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March 23, 2012 / A

Optional rules and appeals to authority

I have started my study of the second chapter of the Ashtadhyayi. Since I used to know this chapter by heart, I figured it would not be difficult to relearn. And I was right. But it is not easy going, either. The rules are becoming more sophisticated, and the issues at stake are so subtle that I still do not grasp all of them.

S. D. Joshi’s commentary is invaluable here, and I am fortunate to have a copy of it.

I am so afraid, or at least as afraid as anyone could be of a 50 page grammar text. But I have already learned so much about this system. All I can do is hope it will bear fruit.

But enough of gloomy things. I thought I would write about two interesting features of the text: optional rules and appeals to authority.

Optional rules

A surprisingly large amount of Sanskrit-related material on the Internet talks about the language as “perfect.” This is in keeping with its self-designation as देवभाषा (“language of the gods”) and संस्कृतम् (“perfectly formed, made, manufactured, composed, or arranged”). But the trouble with stating something like this, and the trouble with arguing for or against this notion, is that “perfection” is so difficult to define. Certainly Sanskrit is capable of expressing things no other language can; none can deny that. But likewise English can express things that Sanskrit cannot, or at least not in the same way.

What seems to be the case is that those that argue for Sanskrit’s “perfection” do so on linguistic grounds: the sounds of the language are unchanging, every word can be understood perfectly, and the grammar is fixed.

To the first, I say that Sanskrit pronunciation is diverse; although the consonant groups are uniform across the board, there are small differences in pronunciation for sounds like ऋ, ॠ, लृ, and ज्ञ, and even the most “authentic” of these pronunciations seems at odds with what we find in older grammatical treatises. But I will proudly disclaim that I am not a master of Sanskrit pronunciation. I think my pronunciation is the most correct, but then again, most of us do.

To the second I can only give a confused laugh. I wonder if these people have tried reading Sanskrit, where sophisticated writers not only acknowledge ambiguity but develop it in beautiful and elaborate ways. In the Urubhanga, for instance, Bhasa plays on the two meanings of आहव (āhava) as both “sacrifice” and “war.” Thus Kurukshetra is consecrated as a strange and otherwordly place, where the jackals tear corpses from the chariots like the in-laws hand the bridegroom down from the wedding carriage; and the battlefield is spangled with glistening bodies like the sky is covered in stars. Sanskrit is a lovely and supple language, one that I unabashedly consider to be the most beautiful in the world; but beauty is different from “perfection,” and in this case I find it much easier to define.

To the third I can now respond. For our purposes here, Sanskrit and the language defined by the Ashtadhyayi are essentially synonymous. And within the Ashtadhyayi, there are several rules defining optional conditions. A feature can be made in one way or another. And sometimes Panini asserts a preference or cites the opinion of another scholar. This is evidence of a heterogeneous intellectual climate, where not all authorities were in agreement.

Panini defines optionality in one of three ways. The first is with the word वा. In ordinary Sanskrit this means “or,” and it at first implies that between two options A or B, either one could be used just fine. But then we have this rule:

1.1.44 न वेति विभाषा
The word विभाषा means “not वा”

By the grammar’s principle of economy, विभाषा can’t just mean the same thing as वा, or else the rule would be redundant. What’s happening here, ultimately, is that वा says something should preferably be so and that विभाषा says something should preferably not be so. Whether this is the preference of Panini or some other scholastic community, we cannot say. But the text, at least, weighs on one side or another. If the evidence sided one way or another, there would no need to assert preference; Panini would just state a rule and be done. But the fact that the grammar has to make preferential statements shows that Sanskrit didn’t quite have a “fixed” grammar.

If this does not convince you that Sanskrit is not fixed, you can also consider that later usage is actually at variance with the rules suggest by Panini. For instance, consider this rule from chapter 1.2. (Context is inherited from rules before it.)

1.2.13 वा गमः
(The benedictive suffix लिङ् and the aorist suffix सिच्, when beginning with a झल् consonant, are) preferably (treated as कित् when) after the root गम् .

The details of the benedictive and what these suffixes are is not important here. What is important is that due to the preference marker वा, the rule allows two forms and rules in the favor of one of them. The काशिकावृत्ति, one of the oldest commentaries on the Ashtadhyayi, illustrates this rule with two examples: समगत (“he went,” 3rd. sg. aorist) and समगंस्त (“he went, 3rd sg. aorist). The first form is produced if सिच् is treated as कित्, and the second form is produced if सिच् is not. Panini prefers the former. According to S. D. Joshi, this is the form found in Vedic texts. But the second form is the one most popular in later Sanskrit literature. This is clear evidence that Sanskrit did change after the Ashtadhyayi. So what is this talk about perfection?

Panini also uses the term अन्यतरस्याम् . S. D. Joshi renders this word as “indifferently,” meaning that Panini makes no assertion one way or the other. There are also other words like बाहुल्यम् (“generally”), but I haven’t seen any of those yet.

Appeals to authority

In addition to marking optionality in the ways described above, Panini also cites the authorities of other experts in the language. If these rules were 100 percent true, then Panini would not need to mark who said them. But he does so, it seems, precisely where usage is not quite clear one way or the other. Thus rule 1.1.6 cites the opinion of शाकल्य, and other rules cite the opinion of the आचार्यs in the abstract.


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