The Genius of Panini the Father of Linguistics

In this article let us get into the linguistics and learn about the father of linguistics Panini who is mainly responsible for the development of the most scientific language in this world Sanskrit

I have two young daughters and as they are growing up they are learning to read and write. My elder one is at the stage where she understands the phonetics associated with each alphabet and therefore she tries to read words in the books. Since we live in the US she is mostly exposed to English words and boy what a challenge it is for her. Whenever we she sees a C she first asks me daddy does it sound like k or c. When she sees u she ask does it sound as a or oo here and so on and so forth. It is such a challenge for her to make out these words because she does not know which sound to use. Every time she reads a new word she asks me such question. The other day she read ice as eekaa and was so confused.

Now if I were to teach her to read Hindi, which of course we will be starting very soon, there would not be any problem. This is because an alphabet always sounds the same no matter which word you use it in. And for this we have to a certain extent thank Panini. Panini laid down extensive rules on Sanskrit grammar and linguistics in his great work with the name Ashtadhyayi. It is because of these rules that Sanskrit is one of the most logical and scientific language in this world. Such is the brilliance of Panini that his morphological analysis on how words are formed was more advanced than nineteenth century linguists and his non-compounding analysis still forms the basis of the linguistic theories on compounding of words in modern Indian languages.

Not only is Panini a Genius in the area of linguistics, he is also called by some as the first Geek of this world, who wrote the world’s first computer code. To really understand the genius of Panini you have to look at the way he wrote Ashtadhyayi. The rules of grammer that Panini wrote were very extensive. However, Panini was able to compress it all to just 40 pages or so, while if you really decode all the information presented in Ashtadhyayi and write it in English, it will need more than 1000 pages. To really appreciate this think of it like this, Ashtadhyayi consists of about 4000 sutras and if you memorize them you can recite them in less than 3 hours, in those three hours you would have conveyed the information of a 1000 page book. Isn’t that amazing. So how was Panini able to do it, by creating a code for the language itself in the form of a metalanguage. Think of it to be like a computer program, where a particular mathematical or logical operation is defined by a particular symbol. Similarly Panini codified the rules of Sanskrit language into symbols and then combined them into rhyming sutras. This is the reason why many compare Ashtadhyayi and its rules with the modern concept of Turing machine in computing where a symbol is mapped to a table of rules. So those claims that people make that ancient Indians were writing computer codes are to a certain extent right.

So what else do we know about Panini. Well scholars say that he lived between 6th to 4th century BCE. He was born in the city of Shalatula in ancient Gandhara, which is located at the junction of Indus and Kabul river in the modern day Pakistan. Panini had a brother Pingala who was a brilliant mathematician and played a major role in standardizing Indian poetry. Pingala is also a very interesting personality from our past who is credited with the creation of binary code, we will talk about him the later articles.

Panini also gets mentioned in the classic Pancatantra by Vishnu Sharma, where Vishnu Sharma mentions that Panini was killed by a lion. Now although Ashtadhyayi is the oldest surviving text on Sanskrit Grammar, we must note that Panini refers to the works of at least 10 earlier grammarians, whose work has been lost. This suggests that many of the knowledge that Panini presents in Ashtadhyayi might have been known and standardized long before him.

As a final note we must understand why such as brilliant work on grammar was performed in India out of all places. And the answer as always is that there was a need for it. During the Vedic period, it was believed that the mantra present in the Vedas had a lot of power. The pronunciation of theses mantra created real physical change in this universe, however when the pronunciation was carried out correctly. Even to this time whenever a yajna is performed it is of utmost importance that the pandit pronounces all the mantras correctly. When written language was developed, this belief placed a huge emphasis on making sure that whatever is written can be pronounced accurately by the reader. This lead to highly complex and scientific development of the linguistics in India.

I hope you felt inspired by the great work of Panini. Understand that throughout history India has always been on the forefront of scientific thought and rational thinking. It has only been the last few centuries that we lost our path. But in the 21st century nothing is holding us back except our own attitude towards things.

Originally published at on June 16, 2019.



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Rahul Yadav

Discover Indian Heritage: Arts, Science, Religion and Philosophy of India