Musings on VyAkaraNa

With the Devi’s Blessings. Cover art by Jayant Kalawar 2018.

By Jayant Kalawar, January 4, 2023

The last few weeks (of 2022) has seen a great deal being written about VyAkaraNa in international media, including social media. VyakaraNa, the systematized knowledge of the grammar has been used to structure Samskrit bhAshA in at least the last 2500 years or so. That VyAkaraNa became  a topic of popular conversation tells us more about how materialist vision of the world (“Employing this interpretation, he found the Panini’s “language machine” produced grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions”[i]), rooted in the so-called European Enlightenment of about 500 years ago, continues its movement to assimilate “pre-modern” knowledge produced by humans for millennia[ii]. Indian Samskrit academics raised objections that the research work by Mr Rishi Rajpopat, a graduate student at Cambridge Univeristy, UK, had not yet been peer reviewed[iii], but did not contest the description of PaNini’s “language machine” – a reductive materialist description of VyAkaraNa. It seems to me that the lens being used, in the current conversation on all sides, to describe MahArishi PaNini’s systematized knowledge (ShAstra), is a materialist one.

So how to notice VyAkaraNa with an integrated lens of the VedA, rather than the narrower materialist lens? The version of VyAkaraNa as described in MahArishi Panini’s AshthAdhAyi may be seen as an articulation of the bridge that humans use in their cognitive process, of perceiving the world, understanding it and responding to it. There were many versions of VyAkaraNa. The AshthAdhyAyi got traction and became standard usage.

Where does VyAkaraNa fit into the human cognitive process as the VedA teaches us, the process by which humans make sense of the world? At its root, human awareness capacity (Chaitanya) has a disinterested observer component (Sakshi). The Sakshi becomes AhamkArA, an interested player, one with skin in the worldly game, through a process of forgetting (vismarA), its true nature. The AhamkArA plays the role of the cognizer in the game, a pramAthA. PramAthA acquires data on the many objects in the world through IndriyAs (sense functions of seeing, hearing etc). To make sense of object data it has gathered it applies pramANa, structured ways of making meaning (one may call them algorithms in this particular desh-kAl-paristhiti in 2023). The manas is the platform used to process the acquired data. The challenge then is to be able to make meaning out of the processed data and communicate it out to fellow humans so that it makes sense to them as well. Sharing of the meaning produced in manas. That requires standardization. That is where the role of VyAkaraNa comes into play. It helps classify meanings of words produced in the manas in the form of structured sounds (shabda). Such shared classifications help us share common understandings of the world. And therefore act together in it.

Our ancestors developed many different interpretations (MimamsA) of each word of the VedA. They constructed different models, darshanAs, to explain the world, based on these many different interpretations. And they argued and synthesized and differed (tarkA). But one thing they all accepted was to use the standard VyAkaraNa so that they could have some chance of understanding each other.

So one such interpretation of the human cognitive process articulated, especially in Kashmir Shaivism, is ParA-Pashyanti-MadhyamA-Vaikhari. Where Vaikhari is the spoken word, uccharaNa. It is also where data on the objects is acquired by IndriyAs. MadhyamA is where the data is processed and meaningful images are generated. VyAkaraNa plays the role of bridging between MadhyamA and VyAkaraNa.

Another parallel interpretation is Sharira Traya: Sthula-Sukshma-KAraNa. VedAntins favor this interpretation (even as the Advaita VedAntins rush in to remind us that Sharira Traya is unAtma, asat!). One can map prameya (and vaikhari) to sthula, pramANa (and madhyamA) to sukshma and pramAtha-SAkshi (and ParA-Pashyanti) to KAraNa.

I will drop this one as I end my musings on VyAkaraNa: the beej AksharAs enable connection directly from Vaikhari (Sthula) to Pashyanti (Sakshi, KAraNa), by-passing madhyamA (manas). Mantras are designed using beej AksharAs for this purpose. That thought opens up the contemplation of Sthula Sharira in terms of chakrAs which emanate particular spandanA corresponding to beej AksharAs. Hence some AcharyAs may say that when it comes to mantrAs, do not look for meanings. Meanings are produced in the madhyAmA, which the mantrAs help us to avoid, while connecting directly to pashyanti (this by-passing helps to get us towards nir-vikalpa, madhyamA being the node which produces vikalpa).

I will leave this short note here for contemplation and conversation.


[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/articles/cg3gw9v7jnvo

[ii] https://www.guardian-series.co.uk/news/national/23192289.student-solves-sanskrit-grammatical-problem-puzzled-scholars-centuries/

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyw21VpHXto

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