Articles on Prosody Home Page
A Vedic Grammar for Students
Arthur Anthony Macdonell
[Ed: I have added in the metrical markings wherever they were lacking in Macdonell's text, reformatted part of the text, and added some notes to clarify matters. All additions are placed in square brackets]
Appendix II: Vedic Metre
1. The main principle governing Vedic metre Called chāndas in the RV. itself.01 (the source of all later Indian versification) is measurement by number of syllables. Except the two metres Aryā and Vaitālīya which are measured by moræ.
This seems to have been the only metrical principle in the Indo-Iranian period, because in the Avesta the character of a verse depends solely on the number of syllables it contains, there being no quantitative restriction in any part of it.02 The metrical unit here is not the foot in the sense of Greek prosody, but the foot (pāda) or quarter A figurative sense (derived from foot = quarter of a quadruped) applicable because the typical stanza has four lines.03 in the sense of the verse or line which is a constituent of the stanza. Such verses consist of eight, eleven, twelve, or (much less commonly) five syllables. The verse is further more or less regulated by a quantitative rhythm (unaffected by the musical accent) in which short and long syllables alternate. Nearly all metres have a general iambic rhythm inasmuch as they show a preference for the even syllables (second, fourth, and so on) in a verse being long rather than short. In every metre the rhythm of the latter part of the verse (the last four or five syllables), called the cadence, is more rigidly regulated than that of the earlier part. Verses of eleven and twelve syllables are characterized not only by their cadence, but by a cæsura after the fourth or the fifth syllable. While verses of five and eight syllables have no such metrical pause.
Verses combine to form a stanza or c, the unit of the hymn, which generally consists of not less than three or more than fifteen such units. The stanzas of common occurrence in the RV. [I.e. g Veda.]04 range, by increments of four syllables, from twenty syllables (4 x 5) to forty-eight (4 x12) syllables in length. There are also several longer stanzas formed by adding more verses and consisting of 52, 56, 60, 64, 68, and 72 syllables; but all these are rare: only two stanzas of 68 and one of 72 are found in the RV.05 A stanza may consist of a combination of metrically identical or of metrically different verses; and either two or three stanzas may further be combined to form a strophe.
a. The following general rules of prosody are to be noted.
1. The end of a verse regularly coincides with the end of a word No infringement of this rule occurs in any metre of the RV. but the comparatively rare Dvipadā Virāj (4 x 5), in which three exceptions are met with.06 because each verse in a stanza is independent of the rest in structure.
2. The quantity of the first and last syllables of a verse is indifferent.
3. A vowel becomes long by position if followed by two consonants. One or both of these consonants may belong to the following word. The palatal aspirate ch and the cerebral aspirate ḷh (ḍh) count as double consonants.
4. One vowel is shortened before another; The vowels ī, ū, e when Praghya (25, 26), however, remain long before vowels. When a final long vowel is the result of Sandhi, it also remains long; tásmā adāt for tásmai adāt.07 e and o are also pronounced ĕ and ŏ before ă.
5. The semivowels y and v, both within a word and in Sandhi, have often to be pronounced as i and u; e. g. sima for syma; súar for svár; ví uṣḥ for vy uṣḥ; vidátheṣu añján for vidátheṣv añján.
6. Contracted vowels (especially ī and ū) must often be restored; e. g. ca agnáye for cāgnáye; ví índraḥ for vndraḥ; ávatu ūtáye for ávatūtáye; indra for éndra.
7. Initial a when dropped after e and o must nearly always be restored.
8. The long vowel of the genetive p1ural ending ām, and of such words as dsa, śra, and e (as jyá-iṣṭha for jyéṣṭha) or ai (as á-ichas for áichas) must often be pronounced as equivalent to two short syllables.
9. The spelling of a few words regularly misrepresents their metrical value; thus pāvaká must always be pronounced as pavāká, mḷaya as mḷaya, and suvāná nearly always as svāná.
I. Simple Stanzas.
2. The Vedic hymns consist chiefly of simple stanzas, that is, of such as are formed of verses which are all metrically identical. Different stanzas are formed by combining three, four, five, or six identical verses. The following is an account of the various types of verse and of the different simple stanzas formed by them.
A. Verse of eight syllables. This is a dimeter verse consisting of two equal members of four syllables each, the opening and the cadence. In the opening the first and third syllable are indifferent, while the second and fourth are preferably long. When the second is short, the third is almost invariably long. In the cadence the rhythm is typically iambic [⏑−], the first and third syllables being almost always short, while the second is usually long (though it is not infrequently short also). Thus the prevailing scheme of the whole verse is ⏓−⏓−¦⏑−⏑⏓¦.
a. Even after every admissible vowel restoration a good many verses of this type exhibit the anomaly (which cannot be removed without doing violence to the text) of having one syllable too few; e. g.
táṁ tuā vayáṁ pito.
There are also here a very few instances of one or even two syllables too many; e. g.
[−⏑−−¦⏑−⏑−⏑] [I follow Macdonell in always marking the end syllable according to its natural weight. When placed in square brackets the metrical markings have been added in for clarity's sake.]08
agním īḷe ¦ bhujṁ yávi ¦ ṣṭham
vayáṁ tád as ¦ ya sáṁbhtaṁ ¦ vásu.
3. a. The Gāyatrī Next to the Triṣṭubh this is the commonest metre in the RV., nearly one-fourth of that Saṁhitā being composed in it; yet it has entirely disappeared in Classical Sanskrit. The Avesta has a parallel stanza of 8 × 8 syllables.09 stanza consists of three The first two Pādas of the Gāyatrī are treated as a hemistich in the Saṁhitā text, probably in imitation of the hemistich of the Anuṣṭubh and the Triṣṭubh; but there is no reason to believe that in the original text the second verse was more sharply divided from the third than from the first.10 octosyllabic verses; By far the commonest variation from the normal type is that in which the second syllable of the cadence is short (⏑⏑⏑⏓). This occurs about as often in the first verse of Gāyatrīs as in the second and third combined.11 e.g.
agnim īḷe ¦ puróhitam
yajñsásya de ¦ vám tvijam
hótāraṁ ra ¦ tnadhtamam
a. A comparatively rare but sufficiently definite variety of Gāyatrī The only long series of such trochaic Gāyatrīs occurs in RV. viii. 2, 1-39.12 differs from the normal type by having a decided trochaic rhythm in the cadence, The trochtaic Gāyatrī is commonest in Maṇḍalas i and viii, which taken together contain about two-thirds of the total number of examples in the RV.13 while the iambic rhythm of the opening is more pronounced than usual; e. g.
tuáṁ no ag ¦ ne máhobhiḥ [In Vedic visarjanīya (ḥ), counts as does one consonant, therefore if there is a short vowel preceeding it, and no consonant following it, the syllable is light/short. Cf. also the 3rd line in the next verse.]14
pāhi viśva ¦ syā árāteḥ
utá dviṣó ¦ mártiasya
b. The Anuṣṭubh The frequency of this metre is about one-third that of Gāyatrī in the RV., but in the post-Vedic period it has become the predominant metre. The Avesta has a parallel stanza of 4 x 8 syllables.15 stanza consists of four octosyllabic verses, divided into two hemistichs; e. g.
yás te sar ¦ pirāsute
ágne śám ás ¦ ti dhyase
áiṣu dyumnám ¦ utá śrávaḥ
cittáṁ már ¦ tieṣu dhāḥ
a. In the latest hymns of the RV. there begins a tendency to differentiate the first from the second verse of an Anuṣṭubh hemistich by making the end of the former trochaic [−⏑], while the cadence of the latter becomes more strictly iambic [⏑−]. Although in these hymns the iambic cadence of the first verse is still the most frequent (25 per cent.) of all varieties, it is already very nearly equalled by the next commonest (23 per cent.), which is identical with the normal and characteristic cadence of the first verse in the epic Anuṣṭubh Where the iambic cadence in the first verse has entirely disappeared.16 (ś1oka). The scheme of the whole hemistich according to this innovation This is the regular type of the Anuṣṭubh in the AV.17 then is: ⏓−⏓−¦⏑−−⏓¦¦⏓−⏓−¦⏑−⏑⏓¦¦ e.g.
keś viṣá ¦ sya ptreṇa ¦¦ yád rudréṇ ¦ pibat sahá ¦¦
c. The Paṅkti stanza consists of five octosyllabic verses The Avesta hits a parallel stanza of 5 x 8 syllables.18 divided into two hemistichs of two and of three verses respectively. In origin it seems to be an extension of the Anuṣṭubh by the addition of a fifth verse. This is indicated by the fact that in hymns consisting entirely of Paṅktis the fifth verse of every stanza is (except in i. 81) regularly a refrain (e. g. in i. 80). The following is an example of a Paṅkti stanza:—
itth hí sóma in máde ¦ brahm cakra várdhanam ¦¦
śáviṣṭha vajrinn ójasā ¦ pthivy níḥ śaśā áhim ¦ árcann ánu svarjiam ¦¦
d. In about fifty stanzas of the RV. the number of octosyllabic verses is increased to six and in about twenty others to seven, generally by adding a refrain of two verses to an Anuṣṭubh (e.g. viii. 47) or to a Paṅkti (e.g. x. 133, 1-3). The former is called Mahāpaṅkti (48 [syllables]), the latter Śakvarī (56 [syllables]).
4. B. Verses of eleven syllables differ from those of eight in consisting of three members (the opening, the break, and the cadence). They also contrast with the latter in two other respects: their cadence is trochaic The only irregularity here is that time first syllable of the cadence may be short when it coincides with the end of a word.19 (−⏑−⏓) and they have a cæsura, which follows either the fourth This appears to have been the original position of the cæsura because the parallel verse of the Avesta has it there and never after the fifth syllable.20 or the fifth syllable. The rhythm of the syllables preceding the cæsura is prevailingly iambic, being ⏓−⏓− Identical with the opening of the octosyl1abic verse.21 or ⏓−⏓−⏓. The fourth syllable here is sometimes short: the fifth is then always long.22 The rhythm of the break between the cæsura and the cadence is regularly ⏑⏑− or ⏑⏑ The first of those two syllables is sometimes, but rarely, long in the old hymns of the RV., still more rarely in the later hymns, and hardly ever in B.23 Thus the scheme of the whole normal verse of eleven syllables is:
(a) ⏓−⏓−,⏑⏑−¦−⏑−⏓¦ or
a. Apart from corruptions or only seeming irregularities (removable by restoration of vowels) several verses of this type have one syllable too many or too few; This anomaly also appears in the metre of later Vedic texts and of Pāli poetry.24 e.g.
t no vidvmsā, mánma vo ¦ cetam ady The extra syllable in such cases is perhaps due to the verse being inadvertently continued after a fifth syllable cæsura as if it were a fourth syllable cæsura.25 (12);
tam īṁ gíro, jána ¦ yo ná pátnīḥ The deficiency of a syllable in such cases may have been partly due to the similarity of the decasyllabic Dvipadā Virāj (8) with which Triṣṭubh verses not infrequently interchange.26 (10).
Occasionally two syllables are wanting after the cæsura or the verse is too long by a trochee added at the end; e. g.
tá ū sú ṇo, [..] ma ¦ hó yajatrāḥ (9);
ayáṁ sá hótā [⏑⏑] yó dvijánmā. (9);
ráthebhir yāta, ṣṭi ¦ mádbhir áśva ¦ parṇaiḥ (13).
5. The Triṣṭubh stanza, the commonest in the RV., About two-fifths of the RV. are composed in this metre.27 consists of four verses of eleven syllables The Avesta has a parallel stanza of 4 x 11 syllables with cæsura after the fourth syllable.28 divided into two hemistichs. The following are hemistichs of each type:
(a) anāgāstvé, aditi ¦ tvé tursaḥ ¦¦ imáṁ yajñáṁ, dadhatu ¦ śróṣamāṇāḥ ¦¦
(b) asmkaṁ santu, bhúva ¦ nasya gópāḥ ¦¦ pibantu sómam, áva ¦ se nŏ adyá ¦¦
a. A few Triṣṭubh stanzas of only two verses (dvipadā) occur (e.g. vii. 17). Much commoner are those of three verses (virāj), the first two of which (as in the Gāyatrī stanza) are treated in the Saṁhitā text as a hemistich; the whole of some hymns is composed in this three-line metre (e. g. iii. 25). Fairly frequent are also Triṣṭubh stanzas of five verses These are accounted Atijagatī (52) or Śakvarī stanzas by the ancient metricians when the fifth verse is a repetition of the fourth. If it is not a repetition it is treated in the Saṁhitā text as a separate verse (as v. 41, 20; vi. 63, 11) and is called an ekapadā by the metricians.29 divided into two hemistichs of two and three verses respectively. They are always of isolated occurrence, appearing generally at the end of (Triṣṭubh) hymns, but never forming an entire hymn.
6. C. The verse of twelve syllables is probably an extension It is probably not Indo-Iranian, because though a verse of 12 syllables occurs in the Avesta, it is there differently divided (7 +5).30 of the Triṣṭubh verse by one syllable which gives the trochaic [−⏑] cadence of the latter an iambic [⏑−] character. As the Gayatrī verse is never normally found in combination with the Triṣṭubh, but often with the Jagatī verse, it seems likely that the iambic influence of the Gāyatrī led to the creation of the Jagatī, with which it could form a homogeneous combination.31 The rhythm of the last five syllables is therefore −⏑−⏑⏓. The added syllable being the only point of difference, the scheme of the whole verse is:
(a) ⏓−⏓−,⏑⏑−¦−⏑−⏑⏓¦ or
a. Several examples occur of this type of verse (like the Triṣṭubh) having one, and occasionally two, syllables too many or too few; e.g.
m no mártāya, ripáve vājinīvasū (13);
ródasī , vada ¦ tā gaṇaśriyaḥ (11);
sá dḷhé cit, abhí t ¦ ṇatti vjam ár ¦ vatā (14);
píbā sómam, [⏑⏑] e ¦ n śatakrato (10).
7. The Jagatī stanza, the third in order of frequency in the RV., consists of four verses of twelve syllables divided into two hemistichs. The following hemistich gives an example of each of the two types of verse:
anānudó, vṣabhó ¦ dódhato vadháḥ ¦
gambhīrá ṣvó, ásam ¦ aṣṭakāviaḥ ¦¦
a. There is an eleven syllable variety of the Jagatī verse which is sufficiently definite in type to form entire stanzas in two hymns of the RV. (x. 77, 78). It has a cæsura after both the fifth and the seventh syllable, its scheme being ⏓−⏓−⏑,−−,⏑−⏑⏓¦. The following hemistich is an example:
[−−⏑−⏑,−−,⏑−⏑⏑] [This further supports the theory that in verses with replacement, the light/short syllables that are replaced are the ones following the cæsura; see The Prosody of the Dhammapada for more on this phenomena.]32
abhraprúṣo ná, vāc, pruṣā vásu ¦
havíṣmanto ná, yajñ, vijānúṣaḥ ¦¦
8. D. The verse of five syllables resembles the last five syllables of the Triṣṭubh verse in rhythm, its commonest form being ⏑−⏑−⏓, and the one next to it in frequency −−⏑−⏓ ¦ That is, its first syllable is less often long than short.33
The Dvipadā Virāj stanza This stanza is somewhat rare, occurring in the RV. not much more than a hundred times.34 consists of four such verses divided into two hemistichs; The otherwise universal rule that the end of a verse must coincide with the end of a word is three times ignored in this metre (at this end of the first and third verses).35 e.g.
pári prá dhanva ¦ indrāya soma ¦
svādúr mitrya ¦ pūṣṇé bhágāya ¦¦
a. Owing to the identity of the cadence a Dvipadā hemistich With this metre compare the defective Triṣṭubh verse of ten syllables (4 a).36 not infrequently interchanges in the same stanza with a Triṣṭubh verse; This interchange occurs especially in RV. vii. 34 and 56.37 e.g.
priy vo nma ¦ huve Here the verb, though the first word of the verse (App. III, 19 b), is unaccented. This is because the end of the first and the third verse in this metre has a tendency to be treated like a cæsura rather than a division of the stanza. Cp. note 2.38 turṇām ¦
yát tpán, maruto ¦ vāvasānḥ ¦¦
b. The mixture of Dvipadā hemistichs with Triṣṭubh verses led to an entire hymn (iv. 10) being composed in a peculiar metre consisting of three pentasyllabic verses These three verses are treated as a hemistich, in the Saṁhitā text.39 followed by a Triṣṭubh; e.g.
ágne tám adyá ¦ áśvaṁ ná stómaiḥ ¦ krátuṁ ná bhadrám ¦
hdispśam, dhi ¦ mā The verb is accented because in the Saṁhitā text it is treated as the first word of a separate verse.40 ta óhaiḥ ¦¦
II. Mixed Stanzas.
9. The only different verses normally used in combination to form a stanza are the Gāyatrī and the Jagatī. The principal metres thus formed are the following:
a. Stanzas of 28 syllables consisting of three verses, the first two of which are treated as a hemistich:
I. Uṣṇih: 8 8 12; e.g.
ágne vja ¦ sya gómataḥ ¦
ṣānaḥ sa ¦ haso yaho ¦¦
asmé dhehi, jātave ¦ do máhi śrávaḥ ¦¦
2. Purauṣṇiḥ: 12 8 8; e.g.
apsú antár, amtam ¦ apsú bheṣajám
apm utá ¦ práśastaye ¦¦
dévā bhava ¦ ta vājínaḥ ¦¦
3. Kakubh: 8 12 8; e.g.
ádhā hi in ¦ dra girvaṇaḥ ¦
[⏑−−−−,⏑⏑¦⏑−⏑−] [This appears to be a Triṣṭubh line, rather than the required Jagatī.]41
úpa tvā kmān, maháḥ ¦ sasjmáhe ¦¦
udéva yán ¦ ta udábhiḥ ¦¦
b. Stanzas of 36 syllables consisting of four verses divided into two hemistichs:
Bhatī 8 8 12 8; e. g.
śácībhir naḥ ¦ śacīvasū ¦
dévā náktaṁ ¦ daśasyatam ¦¦
m vāṁ rātir, úpa da ¦ sat kádā caná ¦
asmád rātiḥ ¦ kádā caná ¦¦
c. Stanzas of 40 syllables consisting of four verses divided into two hemistichs: Satobhatī 12 8 12 8; e. g.
jánāso agniṁ, dadhi ¦ re sahovdham ¦
haviṣmanto ¦ vidhema te ¦¦
sá tváṁ no adyá, sumá ¦ nā ihvit ¦
bhávā vje ¦ ṣu santia ¦¦
10. There are besides two much longer mixed stanzas of seven verses, These are the compositions of a very few individual poets.42 each of which is split up into three divisions of three, two, and two verses respectively in the Saṁhitā text.
a. Stanzas of 60 syllables consisting of six Gāyatrī verses and one Jagatī:
Atiśakvarī 8 8 8, 8 8, 12 8; Only about ten examples of this metre occur in the RV.43 e. g.
suṣum yā ¦ tam ádribhiḥ ¦
góśrītā mat ¦ sar, imé ¦
sómāso mat ¦ sar, imé ¦¦
rājānā ¦ divispśā ¦
[−−−−¦⏑⏑⏑⏑] [Presumably we should read but ú is written.]44
asmatr gan ¦ tam úpa naḥ ¦
imé vāṁ mitrā, -varu ¦ ṇā gávāśiraḥ ¦
sómāḥ śukr ¦ gávāśiraḥ ¦¦
b. Stanzas of 68 syllables consisting of four Gāyatrī and three Jagatī verses:
Atyaṣṭi This is the only comparatively common long metre (of more than 48 syllables) in the RV., where more than 80 Atyaṣṭi stanzas occur.45 12 12 8, 8 8, 12 8; e. g.
sá no nédiṣṭhaṁ, dádś ¦ āna bhara ¦
ágne devébhiḥ, sáca ¦ nāḥ sucetúnā ¦
mahó rāyáḥ ¦ sucetúnā ¦¦
máhi śavi ¦ ṣṭha nas kdhi ¦
saṁcákṣe bhu ¦ jé asiái ¦¦
máhi stotbhyo, magha ¦ van suvriam ¦
[⏑−−−¦⏑⏑⏑−] [Should we read āsiái in the 5th; and śvasā in the last line?]46
máthīr ugró ¦ ná śávasā ¦¦
a. Besides the above mixed metres various other but isolated combinations of Gāyatrī and Jagatī verses occur in the RV., chiefly in single hymns. There are stanzas of this kind containing 20 syllables (12 8); RV. viii. 29.47 32 syllables (12 8, 12); RV. ix. 110.48 40 syllables (12 12, 8 8); RV. x. 98.49 44 syllables (12 12, 12 8) RV. viii. 35.50 52 syllables (12 12, 12 8 8). RV. v. 87.51
b. 1. Triṣṭubh verses are quite often interspersed in Jagatī stanzas, but never in such a way as to form a fixed type of stanza or to make it doubtful whether a hymn is a Jagatī one. But the intrusion of Jagatī verses in a Triṣṭubh hymn is exceptional in the RV., though very common in the AV. and later.52 This practice probably arose from the interchange of entire Triṣṭubh and Jagatī stanzas in the same hymn bringing about a similar mixture within a single stanza.
2. An occasional licence is the combination of a Triṣṭubh with a Gāyatrī verse in the same stanza. This combination appears as a regular mixed stanza (11 8, 8 8) in one entire hymn (RV. x. 22). Except stanzas 7 and 15, which are pure Anuṣṭubh and Triṣṭubh respectively.53
3. The combination of a Triṣṭubh verse with a Dvipadā Yirāj hemistich has already been noted (8 a).
III. Strophic Stanzas.
11. Two or three stanzas are often found strophically combined in the RV., forming couplets or triplets.
A. Three simple stanzas (called tca) in the same metre are often thus connected. Gāyatrī triplets are the commonest; less usual are Uṣṇiḥ, Bhatī, or Paṅkti triplets; while Triṣṭubh triplets are rare. A hymn consisting of several triplets often concludes with an additional stanza in a different metre.
a. It is a typical practice to conclude a hymn composed in one metre with a stanza in another. A Triṣṭubh stanza at the end of a Jagatī hymn is the commonest; a final Anuṣṭubh stanza in Gāyatrī hymns is much less usual; but all the commoner metres are to some extent thus employed except the Gāyatrī, which is never used in this way.
B. Two mixed stanzas in different metres are often combined, the RV. containing about 250 such strophes. This doubly mixed strophic metre, called Pragātha, is of two main types:
1. The Kākubha Prāgatha is much the less common kind of strophe, occurring only slightly more than fifty times in the RV. It is formed by the combination of a Kakubh with a Satobhatī stanza: 8 12, 8 + 12 8, 12 8; e. g.
no áśvā ¦ vad aśvinā ¦
vartír yāsiṣṭaṁ, madhu ¦ pātamā narā ¦¦
gómad dasrā ¦ hiraṇyavat ¦¦
suprāvargáṁ, suvryaṁ ¦ suṣṭhú vriam ¦
ánādhṣṭaṁ ¦ rakṣasvínā ¦¦
asmínn vām, āyne ¦ vājinīvasū ¦
viśvā vām ¦ ni dhīmahi ¦¦
2. The Bārhata Pragātha is a common strophe, occurring nearly two hundred times in the RV. It is formed by the combination of a Bhatī with a Satobhatī stanza: 8 8, 12 8 + 12 8,12 8; e.g.
dyumn vāṁ stó ¦ mo aśvinā ¦ [Macdonell places the division one syllable too early in this line.]54
krívir ná sé ¦ ka gatam ¦¦
mádhvaḥ sutásya, sá di ¦ ví priyó nárā ¦¦
pātáṁ gaurv ¦ ivériṇe ¦¦
píbataṁ gharmáṁ, mádhu ¦ mantam aśvinā ¦
barhíḥ sī ¦ dataṁ narā ¦¦
t mandasān, mánu ¦ ṣo duroṇá ¦
ní pātaṁ vé ¦ dasā váyaḥ ¦¦
a. Of these two types there are many variations occurring in individual hymns, chiefly by the addition of one (8), two (12 8), three (12 8 8), or once (vii. 96, 1-3) even four verses (12 12 8 8).
last updated: August 2005