Understanding Pāṇini Vyākaraṇa

The conception of Vyākaraṇa as a grammar is mistaken. The term itself means an instrument (karaṇa) that acts as a veil (vyā) on words to selectively filter one out of many possible meanings of the word in a particular context. Grammar does no such filtering. Grammar is a purely syntactical device used to check if the sentence is well-formed rather than to determine its meaning. A sentence like "Pretty hollow ideas eat voraciously" is a syntactically correct but semantically meaningless. A syntactically correct sentence like "I saw a man on a hill with a telescope" doesn't have a fixed meaning. By equating Vyākaraṇa to grammar, Sanskrit inherits the semantic problems of Western grammars. That neither aligns with the meaning of Vyākaraṇa as a instrument that acts as a veil to filter possible meanings nor does it illuminate its semantic use.

Every word has three unique classes of meanings. First, it universally represents an embodied by a class. Second, it contextually represents the exclusion of several things that it is not. Third, it individually represents an individual instance that has similarities to the ideal but is not the ideal although it is not all the contextually excluded types.

For example, the concept of man can denote an ideal man (e.g., men are protectors of society). It represent exclusions of types such as a cow (e.g., a man who has lost a leg is still a man because he is not a cow), and an indiviudal man under discussion (e.g., the man was muttering to himself). When we talk about dictionary meaning of a man, we cannot mean an ideal man nor can we mean a specific man because we are trying to get as many individuals included within that class. Therefore, we must ignore the universal ideal and the specific individuals that are sometimes denoted by the word man and focus only on the contextual exclusions of all that a man is not.

If we don’t examine the philosophy of concepts, then a man cannot be defined correctly because “the man was muttering to himself” and “men are defenders of society” isn’t true for all men. Even a definion such as “man a two-legged animal” isn’t true for all men who have lost a leg. If we generically include all the traits of men in the definition of a man, then most men would be diqualified as men. If we remove all these traits, then even cows could be included in men. Thereby, the definition is sometimes too broad (it includes many cows) and sometimes too narrow (it excludes many men).

In Sanskrit, this philosophy of language is incorporated in producing dictionary word-meanings and called Nirukta, which comprises two roots, nih or not, and ukta or spoken, and means “that which hasn’t been said”, “that which cannot be meant”, or “that which is outside the potential meanings”. Nih also means lower. We can think of foreground and background or prioritized and deprioritized. Nirukta, with nih denoting something lower, means the deprioritized background for a foreground. If we talk of a man, it includes many types of men, but it excludes cow and tree varieties. Hence, by calling something a man, we are saying that it is not a cow and not a tree. We are not referring to a specific man. Nor are we talking about the ideal of a man. This is Nirukta, which means that we are just negating cows and trees. They are the deprioritized background against which something will be prioritized as foreground later.

Conversely, what we know through Vyākaraṇa is what the word means specifically in a given context. It could mean an ideal man, a specific man, or not a cow. The term Vyākaraṇa comprises two roots, vyā or a veil and sieve, and karaṇa, or instrument. What the word means is decided by who uttered the word, in a specific mood, with a specific intention, denoting a specific idea, as a specific type of activity, for a specific audience. These are the “veils” and “sieves” of the word. They have surrounded the word and reduced its possible meanings to an actual meaning, quite like a person surrounded by his children stops being the boss in the office but surrounded by his colleagues he stops being a father. Our common conception of grammar is that it gives us the rules by which words are combined. But that is not Vyākaraṇa because Vyākaraṇa means determining the specific meaning of a word by looking at a word through veils or sieves to reduce the possible meanings to an actual meaning.

With Nirukta, we say that something is not a cow and not a tree and that negation is the meaning of man. With Vyākaraṇa, we say that the thing in question is a specific type of man because he was referred to earlier or is being referred to later. Nirukta rejects what something cannot be, and Vyākaraṇa selects what something is, from a collection of possibilities allowed by the Nirukta exclusion. Together, the process of rejection and selection narrows the possible meanings to an actual meaning.

Let’s apply this idea of Vyākaraṇa to the first two Sūtras of the Pāṇini Vyākaraṇa. Sūtra 1.1.1 says vṛddhirādaic which means “it can also be greater than the original”. Sūtra 1.1.2 says adeṅguṇaḥ which means “it can end its qualities”. Every word has many potential meanings (those which haven’t been excluded by Nirukta). Some of these meanings can be prioritized and emphasized, while other meanings can be terminated or deemphasized. The job of a sieve is to hide something. What is left over after hiding something, is greatly emphasized, precisely because other things have been hidden.

In Sāñkhya, the process of deriving meanings by word combinations involves the use of “dominant” and “subordinate”. Let’s consider two words—”science” and “economy”. There is a “science of economy” and there is an “economy of science”. The difference arises because some word precedes or follows other words. What comes prior is, in this case, prioritized over whatever follows. Economy is a part of science when we speak of the “science of economy”. Science is a part of economy when we speak of the “economy of science”. The container is dominant and the contained is subordinate.

The dominant words are instruments for the subordinate words. The subordinate words are objects being perceived through the instrument. What is dominant or subordinate is often impossible to tell in grammar. For instance, the sentence “I saw a man on a hill with a telescope” has many possible interpretations including those cases where (a) a man is an “instrument” looking into a telescope and (b) a man is an object being looked through an “instrument” called a telescope. The telescope and the man can both be “instruments” and “objects”. We cannot settle this dilemma of meaning in a grammar. But we can settle this dilemma in Vyākaraṇa because one of the many possible meanings is filtered by a sieve to get one specific meaning. There are six methods of filtration hence there are six different kinds of sieves.

The modern interpretation of Nirukta and Vyākaraṇa is influenced by Western idea of dictionaries and grammars and made to conform to them. Under this influence, the Western philosophy of language is applied to Sanskrit although this philosophy does not recognize the exclusions of individual and ideal meanings. Everyone consults a dictionary and calls that Nirukta. Everyone reads Pāṇini Sūtras and calls that the rules of grammar. But this is neither Nirukta nor Vyākaraṇa. We have to apply the philosophy of word-meaning, instrument-object, contextuality-individuality-universality to understand Nirukta nor Vyākaraṇa. Notably, Pāṇini Vyākaraṇa has to be understood through the lens of Vedic philosophy of language rather than the Western idea of dictionaries as what a word means and grammar as rules of word combination.

The words do not remain unchanged in a word combination. A word is not an objective reality. It is rather a collection of potentials one of which is selected through a word combination. The process of selection in turn depends on the other words. The process is also determined by whichever word is prominent or dominant in a certain case. The dominant word selects one of the many possible subordinate word’s meaning.

Accordingly, the study of Vyākaraṇa is the study of how words interact with each other to select meanings from a word in a given context and give each word a precise meaning. Since a word can be given many meanings in different contexts, therefore, dictionaries try to list all those meanings. That gives us the false impression that a word can be interpreted in many ways. That is not true with Vyākaraṇa. Each word has a specific meaning in a given context determined by which other words are prominent. By assigning different prominence to words, we change the filters or sieves which then filter out different meanings from a word. In some cases, the most important meaning may be filtered out by giving priority to a less-important word.

The essential role of Vyākaraṇa, therefore, is to determine which word gets highest priority because the highest priority word will affect all other word’s meanings. This emphasis on different words is not part of written language generally. But words are habitually emphasized in speech. Sometimes, we italicize or underline words to show their emphasis. A grammar doesn’t capture tonality, italicization, or underlining of words. Hence, “it can also be greater than the original” and “it can end its qualities” lose their meaning. Therefore, we can conclude that Sanskrit Vyākaraṇa isn’t yet known because the precise rules for tonality, italicization, and underlining are never part of grammar but they are the most important methods of deciding meaning.

In this project, we study the various ways in which the meanings of words changes because the context determines the most important word and then determines the meanings of all the other words, and connect it to Pāṇini’s system of Vyākaraṇa.