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The Ashtadhyayi

Panini's grammar and Sanskrit's relevance to computing
Panini's definitive work on the morphology of the Sanskrit language continues to impress computer scientists and linguists alike with its perfection and long lasting relevance. An insight into the convergence of computing and linguistics reveals that Sanskrit may be more than the language of religious texts.
Computing and Linguistics
Computing, arguably mankind's greatest invention so far, has come a long way from being a vague mathematical concept in the 1940's to the booming industry that it is today. As computing has evolved, so has the method of instructing computers to do our bidding. Programming, which once meant punching patterns on cards and submitting them for execution, now depends on programs written in a variety of languages, which are ever increasing in complexity.
Since programming languages are meant for computers to understand, and the space for ambiguity is at best extremely limited, the grammars describing these languages are extremely clear and well defined in their structure.
This is where computing and linguistics converge to a single point. For years both linguists and computer scientists have been working on methods to remove ambiguity from the formulation of rules for communication. A grammar is usually the method to achieve this. A grammar is described as a formal definition of the syntactic structure of a language, usually given in terms of “production rules” which specify the order of constituents, such as words or phrases and their sub-constituents in a sentence.
In the case of programming languages the most popular metasyntax or method of definition of the syntax is the Backus-Naur Form (BNF). The Backus-Naur Form, which defines a grammar in terms of a set of production rules and derivations, was long thought to be the first of its kind for any language.
However, of late, there is a growing opinion in the computer science community, that much before the Backus-Naur form came into existence in 1959, the grammar of the Sanskrit language was defined in an extremely unambiguous and formal manner, almost akin to the definition style of most modern programming languages.
Panini: The father of the Sanskrit grammar
Panini (पाणिनि), a sage who is believed to have lived around the fifth century B.C., although other claims trace him to the 4th, 6th and 7th centuries, is credited with having created the Ashtadhyayi (अष्ठाध्यायी), or Ashtak (अष्टक), which is a grammar defining the structure and syntax of the Sanskrit language. In 3959 aphorisms, or sutras (सूत्र), Panini has described the structure of Sanskrit completely. The Ashtadhyayi, written in eight chapters, divided into quarter chapters, distinguishes between the language spoken by the people of the time and the language used for classical literature, besides defining a syntax for the Sanskrit language.
There is a lot of speculation about Panini's origins and the time when he lived. He is believed to have lived in Shalatula, on the banks of the Indus, near Attock in modern Pakistan. As to the period in which he lived, it is generally agreed that he lived around the period from 520-460 B.C., a time coinciding with the late Vedic period. References to the concepts of dharma (the path of righteousness), and chandasi (in the hymns), both of which belong to this period, lend credence to this belief.
Also, a mention of yavanani (a reference to the Greeks) could mean that Panini lived during or before 330 BC, around the time of Darius the Great. Tradition has it that Panini was inspired by a dream in which he heard the sound of the drum of Lord Shiva, also known as the dumroo, played five times on one side and nine times on the other. This set of fourteen sounds, known as the Shiv Sutra, became the basis of his works. Whatever the ambiguity about his origins, there is absolutely no doubt that during whatever period he lived, his contribution to linguistics and by relation to programming is relevant long after his death.
Panini is accredited with having understood the concepts of phonemes, morphemes and root, all concepts only understood by Western linguists some two millennia later. A phoneme is a structural unit of spoken language, the change of which in a word leads to a different meaning. A morpheme is the smallest structural unit of language that carries a semantic interpretation or meaning. A root is the simplest form of a word, which conveys the majority of information about the meaning.
In describing the Sanskrit grammar, Panini has also used the concepts of metarules, transformations and recursion, which would qualify him as one of the progenitors of modern computing.
Significant similarities have been noticed between Panini's grammar and the modern Backus Naur Form, and modern linguists and computer scientists alike, use the example of the Ashtadhyayi to explain the fundamental methods of syntax definition for creation of new languages. There has also been significant work at using Panini's work to teach computers to understand Sanskrit. This interest in the relevance of Sanskrit to modern computing has also sparked a number of research and development projects aimed at using the fundamentally pure and unambiguous structure of Sanskrit grammar to further develop the understanding of linguistics as well as to enable more efficient computing and programming languages.
Sanskrit and The Evolution of Indian Mathematics
To the causal observer, linguistics and mathematics are as different as chalk and cheese. Indeed, in ancient Greece and other civilizations accredited with mathematical innovation, the logic associated with Mathematics has been seen to evolve out of philosophy. However, in ancient India, linguistics has been an important factor in the development of almost all scientific concepts and theories. The Sanskrit language, widely accepted as one of the purest languages, has a number of texts of semi religious significance, which contain the fundamentals of a number of scientific concepts, which were either accepted or independently arrived at by the West much later.
Vedic mathematics has long been accepted as one of the most efficient mathematical systems in the world, with a number of different streams and flavors of mathematica finding their origins in it. This development in mathematics owes a lot to the formal nature of the syntax and grammar of the Sanskrit language. The ability to express a concept unambiguously while at the same time retaining the beauty of the language as well as the possibility of expressing extremely complex concepts in reasonably compact form is a feature of Sanskrit that obviously lends itself very easily to scientific processes.
The future of Sanskrit
Sanskrit, in India has the exalted position of being the language in which the majority of Hindu texts are written. However, this does not, and indeed should not limit the scope of Sanskrit to Hinduism, or in fact religion. Sanskrit has always been the language of scholars, lending itself as easily to the description of scientific and mathematical concepts as to prayer and spirituality. It is not surprising then that more and more attention is being paid to the ancient texts in Sanskrit related to a number of research fields.
In medicine, the Charaka Samhiti written by the physician Charak is considered to be one of the earliest authoritative texts on anatomy and therapy In mathematics, the Chhanda Shastra by Panini's younger brother, Pingala, is accepted as the first text to use the concept of zero. Pingala's work also contains the basic ideas of the Fibonacci Series and the Pascal's Triangle.
In astronomy, Aryabhatta's works have been acknowledged as some of the earliest of their kind. Sanskrit literature and the language itself offer great scope for research development of new ideas. With languages apart from English gaining prominence on the Internet, the time is ripe for Sanskrit to break the common myths proclaiming it as an ancient and dying language and come to the forefront of the languages of science, mathematics and computing.
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