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April 22, 2012 / A

The Ashtadhyayi as an oral composition

Old India is known for its culture of hyperorality, for its tendency to elevate the spoken word over the written word. As Sheldon Pollock and others have noted, this attitude toward spoken language could only have emerged if speaking and writing coexisted. If writing were unavailable, these speakers would not have emphasized the value of oral language so much; there would have been no need to do so.

I am not sure of my chronology, so I cannot say whether or not the Ashtadhyayi was itself composed within this context of hyperorality. But certainly it is the case that the text was learned and taught orally. Two of the rules I have seen so far indicate this:

1.3.2 उपदेशेऽजनुनासिक इत्
In a technical expression, nasal vowels are indicatory.
1.3.11 स्वरितेनाधिकारः
Governing rules (अधिकार) are indicated by the स्वरित accent.

But it seems that nasality and accent were lost in the centuries following the text’s creation. The काशिकावृत्ति says प्रतिज्ञानुनासिक्याः पाणिनीयाः (“Those in the Panini school apply nasality by convention.”) and प्रतिज्ञास्वरिताः पाणिनीयाः (“Those in the Panini school apply accent by convention.”)

Thus for most of its history, the Ashtadhyayi could only be understood correctly by making use of tradition and custom.

This discussion has been a sort of prologue to this: I have found audio recordings of the Ashtadhyayi online, via the samskrita web group. The rules in these recordings are accented only stylistically; the accent has no meaning in the context of the text as a whole. You can download those recordings for your own use, as well.

When listening to these recordings, I notice how wrong some of the Sanskrit sounds to me. One of the reciters pronounces वर्णो as वरणो, and likewise प्रवक्तृ as प्रवक्त्री . According to the samskrita group, these recordings were “removed from the public space due to some flaws in the reciting” ; perhaps this is what was intended? Or could it be because of other problems, such as when one of the reciters stumbles over 2.1.24:

2.1.24 द्वितीया श्रितातीतपतितगतात्यस्तप्राप्तापन्नैः
(A word ending in) case 2 (is compounded with a सुबन्त word to form a तर्पुरुष) if that word is श्रित, अतीत, पतित, गत, अत्यस्त, प्राप्त, or आपन्न.

In any case these recordings will probably not be as useful as I thought. I was hoping to consolidate these recordings and listen to them in my spare time. But the best way to reinforce this knowledge, I’ve found, is to willfully recall it. Listening to another reciter is too passive an exercise to really be useful for me.

Edit [5/25]: This turned out to be false. Even if listening isn’t an active process, it makes pronouncing certain rules easier, even if I play the recording in the background. The Ashtadhyayi’s rules are occasionally long, unwieldy, and non-metrical, so it can be difficult to get a sense of the underlying rhythm. Recordings help greatly in this regard.

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