The Problems and Joys of Sanskrit Prosody

Please note: this was originally published as a note on my Facebook page.

If you read my last note, you would know that I have embarked on an epic journey, and that it involves sanskrit verse (I originally thought vedic verse, but decided that was too strict in structure). One thing important to understand about sanskrit prosody is that it is syllabic in nature and not at all accentual, because sanskrit does not have stresses in the language. What it does have is system of weights.

Instead of long and short syllables, the language has heavy and light syllables. There are several rules to determine whether a syllable is heavy or light but it can be reduced to one basic generality: if the syllable has only one vowel AND it’s a short one  AND it is followed by only one consonant then it’s light. Everything else is heavy.

“But” is light; “butt” is heavy; “boot” is heavy.

This can bring quite a few challenges, because the prosody does not translate well. Writing Sanskrit verse in the English language can be enough to send someone to the halfway house.

1. Some words that we designate as short in accentual-syllabic meter are considered heavy in Sanskrit, and vice-versa. Examples of such heavy words are: and, so, he. Examples of light words are: flag, strut, grin.

2. Neutral words don’t exist in sanskrit, for example, “they” is always heavy.

To keep my sanity intact, because the Sanskrit does not translate super well in English, I have come up with a few rules for myself.

1. Certain vowel sounds are a little harder to determine. “Can” is shorter than “cane” but longer than “cat.” I have considered syllables like “can” to be light.

2.  I have considered the two articles “the” and “a(n)” to be neutral, in that they either count as light or they don’t count. Only scanning the line tells the reader which one applies.

3. The word “to” is heavy by rule but I have made it light.

4. Words with a silent e at the end, such as “there,” or words whose singular construct would normally be light, such as “pans,” I have counted as light.

5. The letter x is made up of a k and an s sound, and so I have counted it as two consonants, making the syllable heavy. I have to admit part of the reason is to allow for proper scansion for a particular word used in the poem.

(As an aside, the words in sanskrit are actually clusters of parts of speech. I only have a shallow understanding of how it works, but basically phrases in English (grammatical groupings of many words) combine to make one long word in sanskrit, From what I can determine, short connection words don’t exist in sanskrit (at, to, or etc.), though it’s possible they are embedded in the words.)

Sanskrit is made up of quatrains called verses. Each quatrain is made up of two couplets, each couplet is made up of two padas, which means “foot,” but is really what we think of as lines. On each pada there are four feet of four syllables each, making 16 on a line. But it doesn’t stop there. Excess is allowed, but only 16 syllables are counted. I have allowed excess on only the fourth pada of each verse, and many have no excess. Also, each verse is end-stopped, which means every thought behind the verse has to stay within its own parameters. This makes it easy for revision, because I can come in between any two verses and and compose. The first pada and the second can be different or identical in scansion, but the general rule seems to be in each verse pada 1 and 3 are identical and pada 2 and 4 are identical.

Finally, as I mentioned each pada is made up of four feet. The most common form and the one I have adopted follows the pattern oooo | LHHo | oooo | LHLo | where o can be light or heavy. In the second foot, the last syllable is usually light; in the fourth foot, the last syllable is usually heavy. The first and third feet have some rules, but I have not abided by any of them because ultimately they have almost complete freedom of scansion as long as there are four syllables; I have only stuck with the strict second and forth feet rules.

Yes, this has been quite the challenge, but it has been so much fun to figure out. Indeed, in my first attempt I completely did the meter all wrong, and I had to redo the entire thing. I am only done with one small section of the first part, but in some ways, it seems like the hardest part is over. There is fun in learning a new meter, and trying to translate it to your own language. As of yet, I have found no other Sanskrit verse written in English, which has been a little frustrating because I have nothing to compare my work to or learn from, but in a way navigating through the uncharted waters that is part of the fun.

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