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Yoga Vasistha

The Sanskrit grammatical tradition of vyākaraṇa is one of the six Vedanga disciplines. It has its roots in late Vedic India, and includes the famous work, Aṣṭādhyāyī, of Pāṇini (ca. 4th century BCE).

The impetus for linguistic analysis and grammar in India originates in the need to be able to obtain a strict interpretation for the Vedic texts. The work of the very early Indian grammarians has been lost; for example, the work of Sakatayana (roughly 8th c. BCE) is known only from cryptic references by Yaska (ca. 6th-5th c. BCE) and Panini. One of the views of Sakatayana that was to prove controversial in coming centuries was that most nouns are etymologically derivable from verbs.

In his monumental work on etymology, Nirukta, Yaska supported this claim based on the large number of nouns that were derived from verbs through a derivation process that became known as krit-pratyaya; this relates to the nature of the root morphemes.

Yaska also provided the seeds for another debate, whether textual meaning inheres in the word (Yaska's view) or in the sentence (see Panini, and later grammarians such as Prabhakara or Bhartrihari). This debate continued into the 14th and 15th c. CE, and is relevant even today perhaps, with the debate on the Dynamic Turn in Semantics, which says that meaning in language is dynamically created and it may not be possible to compose the meaning from those of the words.[1]

Pāṇini's school

A few centuries after Yaska, Pāṇini's extensive analysis of the processes of phonology, morphology and syntax, the Aṣṭadhyāyī, laid down the basis for centuries of commentaries and expositions by following Sanskrit grammarians. Pāṇini's approach was amazingly formal; his production rules for deriving complex structures and sentences represent modern finite state machines. Indeed, many of the developments in Indian Mathematics, especially the place value notational system may have originated from Pāṇinian analysis.

Panini's grammar consists of four parts:

  • Śivasūtra: phonology (notations for phonemes specified in 14 lines)
  • Aṣṭadhyāyī: morphology (construction rules for complexes)
  • Dhātupāṭha: list of roots (classes of verbal roots)
  • Gaṇapāṭha: lists classes of primitive nominal stems

Commentators on Panini and some of their views:

  • Kātyāyana (linguist and mathematician, c. 300 BCE): that the word-meaning relation is siddha, i.e. given and non-decomposable, an idea that the Sanskriticist Ferdinand de Saussure called arbitrary. Word meanings refer to universals that are inherent in the word itself (close to a nominalist position).
  • Patanjali (linguist and yoga sutras, c. 200 BCE) - author of Mahabhashya. The notion of shabdapramânah - that the evidentiary value of words is inherent in them, and not derived externally. Not to be confused with the founder of the Yoga system.
  • The Nyaya school, close to the realist position (as in Plato). Considers the word-meaning relation as created through human convention. Sentence meaning is principally determined by the main noun. uddyotkara, Vachaspati (sound-universals or phonemes)
  • The Mimamsa school. E.g. sentence meaning relies mostly on the verb (corresponds to the modern notion of linguistic head). Kumarila Bhatta (7th c.), prabhakara (7th c. CE).
  • Bhartrihari (c. 5th c. CE) that meaning is determined by larger contextual units than the word alone (holism).
  • Bhaṭṭi (c. 7th c. CE) exemplified Pāṇini's rules in his courtly epic the Bhaṭṭikāvya.[2]
  • The Buddhist school, including Nagarjuna (logic/philosophy, c. 150 CE) Dignaga (semantics and logic, c.5th c. CE), Dharmakirti.

Predecessors referred to in Ashtadhyayi include Sakatayana, and Gargya.

Early Modern Indian linguists who revived Panini's school include Bhattoji Dikshita and Varadaraja.

Preceding Eleven Schools

Panini's Ashtadhyayi, which is said to have eclipsed all other contemporary schools of grammar, mentions the names of eleven schools of Sanskrit grammar that preceded it.

These schools, most of which are now extinct are

  • Aindra
  • Shaakataayana
  • Apisali
  • Sakalya
  • Kasakrtsna
  • Gargya
  • Galava
  • Kaasyapa
  • Senaka
  • Sphotayana
  • Chandravarmana

Medieval Accounts

The earliest external historical accounts of Indian grammatical tradition is from Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to India from the 7th century .[3]

  • Xuanzang (602-664)
  • I Ching (634-713)
  • Fazang (643-712)

The Indica of Al-Biruni (973-1048), dating to ca. 1030 contains detailed descriptions of all branches of Hindu science.

Similar to the Chinese Buddhists, Tibetan Buddhism aroused interest in India among its followers. Taranatha (born 1573) in his treatise of the history of Buddhism in India (completed around 1608) speaks about Panini and provides some information about grammars, but not in the manner of a person familiar with their content.

Gaudiya Vaishnava Sanskrit grammar is outlined by Jiva Goswami in his Hari-nāmāmṛta-vyākaraṇam.[4]

Modern Sanskrit grammarians

Beginning of Western scholarship

  • Jean Francois Pons
  • Henry Thomas Colebrooke
  • August Wilhelm von Schlegel
  • Wilhelm von Humboldt
  • Dimitrios Galanos

19th century

  • Ramakrishna Gopal Bhandarkar
  • Franz Kielhorn
  • William Dwight Whitney
  • Bruno Liebich
  • Otto Boehtlingk
  • Georg Bühler
  • Franz Bopp
  • Jacob Wackernagel, Altindische Grammatik

20th century to present

  • Bernhard Geiger
  • Leonard Bloomfield
  • Paul Thieme
  • Karl Hoffmann
  • Louis Renou
  • Herman Buiskool
  • Bimal Krishna Matilal
  • Paruthiyur Krishna Sastri
  • Johannes Bronkhorst
  • George Cardona
  • Madhav Deshpande
  • SD Joshi
  • Paul Kiparsky
  • Frits Staal
  • Michael Witzel
  • Kshetresa Chandra Chattopadhyaya
  • Vagish Shastri
  • Sri Sribhuti Krishna Goswami
  • Sri Pundrik Goswami


  1. Bimal Krishna Matilal (1990). The word and the world: India's contribution to the study of language. Oxford. Chapter 8 deals with the compositionality vs holistic debate in linguistics.
  2. Fallon, Oliver. 2009. Bhatti’s Poem: The Death of Rávana (Bhaṭṭikāvya). New York: Clay Sanskrit Library[1]. ISBN 978-0-8147-2778-2 | ISBN 0-8147-2778-6 |
  3. Frits Staal, A Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1972), reprint by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi (1985), ISBN 81-208-0029-X.
  4. Sri Jiva - Hari-nāmāmṛta-vyākaraṇam
  • Coward, Harold G., and K. Kunjunni Raja, eds., The Philosophy of the Grammarians, Volume V of Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, ed. Karl Potter, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.