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 !