Pāṇini stands at the pinnacle of Hindu intellectual achievement. His sūtra-pāṭha may be considered a monument in the same league as the invention of the śūṇya-based numeral system for which the Hindus are renowned. However, like several other Hindu figures of note, his life and times are the subject of divergent or contradictory narratives. To write about Pāṇini’s times would be in large part merely a rehash of Vasudeva Sharana Agrawala’s excellent monograph on the topic. Yet, we present some of the material on this matter (indeed partly just retelling what VS Agrawala has covered) for it might be of some interest to those not too well-acquainted with this topic.
A key pre-modern record of Pāṇini by a non-Indian is that given by Xuanzang, the Chinese scholar and agent of the Tang emperor Taizong. In his magnum opus, Da Tang Xiyuji, he provides a detailed report of his journey to and within India, which was presented at the Tang court in Chang’an before the emperor Taizong in 646 CE. While he was born in an orthodox Confucian family, Xuanzang became acquainted with bauddha texts early in his life from his brothers, and decided to study the bauddha-mata in greater depth. In 626 CE, the 24 year old Xuanzang became interested in the in depth study of Sanskrit as he was working through mahāyāna texts and the associated yogacāra literature. After having acquired a good grasp of the language after three years of study he had a dream, in which he saw himself being in India. This urged him to undertake a journey to India and directly study the texts of the bauddha-mata in their original language. He immediately set off for India having surreptitiously crossed the Chinese border with the Blue (Gök)Turk empire. The Khan of the Turks was pleased with his interaction with Xuanzang and gave his party a feast and assistance to reach the city of Tashkent and then enter the Iranian territory at Samarkand. The Iranian lord of Samarkand heard his lecture on mahāyāna and provided passage to go southwards towards India.
Having entered India, he visited the visited the vihāra-s in Bāhlika and Gandhāra and eventually reached Śalātura, which is today the village of Chota Lahore in the terrorist state of Pakistan (on the North-west bank of the Sindhu river, moving north from Attock). Xuanzang wrote in his Da Tang Xiyuji: “To the north-west of U-to-kia-han-c’ho at a distance of 20 li or so we come to the town of So-ls-tu-lo (i.e. Śalātura). This is the place where the ṛṣi Pāṇini, who composed the Ching-ming-lun (the Aṣṭādhyāyi) was born… The children of this town, who are his disciples, revere his eminent qualities, and a statue erected to his memory still exists.” Evidently this statue of Pāṇini has been destroyed by the Moslems who have since occupied those regions. However, the village Chota Lahore apparently has several elevated mounds corresponding to the ruins of the ancient town of Śalātura, which were briefly explored by a Belgian woman named Corbeau close the middle of the last century; many Gandharan artifacts from there have apparently been looted and sold to western markets the Pakistanis. The monumental effort of Pāṇini is sometimes referred to in Hindu tradition as the Śālāturīya-matam after this now ruined town. Indeed, this is a stark reminder of how a site so important to the Hindu tradition, a center from which a monument of human thought emerged, can be so completely erased by the barbarism of the third Abrahamism – a fate that can overtake the whole of Jaṃbudvīpa.
Then the Da Tang Xiyuji records an interesting tradition regarding the life of Pāṇini:
“Referring to the most ancient times, letters were very numerous; but when in the process of ages, the world was destroyed and remained as a void, the Deva-s of long life descended spiritually to guide the people. Such was the origin of the ancient letters and composition. From this time and after it the source (i.e. the root language) spread and passed its (former) bounds. Brahma-deva and Śakra-deva established rules according to requirements. Ṛṣi-s belonging to different schools each drew up forms of letters. Men in their successive generations put into use what had been delivered to them; but nevertheless students without ability were unable to make use (of these teachings). And now men’s lives were reduced to the length of a hundred years, when ṛṣi Pāṇini was born; he was from birth extensively informed about things. The times being dull and careless, he wished to reform the vague and false rules – to fix the rules and correct improprieties (of usage). As he wandered about asking for the right ways, he encountered Īśvara-deva and recounted to him the plan of his undertaking. Īśvara-deva said, “Wonderful! I will assist you in this.” The ṛṣi, having received instruction, retired. He then labored incessantly and put forth all his power of mind. He collected a multitude of words (i.e. the Gaṇa-pāṭha), and made a book on letters which contained a thousand śloka-s; each śloka was of 32 syllables. It contained everything known from the first till then, without exception, respecting letters and words. He then closed it and sent it to the supreme ruler, who exceedingly prized it, and issued an edict that throughout the kingdom it should be used and taught to others; and he added that whoever should learn it from beginning to end should receive as his reward a thousand pieces of gold. And so from that time masters have received it and handed it down in its completeness for the good of the world. Hence, the brāhmaṇa-s of this town are well-grounded in their literary work, and are of high renown for their talents, well-informed as to things, and of a vigorous understanding.”
VS Agrawala discusses this account in detail, and, in our opinion, correctly indicates that Xuanzang is recording a real Hindu tradition. As for the Aṣṭādhyāyi being in thousand śloka-s rather than the sūtra-pāṭha as we have it many divergent views are offered; however, Agrawala supports the view that it was merely an approximation of the actual number of syllables in the sūtra-pāṭha, which add up to approximately 32,000. Further, Agrawala holds the view that the presentation of the Aṣṭādhyāyi to the supreme ruler of India (Cīna term: da wang) is related to by an account given by learned Rājpūt author Rājaśekhara in the Pratihāra court (~late 800s-900s of CE):
śrūyate ca pāṭaliputre śāstrakāra-parīkṣā:
atropavarṣa-varṣav iha pāṇini-piṅgalāv iha vyāḍiḥ |
vararuci pataṅjalī iha parīkṣitāḥ khyātim upajagmuḥ ||
One hears that in Pāṭaliputra (modern Patna) there was an examination of the authors of technical works: It was here that Upavarṣa, Varṣa, Pāṇini, Piṅgala, Vyāḍi, Vararuci and Pataṅjalin were tested and thereby attained fame.
That Rājaśekhara was recording an ancient tradition becomes evident from the Greek philosopher Strabo(~64 BC–24 CE)’s account of the court of Pāṭaliputra (Book 15.1, section 39):
“…the population of India is divided into seven castes: the one first in honor, but the fewest in number, consists of the philosophers (the Brachmanes); and these philosophers are used, each individually, by the people making sacrifice to the gods or making offerings to the dead, but jointly by the kings at the Great Synod (mahāsabhā at Pāṭaliputra), as it is called, at which, at the beginning of the new year, the philosophers, one and all, come together at the gates of the king; and whatever each man has drawn up in writing or observed as useful with reference to the prosperity of either fruits or living beings or concerning the government, he brings forward in public; and he who is thrice found false is required by law to keep silence for life, whereas he who has proved correct is adjudged exempt from tribute and taxes.”
Hence, it is indeed likely that Pāṇini had presented his work at such a mahāsabhā at the capital of the Magadhan empire and it was accepted by it. This was probably a long-standing practice in the region going back to the Mithilan court where the Janaka-s held such sabhā-s (described in the brāhmaṇa literature) and eventually shifted to Pāṭaliputra with rise of the Magadhan power.
This leads us to another Hindu tradition regarding Pāṇini: In the Bṛhatkathā tradition, the scholars Upavarṣa, Varṣa, Pāṇini, Piṅgala, Vyāḍi, Vararuci are all linked together by a web of connections. While at Pāṭaliputra, Vararuci and Vyāḍi are said to have been students of Varṣa. Then Vararuci was enamored by the beauty of Varṣa’s niece, Upakośā, the daughter of Upavarṣa, and wooed her till Upavarṣa acceded to marry her to Vararuci. After Vararuci and Vyāḍi graduated, Varṣa got Pāṇini as a student from the northwest, whom Vararuci described as being an idiot. Pāṇini learned little, and one day Varṣa’s wife being frustrated with him threw him out. The dejected Pāṇini is then said to have gone to the Himālaya to worship the god Rudra with austerities. Finally, please with Pāṇini, Rudra gave him a new grammar of the Sanskrit language. Armed with this Pāṇini is said to have returned to Pāṭaliputra and challenged Vararuci in the sabhā. Their debate raged for seven days and Vararuci felt he was close to defeating Pāṇini. But then on the eight day Rudra made a terrible noise from the skies and the Aindra grammar, which was taught in the days of the Veda by Indra, in which Vararuci was an expert, was erased. With that Pāṇini emerged the victor. Utterly dejected by this, Vararuci is then said to have left his wife with his mother, deposited his wealth with a Vaiśya, and gone to the Himālaya to propitiate Rudra. In the mean time his wife Upakośā is said to have been violently harried by the Vaiśya and other men seeking to have extra-marital affairs with her. However, she tricked them by inviting them to her house and capturing them in a box and had them conveyed to emperor Nanda’s court. Nanda then arrested them and exiled them. In the meantime, Vararuci succeeded in pleasing Rudra and returned upon receiving the same grammar as Pāṇini. He was elated to hear how his wife had outwitted the rival males and now lived a contended life with his newly acquired grammatical knowledge. His former teacher Varṣa too now expressed the wish to acquire the same grammar. He worshiped the god Kumāra who then gave him the same grammar.
This narrative is contrasts that of Xuanzang. There, Pāṇini is a great genius, who is said to have been informed of all things right from his birth. In that narrative Rudra’s teaching is only the start of a process of intense mental effort on part of Pāṇini. This is also consistent with the tradition that while Pāṇini obtained the Māheśvara sūtrāṇi from Rudra, the rest of the exposition was his own effort. Indeed, Xuanzang’s story is more in line with the tradition of the Pāṇinīya-s who acknowledge that Pāṇini was a supreme scholar. As Agrawala points out the Kāśika commentary on Pāṇini plainly states:
mahatī sūkṣmekṣikā vartate sūtrakārasya |
The sūtrakāra (i.e. Pāṇini)’s insight is profound and subtle.
However, the narrative of the Bṛhatkathā tradition attempts to consistently put down Pāṇini:
1) It suggests that Pāṇini was a sluggard who got his grammar purely due to divine intervention.
2) It further makes the point that even with the superior grammar he was unable to defeat Vararuci, the foremost proponent of the Aindra school of grammar – even here his victory was solely due to Rudra’s aggressive intervention on his behalf.
3) It then suggests that, although Vararuci and Varṣa eventually switched to the Pāṇinīya school, they did not acquire it from Pāṇini. Rather, they independently obtained it respectively from Rudra and Kumāra.
This suggests that the older Aindra school, while beaten, only grudgingly accepted the defeat. Their chief proponent Vararuci seems to have pushed his own story, where Pāṇini is not only put down but his role is also minimized – he played no part in their eventual acceptance of the Pāṇinīya system; rather, they all obtained the same grammar independently from the gods by themselves. This is keeping with the evidence that that the Aindra school was once influential, and would not have easily bowed out to Pāṇini’s despite its apparent superiority. It seems to have lingered on in the peripheral zones. In the Dramiḍa country, it was the Aindra grammar that was used as the model for the analysis of a language from a totally different family, Tamiḻ (a Dravidian language), resulting in its early grammar, the Tolkāppiyam. A preface appended to that work states:
vaṭa vēṅkaṭam teṉ kumari
tamiḻ kūṟum nal ulakattu
vaḻakkum ceyyuḷum āyiru mutaliṉ
eḻuttum collum poruḷum nāṭic 5
cen-tamiḻ iyaṟkai civaṇiya nilattoṭu
muntu nūl kaṇṭu muṟaippaṭa eṇṇip
pulam tokuttōṉē pōkku aṟu paṉuval
nilam-taru tiruviṉ pāṇṭiyaṉ avaiyattu
aṟam karai nāviṉ nāṉmaṟai muṟṟiya 10
ataṅkōṭṭu ācāṟku aril tapat terintu
mayaṅkā marapiṉ eḻuttu muṟai kāṭṭi
malku nīr varaippiṉ aintiram niṟainta
tolkāppiyaṉ eṉat taṉ peyar tōṟṟip
pal pukaḻ niṟutta paṭimaiyōṉē. 15
Vēṅkaṭam [Tirupati hills] in the north, Kumari (Southern tip of peninsula) in south,
where Tamiḻ is spoken in the good world,
common and poetic usage, beginning with these two,
analyzing syllables, words, and meanings,
with the topic closely related to chaste Tamil,
seeing the foremost text, devising it to be in proper form,
a faultless discourse, he strung together
in the assembly of the Pāṇṭiyaṉ monarch Nilamtaru Tiruviṉ,
with his tongue the shore of dharma [ocean], knowledgeable in [all] 4 Veda-s,
Ataṅkōṭṭu ācārya examined and corrected errors,
showing as per un-deluded tradition the formulation of syllables,
full of the Aindra [grammar] like the ocean of water,
presenting his name as Tolkāppiyaṉ,
He is the standard (Skt: prathimā) established in great fame.
(Translation done with the help of a relative familiar with classical Tamiḻ usage)
There are some interesting features concerning this narrative regarding the Tolkāppiyam: First, it is said to have been presented at the Pāṇṭiyaṉ court in a manner similar to what is said of the Pāṇinīya grammar at the Magadhan court. Second, this act of presentation in the court, and it is apparent subsequent acceptance, seems to have been the basis of it being established as a standard. This again parallels the case of Pāṇini. Finally, it is of considerable significance to note that Tolkāppiyaṉ is said to have studied the colloquial and poetic usage of Tamiḻ throughout the Dramiḍa country, from Tirupati to Kanyakumari and analyzed it thoroughly to generate his grammar. This is an exact parallel of Pāṇini’s creation of the famed Gaṇa-pāṭha, which stands as one of the remarkable ethnological, geographical and linguistic explorations in the history of science. Pāṇini gathered comparable data from the greater Indo-Aryan realm from Prakaṇva (the Ferghana region of the modern Uzbek-Kyrgyz zone) to Kaliṅga (Odisha) and Sūramasa (Assam). This suggests that as the big Tamil kingdoms arose, several models, already perfected in the North, were transplanted to the southern courts, sparking similar endeavors in the Pāṇṭiyaṉ realm. The fact that an Aindra grammarian carried out a comparable exercise as Pāṇini in South India suggests that this method had already been imbibed by the rival school or perhaps both Pāṇini and Tolkāppiyaṉ inherited this methodological framework from the original Aindra tradition.
This finally leads us to the thorny question of the date of Pāṇini. Given that the Bṛhatkathā tradition places him as a contemporary of the first Nanda, one might say that he lived around 350 BCE. This tradition is also supported by the bauddha kriyā tantra, the Ma~njuśrīya-mūlakalpa, where Pāṇini is described as a good friend of [Mahāpadma]-nanda. Most white indologists, who generally favor late dates for all Hindu texts, also not surprisingly find such a date appealing. Further, it is suggested that this also brings him comfortably close to the date of his second great commentator Pataṅjalī (first being Kātyāyana) who is placed in the Śuṅga court. However, despite the existence of such a tradition, we recommend caution in ascribing such a late date to Pāṇini. The political geographical tradition that he records is clearly more consistent with several smaller ekarāja monarchies and saṃgha republics belonging to a period prior to the rise of the large Magadhan empire of the Nanda-s. We might also note in this regard that there is tendency in kāvya literature to “telescope” history by combining characters of different eras into a single historical layer. We see this even in the later Gupta court, where Bhartṛhari, Varāhamihira, Śabara-svāmin and Kālidāsa are all stated as existing side-by-side in Vikramāditya’s court. Hence, we cannot uncritically accept Pāṇini as a member of the Nanda court. Nevertheless, we believe that tradition is correctly recording the role of the Magadhan scholarly assembly in peer-reviewing and accepting Pāṇini’s monumental work.
Further reading: India As Known To Pāṇini by Vasudeva Sharana Agrawala