A Marriage of the Ancient and Timeless with Technology: Future-Proofing of a Pioneering Kind

16th December 2021

The remarkable journey of Martin Gluckman, ANU-CHL Sanskrit Alumnus and now Sanskrit Digitisation Pioneer

What do you get when tradition and technology collide? It’s not often one gets to witness the remarkable outcomes of such a combination. But CHL alumnus Martin Gluckman, now Researcher at University of Cape Town and Director at Sanskrit Research Institute (SRI), has mastered the art of effective fusion to become a real pioneer in showcasing Sanskrit to the world through technology. Martin Gluckman’s Sanskrit Dictionary has around 1 million words, has been visited by more than 4.8 million users online from more than 230 different countries. The dictionary enables users to search multiple dictionaries simultaneously from both ancient and present-day data sources. Through the Sanskrit Research Institute, Martin and his team have developed multiple tools and resources for learning and enhancing people’s knowledge of Sanskrit. Besides the dictionary, there’s a Sanskrit synonym explorer—a thesaurus of sorts—that helps to generate Sanskrit synonyms for English words. What’s more, it goes one step ahead and compares a word against a range of the same word in more than 100 languages globally. And then there are also the Sanskrit Text-to-Speech output, Sanskrit Writer, Brāhmī Output, Word Frequency Tool, Root Explorer, Sanskrit OCR, Sanskrit Posters and Sanskrit Reference Tools. The best of all, they’re all open access and free to use on the SRI website. Because Martin and SRI believe in working with Sanskrit to make learning the language fun and accessible to all.

Sanskrit1Martin Gluckman's Sanskrit Dictionary

Sanskrit2The Sanskrit Synonym Explorer

Sanskrit3Indus Script Poster

Flashback to Auroville

Martin encountered Sanskrit first in 1999, through studies with Ayurveda in South Africa, even before setting foot on Indian shores. However, when he did get to India in 2003 and continued studying Ayurveda, he realised that to get a deep understanding of the Indian medical system, he would need to know the language.

“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.”

Studying Sanskrit had been on his mind for quite some time, but he had no idea how to go about it. Fortunately, as fate would have it, Martin landed in a place called Auroville in 2007, and one of the official languages there was Sanskrit. Here, he came across a Canadian who had renamed himself Agni (fire), who started teaching Martin some basics of Sanskrit. Later, another lady from West Bengal, Chandrima, taught him some Sanskrit. In a sense, he had thus started scratching the surface. But what hit Martin soon enough was that this was a towering mountain to climb, one that would require considerable discipline and a systematic approach to climb. Mastering Sanskrit meant learning it formally. That was clear. So, in 2009, Martin started seriously looking into options for the study of Sanskrit. During his research, he chanced upon some YouTube and discovered that ANU CHL’s Dr McComas Taylor was conducting an online Sanskrit program, who was pioneering the digital delivery of Sanskrit, long before the days of COVID-forced online learning. Martin then enrolled for an undergraduate degree with a major in Sanskrit.

Sanskrit3aSanskrit3b

Martin Gluckman

The rest, as they say, is history.

Tech-Savvy Sanskrit!

Martin always had a keen interest and background in computer science. In fact, he has been working with computers since his teenage years, and he even became an ethical hacker! When he started learning Sanskrit formally, Martin began to increasingly lean on technology and his computer skills to develop resources and tools that would aid his learning of the language. His studies gradually led him to a postgraduate degree at ANU, as he went on to study Pāṇini and the Vedas and he eventually started to collaborate more and more with volunteers in Auroville, which ultimately led to the genesis of the Sanskrit Research Institute.

Martin soon realised the power that lay in marrying his two passions—his love for computer technology as well as the language. Martin was already aware of existing Sanskrit learning tools online for users, but he was also conscious of gaps in such tools. For example, there was no dearth of Sanskrit dictionaries, but there was no one-stop, consolidated Sanskrit dictionary available to people. The nature of the language required there to be a way to combine the many different sounds into one hub, so Martin and the SRI team worked on piecing together different dictionaries to create one meta dictionary of Sanskrit, which today has around 1,00,000 users a month.

What the SRI has been doing is nothing short of incredible. Seemingly expensive and complex projects—which extensively-funded national organisations have also failed to do successfully—have been developed swiftly, silently and without much ado by Martin and his amazing team of volunteers at Auroville. There’s a myriad tools on the SRI website—simply there, for free usage, without any marketing, pomp or flair. This includes a text-to-speech engine, a tool that allows one to touch type Sanskrit quite effortlessly (Sanskrit Writer), a web-based OCR tool for Sanskrit texts, a Sanskrit Word Frequency Tool (currently being used by some educators to create Sanskrit flash cards), a Pāṇini Research Tool (a student’s reference to the ancient grammar of Pāṇini considered one of the ancient world’s most significant intellectual contributions) and many more. There’s even a great example of learning through gamification—Sandhi Invaders. This is a cross between Space Invaders and Sanskrit learning. One day, Martin and his team just thought it would be nice to have an animated game to teach Sandhi rules—and lo behold, they created one!

In short, wherever there’s potential in combining computers with Sanskrit learning and to help people to digitise Sanskrit learning and resources, SRI takes it on.

Sanskrit4A snapshot of SRI projects

Sanskrit5Sanskrit classroom poster

Sanskrit6Sanskrit 64 Arts project

Sanskrit7Learning through gamification: Sandhi Invaders

Sanskrit8Artistic impression of the SRI team hard at work

The Road Ahead

His student days have long passed, but needless to say, Martin’s study of Sanskrit continues to this day. This brilliant Language Computational Linguist is conversant in about 10 other languages, including Portuguese, Spanish Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, French, Nepali and Spanish. Martin is also on a panel with many eminent scholars exploring Ayurvedic solutions from Sanskrit literature and another that is surveying extant Sanskrit literature outside of India.

Following a presentation on Sanskrit at the University of Cape Town a couple of years ago, Martin and SRI are currently working with some of the oldest people in the world—the Sān and Khoe people of Southern Africa. It is believed that the Sān people developed some of the earliest abstract thinking (circa 70,000 BC) and earliest languages (the remarkable and beautiful “click” languages).

And this is only scraping the surface, the tip of the iceberg. What Martin and the SRI are doing for Sanskrit has been ground-breaking and incredible, especially given the sheer simplicity of its approach to innovation.

It’s difficult to out in a nutshell all the brilliant work that Martin has pioneered through the years. Thankfully, though, we had a little help from none other than Associate Professor McComas Taylor, who very aptly sums it up:

“When students excel their teachers, the Chinese say ‘blue comes from indigo, but is bluer then indigo’. I stand in awe of Martin's digital Sanskrit tools, which are now being used by scholars all over the world. He is working far in excess of anything I could achieve, and his work will benefit the community for years to come.”

Sanskrit9

Sanskrit10 _Martin Gluckman with Associate Professor McComas Taylor

Sanskrit11An Auroville volunteer's artistic impression of the Sanskrit Research Institute at Auroville

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