Serving Sanskrit, Serving Humanity: The Story of Martin Gluckman

Martin Gluckman’s Sanskrit dictionary (www.sanskritdictionary.com) created by the Sanskrit Research Institute has had 1,564,823 visitors searching for 975,621 words from 207 countries. Some of its unique features are that multiple dictionaries can be searched parallely from contemporary and ancient data sources.

The site’s synonym explorer helps to generate synonyms in Sanskrit for an English word and then parallel that word against an array of the same word in 103+ languages of the world. The SRI website says you will often see similarities, and sometimes the identical word will be there, for example sambandha (relationship in Sanskrit) and sambandið (relationship in Icelandic). “In English we say sun or maybe solar or helio sometimes, but Sanskrit has a vast array of words such as abhīṣumat, abjabāndhava, abjahasta, abjinīpati, ādideva, āditeya, ādityā, adri, aga, agira, aharbāndhava, aharmaṇi, aharpati, ahaskara, ahi, etc.”

 An easy Sanskrit Writer, Root Explorer, Word Frequency Tool, Brāhmī Output, Sanskrit Text to Speech output, Sanskrit OCR, Sanskrit Posters, Sanskrit Reference Tools, it’s all there for anyone to explore. In 2015 they worked on a project to present the 64 arts along with a translation of each of the arts.  64 Arts - Sanskrit Research Institute (auroville.org)

Video: Interview with Martin Gluckman, Sanskrit Research Institute - YouTube

Early Beginnings

Martin Gluckman's interest in Sanskrit began with Ayurveda. His father was a  physician and instilled in him a deep interest in the healing sciences and arts. In 1999, Martin started to study Ayurveda in South Africa. There were several teachers of Ayurveda in his country, and it appealed to him as it is a very ‘complete system’, ancient with a well documented history. 

In order to learn more, he traveled to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Tibet. He resided for some years in Nepal, and tried to meet as many traditional physicians as possible so as to “understand the practical applications of Ayurveda deeply”. Martin adds that as he went deep into Ayurveda, “I kept getting pointed to Sanskrit, because all of the literature and all the terminology was in Sanskrit.” 

Martin spent 12 years devoted to Ayurveda and tried to meet everyone he could, attending conferences, reading the literature in the original language, including the Samhitas.

Martin had been curious about languages prior to his interest in Sanskrit. He studied Latin at school, another Indo-European language, and has basic fluency in about 10 languages including Japanese, Hebrew, a bit of Arabic, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Nepali. 

He came to live in India in 2003, after he started to develop an intense interest in Sanskrit. “There is immense beauty in the language that anyone who encounters Sanskrit will realize.” He moved to Auroville in 2007 and volunteered in a kitchen, where they were implementing the Ayurvedic aspects of nutrition, “combining foods with spices.”   

At this time, his Canadian teacher in Auroville - Agni - started giving him classes in Sanskrit. “I realized that Sanskrit is a very steep mountain, almost a Himalayan peak, and requires immense effort and dedication. It's not something you just acquire in a short period; it really was a commitment of a decade, at least.” 

In his search for a university, where he could study remotely, Martin came across the Australian National University’s Dr. McComas Taylor, who was pioneering the digital delivery of Sanskrit. The online lectures were for a few hours weekly. Long before Covid, the university was using a 2010 platform called Adobe Connect, as Google Classroom and the other learning delivery platforms for online learning were not so mature at that time.

Martin enrolled for an undergraduate degree majoring in Sanskrit. As he had a background in   computer science he started to create tools that would make it easier for him to learn the language, “and also to appreciate the language, enjoy it, and bring out its beauty through digital expositions. For example, Sanskrit has more than 200 words for sun and moon or sky or rain, and this is very exceptional among languages.” He went on to do a postgraduate degree at ANU that led him to Panini and the Vedas and a journey of study that continues today.

He began work with teams of volunteers in Auroville. “The beauty of Auroville is you have this incredible spirit of volunteer-ship. Everyone comes to Auroville as a volunteer and gives their time to the Community, and this is really how to join Auroville. People often ask me how does one join this community, well it's a labour of love. So my labour of love at this time became the work on Sanskrit.”

His project was formalised as the  Sanskrit Research Institute, a play on words resulting in the mantric sound “SRI” which means glorious or splendid in Sanskrit. “This journey started through my father's physician-ship, then to my discovery of natural medicine and then my very deep discovery of Sanskrit through Ayurveda.” The Sanskrit Research University brings together volunteers, often programmers from Bangalore.

Volunteers are given food, electric vehicle charging and sometimes accommodation for the “reward of working with this.incredible language. The deeper you dig into Sanskrit, the  further you go in this quest for creating knowledge. Sanskrit is a language, but the knowledge that's been written in Sanskrit is the juicy fruit that one gets to consume once one acquires that language.”

Martin says the journey of Sanskrit is full of surprises and wonderment, and literally every week they get the most incredible people from around the world knocking on their door and saying they want to work with Sanskrit from all backgrounds. As to Auroville, “any Indian or any non Indian who visits Auroville will be touched by this 50-plus year old project that's devoted singularly to creating a place for human unity. It's an incredibly creative, incredibly diverse, incredibly beautiful place. It was a desert, barren, and now it's this vibrant, thriving creative network - a web of incredible energy of people who come and give their work for the highest expression of mankind. Auroville is especially charged. There's a magical aura and I'm very honoured to have my institute here. We have created cities like New York, London and Amsterdam. I've lived in all of them, and none of them have the magic of Auroville. Auroville is this incredible city built on devotion to high aspiration.”

Like many, Martin came initially as a tourist with his wife, and stayed on as a volunteer. “I saw that the water was dynamized, the food was organic. There was a project with cashews to get away from the endosulfan. Buildings were built of earth. I saw in matter and spirit that this place  was doing something magical and I could not leave.”

Martin’s curiosity to understand one shastra, Ayurveda, inspired him to make this long journey. While the knowledge is ancient, it has great global relevance today. “Ayu means long lifespan. Ironically, now at Harvard University there's a Professor David Sinclair who heads a department of Lifespan Extension or Longevity or Regenerative Medicine, carrying forward this idea of extending lifespan, the seed for which was laid in at least 500 BC in the documented literary history of beautiful Ayurveda.”

Martin is on a panel with many eminent scholars which is looking at Ayurvedic solutions from the literature which can be applicable with cancer pain management and other adjuncts in modern medicine, and they're going to be doing clinical doctoral level research on this.

After he presented a lecture on Sanskrit at the University of Cape Town a year and half ago, he has been invited to work with some of the oldest people in the world - the San people of Southern Africa, and particularly from the southern Cape. These people inhabited places like Pinnacle Point and Blombos Cave, and developed what is believed to be evidence of early abstract thinking in languages. The language of the San  people is similar to Sanskrit, says Martin. He has been invited to work on a project on endangered languages.

He’s also incubating a project called CEDAR, the Center for Eco-village Development and Research, which has studied Auroville and other communities such as Findhorn and the Kibbutz as a blueprint and is helping and hand holding communities to create more places like Auroville around the world. He’s doing the first project in South Africa, developing a community called Goodwill Mountain currently.

Sanskrit

I like the word aspirational. Do you think Sanskrit will be considered among the world’s most spoken languages in the future? What is SRI doing to enable digital access to the language? It was an oral tradition and is now valued both for the written word as well as the spoken.   

Sanskrit actually was, of course, an oral tradition before writing was developed. However, Sanskrit has the largest corpus of literature of any language on earth, before Gutenberg invented printing, which is not so long ago. The ocean of Sanskritic literature hasn't been fully mapped. Every village, every ruler and village elder had their own collection of manuscripts. Very few of these collections have been precisely documented. The National Mission of Manuscripts in Delhi has already got a database of millions of manuscripts, and their work is only scratching the surface of what's out there.

There was obviously a strong emphasis on intellectual arts and memorization. They were the 64 arts that Krishna and his brother studied, which He studied in something ridiculous like 18 days. It was like ‘the super Elon Musk level intellectual capacity’ or way beyond. One of the arts was memorization, and there were techniques of memorization, different mnemonics and so forth. So even though these sciences were ancient, they were very modern. 

From the age of 13, I worked with computers, and I've been lost in that world of computer science. This was from 1987, when the world was not yet computerized; only very big companies had mainframes and the personal computer was just being born. People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were still unknown, and not billionaires yet. So I became a hacker in my early teens, and I even had done some ethical hacking as part of anti-apartheid activism and for organizations that wanted me to retrieve information from the apartheid Government.

I used the skills that I had learnt when I fell in love with computers; again when I fell in love with Sanskrit. It was an incredible marriage. There was already a lot of work done in computational linguistics and Sanskrit by Gerard Huet and Oliver Hellwig, Peter Scharf and some of the IITs, Kharagpur and Mumbai and so forth, who were already using the early DOS computers and built systems and software.

However, I saw there were gaps. There were dictionaries, but they were not combining all the dictionaries into one. Also the sounds in Sanskrit are too diverse to have only one dictionary. When I was studying I would never look into only Monier Williams or Apte. I would also want to refer to Abyankar’s Grammar dictionary, or a dictionary on medicine or on Jotisha. So what we did first was we glued a lot of dictionaries together and made a Meta dictionary, and this became very useful. We have never marketed anything. We just put it out there. I think our dictionary actually has around 1,00,000 users a month. The fact that it was actually used and usable, and the people engaged with it showed Sanskrit as a living language. It was not just a seminal paper at a conference, although we did present it at conferences practically not theoretically.

I demonstrated it at the World Sanskrit Conference in 2015, and then again in IIT Kharagpur last year at the Computational Linguists Conference. Whenever we could share it with scholars in academia, we would share our vision and also what we've done and completed.

We always see what has been done before we set out to do anything. We have also made a text to speech engine for Sanskrit. One of the governmental departments, C-DAC I think, had attempted it, but nothing was available. Often there have been these multi crore projects, where work was supposedly done, but is not available for people.  Another example is the Digital Library of India, where half a million old works were scanned, but suddenly just disappeared off the internet.

We had fortunately crawled that over for about six months, created a mirror of it, and put that in the public domain, and also helped Archive.org to work with them. We often do collaborations with individuals at Google, and we're going to start a collaboration with Deep Minds on a very famous project. That got everyone a little bit scared, because there's this fear of developing artificial intelligence where once we have singularity and superhuman intellectual power that can do everything we can do and better. We engaged with Deep Mind on a beautiful project with Greek epigraphy, and it's now reading Greek epigraphical works better than humans. We want to use their know-how and their neural network for Sanskrit.

Whenever we saw an opportunity where computers could marry with Sanskrit and do something useful, we wanted to help people to digitize Sanskrit work. For Sanskrit manuscript digitization,  we built our own tool, initially using Tesseract, which is an open source computer vision and network engine that helps to read literature and convert into digitized unicode texts.

Later we realized that we needed to work with a much larger organization, so I connected with a computer scientist working at Google in a very senior position with computer vision and working with Indic scripts. We started to create this feedback loop for the Sanskrit work to help to get better recognition for Sanskrit texts, and now that that is available we've got an OCR engine. At last count, around 3.2 million images have been digitized and about 17  million words have been recognized. Our success is like when Paul McCartney said he felt he had succeeded when the postman was singing his song yesterday. So when the postman sings one of our songs, we feel we've succeeded, basically.

There is a point of concern about attribution and appropriation. How do we keep India’s interests alive, when Sanskrit goes global on the internet?

I think you're touching upon the politics of Sanskrit. There’s a lot of politics that comes into  academia in any field. What I do is I stay dedicated to serving science. Of course the literature itself in Sanskrit is out of copyrights. The Rishis always very clearly said we give this for mankind, for the entire world. This is why Yoga has been exported globally, because it was given for mankind.

Of course, when the language moves out, it will get changed. Wherever it goes, the beauty of Sanskrit language is such that it was frozen by Panini. At least modern Sanskrit, not the Vedic or the middle Sanskrit. Panini froze the grammar, so even if you or I were to compose Sanskrit poetry today, we would be restricted by Panini’s framework of grammar, which is quite rigid. The beauty of Sanskrit is that I can read something from 100 BC and something from 1000 BC and it will be the same grammar, so it is a bit like a computer language where we have kept the syntax consistent so programmers can use it all over the world. This is really Sanskrit’s rare beauty.

There are many international scholars and universities, preserving, digitizing, working with great Sanskrit manuscripts and collections all over the world. It's basically seen as a group effort, a global effort. It's been adopted globally, and there's the World Sanskrit Conference which happens every few years. That basically is a global collection of scholars. The bulk of Sanskrit work is not dominated by one particular geography, it's really dispersed, it's a bit like Auroville. Sanskrit has moved beyond geographical barriers. In our work, if a particular work is digitized and is still under copyright and we would like to publish it, we obviously request permission.

We basically work with the norms of intellectual property, and then, if we do publish a new work, we put it in the public domain as Creative Commons in the spirit of the Rishis. If you want to read the Parashara Hora Shastra I can give it to you, basically I do this work for the benefit of mankind. 

So many non-Indians see the Vedic culture and the Sanskritic culture as a global culture, not tied to any particular geography.  Many religions were born from India, and Hinduism is very different from Abrahamic religions, because it is only within Hinduism that you can have atheism and theism, you can have polytheism and ,all in one container and no one bothers whether you have one God, unlimited gods, limitless gods and named God and nameless gods, and so really you've got the ultimate version of a religion, you cannot get better.

If you want to have one God and call it by a particular name Hinduism accepts that. If you want to have it as a formless, nameless, define-less God, similar to the Judaic God, Hinduism accepts that too. So you really have this incredible intellectual, philosophical, epistemological tradition. This is ultimate development, and what really brings people to India is that openness.

What is the presence of Sanskrit and Ayurveda in South Africa? It's very dominant in Europe for instance where there’s a lot of interest in Indology. How is it in South Africa?

 South Africa has a very large Indian population of one and a half million Indians. They have  often come as indentured labourers from Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, and then settled there and become multigenerational Indians, so there's obviously a liturgical and religious use of Sanskrit.

In Cape Town where I have lived, there is a Vishnu temple. There are multiple Krishna ISKCON  centers throughout South Africa. There’s a Shiva temple.  So obviously, Sanskrit is used here as it is in India in the temples. In terms of academic level, sadly we don't have any chair in Sanskrit. It's something that we would really love to have. We've had meetings with the High Consul or Vice Consul and we've proposed this and they are looking into bringing it there. There's not enough Sanskrit studies in South Africa, and it really needs to develop more. There's definitely an interest and a will and a wish to develop it, and this can be done.

How important is studying Sanskrit as an ancient language for higher education?

It is extremely relevant in terms of humanities and linguistics. Sanskrit is of great significance to a linguist, and particularly if you're going to focus on Indo European linguistics. Sanskrit formed a lot of the early linguistic frameworks of modern linguistics scholars like Chomsky who have referenced this. Early linguists around the world have been extremely influenced by the Sanskritic knowledge systems, particularly by Panini. Panini has been one of the greatest intellectual gifts that we have of the ancient world. If there was a list of the seven ancient intellectual wonders of the world, Panini would be probably two of them at least. 

Since it is the month when we mark Rama Navami, how has the Ramayana influenced you?

 Everything appeals to me about the Ramayana. It is one of the greatest works of literature. I have also read that many of the plants of Ayurveda are inspired by it. Even if it is a work that covers Ithihasa and how to live Dharma, there would often be botanical references to plants and to fauna and flora, so much so that we can reconstruct how life was and know that India had already reached this incredible civilization when Europe, the US, South Africa or South America were still growing

It is significant that we have these memories and that we keep the identity strong, because the beauty of India is that the culture is still very much a living culture. So things that are described in the Ramayana are still very much lived and acted out today. Actually, I was thinking of doing a fast in a forest and eating just the Jamun fruits and seeing if I could lose some of this weight I have put on during Covid! I think all of us have had this Covid syndrome of putting on weight, and I thought I could do a bit of Ram Navami Langhana Chikitsa which is a fasting therapy. I am thinking of doing a multi-day fast on Jamun or something equivalent from the Auroville forest,  and then doing a bit of Sanskrit recitation just to keep the mind off food!

India's got this incredible culture that's alive today, and the work that we're doing helps to preserve it because so many Indians are wondering today how to access their culture. It’s easier when you can digitally access it and see that there are hundreds of synonyms for words, and that there's literature spanning tens of millions of manuscripts, long before printing came to Europe. There were universities in India long before the University of Bologna, which was the first University to be set up in Europe around a millennia ago. Yes, they were ransacked, looted, destroyed and faded into crumbling ruins, but we can revive this intellectual tradition. 

However, there is now an incredible wish to develop it further. The IITs are working very deeply on Sanskrit, and I just saw a beautiful work from IIT Kharagpur which has developed a neural network to rapidly tag Sanskrit literature. So it is coming together very strongly in this neo India, and we want to be part of that. Auroville represents the birth of a new India. To all readers out there, come to Auroville, come and volunteer here. Don’t just visit here as a tourist and take pictures and walk through the forest, but come and give some of your skills, particularly those that have talent and skills, come and help build the city and build the future of India, the future of mankind.