Panini’s Grammar, Sayanacharya’s Vedic Bhashyas

& Michael Witzel’s ‘Philology’


         While criticizing David Frawley’s interpretation of samudra ‘ocean’ in the Rigveda (The Hindu, Open page, 06 August 2002) Mr. Michael Witzel, Harvard University, has stated, “That Vedic language, like all others, did change from the Rigveda to the Upanishads” …… He further continues, “The Rigveda has many grammatical forms that had simply disappeared by the time of Panini.  He and Sayana do not know e.g. of the injunctive (e.g. han   Indro’ him han)”.  By this above allegation Mr. Witzel tells his readers, in unambiguous language, that Panini and Sayana are ignorant of several Vedic grammatical forms of which the Rigvedic passage – bracketed in the above citation – illustrates one.  We shall now undertake a close study of Panini and Sayana and see what result it will yield.


         Panini recognizes two distinct phases of Sanskrit, Chandas   (the Vedic) and Bhasha (the post Vedic) and he wrote his grammar, ashtadhyayi, for both the  phases of Sanskrit.  He had even taken into consideration the dialectal variations of the Sanskrit of his time, reckoning two prominent dialects – the Eastern and the Northern.  He had traversed the entire ground not leaving anything to be taken up by future grammarians, as a careful study of his grammar would reveal.  On the Vedic side he had taken due note of all the threefold divisions of the Vedas, viz. Samhita, Brahmana and Aranyaka.


         Panini’s grammar has been considered as one among the six ancillary disciplines indispensable for a correct understanding or interpretation of the Vedas; therefore nothing in the Vedic language could have escaped the notice of Panini. Patanjali’s (author of the Mahabhashya, an ancient commentary on Panini’s grammar) observations on the relation of Panini’s grammar to the Vedas deserve special mention in this connection -


            ‘Panini’s grammar teaches formation of words belonging to both the Vedic and spoken Sanskrit’.  ‘Grammar is the foremost among the six ancillaries of the Veda’. ‘One ought to study (Panini’s) grammar for preserving the purity of the Vedas, both in form and sense’.  ‘Words such as usha, tera, chakra and pecha  are not found in use in the current language since there are other words that could replace them’. ‘In fact the words said to be not in use are found in frequent use in the Vedas.’ ‘ Even formation of words that had fallen into disuse ought to be taught.’


 Patanjali’s observations clearly highlight the importance of knowledge of Panini’s grammar for the study of the Vedas and bring to the fore the fact that Panini had accounted for the formation of all the Vedic words though a good number of them had ceased to exist in the Sanskrit of his time.


         Panini was fully aware of the richness of the grammatical forms in and the distinctive features of the Vedic language.  The language of the Vedas is accented and Panini has framed hundreds of rules dealing with the Vedic accent though accentuation has almost disappeared from the language of his time.  He has reckoned twelve infinitives of which eleven had become extinct in classical Sanskrit.  The subjunctive forms, though frequently met with in the Vedas, had vanished from the post Vedic language without leaving any trace; and yet, Panini has formulated a number of rules dealing with subjunctive forms. 


Instances of Panini noticing the peculiarities of the Vedic language are too numerous.  While evidences of Panini’s comprehensive and penetrating study of the grammatical forms of the Vedic language are overwhelming, Mr. Witzel’s above allegation attributing ignorance to Panini can hardly sustain.


         The injunctive had survived; it had not become defunct.  Right from the Rigveda the use of the injunctive in association with the prohibitive negative particle ma has been a continuous flow, down the ages, till date, for an e.g., ma gam, ma karshih, ma bhut, ma sma bhut, ma sma bhavat etc. It defies one’s understanding as to how Panini, who has spared no pains to record and explain the formation of even antiquated and obsolete forms, had not taken cognizance of the injunctive which has been in regular use both in the Vedic and post-Vedic Sanskrit.


         Injunctive is a term by which European orientalists refer to the forms of the non-augmented past tense forms, viz. the imperfect, aorist and pluperfect; it conveys the same sense as the subjunctive or the imperative or the optative or the precative does.  In form, the injunctive is identical with the non-augmented imperfect, aorist and pluperfect and therefore Panini has not framed separate rules for deriving the injunctive forms.  He does not treat the pluperfect as a distinct tense since he regards the pluperfect as a variety of the aorist for the reason that it admits only secondary terminations.


         The Vedic language presents the forms of the past tenses under two different types  - the augmented and the non-augmented.  The augmented past tense: The augment is a prefix of the past tense forms and is taught by P.VI-4-71 and 72.  Since the terminations for all the augmented past tense verbs are almost the same, Panini teaches the respective verbal formations by the same set of rules;  The active  forms by III. 4.78,99-101, 109-111 and VII.1.3,4 and 45 and the middle forms by III.4.78, VII.1.3 and 5 and VII.2.81.

         The non-augmented past tense form, which falls under two heads – the one with and the other without the prohibitive particle ma  - is obtained by dropping the augment according P.VI.4.74 and 75.  The non-augmented past without  ma  is restricted to the Vedic (bahulam chhandasi amanyogepi VI.4.75)   whereas the other one, i.e. with  ma,  is freely used in both the Vedic and post-Vedic Sanskrit ( na man yoge VI.4.74)

         The non-augmented past tense form accompanied by ma is always used as injunctive. e.g. ma vidam, mas stham, ma gah, ma isata, ma vadhit and so on. Whereas the unaugmented past tense form without ma is used as injunctive as well as past indicative.

         Indicative usage : e.g.  dhatam, jani, paprathat, sidan, manvata etc.

         Injunctive usage : e.g.  vocam, dhah, takshat, vadhit, gat etc.

         The aorist is used to express a past action in general (P III.2.110), the imperfect an action of the near past (III-2-111) and the perfect an action of the remote past (P III.2.115).  The terms aorist, imperfect (and perfect ), in the rules cited, stand for both the augmented and non-augmented forms because the rules do not contain any qualifying term that might restrict their scope to any one of the two.  Further, the past tenses – the aorist, imperfect and perfect – are employed optionally, in the Vedas, in the sense of other tenses and moods (P III.4.6) i.e. they are used as past, present and future indicatives and also as the subjunctive, imperative, optative and precative moods.  From the four rules referred to above, it transpires that Panini has noticed the usage of the augmented and non-augmented past tenses  in both the temporal and modal senses.  Confining ourselves to the matter on hand, it is obvious that Panini had seen and recorded in his grammar the Vedic usage of the non-augmented imperfect, aorist and pluperfect in the sense of the injunctive, subjunctive, imperative, optative or precative and the past indicative -  “In sense the forms that drop the augment are either indicative or injunctive”.

         Panini does not employ any special term to refer to the injunctive (unaugmented past tense) of the European Orientalists because it does not possess a sense of its own that is distinct from those conveyed by the subjunctive, imperative, optative and precative - “The general meaning of the injunctive expresses a desire, combining the senses of the subjunctive, the optative and the imperative”.

         It is highly significant, in this connection, to pay our attention on P VIII.3.50 wherein Panini notices the injunctive, subjunctive and the imperative forms of the root kri- kah, karat, karati, kridhi and kritam

         Sayana is the well-known exegete of all the four Vedas.  The excellence of his Vedic commentaries has largely thrown the earlier commentaries into oblivion. Every page of his commentaries unfailingly convinces the reader of the earnestness in his approach and the devotion and sincerity he exhibits in accomplishing the stupendous task he has set before himself.  In his lengthy introduction to his commentary on the Rigveda Samhita he has explained in clear terms the method he has followed in writing his commentary.  He has made full use of the traditional ancillary sciences, fourteen in number, and has also consulted the earlier commentaries on the Vedas.  He has not failed to tap any source connected with the Vedas, directly or indirectly and closely or remotely, wherefrom he could derive the material necessary for achieving his target.  Even a cursory reader of his Vedic commentaries will be astonished at his mastery over the fourteen disciplines and the utmost ease with which he quotes from them.  At times he differs from the earlier authorities, while always expressing his views in all humility and politeness.  Nothing has been left out unexplained.  As a responsible commentator he has been extremely cautious in utilizing the available sources, starting with the padapatha and Brahmanas down to the works of his times.  One of the main principles he strictly adheres to in his commentaries is due consideration of the context.  He explains the text in harmony with the context; he carefully avoids whatever that runs repugnant to the context.

         Since the non-augmented past tense and the injunctive are identical in from one will find it extremely difficult to fix the identify of the given non-augmented verbal formation from its mere form..  One will have to necessarily seek the help of the context in fixing the nature of the verb – temporal or modal.  In other words the context is the infallible guide under such circumstances.

         Sayana is cognizant of the dual function of the non-augmented past tense forms.  Referring to the pertinent rules of Panini he accounts for their formation and gives their meanings in accordance with the context in which they occur.

Examples of non-augmented past tense forms :

         sakat ( RV.I.10.6),  jushata   (I.25.18), cyavanta  (I.48.2), ni-kramih  (I.51.6), bhinat ( I.52.5), ni-barhayah (I.53.7), srijat  (I.55.6), bharat  (I-60-1), vidhyat  (I.61.7), anu-dayi (I.61.15 ), kah (VI.26.5), Sayana gives the meanings of these non-augmented past tense forms either by their corresponding augmented ( indicative ) forms and past active participle in the case of familiar verbs and by means of the augmented past tense forms and past active participle forms of verbs having the same meaning in the case of the not familiar verbs.

Examples of injunctive forms :      

         jushanta (RV.I.3.9), dat (I.24.1), dat (I.24.2), rinoh (I-30-14 ), mimrishah (I-31-16), tarishtam (I-34-11), mrikshatam ( I.34.11), Karat (I.43.2), tatananta (I.52.11), Kshipat ( X.182.1-3), pari-gat (II.33-14).  Citing the relevant rules of Panini, Sayana accounts for these injunctive forms and gives their meaning accordingly.  He is at liberty to indicate the meaning of the injunctive by any one of the four modal forms – subj., imp, opt or prec – according to P III.3.157, III-3-159, III-3-161, III-3-162, III-3-173 and III.4.7.  (It has been pointed out already that the injunctive is used in the sense of the other four moods).  But he presents the meaning of the injunctive by means of the corresponding imperative or optative (or less frequently precative) forms.  The reason behind Sayana’s choice is quite clear.  To a student of classical Sanskrit who is well acquainted only with the imperative, optative and precative moods and not with the subjunctive it is reasonable to present the meanings through the known modal forms and not through the unknown.

         It will be of much interest to know how Sayana deals with ‘dat’ which occurs twice among the examples for the injunctive.  In the first instance i.e. R.V.I.24.1, the context suggests uncertainty and therefore he gives the meaning by the optative, dadyat and in the second instance, I.24.2 the context implies a wish and hence by the imperative dadatu.  In both the instances the meaning given are vouched by the context.  The paramount importance that Sayana attaches to the context is well brought out by this example.

         The illustration as presented by Mr. Michael Witzel (i.e. the three words ‘indro him han’ in immediate succession) as an evidence of Panini’s ignorance of the Vedic injunctive is to be met with nowhere in the Rigveda Samhita.  In RV.V.29.2 the two words ahim and  han  are found to be in immediate succession.  Here han is an non-augmented imperfect form expressing a past action and as such it cannot be taken as an injunctive form.  Our concern here is only with han; we need  not bother about the sentence of which it may be a member.

         Instances of the use of the non-augmented han as both indicative and injunctive are met with in the Rigveda and duly noticed by Sayana.  The verbal form han may be either II person singular or III person singular since the II and III person singular forms of the root han are identical.

         The non-augmented han is used as past indicative in the following instances.  RV.V-29-2, VI-18-5, VI-20-2, VI-26-5, VI-27-5 and VI-47-2.  Quoting the relevant  rules from Panini, Sayana accounts for the form and gives their meaning by either the corresponding augmented past tense form or the past active participle of the root han. The non-augmented han  is used as injunctive in RV.VII.9.6, and X.182. 1-3.  With a reference to the concerned rules of Panini, Sayana explains the formation and presents the meaning by the imperative II and III person singular forms, as demanded by the context. i.e., jahi  and apa-hantu respectively.

         From the above, the reader will find that, contrary to Mr. Witzel’s allegation, Panini and Sayana possess a thorough knowledge of the grammatical forms which, according to Mr. Witzel, are unknown to both of them.  Further, the foregoing study conclusively establishes Mr. Witzel’s own innocence of Panini and Sayana.  That he has not made a serious study of either Panini or Sayana in the original needs no mention.  His attribution of ignorance to both of them is a disclosure of his own ignorance of the monumental works of these outstanding ancient Indian authors.  It is not fair on the part of Mr. Witzel to indulge in pernicious allegation against the exalted personalities of Panini and Sayana and mislead the reading public thereby.

         Mr. Witzel accepts the usefulness of the ancillary disciplines in the interpretation of the Vedic texts.  But he has denied to himself the advantageous utilization of the ancillary sciences when he dubs Panini, with a single stroke of his pen, as ignorant of many grammatical forms in the Vedas.  As a Vedic scholar he should have made a thorough study of Panini and Sayana before passing any judgment over their writings.  Witzel formulates a number of rules, in the Open Page referred to already, for the guidance of a researcher in regard to the utilization of the material he has got on hand.  But he conveniently sets them aside in his own case; perhaps he meant them exclusively for others.  We refrain from referring to some more contradictory and inconsistent statements as they fall outside the scope of our write up.

[Note: All the references preceded by ‘P’ refer to Panini’s Ashtadhyayi]

   V. Swaminathan (Retd. Principal, Guruvayur Sanskrit Vidyapeeth)