Fifty-five years down, decades to go: a Sanskrit dictionary grows in India

Associated Press, July 22, 2003
http://famulus.msnbc.com/

PUNE, India, July 22 — For three generations, they have compiled and argued, agonized and transcribed — toiling in monastic tedium to turn an intricate 44-letter language into six volumes, so far, of word after long-forgotten word.

They have delved into the grammatical roots of ”antahpravesakama” and debated the pun hidden in ”anangada.” They’ve done a brain-numbingly complete dissection of ”anekakrta.”

Now, 55 years after a group of scholars began composing the authoritative dictionary of Sanskrit, the long-dead language of India’s ancient glory, they are almost done — with the first letter.

”Sanskrit,” sighed Vinayaka Bhatta, chief editor of Deccan College’s dictionary project, ”is not easy to translate.”

No kidding.

The project has consumed the skills of more than two dozen scholars (so far), cataloged 9 million citations of Sanskrit terms and given the most thorough of definitions to thousands of words.

All this in a language glutted with puns, metaphors and multiple meanings that hasn’t been spoken — barring religious rituals and a handful of academics — for centuries.

The low estimate to completing the project? At least another 50 years.

That, they’ll tell you in Pune, isn’t really that long.

”Some people say Sanskrit has no value,” said Vinaya Kshirsagar, a grammarian and 18-year dictionary veteran. ”But you have to take care of your culture and your civilization.”

It’s difficult to overestimate the importance of Sanskrit in this part of the world.

Like Latin in the medieval West, Sanskrit in ancient India was the language of the elite, largely limited to scholars, royalty and priests. The works they wrote, on everything from astronomy to the lives of Hindu deities, helped mold centuries of intellectual life and remained in wide use until about 1100 A.D.

”In those days, it was everything,” said Bhatta.

These days, it can seem that the dictionary is everything. The project sends learned people — scholars with strings of graduate degrees and the authorship of dense books — floundering for words.

”The project is huge,” said Bhatta, who has spent 22 years, well over a third of his life, working on the dictionary. After a pause, he continued: ”It is really huuuuge”

Finally: ”It’s a very huge amount,” said Bhatta, 55, waving his hands around the main workroom, where a hot breeze was blowing through the windows, churned lightly by a pair of ceiling fans.

Today India’s 1.02 billion people have 18 official languages, including English. Hindi is the most widely spoken, but the dictionary is a Sanskrit-English production, attesting to the abiding power of English as a lingua franca of the Indian elite.

The modern world has largely missed the dictionary project. It is tucked into a drab 20th-century building toward the back of the campus of Pune’s Deccan College, long known for its Sanskrit studies. The 16 scholars mostly work at chipped wooden tables in a large room lined with dusty metal bookshelves. The only decoration is a calendar from Guru Nanak, a local tire dealer.

In the scholars’ world — largely limited to the workroom and the ”scriptorium,” where the 9 million citations are filed in metal drawers — technology often amounts to a pencil stub and a paperweight.

Perhaps word processors, or access to the Internet’s many Sanskrit resources, would speed things up?

”We’re hoping for computers in one or two years,” said Kshirsagar, not sounding very hopeful.

The work is mostly done alone, and in silence.

That’s fine with the staff. They are experts in some of academia’s most arcane fields, and have long grown accustomed to quiet intellectual victories.

Slowly, though, the outside world is pressing in.

Officials say political pressure is growing to finish the project. With funding far below what it was in earlier days, only half as many people work on it as in the early 1980s.

So there’s an air of quiet anxiety amid the beat-up tables and the dusty leather-bound volumes.

”We have to go at the speed of the world if we still want to exist,” said Kshirsagar, who reckons it takes about 15 days to prepare a word for dictionary entry.

Earlier on, there was no need for speed. The project was launched in 1948, a year after India’s independence. In those days, the former British colony was desperate to highlight its history and prove it was more than a poverty-ravaged colossus. While Sanskrit died out as a spoken tongue centuries ago, it’s still an official Indian language.

For most Indians, that means nothing. Sanskrit is as far from daily speech in India as Middle English is from Middle America.

The language is agonizingly complex and after 40 years of studies even Bhatta can seldom just open a book and understand it.

As an example, he randomly picks the word ”antahpravesakama” from a volume in progress. For a few minutes, he discusses — in English — possible translations with an elderly colleague before settling on: ”desiring to enter inside.”

The real meaning is more poetic, in this case referring to the conception of ”the one who has 1,000 eyes” — the god Indra.

For every word there are many definitions, and for every definition there are often many more allegorical meanings.

There’s ”anangada,” a favorite of Kshirsagar’s, who likes how it can refer to either an upper arm bracelet or a hero in the Hindu literary masterpiece, the Ramayana.

And there’s ”anekakrta,” which is basically translated as ”composed or obtained by many,” but which Bhatta gleefully points out has 15 other definitions.

Bhatta is the soul of the dictionary project. Initially a reluctant student of the Sanskrit — his father ordered him to study it — he has grown to love the language.

Today, he speaks of the Sanskrit dictionary with infectious excitement: the challenge of each word, the seemingly overwhelming project, the connections to ancient India.

With Bhatta, the monotony of lexicography becomes the joy of academic discovery.

”Sanskrit,” he said, ”has so many shades.”

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