General introduction about Panini and Ashtadhyayi

Panini was the 4th century BC Sanskrit grammarian believed to have lived in ancient Pakistan.

Panini was one of the foremost grammarians of his times whose Sanskrit grammatical rules are the earliest lessons in the genre of descriptive linguistics.

Panini is particularly known for his collection of 3,959 rules in his Sanskrit grammar Ashtadhyayi – a text consisting of Sanskrit morphology, syntax and semantics. Ashtadhyayi literally means ‘eight chapters’ and the text is the basis of the Vedanga’s grammatical chapter.

In the making of Ashtadhyayi, Panini has also referred to the earlier texts such as Unadisutra, Dhatupatha, and Ganapatha. However, Ashtadhyayiremains to be the trendsetter in the usage of descriptive linguistics. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi – together with the works of his predecessor Nirukta, Nighantu, and Pratishakyas – form the history of linguistics. Even today, Panini’s morphological analysis is believed to be more advanced than similar Western theories made till the mid 20th century. Again, modern linguistic theories of compounding have also borrowed their noun compounds analysis from Panini and have also adopted his terms such as bahuvrihi and dvandva.

Modern linguists have confirmed the comprehensive and scientific grammatical theory of Panini as an introduction to Classical Sanskrit which bade adieu to the era of Vedic Sanskrit.

Date of Panini

Many historians claim Panini to have lived during the 5th century; many others also trace him to the 6th and 7th centuries, corresponding to Pushkalavati, Gandhara. However, it is certain that Panini lived at the dawn of Vedic period as his grammar purely defines Classical Sanskrit. Panini is also believed to have lived at either of the following places in northwestern Iron Age India –

  • at Pushkalavati, Gandhara i.e. Charsadda of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan
  • at Shalatula, situated at the banks of River Indus, near Attock in Punjab Province, modern Pakistan

Panini’s vocabulary also infers a lot about the geographical and cultural landscapes of his own surroundings. His grammatical and lexicographic references to his fellow grammarians also clearly indicate that he was a northwestern habitant.

A verse in the Panchatantra refers to Panini being killed by a lion.

Siho vyākaraasyakarturaharatprāānmuneḥ ine

The Chinese Buddhist scholar to India Xuanzang (or Hsüan-tsang), also described Panini’s statue to have once existed at Shalatula, his estimated place of birth.

About personal life

Nothing much is recorded about Panini’s family life. As mentioned in the later traditions, Panini’s mother’s name was Dakshiand. While nothing is known about his father, some scholars propose that his brother’s name was Pingala. He also had a maternal uncle named Vyadi. It may be possible that Panini’s father was called Pani, however this concept has been rejected by most of the scholars.


About Ashtadhyayi

Ashtadhyayi, also means ‘eight chapters’ or Ashtak, is a grammar defining the syntax and structure of the Sanskrit language. The whole grammar is compiled into 3959 sutras or aphorisms embracing each and every aspect of the Sanskrit terminology.

The technical meta-language of Panini consists of

  • syntax,
  • morphology, and
  • lexicon

This structure of meta-language is based on a series of meta-rules. These rules are either explicitly mentioned in the text or can be deduced. The two basic principles upon which the meta-language is based are

  • non-redundancy, or the principle of economy, and
  • the necessity of all the rules in the Ashtadhyayi.

The text comprises 3,959 sutras or rules, discussed in eight chapters, each chapter divided into a quarter.

What sets Ashtadhyayi apart from its contemporaries?

Besides defining Sanskrit syntax, Ashtadhyayi differentiates between the language used for classical literature and the language used for speaking by the people of the time.

Ashtadhyayi is the central and most complex part of Panini’s grammar. It is the earliest grammar of Classical Sanskrit which is so complete and precise in nature.

Below mentioned points briefly describe some important facts about the text content –

  • It obtains material from the lexical lists – Dhatupatha and Ganapatha – as raw material and uses it for generating the grammatical words.
  • It is highly scientific and standardized.
  • The concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root are also addressed here.
  • The author has reached perfection by completely describing the Sanskrit morphology without any redundancy.

Significance of Ashtadhyayi in the recent past

  • Recently, striking similarities have been found between Panini’s grammar and the modern Backus Naur Form (syntax tool of computer programming languages).
  • The elementary methods defining syntax for new language creation have been given by many linguistics and computer scientists using timeless examples from Ashtadhyayi.
  • A number of research and development centers have also sprung up for bettering the computer and programming languages through the study of unambiguous structure of Sanskrit grammar.

It is most possible that the there are only two texts which have been passed on to the generations in their raw forms; one is Rig Veda and the second one is Ashtadhyayi. The text is the non-sacred expression of Panini’s original linguistic thought and has no similarities with the works of the Greek and Latin grammarians. The 20th century scholars Louis Renou (French Indologist) and Jean Filliozat (French scholar on Indian languages) have also made elaborate efforts in maintaining that Panini’s non-sacred linguistic thought was the first of its kind in Indian history.

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is the gateway to the study of famous Indian theologian and philosophers including Shankar, Ramanuja, and Madhva. In fact, one can say that Ashtadhyayi forms the basis of their thinking.

The format of Ashtadhyayi

The text is divided into two main sections

o   Analysis (1 to 5)

o   Synthesis (6 to 8)

Synthesis deals with phonology, morphology, and accent.

Analysis deals with roots and suffixes. Roots have two types i.e. verbal and nominal. Verbal roots are again divided into 2 types i.e. simple and derivative. Nominal roots are divided into 2 types i.e. compound and non-compound. There are 4 main and 2 sub-types of compounds.

Non-compounds are nothing but indeclinable having 4 types.

In suffixes there are 2 types i.e. inflectional and derivational. They are also of 2 types i.e. nominal and verbal. Derivational suffixes are primary and secondary.

Ashtadhyayi and Associated Text

Panini’s Ashtadhyayi has three associated texts.

Shivasutras – The Shiva-sutras are a brief but highly organized list of phonemes. Also known as Maheshvara Sutras, these are the main fourteen verses systematizing the Sanskrit phonemes. Another name of these sutras are akarasamamnaya, meaning ‘recitation of phonemes’. However, they are most popularly known as Shiva-sutras as there were revealed to Panini be Lord Shiva or Maheshwara.

The importance of Shiva-sutras is that in its fourteen initial lines, preceding the Ashtadhyayi, it encapsulates phonemic notational system of the Sanskrit grammar. Various clusters of phonemes, unfolded in this notational system, has very special position in the Sanskrit morphology and these phonemes have found its mention all throughout Ashtadhyayi.

Dhatupatha – The Dhatupatha is a lexical list of verbal roots sorted by present class. It is formed by the ten present classes of Sanskrit which are as follows –

1.   bhū-ādaya

2.   ad-ādaya

3.   ju-ho-ti-ādaya

4.   div-ādaya

5.   su-ādaya

6.   tud-ādaya

7.   rudh-ādaya

8.   tan-ādaya

9.   krī-ādaya

10.         cur-ādaya

Ganuapatha – The Ganapatha is a list of groups of primitive nominal stems used by the Ashtadhyayi.


After Panini, the Mahabhashya (‘great commentary’) of Patanjali on the Ashtadhyayi, dated to the 2nd century BC, .is one amongst the three most illustrious works in Sanskrit grammar. It is to be noted that Patanjali played an important role in shaping the Indian linguistic science. It established a comprehensive system of –

  • shiksha (phonology, including accent) and
  • Vyakarana(morphology).

Mahabhashya doesn’t talk much about syntax, but elaborately discusses nirukta (etymology), resulting in some wonderful semantic explanations. People understand his work to be a defense of Panini, who’s Sūtras are significantly elaborated.

Opinions of scholars about excellence of Panini

Panini’s work greatly influenced the European linguists in the 19th century.

Franz Bopp, the mid 19th century German linguist, is believed to have introduced Panini’s grammar to the west. Bopp was well acclaimed for his comparative study on Indo-European languages. Subsequently, a wider body of work influenced other notable Sanskrit scholars including Leonard Bloomfield, Roman Jacobson, and Ferdinand de Saussure. Here is the list of Indian and foreign scholars who gave their opinion on Panini’s work.

Frits Staal – Frits Staal (1930-2012), the 20th century scholar of Southeast Asian Studies, thoroughly discussed how many eminent European scholars contemplated upon Indian linguistic ideas. Staal has also argued that the concept of formal rules in language was first conceived by Panini and later on proposed by Ferdinand de Saussurein and further worked upon by Noam Chomsky in 1957. It was Staal  who first mentioned that “Panini is the Indian Eucid.”

Ferdinand de Saussure – The foundational ideas proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Swiss linguist and expert in historical linguistics, also have Indian origins. de Saussure’s Sanskrit lectures laid the foundations for synchronic linguistics; however, the lectures delivered by de Saussure, which ran for over three decades, were greatly based on the works of Panini and Bhartrihari. de Saussure’s has attributed his Indian influence in his following published works –

  • Published in 1879 – Memoire sur le systemeprimitif des voyellesdans les langues indo-europennes (Memoir on the Original System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages). Here, he mentions how Indian grammar has influenced his idea that “reduplicated aorist represents imperfects of a verbal class.”
  • Published in 1881 – De l’emploi du genitifabsolu en sanscrit (On the Use of the Genetive absolute in Sanskrit), he explicitly refers to Panini as an influence on the own work.

Prem Singh – Prem Singh has mentioned the influence of Panini’s work on Indo-European linguistics in his foreword to the 1998 reprint of Panini’s Grammar (German translation). He simultaneously notes down the subsequent rising of the laryngeal theory. To further quote Prem Singh, “This type of structural analysis suggests influence from Panini’s analytical teaching.”

George Cardona – George Cardona, American linguist and Indologist, however, warns against exaggerations of Panini’s influence on modern linguistics. This American scholar was quoted as saying, “Although Saussure also refers to predecessors who had taken this Paninian rule into account, it is reasonable to conclude that he had a direct acquaintance with Panini’s work. As far as I am able to discern upon rereading Saussure’s Memoire, however, it shows no direct influence of Paninian grammar. Indeed, on occasion, Saussure follows a path that is contrary to Paninian procedure.”

Leonard Bloomfield – Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), United States linguist, wrote a 1927 paper titled “On some rules of Panini”. Bloomfield is called the father of American structuralism who adopted a behavioristic approach to linguistics.

Comparison with modern formal systems

While comparing Panin’s work with modern formal systems following points can be deduced –

  • Panini’s first formal system in grammar is much ahead of the 19th century innovations of Gottlob Fregeand which led to the subsequent development of mathematical logic.
  • Panini’s ‘auxiliary symbols’ method is the first to delegate new affixes, mark syntactic categories and control grammatical derivations.
  • Emil Post reworked on the technique which became the most standard designing method for programming computer languages.
  • Panini’s linguistic apparatus is now the applied Post system which is greatly accepted by majority of the Sanskrit scholars.
  • Panini’s works naturally unfolds context-sensitive grammars with inherent ability to solve numerous complex problems.

Two literary works accredited to Panini, which are now unfortunately lost are –

  • JāmbavatiVijaya – It is cited by Rajashekhar in Jahlana’s Sukti Muktāvalī, with the mention of one fragment in Ramayukta’s commentary on Namalinganushasana. The title infers that the subject deals with the episode when Krishna wins Jambavati as his wife.

In Jahlana’s SuktiMuktāvalī Rajashekhara mentions –

§  नमः पानिनये तस्मै यस्मादाविर भूदिः।

§  आदौ व्याकरणं काव्यमनु जाम्बवतिजयम् ॥

  • Pātāla Vijaya – Ascribed to Panini, Pātāla Vijaya is a lost work referred to by Namisadhu in his famous commentary on Kavyalankara of Rudrat.