Friday , March 24 2023

Indian PhD student solves 2,500-year-old Sanskrit problem


Bureau Report + Agencies

NEW DELHI/ CAMBRIDGE: A Sanskrit grammatical problem which has perplexed scholars since the 5th Century BC has been solved by a University of Cambridge PhD student.

Rishi Rajpopat, 27, decoded a rule taught by Panini, a master of the ancient Sanskrit language who lived around 2,500 years ago.

Sanskrit is only spoken in India by an estimated 25,000 people out of a population of more than one billion, the university said.

Rajpopat said he had “a eureka moment in Cambridge” after spending nine months “getting nowhere”.

“I closed the books for a month and just enjoyed the summer – swimming, cycling, cooking, praying and meditating,” he said.

“Then, begrudgingly I went back to work, and, within minutes, as I turned the pages, these patterns starting emerging, and it all started to make sense.”

He said he “would spend hours in the library including in the middle of the night”, but still needed to work for another two-and-a-half years on the problem.

Sanskrit, although not widely spoken, is the sacred language of Hinduism and has been used in India’s science, philosophy, poetry and other secular literature over the centuries.

Panini’s grammar, known as the Astadhyayi, relied on a system that functioned like an algorithm to turn the base and suffix of a word into grammatically correct words and sentences.

However, two or more of Panini’s rules often apply simultaneously, resulting in conflicts.

Panini taught a “metarule”, which is traditionally interpreted by scholars as meaning “in the event of a conflict between two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the grammar’s serial order wins”.

However, this often led to grammatically incorrect results.

Rajpopat rejected the traditional interpretation of the metarule. Instead, he argued that Panini meant that between rules applicable to the left and right sides of a word respectively, Panini wanted us to choose the rule applicable to the right side.

Employing this interpretation, he found the Panini’s “language machine” produced grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions.

“I hope this discovery will infuse students in India with confidence, pride and hope that they too can achieve great things,” said Rajpopat, from India.

His supervisor at Cambridge, professor of Sanskrit Vincenzo Vergiani, said: “He has found an extraordinarily elegant solution to a problem which has perplexed scholars for centuries.

“This discovery will revolutionize the study of Sanskrit at a time when interest in the language is on the rise.”

A village in the southern state of Karnataka where most residents speak Sanskrit is in focus at a time when the Indian government’s insistence on promoting the ancient language has sparked a debate over the role it plays in the lives of people in the country now, sources report from village.

Mattur, in Shimoga district, about 300km (186 miles) from the state capital, Bangalore, appears quite oblivious of the raging debate in India over the recent government order to replace German with Sanskrit in central schools.

Here, ordinary shopkeepers and agricultural laborers speak in Sanskrit or at least understand it. Most children to speak the language fluently.

The phrases most heard on the streets here are “katham aasthi” (Sanskrit for how are you?) and “aham gachchami” (I am going).

Professor MB Srinidhi, a resident of Mattur, says the current controversy is unnecessary.

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