About our series
This series of lessons describes the fundamentals of the Aṣṭādhyāyī, the core text of the Pāṇinian school of Sanskrit grammar. Our series has been written for a general audience and assumes no prior knowledge of Sanskrit. That said, this series will be more useful and accessible to you if you know some Sanskrit already.
If you want a more general and beginner-friendly introduction to Sanskrit grammar, please use our grammar 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 eight chapters
The core of the Pāṇinian system is the Aṣṭādhyāyī (“the eight chapters”), a system of around 4000 rules divided into eight major 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.
In other words, we can say that the Aṣṭādhyāyī defines a generative grammar for Sanskrit. And it does so by defining a formal language to specify the various substitutions of sounds, words, and sentences that Sanskrit requires. In some sense, the Aṣṭādhyāyī is the first program.
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.
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 the other.
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.
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 series 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.
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.
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.
[ongoing] We then do the same for nominal derivation. We also take a detour into how the Aṣṭādhyāyī handles the semantics of sentences.
[planned] Then we do the same for compounds.
[planned] Finally, we look at the two major classes of stem suffixes: root (kṛt) and nominal (taddhita) suffixes.
Our hopes for this series
For those who want to deeper their Sanskrit knowledge, we hope our series will provide a smooth and useful entrance into the world of vyākaraṇa. Readers who finish our series will be ready to explore the Aṣṭādhyāyī on their own with the help of a good commentary.
For those who are curious about the Aṣṭādhyāyī itself, we hope our series will reveal the core of the system and give you a sense of how its ancient creators approached the ideas of word and language.
Not everyone can master the Aṣṭādhyāyī, but everyone can appreciate its profound and ingenious design. As a final thought, we hope that our series will make it easier than ever to do so.