The Structure of the Aṣṭādhyāyī


As you might have realized, Panini is difficult. His work is not something you can understand by reading it through from beginning to end. Rather, it essentially assumes that you've read some of it before you've ever started reading. We must understand, however, that the Ashtadhyayi was originally taught orally; students learned the work by heart and could recall any individual rule at will. Today, most people learn the work by reading it, and that creates the sorts of problems and frustrations you might have had if you've tried to read the work on your own.

So, what do we do? We must approach the work cyclically: after learning a few rules, we can return to the problem of the work's structure. By doing so, we'll learn about both the concrete realization of Panini's system and the abstract framework that supports it.

A summary in 100 words

The Ashtadhyayi is a list of rules. But these rules, too, are lists: of verbs, of suffixes, and so on. These lists have different headings, and these headings describe the behavior of the items they contain. But the Ashtadhyayi is more complicated than this: ideas in one rule can carry over to the next, or to the next twenty; basic words have specialized meanings; and rules in one chapter may control rules in another. In this way, Panini created a brief and immensely dense work. Thus, we have a large arrangement of different rules that we must try to understand.

Now, let's try and understand the different kinds of rules that Panini uses in his work.

The various rules

I've listed the rules here from the most concrete to the most abstract. Throughout this series of lessons, I will use the Sanskrit terms.

saṃjñā (definition)

This rule is as basic as it gets. We take some term, like vṛddhi, and give it a specialized meaning that exists only within the scope of the Ashtadhyayi. The two rules that we studied in the last lesson were both saṃjñā rules. It's important to realize that we take an ordinary word and give it a new meaning. For example, vṛddhi originally means something like "growth" or "gain."

vidhi (general rule)

This sort of rule describes the way that Sanskrit actually behaves. It can describe such things as word formation, the application of sandhi, and so on. Most rules are like this.

niyama (exception)

This sort of rule contradicts an earlier vidhi rule. Essentially, it contains an exception to an earlier rule.

atideśa (rule of analogy)

An atideśa rule specifies that some feature has the properties of another. This is useful because the Ashtadhyayi contains complex rules that act on very specific terms. For example, consider the sandhi rule that turns gacchati iti into gacchatīti. According to an atideśa rule, the long ī is considered to be both the end of the word gacchati and the beginning of the word iti. This rule changes the properties of ī within the system.

adhikāra (governing rule)

This sort of rule specifies an idea that extends to the rules that follow it. Such a rule sometimes specifies how far it extends, but usually its extension is clear from context. The range of rules over which an adhikāra rule applies is called its anuvṛtti.

paribhāṣā (rule of interpretation)

This sort of rule doesn't address other rules: it addresses the person reading them! Such a rule tells us how we should read and understand the other rules in the Ashtadhyayi.

A short example

For illustration's sake, I've created an example. This example is not perfect, but it should help you see how these rules interact and relate to each other. As you read the list below, try to classify each rule with one of the terms above.

  1. Now we talk about food.
  2. Unless otherwise stated, assume that everything that comes from a plant is food.
  3. A fruit contains seeds,
  4. and a vegetable does not.
  5. These are fruits: peaches and tomatoes,
  6. but not turnips.
  7. Tomatoes are treated like vegetables.

Here is how we should classify the rules:

  1. adhikāra. This rule tells us that all of the rules that follow are talking about food. So, a fruit is food, and a vegetable is food as well.
  2. paribhāṣā. This rule tells us how we should classify the things that come from plants. It specifically states an intuitive concept that we should apply to other objects from plants. Although the rule doesn't say so explicitly, we should understand that it only applies in the context of this list of rules.
  3. saṃjñā. This rule defines the term "fruit" as a food that contains seeds.
  4. saṃjñā. This rule defines the term "vegetable" as a food that does not contain seeds.
  5. vidhi. An ordinary rule.
  6. niyama. An exception to a previous rule.
  7. atideśa. We add the property of "vegetable" to the tomato. Thus, a tomato is treated "like" a vegetable.

This example also brings up an important point about the structure of the Ashtadhyayi. If you considered rule 4 by itself, you would have no idea what it was trying to say; and a vegetable does not only has a sensible meaning when considered alongside the rule that comes before it. Likewise, but not turnips is meaningless without a proper context. In the same way, some rules in the Ashtadhyayi are meaningless if separated from the rules above them. One such rule is one syllable long: ot. By itself, this rule means nothing. But when considered with the rules above it, we learn that it represents a vowel with a special property.

The examples in the next lesson are more complex. Coincidentally, they also feature noun endings that we haven't yet studied. This is a good place to stop for now. If you came to this lesson from Starting Out, you can click here to return to the review page and continue through the grammar guide.