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March 22, 2012 / A

Breaking into the Ashtadhyayi

Diagram of the chakravyuha


Like the chakravyuha, the Ashtadhyayi is a difficult and circular device that one can penetrate only with great skill. Usually a student approaches the text with the help of a teacher (assuming they approach it at all; rote memorization of the Ashtadhyayi is rare nowadays, although it was universal in the past). It is often the case that students memorize the Ashtadhyayi without knowing what it means at all. Only through further guidance do the rules they have carefully memorized show their true meaning.

Most traditional education has been like this. But I have not had the luxury of traditional instruction, and I do not have the time and flexibility for it now. Instead, I have had the fortune to benefit from three texts, all egg teeth into the Ashtadhyayi.

The first is the English-language translation and commentary by Srisa Chandra Vasu. His introduction to the text is quite lucid, and it clarified many parts of the structure of the text that I had found totally cryptic. His translations and comments were at times puzzling and misleading, but they are still useful for understanding the Ashtadhyayi.

The second is the Mahābhāṣya, the lengthy commentary by the sage Patañjali. (My use of this text was rather limited, though. Perhaps that will change in the coming months.)

The third is the Siddhānta Kaumudī (“Exposition (lit. “moonlight”) of the Tradition”) and the abridged Laghu Siddhānta Kaumudī (“A Light Exposition of the Tradition”). The Siddhānta Kaumudī addresses one of the most challenging parts of the Ashtadhyayi: the unusual order of its rules. The text rearranges the Ashtadhyayi’s rules in a more intuitive order, placing simpler definitions at the beginning. But since the Ashtadhyayi depends so much on having its rules in a particular order, this can be difficult. From what I understand, the issue is resolved through a detailed commentary. For students who still find the whole body of 3,959 rules too troublesome, the Laghu Siddhānta Kaumudī presents only a subset of these rules.

I have had trouble finding copies of these texts online, but almost all of them can be found here.


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