women we know of in no other way. For example, Dashratha’s wives कौशल्या and कैकेयी were from कोशल and केकय respectively. गांधारी and माद्री were from गांधार and मद्र respectively. We do not know of their given names. द्रौपदी was the daughter of द्रुपद who was from पांचाल and therefore also called पांचाली. I am not sure of her real name either (was it कृष्णा?).  Knowing women by their places of origin seems to have been more common than for men, presumably because women moved to their husbands’ place after marriage, and people at their new homes referred to their daughters in law by where they came from. Presumably that is why we know अंबिका and अंबालिका by their real names; काशेयी would have referred to both of them. Interestingly, I cannot think of any woman who was known by her mother’s name.

In referring to people by their father’s, mother’s, ancestor’s or place name, Sanskrit seems to be using a grammatical transformation that is common in other contexts as well. For example सुन्दर (beautiful) is transformed to साैन्दर्य (beauty). सैन्धव लवण is the mineral (लवण) that came from सिन्धु (sea), a term that survives in Hindi as सैन्धा नमक्. The term लावण्या is obviously related to लवण, telling us that the association of beauty with saltiness has carried into Hindi from Sanskrit. गौरव is that which is due to the गुरु (I will refrain from a fascinating digression into gru, gravity etc.)

This grammatical transformation must have held even when Sanskrit transformed into the Prakrits. Chandragupta मौर्य was so known because he sat on the peacock throne, but मौर्य looks like it must have come from मोर, not मयूर.

So, if you have read so far and are now curious about how to call your children after yourself or your spouse (or yourself after your ancestors) , here are the rules. I’ll add a disclaimer – I have worked out these rules myself, so if there are any errors, corrections or clarifications, please feel free to let me know.

To transform your name into your kids’ appellation, you need to take the first and the last vowel. (and remember that in Sanskrit, the name always ends with a vowel. My name, for example, is रविकिरण – Ravikirana, not रविकिरण्) The first vowel gets transformed into its longest form, while the longest form stays as it is.

  • अ -> आ (यदु -> यादव, पाण्डु -> पाण्डव)
  • इ, ई, ए ->ऐ (दिती -> दैत्य, केकय -> कैकेयी)
  • ऋ ->आर् (कृतवीर्य -> कार्तवीर्य)
  • उ ऊ, ओ, -> औ (कुरु -> कौरव)

The rules for the last vowel are not 100% consistent, but these are the rules:

  • अ stays as it is (वसुदेव -> वासुदेव)
  • आ -> एय (कृतिका -> कार्तिकेय) (Sometimes, it stays as is. पृथा ->पार्थ. In Sanskrit, a word ending with आ would be feminine, so you’d use this to name them after their mother)
  • इ, ई -> य or एय (दिती -> दैत्य, कुन्ती -> कौन्तेय)
  • उ, ऊ , ओ, -> अव (कुरु -> कौरव)
  • The above get adjusted for gender. So a daughter of कुन्ती -> कौन्तेयी

These rules cover almost all the cases. There may be some adjustments for euphony or some cases that I have not thought about, but using the above rules, you should be able to address your son or daughter easily, so go ahead and do that right now.

My sons are राविकिरण if I use my full name, or राव्य if I use my short one. As they are sons of my wife सौम्या as well, they are सौमेय too. One thing I am not sure of is what I will call my grandchildren from my first son. His name is संवाद, and I am not sure what the rules for अं are. I guess I have time to figure it out.

(P.S. According to the above rules, an Indian is either भारत or भारती. The term commonly used for us: भारतीय makes sense if we consider ourselves poetically as the children of mother भारती, but I guess even then, according to the rules, it should be भारतेय and भारतेयी, so I am not quite sure how to reconcile them.)

2 thoughts on “Sanskrit Appellations

  1. Great post! My only small little grouse is that most of the names you have quoted as examples are from (metered) literature and hence the writers might have exercised poetic license especially to overcome metric constraints…

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