How a student solved a 2,500-year-old Sanskrit problem

How a student solved a 2,500-year-old Sanskrit problem

A Sanskrit grammar problem that has baffled scholars since the 5th century BC has been solved by a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Rishi Rajpopat, 27, has deciphered a grammar rule taught by Panini, a master of the ancient Sanskrit language who lived some 2,500 years ago.

Sanskrit is spoken in India alone by about 25,000 people out of a population of over a billion, according to the university.

Rajpopat says 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, biking, cooking, praying and meditating,” he says.

“Then I reluctantly went back to work and within minutes of turning the pages these patterns started to emerge and it all started to make sense.”

He says he “spent hours in the library, including in the middle of the night,” but he still had another two and a half years to work on the problem.

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

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

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

Panini taught a “meta-rule”, which is traditionally interpreted by academics as: “in case of a conflict between two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the serial order of the grammar wins”.

However, this often led to grammatically incorrect results.

Rajpopat rejected the traditional interpretation of the meta-rule. Rather, he argued that Panini meant that among the 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 that Panini’s “language machine” produced grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions.

“I hope this discovery will instill in students in India confidence, pride and hope that they too can achieve great things,” says India’s Rajpopat.

“He has found an extraordinarily elegant solution to a problem that has perplexed scholars for centuries,” said Sanskrit Professor Vincenzo Vergiani, Rajpopat’s advisor at the University of Cambridge,

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

This text was published here.

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