About our guide

This guide describes the fundamentals of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, the core text of the Pāṇinian school of Sanskrit grammar.

The Aṣṭādhyāyī defines a formal system that generates Sanskrit expressions. If an expression can be generated by the Aṣṭādhyāyī, it is valid Sanskrit; and if it cannot be generated, then it is not valid. At heart, however, the Aṣṭādhyāyī is a practical system that serves a practical need.

Accordingly, we focus on how the system actually works and avoid digressions into theory and minute details. We discuss all of of the text's major systems, including nominal and verbal derivation, the root and nominal suffix systems, and compounding.

(If you have never studied grammar before, or if you just want a general overview of Sanskrit, please use our Sanskrit for Beginners guide instead.)

Origins of the Pāṇinian school

The Vedas, the oldest of all Sanskrit compositions, have been passed down through a continuous oral tradition that is thousands of years old.

As time passed and cultures changed, six disciplines called the vedāṅga evolved to protect the Vedas in their structure and function. There is śikṣā, the study of speech sounds and their correct pronunciation; chandas, the study of meter and poetic form; nirukta, the study of etymological interpretation; jyotiṣa, the study of timekeeping and the stars; kalpa, the study of correct ritual; and vyākaraṇa, the most prestigious of the six, which is the study of grammar and linguistic analysis.

Though there have been many schools of vyākaraṇa, there is only one that is truly pre-eminent. That is pāṇinīya-vyākaraṇa, the tradition of the grammarian Pāṇini. Pāṇini lived sometime around the 5th century BCE, and we know little about his life beyond that. But what we do have is the system he developed and perfected. Pāṇini's treatment of Sanskrit is so thorough and so precise that no older schools of vyākaraṇa survive. Evidently, they were no longer worth retaining.

The core of the Pāṇinian system is the Aṣṭādhyāyī (“the eight chapters”), a list of around 4000 rules divided into eight chapters. Together, these rules generate grammatically valid Sanskrit expressions. And if an expression is not grammatically valid, then it cannot be generated by the system of rules.

The Aṣṭādhyāyī is so comprehensive that essentially all later Sanskrit literature is consistent with its model of Sanskrit. Perhaps Pāṇini's greatest achievement is that he “froze” Sanskrit and preserved the form it has today.

The rest of the tradition

The Aṣṭādhyāyī is the core of the system, but it depends on a number of secondary texts, including:

  • the Dhātupāṭha, which is a list of all basic verb roots

  • the Gaṇapāṭha, which is a “list of lists” of various stems

  • the Uṇādipāṭha, which contains rules for ad-hoc derivations

In addition, there are important texts later in the tradition that clarify the overall system and fix omissions and oversights from the original text. The most important of these are the Vārttika by Kātyāyana and the Mahābhāṣya by Patañjali. These two texts are so vital that Pāṇini, Kātyāyana, and Patañjali are together called the munitraya (“the triad of sages”) responsible for the tradition.

This is not to mention the centuries of commentary and exposition that followed later, most notably in the Kāśikāvr̥tti and the Vaiyākaraṇasiddhāntakaumudī.

In this guide, however, we focus squarely on the Aṣṭādhyāyī with occasional reference to the Dhātupāṭha and the Gaṇapāṭha.

Why study the Aṣṭādhyāyī?

The Aṣṭādhyāyī has an obvious appeal to anyone who is intellectually curious. If you are interested in linguistics, mathematics, computer science, information theory, philosophy of language, Indian intellectual traditions, or all of the above: welcome! Feel free to skip to the next section below.

There is also an obvious appeal to those who want to preserve traditional Indian practices and knowledge systems. If this applies to you, we think you should proceed in the traditional way and find a teacher, perhaps through the classes from Vyoma-Saṃskṛta-Pāṭhaśālā.

Otherwise, the common-sense reason to study the Aṣṭādhyāyī is that it will improve your Sanskrit. But is that actually true?

It's true if you are an advanced learner who wants to understand subtle points of usage and become an authority on correct Sanskrit. Then the Aṣṭādhyāyī will be of tremendous value to you.

But for beginning and intermediate learners, we do not think that studying the Aṣṭādhyāyī will meaningfully improve your Sanskrit. Research on second language acquisition is clear: we acquire proficiency in a language by hearing or listening to meaningful content. Engaging with meaningful content is much more important, and much more effective, than studying grammar rules. (See our resources page for tips on where to find such content.)

Entering the Aṣṭādhyāyī

The Aṣṭādhyāyī is exceptionally difficult to understand without help. This is for several reasons:

  • It follows the sutra style, which is aphoristic, terse, and only truly accessible through expert commentaries. (The advantage of the sutra style is that its texts are compact and easier to memorize.)

  • It uses highly technical Sanskrit that is more like a computer program than a piece of natural language. Even someone fluent in Sanskrit will struggle to understand it.

  • Many of its core rules are mutually dependent: to know one, we must understand several others.

It is only natural, then, that an entire tradition of Sanskrit commentaries has arisen to make the Aṣṭādhyāyī accessible. Even so, the true beginner finds these texts complex and overwhelming. And of course, they presume a thorough knowledge of Sanskrit.

There are also translations and non-Sanskrit commentaries available. But these, too, are often too complex to be useful to the novice. And the various popular resources are often too vague or basic to say anything useful about how the system really works.

Our approach

The Aṣṭādhyāyī constantly raises fascinating theoretical questions. But at its core, it is a practical system that serves a practical need: to decide which expressions are valid Sanskrit and which are not. Our approach is likewise a practical one that builds up the Pāṇinian system from scratch.

Each lesson starts with a specific problem that we need to address. Then, the lesson introduces the specific rules and concepts that the Pāṇinian system uses to solve the problem. By solving one problem, we often catch sight of another, which we address in the next lesson. In this way, we work through the system as a whole.

Our guide is split into different units, each of which focuses on a major component of Sanskrit grammar. Within each unit, we focus on different functional areas of the text. We cover each area with enough detail to give a useful sense of what it is like, but not in so much detail that the reader is lost in minor exceptions.

Here is what the units ahead contain:

  1. We start with the problem of modeling different sounds and sound rules. In the process, we learn about some of the core devices that the Aṣṭādhyāyī uses to stay expressive and concise.

  2. Once we have a clear high-level view of the system, we look at the principles of verb derivation. Starting from an initial set of semantic conditions, we apply the rules of the system to create complete words.

  3. We then do the same for nominal derivation. We also take a detour into how the Aṣṭādhyāyī handles the semantics of sentences.

  4. Next, we investigate the root suffixes (kṛt) that create various verbal nouns and adjectives.

  5. As follow-up, we investage the nominal suffixes (taddhita) that extend and modify nominal stems.

  6. Finally, we investigate the compound system.

Our hopes for this guide

If you want to deepen your Sanskrit knowledge, we hope our guide will provide a smooth and useful entrance into the world of vyākaraṇa. Readers who finish our guide will be ready to explore the Aṣṭādhyāyī on their own with the help of a good commentary.

If you are curious about the Aṣṭādhyāyī itself, we hope our guide will reveal the core of the system and give you a sense of how its ancient creators approached the world of word and language.

Not everyone can master the Aṣṭādhyāyī, but everyone can appreciate its profound and ingenious design. We hope that our guide will make it easier than ever to do so.