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March 22, 2012 / A

Just what is this about, anyway?

Rigveda 1.1 manuscript

Manunscript for the first hymn of the Rigveda, in padapatha: अग्निमीळे पुरोहितम् ...

In my haste to get started I neglected to mention some important things:

  • what the Ashtadhyayi is and why you should care about it
  • why I want to memorize it, and what I know already
  • how you can follow along

Here we go:

What the Ashtadhyayi is and why you should care about it

The descriptive grammar of Sanskrit, which Pāṇini brought to its perfection, is one of the greatest monuments of human intelligence and an indispensable model for the description of languages.

The अष्टाध्यायी (Aṣṭādhyāyī, “having eight chapters”) is a sūtra-style grammatical text composed by the grammarian पाणिनि (Pāṇini), and it is the culmination of a centuries-long effort to systematically define the Sanskrit language. We do not know exactly when, where, or why it was created, but indications are that it was constructed some time near or before the 5th century BCE in northwest India. It was probably created as part of a larger effort to ensure that the language of the Vedas and Vedic ritual remained intact. It has been passed down orally for thousands of years (although a written tradition probably existed as well), but today copies of the text are available in print.

In its 3,959 separate rules — constituting about 50 pages of printed material today — the text defines nearly every part of Sanskrit grammar. It is almost a tautology to say this, because what is called “Sanskrit” is (for the most part) nothing else but the language described by Panini. Although it leaves issues of pronunciation alone, the Ashtadhyayi considers the more complex parts of Sanskrit instead: phonetic combination (“sandhi”), word formation, semantic roles and basic syntax, and the many difficult and irregular parts of the language. Thus Max Mueller rightly said: “[No] one known Sanskrit, who does not know Panini.”

The text is difficult to understand for many reasons, most of which I will examine in later posts. But I will say for now that the Ashtadhyayi was so complete and comprehensive that we have almost no record of the tradition that preceded it. Evidently, those early works were no longer worth keeping.

As a grammatical device it is a work of genius. As a linguistic document it intimates the development of a highly sophisticated understanding of linguistics, the likes of which would not be rivaled for two thousand years. The text is hard and demanding, but it is immensely rewarding. And I’ve only managed to read two chapters of it.

Why I want to memorize it, and what I know already

As mentioned above, we cannot be exactly sure of the need originally filled by the text. Many questions about its early days remain unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable:

  • Was this meant for performers in various rituals, or was it meant for lay people?
  • What sorts of people were allowed to learn and study the text?
  • When did education start?

But we can be much more certain about what sort of void the text started to fill in later years. Starting from about the time of the Ramayana, one of the two Sanskrit “lores” or itihāsas (“Thus it was”), Sanskrit had already become distinct from the language of ordinary people. Here Hanuman decides how he should start talking to Sita, who is being held captive by Ravana in Lanka.

यदि वाचं प्रदास्यामि दविजातिरिव संस्कृताम ।
And if I, like a twice-born, speak in Sanskrit,
रावणं मन्यमाना मां सीता भीता भविष्यति ॥
Sita will think me to be Ravana and become afraid.
अवश्यमेव वक्तव्यं मानुषं वाक्यमर्थवत् ।
Certainly, then, it is best to speak a common (lit. “human”) tongue.
मया सान्त्वयितुं शक्या नान्यथेयमनिन्दिता ॥
By that alone I can soothe that virtuous girl.
— Ramayana, Sundara Kanda, 28.18-19

Notice here that Sanskrit is held apart from the language of ordinary men. In later usage it is even called देवभाषा, the “language of the gods.” (In Panini’s time these extra meanings did not exist. It was only भाषा, the “language.”) And as the language of the gods, Sanskrit deserved special attention. Students learned the language rigorously at the side of a guru, who would teach the language over the course of several years. They did not learn the language to pass a test or increase their GPA. They sought nothing less than total mastery, by which they could enter one of the most diverse and profound intellectual cultures to ever exist.

And it’s that same mastery that I hope to gain for myself.

Right now, my Sanskrit is very good. I have a very strong knowledge of Sanskrit grammar and can read any text in post-Vedic Sanskrit, although I sometimes need a dictionary to do so. I learned from a quasi-Western paradigm that mixed grammatical terms from Greek and Latin with Sanskrit terms for Sanskrit-specific features. But I am aiming now for grammatical perfection, and that will be much harder to grasp.

I have tried studying the Ashtadhyayi before, but I did not get very far into the text. I know quite a lot about its general structure and will comment on those structural features as I go forward.

Thus at once I know plenty and know nothing at all. I hope this will be enough to find my way through the text. But if it is not, I can consult two translations, each with commentary. The first is by the Pāṇini scholar S. D. Joshi, published in 1991. The second is by S. C. Vasu, published around 1897. The latter text does a clumsy job, but it has some Sanskrit commentary as well, which is much easier to understand. Both translators cite several examples for each rule, and I will bring up some of these as appropriate. My focus, however, remains on the process of memorization itself, and to that end I will describe those many challenges I face and how I (I hope) managed to overcome them.

How you can follow along

The full text of Srisa Candra Vasu’s translation of the Ashtadhyayi, together with his commentary, can be downloaded here. His translations are often awkward, but the small Sanskrit commentary that he provides under each verse is rather clear. Moreover, his use of examples often fills in the gaps that his translations leave behind.

I will release any extra materials I use as I make them.



Leave a Comment
  1. Hemant / May 19 2012 7:13 am

    “They sought nothing less than total mastery, by which they could enter one of the most diverse and profound intellectual cultures to ever exist.” – statement is highly effective, but still needs some elaboration, otherwise the original question- why to memorize it- remains unanswered. I mean, are there evidences/logic that only “cramming” the rules of grammar would make one master of the language? As far as I know many great languages of the world don’t have a “fixed compilation” of rules, let aside the precondition of memorizing them to enter their great culture. It would be great if you elaborate this point in the very article. Though I appreciate this article very much.

    • A / May 21 2012 11:16 pm

      I’ve been thinking about your comment for a few days now. And I think my reply is this: studying Sanskrit is fundamentally different from studying other Classical languages. This statement is as bold as it is vague; so I’ll elaborate a bit.

      First, we should recall what the Ashtadhyayi is. It is not quite a description of the language of the Vedas and Brahmanas and so on, although it does touch on those works to some extent. Rather, it is a full description of the भाषा, the spoken form of Sanskrit that was possibly Panini’s own native language. Thus its main goal was probably not to help us understand the language of the Vedas; instead, it probably meant to freeze a contemporary language and prevent it from changing any further.

      What this means is that a master of the Ashtadhyayi can do more than understand Paninian Sanskrit: he can produce it as well. I think this is what I had in mind when I said that we can “enter” an intellectual community. We can become members of that community; we are no longer forced to watch from the outside. And although this is not so important in the modern day, when there are only a few Sanskrit writers left, it was of immense importance not even a hundred years ago.

      Second, the fact that the Ashtadhyayi is a description of a spoken and “living” भाषा means that it preserves thousands of idioms and irregular forms. Idioms change over time, and with enough distance it can become difficult to know exactly what they mean. Morphologically लोलुप्यते looks like any other intensive word. But through our thorough knowledge of Sanskrit grammar we know that it has no intensive meaning; it is just a word of contempt. Thus “he cuts poorly,” not “he keeps cutting.”

      More importantly, the Ashtadhyayi preserves all of the irregular forms of Panini’s time (or at least, that’s what I assume). A quick example:

      1.2.7 मृडमृदगुधकुषक्लिशवदवसः क्त्वा
      क्त्वा is treated as कित् after मृड् etc. despite those roots taking इट्
      1.2.8 रुदविदमुषग्रहिस्वपिप्रच्छः संश्च
      And likewise after रुद् etc. सन् is treated as कित् after रुद् etc. as well.

      To prepare for writing this comment I read through some of the meatier parts of the Tekhne Grammatike, a Greek grammar text written around the second century BC. Despite the many irregular and unusual forms in the Odyssey, the Iliad, and other comparably old Greek works, the grammar just discusses what different cases and tenses tend to mean. A Greek student probably knew some commonly used irregular verbs and could tell which forms in Homer were irregular, but he couldn’t produce them all for himself.

      Third, Sanskrit is just more complicated than a language like Greek, especially with regard to word formation. You have to consider rules of इट्, accent, sandhi, and hundreds of idiomatic and special forms; you have to know exactly what each suffix means in certain contexts and how this meaning influences the weight and composition of noun and verb stems (e.g. लोलूप्य); and so much more that I have yet to study.

      And due to the nature of these complications, I see no other answer but to memorize some of these complexities. As for memorizing the whole text, it’s probably not necessary. But I want to come to Sanskrit like the poets and commentators before us did; with this device in mind, and with total knowledge of the contours of the language.

      I do not know if this is a good answer or even a correct answer; but it is the best answer I can give for now. Perhaps I’ll change my mind as time goes on.

  2. Raama / Jun 19 2012 6:05 pm

    Namaste my goal is to memorize it also, I was wondering if we can stay in touch via e-mails

  3. Gnanaboomi / Jan 27 2013 11:08 pm

    Dear Sir
    I reached here from one of the comments at I have searched to my best to find out an online resource for learning Sanskrit. But I have found them to be a little in the advanced level, for a layman to begin with and run along (importantly). People like you and Gshah of Uttishtha Bharata are rarity and are the need of the hour. It would be of tremendous value if you can come up with an online course ware for Sanskrit. I run a website called GnanaBoomi and I would love to host the course materials there for anyone to benefit. Please let me know.

    Kind regards,
    Admin –

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