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By N. Siva Senani

Vyākaraṇa, Grammar.

vyākaraṇāt padasiddhiḥ padasiddher arthanirṇayo bhavati |
arthāt tattvajṅānaṁ tattvajṅānāt paraṁ śreyaḥ ||[1]

(From [knowledge of] grammar one obtains words; from words, meaning; from meaning the knowledge of Brahman; and from that, the Ultimate Bliss.)

The word, Vyākaraṇa, is formed by prefixing 'vi' and 'ā' to the root 'kri', to do. The first prefix suggests division, differentiation, distinguishing etc.; the sense of the second prefix is to put together, gather, to include etc. Thus, Vyākaraṇa may be thought of as an analysis of language to identify the basic building blocks of language and a synthesis of those building blocks. More formally, Grammar is the system of rules, implicit in a language, governing the structural and functional [2] relationships of the language including word components, phonology, morphology and syntax [3]. Syntax refers to rules governing how words combine to form phrases and sentences. Morphology refers to the process by which word components – roots, stems, prefixes, affixes etc – combine to form words. Phonology, a more technical and narrower term of linguists, is the study of 'sound systems' of a language. To give an example, in English, phonology studies along with stress and intonation, why words English words are pronounced the way they are. Grammars of some languages include pronunciation, word meaning and etymology; but Indians have treated the science of pronunciation and etymology separately. A particular feature of the Indian tradition is the close relationship between religion (more a 'way of life' as viewed by the practitioners) and these sciences. The study of these is clubbed with the study of scriptures and the basic texts are considered divine in inspiration.

Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī is the text meant when one refers to the grammar of Sanskrit without any qualification. This is called Aṣṭādhyāyī because it contains eight chapters; each of these is further divided into four quarters. In total, there are 3,978 sūtras. The reference to a sūtra has three parts: ‘1.4.14’ refers to the 14th sūtra in the fourth quarter of the first chapter. This text, composed more than 2,400 years ago, remains the most comprehensive grammar of Sanskrit and is still taught and studied in a slightly re-arranged manner in India and elsewhere. It is also one of the most comprehensive grammars of any language in the world. Yet for such a comprehensive grammar, it is remarkably short, only as long as 1,000 ślokas. To give an idea of how long this is, it would fit into fifty A4 sheets, typed normally. This extreme terseness is mainly due to the nature of the sūtra-type of literature. A sūtra, usually translated as aphorism, is extremely terse – often being unintelligible – and indicates the key aspects or essence of the subject matter. For a sūtrakāra, it is famously said, half a syllable saved is as valuable as begetting a son. With such extremely terse construction, collections of sūtras are indeed short. However, the conciseness of the Aṣṭādhyāyī is also on account of a) the most basic or fundamental level at which the problems of grammar were considered and answered, b) the ingenuity of its structure as seen by the use of 'pratyāhāras' and the order in which the sūtras have been arranged. Each of these aspects of the Aṣṭādhyāyī is fascinating in its own right and would be treated at some length at the appropriate place. Pratyāhāras are notational abbreviations formed by combining the first and last letters of the portion of text being referred to.

In addition to Pāṇini's work, three other works – all related and closely dependent on the Aṣṭādhyāyī – need to be mentioned with respect to grammar. They are the vārtikas by Kātyāyana or Vararuchi, the bhāṣya by Patanjali, and the rearrangement into chapters by Bhattoji Dīkṣita in the form of Siddhāntakaumudī. An edition of the Mahabhāṣya contains the original sūtras, the vārtikas and the bhāṣya; similarly Siddhāntakaumudī contains the original sūtras, many of the vārtikas, and notes by Bhattoji Dīkṣita. The aspect of rearrangement in the Siddhāntakaumudī is best explained after discussing the ordering of the sūtras in the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Apart from Paninian grammar, there are other grammars of Sanskrit before Pāṇini and after Pāṇini as well, and aspects of those grammars are still used in addition to the main body of the Paninian grammar. For instance, the visarga does not have the status of a character in Paninian grammar; yet, in all Indian languages, not merely Sanskrit, the anusvāra (bindu) and visarga find a place in the varṇamāla at the end of the vowels.

Sanskrit grammar is also the model/source for grammars of other Indian languages. While this author is not acquainted with any grammar other than that of Telugu, Sanskrit and English – with maybe some exposure to the grammar of Hindi – one gets a sense that other Indian languages like Bengali and Marathi borrow many bits of their grammar, in addition to the vocabulary, from Sanskrit. In Telugu, the situation is that grammatical terminology is imported wholesale from Sanskrit, though the meaning of the term is sometimes inappropriate. For instance, the infinitive is called the 'tumun-anta' in Sanskrit, as an affix called tum[un] is attached at the end of a verb-stem to form the infinitive, as in gantuṁ (to go) and paṭhituṁ (to read). The infinitive is called the tumun-anta in Telugu as well, though the affix which is actually attached is 'ku' as in povuṭaku (to go) and caduvuṭaku (to read). This is so because the meaning associated with tumun-anta as the infinitive has transcended the etymological meaning of 'ending in tumun'. If the situation is such in a language with about 2,000 years of existence and 1,000 years of high quality literature, one could well imagine how strong the influence would be on the later languages belonging to the same branch of Indo-European languages as Sanskrit. The first Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam, is said to be based on aindra grammar, a precursor to Paninian grammar.

Thus, we see that Sanskrit grammar is at once one of the oldest grammars, one of the tersest, one of the most comprehensive, and verily the specimen nearest to a 'perfect grammar' that humanity has.


Grammar and Scripture

The six aṅgas, elements in the sense of constituent parts, of the Veda are Śikṣa (phonetics), Chandas (prosody), Vyākaraṇa (grammar), Nirukta (etymology), Jyotiṣa (astronomy and astrology) and Kalpa (compendium of instructions – regarding ritual and law). These are said to be the nose, feet, mouth, ears, eyes and hand in that order, of the vedas. The vedas are to be learnt along with these six aṅgas, and further four upāṅgas – subsidiary elements – of Nyāya, Mīmāṁsa, Purāṇa and Dharmaśāstra. A person who has learnt the Veda in such a way is referred to as sa-aṅga-upāṅga-veda-vid, combined as sāṅgopāṅga-vedavid.

Thus vyākaraṇa is an integral part of the vedic studies. In fact the very first purpose of vyākaraṇa listed by the sage Kātyāyana is rakṣa – protection of the vedas. For a text which was not written for many years, the integrity of the vedas over thousands of years and across thousands of kilometres is remarkable. This was possible due to the vikriti pāṭhas of the Veda. Whereas in the prakriti pāṭha, the Veda is in proper order, in vikriti pāṭhas, the original text is arranged in various elaborate ways, as if each syllable were like the svaras, sa-re-ga-ma-pa-da-ni. For instance, while learning classical music, at an early stage one encounters what are known as janṭa svaras –

sa-sa-re-re-ga-ga-ma-ma re-re-ga-ga-ma-ma-pa-pa ga-ga-ma-ma-pa-pa-da-da .... and so on.

Now, if instead of individual svaras, we insert syllables (or words) of a particular mantra, with various permutations and combinations, the various vikriti patterns of reciting or chanting the vedas obtain. The most famous of such vikriti pāṭhas is the ghana, a ghanapāṭhi being considered the most qualified amongst vedic pundits. As the order changes, different syllables come in contact with each other and different sandhis occur, all of which ought to be meticulously followed. Vyākaraṇa is the science which helps determine the form of the resultant syllable. A ghanapāṭhi needs to be a master of sandhi rules and apply them continuously even as he focuses on the original and rearrangement of the same. A small wonder, then, that they are considered the foremost of the vedic pundits.

The other four purposes enumerated by the sage Kātyāyana are ūha (imagination, as in a priest using the appropriate noun forms depending on whose behalf the ritual is being conducted), āgama (vedas – the correct recitation and understanding of), laghutva (conciseness) and asandeha (removal of doubts).

That grammar is not removed from ritual or religion in the Hindu society is also seen from the fact that in the Sri Chakra arcana, a few sūtras of Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī are recited as the Mother is fond of all the vidyas. The very origin of grammar is attributed to Maheśvara, the sound of whose drum is said to have given rise to the fourteen Māheśvara sūtras, which are assumed to have been studied in Pāṇini's grammar. Even as the pride of place is given to the Aṣṭādhyāyī, there are separate vedic grammars called prātiśākhyas.


These are grammars nominally specific to a given Śākha, branch of a Veda. For instance, the Taittirīya prātiśākhya is associated with the Taittirīya śākha of the Krishna Yajur Veda. These prātiśākhyas are somewhat limited grammars, with more focus on the phonetics; but they sometimes deal with material outside the scope of grammar and the application of some of their rules is often beyond the Vedas. For instance, the final chapter of rik-prātiśākhya deals with vedic chandas, more elaborately than Piṅgala's chandas. Sanskrit – and hence in many Indian languages, maybe excepting Tamil to a certain extent – spellings are phonetic, that is, a word is spelt exactly as written. However, three syllables seem to be exceptions to this rule: the saṁyuktākṣara, conjunct syllable, formed when 'ha' is followed by 'ma', 'na', and 'ṇa' as in Brahma, vahni, aparāhṇa. In each of these cases, it seems that the pronunciation of the syllable is reversed to result in 'Bramha', 'vanhi', and 'aparāṇha' and no rule in Aṣṭādhyāyī explains this apparent reversal. We find an answer in the Taittirīya prātiśākhya, where it is explained that the 'ha' followed by ṇa, na, and ma is nasalised, and in actual pronunciation the nasalised 'ha' sounds like the anunāsika (ṇa, na and ma) followed by ha. This is what leads to the apparent reversal, especially as the last nasal sounds are not audible.

Other rules of various prātiśākhyas prescribing non-difference amongst va and ba; ra and la; ya and ja; or doubling of certain conjuncts are followed not merely in the vedic language but in the geographies where those recensions were popular. Thus, in Bengal where Śukla Yajurveda is the most popular, to this day, the non-difference among va and ba is followed. It is believed that one should follow Śiṣṭa vyavahāra, the conduct of the distinguished. The most distinguished persons in a region are the vedic pundits, and if they interchange va and ba, the rest of the population would also do it. Thus, in this derived fashion we have the rules of prātiśākhya also governing day to day usage.

Pre-Paninian and Post-Paninian Grammar

Some ancient texts mention eight grammars including the Paninian, and some mention nine texts. The Ramayana describes Hanuman as the knower of nine grammars – navavyākaraṇārthavetta. According to one tradition when Brihaspati taught grammar to Indra, he set out to teach every form of every subanta and tiṅganta. Indra is supposed to have improvised upon this by separating the prakriti and pratyaya, the base and the affix. The aindra vyākaraṇa is not purely mythological (nor is the Brihaspati vyākaraṇa); some traces of it are indeed found. As mentioned earlier, the Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam is based on Indra's grammar. We have presently available, ten prātiśākhyas, all of which are some sorts of grammar, if mainly vedic. That apart, Pāṇini himself mentions ten grammarians: Āpiśāli, Kāśyapa, Gārgya, Gālava, Cākravarmaṇa, Bhāradvāja, Śākaṭāyana, Śākalya, Senaka and Sphoṭāyana. Other texts mention 15 grammarians before Pāṇini. All in all, according to Mahamahopadhyaya Sri Pullela Sriramachandrudu (in the introduction to his Telugu translation of the Laghu Siddhāntakaumudī, the introduction being based on Yudhiṣṭhir Mīmaṁsaka's 'Saṁskrit vyākaraṇ kā itihās'), about 85 pre-Paninan grammarians can be identified.

Then, there are internal evidences to suggest that some of the sūtras in Aṣṭādhyāyī are actually earlier sūtras used without change by Pāṇini. A proper discussion of the internal evidence requires a good knowledge of grammar. At this point, it would suffice to say that Pāṇini's work is best thought of as a culmination of generations of effort, rather a work entirely by Pāṇini.

As it were, the development of grammar did not end with Pāṇini, though such an accusation is often hurled at Pāṇini. Most unusually in the sūtra-vritti-bhāṣya tradition, when Kātyāyana or Vararuchi wrote the vritti on the sūtrapāṭha, he corrected Pāṇini, sometimes subtly and sometimes directly; and Patanjali who wrote the Mahabhāṣya further improvised. The present form of the Aṣṭādhyāyī is usually the text finalised in the Kāśikā, written in the eighth century after Christ, though it is possible to identify most changes done by the Kāśikākāras. Glosses on commentaries, explanations of glosses and so on kept appearing up to the sixteenth century till the Siddhāntakaumudī was composed by Bhattoji Dīkṣita. Bhattoji Dīkṣita is quite orthodox and does not admit anybody other than the munitrayam – Pāṇini, Vararuchi and Patanjali – as an authority on grammar.

The Aṣṭādhyāyī, initially in its original form, and in the last four hundred years or so in the form of Siddhāntakaumudī, stands out as the brightest star. Even so, it has to be appreciated that this is a result of a continuous process of observation, theorisation, discussion and refinement that happened across vast distances in time and place and that is has been built upon, refined further and improvised mainly in its application, after its composition.

The Companion Books of Aṣṭādhyāyī

The Aṣṭādhyāyī is studied along with its companion books: the Māheśvara sūtras, the uṇādi sūtras, the phiṭ sūtras, the liṅgānuśāsanam, the gaṇa pāṭha and the dhātu pāṭha.

Essentially, the Māheśvara sūtras are the characters of the alphabet arranged as 14 sūtras. These serve to generate 44 pratyāhāras, notational lables, which denote a set of syllables. These short-cuts are used through out the grammar which contributes to the terseness of the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Early Sanskrit etymologists, most famously Yāska (the author of Nirukta) argued that all words can be derived etymologically from the roots. The grammarians differed by qualifying that only the regularly formed words can be derived etymologically. Notwithstanding the much acclaimed comprehensiveness of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, a number of irregular words cannot be derived using only the rules of the Aṣṭādhyāyī. The uṇādi sūtras serve to fill this gap and supply the affixes and rules required to derive the irregular words. Pāṇini is aware of the uṇādi sūtras, mentions them as 'too many', and does not include them in the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

The phiṭ sūtras are so named because they give rules of accents in 'phiṭ's, nominal stems. It is interesting that the nominal stem is called prātipadika according to the Paninian system. The authorship of these sūtras numbering 87, arranged in four chapters, is attributed to Śāntanavāchārya. Whereas the sūtras dealing with accent in the Aṣṭādhyāyī deal with the finally derived noun forms, the phiṭ sūtras deal with the accent in the nominal stem. Paninian rules on accent presuppose knowledge of accent in nominal bases and so the phiṭ sūtras are essential to complete the rule-system governing accents.

The liṅgānuśāsanam gives the rules of gender of words. Sanskrit has three genders and the gender of the word occasionally differs from the natural gender. A famous example is the wife, which has synonyms in all the three genders: bhāryā (feminine), kalatram (neuter) and dārā (masculine). Since Sanskrit admits technically only two kinds of words – subanta (ending in sup, case affixes) and tiṅganta (ending in tiṅ, verb-affixes pronounced as ‘ting’ rhyming with thing and wing), every non-verb is a subanta and has gender. Subanta includes seven of the eight parts of speech, as classified in English, that is, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and interrogatives. Additionally, it includes derived words such as participles. Many of these are indeclinables, which have the same form in the three genders and eight cases.

The gaṇapāṭha consists of groups of similar words, to which certain rules of grammar apply identically. The gaṇa or group is referred to by the starting word. The authorship of the list is disputed, but reference to this list is essential to know the full application of any given rule.

The dhātupāṭha is a list of about 2,200 primitive roots classified into ten groups and gaṇas. Each group of roots conjugate broadly similarly. Conjugation is the process by which, a root or stem transforms into a verb. For instance, khād is the root meaning 'to eat'. To this root, the tiṅ affixes are added and it forms the present tense, third person (prathama puruṣa in Sanskrit) verb of khādati (eats, eating), past tense, third person verb of akhādat (ate), future tense, third person verb of khādiṣyati (will eat) and so on. Almost all vocabulary of Sanskrit is traced to these roots and thus knowledge of the dhātupāṭha along with grammar is all that is required to master Sanskrit.

In the Siddhāntakaumudī, the rearrangement of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, the uṇādi sūtras, the phiṭ sūtras and liṅgānuśāsanam are included. The Māheśvara sūtras are normally given before the beginning of the text. Thus of the six companion books to the Aṣṭādhyāyī, four are normally included with the main book, and the two lists – gaṇapāṭha and dhātupāṭha are like appendices.

Māheśvara Sūtras

nrittāvasāne naṭarājarājaḥ nanāda ḍhakkām navapaṅcavāram |
uddhartu kāmassanakādi siddhān etadvimarśe Śivasūtrajālam ||

(At the end of his dance, Naṭaraja sounded his drum nine and five times. Desirous of the upliftment of siddhas like Sanaka, I expand these Śiva sūtras).

The fourteen Māheśvara sūtras, so named because they have emanated from the drum of Lord Śiva during his Cosmic dance, are:

  1. a, i, u, ṇ |
  2. ṛ, ḷ, k |
  3. e, o, ṅ|
  4. ai, au, c|
  5. ha, ya, va, ra, ṭ |
  6. la, ṇ |
  7. ña, ma, ṅa, ṇa, na m|
  8. jha, bha, ñ|
  9. gha, ḍha, dha ṣ|
  10. ja, ba, ga, ḍa, da, ś|
  11. kha, pha, cha, ṭha, tha, ca, ṭa, ta, v|
  12. ka, pa, y|
  13. śa, ṣa, sa r|
  14. ha, l|

The last letter in each of the sūtras is called an 'it' (rhymes with ‘with’) and is purely indicatory, not a part of the sūtra itself. When any alphabet in the above list is combined with an 'it', a pratyāhāra is formed which indicates all the intervening letters, but not the intervening 'it's. Thus, ac indicates a, i, u, ṛ, ḷ, e, o, ai and au. In Pāṇini's system, 'a' stands for the short or hrasva 'a', the long or dīrgha 'ā', and a third yet longer form 'a3' called pluta, which is pronounced for a period of three measures, where a hrasva is pronounced for a period of one measure, and dīrgha, two measures. To complete this description, the letter also indicates the svarita, udātta and anudātta vowel 'a', as well as the nasalised and non-nasalised vowel 'a'. Thus it represents eighteen forms of 'a'. Thus, collectively, the pratyāhāra ac includes all the vowels of Sanskrit. This in fact is the etymological origin of the technical word for vowels in Sanskrit (and Hindi, Telugu etc.), ac. Similarly hal refers to ha, ya, va, ra, la, ña, ma, ṅa, ṇa, na, jha, bha, gha, ḍha, dha, ja, ba, ga, ḍa, da, kha, pha, cha, ṭha, tha, ca, ṭa, ta, ka, pa, śa, ṣa, sa and ha. In other words, hal refers to all the consonants, and is used in that sense in Indian languages. Pāṇini has used 44 pratyāhāras in the Aṣṭādhyāyī, but not others which are technically possible.

While the Māheśvara sūtras are nothing more than the letters of the alphabet, and are actually called akṣarasamāmnāya or varṇasamāmnāya, their beauty lies in their arrangement. The grouping is such that similar letters which are commonly subject to certain rules are grouped together. However this grouping itself is dynamic; while all consonants behave similarly in case of certain sandhis, the semi-vowels ya, ra, la, va behave differently from the rest of the consonants for another sandhi. All such groupings are made possible with this arrangement. In short, by the very grouping, all the possible permutations and combinations of similarities amongst the letters of the alphabet are encoded. All this, with but a single repetition of one letter! One wonders at the ingenuity of the arrangement and can readily appreciate why the origin of such an arrangement is considered divine.

The Types of Sutras in the Aṣṭādhyāyī

The sūtras of Aṣṭādhyāyī are classified under six heads: sanjñā, paribhāṣā, vidhi, niyama, atideśa and adhikāra. Some add a seventh head, niṣedha.

The most common rule is the vidhi, operational rule. These describe the normal processes of grammar. For instance, 6.1.101 (akaḥ savarṇe dīrghaḥ) states that the vowels a, i, u, ṛ and ḷ lengthen when followed by a similar (savarṇa) vowel.

A sanjñā sūtra is a definition which introduces new technical words. Fox example, 1.4.14 (suptiṅantam padam) defines a word as something ending in either a sup or tiṅ, both of which are technical words referring to case-affixes and verb-affixes. The names 'sup' and 'tiṅ' are themselves formed by combining the first syllable of the case-affixes with the last 'it' of the last case-affix and by combining the first syllable of the verb-affixes with the last 'it' of the verb-affixes. We observe that this convention is exactly similar to the way pratyāhāras formed using the Māheśvara sūtras.

Rules which establish such conventions are called paribhāṣa rules, or metarules, or rules of interpretation. 1.1.46 (ṣaṣṭhī sthāneyogā) gives the rule of interpretation when a word is used in the genitive case, ṣaṣṭhī vibhakti. Normally, ṣaṣṭhī vibhakti is used to convey the sense of possession, as in rāmasya bāṇam, rāmabāṇam (Rama's arrow), relation in place, comparison, nearness, proximity, change, collection, component member and others. The present sūtra clarifies that in the sūtras of Aṣṭādhyāyī, whenever a word occurs in ṣaṣṭhī, without any qualification, it will assume the meaning of 'in the place of'.

The adhikāra sūtras are usually translated as headings. For instance, 2.13 (prākkaḍārātsamāsaḥ) states “all the terms that we shall describe from this point up to the sūtra 2.2.38 (kaḍarākarmadhāraye) will get the designation of samāsa or compound.” Similarly, 3.1.1 (pratyayaḥ) states that the third, fourth and fifth chapters deal with affixes. Thus, we see that the validity of adhikāra sūtras extends over many sūtras. Thus, in a sense they are super-vidhi sūtras. These are marked with a svarita tone, so that a student might know which sūtras extend their influence. In printed texts, some notation or the other, such as marking adhikāra sūtras in bold print, is followed.

An extension rule extends the operation of a rule to a given item as well. An example would be out of place in an introductory essay, such as this, but suffice to say that unlike an adhikāra sūtra, the application of an extension sūtra is much more restricted, usually to one sūtra.

A niyama sūtra restricts the application of a previous rule. This marks exceptions to the vidhi rules. A niṣedha sūtra is a negation. For instance 1.1.9 (tulyāsya prayatnam savarṇam) defines savarṇas as those which have a comparable effort in producing the varṇa. The immediate next sūtra, 1.1.10 (nājjhalau) clarifies that vowels and consonants cannot be savarṇas.

Based on these rules, a vritti is made of the sūtras. A vritti is a complete, intelligible sentence which gives the intent of the sūtra.

The Arrangement of Sutras in the Aṣṭādhyāyī

The Aṣṭādhyāyī was composed in the days when such texts were learnt by heart first and then the application was understood, practiced and mastered. Consequently, it is expected that all the nearly 4,000 sūtras be applied simultaneously in a given situation to determine the correct grammatical transformation. In case more than one sūtra is capable of being applied, but there is a conflict in the force of such competing sūtras, usually the latter prevails. Depending on the type of sūtra, the order of preference in case of conflict varies. The order of preference for different types of sūtras is clearly laid out.

The exception to the above arrangement is spelt out in 7.2.1 (pūrvatrāsiddham) which states that the earlier sūtras be treated as not valid. Thus, in the first seven chapters and a quarter (referred to as sapādi, with the quarter), the sūtras are applied progressively, one after other to a given situation; in the last three quarters (the tripādi) the same arrangement continues, but with the sūtras in the first seven chapters and a quarter not being valid.

The application of Aṣṭādhyāyī to a given situation requires considerable intellectual prowess, so much so that not all word forms are settled. Even after it was applied competently for a number of centuries, it is possible to launch into a discussion of what the correct form of a particular word is. The scope for Śāstrārtha discussion on even such a simple matter as how should 'rupees five hundred' be expressed in Sanskrit is considerable.

Such difficulties gave rise to the need for a simpler way to study the Aṣṭādhyāyī. Early attempts were to re-organise it under subject-matters, prakaraṇas. These attempts, over many iterations spread across centuries reached a perfect shape in the sixteenth century in the form of Siddhāntakaumudī.

The Siddhāntakaumudī

The Siddhāntakaumudī, composed in the 16th century by Bhattoji Dīkṣita, rearranges the 3978 sūtras of the Aṣṭādhyāyī under various groupings, more similar to a modern book of grammar. Along with the sūtra is given a short explanatory comment by Bhattoji Dīkṣita. The key job done by these comments or notes is point out application of other sūtras along with the present one, or where other seemingly contradictory rules are not applicable.

This has become so popular that for the last four hundred years, the Aṣṭādhyāyī was mainly studied in the form of the Siddhāntakaumudī, not in its original form. Swami Dayānanda Saraswati, the founder of Ārya Samāj, promoted the study of Aṣṭādhyāyī in its original form more than a hundred years ago. Notwithstanding the sustained efforts of Āryasamājis ever since, Siddhāntakaumudī with its derived texts, mainly the Laghu Siddhāntakaumudī remains the most popular text for learning grammar.

Bhattoji Dīkṣita himself wrote a commentary on Siddhāntakaumudī called Prauḍhamanorama, where he establishes that only Pāṇini, Kātyāyana and Patanjali may be accepted as authorities on matters of grammar. There have been other commentaries on Siddhāntakaumudī, including a couple – brihacchabdaratna and laghuśabdratna by the grandson of Bhattoji Dīkṣita, Hari Dīkṣita.

The Siddhāntakaumudī includes commentary on the uṇādi sūtras, phiṭ sūtras and liṅgānuśāsanam, apart from the commentary on māheśvarasūtras and the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Contents of Grammar

A proper description of the grammar of Sanskrit ought to include descriptions of the various elements. This is best done by presenting the contents divided amongst the various prakaraṇas of the Siddhāntakaumudī:

  1. Ground Rules
  2. Sandhi
  3. Declensions
  4. Indeclinables
  5. Formation of feminine bases
  6. Cases (kārakas)
  7. Compound words
  8. Taddhitas or secondary derivatives
  9. Conjugation of verbs
  10. Derivative verbs
  11. Krit affixes (kridantas)
  12. Uṇādi sūtras
  13. Vedic grammar
  14. Liñgānuśāsanam


The second appendix is the gaṇapāṭha. Unlike the liṅgānuśāsanaṁ, the Aṣṭādhyāyī as a book on grammar would be incomplete without the gaṇapāṭha. Many sūtras, as in 'sarvādīni sarvanāmāni' (sarva and others are the pronouns) refer to a class of words known simply by the first word, to which the entire sūtra applies. Since this list of words grouped together is so important, the Siddhāntakaumudī incorporates them into the main text and lists the words wherever a gaṇa is referred to.

The gaṇapāṭha has more than a thousand words listed under 258 gaṇas. Some gaṇas, like the sarva gaṇa mentioned above have further sub-gaṇas which are also referred to separately.


Siddhantakaumudi[4]Madhaviya Dhatuvritti[5]Paniniya Dhatupatha[6]Ashtadhyayi[7]
Class 1105999511651010
Class 272 717672
Class 325 242624
Class 4137 137161140
Class 534 343934
Class 6143 153173157
Class 725 252525
Class 810 101010
Class 961 607161
Class 10395390489410

The other important appendix of the Aṣṭādhyāyī is the dhātupāṭha, which lists all the roots or verbal bases. There are different versions of the dhātupāṭha with about 2,000 to 2,200 roots. Sāyaṇa-Mādhava is said to have edited / strengthened this list. A Mādhavīya dhātuvritti is popular. These are listed under ten classes or gaṇas and each gaṇa is known after the first root in the gaṇa as bhvādayaḥ (bhū and others) and so on. Listed in the adjacent table are the numbers of roots in each class, as per different sources. More than the actual number, the pattern of distribution is instructive. We see that more than half the roots are in the first class; three other classes – tenth, fourth and sixth – account for another third of the roots. Thus the remaining six classes account for less than a fifth of the roots. As it turns out the conjugation of verbs in the first class, tenth class, and sixth class are similar with a few changes; those in the fourth class are exactly similar to the conjugation of Atmanepada verbs and the passive verbs. Thus the bulk of conjugations can be learnt by learning two patterns of conjugation.

In the Siddhāntakaumudī, 524 sūtras starting with number 2151 deal with the conjugations and the nearly two thousand roots are listed with meaning under one of the 524 rules. Thus no separate list is appended to the Siddhāntakaumudī, as it is appended to the Aṣṭādhyāyī.

Of these, a beginner can gain a good understanding of the language with knowledge of about 200 to 250 roots.

Difficulty in Learning

If is often held that Sanskrit is difficult to learn. This may be on two counts. One, since this is seldom 'picked up', as opposed to being learnt in a formal way, in childhood the difficulty is very apparent. Many people learn other languages as adults; even they seem to find Sanskrit tough. This is so because a certain amount of abstractness is encountered in the initial stages of learning the language, as compared to learning other languages wherein people seem to be making good progress in a short time. Some believe this to be an issue of the teaching methodology and have tried to structure Sanskrit similarly with small phrases being taught so that Sanskrit may be spoken in ten days. Even so the perception about the difficulty persists.

This, in a way, is the price paid for the proximity to perfection that Sanskrit grammar has achieved. Indeed many compare the joys of learning Sanskrit grammar with that from reading Euclid's geometry. The linguists' ideal grammar would identify all the building blocks of a language and the rules governing their combination, like a Chemist has the Periodic Table and the valences of different elements. This grammar would then be able to predict all the possible combinations resulting in words and sentences. Such a grammar is called a Transformational Grammar or a Generative Grammar. There are other such get-to-the-root-of-it grammars. All of them, though purportedly describing English, are as difficult to learn. Thus any grammar which identifies the components at the lowest level is necessarily abstract and difficult to learn in the initial stages. The reward for this difficulty is the ability to generate virtual infinite combinations of these components.

The components are the 2,000 roots and the affixes – tiṅ, krit, sup, taddhita etc.; the Aṣṭādhyāyī sūtras, Māheśvara sūtras, phiṭ sūtras and the uṇādi sūtras are the rules governing the combination of these components. It is best to approach the language with the knowledge that it is an extra-ordinary science and that it requires some amount of effort.

In order to make this effort tolerable, a popular scheme is to first teach basic sandhis, about 20 declensions, and conjugation of the verbs in 1st, 4th, 6th and 10th classes in the present, imperfect and simple future tense and in the potential and imperative moods along with rules of sandhi. After this, participles of the present, potential and past are introduced along with a few secondary affixes (taddhita vritti) and compound words (samāsas). In the process, the student would be acquainted with not a few dhātus.

With this knowledge, one would be able to competently refer to kośas (dictionaries and other compendia) and do some amount of self study. With some practice of doing visandhi, identifying individual words, one can start reading easy texts like Mahabharata, the purāṇas or pañcatantra. Some amount of reading classical literature under a teacher would be useful to tackle works of higher poetic merit like Ramayana, the pañcamahākāvyas (Raghuvaṁśam and Kumārasaṁbhavam of Kālidāsa, Kirātārjunīyam of Bhāravi, Śiśupālavadham of Māgha, and Naiṣadham of Śrīharṣa), and the dramas of poets like Bhāsa, Kālidāsa, Bhavabhūti and Harṣa. Usually this study is taken up along with the study of other aspects of grammar. Prose works are the most difficult to read in Sanskrit as they abound in difficult puns. These are usually taken up for study only after a thorough study of grammar. Technical works on the darśanas or Āyurveda etc. require some amount of initiation into the terminology used therein. With Vedānta, often the difficulty is not with the language, but with the concept.


Thus we see that over a few centuries the Vedic language got refined into Sanskrit with a most impressive grammar being evolved in the form of Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī at least two and a half millennia back. It might not be incorrect to say that the grammar of Sanskrit is the oldest, shortest and the best grammar of any language in the world. The ideal of dividing a language into components and rules governing how the components interact with each other has been perhaps achieved best in Sanskrit.

With a little over 2,000 roots and a couple of hundred affixes, governed by about 4,000 rules, Sanskrit grammar can generate millions of words and word forms enough to describe the world, its sciences and developments, thousands of years after the grammar reached its mature form. This generative ability is due to the most fundamental level at which the building blocks of the language have been examined and the relationship amongst them determined. In this sense, comparing other grammars with Sanskrit grammar would be like comparing particle physics with mechanics.

The language in which Sanskrit grammar is composed is almost in a different class by itself. It has a number of abbreviations, very specific and narrow definitions for things such as the genitive and the locative case, and such highly evolved rules, that the language of composition is referred to as a meta-language. Modern Linguistics has borrowed such concepts from Sanskrit grammar.

With such extra-ordinary sophistication, perfection really, it is not a wonder that grammar acquired canonical status, and Pāṇini, the equivalent of Sainthood. Great as Pāṇini was, the grammar in its final form is most likely a culmination of the efforts of generations of grammarians over a few centuries. It is equally true, contrary to general perception, that grammar evolved after Pāṇini as well, incrementally in its rules, application and interpretation of rules; and dramatically in pedagogy – method of teaching.

Sanskrit grammar continues to inspire awe and amazement amongst those who study it, as only a work of highest beauty and perfection can. It is not the easiest of grammars to master, but it definitely is amongst the least arbitrary; each rule is almost like a law of nature with any keen and diligent observer coming to a similar conclusion after observing the patterns of speech one encounters. To put the perceived difficulty in learning in perspective, it is most useful to note that this system was devised in an age when writing was not widely prevalent and that more than a hundred generations of scholars learnt it without the kind of learning aids that we today have. How blessed then are we, that we inherited this wonderful science as a heritage and that we have cheap paper, cheap writing instruments, numerous books, computers, the internet, networks of well-meaning individuals, the thousands of centres of learning to pass this on to the next generation?

Notes & References

  1. The introductory verse in the Preface written by Swāmi Dwārikādās Śāstri to the Mādhavīya Dhātuvritti of Sāyaṇācārya edited by him and published by Prachya Bharati Prakashan, Kamaccha, Varanasi in 1964. Swāmi Dwārikādās Śāstri does not give the source of this Ārya verse; he merely describes it as ‘abhiyuktokti’ ('a well reasoned saying', in this context) with no attribution as to who first proposed this. By Indian convention, since this has been referred to as a 'saying' (ukti), it is to be inferred that it is not his own verse.
  2. Thanks to Sri Vinay Jha, for pointing out that both structural and functional relationships are covered by Grammar in the Indian tradition
  3. Definition of Grammar, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2004 [1]
  4. Siddhantakaumudi, S. C. Vasu
  5. Madhaviya Dhatuvritti, A. Mahadeva Sastri, 1900
  6. Paniniya Dhatupatha, Sanskrit Documents
  7. Ashtadhyayi, Pandit Kanak Lal Sharma, 1969

Further Reading

  • Yudhiṣṭhir Mīmāṁsaka's “Saṁskrit Vyākaraṇ kā itihās” in Hindi is the best work on the history of grammar. Most of the key texts – Aṣṭādhyāyī, Siddhāntakaumudī and the Kāś ikā – have been edited and translated into English with notes by S. C. Vasu; they are the best English versions of the key texts.
  • The Sanskrit – English dictionary by Monier-Williams is one of the best (it was written in order to help the translation of Bible into Sanskrit as a Sanskrit Bible was thought the most powerful means of proselytisation) and most comprehensive.
  • The site Sanskrit Documents maintains a most useful and comprehensive list of all the Sanskrit Documents available on the internet.
  • Maharshi University of Management has most of the vedic literature in devanāgarī script with the highest quality of editing.
  • The Chitrāpūr Math has one of the best free lessons on Sanskrit on the internet.
  • Dr. Shivamurthy Swamiji of Sri Taralabalu Jagadguru Brihanmath, Sirigere, Karnataka has developed an amazing implementation of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, called the gaṇakāṣṭādhyāyī.
  • The Digital Library of India has an invaluable treasure of old books on, in and about Sanskrit.
  • Samskrita Bhārati has the most extensive program of teaching Sanskrit in classrooms.