Friday Review

Where Sanskrit meets computer science

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Proving the compatibility of Science and Sastras, Dr. P. Ramanujan headed a project on ‘Computational Rendering of Paninian Grammar’.

(This is the last of the two-part article on Dr. P. Ramanujan’s work on computer and Sanskrit. The first part appeared in Friday Review on March 13 and the link is>http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/access-the-sastras-through-the-computer/article6986130.ece)

In the early 1900s, analytic philosophers such as Russell and initially Wittgenstein too, tried to develop artificial languages, which, unlike ordinary language, would provide them with a more logical grammar, and words with unambiguous meanings. Language was a major preoccupation for later analytic philosophers such as Austin too, although he felt ordinary language itself would serve the purpose of the philosopher.

Talking about generative grammar, linguist Noam Chomsky said that grammar books do not show how to generate even simple sentences, without depending on the implicit knowledge of the speaker. He said this is true even of grammars of “great scope” like Jespersen’s ‘A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles.’ There is some “unconscious knowledge” that makes it possible for a speaker to “use his language.” This unconscious knowledge is what generative grammar must render explicit. Chomsky said there were classical precedents for generative grammar, Panini’s grammar being the “most famous and important case.”

Walter Eugene Clark, who was Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, and who translated Aryabhatta’s Aryabhatiya into English, wrote that “Panini’s grammar is the earliest scientific grammar in the world, and one of the greatest.” He said the “Indian study of language was as objective as the dissection of the body by an anatomist.”

Not surprisingly, there are scientists who study Paninian grammar, with a view to seeing what application they have in the area of Natural Language Processing (NLP) research.

Dr. P. Ramanujan, Programme Co-ordinator, Indian Heritage Group- C-DAC, Bengaluru, is an authority on Paninian grammar. With a tuft, a namam on his forehead and a traditional dhoti, he doesn’t look like a typical scientist. Ramanujan is proof that traditional education need not stand in the way of a career in science, for it is his traditional learning which has brought him to where he is today.

Trained from the age of three by his father, Ghanapadi Parankusachar Swami, Ramanujan completed his study of the 4000 verses of the Divya Prabandham by the age of 11. After his upanayanam, Vedic studies began. But he also had to go to regular school, so that he had an almost 24-hour academic engagement, studying one thing or the other.

A brilliant student, Ramanujan wanted to become an engineer. But his father wanted him to take up a job soon, and so suggested he do a diploma course. After obtaining his diploma, Ramanujan joined HAL. Later on, he graduated in engineering, and did his Masters in Engineering from IISc, where his thesis was on Development of a General Purpose Sanskrit Parser.

What would make a study of Sanskrit useful to a student of Computer Science? “If a language has many meanings for a word, it is ambiguous, but when Sanskrit has many meanings for a word, it is rich!” says Dr. Ramanujan, who headed a project on ‘Computational Rendering of Paninian Grammar.’

The richness of Sanskrit comes from the fact that everything is pre-determined and derivable. “There is a derivational process, and so there is no ambiguity. You can explain everything structurally. There is a base meaning, a suffix meaning and a combination meaning. The base is the constant part, and the suffix is the variable part. The variables are most potent. With suffixes one can highlight, modify or attenuate.”

Two different words may denote an object, but you can’t use them interchangeably, for the functional aspect is what matters. For example you can’t replace ‘Agni’ with ‘Vahni,’ for ‘Agni’ has its own componential meaning.

An object may be denoted by the base. An object can have sets of relationships and interactions with other things in the world. For example, ‘Rama’, in relation to other objects, may be an agent of some activity or the recipient etc. “Even the interactions have been codified nicely and briefly. Clarity and brevity are the hallmarks of Panini’s work. His rule-based approach is his biggest plus point.”

Isn’t it true that in Sanskrit you don’t have to coin words for a new invention or discovery, and you can derive a word to suit the functionality of the object? “Yes. You have all the components with you to derive a word.

You can use multiple suffixes, if need be, to show the particular function of an object.”

Does meaning vary according to accent? “It does. For the same suffix, different meanings are derivable because of accent differences. So you have the Divine Couple, Jaganmatha and Jagathpitha. How do you show the difference between our parents for all time and our parents in this life alone? Accent helps here. This is how the Vedas are most apt, and this has been fully noted by Panini. “He gave us a conceptual, functional system. You take an example, apply the rules and get clarity about what it means. So the structure is important. The component approach is important.”

Wasn’t there an occasion when the work of a Finnish scholar, who found fault with Panini, was referred to you ? “The Finnish scholar said that Panini was wrong in some rules relating to Vedic grammar. ‘Let Lakaara’ is used only in the Vedas, and Panini wrote five sutras for it. The Finnish scholar felt Panini could have handled this differently. George Cardona, from the University of Pennsylvania, referred him to me. I pointed out that Panini cannot be faulted internally. After all he set out a meta language first. He said this is how I will write my rules. Externally, if you want, write a grammar yourself. Many have tried and no one has been able to better Panini.”

Have you included ‘Let Lakaara’ in your programs? “Yes, I have. ‘Let Lakaara’ is very tough, because 108 forms can be generated theoretically for every root. N.S. Devanathachariar, Mimamsa Professor in Tirupati, appreciated my work.”

However, Dr. Bachchu Lal Awasthi, a Presidential awardee and a grammarian, felt that only as many forms as occur in the Vedas should be generated. His objection was that one should use the Sutras to understand what existed, but one should not use the Sutra to generate the rest.

When Ramanujan explained that his program was done mainly to show how the rules worked, Dr. Awasthi conceded that Ramanujan did have a point. “This just shows that people can be won over, if we are able to show the purpose of something.”

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2017 2:32:36 PM | http://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/where-sanskrit-meets-computer-science/article7061379.ece