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Nirukta in Hinduism - Etymology

In Hinduism, nirukta is one of the Vedangas (limbs of Vedas). It is the science of exposition of words, etymology. Only one complete work on Nirukta, composed by Yaska, generally taken to be earlier than Panini, is available today.

Nirukta of Yaska, which is related to Rig Veda, is in the form of a commentary on Nighantu, five collections and discussions of 1,839 words, composed of 1,410 Vedic synonyms, 278 homonyms, and 152 names of deities. It can be considered an independent work dealing with linguistics, Vedic hermeneutics, etymology, mythology, theology and philosophy, apart from explaining a few hundred Rig Vedic verses. To the twelve original chapters of Nirukta, which is divided into 400 sections, two more chapters were added long after Yaska. Yaska includes nearly 1,200 Vedic words, about half of them from Nighantu.

The main purpose of Yaska was to establish the principle of interpretation of Vedas through etymology. Nirkuti, the art of deriving words from verbal roots to defend a particular sense in a given context, is as old as Rig Veda (Rig Veda III.29.11).

 The principles adopted by Yaska were the following:

  • When the form of the relevant word conforms to its sense, the etymologist should follow grammar.
  • Otherwise, one should stick to the sense and find a root having some similarity with the word.
  • When even this is lacking, one should still stick to the sense and propose a root that may have a single sound in common with the word. But one must not give up etymologizing.
  • Naturally, more than half the etymologies proposed by Yaska are not acceptable to modern grammarians, but this does not reduce the importance of Yaska as a Vedic interpreter.