Shloka or śloka (Sanskrit: श्लोक śloka; meaning "song", from the root śru, "hear") is a poetic form used in Sanskrit, the classical language of India. In its usual form it consists of four pādas or quarter-verses, of 8 syllables each, or (according to an alternative analysis) of two half-verses of 16 syllables each. The meter is similar to the Vedic anuṣṭubh meter, but with stricter rules.
The śloka is the basis for Indian epic verse, and may be considered the Indian verse form par excellence, occurring as it does far more frequently than any other meter in classical Sanskrit poetry. The śloka is the verse-form generally used in the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Puranas, Smritis, and scientific treatises of Hinduism such as Sushruta Samhita and Charaka Samhita. The Mahabharata, for example, features many verse meters in its chapters, but 95% of the stanzas are ślokas of the anuṣṭubh type, and most of the rest are tristubhs.
The anuṣṭubh is found in Vedic texts, but its presence is minor, and triṣṭubh and gayatri meters dominate in the Rigveda. A dominating presence of ślokas in a text is a marker that the text is likely post-Vedic.
Each 16-syllable hemistich (half-verse), composed of two 8-syllable pādas, can take either a pathyā ("normal") form or one of several vipulā ("extended") forms. The form of the second foot of the first pāda (II.) limits the possible patterns the first foot (I.) may assume.
The scheme below shows the form of the śloka in the classical period of Sanskrit literature (4th–11th centuries CE):
The pathyā and vipulā half-verses are arranged in the table above in order of frequency of occurrence. Out of 2579 half-verses taken from Kalidasa, Bharavi, Magha, and Bilhana, each of the four admissible forms of śloka in this order claims the following share: 2289, 116, 89, 85; that is, 89% of the half-verses have the regular pathyā form.
- 1. In both pādas, in syllables 2–3, u u is not allowed.
- 2. In the second pāda, in syllables 2–4, – u – is not allowed
Noteworthy is the avoidance of an iambic cadence in the first pāda. By comparison, syllables 5–8 of any pāda in the old Vedic anuṣṭubh meter typically had the iambic ending u – u x (where "x" represents an anceps syllable).
In poems of the intermediate period, such as the Bhagavad Gita (c. 200 BCE), a fourth vipulā is found. This occurs 28 times in the Bhagavad Gita, that is, as often as the third vipulā. When this vipulā is used, there is a word-break (caesura) after the fourth syllable:
- | x x x –, | – u – x ||
The various vipulās, in the order above, are known to scholars writing in English as the first, second, third, and fourth vipulā, or the paeanic, choriambic, molossic, and trochaic vipulā respectively. In Sanskrit writers, they are referred to as the na-, bha-, ra-, and ma-vipulā. A fifth vipulā, known as the minor Ionic, in which the first pāda ends | u u – x |, is sometimes found in the Mahābhārata, although rarely.
Statistical studies examining the frequency of the vipulās and the patterns in the earlier part of the pāda have been carried out to try to establish the preferences of various authors for different metrical patterns. It is believed that this may help to establish relative dates for the poems, and to identify interpolated passages.
A typical śloka is the following, which opens the Bhagavad Gita:
- dharma-kṣetre kuru-kṣetre
- samavetā yuyutsavaḥ
- māmakāḥ pāṇḍavāś caiva
- kim akurvata sañjaya
- | – – – – | u – – – |
- | u u – – | u – u – |
- | – u – – | u – – u |
- | u u – u | u – u u |
- "(Dhṛtaraṣṭra said:) In the place of righteousness at Kurukṣetra,
- gathered together and desiring battle,
- my sons and the sons of Pandu,
- what did they do, Sanjaya?"
On the other hand, an example of an anuṣṭubh stanza which fails the classical requirements of a śloka because of the rhythm u – – x instead of u – u x in the third pāda is the following from the Shatapatha Brahmana:
- | – – – u | u – – – |
- | – u – u | u – u – |
- | u – – – | –, – – – |
- | – – – u | u – u – |
- Macdonell, Arthur A., A Sanskrit Grammar for Students, Appendix II, p. 232 (Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 1927).
- W. J. Johnson (2010), Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism.
- Arnold 1905, p. 11, 50 with note ii(a).
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- Michael Hahn: "A brief introduction into the Indian metrical system for the use of students".
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- Keith (1920), p. 421.
- Morton Smith (1961), p. 19.
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- Morton Smith (1961).
- Brockington (1998), pp. 117–130.
- Eggeling's translation
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