Durga Puja at a Pandal (Bachchan Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The campaign by a daily for a ‘gender-neutral modification’ of a Sanskritic invocation for progeny is rooted in linguistic and grammatical ignorance.

    Here is what the Sanskrit texts actually say and mean.

The Telegraph is running a campaign in Kolkata urging Hindus to chant the ‘gender-neutral’ phrase “santānān dehi” instead of “putrān dehi” while offering ‘puṣpāñjali’ on the day of Ashtami so that people ask for not just sons but daughters also. Their logic is that the word ‘putra’ means “a son” and the word ‘santāna’ is a gender-neutral term. In this brief article, we see how this change is not only unnecessary but also inappropriate.

‘putrān dehi’ = “give [us] daughters and sons”

The words ‘putrān dehi’ mean both “give [us] sons” and “give [us] daughters and sons”. To understand this, we need to know the the principle of ‘ekaśeṣa’ in Sanskrit grammar, by which the masculine dual can also stand for a female and a male, and the masculine plural can also stand for females and males collectively. In other words, the masculine dual in Sanskrit also serves as ‘mixed dual’ (a female and a male) and the masculine plural also serves as a ‘mixed plural’ (females and males).

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First, we look at some such examples of the masculine dual. The classic example is the masculine dual ‘haṃsau’ which means “two male haṃsas” and also “a female haṃsa and a male haṃsa”. As the Siddhāntakaumudī says under Aṣṭadhyayī 1.2.67:

haṃsī ca haṃsaśca haṃsau” (“a female haṃsa and a male haṃsa — haṃsau”). Another example of this is the word ‘putrau’ which means both “two sons” and also “a daughter and a son”.

The Siddhāntakaumudī says under Aṣṭadhyayī 1.2.68:

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putraśca duhitā ca putrau” (“a son and a daughter — putrau”). This is also corroborated by the ancient Sanskrit lexicon Amarakoṣa which says (verse (2.6.37) “putrau putraśca duhitā ca”, i.e. the word ‘putrau’ means “a son and a daughter”.

Another famous example is the word ‘pitarau’ which means “two fathers” or “two forefathers” and also means “the mother and the father”.

A famous example of ‘pitarau’ to mean “mother and father” is its use by Kālidāsa in the opening verse of the Raghuvaṃśa: “jagataḥ pitarau vande pārvatī-parameśvarau” (“I bow to Pārvatī and Śiva — the mother and father of the world”).

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Now, we cover some mixed-gender examples of the masculine plural. The masculine plural word ‘haṃsāḥ’ means both “many male haṃsas” and “many female and male haṃsas”. Similarly the masculine nominative plural ‘putrāḥ’ means both “many sons” and “many daughters and sons”.

For example, Kālidāsa uses the word ‘putravataḥ’ in Kumārasambhava (verse 1.27). Commenting on this, Mallinātha says “putrāśca duhitaraśca putrāḥ te’sya santīti putravān … tasya putravataḥ”, i.e. “sons and daughters — putrāḥ … he who has them is putravān … of him — putravataḥ”.

Here Mallinātha not only says that the masculine plural ‘putrāḥ’ means “sons and daughters”, he also adds that the word ‘putravān’ (of which ‘putravataḥ’ is the genitive singular case) means “he who has many sons and daughters”.

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Just like the nominative plural ‘putrāḥ’ means both “many sons” and “many daughters and sons”, the accusative plural ‘putrān’ means both “[to] many sons” and “[to] many sons and daughters”.

Therefore, ‘putrān dehi’ is to be understood in as both “give [us] sons” and “give [us] daughters and sons”. No change in the ‘añjali’ mantra is required for the gender-neutrality that The Telegraph wants. The second interpretation of the word ‘putrān’ is sufficient.

Finally, the proposed emendation “santānān dehi” is inappropriate as it violates the ‘anuṣṭup’ metre. The words “putrān dehi dhanaṃ dehi” (originally from Yājñavalkyasmṛti 1.291) have eight syllables, as is expected in a quarter of an ‘anuṣṭup’ verse.

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In contrast, the words “santānān dehi dhanaṃ dehi” have nine syllables, one too many.

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