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How a PhD Student Solved a 2,500-Year-Old Sanskrit Mystery? | An Inspiring Story

Story Highlights
  • The erroneous metarule
  • Rishi’s eureka moment
  • Rishi’s disapproval of the metarule

A Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge has solved a grammatical puzzle in Sanskrit that has baffled experts for the last 2,500 years. 

An estimated 25,000 persons in India speak Sanskrit. Panini was a scholar of the ancient Sanskrit language who lived around 2,500 years ago. Rishi Rajpopat, age 27, could decipher a rule that Panini had taught.

The erroneous metarule

Sanskrit is the holy language of Hinduism, even though it is not commonly spoken. Over the ages, it has been employed in India’s science, philosophy, poetry, and other forms of secular writing.

The Astadhyayi, Panini’s grammar, was based on a system that worked like an algorithm to turn a word’s root and ending into correct words and sentences.

But sometimes, two or more of Panini’s rules apply simultaneously, which can cause problems.

Panini taught a “metarule,” which scholars have traditionally understood to mean “if two rules are equally strong, the rule that comes later in the grammar’s serial order wins.”

On the other hand, this often produced outcomes that needed proper grammar.

Rishi’s eureka moment

It took Rishi nine months of “going nowhere” until he finally had a “eureka moment” at Cambridge. He put up his studies for a month and spent it swimming, cycling, cooking, praying, and meditating in the warm summer weather. 

Then he returned to work unwillingly, and within minutes, as he flipped the pages, the patterns emerged, and it all began to make sense.

As Rishi put it, he “would spend hours in the library even in the middle of the night,” but he still needed another two and a half years of effort.

Rishi’s disapproval of the metarule

Rishi disapproved of how the metarule had always been understood before.

Instead, he said that Panini intended for us to use the rule that applies to the right side of a word if two rules apply to the same part of a word.

Taking this meaning into account, he found that Panini’s “language machine” almost always made grammatically correct words.

The Sanskrit professor at Cambridge, Vincenzo Vergiani Rishi, has, in the words of his advisor, discovered an extremely simple answer to an issue that has baffled academics for decades.

This finding will usher in a new era of innovation in the study of Sanskrit at a time when there is a growing interest in the language.

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