|A birch bark manuscript of Panini's grammar|
Before Panini, Sanskrit, like all other spoken languages, was in a fluid state. With his work, the Astadhyayi, Panini provided Sanskrit with its first formal system of grammar and definitions. He developed the rules for Sanskrit on the basis of how the language was being spoken during his time. Almost every subsequent Sanskrit author has adhered to Panini’s methodology.
The Chinese scholar Yuan Chwang (Hieun-Tsang) is a good source of information on Panini. During his seventeen-year long tour of India (from 629 AD to 646 AD), Yuan Chwang paid a visit to Panini’s birthplace. In his travelogue, Yuan Chwang has said that Panini, who was the author of The Science of Words, was born at a place called Salatura, a town located on the banks of River Indus.
According to Yuan Chwang, Salatura continued to be the center for advanced studies of Sanskrit grammar centuries after Panini’s death. He writes, “The children of this town, who are his [Panini’s] disciples, revere his eminent qualities and a statue erected to his memory still exists.”
Yuan Chwang has given an account of how Panini originated his system of grammar. During the ancient times there were too many alphabets. Gurus belonging to different schools were drawing different forms to represent their own alphabets. There was no fixed way of writing the language. The definitions of words were also not clear.
Panini wanted to reform the vague and often false rules of writing and speaking. For a long time he wandered in search of knowledge. During one of his travels he met Isvaradeva, who agreed to teach Panini the basic rules of language.
When he returned to his town, Panini started working on his system for definitions and rules of grammar. He was of the view that the definitions should always be based on the way in which any particular word was currently being used. The rules of grammar should also reflect the current usage. He did not favor a hypothetical derivation of definitions or grammar.
Instead of restricting himself to the classical interpretations, he collected the information that he needed by extending his investigation to the broader society. He held numerous personal discussions with the people who were proficient in speaking the language. The scope of his linguistic inquiry widened considerably because of his insistence on basing his linguistic and lexicographic ideas on current usage.
He worked by listing all the possible definitions, under different contexts, of every word that was being used. He recorded the activities of all sections of society and referred to them by suitable names. Eventually he managed to create a comprehensive database of letters and words.
In the Astadhyayi, Panini uses surtras (rules) to establish the system of Sanskrit grammar. The work has about 4000 sutras, divided into eight adhyayas, or chapters, of four padas, or sections. Along with rules of grammar, the topics that Panini has covered in the Astadhyayi include history of words, the meaning of prepositions, and the process by which the words are formed.
Two supplements are appended to the text – Ganapatha and Dhatupatha. Ganapatha comprises of a list of 261 ganas, or groups of words—it is a representative list of towns, villages, communities, Vedic branches, schools, gotras (important family names), and much else. Dhatupatha is a list of around 2000 roots of the language, as it was spoken in Panini’s time.
When the Astadhyayi was complete Panini sent the entire text to the king who immediately recognized the value of the work. The king issued an edict stating that the laws of language framed by Panini must henceforth be used throughout the country.