Wheat and Witzel : Sanskrit, Indology and Cowsmoke – Part 1

तिला᳚श्च मे मु॒द्गाश्च॑ मे ख॒ल्वा᳚श्च मे  गो॒धूमा᳚श्च

Tilaashcha me mudgaashcha me khalvaashcha me godhuumaashcha

Chamakam | Anuvaka 4

Can a nation’s origin, history and culture be conjured up based on a few words?

If yes, is it possible for ancient Sanskrit words to be re-interpreted by ‘experts’ and a series of far-reaching historical, cultural and civilizational narratives created out of these potentially controversial new interpretations?

All of us long-suffering Indians would answer in a jiffy – of course, yes!

The most prominent example of such a sleight-of-hand would be the notorious “Aryan” of German-Indological imagination. This wholly conjured up neologism, from the original Samskritam word “आर्य [Arya]” (meaning in general civilized or cultured) has been the foundation of the artificial “Aryan-Dravidian” storyline in modern Indian consciousness. In Germany, the original homeland of this pernicious theory, the racist Indological Aryan storyline ended up fueling the pre-war Nazi excesses before being adopted by modern far-right fringe groups in Europe and USA.

Given the gruesome and racist history of such Indological excursions, is it worthwhile to ask if this process of misinterpretation and creation of patently ridiculous theories has been abandoned by western Indologists?  Or is it still alive and kicking?

Let us see.

The etymological tussle for the Samskritam word ‘godhuma’ / wheat provides a wonderful case-study on how Indology generates evidence, frequently with an inadequate basis in scholarship. Facts are ‘built-up’, narratives are set in motion and highly tenuous claims are repeated across a series of cross-referenced articles. These ‘facts’ then become the foundations for a new, re-worked historical and civilizational narrative for a nation and people.

Godhuma – The Backstory

Wheat { गोधूमः } is a grain known to India since ancient times. The Mehrgarh site in present day Balochistan, dated circa 7000 BCE, shows presence of domesticated wheat varieties. Wheat is mentioned in all Samhitas except Rgveda.

Many different forms of the word ‘godhuma=wheat’ is present in languages all over India {godi, kotambu, gauma} as well as further west including languages like Persian {gantum}, Hittite {*qend /kant}, semitic {*hant} and old Egyptian {xnd}.

Ramayana in the Aranyakanda says बाष्पच्छन्नान्यरण्यानि यवगोधूमवन्ति च। शोभन्तेऽभ्युदिते सूर्ये नद्भि क्रौञ्चसारसैः। The dew-covered forests laden with barley and wheat, shines as the swans and kraunchas call at sunrise. 3.16.16।। 

Along with references in the Mahabharata and Arthashastra, the familiarity and usage of गोधूम as a Sanskrit word is attested by the Paninian (~600 to ~400 BCE) framework, which incorporates गोधूम in the Gana Patha under 4.3.136 – बिल्वादिः। The Manusmriti (200 BCE or earlier) mentions “all preparations of barley and wheat..may be eaten by dvijas..though they may have stood for a long time: चिरस्थितं अपि त्वाद्यं अस्नेहाक्तं द्विजातिभिः। यवगोधूमजं सर्वं पयसश्चैव विक्रिया । । ५.२५ । ।

Charaka Samhita mentions that godhuma is Satmya (सात्म्यम् – appropriate/wholesome) in Bahlika, Pahlava, Cheena, Shoolika, Yavana and Shaka regions.  However, for most of its existence, wheat was considered by many Indian sources to be an inferior cereal (कु-धान्यम्) and म्लेच्छ-भोजनम्।. Barley, millets and rice were preferred instead.

The Etymology of Godhuma [Wheat]

Indian Sanskrit sources agree on the derivation and etymology of ‘godhuma’ as

  • गुध + ऊम
  • गुध् [परिवेष्टने] (गुध्यति, गुधति) – To wrap up, cover, envelop, clothe

ऊम – अव् [रक्षणे] मन् + कित् + ऊठ् च Protecting,  a good friend

The derivation provided in Unadi Sutra 5.2 is गुधेरूमः – गोधूमः।


The fact that the Paninian grammar system provides for an etymology and derivation of गोधूम means that the word is officially incorporated into the structured Sanskrit language framework (Unadi Sutra and Gana Patha) and has had a formal grammatical basis for its existence since ancient times.

Amarakosha [~400 CE] refers to गोधुम, गोधूम and सुमन as synonyms of wheat. ShabdaKalpadruma, a more modern 19th century Indian Sanskrit dictionary defines godhuma as गुध्यते, वेष्ट्यते, त्वगादिभिः।

In contrast to Sanskrit and related languages which have a spectrum of variations around the ‘godhuma’ word, both Latin and Greek have very different words for wheat, unconnected to ‘godhuma’. The latin word is triticum (from tero – graze, grind) and the Greek words are sitos (grain or wheat) or zidoros (life-giving). Hesychius’s lexicon has an entry γανδομην -> αλευρά (gandomin –> alevra / flour), but this word is not found in modern Greek lexicons. Both German ‘weizen’ and English ‘wheat’ have a very different etymology from godhuma and related sounds.

Based on Nighantus and Paninian grammar evidence, godhuma is clearly a well-known Sanskrit word since at least 400 BCE and the commonly accepted etymology and meaning revolves around the notion of something that is (a) ‘protected’ by a ‘covering’ or (b) is a friend and protector that ‘covers’ or some variation on this theme. The synonym of सुमन {literally ‘well-thought’ but conveys a sense of beautiful/charming} may also possibly point towards the theme of a ‘friend’ or loved one.

The Outlier Monier-Williams

As frequently seen in the case of many words including the famous “Aryan” neologism, Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary (MW – 1872 & 1899) shows an etymology at variance with other Indian sources. MW starts off on the right foot by mentioning गुध् and the Unadi Sutra reference, but then pulls an etymological genie out of the bottle claiming that the meaning of गोधूम is ‘generally earth-smoke’.

How so? One may be tempted to ask.

गोधूम = गो + धूम = ‘Earth Smoke’ = Wheat

MW shows the गोधूम word as split into constituent parts in a variant fashion from the accepted गुध + ऊम. The word गो has numerous possible meanings including cattle, sky, stars, heaven, a quarter of the compass etc. He chooses to accept one of the several meanings of ‘गो’ [go] = earth and combines it with धूम [dhuma] = smoke.

MacDonnell (1893) also picks up a similar etymology and does one better by describing go-dhuma as ‘Earth Exhalation’ – probably a creative reverie representing Gaia’s sighs as heaving sheaves of wheat weigh heavily on भूमिदेवी!

This brings us to a more prosaic but fundamental issue: how and why do Indologists create new meanings and etymologies, often at variance with existing traditional sources? Are these new interpretations driven by genuine gaps or errors in the Sanskrit grammatical traditions? Is this process supported by evidence? Do these new derivations have any credibility? What could be the possible Indological purpose behind the uncommon zest for generating deviant claims and re-defining the ‘meanings’?

The case of {godhuma | wheat} helps us understand this process in detail and examine how preferred Indological narratives are created by repetition and cross-referencing of these deviant claims, almost echoing the Goebbelsian playbook of “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

The Roots – Indological Basis of ‘godhuma’

From where did Monier Williams and MacDonnell take their deviant etymological interpretation for godhuma? For credible answers, we will need to dig deeper and look into the well-springs of 19th century European Indological reference materials.

The first major Sanskrit-English dictionary was published by H Wilson in 1832. This was followed by Yates (1846), Goldstucker (1856) and Benfey (1866) before the famous Monier-Williams (MW) Sanskrit-English dictionary was published in 1872.

Within German Indology, the first Sanskrit-German dictionary was the ‘magnum opus’ by Otto Böhtlingk and Rudolph Roth, the Petersburger Wörterbuch (1855). It is interesting to note that apart from the traditional Indian sources, Böhtlingk also refers to and incorporates a contemporary Indian संस्कृत dictionary in his book, the ShabdaKalpadrumah (Volume 1 started 1803 and final volume completed 1858) which was available to German Indologists by the time the Petersburger Wörterbuch was being prepared.

Another important 19th century work was the Altindische Grammatik (published between 1896-1964) by Jacob Wackernagel, an expansive German work on Sanskrit Grammar that was later completed by Albert Debrunner.

Let us look at how the godhuma question was handled by these foundational Indological works and examine the construction of the new etymology for गोधूम.

The Origin of Earth-Smoke and Cow-Smoke

In the earliest western Sanskrit dictionary, Wilson (1832) defines godhuma as 1. Wheat 2. The orange and 3. The name of a drug and provides the etymology as गुध to surround, and ऊम Unadi affix – the same as traditional sources. Yates (1846) repeats the same meanings without providing any etymological derivation. Benfey (1866) provides ‘godhuma=wheat’ but refers to the earlier highlighted Manusmriti 5.25 as the source. None of these dictionaries prior to MW has a dissenting opinion on the etymology of godhuma.

It is in Böhtlingk’s Petersburger Wörterbuch that we see the first instance of {गो +धूम = ‘Earth Smoke’}. The primary meaning of गोधूम is mentioned as wheat and is shown as derived from Unadi sutra 5.2 – fully in agreement with extant Indian sources and even Wilson (1832). The deviation is seen in the latter part of the same entry under (2) गोधूमी (f).

For reasons unclear, Böhtlingk decides to position {godhumi गोधूमी}, the entry for a type of plant, also known as golomika under the topic header ‘godhuma’. The original source of the godhumi/golomika word is shown as the Sanskrit lexical work RajaNighantu by Narahari Pandita. Böhtlingk mentions that “*godhumi…breaks down to {go+dhuma} and can be translated as “earth/ground smoke”.

From where did Böhtlingk get this etymology ‘earth smoke’ for godhumi/golomika?

Böhtlingk actually takes the entry for गोधूमी from the Indian 19th century dictionary, the ShabdaKalpadrumah where, it must be noted that गोधूमी is actually shown as a separate entry not connected etymologically to {godhuma=wheat}.




The etymology for godhumi in शब्दकल्पद्रुमः is गां + धूमयती or causing smoke or causing covering or darkening to {गो}. As discussed, there are many meanings possible for ‘go’ (cow, earth, sky, heaven, speech, direction etc.). If गो is taken as ‘earth’, we derive the sense of “earth+smoke” for the godhumi plant. To be fair, there is also a notion of the ‘cow’ present in the etymology for golomika, a synonym for the godhumi plant. The ShabdaKalpadrumah says golomika is गवां लोमेव लोमानः (sic) सन्ति यस्याः – “that which is hairy like cow’s hair”. So, there are possibilities of both the earth and cow being connected with the etymology of godhumi/golomika.

Now let us understand what Böhtlingk has done here. He combined under the header godhuma, two separate terms found in ShabdaKalpadrumah (a) godhuma=wheat or orange or medicinal plant and (b) godhumi, a plant. Böhtlingk faithfully copies the go + dhuma (‘earth-smoke’) etymology for the godhumi plant, but the decision to attach the entry under the overall heading of ‘godhuma’ opens a pandora’s box.

Whether by omission or commission, categorization of these two different words by Böhtlingk under a common heading ‘godhuma’ possibly led the rest of the Indologists and western Sanskritists to interpolate the etymology for godhumi=a plant {earth-smoke} on to godhuma=wheat {covering-friend} and conclude that godhuma=earth smoke is indeed a valid ‘folk etymology’ derivation for wheat.

This deviant ‘earth-smoke’ reading for wheat is then referenced in subsequent Indological articles while the Unadi Sutra etymology is erased and removed from circulation.

As shown here, the ShabdaKalpadrumah has two distinct and separate entries for these terms.

Wackernagel’s AltIndische Grammatik takes a step further and brings in a novel ‘cow’ angle to the etymology. He claims that godhuma is actually {Rauch der Rinder – smoke of cattle} and also is {..from *gendum… word folk-etymologically translated as ‘cow-smoke’}.

For this further etymological transition from गो=earth to गो=cow, he refers to CC Uhlenbeck’s Kurzgefasstes Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1898) where the ‘folk etymology’ theory is highlighted while negatively referring to go=kuh/cow and dhuma=rauch/smoke.

Wackernagel also refers to Hubschmann’s Persische Studien (1895) where he claims that godhuma is a folk etymological word composed with ‘go=cow’. “As it were, go+dhuma= cow+smoke, to be compared to the local fumaria plant called Erdrauch (earth-smoke), also known in Greek as καπνός (kapnos – smoke).” If the local ‘earth-smoke’ plant is being highlighted to showcase the similarity or equivalence to the ‘godhumi/golomika’ plant, why is it then mixed up with the etymology of godhuma?

So now, we can see that between the publication of the Petersburger Wörterbuch and Wackernagel’s Altindische Grammatik, for reasons unknown, a bunch of Indologists decided that the existing Unadi Sutra derivation of गुधेरूमः – गोधूमः should be trashed and godhuma should actually be गो + धूम= ‘earth-smoke’, a ‘folk-etymological’ derivation. They then immediately proceed to change their newly minted etymological opinion by saying “Sorry – hold on! We were wrong, it is not earth-smoke, but actually cow-smoke really”. This new etymology was then stamped and approved by Wackernagel’s ‘magisterial’ book.

It is quite possible that the ‘cow-smoke’ etymology ultimately derived from a confused reading of Böhtlingk’s jumbled ‘earth-smoke’ entry for godhumi, which in turn was possibly caused by an ill-advised concatenation of two similar sounding words – godhuma and godhumi in the Wörterbuch while copying the entries from ShabdaKalpadrumah.

Sanskrit Debates on Etymology

Before we conclude this section, given the Indological zest for re-defining the meanings and etymologies, let us briefly look at the Indian and Sanskrit intellectual heritage and approach as far as etymology and lexicography is concerned.

  • Is it that Sanskrit has no scientific and robust mechanism for classifying sounds, words and meanings?
  • Is it that there is no error correction or resolution mechanism in the Indian tradition?

Nirukta, or the science of etymology, is part of the six Vedangas and form a foundational part of the Indian intellectual tradition. A cursory look at the topic shows numerous, robust, theories and ongoing debates in Sanskrit since ancient times regarding the origin and meaning of words. शाकटायनः, a pre-Paninian grammarian held in high esteem (अनु शाकटायनं वैयाकरणाः), opined that all words are derived from “dhatus” or verb-roots (नामानि आख्यातजानि). Meanwhile, गार्ग्यः and others maintained that not all nouns are traceable to dhatus.

The depth of this lexicographical and etymological intellectual tradition, likely the most sophisticated in the world, is reflected in Durga’s commentary on Nirukta/Nighantu where the universe of ‘derivable’ words is classified into 3 groups:

  1. प्रत्यक्षवृत्तिः – where the derivation is regular and the roots are clearly visible in the words.
  2. परोक्षवृत्तिः – where the derivation is irregular and the roots are slightly altered
  3. अतिपरोक्षवृत्तिः – where the derivation is obscure and the roots are wholly altered

Based on the above approach, some of the basic principles enunciated by Yaskacharya in the conceptually pathbreaking Nighantu include:

1.तद् येषु पदेषु स्वरसंस्कारौ समर्थौ प्रादेशिकेन विकारेणान्वितौ स्यातां तथा तानि निर्ब्रूयात् ।

If accent and grammatical form are regular and root modifications are as per rules, derive the words according to standard procedures.

2.अथानन्वितेऽर्थेऽप्रादेशिके विकारेऽर्थनित्यः परीक्षेत। केनचिद् वृत्तिसामान्येन ।

When meaning is unclear with irregular modifications, examine for similarity between the word and any form of a root that provides the meaning. 

3.अविद्यमाने सामान्येऽप्यक्षरवर्णसामान्यान्निर्ब्रूयात् ।

If even such similarity also is not present, derive using similarity of even an akshara or a varṇa. 

This is a sophisticated schema for analysing etymology and generating meaning. There is certainly no random, casual ‘folk-etymology’ approach at play here.

The Unadi Sutras in turn, are a mechanism to provide derivation and meaning for words where there is some irregularity or where the word origin or meaning is unclear. For example, “go=cow” itself is derived using Unadi Sutras (गमेर्डोः) with डो pratyaya. Even in Unadi Sutras, the final derivation may sometimes not be meaningfully connected to the proposed dhatu in many instances. The Sanskrit Vyakarana tradition is fully cognizant of the various challenges in etymology and meaning and has always engaged in constructive debates in the best traditions of Indian intellectualism whenever there have been differences of opinion.

While German Indologists can certainly participate in the debate on Sanskrit etymology and the validity of the specific derivation, there needs to be some logic, evidence and credible basis provided when a new and variant etymology is introduced into the language. We see the absence of such an approach in many, if not most of the cases.

We saw instances where ‘folk-etymology’ was casually thrown about with very limited evidence to back it up. There does not seem to have been any substantial analysis of the extant Sanskrit sources or debate with the Sanskrit Pundits prior to any of these new etymologies being conjured up in Europe. No real evidence is provided as to why the Unadi Sutra definition for godhuma is unacceptable and why the ‘earth-smoke or cow-smoke” is any more credible or rational than the existing one. In fact, as we found out, there may be a series of errors at the heart of this ‘cow-smoke’ etymology due to multiple omissions and commissions that makes the entire Indological ‘earth smoke’ and ‘cow-smoke’ excursions into godhuma quite suspect.

Given this Indian tradition of robust debates around issues of rigour, credibility and process involved in determining word meanings and derivations within Nirukta, Unadi Sutras and similar sources, the etymological process followed by Böhtlingk, Wackernagel, Uhlenbeck, Hubschmann and Monier Williams seems highly suspect and certainly does not seem to pass even a lowered credibility threshold.

Summing Up

We need to re-open and examine the foundational European Indological materials to separate the ‘wheat’ from the chaff. We should evaluate which parts of the canonical texts are credible and passes muster based on acceptable Sanskrit scholarship standards. There should be a robust evaluation mechanism overseen by traditional Sanskrit grammarians for the acceptability of such sources. Whatever is not justifiable should be discarded as fanciful hallucinations of folks cut off from any ‘on-the-ground’ lived experience or sensitivity to cultural contexts.

While German Indologists have always focused on narrow detail-oriented list-making or painstakingly digging out variations or recensions within a text, we should now help move the focus towards real ‘big picture’ knowledge-generation aligned to the traditional Purushartha-based scholarship framework. Without succumbing to the temptation to ‘give an eye for an eye’ for past transgressions, we should offer a helping hand to the Indological enterprise to fill the existing lacunae in their process, methodology as well as the ultimate vision and find a more robust grounding based on accepted Indian epistemological frameworks.

In fact, the classic Nyaya razors should be deployed for Indology as a subject, at the earliest: किं प्रमाणम् ? किं प्रयोजनम् ?

This approach will be beneficial to Sanskrit and the scholarly study of Indian civilization in the future.

To Be Continued in Part 2 

Given the above background, we will now examine how the novel, synthesized Indological etymologies like godhuma= ‘earth-smoke’ or ‘cow smoke’ have been used and reused by prominent modern Indologists to create or support certain ‘pet notions’ and drive a series of preferred narratives. The criticality of proving the case around “Aryans” as a ‘people’ and their purported eastward migrations has led to large scale historical revisions. The linguistic analytical approaches to revising these historical narratives as well as the motivations behind these revisionist approaches will be also be examined in Part 2.

आ नो॑ भ॒द्राः क्रत॑वो यन्तु वि॒श्वतोऽद॑ब्धासो॒ अप॑रीतास उ॒द्भिदः॑ ।

दे॒वा नो॒ यथा॒ सद॒मिद्वृ॒धे अस॒न्नप्रा॑युवो रक्षि॒तारो॑ दि॒वेदि॑वे

 May all auspicious knowledge come to us from all sides – unchanged, unhindered and undefeated.

May the gods always be with us for our welfare and be our protectors caring for us every day.

Rig-Veda Samhita 1.89.1

  • Hat tip to @ganeshkrishna, @vakibs and @subhash_kak for the initial online discussions that sparked off the exploration into this topic.


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eNighantu – National Institute of Indian Medical Heritage.

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Laxshman Sarup. The Nighantu And The Nirukta Vol I 1927, University of Punjab

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