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March 22, 2012 / A

How to memorize the Ashtadhyayi

For the past hour or so, I have been thinking about how best to memorize the Ashtadhyayi. This is what I’ve decided to do.

Let’s say I come across a new rule. I read it under my breath, stumbling constantly over the strange and uncomfortable sound clusters that characterize the Ashtadhyayi. Once I have read it once, I read a translation (either S. D. Joshi’s or S. C. Vasu’s), look over the Sanskrit commentary, and glance at the examples. This process takes a few minutes, but not much longer. Conceptually, the rules are rather simple, but the terms involved can be rather gnomic.

Having (sort of) understood the rule, I try to repeat it in my head without looking at the text. The goal is recall, not repetition. Reading something hundreds of times will be of no benefit unless you can produce the matter on your own. And once I can recall the rule easily enough, I put it aside for a few minutes.

But of course I haven’t fixed that rule in my head. Thirty seconds from now I might have totally forgotten it. So I do two things. First, I fit the rule into its context. I look at surrounding rules and repeat them in sequence, trying to fix in my mind the association that some old rule comes right before the one I’m currently on. (I usually do this with जटापाठ). I try to think of them not as isolated rules but as parts of a larger text. This can be hard when the rules are indeed isolated and can float around anywhere. Recently I had this problem with the rule क्तक्तवतू निष्ठा (“The affixes of the past participles are called निष्ठा”). More on this later.

Finally I review. It won’t do to review every 5 minutes for the rest of my life. Likewise I can’t read them then review every month thereafter. That way, I’m liable to forget. The key is spaced repetition. I’m not skilled enough to handle this on my own, so I use Anki, a flashcard program that uses spaced repetition. You can read more about Anki on Wikipedia or download Anki for your own use.

But how should I group these rules together? I’m not sure, but this is what I’ve considered.

Group by content

At first I figured it was reasonable to group rules based on their content. Thus I would go over the rules of गुण and वृद्ध and some various definitions before delving into the rules of प्रगृह्य, or sandhi exemptions. (These are rules 1.1.1 to 1.1.19). But this system, I’ve found, does not easily handle rules that don’t really fall into groups. Thus क्तक्तवतू निष्ठा slipped my mind when I was trying to recall 1.1. And likewise I had forgotten ईदूतौ च सप्तम्यर्थे (“ई and ऊ, when signifying the locative case, are exempt from sandhi changes”) because it fell at the very end of the group. Chunking the rules by topic is conceptually useful, but it is easy to leave a chunk out.

Group by count

Instead I thought I would try something much more barbaric: grouping the rules by count. In my first group I have the first 10 rules. In my second group I have the next 10 rules. And so on. This approach has multiple advantages, from what I can tell so far:

  • It’s easier to remember standalone rules. If I reach the end of some conceptual group but haven’t hit the end of my count group, I will immediately know that I have one or two more rules to recall before moving on.
  • Rules are put into groups of equal size. In 1.3, the rules of the आत्मनेपद go on for some 70 lines. This is one of the things that drove me away from the Ashtadhyayi when I tried to memorize it earlier. But even though it’s only a trick of perception, using groups of 10 rules is soothing somehow.
  • It’s easier to keep track of where you are in the text. If I can remember the first rule of group 3, let’s say, then I know that the rule is rule 21, the next is rule 22, the third is rule 23, and so on. This is probably not very useful, but I would like to be able to do this regardless.
  • One block propels you into the next. When grouping rules conceptually, it’s easy to leave something out. But by grouping in blocks of 10, it’s inevitable that one conceptual group will start in one block and end in the next. This makes it easier to remember which block of rules comes next.

In Anki, I make flash cards mapping a range of rules (e.g. “1.1.1 – 1.1.10”) to the rules themselves. Early results are promising, but I haven’t tried it seriously yet.

No grouping at all

I have also thought about using a sort of “continuous” approach, weaving one rule directly into the next without regard to higher structure. I think I will play with this to some extent. But I think blocks are still a useful structuring element, if only so that I can learn the line numbers.

Of course, the goal isn’t to “memorize the Ashtadhyayi in blocks of 10.” It’s to “memorize the Ashtadhyayi,” period. I hope that this approach will be a sort of scaffolding while these rules start to set in my memory, just as a wooden frame can brace wet concrete. And ultimately, I hope to be able to recite the whole thing continuously from memory.

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4 Comments

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  1. Anaamika / May 18 2012 9:01 am

    Here’s my approach thus far that has yielded some success. I went through TEMOLAT and hence know some of the main prakriyaa rules. Then I choose an adhyaaya and paada that had the most number of sutras that I already knew. For me, this happened to be 6.1. I started to byheart in sequence and went from 6.1.1 to 6.1.120 in about 3 months. I am also following it up with prathama vritti of those sutras. I am also looking at supplementing this with lakara siddis and general Samskritam literature reading. I don’t think any one approach in itself will yield the necessary results – it is multiple approaches in confluence that is probably most optimal.

    • A / May 18 2012 11:19 am

      (For those who are wondering, TEMOLAT is The Tested Easiest Method of Learning and Teaching Sanskrit.)

      I am wondering if I should have started with some of the प्रक्रिया (derivation) rules; books 1 and 2 were somewhat interesting but didn’t have any rules for actually creating words. That’s why I’m so excited about book 3 now. But I think I was interested enough early on that it wasn’t a problem for me.

      I think supplemental literature is probably the best way to reinforce these rules. I am fortunate that Ram Nath Sharma provides several examples for almost every rule, so I can reinforce my understanding that way. In the future I hope to read the Mahabhashya and some other commentaries; but I am wary of Patanjali, since S. D. Joshi argues that Patanjali made a lot of mistakes and shouldn’t be seen as an ultimate authority over Panini’s system.

      Thanks for writing. Best of luck to us both.

  2. raama / Oct 27 2012 4:33 am

    Namaste,
    I was wondering if you made any progress w.r.t ashtAdhyAyi memorization. I want to memorize it as well. I keep listening to audios posted on Sanskrit Priyah skydrive. I take sets of 20 and wonder many times if its a bit much.
    I would appreciate your thoughts on memorizing daunting yet rewarding task. u can reach me at raamakoti at gmail dot com

    thanks raama

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