Panini’s Ashtadhyayi sets linguistic standards


By Akash Shukla

पदवाक्यप्रमाणशास्त्रेभ्यः (व्याकरणमीमांसान्यायादिभ्यः) अर्थनिर्धारणार्थानां विधिकल्पानां प्रकाराणाञ्च सङ्कलनम् अत्र

In other words, language is the storehouse of all human knowledge and it is represented by words and meanings. Across languages, even though words and their usage differ but their conceptual meanings remain unchanged. Interestingly, the dictionary meanings are rarely taken into consideration.

Hailed as the founder of literature and language, this famous Sanskrit Grammarian gave a scientific analysis of Sanskrit phonetics and morphology. No! There could absolutely be no brownie points for guessing the right name as Panini in his unparalleled language effort brought about the development of Sanskrit’s grammar.

Keeping it ‘relative’ and ‘gestural’, all language speakers understand it ‘contextually’ and ‘tonally’. Fascinating as it may seem, language is ambiguous in one sense and flexible in the other.


Amid the list of Indian grammarian Panini’s eminent feats, his most celebrated work is called Ashtadhyayi, written in the 6th to 5th century bce. Encompassing the piece in eight chapters, the treatise underpins the difference between the language of sacred texts and the language used for communicating daily.

A basic set of rules and definitions was given to describe Sanskrit grammar. With its complex use of metarules, transformations, and recursions, Ashtadhyayi is not only generative but descriptive as well.

Linguistics in Non-Western traditions

While the most interesting non-Western grammatical tradition speaks of India, the dates continue to depict an interesting tale as well; it dates back at least two and one half millennia and culminates with Panini’s grammar.

As soon as Sanskrit’s visibility and inception became visible to the Western learned clan, the procedure to decode the Indo-European grammar comparison ensued. As one thing leads to another, the next thing that happened in the chain reaction was that foundation stones were laid for 19th century structures of comparative philology and historical linguistics.

But, Sanskrit in all this was simply used for data. Indian grammatical learning had no direct part to play. To the contrary, 19th century chroniclers realized that native tradition of phonetics in ancient India was superior to Western knowledge.

In the rules or (sutras) of Panini, there is a remarkably subtle and penetrating account of Sanskrit grammar.


In Hindu grammarian Panini’s work, the sutra style attained matchless perfection. The sutra literature began before the rise of Buddhism, though the philosophical sutras all seem to have been composed afterward.

Unravelling Ashtadhyayi

As translated by Srisa Chandra Vasu, Vyakarana (Grammar) is determined as one of the six Vedangas—‘limbs of the Veda’. Its study was deemed necessary for a correct interpretation of sacred mantras and proper performance of Vedic rites.

Linguistic, phonetic and grammatical inquiries were addressed to elucidate the Vedic meaning and the effort also aimed at settling its textual form. ‘Vedanga’ represents grammatical science and has ever since remained the benchmark and authority for Sanskrit grammar in India. For a detailed understanding of linguistic facts and with an insight in the vernacular’s structure, this work stands peerless in the literature of any nation.

Panini’s system of arrangement differs entirely from the one that is usually adopted in our grammars because the work is composed in aphorisms. They needed to be learnt by heart as the economy of memory-matter was the author’s utmost consideration. Panini’s object was primarily achieved by grouping all cases exhibiting the same phonetic or formative feature; it did not matter whether they belonged to the same part of speech or not.

For this purpose, he used an ingenious system of algebraic symbols that consisted technical letters (anubandha). They were mainly used with suffixes and they indicated changes for roots or stems during the process of word-formation.

Among all the language vitalities that he brought to the fore, Sanskrit morphology, syntax and semantics in his work Ashtadhyayi continue to find integration in historical Vedic religion.