Skip to main content

Patañjali the Grammarian


PATAÑJALI THE GRAMMARIAN (fl. c. 140 bce) was a Sanskrit grammarian and author of the Mahābhāya, the major commentary on Pāini's Aādhyāyī. Patañjali's bhāya ("commentary") focuses on Pāini's work both directly and indirectly, for it evaluates both Pāini's verses and those of Kātyāyana's Vārttika, the first notable commentary on the Aādhyāyī. Pāini, Kātyāyana, and Patañjali have often been grouped together in a kind of grammatical lineage; Pāini and Patañjali, however, remain by far the foremost authorities on the Sanskrit language.

Scholars vary in opinion as to Patañjali's purpose in composing his Mahābhāya. Most agree, however, that the very fact that Patañjali chose to fashion his observations not in an independent grammar but in a commentary on Pāini's work indicates great deference to the original grammarian; it was not Patañjali's purpose to attempt to surpass him or disprove his authority. In his work Patañjali mentions directly his indebtedness to the mahācārya ("great teacher").

Many social changes were occurring in India during Patañjali's time. There was an influx of different peoples from bordering lands; intellectual, commercial, and political contact with regions as far as Greece was common; and class structure was undergoing substantial transitions. Social change was reflected in language: The use of classical Sanskrit (i.e., the saskta or "perfected" language of Pāini) became restricted more and more to the social and literary elite, while the rest of the population spoke one of the many Prakrits (i.e., the prakta, or "natural, unpolished" languages and dialects) that were rapidly developing.

Even spoken Sanskrit was beginning to include apaśabda, "vulgar, imperfect speech." For example, social stratification had reduced women to a much lower status than that which they had enjoyed during the Vedic and early Upaniadic periods; this was reflected in speech by a growing irregularity of feminine forms and endings that all but eliminated the feminine honorific. Patañjali observed that the grammar of Pāini was by now being retained almost artificially; when he observed that even some of the most respected pandits, while meticulous in religious recitation, would resort to an occasional apaśabda term in their ordinary speech, he realized that certain modifications were in order. Patañjali thus became the first Indian grammarian to address the difference between laukikabhāya ("empirical language") and śāstrīyabhāya ("sacred language").

Patañjali's intent was not to reflect in grammar every form of imperfect speech, but rather to incorporate some of the changes that were occurring in spoken Sanskrit so that the language could thereby be preserved in a viable form. He chose to revalidate Pāini's dictums and expand them where necessary. If, for example, Pāini allowed that three classes of nouns conformed to a certain rule, Patañjali might revise the rule to incorporate an additional class. In Pāini's time the Vedic and were still commonly used vocalically. Within a few centuries the two letters had shifted, with very few exceptions, to the status of consonants; this was another type of change that Patañjali accommodated.

Patañjali believed that the grammarian should stay in touch with the contemporary language and provide for reasonable changes, adhering as closely as possible to the classical rules. In this way the populace would continue to turn to the grammarians for guidance in all matters of speech.

When Pāini composed his grammar he was more concerned with the forms of words (pada s) than with syntax and sentence meaning. By Patañjali's time, Mimāsā and other philosophical schools had introduced a shift in emphasis whereby speech (vākya ) and the complete thought expressed in a sentence represented the true basis of language. Patañjali's contact with these other views influenced his expansion of Pāini's grammar, and he thus introduced the concept of vākyasphota, that is, the concept that the eternal element of sounds and words, and the true vehicle of an idea, flash on the mind when a sound is uttered. This indicates an inherent nityatva ("infinitude") in śabda ("correct grammatical speech"); even apaśabda ("incorrect speech") can partake of this in varying degrees.

By incorporating the notion of nityatva into vyākaraa ("grammar"), Patañjali helped to elevate the status of the science of grammar. Pāini's Aādhyāyī, revered as it was for its insurmountable contributions to the preservation of the sacred Vedic speech and classical Sanskrit, did not belong to any particular category of Sanskrit literature before Patañjali's time. It was variously considered Dharmaśāstra, smti, gama, or, occasionally, Vedāga ("limb of the Veda"). Patañjali's observations and syntheses, in addition to his frequent reiteration that the study of vyākaraa is a religious duty, served to elevate Pāini's Aādhyāyī permanently to the sacred status of Vedāga.

See Also



Patañjali's Mahābhāya is available in English translation in Patañjali's Vyākaraa-mahābhāya, 8 vols., translated and edited by S. D. Joshi and J. A. F. Roodbergen (Poona, 19681980); the edition also offers a valuable introductory section. Useful secondary works include K. Madhava Krishna Sarma's Pāini, Kātyāyana, and Patañjali (Delhi, 1968) and Franz Kielhorn's Kātyāyana and Patañjali: Their Relation to Each Other and to Pāini (1876; 2d ed., Varanasi, 1963).

New Sources

Benson, James W. Patañjali's Remarks on Anga. Oxford University South Asian studies series. Delhi and New York, 1990.

Coward, Harold G., and K. Kunjunni Raja, eds. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 5: The Philosophy of the Grammarians. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

Filliozat, Pierre-Sylvain. An Introduction to Commentaries on Patañjali's Mahabhasya. Poona, 1991.

Constantina Bailly (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Patañjali the Grammarian." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 22 May. 2019 <>.

"Patañjali the Grammarian." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (May 22, 2019).

"Patañjali the Grammarian." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved May 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.