Genius of the man from the village of Salatura

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Sep 01, 2013

Our communal disposition is such that we, almost everyone, wear blinkers when it comes to our own history. This bizarre mindset leads us to ignore our amazingly rich legacy which goes back in antiquity.

In this piece I would like to go way back in time. This is before Islam came about, even before the Christian faith was born, even before Alexander of Macedonia came our way, only to be thrashed and repelled to die of malaria in Alexandria at the age of 33. Popular history depicts him as an undefeated warrior. A bigger lie could not have been planted in the collective subconscious of the world. The Puru of Bhera, dark, handsome and seven feet tall, known more by his Latinised name Porus, defeated him and then joined hands to try to defeat the combined forces of the Puru of Lahore. The Lahore ruler was wiser, for he made a tactical withdrawal, joined hands with other Rajput rulers and waited beyond the Beas in a massive show of strength. The Greeks fled at the sight of such a force. The Puru of Bhera also returned home, bypassing Lahore as a precaution.

But let us dwell on an even earlier time and on a much more sedate activity. In 500 BC, over 2,500 years ago, the Vedic Period had come to an end. The Brahmins spoke Sanskrit, a language that evolved in the land that today is Pakistan. For that matter even Hinduism evolved in the land of five rivers, only then it was known as the land of seven rivers. Of recent I have been going through some very ancient texts of our sub-continent. My understanding of Sanskrit is almost non-existent, though a few sentences I can now grapple with.

In the ‘Rigveda’, written on the banks of the River Ravi, the Punjab is referred to as ‘Saptasindhu’, or the land of seven rivers. The rivers are Sindhu (Indus), Vitasta (Jhelum), Asikma (Chenab), Parusui (Ravi), Vipas (Beas), Sutudri (Sutlej) and Susoma (Sohan). Then there are five more rivers mentioned, which are Arjikiya, Hariyupiya (Harappa), Sarasvati, Apaya and Drsadvati. It was Al-Bureni almost 1,300 years later who used the Persian words ‘panj’ and ‘aab’ to call our land Punjab. But the Rigveda describes this as the land of five people, they being the Anu, the Yadu, the Turvasa, the Druhya and the Puru. In post-Vedic literature these people are symbolised as off-springs of the deity Sun.

The official written language, not spoken, of the land was Sanskrit, and the very first Sanskrit grammar book was written by the greatest Sanskrit grammarian ever born, a man by the name of Rishi Panini. His book of Sanskrit grammar is titled ‘Ashtadhyayi’. Panini was born and worked in the village of Salatura. In ancient texts the village of Salatura has been located as representing the village of Lahore. If you happen to visit the Lahore Museum you can see among the exhibits a Kharoshtri inscription dated the Kushana Year 40, or 118 AD. On it is a relief of Panini, whom the Chinese historian and traveller Yuan Chwang describes as the great Sanskrit grammarian whose relief was worshipped. Even Yuan Chwang locates his birthplace as ‘Lahur’, a variant in use in the 7th century when he passed through.

At this stage, in case you think I am getting carried away, let me refer to one research by Dr. V.S. Agrawala, who places Salatura as being 80 miles east of ‘Vitasta’. But then the American researcher George Cardone places the location, using various Sanskrit texts, as being 60 miles north of Harappa. However, most texts agree that the ancient Sanskrit texts use the name Salatura for what is today Lahore. Let us now move beyond Panini’s birthplace.

Here I will use the views of the great Orientalist, Dr. Max Muller, who describes the ‘Ashtadhyayi’ as “the work of an individual author, and not like all other Vedic classics which are collective works finished over considerable time”. In this the genius of the Lahore-born grammarian is undisputed. If we shed our communal prejudices, if that is ever possible, then Panini was, probably, among the greatest scholars that Lahore has produced. Beyond the hyperbole, let us look at the man and his work.

The science of grammar, called ‘vyakarana’ in Sanskrit, is regarded as the very first and most important of the sciences. This is understandable, for if we are to communicate we need logic and the ability to inform, which make the foundation of all knowledge. Panini was the very first, in the words of the distinguished linguist Prof Macdonald, “to analyse word forms, to recognise the difference between root and suffix, to define the functions of suffixes, and to describe a grammatical system so accurate and complete as to be unparalleled in any other country”.

Given that even today his ‘Ashtadhyayi’ is standard reference in all Sanskrit research all over the world; his work can be regarded as the starting point of the post-Vedic age. In a way he set the classical Sanskrit linguistic standards. His methodology, in a way, structured the Indo-European languages. What was this methodology?

The analysis of Panini was, in a nutshell, that the underlying meaning of all words relate to the name of places to social life and their background. Words, he said, do not originate by accident, but are the outcome of social and historical conditions. How could a man living 2,500 years ago reach such a sophisticated conclusion? Mind you there was immense research and travelling involved before he wrote his classic.

He himself writes: “I travelled between Kamboja (Pamir region) and Kapisi (Bagram in Afghanistan) to Kalinga (Orissa) and Suramasa (Surma Valley in Assam), I listened to every word spoken, analysed its origin and tried to understand the relationship between places, people and their history and their social life”. These surely are the words of a genius whose analysis rests on a deep understanding of the sociology and history of people, no matter where they exist.

Let me present just one amazing result of his analysis and observation: “Bharata is really Prachya-Bharata (East India) for there is a dividing line between Udichya (north) and Prachya (east). The Udichya country will always remain outside the sphere of Prachya and the Saravati is the dividing line”. What an utterly amazing conclusion 2,500 years ago. All we have to do is to study our history without our communal spectacles and the reality is before us.

The Sanskrit grammar has 3,995 rules, called ‘sutras’. The complex manner in which languages function all over the world follow those rules, no matter where they be. Of importance is the relevant sociology and history of its location. The genius of the man from Salatura has lived for thousands of years. It is time we afford the man from our city some recognition. But then even if we do not, the fact is the entire world does.




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