Tracking the construction of India’s longest linguistic project— the Sanskrit dictionary | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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Tracking the construction of India’s longest linguistic project— the Sanskrit dictionary

Feb 04, 2024 07:18 AM IST

The Sanskrit Dictionary initiative, a project spanning 76 years and 35 volumes, aims to create a comprehensive dictionary of Sanskrit to English.

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Prasad Joshi, professor and general editor of Sanskrit Dictionary Project, at work with a researcher at the Department of Sanskrit and Lexicography, Deccan College, Pune. (Rahul Raut/ ht photo)
Prasad Joshi, professor and general editor of Sanskrit Dictionary Project, at work with a researcher at the Department of Sanskrit and Lexicography, Deccan College, Pune. (Rahul Raut/ ht photo)

The Sanskrit Dictionary initiative is an expansive project that bears testimony to the perseverance and scholastic dedication of intellectuals over 76 years. This linguistic odyssey traces its roots to the year following India’s liberation from British rule.

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The project which was incubated at the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, in Pune, garnered support from the central government, finding an ally in the Central Sanskrit University (CSU), Delhi, last month. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between the two institutes with a focus on resource exchange to fortify the project, coupled with collaborative efforts in running Sanskrit courses.

Prof Shrinivasa Varakhedi, vice-chancellor, CSU, said the institute has not been able to pick up enough projects due to funds constraints. “We have resumed working on fresh projects with support of education ministry. A year ago, work on the Sanskrit Dictionary project was brought to my notice. Apart from giving funds we will also collaborate on human resources,” he said.

Project review

The encyclopedic dictionary of Sanskrit to English, spans 2.2 million vocables and a staggering 10 million references, across 35 volumes, published through 6056 pages so far.

According to Ganesh Devy, a language expert best known for his work on People’s Linguistic Survey of India, the project is unique because it is trying to exhaust the complete range of Sanskrit language. “This dictionary can be used to know real history about ancient times, and the Indian subcontinent’s relations with central and west Asia. More importantly, we will be able to interpret various ancient learnings in an appropriate way,” said Devy.

The project’s initiation dates back to 1948. It was conceived and planned by SM Katre, former professor of Indo-European Philology and director of the Deccan college. The object was to render Sanskrit language into English. He embarked on the mission after participating in the Wilson Philological lectures, in UK, when he discovered that dictionaries existed for other languages but none for Sanskrit.

Spanning more than three generations of lexicographers, the dictionary project has become a legacy, with editors passing on the torch. The institute claims that the Sanskrit Dictionary surpasses the famed Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in magnitude, which has 0.5 million entries, 3.5 million quotations covering a span of 1000 years of the language.

In his book ‘The Wonder That Was India,’ noted professor, historian, author and an Indologist Arthur Llewellyn Basham asserted that this “dictionary, upon completion, would stand as the greatest work of Sanskrit Lexicography ever witnessed worldwide”. Basham, who passed away in 1986, taught luminaries such as Romila Thapar and Ram Sharan Sharma.

“There are Greek and Latin dictionaries. But none exist for Sanskrit covering the history and timespan of that language – by history we mean the first piece of literature available, either oral or written. For Sanskrit, the Rigveda is the first available text evidence of the language,” said Prasad Joshi, Deccan College professor, and general editor of Sanskrit Dictionary Project since 2017.

Play with words

The dictionary focuses on how words and their forms have changed over time, and how their meaning has evolved. They are analysed logically and linked to various nuances and shades together. The encyclopedic nature of the dictionary provides information on the form of vocables as a guide, the part of the speech of the word to which it belongs, accent, etymology, derivation and the development in Indo-Aryan era.

It was no easy task.

“After identifying words, we collect their references. The scholars study the context and meaning before finalising the entries. It is checked, re-checked and edited, before it is sent for publishing,” said Joshi. It draws inspiration from a primary corpus of approximately 1500 Sanskrit treatises, spanning 1400 BC to 1850 AD.

Retired professor Jayashree Sathe, who was the general editor of the project between 2010 to 2017, said, “We faced serious challenges when I came onboard, as research scholars appointed for posts created by the central government retired, leaving us with a paltry support staff. When I started the work in 1985 there were around 38 to 40 research scholars and when I became the editor, we had a team of hardly 13 to 14 people. There was always a fear of the department shutting down due to shortage of manpower.”

She said the fruits of labour materialized with the release of the first volume in 1976, three years after its editing process began. Given that a team of around 20 linguistic and Sanskrit experts are working on the project, it might take more than a century for it to be complete, she added.

The dictionary has been categorised into 62 branches, such as veda, darśana, epics, dharmaśāstra and ancient lexicons. It also includes literature, poetics, dramaturgy, prosody, anthologies or topics with science as base such as mathematics, architecture, alchemy, agriculture, medicine and veterinary sciences. It also includes words pertaining to music, in-door games, inscriptions, warfare and economics.

Speaking about the way ahead for this project, Joshi said, “The first stage of compiling the data is complete and the second stage of upgradation has started, which is likely to be complete in 10 years. If manpower is increased, the editing process will be expedited we will be able to publish more volumes in one year.”

Meanwhile, recognising the need for digital footprint, CDAC has been enlisted to spearhead the digitization of the works. “We don’t see youths coming to libraries to collect books. So, we will make the dictionary available online for people to access from across the world. In future, we will also create mobile apps,” said Joshi.

The magnitude of data makes it an important tool for various fields such as history, culture, linguistics, philology, computational linguistics, patents etc.

“It is definitive and comprehensive – in that sense it is unique,” said Devy.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Yogesh Joshi is Assistant Editor at Hindustan Times. He covers politics, security, development and human rights from Western Maharashtra.

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