Indian PhD student solves a Sanskrit grammatical puzzle which had remained a mystery since the 5th century BC
Image by Rishi Rajpopat LinkedIn account
An Indian PhD student at the University of Cambridge received a lot of praises after solving a grammatical problem which had left even the most learned Sanskrit scholars confused since the 5th Century BC.
Rishi Rajpopat, 27, from St John’s College successfully decoded a rule taught by “the father of linguistics” Pāṇini, which has made it possible to “‘derive’ any Sanskrit word – to construct millions of grammatically correct words including ‘mantra’ and ‘guru’ – using Pāṇini’s revered ‘language machine’ which is widely considered to be one of the greatest intellectual achievements in history”, Tom-Almeroth Williams wrote.
To support his findings, he used an 18th-century copy of a Pāṇini Sanskrit text and demonstrated that the grammar of Pāṇini converted a word’s base and suffix into grammatically correct words and phrases using an algorithmic approach.
‘Rule conflicts’ would arise as generally two or more of Pāṇini’s rules apply simultaneously. Scholars are said to have misinterpreted a ‘metarule’ taught by Pāṇini, assuming that it suggests that when conflicts arise between “two rules of equal strength, the rule that comes later in the grammar’s serial order wins”, Williams explains. This led to grammatically incorrect results.
Rajpopat rejected the conventional way of looking at the problem. He said, “Pāṇini had an extraordinary mind and he built a machine unrivalled in human history. He didn’t expect us to add new ideas to his rules. The more we fiddle with Pāṇini’s grammar, the more it eludes us.”
He then presented his interpretation, which states that between the rules applicable to the left and right sides of the word, Pāṇini wanted people to choose the right side of the rule.
After applying this, the genius produced grammatically correct words with almost no exceptions with the help of a language machine.
He said, “I had a eureka moment in Cambridge. After nine months trying to crack this problem, I was almost ready to quit, I was getting nowhere. So I closed the books for a month and just enjoyed the summer, swimming, cycling, cooking, praying and meditating.
“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. There was a lot more work to do but I’d found the biggest part of the puzzle.
“Over the next few weeks I was so excited, I couldn’t sleep and would spend hours in the library including in the middle of the night to check what I’d found and solve related problems. That work took another two and half years.”
Rajpopat was born in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, in 1995. He learnt Sanskrit in high school and went on to study Pāṇini’s Sanskrit grammar with the help of a retired Indian professor while completing his Bachelors in Economics in Mumbai.
He then travelled to the UK to complete his Masters in Pāṇinian Sanskrit Linguistics at the University of Oxford and eventually enrolled at the University of Cambridge to complete a PhD in the same field in 2017.