PhD Student Solves Centuries-Old Sanskrit Grammar Puzzle

Indian PhD student Rishi Rajpopat has solved a grammatical puzzle that has puzzled scholars since the 5th century BCE. The 27-year-old deciphered a rule in a text by Panini, a master of the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit is the sacred language of Hinduism and has been used for centuries in Indian literature, including science, philosophy, and poetry. Although it is still spoken by a small group of people in India, it is mostly used in religious and academic contexts.

Panini’s grammar, known as the Astadhyayi, is based on a system that functions as an algorithm to transform the parts of words into grammatically correct sentences and words. However, conflicts often arise when two or more of Panini’s rules apply at the same time. To solve this problem, Panini created a so-called metarule as a tool to determine which rule applies. This often led to grammatical errors when using Panini’s system. 

Rajpopat came up with a simpler solution than the traditional interpretation of the metarule, allowing him to form grammatically correct words in almost all cases. 

Using this method, he was able to form grammatically correct words in almost all cases. The research has been published in the journal Apollo. Rajpopat had a “eureka moment” while solving the problem after struggling with it for nine months. He said he closed the books for a month and enjoyed the summer, before reluctantly returning to work. Within minutes of opening the pages, patterns emerged and it all started to make sense. He spent the next two and a half years checking his findings and solving related problems.