Pānini Composes Sanskrit Work of Grammar Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Pāṇini composed a grammar of the Sanskrit language, which set an enduring standard that continues to interest linguists for its systematic approach to language description.

Summary of Event

Pāṇini (also known as Dakṣiputra Pāṇini) and his forerunners in India, stimulated by a religious sanction to preserve the correct interpretation of ritual texts, pioneered the study of language. He composed the Aṣṭādhyāyī (c. 500 b.c.e.; Astakam Paniniyam: Panini’s Eight Books of Grammatical Sutras, 1887), the earliest extant systematic grammar (vyakarana) of any language—in his case Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient Indian literature and philosophy. This work has interested modern grammarians for its almost mathematical approach to describing language and its profound influence on all later grammatical tradition in India. The Aṣṭādhyāyī became the most important authority on correct Sanskrit and is perhaps the oldest scientific treatise available. Pāṇini Patañjali

Little is known about Pāṇini’s life except that he was born in a small town in the ancient province of Gandhara (in modern Pakistan). His date of birth can only be approximated to the fifth or sixth century b.c.e. He is remembered primarily for the Aṣṭādhyāyī, the title of which is interpreted to mean a “work consisting of eight chapters” or “a collection of eight chapters.” Composed in Sanskrit (Old Indic), it consists of nearly four thousand concise rules or formulas that prescribe the correct forms of the spoken language known to Pāṇini. The form of his grammar, called the sūtra style, suggests that the text was composed orally. Though writing was known to Pāṇini, each of his rules is loaded with such condensed meaning and function that any student must already have been familiar with them in order to use the grammar. During Pāṇini’s time and continuing until the modern period in India, the prestige of oral texts, which had to be preserved in memory and passed down through oral instruction, was high, while written texts were not as highly esteemed.

The eight chapters of Pāṇini’s grammar are a string of sūtras, each brief and precise but also difficult to interpret without the aid of an explanatory commentary. An example is the final sūtra of the work, “a a,” whose meaning is too complex to explain adequately in a few sentences. The brevity of the rules in sūtra style was an aid to memorization. In Pāṇini’s time, the master himself would provide the commentary, while the students learned the sūtras by heart. Ancient written commentaries have also survived; two of the most famous are the Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali (second century b.c.e.; English translation, 1856) and the Kāśikā-vrtti by two authors of the seventh century c.e.

Pāṇini’s grammar is prefaced by a table, organized to produce all the needed sounds of the language. Then the grammar proper moves on to a discussion of rules of interpretation, definitions, and the technical language of the grammar itself. The section on metalanguage, or the technical vocabulary and rules that govern the rules, is the key to understanding the sūtras and their astonishing brevity. In other words, Pāṇini had to invent an artificial language, a metalanguage, to allow a concise and scientific description of his object language, Sanskrit. The rules that produce sentences follow. Added to the grammar is a list of roots. The exact interpretation of many features of Pāṇini’s grammar has remained a topic of debate and study by scholars, both traditional scholars in India, who continue to produce commentaries, and linguists in the West.

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The language described by Pāṇini was the language spoken by educated people of the region in which he lived, the language he considered a standard for correct speech. Pāṇini also mentions regional variants to this standard language as well as earlier dialects, which have been preserved in older literature. The oldest existing literary monument of India is the Rigveda (also known as Ṛgveda, c. 1500-1000 b.c.e.; English translation, 1896-1897); between this text and Pāṇini’s time, other works were produced, such as commentaries on the prevailing ritual and the philosophical texts known as Upaniṣads. Pāṇini shows his awareness of these materials and some of their unique linguistic features. He does not, however, deal with the popular language spoken by an uneducated class. Theirs was most likely a language closer to the Prakrit (Middle Indian) language preserved in inscriptions dating from the third century b.c.e. Though Pāṇini does mention predecessors, earlier grammarians, their works have not survived. Perhaps the excellence and prestige of Pāṇini’s grammar eclipsed earlier authors.

Significance

Pāṇini’s influence in India was immense. Most later grammarians based their work on his system. When Sanskrit ceased to be a living language and became instead a literary and sacred language, his rules, though originally descriptive, came to be understood as prescriptive, normative, and authoritative. They were memorized as a regular part of education; poets and scholars were expected to know many of Pāṇini’s most important rules. In traditional schools young boys would sit around a teacher and recite Pāṇini’s formulas, learning them by rote. Only much later would a discussion of the meaning of the rules ensue. Pāṇini’s grammar was therefore established as the standard for correct usage. Almost all later works of Sanskrit grammar depended on his approach, which filtered down through commentaries and adaptations. Even today, Sanskritists who wish to make use of any of the classical commentaries, such as those on the fourth century c.e. poet Kālidāsa, need to recognize citations from Pāṇini.

The Western discovery of Pāṇini’s system influenced the development of nineteenth century comparative philology and, through that, modern linguistics. In the twentieth century he has also interested linguists as a precursor of modern theories which construct ordered rule-based descriptions of language.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cardona, George. Recent Research in Paninian Studies. Delhi: Motilal, 1999. An overview of scholarly work on Pāṇini.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katre, Sumitra M., trans. Astadhyayi of Panini. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987. Contains the Sanskrit text along with a close translation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mahulkar, D. D., ed. Essays on Panini. Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1998. Articles on a variety of topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scharfe, Hartmut. Grammatical Literature. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1977. A history of the entire grammatical tradition in India. Pāṇini is discussed in chapter 2.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scharfe, Hartmut. Panini’s Metalanguage. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1971. A technical account of an important and unique feature of Pāṇini’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staal, J. F., ed. A Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1972. Contains substantial material on Pāṇini.
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