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February 28, 2013 / A


If you tug the right thread, a whole tapestry of thoughts can unravel. So it was when I came across this rule in 6.3:

6.3.46 आङ् महतः समानाधिकरणजातीययोः
आ replaces the last letter of महत् when followed by a coreferent word or the affix जातीयर्.

In other words, this is the rule that accounts for the change the word महत् makes when it is used in words like महाराजन् or महापति.

Via Flickr.

It is so tempting to view the Ashtadhyayi as the true apparatus that underlies the Sanskrit language. As gravity moves the planets on their courses, so does the Ashtadhyayi seem to coordinate affixes and augments and roots and stems into finished words, as if working under the aegis of a cosmic (or at least linguistic) order. And why not? What Sanskrit student hasn’t learned that the root of भवति is भू, or that the stem of सः is तद्? What student hasn’t learned to classify the Sanskrit compounds into the four categories of द्वन्द्व, तत्पुरुष, and so on? These terms have been used so often as to become gospel.

But we must remember that these pearls before us, with the luster of permanence and stability, started as grains of sand in a different world entirely. The Ashtadhyayi’s devices are not meant to mirror the “real” nature of Sanskrit, if there is such a thing. They are conveniences meant to build a Sanskrit expression as tersely as possible.

Such is the case with the rule above. A well-read Sanskrit student can probably make a connection between the irregular compounded form महा and the irregularly lengthened masculine strong stem महान्त्, perhaps as a parallel to the behavior of -न् stems like आत्मन् (strong stem आत्मान्, compounded form आत्म). But the Ashtadhyayi does not acknowledge and does not care about any deeper reason for 6.3.46 to exist, except that it helps to build valid Sanskrit expressions. Its only concern is in modeling the expression.

And we don’t have to look far to find other rules like this. Consider 6.1.78, which describes vowel sandhi for compound vowels:

6.1.78 एचो ऽयवायावः
In continuous contact, the vowels ए, ऐ, ओ, औ are replaced respectively by अय्, आय्, अव्, आव् when followed by vowels.

From a comparative linguistic perspective the compound vowels ए, ओ, ऐ, औ are consolidated versions of more complicated forms ऐ, आइ, औ, आउ, and their sandhi patterns are just a reflection of these “original” forms. But again, the Ashtadhyayi does not care about deeper linguistic truth. It remains dedicated only to creating a lightweight and comprehensive model — one model of many millions possible.

In the course of studying this lightweight and comprehensive model I have learned so much about the corners and alleyways that make Sanskrit such a rich and compelling language to study. And in doing so I have sharpened my understanding of the language and about the general patterns that govern it. But the Ashtadhyayi addresses these patterns only insofar as they relate to its model. Such is the inscrutable genius of Panini.

I am sure I have reached this conclusion many times (only to have promptly forgotten the lesson learned), and I’m aware that I might have to relearn this lesson later on. But as I continue to read on I move one step closer to interpreting the true nature of the Sanskrit tradition, and pedagogical tradition more generally. What a delightful abstractive path lies ahead.


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