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Sanskrit’s Greatest Grammar Puzzle

About Ashtadhyayi

  • ‘Ashtadhyayi’, or ‘Eight Chapters’ is an ancient linguistic text written by the scholar Panini towards the end of the 4th century BC.
  • It is one of the greatest intellectual achievements of any ancient civilization, and the most detailed and scientific grammar composed before the 19th century in any part of the world.
  • It sets the linguistic standards for Classical Sanskrit for how Sanskrit was meant to be written and spoken.
  • It delves deep into the language’s phonetics, syntax and grammar, and also offers a ‘language machine’, where you can feed in the root and suffix of any Sanskrit word, and get grammatically correct words and sentences in return.
  • Important commentaries on Ashtadhyayi: The Mahabhasya of Patanjali (2nd century BC) and the Kashika Vritti of Jayaditya and Vamana (7th century AD).

Sanskrit before Ashtadhyayi

  • By the time the ‘Ashtadhyayi’ was composed, Sanskrit had virtually reached its classical form — and developed little thereafter, except in its vocabulary.

Sanskrit after Ashtadhyayi

  • Ashtadhyayi which was built on the work of many earlier grammarians, laid down more than 4,000 grammatical rules, effectively stabilized the Sanskrit language


The Problem

  • To ensure the ‘language machine’ was accurate, Panini wrote a set of 4,000 rules dictating its logic.
  • But as scholars studied it, they found that two or more of the rules could apply at the same time, causing confusion.
  • To resolve this, Panini had provided a ‘meta-rule’ (a rule governing rules), which had historically been interpreted as:
  • ‘In the event of a conflict between two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the serial order of the ‘Ashtadhyayi’ wins’.
  • However, following this interpretation did not solve the machine’s problem. It kept producing exceptions, for which scholars had to keep writing additional rules.


Solution to this Problem

  • Right-hand side rule: In his thesis, the Indian student argued that the meta-rule has been wrongly interpreted throughout history; what Panini actually meant, was that for rules applying to the left and right sides of a word, readers should use the right-hand side rule.
  • Using this logic, the Indian scholar found that the ‘Ashtadhyayi’ could finally become an accurate ‘language machine’, producing grammatically sound words and sentences almost every time.
  • Significance of the solution:
    • The discovery now makes it possible to construct millions of Sanskrit words using Panini’s system.
    • As Panini’s grammar rules were exact and formulaic, they can act as a Sanskrit language algorithm that can be taught to computers.


Panini, the ‘Father of Linguistics’

  • Time period: Panini probably lived in the 4th century BC, the age of the conquests of Alexander and the founding of the Mauryan Empire.
    • He has also been dated to the 6th century BC, the age of The Buddha and Mahavira.
  • Location: He likely lived in Salatura (Gandhara), which today would lie in north-west Pakistan.
    • Panini was probably associated with the great university at Taksasila, which also produced Kautilya and Charaka, the ancient Indian masters of statecraft and medicine respectively.


About Sanskrit

  • Sanskrit is considered to be one of the oldest languages in the world.
  • It is an old Indo-Aryan language in which the most ancient documents, Vedas, are composed in what is called Vedic Sanskrit.
  • Sanskrit used to be a pan-Indian language in the Vedic period and most languages in the country have branched out of Sanskrit.
  • Sanskrit has been written both in Devanāgarī script and in various regional scripts, such as Śāradā from the north (Kashmir), Bāṅglā (Bengali) in the east etc.
  • Important literary works in Sanskrit:
    • Kālidāsa, dated anywhere from the 1st century BCE to the 4th century CE, whose works include Śakuntalā, Vikramorvaśīya, Kumārasambhava and Raghuvaṃśa.
    • Śūdraka and his Mṛcchakatika (“Little Clay Cart”), possibly dating to the 3rd century CE.
    • Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacharita is one of the finest examples of Buddhist literature.
    • Bhāravi and his Kirātārjunīya (“Arjuna and the Kirāta”), from approximately the 7th century.
    • Māgha, whose Śiśupālavadha (“The Slaying of Śiśupāla”) dates to the late 7th century.
    • The two epics Rāmāyaṇa (“Life of Rāma”) and Mahābhārata (“Great Tale of the Bhāratas”) were also composed in Sanskrit, and the former is esteemed as the first poetic work (ādikāvya) of India.
  • Promotion of Sanskrit by Government of India:
    • Providing financial assistance to Adarsh Sanskrit Mahavidyalayas / Shodha Sansthans.
    • Development of E-content in Sanskrit language for online professional development programme for teachers at secondary stage.
    • Financial assistance to NGOs / Higher Educational Institutions of Sanskrit for various Research Projects / Programmes.
    • The government has established the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan in Delhi as a nodal authority to promote Sanskrit.
    • Sanskrit is also taught through Non-formal Sanskrit Education (NFSE) programme, by setting up Non-Formal Sanskrit learning centres, in reputed institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology, Ayurveda institutions, Modern Colleges and Universities.
    • The New Education Policy (NEP) laid an ambitious path for “mainstreaming” the language. Sanskrit is to be offered in schools, including as one of the language options in the three-language formula, as well as in higher education.


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