Digital Rare Book:
The Ashtadhyayi of PANINI
Translated into English by Srisa Chandra Vas
Published by Sindhu Charan Bose, at the Panini Office in Benares - 1897
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Panini was born in Shalatula, a town near to Attock on the Indus river in present day Pakistan. The dates given for Panini are pure guesses. Experts give dates in the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th century BC and there is also no agreement among historians about the extent of the work which he undertook. What is in little doubt is that, given the period in which he worked, he is one of the most innovative people in the whole development of knowledge. We will say a little more below about how historians have gone about trying to pinpoint the date when Panini lived.
Panini was a Sanskrit grammarian who gave a comprehensive and scientific theory of phonetics, phonology, and morphology. Sanskrit was the classical literary language of the Indian Hindus and Panini is considered the founder of the language and literature. It is interesting to note that the word "Sanskrit" means "complete" or "perfect" and it was thought of as the divine language, or language of the gods.
A treatise called Astadhyayi (or Astaka ) is Panini's major work. It consists of eight chapters, each subdivided into quarter chapters. In this work Panini distinguishes between the language of sacred texts and the usual language of communication. Panini gives formal production rules and definitions to describe Sanskrit grammar. Starting with about 1700 basic elements like nouns, verbs, vowels, consonants he put them into classes. The construction of sentences, compound nouns etc. is explained as ordered rules operating on underlying structures in a manner similar to modern theory. In many ways Panini's constructions are similar to the way that a mathematical function is defined today. Joseph writes in :-
[Sanskrit's] potential for scientific use was greatly enhanced as a result of the thorough systemisation of its grammar by Panini. ... On the basis of just under 4000 sutras [rules expressed as aphorisms], he built virtually the whole structure of the Sanskrit language, whose general 'shape' hardly changed for the next two thousand years. ... An indirect consequence of Panini's efforts to increase the linguistic facility of Sanskrit soon became apparent in the character of scientific and mathematical literature. This may be brought out by comparing the grammar of Sanskrit with the geometry of Euclid - a particularly apposite comparison since, whereas mathematics grew out of philosophy in ancient Greece, it was ... partly an outcome of linguistic developments in India.
Joseph goes on to make a convincing argument for the algebraic nature of Indian mathematics arising as a consequence of the structure of the Sanskrit language. In particular he suggests that algebraic reasoning, the Indian way of representing numbers by words, and ultimately the development of modern number systems in India, are linked through the structure of language.
Panini should be thought of as the forerunner of the modern formal language theory used to specify computer languages. The Backus Normal Form was discovered independently by John Backus in 1959, but Panini's notation is equivalent in its power to that of Backus and has many similar properties. It is remarkable to think that concepts which are fundamental to today's theoretical computer science should have their origin with an Indian genius around 2500 years ago.
At the beginning of this article we mentioned that certain concepts had been attributed to Panini by certain historians which others dispute. One such theory was put forward by B Indraji in 1876. He claimed that the Brahmi numerals developed out of using letters or syllables as numerals. Then he put the finishing touches to the theory by suggesting that Panini in the eighth century BC (earlier than most historians place Panini) was the first to come up with the idea of using letters of the alphabet to represent numbers.