Vyakarana (Sanskrit: व्याकरण, Vyākaraṇa) literally means "explanation, analysis", and also refers to one of the six ancient Vedangas, or ancillary science connected with the Vedas – the scriptures of Hinduism.[1][2] Vyakarana is the study of grammar and linguistic analysis in Sanskrit language.[3][4][5]

Panini and Yaska are the two celebrated ancient scholars of Vyakarana; both are dated to several centuries prior to the start of the common era, with Panini likely from the 5th century BCE.[6] Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī is the most important surviving text of the Vyakarana traditions. This text consists of eight chapters each divided into four padas, cumulatively containing 4000 sutras.[7] The text is preceded by abbreviation rules grouping the phonemes of Sanskrit.[8] Panini quotes ten ancient authorities, whose texts have not survived, but they are believed to have been Vyakarana scholars.[8]

Vyakarana is related to the fourth Vedanga called Nirukta.[4] The Vyakarana scholarship has dealt with linguistic analysis to establish the exact form of words to properly express ideas, while Nirukta scholarship has focussed on linguistic analysis to help establish the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in.[4]


Ancient Sanskrit on Hemp based Paper. Hemp Fiber was commonly used in the production of paper from 200 BCE to the Late 1800's.

Vyakarana (Sanskrit: व्याकरण, IPA: [ʋjɑːkərəɳə]) means "separation, distinction, discrimination, analysis, explanation" of something.[9][10][11] It also refers to one of the six Vedangas, or the Vedic field of language analysis, specifically grammatical analysis, grammar, linguistic conventions which creates, polishes, helps a writer express and helps a reader discriminate accurate language.[9][2]

The word Vyakarana is also found in Mahayana Sutras and 1st millennium Mahayana Buddhist texts, but with a different meaning. Vyakarana, in these Buddhist texts, means a prediction or prophecy by a Buddha to a Bodhisattva who has just embarked on the path, that he will achieve enlightenment and be a Buddha.[11]


Vyakarana emerged as a distinct auxiliary field of Vedic study in ancient times.[12][13][14] Its aim was to prevent sloppy usage and transmission of the Vedic knowledge, states Howard Coward – a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and the founding editor of the Journal for Hindu-Christian Studies.[2] Vyakarana helped ensure that the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism and its message of "Sabda Brahman" (explanation of metaphysical truths through words) that Vedic Rishis had realized by their efforts, remains available to all in a pristine form.[2] In Indian traditions, Vyakarana has been one of the most important sciences, one extensively studied over its history, and that led to major treatises in the philosophy of language.[15]

Panini and Yaska, two celebrated ancient scholars of Vyakarana, are both dated to several centuries prior to the start of the common era, likely the 5th-century BCE.[16] However, both of them cite prior scholars and texts, which though lost to history, imply that the field of Vyakarana was an established and developed science of language before them.[17] Between the two, Yaksa may be the older one and more known for Nirukta (etymology) – the fourth auxiliary field of Vedic studies, but the evidence for him preceding Panini is scanty and uncertain.[18] In terms of dedicated treatise on Vyakarana, Panini is the most recognized ancient Hindu scholar, and his Ashtadhyayi (literally, eight chapters) is the most studied extant ancient manuscript on Sanskrit grammar.[18] Panini's fame spread outside India, and the reverence for ancient Panini in northwest India is mentioned in Chinese texts of Xuanzang – the 7th-century traveller and scholar.[19][20]

The study of grammar and the structure of language is traceable to the Rigveda, or 2nd millennium BCE, in hymns attributed to sage Sakalya.[16][21][note 1] Sakalya is acknowledged by Panini's works.[16] The literary evidence that the science of Vyakarana existed in Vedic times abound in the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads, states Moriz Winternitz.[24] The extant manuscripts of Panini and Yaksa suggest that the Vedic age had competing schools of grammar. One school, for example, held that all nouns have verbal roots, while another held that not all nouns have verbal roots.[16] However, it is unclear how, who or when these ancient Vedic theories of grammar originated, because those texts have not survived into the modern era.[16]

Pre-Paninian schools

There were many schools of Sanskrit grammar in ancient India, all established before the mid 1st-millennium BCE.[25] Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī, which eclipsed all other ancient schools of grammar, mentions the names of ten grammarians.[8][26][27][28]). Some of these pre-Paninian scholars mentioned by Panini include Apisali, Kasyapa, Gargya, Galava, Cakravarmana, Bharadvaja, Sakatayana, Sakalya, Senaka and Sphotayana.[25][26]

The works of most these authors are lost but we find reference of their ideas in the commentaries and rebuttals by later authors. Yāska's Nirukta is one of the earlier surviving texts, and he mentions Śākaṭāyana, Krauṣṭuki, Gārgya among others.

Post-Paninian schools

Panini's Ashtadhyayi is the most ancient extant manuscript on Vyakarana. It is a complete and descriptive treatise on Sanskrit grammar in aphoristic sutras format.[18][29] This text attracted a famous and one of the most ancient Bhasya (commentary) called the Mahabhasya.[30] The author of Mahabhasya is named Patanjali, who may or may not be the same person as the one who authored Yogasutras.[31] The Mahabhasya, literally "great commentary", is more than a commentary on Ashtadhyayi. It is, states Howard Coward, the earliest known philosophical text of the Hindu Grammarians.[31][note 2] Non-Hindu texts and traditions on grammar emerged after Patanjali, some of which include the Sanskrit grammar text of Jainendra of Jainism and the Chandra school of Buddhism.[33]

(...) Patanjali's Great Grammatical Discourse [Vyakrana-Mahabhasya] is regarded as the classical model for academic texts. It is written with a great deal of didactic skill as a dialog in clear, simple Sanskrit, and contains many enlightening examples. One notices that the text follows in the tradition of instruction, similar to the dialog stye of the Western classics of antiquity.

— Annette Wilke and Oliver Moebus[34]

Later Indian scholars simplified Panini rules, and trimmed his compilation of sutras to essential 1,400 from comprehensive 4,000, eliminating those they felt were too difficult and complicated.[35] Non-Hindu traditions, such as Jainism and Buddhism, developed their own Vyakarana literature, but all of them are dated to the 1st-millennium CE, all of them condensed Panini, accepted and flowered largely from his theories of Vyakarana.[36]

The nature of grammar

The energy called word has the nature of an egg.
It develops in the form of an action, and
realizes itself as a sequence of parts.

Bhartrihari, Vakyapadiya 1.52
Translator: Tibor Kiss[37]

The 5th-century Hindu scholar Bhartrihari has been the next most influential Vyakarana thinker, wherein he presented his philosophy of grammar and how language affects thoughts.[note 3] His theories on "philosophical problem of meaning", contained in the text Vakyapadiya, has been unique, states Howard Coward.[38] Bhartrihari is considered to be a major architect of the "sphota theory" of meaning, in the Hindu traditions.[38]

Bhartrihari ideas were widely studied, but challenged as well in the last half of the 1st millennium CE, particularly by the ritual-driven, Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy and by Dharmakirti of Buddhism.[38] The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism defended the ideas of Bhartrihari.[38]

About the 7th-century, the text Kasikavritti text co-authored by Jayaditya and Vamana, and the 10th-century, Helaraja's studies on Vyakarana were next major milestone.[38] These Hindu texts were not only commented in Hindu tradition, but were the foundation of works of the Buddhist Jinendrabuddhi who is known for his grammar insights in Buddhist literature.[38]

The most studied Vyakarana scholars of early and mid 2nd millennium CE are Ksirasvamin, Haradatta, Maitreya Rakshita, and Kaiyata.[42] The modern era Vyakarana scholars have included Bhattoji Dikshita, Konda Bhatta and Nagesha Bhatta.[43]


In terms of the place of Vyakarana scholarship over South Asian history, from ancient to 16th-century, Kashmir, Kerala, Nepal, Andhra Pradesh, Varanasi and Bengal have been influential, but the location of many Vyakarana scholars is unknown.[44]


Panini's text Ashtadhyayi is in sutras format, has eight chapters, and cumulative total of 4,000 sutras.[18] These rules are preceded by a list of fourteen groups of sounds, in three sections called the Shiva-sutra, Pratyahara-sutra and Maheshvara-sutra.[18][45] The Ashtadhyayi groups the rules of language, for clear expression and understanding, into two, the verbal (Dhatupatha) and the nominal bases (Ganapatha).[16][45] The text consists of an analytical part covered in the first five chapters, and a synthetic part found in the last three chapters.[46]

The Ashtadhyayi manuscript has survived with sets of ancillary texts (appendices) whose dates of composition and authors are contested.[47][48] The main text is notable for its details and systematic nature, syntactic functions and arranging the sutras in an algorithmic fashion where the grammar rules typically apply in the order of sutras.[49]

The Ashtadhyayi sutras were widely studied and a subject of bhasya (review and commentary) tradition of Hinduism. The oldest emendation and commentary on the Ashtadhyayi is attributed to Katyayana (~3rd century BCE), followed by the famous Maha-bhasya of Patanjali (~2nd century BCE) which has survived into the modern age.[31] Other commentaries on the Ashtadhyayi likely existed, because they are cited by other Indian scholars, but these texts are believed to be lost to history.[31]


Panini writes that the Anjna (popular usage of a word) is the superseding authority, and the theoretically derived meaning of a word must be discarded and instead superseded by that which is the popular usage.[8] The artha (meaning) of a shabda (word) is established by popular usage at the time the text was composed, not by etymological theory nor historical usage nor later usage.[50]

A sentence is a collection of words, a word is a collection of phonemes, states Panini.[51] The meaning of Vedic passages has to be understood through context, the purpose stated, keeping in mind the subject matter being discussed, what is stated, how, where and when.[51]

The Ashtadhyayi tradition of Sanskrit language, with some reservations, accepts the premise that all words have verbal roots, and that words are created by affixing fragments to these roots.[52] However, Panini asserts that it is impossible to derive all nouns from verbal roots.[52]

The Ashtadhyayi is primarily focussed on the study of words, how words are formed, and their correct architecture.[52] However, it does not exclude syntax. Panini includes the discussion of sentence structure.[52] The text, state Howard and Raja, describes compound word formation based on syntactic and semantic considerations, such as in sutra 2.1.1.[52]

What is a correct sentence?

Panini asserts that a proper sentence has a single purpose, and is formed from a group of words such that, on analysis, the separate words are found to be mutually expecting each other.[52] A sentence, states Panini, must have syntactic unity, which includes mutual expectancy (Akansha) of the words and phonetic contiguity (Sannidhi) of construction. Panini adds semantic fitness (Yogayata), but not tacitly. He accepts that a sentence can be grammatically correct even if it is semantically inappropriate or a deviant.[52]

What does a word mean?

The Ashtadhyayi describes numerous usage of words, and how the meaning of a word is driven by overall context of the sentences and composition it is found in.[53] The popular usage and meaning of a word at the time the text was composed supersedes the historical or etymologically derived meanings of that word.[8] A word has the conventional meaning at the time the text was composed, but it is not so when it is quoted (cited or referred to) from another prior art text.[53] In the latter case, the Sanskrit word is suffixed with iti (literally, thus), wherein it means what the prior text meant it to be.[53]

Yaska asserted that both the meaning and the etymology of words is always context dependent.[54]

Syntax, verbs and words

Vyakarana in the Hindu traditions has been a study of both the syntax structure of sentences, as well as the architecture of a word. For instance, Panini asserts that grammar is about the means of semantically connecting a word with other words to express and understand meaning, and words are to be analyzed in the context they are used.[55] Katyayana is quoted in Patanjali's Mahabhasya on Vyakarana as asserting the nature of a sentence as follows:[56]

A sentence consists of a finite verb together with indeclinables, karakas and qualifiers. – Mahabhasya 1.367.10
A sentence has one finite verb. – Mahabhasya 1.367.16

— Katyayana[56]

Similarly, Sayana asserts the scope of Vyakarana to be as follows:[37]

Grammar [Vyakarana] is that process by which division is carried out everywhere, by recognizing:
In this speech, so much is one sentence;
In this sentence then, so much is one word;
In this word then, this is the base and this is the suffix.

— Sayana[37]

A word that is a verb is concerned with Bhava (to become), while a noun is concerned with Sattva (to be, reality as it is).[54] Sattva and bhava are two aspects of the same existence seen from the static and dynamic points of view. Verbs according to Vyakarana indicate action in a temporal sequence while nouns are static elements, states K Kunjunni Raja.[57]

Patanjali's Mahabhasya

Patanjali's 2nd-century BCE Mahabhasya is another important ancient text in Vyakarana scholarship. It not a full commentary on everything Panini wrote in Ashtadhyayi, but it is more a commentary on Katyayana's text on grammar called Varttikas,[58] as well as the ideas of Vyadi.[59] While Katyayana's additions have survived, Vyadi have not.[59]

The Katyayana's text reflects an admiration for Panini, an analysis of his rules, their simplification and refinement.[60] The differences between the grammar rules of Panini and of Katyayana may be because of historical changes to Sanskrit language over the centuries, state Howard Coward and K Kunjunni Raja.[59]

Bhartrihari's Vakyapadiya

Language and spirituality

The word is subsumed by the sentence,
the sentence by the paragraph,
the paragraph by the chapter,
the chapter by the book,
and so on,
until all speech is identified with Brahman.

— Bhartrihari[61]

The Vakyapadiya of Bhartrhari is a treatise on the philosophy of language, building on the insights of prior Vyakarana scholarship.[62][63]

According to Bhartrihari, states Scharfstein, all thought and all knowledge are "words", every word has an outward expression and inward meaning.[63][64] A word may have a definition in isolation but it has meaning only in the context of a sentence.[63] Grammar is a basic science in the Hindu traditions, explains Scharfstein, where it is externally expressed as relations between words, but ultimately internally understood as reflecting relations between the different levels of reality.[63] Word is considered a form of energy in this Hindu text, one with the potential to transform a latent mind and realize the soul.[65][63] Language evolves to express the transient material world first, and thereon to express feelings, the human desire for meaning in life and the spiritual inner world.[63]

Roots of words

In Yāska's time, nirukta "etymology" was in fact a school which gave information of formation of words, the etymological derivation of words. According to the nairuktas or "etymologists", all nouns are derived from a verbal root. Yāska defends this view and attributes it to Śākaṭāyana. While others believed that there are some words which are "Rudhi Words". 'Rudhi" means custom. Meaning they are a part of language due to custom, and a correspondence between the word and the thing if it be a noun or correspondence between an act and the word if it be a verb root. Such word can not be derived from verbal roots. Yāska also reports the view of Gārgya, who opposed Śākaṭāyana who held that certain nominal stems were 'atomic' and not to be derived from verbal roots[66]


The Vyakarana texts have been highly influential on Hindu philosophies. The concept of a sentence (Vakya) defined by Panini, for instance, influenced and was similar to Jaimini, the later era founder of Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy.[52] However, ritual-focussed Mimamsa school scholars were generally opposed to central ideas of the Hindu Grammarians, while others Hindu schools such as Vedanta championed them.[38]

Panini's work on Vyakarana has been called by George Cardona as "one of the greatest monuments of human intelligence".[67]


  1. In addition to explicit references to Vyakarana, Rigveda has numerous embedded Riddle hymns, a few of which ancient and medieval Hindu scholars interpreted to be referring to linguistics and grammar. For example, the riddle verse 4.58.3 of the Rigveda states,[22]
    "Four horns, three feet, two heads and seven hands he has.
    The bull is thrice bound and roars.
    Great is the god who has entered the man". – Rigveda 4.58.3
    Patanjali interprets this riddle as follows, state Annette Wilke and Oliver Moebus: The four horns represent the four parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prefixes and particles. The three feet are the three main tenses: present, future, past; the two heads are the conventional and the etymological meaning of a word; the seven hands are the seven cases in Sanskrit; the three places where the roaring bull is bound are the three resonating spaces - the chest, the neck and the head' and the great god in riddle is the word.[23]
  2. The earliest secondary literature on the primary text of Panini are by Katyayana (~3rd century BCE) and Patanjali (~2nd century BCE).[32]
  3. Bhartrihari is now dated to have lived no later than the 5th century CE,[38][39][40] but there is a mention in a Chinese text by I-tsing that Bhartrihari died in 651/652 CE.[41]


  1. James Lochtefeld (2002), "Vyakarana" in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. 2: N-Z, Rosen Publishing, ISBN 0-8239-2287-1, page 769
  2. 1 2 3 4 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 36.
  3. W. J. Johnson (2009), A Dictionary of Hinduism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0198610250, article on Vyakarana
  4. 1 2 3 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 105.
  5. Lisa Mitchell (2009). Language, Emotion, and Politics in South India. Indiana University Press. p. 108. ISBN 0-253-35301-7.
  6. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 13–14.
  7. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 14, 111.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 111.
  9. 1 2 Monier Monier-Williams (1923). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. p. vi, 978.
  10. Tibor Kiss 2015, pp. 74-75.
  11. 1 2 Damien Keown (2004), A Dictionary of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0198605607, Article on Vyakarana
  12. Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 12-14, 36.
  13. Maurice Winternitz 1963, p. 458.
  14. Joel Peter Brereton; Stephanie W. Jamison; Madhav M. Deshpande (1991). Sense and Syntax in Vedic, Volumes 4-5. BRILL Academic. pp. 8–9 (Vol. 5). ISBN 90-04-09356-7.
  15. Maurice Winternitz 1963, pp. 458-459.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 13-14.
  17. Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 13.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 14.
  19. Maurice Winternitz 1963, p. 462.
  20. Frits Staal (1972), A Reader on the Sanskrit Grammarians, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, reprint by Motilal Banarsidass (1985), ISBN 81-208-0029-X.
  21. Maurice Winternitz 1963, p. 459.
  22. Annette Wilke & Oliver Moebus 2011, p. 476 with footnote 27.
  23. Annette Wilke & Oliver Moebus 2011, pp. 476-477.
  24. Maurice Winternitz 1963, pp. 459-460.
  25. 1 2 George Cardona 1997, pp. 148-157.
  26. 1 2 Monier Monier-Williams (1876). Indian Wisdom Or Examples of the Religious, Philosophical and Ethical Doctrines of the Hindus. quote: "Panini himself mentions several grammarians as having preceded him, such as Apisali, Kasyapa, Gargya, Galava, Cakravarmana, Bharadvaja, Sakatayana, Sakalya, Senaka, and Sphotayana. The Unadi-sutras are thought by some to be anterior to Panini." Also discusses the differences in opinions on interpreting Vedic texts, as given by Aurnabhava, Aupamanyava, Agrayana, Katthakya, Kautsa and Shakapuni – all mentioned as "anterior to Yaska" on p. 169
  27. Ashtyadhyayi 6.1.92, 6.1.123-130, 5.4.112, 8.4.51-67, etc. (annotated in list)
  28. Satkari Mukhopadhyaya. Sanskrit Grammatical Literature. in Encyclopaedia of Indian literature v.2, ed. Amaresh Datta, Sahitya Akademi. p. 1490.
  29. George Cardona 1997, pp. 182-187.
  30. George Cardona 1997, pp. 243-259.
  31. 1 2 3 4 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 16.
  32. Tibor Kiss 2015, pp. 71-72.
  33. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 16-17.
  34. Annette Wilke & Oliver Moebus 2011, p. 474.
  35. Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 17.
  36. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 17-18.
  37. 1 2 3 Tibor Kiss 2015, p. 74.
  38. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 18.
  39. Wolfram Hinzen; Michelle Sheehan (2013). The Philosophy of Universal Grammar. Oxford University Press. p. 17. ISBN 978-0-19-965483-3.
  40. George Cardona 1997, pp. 298-299.
  41. Maurice Winternitz 1963, p. 474.
  42. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 19-20.
  43. Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 20.
  44. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 22-24.
  45. 1 2 George Cardona 1997, pp. 160-172.
  46. Maurice Winternitz 1963, pp. 460-461.
  47. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 14-15.
  48. George Cardona 1997, pp. 179-182.
  49. Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 15.
  50. Harold G. Coward 1990, pp. 111-112.
  51. 1 2 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 106.
  52. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 112.
  53. 1 2 3 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 113.
  54. 1 2 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 107.
  55. Tibor Kiss 2015, pp. 73-77.
  56. 1 2 Tibor Kiss 2015, p. 73.
  57. Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 108.
  58. Maurice Winternitz 1963, p. 465.
  59. 1 2 3 Harold G. Coward 1990, p. 115.
  60. Maurice Winternitz 1963, pp. 465-466.
  61. Stefano Mercanti (2009). The Rose and the Lotus. Rodopi. pp. XLIX–L. ISBN 90-420-2833-5.
  62. Maurice Winternitz 1963, pp. 474-475.
  63. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ben-Ami Scharfstein (1993). Ineffability: The Failure of Words in Philosophy and Religion. State University of New York Press. pp. 69–81. ISBN 978-0-7914-1347-0.
  64. George Cardona 1997, pp. 300-303.
  65. Tibor Kiss 2015, pp. 74-81.
  66. Matilal, Bimal Krishna (2001) [1990]. The word and the world: India's contribution to the study of language. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-565512-5.
  67. George Cardona 1997, p. 243.


Further reading

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