After a few years, the doors of the scriptorium and editorial room of the renowned Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary at the Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute in Pune were opened to students and the general public. The year of completion of this gigantic dictionary project, which began in 1948, is unknown. But the final word count is estimated at 20 lakh and would be the world’s largest Sanskrit dictionary.
Linguist and Sanskrit professor SM Katre, founder of India’s oldest modern linguistics department at Deccan College, conceived this unique project in 1948 and served as the dictionary’s first editor-in-chief. It was later developed by Prof. AM Ghatage. The project is a classic example of the careful, patient, and tireless efforts of Sanskrit exponents over the past seven decades.
The current torchbearers of the Encyclopaedic Sanskrit Dictionary project are a team of approximately 22 Sanskrit teachers and researchers who are now working to publish the 36th volume of the dictionary, composed of the first alphabet “अ”.
Between 1948-1973, around 40 scholars read 1,464 books from 62 disciplines of knowledge – ranging from the Rigveda (c. 1400 BC) to Hāsyārṇava (1850 AD) – in search of words to add to this unique dictionary.
They covered subjects such as the Vedas, Darśana, Sahitya, Dharmaśāstra, Vedānga, Vyakarana, Tantra, Epics, Mathematics, Architecture, Alchemy, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Agriculture, Music, Inscriptions, Indoor Games, Warfare, Political Science, and anthology of specialized dictionaries and encyclopedias .
In the non-digital age, these scholars wrote down details of each new word on small paper reference slips. They provided details such as the book title, the context in which the word was used, its grammatical category (noun/verb, etc.), citation, comment, reference, exact abbreviation, and the date of the text. It was initialed by the creator of the receipt and his examiner.
It took these scholars 25 years to complete the word extraction process from around 1,464 books to create 1-crore reference slips. All of these slips of paper are well preserved, alphabetically, in one of the rarest scriptors – the soul of the dictionary – in over 3,057 specially designed metal drawers. They were also scanned and digitally preserved.
word by word
While this dictionary contains words in alphabetical order, it follows historical principles in indicating the meaning. In addition to the meaning of the word, the dictionary also provides additional information, references and the context of each word used in a particular literature. For this reason it is an encyclopedic dictionary in which words have been arranged according to the chronological order of their references appearing in the text.
For example, the word beginning with the letter “अ”, like agni, contains all quotations from Sanskrit texts beginning with Ṛgveda and the references from the texts following Ṛgveda, arranged chronologically. This helps a reader understand the historical development of the meaning of the word.
“Sometimes a word can have between 20 and 25 meanings as it varies depending on context of use and books. Once the maximum possible meanings are found, the first draft, called an article, is published. This is then proofread and sent to the editor-in-chief for a first review. Once completed, the one-word article is finalized and sent to the press. It will be proofread one more time by the scholars and the editor-in-chief before being finalized as a dictionary entry,” said Sarika Mishra, an editorial assistant on the project.
While it took three years for the first volume to be published in 1976, technological intervention and exclusive software with a font called KoshaSHRI sped up the process.
“Now we are able to release a volume in just over a year. About 4,000 words are in one volume,” said Onkar Joshi, also the project’s editorial assistant.
In case of missing information in the reference slips, the scholars reread/scan the 1,464 books which are now digitized, effectively making it a double reading of the voluminous Mahabharata (18 Parvans), Vedas and the like.
“We can now use the software to easily search the books. In the past this was done manually and was time consuming,” adds Onkar.
A total of 6,056 pages of words beginning with the first alphabet “अ” have been published in 35 volumes since 1976.
” Alphabet ‘अ’ has the maximum number of words and we have published 35 volumes consisting of words beginning with this alphabet. Work on volume 36 is ongoing,” said Sanhita Joshi, also an assistant editor on the project.
Unique and the largest dictionary
Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Prasad Joshi is the ninth editor-in-chief and third in the family to work on this project, after his father and uncle.
“This job is a minute-to-minute, day-to-day job,” said Prof. Joshi, who has been in charge of the project since 2017.
When asked if there is another language in the world that has such a rich and extensive vocabulary, he said: “Possibly the English-language dictionary, which is based on historical principles and took almost 100 years to complete, will come close . But the Sanskrit dictionary has a wider scope.”
For comparison: With 20 volumes and 2,91,500 word entries to date, the Oxford English Dictionary is still one of the most frequently used dictionaries. The Woordenboek Der Nederlandsche Taal (WNT) is another large monolingual dictionary in Dutch. It contains 4.5 lakh words in 17 volumes.
The Encyclopedic Sanskrit Dictionary will be three times bigger when it is finished. The 35 volumes published so far contain about 1.25 lakh of vocabulary (word).
Although there are 46 alphabets in the Sanskrit language and there are still several decades of work ahead of the completion of this project, it is estimated that in the end it will be a dictionary with a total vocabulary of 20,000 words.
Prof. Joshi’s team is the crucial link between past and future and bears a great responsibility for keeping Sanskrit alive. But there is a real shortage of Sanskrit linguists.
“All in all, linguistics has remained in retreat. We need readers for the vast amounts of unread writings and literary works,” he said.
But young scientists like Bhav Sharma, editorial assistant and secretary of the project, are now reaching out to the public to inspire some.
“We need to show students the effort and process that goes into creating dictionaries. We are planning student-centred activities in the near future so that hands-on learning is possible,” said Sharma.
Currently, all published volumes are still accessible in paper form.
University administration is working aggressively to make digital copies available within a year.
The KoshaSHRI project, under which the website for online access to the dictionary is being built, also consists of custom software that is currently being tested and developed.
This will speed up the dictionary creation process for years to come.