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Rishi Rajpopat, an Indian PhD scholar at Cambridge University solves a 2500-year-old Sanskrit grammar conundrum

Panini's text Ashtadhyayi, which consists of a set of rules for deriving or forming new words from root words, frequently contains conflicting rules for creating new words, leaving many scholars perplexed about which rules to apply.

Rishi Rajpopat, a 27-year-old student at Cambridge University has solved a grammar puzzle deriving from the texts written by the great Sanskrit scholar and the “father of linguistics” Panini which has perplexed scholars for centuries. 

The Indian PhD scholar at the faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern studies at St. John’s College has decoded a rule in Panini’s text Ashtadhyayi. 

Panini’s text Ashtadhyayi, which consists of a set of rules for deriving or forming new words from root words, frequently contains conflicting rules for creating new words, leaving many scholars perplexed about which rules to apply.

Many scholars were interested in resolving such a puzzle in this linguistic algorithm of a book. Panini himself wrote a meta-rule to resolve rule conflicts. According to Panini’s meta-rule (as interpreted by scholars over the years), In the occurrence of a conflict between two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the grammar’s serial order is applicable.

Rishi Rajpopat’s rebuttal to scholars over 2,500 years

Rejecting the traditional interpretation of the metarule, Rishi Rajpopat in his dissertation argued that Panini meant that between rules applicable to the left and right sides of a word respectively, Panini wanted the reader to choose the rule applicable to the right side.

For example, there is a rule conflict when attempting to form the word guruṇā, which means ‘by the guru’ and is a known word, in the sentence jna dyate guru — knowledge (jna) is given (dyate) by the guru (guru).

The word is made up of the roots guru + ā. Following Paini’s rules for creating the word that will mean “by the guru,” two rules become applicable: one to the word guru and one to ā. This is solved by selecting the rule that applies to the word on the right, which results in the correct new form guruṇā.

The eureka moment

As Rajpopat struggled to solve the problem, his supervisor at Cambridge Vincenzo Vergiani gave him a bit of insightful advice. “If a solution is complicated, you are probably wrong,” Vergiani advised Rajpopat. 

Rajpopat reveals that there was a time when he had almost decided to give up however, after six months, he had a eureka moment. “Six months later, I had a eureka moment. I was all set to quit as I was getting nowhere. I closed my books for a month, and enjoyed meditating, praying, swimming, and other activities,” Rajpopat said. 

“I then begrudgingly went back to work, and as I started turning pages, all the patterns started emerging and everything started making sense. I realised that the key to Panini’s grammar was right before everyone’s eyes but hidden from everyone’s minds for over 2 millennia,” Rajpopat added. 

Significance

Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world and holds special importance in Hindu Dharma. It is through Sanskrit that much of India’s greatest science, philosophy, poetry, and other prominent literature has passed on over centuries.

Although the language is spoken in India by about 25,000 people presently, interest in the language has increased in recent years. 

Speaking about ancient wisdom propagated by ancient Indian scholars, Rishi Rajpopat says, “We’ve been made to believe that we are not important. I hope this discovery will infuse confidence, a sense of pride, and hope among Indian students that they too can achieve great things.”

One of the major implications of this discovery by Rajpopat is that now the algorithm of Panini’s grammar is available, and this grammar can now be taught to computers. 

“Teaching computers how to combine the speaker’s intention with Panini’s rule-based grammar to produce human speech would be a major milestone in the history of human-machine interaction, as well as in India’s intellectual history,” Rajpopat explains.

Speaking about his student’s extraordinary achievement, Vincenzo Vergiani, the Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Cambridge said, “My student Rishi has found an extraordinarily elegant solution to a problem that perplexed scholars for centuries. This will revolutionalize the study of Sanskrit.”

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