Monday, November 19, 2012

The linguistic creamed milk

There are sweets and there are sweets. It is the envy of every NRI, whose friend returns from India after attending sumptuous weddings or festivities, and enumerates the different sweets that were devoured. How many different milk-based sweets and flavors! So much so that, the states are known based on the milk-sweet based identity - whether it is doodh-peda from gujarat or rasagolla from bengal or a simple paayasam from the south.

Amongst all, I would say the poor-man's-king-of-sweet is the "thiratti-paal", literally "condensed milk". Usually it is called "khoa", but the process of preparing them are different. Probably every Indian mom has made this at home. With just 2 to 3 ingredients (milk, curd and sugar or ghee), but a relatively elaborate process of making it, thiratti-paal was sometimes more sought after in our family, matched only by Venky's laddu. Even though all it requires is just to boil the milk and carefully adding curd, getting the right amount of sweetness is an art form. Hasty adding of the curd or letting the cream stick to the bottom of the vessel can quickly spoil the taste. And the best sweets are those that can be savored for a long time without feeling the excessiveness of sugar.
image credit

Human mind is remarkably capable of remembering information in summaries and at the same time processing and expounding a piece of information into elaborate details. Honestly speaking, we really do not know how the mind does it. Many of you may remember such exercises from your high school literature classes: analyze and write a detailed essay on the character of Macbeth OR write a short summary of what you learnt from the "crow took the vada from the daadi-ma" story.

The fact that mind can zip information to remember and also unzip information by "filling-in" the gaps, is by itself quite a remarkable talent. No better it is seen than in children, especially toddlers, when they light up to summarize what they learnt, capturing the most interesting and vocal sound-bits. What you also notice is that the larger the information, the less-juicy details tend to quickly get lost and only the meaty and essential stuff reflect in the brains.

Lets take an example: If I mention the words - crow, vada and fox, you can pretty much make up a whole story based on that. Obviously you know the story already, but even if you dont, you can make up a story based on related information that you already know. Another example: "West side story". You might not immediately know the story, but if I just throw in the words "like Romeo and Juliet", a story unfolds in your mind pretty much immediately.

So how small can the information be, in order to not lose its purpose, yet be meaningful enough to expound ?

This was the question that likely tormented our ancient rishis, who were at ease versifying the known and the unknown into musical chandas. Thus came into existence - the "sutram" format that carried the smallest possible information, without losing its context and meaning. It is one of the most remarkable linguistic inventions ever to assist humans remember and retain information with the highest fidelity, that has shaped hinduism and the culture of India. This format has been thoroughly analyzed, distilled, nurtured and turned into an art form by its exponents. It is like several gallons of milk boiled to a handful of cream, carefully adding words only when its imperative. Just like the thiratti-paal, condensing the material unto itself, to extract the sweetness out of it.

For some reason, we are suckers for who those end up in the top. Top 5 songs of the week, top 10 beaches, top 10 smartphones, top 10 poisonous animals, top 20 most powerful people - the list of "tops" are endlessly written and forgotten. Even Samskrita Literature is not spared of this - we do have a "Top 5" in the Sanskrit literature - the pancha-mahA-kAvya: abhijnaana-sakuntalam, raghu-vamsa, kiraataarjuniyam, naishadhiya-caritam and shishupala-vadham. Well, it has been in top 5 for the last 1500 years.

But why stop with just the kavya-literature? I'm partially pained that no one has come up with the "Top 5 sutrams". But whats stopping us, lets come up with our own list!

#5: इको यण् अचि | iko yaN aci | 

This sutram is in our 5th place in the list for two reasons: a) the amount of specific information conveyed in about 5 syllables is equivalent to creating an 8x13 sandhi matrix b) the sutram consists entirely of pratyAhAra-s - which in turn is an encoding of about 25 aksharas.

Panini has come up with several such sutrams, but due to the massive popularity amongst vayyakaraNa-s for quoting this sutram at the drop of the hat, this is our 5th best sutram of the .. err.. last three thousand years.

#4: वृद्धिरादैच् | vriddhiraadaic | 

Yet another gem from Panini, who attempts a technical sutram and managala-sutram at the same time, keeping his promise to be as short as possible. vriddhiH-aat-aic, though technically defining the word "vriddhiH" to be equivalent to aa, ai and au, also conveys that "let there be a vriddhi of this work".

A rare clever pun on both technical and business purposes at the same time, Panini's first sutram of aShTAdhyAyI gets our 4th best.

#3: अथातो ब्रह्म जिज्ञासा | athāto brahma jijñāsā | 

Coming in at number 3, is "the time to enquire about truth". So starts bAdarAyaNa vyAsa in his weaving of formidably cryptic brahma-sutram. The sutrams that have at least given rise to three widely different "matha-s" - from "all is brahman" to "jiva and brahman are fundamentally different", it occupies the foremost place in the "prasthAna-trayI" triplet of intellectual expositions. Similar to the technology world, where no one is an architect unless he/she has a few white papers to his/her credit, no one is a philosopher unless he has written a bhAShyam on brahma-sutram, upanishad-s and bhagavad-gita. The brahma-sutram has fundamentally shaped the philosophy of the Hindus in a very subtle, yet deep way.

#2: योगश्चित्त वृत्ति निरोध: | yogashchitta-vritti-nirodhaH | 

The West have taken over Yoga. Or so it seems. Though yoga is not "owned" by the East, there is a disconcerting wave of misinterpretation about yoga. Fancily-named or self-named yoga techniques have flooded the markets in the last few decades. In the United States alone, yoga is conservatively estimated to be a $6 billion dollar industry. The only ever prop I ever had, when I learnt yoga in India, was an old blanket. Compared to the props available in the modern market, it is very clear that yoga has been stretched for its popularity. I wonder why no one has yet come up with the pricing model of "pay-per-pranayama" - you know, just like the cloud-based models, where you pay per GB or CPU cycle. I'm sure the pricing models like "25 prANAyAma-s per dollar", "two free breath-ins for every breath-out" or "early bird sign ups will get an extra arm twist" will be a run-away hit.

So much ignorance is perpetuated that the original definition of yoga is completely sidelined. Yoga is translated into "union", which is probably the farthest explanation from being anything meaningful.

For giving a mind-blowingly precise definition of yoga, which is the exact opposite of yoga-marketing, namely "Yoga is the cessation of mind-activity" - the patanjali's yoga-sutram occupies the second best sutram in our list. Patanjali has given precise definitions of several other psychological terms, which the modern academia is quietly accumulating into their own curriculum, but we will take his first as the best.

#1: धर्मार्थकामेभ्यो नमः | dharma-artha-kamebhyo namaH | 

Our top most sutram is not from diwali-sounding grammar rules or nuclear-fission like brahma-sutram. It is from a sage who condensed the human feelings of love into sutram format - by far the most innovative application of sutrams and challenging the traditions of his times. No kick-off mangala-sutram or slokam for this guy, and yet he dares to miss a leg of one of the "four pillars" of sanAtana dharma. He could have included the word "mokSha" in his sutram, no one would have cared, but his work is about human emotions and mokSha does not have a definite place.

For being practical, realistic, brazenly bold, innovative and perhaps a path-breaker of his times, Vatsyayana's sutram is the top most in our list of sutrams of the last 3 millenia.

Things may change soon in the next 3000 years, keep watching this space, and until then, dhanyavaadaH !

Monday, June 11, 2012

The varnas of frameworks

In one of the Samskritam classes, I threw a few words to the students and asked them to tell what the word means:

# Solution
Answers: a final result to a math problem; some kind of liquid; an answer to a puzzle;

# Angle
Answers: a math number in geometry; point of view; projection of a building;

# Direction
Answers: north, south etc; a guideline

If meaning of single word can change within a few years, think about works that separate the modern reader by thousands of years. For eg the word "awful" originally meant "full of awe", now it means exactly the opposite. "Nice" originally meant "ignorant", now its about being pretty. Without a context or without a domain knowledge, one cannot interpret a word correctly. If a single word could mean many things without a proper context, think about complete works. This is especially true of scientific works like yoga sutras, nyayas, tarka shastra etc.

Say when we are studying a thousand year old work, it is imperative to realize what we are not readily exposed to: cultural context, language, intended meaning of words or sentences, idioms prevelant in those times, technical terms peculiar to that domain and finally the thought process itself. Given already the gap, translation only makes it worse. Any translation passes through the bias faculty of the translator, however objective it be. The difference between truly understanding a translated work versus the original is like "you breathing" vs "some one else breathing for you".

Language translation, unfortunately is not a mathematical equation, where x = f-inverse(f(x))

Many words from Samskritam has been translated to English and accepted, yet when they are translated back to Samskritam, they yield a different result. For eg, chitta is translated to mind. manas also is translated to mind. But how will you translate "mind" back to Samskritam -> chitta or manas? Yoga has been translated to union, but is union translated back to Samskritam as Yoga?

One of the most misunderstood concepts of Hinduism is "caste". Obviously it has had a long history and there has been so many interpretations. Now what are the words used for caste in Samskritam? In Bhagavad-gita there is a reference, caaturvarNyam mayaa sRuShTam (The four *varNa*-s are created by me). There is also another word "jAti". Both of these words are translated to "caste" which immediately gives the context of societal caste hierarchy. In puruSha sUktam also we find the four categories mentioned, without mentioning the word varNa or jAti. But what is the context?

varNa is a concept of functioning of any non-homogenous group: data, control, presentation and implementation.

Computers: PC, Laptop, iPad: OS (Brahman), CPU (Kshatriya), Screen (Vaishya), Software (Shudra).
Operating System: Boot (Brahman), Kernel (Kshatriya), I/O (Vaishya), Services (Shudra)
Ethernet network: Data (Brahman), DNS controller (Kshatriya), Protocols (Vaishya), Mechanism to transfer data or Endpoints (Shudra).
Corporation: Advisory committee (Brahman), Executive committe (Kshatriya), Marketing (Vaishya), Employees (Shudra).
Government: Ministers (Brahman), Ruler/PM/President (Kshatriya), Departments (Vaisya), Employees (Shudra)
Even Socialism/communism, where all are perceived equal: Manifesto (Brahman), Politburo (Kshatriya), Propaganda (Vaishya), People (Shudra).

In a sense its like a fractal. You zoom in, as long as its non-homogenous the four core function groups are reflected.

And as you write your next web application using Model View Controller framework, remember it directly reflects the principles of the four varNa-s.

Model (Brahman), Controller (Kshatriya), View (Vaishya), Service (Shudra)

All the four should function per its own rules for the whole application to work. If one throws an exception, the user is angry.

So next time you write a controller code in model, or use controller in the service layer, remember: your code reviewer is waiting to reject it with the reason "Separation of Concerns principle is not followed". Now, now, don't you accuse her of casteism.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Phonetic Bee

So there is a lot of news about how Indians excel in spelling-bee contests, remembering and recollecting words that will be used exactly once in every yuga. While I am all for the hardwork put by the kids and really appreciate their dedication, I feel there is something fundamentally missed.

The arbitrary phonetics of English is its weakest link and that has been exploited by every culture that speaks English, giving their own twists to the phonetics, which on the whole entails that all pronunciations are correct by their own standards. If the judge were from Arab country, he would ask to spell 'guedabans', if the judge were from Bengal, all a-s would be o-s and if he were from south india, you would have to spell his 'madam' as 'mmadamm'. And we could argue until the next solar eclipse who is correct. .

Meanwhile, a lot of American/British prime-time game shows are faithfully aped by Indian TV media, with a bit of cultural twist and a phenomenally generous dose of local accent. American Idol? There is an Indian idol (and even a Carnatic Idol!). Who wants to be millionaire? There is KBC. Daily show? Several desi versions exist. Stand-up comedies have become so popular which weren't a rage 20 years ago.

So here we imagine a group of game show producers discussing about 'inventing' the next big game show program for the fortunate Indian TV viewers.

(All conversations happen in desi accent)

Producer #1: Why don't we do a game show for spelling-bee?
Producer #2: Holy Eagle! That is a cool idea!
Producer #3: (critic voice) Really? And so what spelling we will use? British or American?
Producer #1: Why British, of course!
Producer #3: Are you sure? Actually, we are more like Americans. Shouldn't we use American spelling?
Producer #2: Basically, we can give both options - students can spell either American or British spelling.
Producer #1: What about Indian English spelling? That will give a desi twist to the game...
Producer #3: (thinking)... Yeah! thats a good idea too...

A waiter-boy enters.

Producer #2: Hey waiter boy, bring chai for all of us...

Waiter-boy goes to bring chai. Producers keep discussing various ideas from whom to cast to who will be the sponsors. Waiter-boy enters with chai.

Producer #1: I have an idea.. How about we do spelling bee in Sanskrit? That will give an uniqueness to our show and increase our TRP ratings...
Producer #3: But people would not understand...
Producer #1: That is not a real problem, people just want to sit in front of tv, no matter what... do you mean to say you understand all those English movies?
Producer #2: I agree that is a really cool idea, we should do spelling-bee in Sanskrit
Producer #3: Ok I give in, Sanskrit spelling-bee it is....

Waiter-boy: Sirs, if you dont mind me saying something, spelling-bee contests does not make sense in Sanskrit, because the announcer would have already spelled the word by uttering it. D-uh!

All producers blink at each other for a few moments. Uneasiness in the room.

Producer #1: What do you suggest?
Waiter-boy: I suggest instead of spelling bee, do a samAsa contest in Sanskrit.
Producer #3: What is a samAsa contest?
Waiter-boy: Instead of remembering words as-is, students would be challenged to analyze the relationship between the words. This is not just about memorizing anymore, but to develop analytical thinking during the contest.

They tip the waiter-boy, he goes away.

And so here is presenting you samAsa-bhramari, a unique TV show from the futuristic Indian TV!

Rules of the Game

  • Amitabh Bacchan (or Rajinikanth for the South version) provides a samAsa and the student will break the word into constituent words, analyzing the relationship between the words.
  • Vibhakti must be mentioned for answer acceptance.
  • Bonus points for figuring out the dhaatu/ganaa, if any
  • Extra bonus points for quoting the relevant Paninian sutra.
  • If samasa-s have multiple answers, student can ask for a usage and the announcer will provide it.

So here goes the samAsA-s

maasapUrvaH - maasaat pUrvaH (a month before, 5th vibhakti)
chorabhayam - choraat bhayam (fear from thieves, 5th vibhakti)
vRukShamUlam - vRukShasya mUlam (root of the tree, 6th vibhakti)
rameshvaraH - multiple answers: (rAmasya IshvaraH, ramaH iva IshvaraH, ramaH yasya IshvaraH saH)
dIpaavalI - dIpaanaam aavaLIH (row of lights, 6th vibhakti, plural)

So as the students progress to higher levels, the complexity of samAsa increases too. The student is tested with the word sarasijanavadalavikasitanayanaH.

sarasi jaataa - sarasijA (lotus)
sarasijaayaaH nava dalaH - sarasijanavadala (new leaf of the lotus born in pond)
sarasijanavadalavikasita - vikasitA sarasijA (new leaf of the lotus that has just flowered in the pond)
sarasijanavadalavikasita iva nayana (the eyes which resemble the leaf of the flowered lotus in the pond)
sarasijanavadalavikasitanayanaH - (one who has the eyes which resemble the leaf of the newly bloomed lotus in the pond)

Answer: Krishna

Mr. Bacchan: Is that your final answer?


Sunday, April 22, 2012

Exaggeration by numbers

Crazy Mohan is one of the pioneers of modern Tamil comedy theater. A superb master of pun, his punch lines are remembered and oft quoted even after several years. Obviously puns and situtatioinal jokes do not appeal when translated, but here is a classic take on a hero vs villain encounter:

Villain: I will count till 10, if you dont do what I say...
Hero:    What will you do ?
Villain: I will count till 20 !

One of his best scripts however, is "Tenant commandments", also titled as "An own house becomes a rental house".

A middle-aged guy who is looking for a rental house asks the landlord's son for his name. The young son replies "Patthu". [Patthu has two meanings in tamil - a colloquial short form of the name Padmanabhan and the number 10]. The guy understands it to be "number 10" and says "Why name somebody as just '10'? Your parents could have named you as 110, 1010 or 1,00,010..."

Comedy happens by simply exaggerating a situation. In the train the other day, I overheard a mom and her daughter talking. Mom was mentioning some toy that costs about $20 and the lil girl exclaimed "$20 bucks, wow thats like a million dollars". Quite surely, every one must have heard this dialog or one might even remember saying that in childhood. The trend nowadays seems to be to say "a googol dollars", as my son realized that googol is 10 followed by 63 zeroes and 'infinity' is an overused word used by his friends for everything. Again, exaggeration comes as an element of surprise.

The vast difference between the take off of Greek/Roman and Indian science can be clearly perceived with the invention of zero. While the former could count all the way upto M, the Indians were simply adding zeroes to numbers at will. Once the art of power of zero was figured out by the Mathematicians, it was only an inevitable consequence that the Sanskrit kavi-s realized very early on, if one could get some puNya in one 'namaskara' to bhagavaan, they could easily get a factor of that puNya-namaskara by simply adding a sahasra, laksha or koti to it. So when they realized that was effective, another poet wondered why restrict to "koti" and does a "koti koti" namaskaram. Yet another poet totally unsatisfied with koti of a koti, lifts off the numerical upper limit and simply says "aneka koti" namaskaram.

Very interesting word, "aneka" that is. na + eka = aneka (not one -> implying many). Technically "not one". Contextually "several".

Exaggeration of numbers seems to have been built in Indian culture. It has been used to great effect for several different emotions - laughter, consolation, intimidation, surprise, frustration and so on.

In Ramayana, Hanuman seeks to console Sita by mentioning that there are crores of vAnara-s, the sheer number is enough to defeat Ravana. But you dont have to take Hanuman's word for it. There is a very interesting scene in Ramayana's yuddha kANDa. Ravana, a little perturbed at the arrival of Rama's army in Lanka, sends two of his spies - Sarana and Shuka to Rama's camp to find out the real number of monkeys. But Vibhishana captures them and takes them to Rama for punishment. But Rama, being an ideal king, cautions them and let them go. With that, Rama deals a psychological blow to Ravana. Killing them or capturing them would not only be adharma, but would have also enraged Ravana even more. Sarana and Shuka reach Ravana and start describing the sheer number and power of the vAnara-s.

After describing the powers of the major vAnara-s, Shuka concludes with this:

शतं शतसहस्राणाम् कोटिमाहु: मनीषिण: । शतं कोटिसहस्राणाम् शङ्कु: इति अभिधीयते ॥
शतं शङ्कुसहस्राणाम् महाशङ्कु: इति स्मृत: । महाशङ्कुसहस्राणाम् शतं वृन्दम् इह उच्यते ॥
शतं वृन्दसहस्राणाम् महावृन्दम् इति स्मृतम् । महावृन्दसहस्राणाम् शतम् पद्मम् इह उच्यते ॥
शतं पद्मसहस्राणाम् महापद्मम् इति स्मृतम् । महापद्मसहस्राणाम् शतं खर्वम् इह उच्यते ॥
शतं खर्वसहस्राणाम् महाखर्वम् इति स्मृतम् । महाखर्वसहस्राणाम् समुद्रम् अभिधीयते ॥
शतं समुद्रसहस्रम् ओघ इति अभिधीयते । शतं ओघसहस्राणाम् मह-ओघ इति विश्रुतः ॥
एवम् कोटिसहस्रेण शङ्कूनाम् च शतेन च । महशङ्कुसहस्रेण तथा वृन्दशतेन च ॥
महावृन्दसहस्रेण तथा पद्मशतेन च । महापद्मसहस्रेण तथा खर्वशतेन च ॥
समुद्रेन च तेनैव महौघेन तथैव च । एष कोटिमहौघेन समुद्रसदृशेन च ॥

"100 x 100,000 = 1 crore; 100 x 1000 crore = 1 shanku; 100 x 1000 shanku = 1 mahashanku; 100 x 1000 mahashanku =  1 vrunda; 100 x 1000 vrunda = mahavrunda; 100 x 1000 mahavrunda = 1 padmam; 100 x 1000 padmam = 1 mahapadmam; 100 x 1000 mahapadmam = 1 kharvam; 100 x 1000 kharvam = 1 mahakharvam; 100 x 1000 mahakharvam = 1 samudram; 100 x 1000 samudram = 1 ogha; 100 x 1000 ogha = maha-ogha. Thus surrounded by a thousand crore and a hundred shanku and a thousand mahashanku and a hundred vRunda and a thousand mahavRunda and a hundred padmam and a thousand mahapadmam and a hundred kharva and hundred samudra and a hundred mahaugha of monkey warriors, Sugriva is ready to wage the war with you. Knowing your enemy thus, may your effort be accordingly, O Ravana!"

So you see the power of numbers. Thats why when two people meet often they just say "namaskaram", but when they don't meet often, they simply add a factor to fill the gap and say "aneka koti namaskaram" (several crores of namaskaram). Although, you can get away with this usage in Indian vernaculars, attempting to greet somebody in English "One million hellos to you...", rather sounds embarassing.

Thats yet another point to drive, how translations only translate words and not the cultural quotient.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Yamunotrii 2012

One of the fascinating systems of Indian philosophy, too literally, is the cArvAka nyayya (cAru -> beautiful, fascinating). The followers of the system do not believe in no God, no rituals, no temples, but have a simple subhAShitam as their beacon of light:

ऋणम् कृत्वा घृतम् पिबेत् यावत् जीवेत् सुखम् जीवेत् ।
भस्मी भूतस्य देहस्य पुनरागमनम् कुतः ॥
RuNam kRutvA ghRutam pibet yaavat jeevet sukham jeevet |
bhasmI bhUtasya dehasya punaraagamanam kutaH ||

"Borrow money, drink ghee. Live happily as long as you live. The body once gone does not return back."

Despite strong vaidika and reincarnation foundations, the system thrived in India. For now lets forget about drinking ghee (or perhaps alcohol, in modern context) or rebirth. There is still this question of RuNam. RuNam is debt, "the payback that has to be made, no matter what".

Sri vishvarUpa-varya, in his concluding speech in Samskrita Bharati Yamunotrii 2012 residential family camp talked about the three RuNam-s we are all born with - pitRu RuNam, guru-RuNam and deva-RuNam. pitRu-RuNam is one's debt to his/her ancestors paid back via progeny. Guru-RuNam is the payback to teacher. This is not in form of money or Valentine day gifts but is made by teaching others what is learnt from one's guru. We somehow escape from these two debts citing various reasons. But you know, this deva RuNam - that is something that will come and haunt till "mokSha". pitru and guru are guides in aatman-s journey, but deva is a dependence.

The Yamunotrii 2012 camp preparations started early January. For the first time an half-a-page ad was published in the Austin South Asian monthly, Sulekha and Eknazar, but it didn't get the expected impact. The registration graph was pretty simple - there was a spate of registrations on the day when early-bird discount ends. And a spike of calls to cancel on the last day of penalty-free-cancellation. In other words, most people only respond to deadlines.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous over the weekend, with the highs around 80s and the lows around 67. The bluebonnets and Indian paint-brushes thickly annotated the landscape leading up to the stream, giving a glimpse of the serene and wild hill-country. Students started tricking in and quickly settled down to their rooms and gathered around the halls later, mostly talking in English. Little did they know, they will be mostly talking in Samskritam the next day! The bookstore was setup, there were a lot more books this time. The dinner was done, followed by a short orientation about the event.

As expected, the first day was crazy, students running from one corner to another in search of their rooms. "Aryabhatta kutra asti?" asked one. It was funny, because I wanted to say Aryabhatta lived 1500 years ago. The class names were chosen in the chronological order of Indian mathematicians: Aryabhatta for the beginner levels, Bhaskara for the Intermediate Level 1 (those who are already attending regular classes or those who attended last year), Madhava for Intermediate Level 2 and Nilakantha for the Advanced class. Madhava was a Kerala-born philosopher who had conceived what's known as Taylor-series now. Nilakantha has described foundations of Calculus, much of which were later known to the world via Newton and Leibnitz. In the Nilakantha class, students studied parts of bhoja-rAjA's campu-rAmayaNa and nAgAnanda by harShavardhana.

One of the things I realized in my college days is that the knowledge gained from lecture halls is little compared to the knowledge that is gained by hanging around with the professors after-the-classes, or with smart students in the streets, or studying non-class materials in the library that gives an immense edge later on. I sneaked out around 1 am in the morning and heard Govinda and Avinash-varyau sitting on a bench and discussing Samskrita-kAvya. I joined them and Avinash was talking something about "Kalidasa-overload". It looks that the emphasis on Kalidasa has been a lot while there have been equally great poets in Samskrita kAvya-vaangmaya. Funny enough, I had similar opinions too, the only difference is while Avinash has read all of Kalidasa, I haven't read any. I learnt an important thing that time - two people can have exactly same opinions and one of them could base it without having a clue.

This is what happened: In the early 1700's, some Britishers and learned Sanskrit pundits were sitting in a udupi-style hotel. One English gentleman asked with puff and pomp "Do you have anyone like William Shakespeare in India?". The pundits looked at each other, one said maagha, another said bhaaravi, some said daNDin, some other said varakavi. A mini-quarrel broke out between the pundits. But one Bengali paNdita was busy ordering food and due to the simmering quarrel, the waiter was hard of hearing. So the paNdita shouted "I want kAli-dosa". All the pundits gasped, stopped for a moment and murmured "Yeah, yeah, kAlidasa" and the matter was settled. Kalidasa become Shakespeare of India. (For those who didnt get it, kAli-dosa is also called set-dosa with a bit of butter on top of it, that is served in Darshani-styled restaurants).

Again, Avinash-varya's point was not to take away anything from the wonder that is kAlidAsa. Its just that there are other equally great poets too and we are just wasting our time over superlatives, instead of actually reading them.

The highlight of the camp was Sri Padmakumar's speech of which I wont write about much. Feel free to watch it here and I challenge you to tell me if you did not understand what he said.

Another highlight of the camp, was something a little beyond Samskritam, for everyone to remember about. Given the dark skies it was inevitable we wanted to do something about it. We brought out our 8-inch Orion telescope and set it up though the skies were not very forgiving. Still we caught a glimpse of crescent Venus (Yes! Crescent Venus!), the rising moon and Mars. A faint realization of how vast and deep are both Sky and Samskritam.

Yet another highlight was how quickly we adapted to the needs of the students. It was observed that the teen age kids are not having much of a great time - as they were in either adults or younger kids classes. We quickly arranged for a special youth class and that was a runaway hit.

A final rush for group photo and sponsored lunch ended the camp. Almost. But back to the RuNam, what Sri vishvarUpa talked about. I could not attend any of the classes as I was taking care of an younger one. I tell "nAsikA..." and she touches her nose; "shiras" - she touches her head; "lalATam - she touches her forehead"; "jihvA" - she puts her tongue out and touches it; "dantAH" - she opens her mouth with a broad smile and touches her teeth. As I was watching her, I was also paying back my guru-RuNam.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The feet dilemma

"Chappal se maroongi", says the girl to the boy who teases her.

"Aapkaa paaon pakad ke maang rahin hoon, mere bechaara bete ko chod de", says the poor mom to the villain who is about to punish her son.

The feet, just like light, exhibhits dual nature. It is used for disrespective gestures and at the same time an object of worship.

Growing up, I remember there were so many restrictions with the usage of one's feet. Putting one foot over the other thigh is considered egoistic. Pointing feet towards elders is disrepectful. Pointing feet towards the puja room will incur paapam. Sleeping with feet pointing towards South will bring bad luck. Shaking feet or legs in front of elders is disrespectful. Jumping with both legs over somebody is bad. Stepping over someone, even accidentally, calls for an apology to Shiva. The amount of sinful acts you can do with feet is endless, so much so that, a Tamil poet Karaikkal Ammaiyar is said to have climbed the Kailasha with her head, in order not to disrespect Shiva touching Kailasha with her feet.

Yet, when it comes to obtain blessings, feet are the ultimate saviours. Whether its touching elders feet or completely surrendering to bhagavAn's feet, there are no two better sought. After all, you do not touch an elder's head and ask for blessing.

There are so many words in Samskritam to denote feet: caraNa - from the root car (to move) -> that which is reason for moving (feet); pAda - foot - from root pad (that which measures a foot); anghri and so on. Often bhagavAn's feet are identified with lotus - pAda-kamala, pAda-pankaja, pAdAdmbuja etc. Interestingly, the lotus is also identified with eyes, kamala-nayana, pankaja-netra etc. Realistically, lotus has nothing in common with feet or eyes, but it immediately brings a sense of bhagavAn's guNa !

About 13th century, a scholar came to shrIrangam. There was a duel between the scholar and shrI vedAnta desika. Oriental duels were mostly about knowledge, not about guns. The hall of shame exclusively belonged to the people who lost verbal duels. The scholar wrote a poem about shrI ranganAtha's feet and challenged the latter to better that. shrI vedAnta desika, goes one step "below" the "feet" and overnight composes a magnum opus on just the sandals of ranganAtha called "pAdukA sahasram" - one thousand verses on shrI ranganAtha's feet alone! It is a marvelous piece of poetry in Samskritam.

vAlmIki's description of ahalyA's episode is a very simple narrative. In fact vAlmIki mentions that ahalyA knew that the fake Gautama was actually Indra himself, before getting cursed by the real rShi gautama to turn into a stone. But kamban, in his kambarAmayaNam treats ahalyA as innocent and ends the act with one of the most memorable quotes through rShi vishvAmitra:

"kaivaNNam angu kanden, kAlvaNNam ingu kanden"

Kamban uses the word "vaNNam" with several meanings in that verse: in such a way, happening, route, quantity, color, shade of color, prowess/valor and skill ! After turning stone into ahalyA, the rShi recalls rAma's hand prowess in the fight against tArakA and now appreciates the skill of rAma's feet!

But thats all alankAra, poetic license, poetic liberty, call what you may. What about the common man's perception?

That dilemma is so beautifully presented in this verse, of an unknown author:

kShAlayAmi tava pAdapa~gkajam pashya dArudRuShadoH kimantaram |
mAnuShIkaraNa cUrNamasti te pAdayoH iti kathA prathIyasI ||

क्षालयामि तव पादपङ्कजम् पश्य दारुदृषदोः किमन्तरम् ।
मानुषीकरण चूर्णमस्ति ते पादयोः इति कथा प्रथीयसी ॥

tava pAdapa~gkajam kShAlayAmi | pashya dAru-dRuShadoH kimantaram ? tava/te pAdayoH mAnuShIkaraNa cUrNam asti | iti kathA prathIyasI ||

तव पादपङ्कजम् क्षालयामि । पश्य दारु-दृषदोः किमन्तरम् ? तव/ते पादयोः मानुषीकरण चूर्णम् अस्ति । इति कथा प्रथीयसी ॥

shrI rAma is about to get into guha's boat. One of the boatmen says "O rAma, I want to wash the dirt from your lotus-feet. What's the difference after all between wood and stone? The dust of your feet has the power to turn stone into people, so its heard!"

If shrI rAMa's (dust) feet can turn stone into woman, the boatman is worried what will happen to his wooden boat, that is his livelihood after all!

Monday, February 27, 2012


Have you ever noticed that children learn first to say "No" than to say "Yes"? Rebel is the first sign of intelligence, so they say. And intelligence begins with learning to say 'No', rather than 'Yes'.

Why is it that some people take more delight in denying than agreeing? Be it elder sibling vs younger, manager vs employee, mother-in-law vs daughter-in-law or wife vs husband - the emphatic "no" factor of the former seem to be the driving goal of their lives. May be we are all genetically wired to derive pleasure in negations and denials, than agreements and acceptances. May be its just easy to deny first than to accept. May be there is an inherent satisfaction in denying space to somebody else.

One of the early lessons you learn in the consulting industry (rather any) is, never propose your boss a single solution. Managers, who mostly have little to technically contribute towards a problem, needing to fill the gap, take delight in shooting down solutions. A majority of Dilbert strips play on this fundamental psychology of managers. So the right way to get your stuff done is offer multiple solutions, including a few lousy and impossible ones, and let the manager feel satisifed that they indeed contributed towards the solution by shooting some of them down. In the IT world, this is called "Ducking" - ie propose "sitting duck solutions" that would be shot down, so that your critical features remain intact. If they shoot the good ones down ... hey, you are going to blame them anyways, right?

"na". We learn history is created just by this word. We could cite several examples from recent history or contemporary classics, but let us peek into the itihasa-s and purana-s. The story of Mahabharata meanders, as-if, from one "no" to another "no". Dhritarashtra says "no" to his counsels who advice to kill the new born (Duryodhana) since the omens were really bad. Drupada says "no" to Drona to help him as promised, upon which the latter gets his revenge via Arjuna and humiliating Drupada. Arjuna refuses to accept Karna's bravery and mocks him that he is not a king, which aligns Karna with Duryodhana. Duryodhana said "na" to paandavas for even an inch of land, which led to the complete annhilation of his generation. All of these refusals are pivotal points in the story.

This Duryodhana's "na" is very poignantly expressed in the following sloka. When Duryodhana was in death bed and was asked "Why are you behaving like this?" he replies:

jaanaami dharmam na ca me pravRuttiH |
jaanaami adharmam na ca me nivRuttiH ||

जानामि धर्मम् न च मे प्रवृत्तिः ।
जानामि अधर्मम् न च मे निवृत्तिः ॥

"I know Dharma, but cannot practice it. I know adharma, I cannot stop practicing it."

In Ramayana too, Ravana says "na" to return Sita back to Rama, which was followed by his own destruction and most of his kins. King Harischandra tells "na" to Vishwamitra Rshi to tell a lie, and goes through innumerable hardships, including charging for the burial of his son from his own estranged wife, as a guardian of the cemetary.

Once Birbal's adversary Sultan Khan, who was waiting for an opportunity to put his son Rahim Khan as the treasurer, complains to Akbar "O Emperor, Birbal has been very late coming to the palace these days. You should punish him". Akbar asks him "What punishment do you think I should give him?". Sultan Khan says "Today, you should refuse whatever he asks for". Akbar agrees. So Birbal happens to be late again and enters the darbar. Akbar asks Birbal "Why are you late?" to which Birbal replies "My wife was not feeling well, so I had a doctor appointment". Akbar replies rather indignantly "I refuse to believe you". Birbal, a bit perplexed asks "Ok, shall we get on with the financial matters?". Akbar says loudly "No". Meanwhile, Sultan Khan gets up and approaches Akbar to ask for the post of treasurer for his son. Birbal quickly senses Sultan Khan has set him up this time and requests Akbar "O Emperor, can you make Sultan Khan's son Rahim Khan the treasurer". Akbar replies with a resounding "No". And Sultan Khan had been played at his own game by the quick-witted Birbal.

So remember - next time you want to create a powerful impression on the reader of your story - "No" should be an important element. "No" is the real-hero. "No" is the villain. "No" is the Force.

No. Na. Naa. Ne. Non. Nao. Nahi. Nyet. Nes si pas. Nicht.

Several cultures associate some form of "na" to be a denial. What else can you do with the letter "na"? From the Sanskritam alphabets point of view, by "na" we mean the 'ta' varga (ta, tha, da, dha, na) and na's variations (na, naa, ni, nii etc). Turns out there are entire slokas just using varga "na". Obviously it is great tongue-twister and aint gonna be intelligible at first read and needs commentaries to do a padacCheda correctly. As I was searching around, so there isn't one, but four slokas using only the akshara na. This type of slokas are called "ekAkShara pada sloka". In the same mould there are slokas with only two akShara-s, three akShara-s and so forth with different patterns. Sanskritam poets have indulged in complicated combinatorial akShara gymnastics to a remarkable extent and imagination. Word-play would be an understatement.

1. kiraataarjunIya - bhAravi

The first known instance is from bhAravi's kiraataarjunIya. The explanation of this can be found in wikipedia.

न नोननुन्नो नुन्नोनो नाना नानानना ननु ।
नुन्नोऽनुन्नो ननुन्नेनो नानेना नुन्ननुन्ननुत् ॥

na nonanunno nunnono nānā nānānanā nanu ।
nunno'nunno nanunneno nānenā nunnanunnanut ॥

2. sumadhva vijaya - naaraayaNa paNDitaacaarya

Next instance is from Sumadhva vijaya mahakAvya - a biography of  Sri Madhvacarya, written by Sri Narayana Panditacarya

नानेनानेनेनानेनो नूनेननननुन्नाः ।
नानाना नो नूनं नानेनानूननाऽनुन्नः ।


न अनेनेन अनेन अनेनो नूनेन नननुन्नाः ।
नानानाः नो नूनम् नाने नानूनना अनुन्नः ।

अनेनोनूनेन अनेनेन अनेन नानाना: ननुन्नाः नोननु । नानेनानूनना नूनम् अनुन्नः ।

naanenaanenenaaneno nUnenanananunnaaH |
naanaanaa no nUnaM naanenaanUnanaa&nunnaH || (10.6)

3. rukmiNIsha vijaya - shrI vaadiraja

The third is by Sri Vadiraja, one of the greatest Sanskrit poets, in my humble opinion, whom the world knows for his religious work, but not for his unparallelled versatility in Samskritam. The verse from rukmiNIsha vijaya:

नानाननाननुन्नूनं नैनोऽनन्नेऽन्निनां नु नौ: ।
नानान्ननुन्नेनानेन नोनो नेन न नो ननु ॥


नानाननाननुत् नूनम् न एन: अनन्ने अन्निनाम् नु नौ: ।
नानान्ननुन्नेन अनेन न ऊन: ना इन न न: ननु ॥

naanaananaananunnUnaM naino&nanne&nninaaM nu nau: |
naanaannanunnenaanena nono nena na no nanu || (8.3)

You can see the versatility in the verse. While narayana panditaacaarya's verse was  straight-forward, in Vadiraja's work there are several vowel sandhi-s (a+a, a+e, a+i, a+u, purva rupa sandhi and visarga sandhi).

4. rUpa gosvaami

The last is by Sri Rupa Gosvami, who lived around the same time as of Sri Vadiraja. In the work "stava mAla" (Garland of stotra-s), a section is devoted to citra-kAvya ("pattern based poems").

निनुन्नानेनोननं नूनं नानुनोन्नानननोऽनुनी: ।
नानेनानां निनुन्नेनं नानौन्नानाननो ननु ॥४॥

ninunnaanenonanaM nUnaM naanunonnaananano&nunI: |
naanenaanaaM ninunnenaM naanaunnaanaanano nanu ||4||

Friday, February 24, 2012

Yamunotrii 2012 comes to town

I almost feel like a circus manager when I say something comes to town. Surely you all must have been excited when you were kids and heard 'Barney Circus' or 'Russian Circus' comes to town. The very thought of clowns would derive a big laugh and joy. Well, this time, its not a funny clown who will be in town, but atleast the fun part will be there.

Here is a very succinct write-up of my friend Sudhee Subrahmanya about learning Samskritam.

Have you ever wondered what makes an individual special? It is generally the person's character, wealth or it could be the person's unique contributions to the world.  But, what makes a culture special? Or what about a civilization ? – The answer then, is much more complex.  While everyone works towards for the betterment of one's own self-interest and family, there is also the issue of cultural capital that gets associated with a person based on the person's background and tradition.  This is where Indians have a unique civilizational capital – Samskritam (Sanskrit is the anglicized term). 

Samskritam is the ingredient that changes India from being yet another country on the globe to a Civilization and forms the ‘cultural capital' that Indians can be proud of.
Samskritam is unique in that it is the language in which much of the ancient intellectual tradition of Hindus, Buddhists & Jains are preserved. According to the mathematician Seidenberg, India's samskritam tradition has the origins of geometry in a text called Baudhyana Srauta-Sutra, (which contains what is now wrongly named as Pythagoras theorem) for the design of vedic-yajna altars. The great  mathematician from Kerala,  Nilakantha was the author of a mathematical work called Tantrasangraha  in the year 1501 CE. Prof George Gheverghese in his book “Crest of the Peacock” states that the work of Kerala mathematicians like Madhava and Nilakantha was the foundational source which influenced Newton & Leibniz in their development of calculus. 

There are also linguistic works in Samskritam, such as Panini's Ashtadhyayi, a compact text of four thousand rules that defines all of Samskritam.  The technique used in these rules is very similar to what is used in compilers for modern day computer languages. The great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are in Samskritam. There are also the wonderful poetry and dramas of Kalidasa, Bharavi, Magha, Banabhatta and many others.   The various classical dance traditions of India like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Odissi, Kuchipudi, Kathak etc all are based on the Samskritam work by Sage Bharata called Naatyashaastra. 

Samskritam has a unique technique of using verb-roots for various actions, noun forms, along with additional sounds called pratyaya. This standardized technique makes it very easy to create new contemporary words.  This has proven very valuable for all Indian languages to leverage and almost all Indian languages now adopt this technique for preserving and enriching India's own languages and also creating a unifying factor among various Indic languages and culture.

Is Samskritam hard to learn?

There is a great misconception that Samskritam is a tough language to learn. This misconception is because in the 19th century under British rule, the method of teaching Samskritam was changed and it was directed mostly towards translation of existing works.  So the focus was shifted to teaching mainly grammar.  If one were to start teaching English, starting with grammar and Shakespearean texts then no one would learn English.  There may be more exceptions in words usage in English than other languages, making it more difficult to learn.  

Fortunately, due to extensive work over the past 30 years by a non-profit organization called Samskrita Bharati, the technique of teaching Samskritam has changed in many places.  Samskritam is now taught in ‘conversational manner', adding a ‘fun' aspect and making it very accessible to people of all backgrounds.

Any speaker of an Indian language, ranging from Tamil to Kashmiri or Gujarati to Assamese, probably knows about 70% of the basic vocabulary and basic sentence formation.  The teaching method of Samskrita Bharati, allows a person to leverage this latent knowledge of vocabulary and sentence structure to learn Samskritam.
Many people who know some basic shlokas already know many terms making it easier to learn. 

Opportunity to learn Samskritam in Austin

Texans have a unique opportunity to learn Samskritam this April.  Samskrita Bharati is conducting a weekend Samskritam camp at Radha Madhav Dham from April 6th-8th. 2012. More than 110 participants attended last year's camp and this year about 130 participants are expected. The classes are conducted using games and conversational techniques that are fun.  The beautiful hill country of Central Texas and comfortable accommodation makes the location a perfect place to immerse oneself in Samskritam.
There are multiple levels ranging from beginner to advanced. At the end of the camp, even a raw beginner will be able to understand speak simple conversational sentences in Samskritam.  There are special classes for kids as well.  This camp will be a great, family oriented fun filled opportunity for families in Texas.

For more information visit Samskrita Bharati USA.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Art of complexity

In the Journal of Indian Mathematical Society, Srinivasa Ramanujan posed a few very interesting puzzles. One of the first problems he posed and a very intriguing one belongs to  recursive category.

Upon persuasion, Ramanujan himself gave the answer: 3

Most beginner students are put off by the complexity of Sanskritam language. The way Sanskrit is taught in schools and the text books that start off with all conjugation combinatorics are mostly to blame. Complexity probably does not daunt them when the students opt for French, German or Spanish as their "second" language. When studying these languages, the students start out with a tabula-rasa, if I may borrow from Immanuel Kant. They are not exposed to the literature there of right away. But in Sanskritam, in our everyday life we are already exposed to several subhashitam-s, sloka-s and stotram-s. There are literally tens of thousands them, not to mention the maha kavyas and other works. Obviously one cannot know them all. But the sheer volume can intimidate the students right away. Apart from that, there are the pre-concieved notions and biases about Samskritam. Every Indian state, region and individual have an opinion on Samskritam.

During the Austin Yamunotrii 2011 Samskritam Family camp , Smt Sharada Varadarajan mahodayaa gave an interesting speech about how a same idea can be represented in simple or complex language.

"Boy eats food"

can be translated as "baala: annam khaadati", which is simple enough to understand. (a-karanta: + a pan-Indian shabda 'annam' + a parasmaipada verb)

Or it can be translated as "shishu: odanam ashnute" (u-kaaranta + rice-food + a non-inituitive aatmanepada verb).

Coming to think of expressing ideas in complex terms, why was complexity deliberatey favored by Sanskritam poets? The Darwinian evolution of intellect does not seem to apply to the Indian experience. In the Indian lore, the ancients were always considered people of vastly superior intellect. I am not talking about the divine beings, but the maharshis, muni-s, siddha-s, poets - ordinary people who elevated themselves to a much higher level of consciousness. If evolution means man becomes more intellectual, how could the ancient Indians think in complex terms, thousands of years earlier? What was the need for creating complex tongue-twisting shlokas, stotram-s, stuti-s or those that would read meaningfully back-to-front, while a simple "namami", "vande", "nama:" would suffice? Does the "phala" of shloka depend on the complexity of the recited ?

The reason is the same as George Mallory gives on why would somebody go through a difficulty of climbing a mountain: "Because its there."

Why would the ancient poets conjure up some of the most complex and intricate shlokas, chandas and poetry? Just because Sanskritam allowed them to.

The structure of the language let them run amok, at times wildly, in the forest of intellectualness. The fluidity of the language let them soar their imaginations in all directions without compromising the school-teacher like strictness of the grammar. The richness of the language yielded the fruit of satisfaction, that in turn enriched the language like a feedback amplifier.

Complexity can also be humorous: Harshavardhana's Naishadiyacaritam is supposed to be so complex, that Harsha himself rewrote it a few times to make it simpler.

A poet asks Harsha: kim cikIrShasi ? [What do you want to eat?]
Harsha: shemuShImuShimAShamUShe [I want to eat urad dal to become dull]

Harsha's mind was probably genetically wired to think in complex terms. He wanted to eat urad dal to make him dull, to think in simpler terms. But he could not express his wish in a simple way! Urad dal is supposed to make one dull of intellect. Harsha wanted that to make him dull to think in simpler terms!

Like it or not, the Ramanujan's formula is beautiful and the recursiveness mesmerizing. We may dislike complexity, run away from it or curse it, but it is out there. If we learn to appreciate complexity, it may not daunt us no more.