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February 27, 2013 / A

Magic

I remember when I first tried reading the Ashtadhyayi. The text was incomprehensible to me (as befitting a सूत्र composition), so I turned to the commentary of S. C. Vasu for help. But his Gordian prose was so impossibly involuted that I was hardly better off than when I started. And for that reason I’m ever grateful to S. D. Joshi, whose commentary on the first few chapters of the Ashtadhyayi did so much in helping me understand Panini’s system.

But students tend to take the attitudes of their first teachers, and I’ve done the same with Joshi’s outlook on Sanskrit grammar and the grammatical tradition. One attitude that S. D. Joshi’s work has left me is that the tradition has good intentions but is ultimately misguided (and wrong) about many of the issues involved with interpreting the Ashtadhyayi.

It’s tempting to disregard that attitude as modern arrogance against a venerable tradition that has maintained Sanskrit for thousands of years (or else a misunderstanding of what the tradition actually hoped to achieve). But some of his arguments — including those about the real meaning of वा, विभाषा, and अन्यतरस्याम् — have convinced me. (In an earlier post, I actually write about this argument as if it is objective truth. I am not so sure about that any more, but I have not yet found an argument to dissuade me.)

I bring this all up as background to help explain one of the things I find distasteful about the Ashtadhyayi, or at least its tradition: its tendency to pull extra meaning out of thin air. Here is a rule that exhibits some of what I mean:

6.3.26 देवताद्वन्द्वे च
The augment आनग़् replaces the last letter of the first member of a द्वन्द्व compound if the compound denotes a divinity (देवता).

This is a plain rule and one I can easily grasp. But according to Rama Nath Sharma, the use of द्वन्द्व here limits the scope of this rule to a few particular compounds. This baffles me; Panini already has some devices for restricting the range of application of a rule:

  • Use of बहुलम् (variously) or अल्पज़ः (rarely) to avoid enumerating specific instances
  • Use of a गण (as in इन्द्रावरुणादिषु) to limit application to an explicit list

I also feel this way about some of the commentary’s opinions on the use of च. S. D. Joshi made convincing arguments for each interpretation, and I haven’t found the same in Patanjali (or Rama Nath Sharma) so far. And the less I know about Patanjali’s indicatory ग् , which is one of the most contrived devices I have ever seen, the better.

I fully acknowledge that I might be out of my depth. The Ashtadhyayi is a complex work of genius whose waters I’ve really only just begun to explore. But some of these explanations still seem like magic and misdirection. I hope I can proceed in good faith and avoid any sort of pedagogical Stockholm syndrome one way or the other.

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