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Introduction to Sanskrit Grammar – Unit 1


Karthik Vaidhinathan

The language Sanskrit has immense significance in our tradition. Starting from the Vedas, which form the bedrock of our culture and civilization, it has been the primary vehicle for the expression of ideas, knowledge etc. through the ages. Thus an understanding of Sanskrit language is the key to unlocking the treasures that lay buried in our scriptures. “वेदस्य मुखं व्याकरणम्” – व्याकरणम् is the face of the वेद-पुरुष:. Learning Sanskrit grammar is the best bet for us to be able to read, understand and appreciate the original works of our tradition, be it the रामायणम् of the sage वाल्मीकि: or the works of आद्य-शङ्कराचार्य:.

The grammar of Sanskrit language has been originally composed by three sages – मुनित्रयम्. The first and foremost of these three is पाणिनि:. His Magnum Opus अष्टाध्यायी (group of eight chapters) is the primary source book of the grammatical tradition. There were other grammatical systems before and after that of पाणिनि:, but his work has gained such universal acceptance that it has completely obscured the others.

The अष्टाध्यायी is in the form of terse rules or aphorisms (called सूत्राणि). It is written in the form of an algorithm, and aims at explaining the derivation of all the usages in the writings of established scholars of the language. It contains close to 4000 short rules, in a form that can be easily memorized by an eager student of the language. The other two important grammarians are कात्यायन: (the author of the वार्त्तिकानि – rules supplementary to the अष्टाध्यायी) and पतञ्जलि: (author of the महाभाष्यम् – the great commentary on the अष्टाध्यायी). They use the अष्टाध्यायी as their source material, but also add more explanations to elucidate the rules and in some places, to explain any usage that has been left unexplained by the work of पाणिनि:.

With these three grammarians, the grammatical tradition is more or less complete. However, there are also very important grammar works after them, which form an invaluable companion for the modern reader. The काशिका-वृत्ति:, for instance, is a gloss on the अष्टाध्यायी with carefully chosen examples. Another important relatively recent work is the सिद्धान्त-कौमुदी, which rearranges the rules according to derivational topics. The importance of सिद्धान्त-कौमुदी cannot be overstated, as most modern grammars of the Sanskrit language are eventually derived from this work.

Coming back to Panini’s अष्टाध्यायी, one of the main features that has aided पाणिनि: in keeping the rules short has been the माहेश्वरसूत्राणि. These are fourteen aphorisms, which do not belong to the अष्टाध्यायी per se, but yet, play an important part in it. The माहेश्वर-सूत्राणि are said to have been revealed by महेश्वर: Himself, which is what gives them their name. महेश्वराद् आगतानि – माहेश्वराणि सूत्राणि.

They form the “A, B, C” of the Sanskrit language. One cannot begin to understand the grammar of the Sanskrit language without comprehending the terminology of the माहेश्वर-सूत्राणि. The aphorisms give an alternative arrangement of the Sanskrit sounds as opposed to the regular one which is based on the place of origin of the sound in the mouth. पाणिनि: does also use the arrangement of the 5×5 matrix. In his terminology कुँ, चुँ, टुँ, तुँ and पुँ refer respectively to the क-वर्ग:, च-वर्ग:, ट-वर्ग:, त-वर्ग: and प-वर्ग:. Below are the regular arrangement and the arrangement in the माहेश्वर-सूत्राणि

Regular Ordering माहेश्वर-सूत्राणि
अ आ इ ई उ ऊ ऋ ॠ ऌ ए ऐ ओ औ

क ख ग घ ङ

च छ ज झ ञ

ट ठ ड ढ ण

त थ द ध न

प फ ब भ म

य र ल व

श ष स ह

1 अ इ उ ण् ।

2 ऋ ऌ क् ।

3 ए ओ ङ् ।

4 ऐ औ च् ।

5 ह य व र ट् ।

6 लँ ण् ।

7 ञ म ङ ण न म् ।

8 झ भ ञ् ।

9 घ ढ ध ष् ।

10 ज ब ग ड द श् ।

11 ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् ।

12 क प य् ।

13 श ष स र् ।

14 ह ल् ।

The reason for this re-ordering of the sounds (or letters) in the form of माहेश्वर-सूत्राणि is to create short mnemonics for groups of sounds. Closely related sounds, when they enter into similar grammatical operations, would undergo similar changes. If one could have technical terms that refer to these sounds in a brief manner, the grammatical operation can then be explained very easily in a short सूत्रम्. Since our tradition is an oral one, memorization played an important part in it. Therefore, shorter the rules, easier would it be for the student to memorize these grammar texts. By rearranging the letters in the order in which they appear in the above सूत्राणि, the sounds that need to be handled together in grammatical operations have been put together, and using the process that we’ll be seeing below, short mnemonics are generated, which are then used by पाणिनि: in the अष्टाध्यायी.

In these fourteen सूत्राणि, the last sound of each सूत्रम् (ण्, क्, ङ्, च्, ट्, ण्, म्, ञ्, ष्, श्, व्, य्, र्, ल्) is only a marker. The nasal अँ in the सूत्रम् लँण् । is also a marker. The technical term for a marker is अनुबन्ध: or इत्. Also, the vowels at the end of each of the consonants from the fifth सूत्रम् onwards (except for the अँ in लँण् ।) are only for the sake of pronunciation. So for example ह only refers to the letter ह्. The mnemonic for any group of sounds is made up of one sound from these सूत्राणि and one marker. The term that is so generated is then the mnemonic for all the sounds that are in between the ending marker and the beginning sound of the mnemonic. The beginning sound is also included.

Let us take an example. Consider the mnemonic झष्. This mnemonic is made up of one sound झ that occurs in the eighth सूत्रम् and the marker ष् in the ninth सूत्रम्. Therefore, this mnemonic झष् stands for the sounds starting from झ and reading up to the maker ष्, leaving out the markers in between, and also leaving out the अकाराः that are only for the sake of pronunciation. Thus, we have the following:

अ इ उ ण् । ऋ ऌ क् । ए ओ ङ् । ऐ औ च् । ह य व र ट् । लँ ण् । ञ म ङ ण न म् । झ भ ञ् । घ ढ ध ष् । ज ब ग ड द श् । ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् । क प य् । श ष स र् । ह ल् ।

Of these sounds underlined in the above list of सूत्राणि, the vowel parts have to be left out (remember for instance that झ = झ् + अ) and only the consonant parts have to be taken. Thus, the mnemonic झष् refers to the sounds झ्, भ्, घ्, ढ् and ध्. They represent the voiced aspirated sounds which appear in column 4 of the 5×5 matrix of sounds in the Regular Ordering shown on the left hand side of the Table. In the parlance of grammar, such a mnemonic is called a प्रत्याहारः.

Let us take another example. Consider the छव्-प्रत्याहारः. छ occurs in the eleventh सूत्रम्. If we count from छ up to the marker व् we get the sounds marked in bold below:

अ इ उ ण् । ऋ ऌ क् । ए ओ ङ् । ऐ औ च् । ह य व र ट् । लँ ण् । ञ म ङ ण न म् । झ भ ञ् । घ ढ ध ष् । ज ब ग ड द श् । ख फ छ ठ थ च ट त व् । क प य् । श ष स र् । ह ल् ।

Leaving out the अकाराः that are only for pronunciation, the छव्-प्रत्याहारः therefore represents छ्, ठ्, थ्, च्, ट् and त्. They are the second and first column letters of the च-वर्ग: (च्, छ्, ज्, झ्, ञ्); ट-वर्ग: (ट्, ठ्, ड्, ढ्, ण्) and त-वर्ग: (त्, थ्, द्, ध्, न्).

The other प्रत्याहारा: required are also formed in a similar fashion. Few salient features of the सूत्राणि to be noted are:

  1. Only short vowels are indicated in the सूत्राणि. These short vowels stand for all the varieties of those vowels, including the long ones. Thus अ stands for both अ and आ and so on. Some of the vowels have a total of 18 (3x2x3) variants, while others have 12 (3x2x2). There are three Vedic accents, two variations corresponding to whether the vowel is nasalized or not, and two or three variations in the duration of the sound (ह्रस्वः, दीर्घः and प्लुतः). However, since we are primarily dealing with Classical Sanskrit, we would only be concerned most of the time with two varieties, short (ह्रस्वः) and long (दीर्घः). Of all the vowels, the vowel ऌ has no long counterpart and the vowels ए, ओ, ऐ and औ do not have any short counterpart. The semi-vowels य्, व् and ल् have two variants: a nasalized and a non-nasalized form.
  2. Even though a large number of प्रत्याहारा: can be formed from these सूत्राणि, the grammatical tradition makes use of only 44 of these.
  3. The marker ण् occurs twice in the सूत्राणि – once as part of the first सूत्रम् and again as part of the sixth सूत्रम्. The marker ण् is only used in the अण्-प्रत्याहार: and the इण्-प्रत्याहार:. The ण् in अण् always stands for the first one except in one सूत्रम् of the अष्टाध्यायी. The ण् in इण् always stands for the second one.
  4. The sound ह occurs twice in the सूत्राणि, once in the fifth सूत्रम् and again in the last सूत्रम्. However, the हल्-प्रत्याहारः is always counted from the first ह, making the name हल् stand for all consonants. This is obviously so, because otherwise the हल्-प्रत्याहारः would refer to the single letter ह् and serve no purpose.

Here are a few questions based on the माहेश्वर-सूत्राणि. Answers will be given in the next issue.

1. List out all the letters that are contained in:

  1. अण्-प्रत्याहारः
  2. झश्-प्रत्याहारः
  3. ङम्-प्रत्याहारः

2. Which प्रत्याहारः can be formed to refer to all vowels? How about all letters (vowels and consonants)?

3. Which प्रत्याहारः can be formed to refer to all semi-vowels (य्, व्, र् and ल्)?

4. Which प्रत्याहारः can be formed to refer to all consonants except semi-vowels and nasals?

5. Can a प्रत्याहारः be formed to refer to column 3 of the 5×5 matrix of letters (left hand side of Table)? How about column 2? (If a प्रत्याहारः cannot be formed for a particular column then that indicates that पाणिनि: does not need to refer to that column on its own in any rule.)

6. One प्रत्याहारः can be contained within another प्रत्याहारः. The इण्-प्रत्याहारः is a subset of which of the following प्रत्याहारा:?

a) अट् b) इच् c) अल् d) अम्

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November 2020