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ASHTĀDHYĀYĪ Pānini's Ashtādhyāyī (The eight chapters; fifth century b.c.), provides four thousand rules that describe completely the Sanskrit of his day. The great variety of linguistic ideas used in the text mirrors the complexity of cognitive relationships, and this is the secret of its power and success. It is remarkable that Pānini set out to describe the entire grammar in terms of a finite number of rules. Scholars have shown that the grammar of Pānini represents a universal grammatical and computing system.

The Ashtādhyāyī deals ostensibly with the Sanskrit language. However, it presents the framework for a universal grammar that can apply to any language. Two important early commentaries on this grammar are by Kātyāyana and Patanjali. Its philosophical basis was examined in an important work by Bhartrihari in the fifth century a.d.

Pānini's grammar begins with "metarules," or rules about rules, using a special technical language, or "meta-language." This is followed by several sections on how to generate words and sentences starting from roots, as well as rules on transformation of structure. The last part of the grammar is a one-directional string of rules, where a given rule in the sequence ignores all rules that follow. Pānini also uses recursion by allowing elements of earlier rules to recur in later rules. He thus anticipates by more than 2,500 years the idea of a computer program, both in form and spirit.

In Pānini's system, a finite set of rules is enough to generate infinity of sentences. The algebraic structure of Pānini's rules was not appreciated in the West until the mid-twentieth century, when a similar generative structure was proposed by Noam Chomsky. Well before this, in the nineteenth century, Pānini's analysis of roots and suffixes and his recognition of ablaut led to the founding of the subjects of comparative and historical linguistics.

Pānini took the idea of action as defined by the verb and developed a comprehensive theory by providing a context for action in terms of its relations to agents and situations. This theory is called the kāraka theory and stipulates these categories: that which is fixed when departure takes place; the recipient of the object; the instrument, or the main cause of the effect; the basis, or location; what the agent seeks to attain, deed, object; and the agent.

These definitions do not always correspond to the nature of action; therefore, the kāraka theory is only a via media between grammar and reality. It is general enough to subsume a large number of cases; where not directly applicable, the essence of the action/transaction can still be cast in the kāraka mold. To do this, Pānini requires that the intent of the speaker be considered. Rather than being based on conventions concerning ways to string words together, Pānini's system is based on meaning. The kārakas do not have a one-to-one correspondence with grammatical cases. Grammars based on Pānini's ideas also have been devised for languages other than Sanskrit.

Subhash Kak

See alsoPānini


Cardona, G. Panini: His Work and Its Traditions: Background and Introduction. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1997.

Sharma, R. N. Astādhyāyī of Pānini. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2001.