The Shiva Sutras


This lesson is for those who have finished the chapter on Sounds.

As mentioned in the previous lesson, Panini wanted to make the Ashtadhyayi as brief as possible. One of the ways he did so was by organizing the Sanskrit sounds into different groups. Since many rules deal with particular letters, these groups made it easier to refer to particular letters.

An Illustration

An example might help clarify what this means. Suppose we had a list of fruits that we wanted to buy at the store:

Let's say that we go to the store because I want to buy some pears, peaches, mangoes, kiwis, and pineapples. How would we ask for the seller to give me these fruits? One possibility is to name all five of these fruits. But if we brought this list, and if the seller knew how to use our list, we could just say Bring everything from pears to pineapples, which would be much faster. Even more briefly, I could just say pears pineapples, as long as he knew that we were referring to our list.

With this principle in mind, Panini organized the Sanskrit sounds in a particular way, letting him refer to certain groups of letters very quickly. Just like our list of fruits of above, Panini made a list of letters:

This list has many names, including akṣarasamāmnāya, meaning "list of sounds." But after Panini's rules became the norm for all of Sanskrit, his work was soon seen as a holy and sacred part of Vedic study. Some even said that the inspiration for this list came from the beat of Shiva's drum. For that reason, these rules are popularly called the Shiva Sutras (or, more correctly, the śivasūtrāṇi). We cannot define every group of letters with these sutras, but we can define the most important ones.

But how are these rules used? Although the sutras may look confusing, they are actually quite straightforward.

Using the rules

Throughout the Ashtadhyayi, Panini adds extra letters to a term to show its properties. These letters only have a meaning in technical literature, and they never appear in "natural" Sanskrit. For that reason, such a letter is called anubandha, literally "bound after." In the list above, all of the red letters are anubandha letters.

So, how are they used in the Shiva Sutras? We choose a regular letter and attach an anubandha to it. The combination of letter and anubandha, called a pratyāhāra, indicates everything from the letter to the anubandha.

Well, what does that mean? It means that we can create hundreds of different groups of letters by just naming two. For example, the word ac refers to all of the vowels. This pratyāhāra consists of two parts: a, which is the first letter in line 1, and c, which is the anubandha in line 4. As another example, the word hal refers to all of the consonants. This pratyāhāra consists of two parts: ha, which is the first letter in line 5, and l, which is the anubandha in line 14. Note that the a in ha is just there to make the word easier to pronounce.

Note that the anubandha letters are all quite rare in real Sanskrit. This was a deliberate choice by Panini. By using rarer letters, he could reduce the chance that a pratyāhāra could be mistaken for a real word.

We'll go over more examples in a moment, but first I want to address three odd features of this list:

Although it is possible to form hundreds of pratyāhāras, only 42 are used in the Ashtadhyayi. You can use the exercises below to practice with some of these pratyāhāras.

For further reading, check out this 1991 paper by Paul Kiparsky, a linguistics professor at Stanford University. In this 15-page paper, Kiparsky argues that the Shiva Sutras do not depend on the traditional orderding or sounds and could have arisen without them. The paper is not an easy read, but it is not a very difficult one either.


For the given pratyāhāra, describe which letters are indicated.

The answers are:

The next lesson

In the next lesson, we will study some more anubandhas and look at the first two rules of the Ashtadhyayi. You should only proceed once you have finished with Starting Out. If you came to this page from Sounds, you can click here to go back to the review page.