When you cut off branches of human history, think what you might be losing

Sans the Sacred
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 23:51 IST

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After dropping the chapters on the Mughals and on evolution, the NCERT is now the subject of more controversy for moving around and removing lessons on the Periodic Table and the Pythagoras Theorem, to name just two. And that is as good an opportunity as any to think about the fascinating connections of both these to Sanskrit and ancient India.

Although a formal proof for the Pythagoras Theorem is not found in any ancient Indian text, the rule itself was clearly understood and used in the Sulba Sutras, a set of texts from the first millenium BCE that directed the geometry underlying the construction of altars and ritual spaces for the performance of Vedic sacrifices. While Baudhayana mentions that the diagonal of a square produces an area double that of a square, Apastamba uses Pythagorean triplets for constructing right-angled triangles. Clearly, there is no escape from Mathematics, wherever you go.

As for the Periodic Table, the chemist Abhik Ghosh and the linguist Paul Kiparsky have done interesting work on the possible Sanskrit origins of Dmitri Mendeleev’s systematisation of the chemical elements. While scientists before Mendeleev had worked on elements, Mendeleev’s epiphany consisted in recognising that when elements are arranged by atomic number, their physical and chemical properties repeat at regular intervals. Based on this insight, Mendeleev was able to predict elements before they were even discovered, recognising when no known element fit into this pattern and leaving spaces in his Periodic Table to accommodate new elements.

So, just what does this have to do with Sanskrit? It turns out that Mendeleev gave tentative names for these yet-to-be-discovered elements, and these names are prefixed with ‘eka’, ‘dvi’, and ‘tri’–the Sanskrit terms for the numbers one, two, and three respectively!

Given the structure of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, and his tribute to Sanskrit by using Sanskrit prefixes for the names of hypothetical elements, it does seem likely that Mendeleev was drawing from the marvellous structure of Sanskrit grammar, particularly Panini’s grammatical treatise, the Ashtadhyayi. The Ashtadhyayi, dated to around 500 BCE, very concisely presents a comprehensive set of rules that can explain existent words, help derive new words, and explain how sounds combine and change in Sanskrit.

Even more extraordinarily, it seems like the Periodic Table was inspired by what we all were forced to memorise and write down innumerable times in school–the aksharamala! Remember having to write down the vowels, then ka, kha, and so on? Well, these sounds are not random arrangements like the English alphabet. They are arranged based on two criteria– where the sound is produced, and the aperture. For instance, p, ph, b, bh, and m are arranged together because they all involve touching the lips together. The Periodic Table has the same structure–it categorises elements by atomic weight, and is not an arbitrary grouping, but designed to allow us to generalise the properties of elements grouped together.

But how would Mendeleev, working in Russia, even know of Sanskrit grammar? It turns out Mendeleev worked at the Saint Petersburg University in Russia, which had a reputed department of Oriental Studies, and was friends with Otto von Böhtlingk, a well-known Indologist whose Sanskrit dictionary remains the largest ever made. Incidentally, a good lesson for those who wish to erase humanities from higher education, don’t you think?

Published 03 June 2023, 19:23 IST

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