The Gender of Sanskrita Nouns

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Sanskrit nouns have genders. Sometimes, a noun may even have two or three genders. Every noun, whether used for a sentient being or an insentient object, has a gender. That means even objects such as water, table, chair, and so on have genders. It is important to know the gender of a noun because Sanskrit does not have prepositions; it has postpositions. Sanskrit nouns are declined depending upon their usage as an agent, object, instrument, and so on. Declensions also depend upon gender. Sanskrit dictionaries thus mention the gender of a noun in addition to its meaning. Different names used for the same object may have different genders. Thus, it is not always necessary that the gender of the word matches its referent. Besides Sanskrit, Deutsch also has this peculiarity. There may be others as well, but I have no knowledge of them.

Nouns are words. It may sound strange that words possess gender, but it is understandable that a word has gender if its referent has gender. But for words to have a gender that represents some insentient object seems illogical. However, there is a reason behind it, which is rooted in the process of creation as described by Sāṁkhya darśana. According to Sāṁkhya darśana, everything in the material world consists of the three guṇas. Generally, we think of things like food or human nature to consist of the three guṇas. In Bhagavad Gītā, however, Śrī Kṛṣṇa divides happiness, knowledge, the agent, intellect, actions, charity, yajña, and tapas into three divisions, based on the three guṇas. The division of the society into four varṇas is also based upon the principle of the three guṇas (Gītā 4.13). Kṛṣṇa’s concluding statement regarding the pervasive nature of the guṇas is stated in Gītā 18. 40: 

na tad asti pṛthivyāṁ vā   divi deveṣu vā punaḥ
sattvaṁ prakṛti-jair muktaṁ yad ebhiḥ syāt tribhir guṇaiḥ

“There is no being or object on earth, in the celestial realm or among the devas, which is free from these three guṇas born of material nature.”

Such being the case, it is natural that the names of objects also consist of the three guṇas. Names are nothing but sound, which also evolves from prakṛti.

Then, the question is raised, “What do the guṇas have to do with the genders of nouns?” This has been answered by Patañjali in his magnum opus—the Mahābhāṣya on Pāṇini’s sūtras. He gives a lengthy explanation about it in the sūtra for “striyām” (Pāṇini 4.1.3). This is an adhikāra sūtra, which means that the sūtraṣ following it apply to the feminine gender. He speaks about the gender of words which represent the gender of their referent. He says that for human beings, one can ascertain the gender by seeing the physical appearance but that is not possible for insentient objects, such as a cot or speech. One can also not argue that their gender is hidden just as a human being can cover its body and thus one cannot see the gender. He writes that even if you scrape a tree with a reamer, you do not see any gender in it. The same is true of other objects. So how does one ascertain the gender of insentient objects or words?

Patañjali responds by saying that the gender is to be known from the status of the guṇas. Like any other entity, words also have guṇas, as confirmed by Bhartṛhari (Vakyapadīyam 3,14): “All words referring to various objects have the three guṇas of prakrti at all times.” Patañjali writes that if all three guṇas are in balance, then the object will be in neuter gender. If two of the guṇas are prominent, then it will be in masculine gender and if only one guṇa is prominent, then it will be in feminine gender. 

Later grammarians debated as to whether gender was rooted in the word or in the referent. For example, does the word khaṭvā, which is in feminine gender, possess gender or does the object it denotes, i.e., “a cot”, possess gender? According to Bhaṭṭoji Dīkṣita, the famous author of Siddhānta-kaumudi, gender is rooted in the word. But the author of Mañjuṣā, Nāgeśa Bhaṭṭa, says that the object itself possesses gender. Here it may be noted that in Sanskrit, the word and its referent may have different genders. For example, the word dārā is in masculine gender but its referent i.e., “a wife”, is in feminine gender. Moreover, sometimes an object can be referred to by the same word but have two different genders. For example, the lotus flower can be referred to by the word padma which is in masculine gender, or by padmam, which is in neuter gender. Certainly, the gender of the referent lotus does not change by using the word padma instead of padmam. There are also objects that are referred to by the same word in all three genders. The bank of a river can be referred to by the word taṭaḥ in the masculine gender, taṭī in the feminine gender, or taṭam in the neuter gender. Finally, it may be added that in Sanskrit, there are also some words that have no gender, such as svaḥ meaning “heaven”. The conclusion is that just as the guṇas pervade everything in the material creation, gender also pervades everything because gender is based upon the combination of the guṇas. Sanskrit nouns have three genders, but at present in human society, there are scores of genders. The reason for this is also due to the mixture of guṇas. With the advent of technology, there have been changes in lifestyle, food habits, and the mixing of different races. This has increased the number of genders. The language, however, has not yet evolved to accommodate all the genders, although attempts are being made through the novel usage of pronouns. 

The practical importance of knowing the gender of a noun is its usage in dharma. If a word is not pronounced properly, then it does not give the desired dharmic result. In this regard, Patañjali writes:

duṣṭaḥ śabdaḥ svarato varṇato vā
mithyā-prayukto na tam artham āha
sa vāgvajro yajamānaṁ hinasti
yathendra-śatruḥ svarato’parādhāt

“An improper pronunciation of a word, either by intonation or by a letter, does not convey the proper meaning. Such an improper utterance [in a yajña] will ruin the performer, as happened to [Tvaśṭā] by pronouncing the mantraindra-śatro vivardhasva” with a wrong intonation.”

This is a reference to the story of Vṛttrāsura, who was created by a yajña to kill Indra, who in turn had killed Viśvrūpa, son of Tavṣṭā (See SB, Sixth Canto, chapters 7 to 12).

In fact, the basic purpose of Sanskrit Vyākarana (loosely translated as grammar) is to separate sādhu-śabda (proper words) from asādhu-śabda (improper words). It is because of Sanskrit Vyākaraṇa that Sanskrit has remained unchanged for thousands of years.

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