The first text on linguistics available to us is the Sanskrit grammar of Panini. As irony would have it, this book, perhaps the first scientific work in western history, remains without equal in its field even today.

— "Encyclopaedic Dictionary of the Sciences of Language", Oswald Ducrot and Tzvetan Todorov

The beginnings

If grammarians in ancient India were considered the first among the philosophers, it was because, as early as the Rig Veda, it was thought that all knowledge was a function of language (“The principles of vaak creates or fashions…the manifold forms out of the infinite ocean of ultimate Reality" – Rig Veda 1.164.41).

It was, therefore, entirely natural that all schools of philosophy – both aastika and naastika – spent a great deal of time debating the relationships between word and meaning and between language and the world it articulated into being, eventually going on to create elaborate formal structures of linguistic analysis.

(There was always a delicious hint of the provisionality of truth because of the innate contingency of language – something that only became mainstream in the history of Western ideas after Jacques Derrida.)

For instance, the study of the Vedas was built around six allied disciplines (or Vedangas):

Shiksha (Phonetics)
Kalpa (Ritual)
Vyaakarana (Grammar)
Nirukta (Etymology)
Chandas (Metrics)
Jyotisha (Astronomy)

However, there can be no doubt that the arrival of the great grammarian Panini (circa 700 BCE) marked a watershed moment in the history of linguistic thought in India. Until Panini, discussions about language had ranged from descriptive to philosophical, but the Ashtaadhyaayi was a truly disruptive text, a work of staggering genius.

The coordinates

Indian thinkers in ancient India were not big on autobiographical details, often representing their schools of thinking and not themselves, and preferring a certain anonymity. Therefore, it is invariably difficult to create a chronology of their lives. From the shards of evidence scattered across the tradition and a close reading of his works, it is generally believed that Panini was a native of a small town in what is now Attock in Pakistan and lived and worked in the seventh century BCE.

According to linguistics scholar Kapil Kapoor, the evidence that Panini was definitely pre-Buddha is that though he uses the word “nirvana”, it’s not in the Buddhist sense. Now there is a meta-rule in Indian thought: “Not to mention Buddha is not to know Buddha and not to know Buddha is to be born before Buddha.”

That, and various other nitpicky details that scholars have spent decades quibbling over, go on to place him in the seventh century BCE. It is also likely that, like any linguist worth their salt, he was well-travelled across the sub-continent since he gives copious examples of specific linguistic usages from different regions, often listing geographical and cultural variations.

The text

Panini’s monumental work, Ashtaadhyaayi, is both a theory and a grammar of Sanskrit. While it is primarily scientific in temper – it is the shortest, rule-bound complete grammar of any language in the world – it also embodies, through its sutra-based formulations, the essential philosophy of the language, dealing with various degrees of abstraction in the conceptualisation of relationships between grammatical categories, hierarchies and concepts.

After all, in the ancient Indian scheme, linguistic competence was not the end goal of language analysis. Instead, it's the nature of a linguistically uttered truth – which is contingent on many things.

According to Ashtaadhyaayi, the grammatical foundation of Sanskrit is inherent in five different units, in order of ascending complexity: varna (sound), akshara (syllable), shabda (word), pada (a compound word or phrase) and vaakya (sentence). These come together following rules of relationship and causality, agreement and governance, much like any other language in the world.

However, where the sheer brilliance of the Ashtaadhyaayi dazzles the modern-day linguist (it is no secret that Noam Chomsky considers himself in the tradition of Panini) is the way in which the grammar has been structured in the form of highly compressed aphorisms or sutras that provide all the 3995 rules of Sanskrit grammar.

The entire text is arranged into eight chapters (the eponymous ashta adhyaayas), with each chapter subdivided into four parts. At the heart of all this richness, amazingly, is a 14-sutra long algorithm. Yes, a mere 14 sutras.

The Algorithm

Before we get to the algorithm – and everyone runs away here! – let’s remind ourselves of two things. The most recognisable feature of linguistic construction in Sanskrit is the tendency of words in sentences to come together in compounds. That follows logically from the oral (as opposed to visual or scriptal) nature of the language, which led to large amounts of information being compressed in a highly structured, mnemonic-like format. However, in spite of the slightly dry effect of this enumerative style, the texts are full of examples drawn from everyday life (cooking is a particular favourite) and are always slightly mocking of their own seriousness.

To return to the first point, this compound formation is called “sandhi”, and most of us who have studied middle-school grammar in any modern Indian language will remember the sleepless nights over its rules (raja + indra = rajendra; surya + udaya = suryodaya; hima + aalaya = Himaalaya, etc.). It all goes back to Panini.

However, Panini employs his creative scholarship to create a single system that gives all the rules of “sandhi” in brief, without having to enumerate the rule for each of the different letters, every single time. And together, these 14 sutras provide the skeleton for an infinite number of relevant categories that can be quickly derived in response to this rule or that. These 14 sutras are often called the Shiva Sutras.

The philosophy

The most fascinating aspect of the Ashtaadhyaayi is its “poly-lectal” nature. If a “lect” refers to a particular linguistic area or language cluster, the Indian subcontinent has always been a rich linguistic ecology, of several language clusters that bear their own local stamp. Thus, the ambitious Ashtaadhyaayi incorporates more than one linguistic form – given the variations in speech patterns across the sub-continent – into a single grammar. (The rules of sandhi that are common to a whole host of modern Indian languages – hima + aalaya = himaalaya, to give you the simplest example – all draw from Panini’s rules.)

The conventional way of approaching Panini is to give him credit for “standardising” Sanskrit. However, that is not the real deal. What Panini actually achieved was to examine and include a whole range of Sanskrit usages, from different provinces, under the rubric of “bhasha” – thus suggesting ways of communication, through an appreciation of divergences and commonalities, in a plurilingual land.

Influenced by both the Nyaya and Vaisheshika schools of philosophy and by developments in poetics, Ashtaadhyaayi not only enumerates the finicky categories extant in Sanskrit grammar – the pada (noun), the dhatu (verb) and the kaaraka – but goes beyond it all to paint a portrait of the idiosyncrasies of common speech – of “bhasha”, that oral civilisational category – on the sub-continent.

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, one PhD dissertation, and most recently of The Heat and Dust project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat with Saurav Jha. She is grateful to her former teachers at Jawaharlal Nehru University, especially Prof. Kapil Kapoor, Prof HS Shivaprakash and Dr Rajnish Mishra for introducing her to alternate methods of looking at ancient Indian thought.