Meet Dr.Panini, PhD Sanskrit Grammar :P

Studying a language is completely different from studying the grammar of the language. I remember my English grammar classes with some book we used to call Main Course Book and a Supplementary. Strangely, back then things seemed to be somewhat manageable. This year in college, however, I was introduced to a juggernaut of Sanskrit Literate. My professors introduced this man as Dr. Panini, PhD Sanskrit Grammar. Little did I know, that this short, stout, dhoti-clad man with unknown mannerisms would soon turn out into the most feared master I’ve ever known.

You know, people might not understand why grammar is such a complex, tough and rigorous process. In the development of a language, the spoken version develops first. May be the written version comes along later. But grammar is a set of rules that explains the “what and why” of the spoken/written version. So, when I write this sentence, I know which word comes where and how, but that’s out of practice – of reading and writing.

But, like the Indian government trying to table the LokPal Bill without modifying the draft copy and subsequently passing it, trying to table a Grammar – for a language that was already several millenniums old – and then making it the best work to date in the field of logical grammar – now that is something one would actually call impossible.

Dr. Panini, that short, smart man did it. And he did that something like 3000 years before our time.

Sanskrit, is a comparatively expansive language. If I write it as sentences, probably the reader might not appreciate the work of Panini – and I sincerely don’t want to see him get angry about my presentation here, even though people say he was very humble and understanding). So here’s a bucket list of what Panini did (which in my opinion are humanely impossible tasks!!) 😀

1. Composed, segregated and prepared a list of about 2100 root words in Sanskrit. Two thousand plus. He put them under ten different subheads, called conjugations (in English, of course).

2. Accounted for the ten different tenses/moods (like present, past, future, Sanskrit has ten tenses/moods, including one archaic form, which is extinct today. Yeah some people say Sanskrit itself is extinct, but we know that’s not true for now 😉

3. Showed how all the 21 case-forms (called Declensions) occur or form from different nouns and pronouns through very brief rules.

4. Showed the way root verbs conjugate to form the different tenses/moods.

5. Threw light on usage of what we fondly refer to as karakas, samasas (not samosas, mate!) and sandhi (joints).

6. Prepared and charted out rules, regulations and exceptional cases for all the above.

7. Found out rules that applied only to Classical and not to Vedic – a humongous task possible only if you knew every nook and corner of the Vedas. (note: Three Vedas (excluding Atharva), each running to more or less 10,000 verses, having several hundred thousand words)

8. Did these all in such a brief manner that till today, researchers are breaking their head over several of his rules.

Now on to some interesting trivia 😛

Panini’s work of Grammar is called the Ashthadhyaayi. It is called so because it is classified into eight volumes, so to speak. The eight volumes contain a sum total of 3,959 rules (called sutras). Now, if you were to see them, you’d find them to be nothing more than half a sentence long. Or a quarter. Or sometimes even less. Or sometimes, just a letter. (Yeah, that’s actually true, not a joke).

And to think there was no proper writing form back then in his time! Yeah, I mean, he did not sit down and write with a pen and paper and then edit the manuscript and then figured the errors and published an errata 😛 He actually used his disciples to memorize parts of the grammar and then compiled it thoroughly and rigorously.Or that’s how we think he might have done.

But what impresses modern day scholars most is the inherent logical and analytical application in the Ashthadhyaayi. If you are something like me – a nonsense programmer so to say – you’d know the meaning of “if…then…else” statements. These are conditional statements which work if certain conditions are met. There are exception and we define them too. This method was adopted by Panini (or was it the other way around? :P) and you’ll find loads of conditions, exceptions and more conditions in the work. Even more surprising thing is, each of them fits the bill perfectly.

Brevity, they say, is the soul of wit. If that be the case, Panini would be the greatest wit-maker 😛 Yeah, sure, there are about three thousand and four hundred rules to define a 6000+ year old language. But these rules are extremely brief – sometimes to the extent where it looks like Panini himself would not be able to decipher the meaning exactly 😛

These rules, nevertheless, are what have made Sanskrit stay intact. There is no colloquial version of Sanskrit to this day, although Sanskrit has had its own Prakrit version way back during the Vedic times.

Most scholars of the twentieth century too – like Naom Chomsky – have accepted and acknowledge the magnificence of Panini and his work. In fact, Artificial Intelligence – or put simply, how machines think – is being analyzed through the lens of linguistics (in special reference to Paniniyan Grammar). Huge research work is going on in various top-notch universities across the globe – mostly overseas – where Paninian syntax methods are being studied to figure out a way to create the thinking machine.

Panini worked just on Grammar. But his work is so engulfing that it has almost touched every aspect of analytical thought process. He was brief, spoke a few words and letters in grammar. The expanse, however, seems immeasurable. Also, quite importantly, he acknowledged that his predecessors paved him a clear way. As Newton said, “If I have seen further than others, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants”, Panini dutifully acknowledges giants preceding him. That greatness took him to heights he himself never probably envisioned. Today, Sanskrit grammar is synonymous with Panini. And in the context of world grammar, Panini stands tall, and probably alone at the numero uno spot.

As a lighter stuff, here’s something interesting about the name Panini:

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