Saturday, August 19, 2006

Panini the grammarian par excellence

yenAkSharasamAmnAyam adhigamya maheshvarAt |
kRutsnaM vyAkaraNaM proktaM tasmai pANinaye namaH ||

I recently have been having the fortune of attending classes on the laghu-siddhAnta-kaumudI, a Samskrit grammar text for beginners taught by a very well known and respected grammarian. Even in the first couple of prakaraNas (chapters), I have found myself in awe of the genius of pANini, the great grammarian who put the vyAkaraNa sUtras together in eight chapters. The collective work is known as the aShTAdhyAyii.

The shloka at the beginning of this post salutes pANini by whom Samskrit grammar in its entirety has been described after having obtained the requisite knowledge by the grace of Lord Maheshvara. The legend behind pANini's composition of the aShTAdhyAyI itself is quite interesting.

Legend has it that pANini was born a dull child, but as one whose interest in learning knew no bounds. An astrologer who happened to pass through his school read pANini's palm and broke to him the news that the child's palm had no line for learning. The heartbroken but not completely dissuaded boy wanted no impediments to his learning. Soon after, pANini's Guru saw a happy boy whose palm was bleeding. Upon asking, pANini answered that he had drawn the "line of learning" on his palm with a knife. The guru was overjoyed on seeing the interest in learning that pANini had and vowed to make him a scholar.

As time passed, pANini prayed to Lord Shiva to bless him with a grammar for Samskrit. Pleased by his penance, Lord Shiva appeared in front of pANini and danced while beating his Damaru (Drum). Fourteen sounds issued forth from the Damaru and they provided the much needed insight for pANini to compose a grammar of Samskrit.

Before the remaining part of this post, I would like to make a disclaimer. I am no expert in Samskrit (and especially in vyAkaraNa) and mistakes in this post, if any (I am sure there will be quite a few), are mine only. My intention here is just to share the enthusiasm I have about the subject.

In the remaining part of this post, letters in italics (in ITRANS) are supposed to denote the letters of the sUtras of pANini (as much as possible). The fourteen sounds, known as the mAhesvara-sUtrANi are as follows -
| a i uN | R^i lR^i k | e o ~G | ai au ch | ha ya va ra T | la N | ~Ja ma ~Ga Na na M | Jha bha ~J | gha Dha dha Sh | ja ba ga da sh | kha pha Cha Tha tha cha Ta tav | ka pa y | sha Sha sa r | ha l ||

Hearing them again and again, it really feels as if they came out of a drum. But these sUtras form the bedrock of Samskrit grammar. Even though there were several grammars for Samskrit in existence before that of pANini, pANini's grammar outshone all the others in such a fashion that the other older grammars are but known just by name. pANini's grammar has apparently been so effective that there have been no significant attempts to compose any grammar after that.

Historically, pANini was born in Attock in today's Pakistan in the 6th century BCE. Just a brief digression about his birth and its place. Attock is a place close to Peshawar, which is the capital of the now lawless North Western Frontier Province, where Osama bin Laden is supposed to be hiding now. Recently there was an interesting program on television which showed the lawless trigger happy folk of the NWFP. I could not help but think that around a couple of thousand years ago, even these people would have been cultural sanAtana dharmIyas. Looking at how notorious this place has become on the world map, it made me cringe when I realized that pANini was also born around the same place. Does the Pakistan government even realize that such great people walked its soil before the RoP (I am sorry that I have to give such a link) wrought havoc in the area? Do the people in that area even realize that their ancestors were the likes of pANini? Or is the official position that they were all supposed to be in jahiliyya? Anyway, let me get back to pANini's wonderful grammar.

The aforementioned fourteen sutras, if we observe carefully, contain all the letters of the Samskrit varNamAla - the svaras (vowels) a, i, u, R^i, lR^i, e, ai, o, au and all the vyanjanas (consonants). Using these, pANini makes more formulae known as pratyAhAras. For example, aN - would mean a i u N (if you looked at the above 14 sUtras, a i u N is the first sUtra). Similarly ak would mean a i u N R lR k i.e it would include all the varNas (letters) between a and k. You could make up other pratyAhAras such as ha T (which would denote ha ya va ra ) and ech (e O ~G ai au ch). Of course, the underlined letters in the above just serve as silent separators (known as it). This is just a minor part of vyAkaraNa which has a whole lot more than just pratyAhAras.

Let us take the first sUtra of the aShTAdhyAyI to just see how pANini has used these. The first one is || vR^iddhirAdaich ||. This is a two worded sUtra which can be split as vRuddhiH Adaich. It just means that "whenever in the following sUtras the word vRuddhi is encountered, it means Adaich". Now the question is - what is Adaich ? It can be split as At aich. "At" denotes the letter "aa" and aich from the preceding paragraphs and the mAheshvara-sUtrANi becomes "ai au ch". Hence the complete meaning of the sUtra is that the term vRuddhi is used to denote the vowels aa, ai and au. This terminology is then used in subsequent chapters. This was just to get a flavor for how pANini's sUtras are.

Sutras themselves mean terse axioms explaining a specific topic. pANini's aShTAdhyAyI has almost four thousand sUtras divided into eight adhyAyAs or chapters. Each adhyAya has pAdas and each pAda has the individual sUtras. In nearly four thousand sUtras, pANini has managed to capture both versions of Samskrit - worldly and vedic.

Just to clarify, pANini did not invent the Samskrit language. Samskrit had been spoken for a long time before pANini. pANini "merely" (if you can call it that) codified rules to describe correct Samskrit. pANini's effort is probably one of its kind as it uses a synthetic method to completely capture a natural language. As a result, it becomes possible for somebody born ten years ago to speak and understand the same language as somebody else who was born a couple of thousands of years ago. pANini's monumental effort has not strait-jacketed Samskrit - but has defined its boundaries and correct forms very well.

The methodology used by pANini apparently has the same expressive power as the Backus Naur Form (also known now as the pANini-Backus form in deference to pANini who had discovered it first), a method used to express formal languages. But pANini was the first one to use it for a natural language and that too for a language as great and vast as Samskritam. The intricacies in the sUtras (even recursion is used wonderfully) are too much for a human mind to comprehend and constantly remind us of a programming language. Of course, Samskrit itself is not a language suitable for computer programming as many Hindu enthusiasts have been led to believe. pANini's method is what is close to computing. But pANini's effort is definitely the first of its kind in the history of linguistics and so has been acknowledged by several modern linguists such as Noam Chomsky. Of course, pANini-maharShi has been praised to no end by the great bhAShyakAra patanjali himself (author of the mahAbhAShya) and does not need Chomsky's as well as our endorsements of his work.

I just had a final comment in this post on how important true recognition of our heritage is. While we have people like the Communists on the left end of the spectrum, who think that ancient India offered nothing lasting to the world and was forever mired in evils like caste and sati, we also have simple minded people in the likes of the VHP for whom anything good has to be Indian and Hindu in origin; conveniently forgetting the fact that Ravana and Duryodhana were also "Hindus". The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and in my opinion, closer to the right than to the left. It is for us to see what the truth is.

pANini's work is a monument to Human Genius. We can just humbly echo Saint tyAgarAja's wonderful words - "endaro mahAnubhAvulu; andariki vandamulu"

|| bhagavate pANinaye namaH ||
|| jIyAt gIrvANabhAratI ||


Pradeep Gowda said...


very informative post.


Raghavendra Rao said...

I'm interested in studying Samskrit in Bangalore; I'm attending samskrith bharathi's beginner's class but soon would like to advance my knowledge.

I would appreciate if you could share with me where you are learning the grammar. Thanks.

nIlagrIva said...

This is at Samskrita Bharati too. Ask any of the kAryakartAs and they should be able to help you.

But if you are in a beginner's class, I would advise you to be able to converse in Samskrit and understand it better before moving to vyAkaraNa. Also, I would suggest you to study some kAvya before venturing into difficult vyAkaraNa. (One will even forget Samskrit words when you start learning the prakriyA). If your command over the language is good, you could probably try checking it out.

mama rUpyake!

paraM yat bhavatA saMskRitAdhyayanaM kartuM iShyate iti jnAtvA mahAn pramodaH | yatnaM karOtu |


Jeya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bala said...


You have a nice article. Let us strive to bring back the language to its original glory.

I wrote two paras in this line.


Vishwas Srinivasan said...

Ah. Someone who can critique 'sakshi', panini's sutras and ebnf. Samskritha is fully self-descriptive courtesy panini.Chomsky failed to emulate that for English but gave us the wonderful world of generative grammars that made "programming" possible.

Any case:

Maheshwara sutras = lexical rules. Sandhi and samasas = phrase expansions. Chandas = metre (almost seems like someone was having too much fun). Would like to know your insight given the detailed and more current study..