Sanskrit, Science and Ecology

“Understanding the anatomy of language through grammar enables us to reach a higher plane of creativity in art, as well as in science…The immense heritage of scientific works in Sanskrit bear proof to this creative capacity. Unfortunately, modern methods of academic instruction in mathematics and science have been disconnected from this heritage. Instead of a delightful marriage between scientific investigation and artistic beauty, we have the divergent worlds of sciences and humanities, where people fight to establish their egos in their theories. This disconnect has produced so much pollution in this world that people have forgotten that all of human endeavour is a shared enterprise, and that its objective is to elevate the consciousness to a higher Rasa.”

Diversity in Indian civilisation

For about ten thousand years, the Indian subcontinent was not only the most populous area but also the most technologically and economically advanced civilization in the world. But despite this, the region preserved its biological diversity. The forests of India housed vast numbers of tigers and other wild animals, whose numbers started to decline only during the colonial era. The same is true of linguistic and cultural diversity in human societies.

One can contrast how Irish and other Celtic languages were exterminated from the British isles with how Dravidian and South-East Asian languages thrived despite the dominance of Sanskrit. India is the only civilization in the world where tribal languages and customs are preserved, despite being in close contact with literate societies. Apart from protecting economic and lifestyle niches, religious beliefs and practices were also protected. Many external religions such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Syriac Christianity, Bahai’ism have sought and found refuge in India. This case of India is all the more surprising when we note that the aggressive European civilizations were but cousins to India, sharing a common linguistic and mythological ancestry. So what did its cousins lack that made India so tolerant?

Sanskrit – tool for elevating consciousness

The answer may be in the computational nature of the Sanskrit language and the sciences nourished by it. Taken together, they are a means of amplifying the consciousness of a person, making him aware of every single aspect of life and his conduct to it. This reinforcement of consciousness is the key to avoiding environmental catastrophe in any age. Often, humans destroy living ecosystems through sheer ignorance and lack of attention. Greed is a big factor, but stupidity results in greater violence in the long term.

The languages and belief systems that we think in are Prakrits – applicable to a specific place and context. A certain type of fish might survive in certain type of waters, but other fish may die. Such is the case with Prakrits – they cannot claim to be universal. Further, if they become polluted (become Apabhramsas), they cause suffering to the very creatures that thrived on them.

The greatest cause of suffering is the ego nurtured by the polluted mind. For example, after they conquered Bengal, the British systematically scorched the region with famine to break the morale of the people.  The early Americans exterminated the bison so that they could starve the native Indian tribes that depended on it. It is hard to fathom the depravities of such egotism, which continues to cause ecological destruction today. There is an important lesson to be learned from human civilizations that survived for a long time without ecological collapse like in India (at least until today’s age). The lesson is the open computational grammar of Sanskrit, which makes it modifiable to be suited to specific local contexts in space and time, such that the human mind pays attention to the changing constraints of nature.

Sanskrit is unique, because unlike any other human language, there is no dictionary needed for Sanskrit. Instead, it possesses a generative grammar of computational rules. The number of Sanskrit words is potentially infinite. Even if we restrict to words less than 5 syllables in length, there are more than hundreds of thousands of words. Each word in Sanskrit is akin to a self-explanatory computer program that can be parsed into individual syllables (phonemes) by which its meaning can be derived. Thus, an infinite number of new words can be generated whose meaning will be unambiguous to a Sanskrit speaker.  The magic of Sanskrit grammar is that you can have multiple ways of breaking a word and putting it together again, that leads to multiple angles of meaning, all of which converge on the denoted object.

Map reconstructing the now-dry ancient Saraswati river mentioned in Vedic texts. The river flowed through North-West India (Source: Wikipedia)

From the Indian perspective, the physical analogy for an algorithm is not a mechanical clock, but a constantly flowing river that nourishes people. This river is Saraswati on the banks of which the Indian civilization flourished, and who was later glorified as the goddess of speech. In the Indian tradition, this river is supposed to flow through all the other rivers, blending at sacred spots of confluence. When Indians make pilgrimages, they carry small pots of water from the rivers of their places of origin to the sacred Ganges and mix them in. This is a way of acknowledging the commonality of all the rivers.

Saraswati, Goddess of Speech, Knowledge  and the Arts

Interpreting this tradition with computers and algorithms, we should encourage interoperability of all computing systems, by periodically blending in the waters of computation with each other. Like the waters of a river, they can be enjoyed by all living beings. In a more general sense, we can say the same for open-source software if it achieves political and economic awareness amongst people. Thinking of algorithms and computer programs as rivers also requires us to maintain them free of pollution. Various types of pollution in terms of data-structures, security, network infrastructure etc. need to be addressed in a similar manner to how we address pollution in ecology.

Reviving the Sanskrit tradition

Throughout the cultural history of India, all great poets and writers in regional languages studied Sanskrit and were equally proficient in it. The power of Sanskrit in word formation and grammar has penetrated all Indian languages. In fact, the first writers of any regional language (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam etc.) wrote a technical Paninian*-style grammar for their language before composing any literary work. This is because they understood the importance of grammar in imparting consciousness to the literary tradition. Understanding the anatomy of language through grammar enables us to reach a higher plane of creativity in art, as well as in science.

The immense heritage of scientific works in Sanskrit bear proof to this creative capacity. Unfortunately, modern methods of academic instruction in mathematics and science have been disconnected from this heritage. Instead of a delightful marriage between scientific investigation and artistic beauty, we have the divergent worlds of sciences and humanities, where people fight to establish their egos in their theories. This disconnect has produced so much pollution in this world that people have forgotten that all of human endeavour is a shared enterprise, and that its objective is to elevate the consciousness to a higher Rasa (essence). In Sanskrit tradition, the contrast could not be stronger. Great Indian mathematicians of the past like Bhaskara were also highly skilled poets. All the great Sanskrit poets and musicians used computational thinking that would pride a scientist. These bridges have to be rebuilt today, not only for the sake of lovers of Sanskrit, but for the whole world.

The mainstream narrative from western media is okay with letting Indians have their naked mystics, but not as open about acknowledging the full extent of scientific contributions. But anybody who tries to confine the applicability of Sanskrit to these narrow realms is an enemy, not of Sanskrit, but of science.

*Sankskrit grammarian in the ~6th -4th BCE, considered the father of Indian linguistics

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Kiran Varanasi
Kiran Varanasi is a Germany-based researcher in computer science. He is keenly interested in applying the Dharmic lens to reason about ethical problems in artificial intelligence, virtual online spaces, and human-computer interfaces. Some of his technical work can be accessed here

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