Panini: Indian scholar who gave world the concept of grammar


large-Indian stamp honouring Panini

By Gaurav Sharma

The world has always been a playground for geniuses. But time and again Earth gives birth to a different kind of brilliance, one that completely revolutionises the way we think and act.

It can be hard to imagine such a personality to be existing some two and a half thousand years ago. Yet, the same genius is found in Panini, an ancient Indian scholar.

Born in Brahmana caste, the highest of the social orders at that time, Panini was a model modern day nerd, a geek who redefined the laws of language (grammar).

His magnum-opus– the Ashtadhyayi– created in a mere forty pages, establishes the most complete linguistic system in the world. The epic work built a firm footing for establishing Sanskrit as the lingua-franca of the masses for more than a thousand years.

Born around the 4th century BC(subject to contention) in the city of Charsadda, Pakistan, Panini possessed a unique mind and a piercing intellect that was able to decipher the deeper meaning of things.

By demystifying Sanskrit, a language of phenomenal precision and vision, Panini captured the essence of language in such a concise way that it could be memorised and passed-on orally.

A short hand or a code was developed through which Panini expressed the ancient language’s structure and grammatical principles. Various elements of the language (types of verbs, classes of sound etc) were represented by abbreviations, usually a single alphabet.

The master grammarian, then combined these abbreviations into verse like strings or sutras, which in turn, set out the rules of the language in a highly sophisticated meta-language.

While the four-thousand sutras so created, take less than two-and-a-half hours to recite, the same translation in English amounts to a mind-boggling thirteen-hundred pages.

Even more commendable is the fact that Panini could devise an innovative system that functioned like a power algorithm, similar to how computers function in today’s day-and-age.

But the magical erudition of Panini does not end there. Such is the magnitude of his treatise, that through a combination of general rules and specific exceptions, a person can translate basic linguistic input into limitless grammatical sentences.

Paul Kaparsky, professor of linguistics at Stanford University could not believe that the science he was teaching in University had roots going back thousands of years.

“When I was studying grammar with Chomsky back in 1962, we were trying to write precise and comprehensive description of languages. But our main intention was to find what all languages have in common. In order to do that, we tried to construct an explicit and comprehensive grammar. To our surprise, we found out that such a magnificent feat had already been achieved by Panini, and that too on the basis of a single language”, says Kaparsky while talking to BBC.

So remarkable was Panini’s ability to compress and articulate rules of grammar that the Ashtadhyayi is likened to the Turing machine, an idealized mathematical model that reduces the logical structure of any computing device to its essentials.

Sadly, with the demise of Sanskrit as a language of intellectual enquiry and debate, Panini’s face has also been reduced to that of a forgotten relic.

However, in spite of receding into the background of popular discourse, not everyone has forgotten Panini’s works that continue to power-forward the global economy.

Vikram Chandra, a novelist and former software professional has written a book called Geeks Sublime as an ode to the genius of Panini.

While highlighting the epic proportion of Panini’s work that spans diverse areas, Chandra says, “Panini does not only play an important role in Sanskrit and linguistics, but in a strange way, he connects with everything that we do today.

All the programming languages that are used to change the global landscape today, are in some sense dependent on Panini’s insight and ideas.”

The honorary–capturing the world in a cow’s hoofprint–aptly sums up the visionary genius that was Panini.