The Astadhyayi of Panini
By Anoop Verma
In the initial stages of civilisation, all spoken languages were in a fluid state. Panini engineered a linguistic revolution by providing language with a set of basic principles and rules. His great work, the Astadhyayi, has served the purpose of standardising Sanskrit grammar so that this language could become the mighty tool for the expression of the cultural voice of India.
The Astadhyayi is the earliest extant treatment of grammar in Sanskrit language; in it Panini has dealt with Sanskrit as it was spoken during his time. But the work continues to be of great significance till today, as we continue to adhere to the methodology, logic and the apparatus of thinking that Panini had developed many millennia ago. Many scholars believe that whereas mathematics grew out of philosophy in ancient Greece, in India it was partly an outcome of linguistic developments ushered in by the likes of Panini and Patanjali.
In Astadhyayi, Panini has used perfectly worded rules, or sutras, to define and establish different aspects of Sanskrit grammar. The book has about 4,000 sutras, divided into eight adhyayas, or chapters, of four padas, or sections. Two supplements are appended to this text – Ganapatha and Dhatupatha. Ganapatha comprises of a list of 261 ganas, or groups of words; in it we find representative lists of towns, villages, communities, Vedic branches, schools, gotras, or important family names, and much else. Dhatupatha is a comprehensive list of around 2,000 roots of the language, as it was spoken in Panini’s time.
Panini has endeavoured to shed light on some of the leading topics of grammar – things like history of words, the meaning of prepositions and the process by which various words have been formed. He also expresses the view that it is the aspect of current usage, or loka, that alone determines the meaning and definition of words.
In other words, he believed that in any attempt of deriving the real meaning of words, the focus should always be on the way the word is being used in contemporary society. He was averse to the idea of hypothetically deriving the meanings. Because of his reliance on the way words were being used in contemporary society, the scope of Panini’s grammatical inquiry got broadened. He extended his field of investigation to the broader spectrum of language, instead of restricting himself only to the classical interpretations. He worked by collecting and classifying all the possible meanings under which the words had been formed. He grouped the words under suitable headings, whose numbers ran into hundreds. He recorded the activities of all sections of society and referred to them by suitable names.
Astadhyayi is of interest, not just to the student of grammar, but also to a historian. In fact, the Astadhyayi has often been seen as a treatise on ancient Indian society. The book contains important information on things like, food and the drink, games and amusement, the proper names of the different classes of people, the types of dresses that they wore, and things like that.
There are numerous references to the punch-marked coins that were in extensive use during that period. We also have a great mass of information on popular agricultural practices, arts and crafts, labour and wages, exchange and barter, measures and weights, etc. There is light shed on the activities and the constitution of Vedic schools of that period. The Vedic schools were mostly organised on the basis of free and willing association of their members. In great detail, Panini describes the ideal of learning that prevailed during his time.
Of particular interest are the details that the Astadhyayi offers on religion. There is information on Gods and Goddesses worshipped, the new movements of devotion to deities, worship of statues and images, performance of yajnas, or religious ceremonies, and the institution of ascetics. There is lot of information on political and administrative issues. There is mention of the institution of kingship with its council of ministers, and various other senior level functionaries of the government.
Panini has also made reference to the senior administrative officials, who used to be known as Adhyaksa, or the in-charge. Two kinds of states were in existence in that era – the monarchies, which were under the rule of a king or a dynasty, and the Sanghas, or the republics. In case of the Sanghas, a group of martial tribes came together to cobble a government on basis of a republican constitution. In some Sanghas the tradition of democracy was more deeply rooted than in others. Panini makes references to some Sanghas, which were organised with a developed party system and were governed through firm set of laws, framed and implemented by an elected executive body.
Astadhyayi is a vast treasure trove of information on history and culture of ancient India. But its enduring value is still a result of the laws of Sanskrit grammar that it contains.
Over the period of many millennia, other scholars have written their own commentaries on the Astadhyayi. These commentaries have further replenished and enriched the world of Sanskrit grammar.
However, we know very little about Panini’s personal history. There is no agreement amongst scholars about the era in which Panini flourished. Some researchers have placed him in the 4th or 5th century BC, but there is no concrete historical evidence to back that assessment.