Before I write anything else, check the snapshot of a tweet which got retweeted by Subramanian Swamy. What should one make of this? Obviously, it is an attempt to glorify Sanskrit. It purported to claim that NASA once undertook an 18 years long study and come up with the conclusion in 1967 that Sanskrit is the most computer friendly language.

This is not something I’ve heard for the first time. The first time I heard something like this was some 15 years ago and every now and then I encounter this ‘information’. Earlier, I believed this in its entirety and was kind of proud of this. Back then, there was no way to verify this and I was too patriotic and proud to question it. If you search Google with ‘NASA Sanskrit programming’, most of first page results are from Indian websites. NASA website figures in only second page and doesn’t contain the term ‘Sanskrit. Oh, here is a small blog from Pakistan. You should check this. I don’t know how this guy managed to get these information.

So what is the truth? Is this a lie which was repeated so often that it is now assumed to be true? Or a distorted and misconstrued truth?

That depends on how you chose to interpret it. In any case, the answer is in this link. This link is from the website Artificial Intelligence Magazine and contains the downloadable PDF file of 8 page essay by Rick Briggs. Somehow, at the time of writing this, I couldn’t find any information on Rick Briggs himself, though I stumbled upon one Rick Briggs who is a painter. The essay informs reader that Briggs is associated with RIACS (Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science), NASA. This is the only piece of writing I have found which deals with Sanskrit as a programming language and has any ‘connection’ with NASA.

Now, let us clear some things. First, as the shown tweet shows, it took NASA 18 years to find out this. If you read carefully the first paragraph of said paper, Briggs here talked about 20 years of efforts in understanding and developing an unambiguous natural language which is also suited for programming. Note that he wasn’t talking about Sanskrit per se. He was talking about research as a whole. Of course, he was very appreciative of this language and went on to show how Sanskrit is the best candidate for programming language. In fact, in last parts of said paper, he was appreciative of many other Indian contributions as well.  So NASA, or for that matter anybody else, didn’t really invest 20 years in studying Sanskrit as a programming language. Secondly, this wasn’t NASA paper.This was Briggs’ paper. And yes, RIACS was established in 1983 and the said paper appeared in AI Magazine in 1985, not in 1967 as shown in the tweet. This was the only instance when Sanskrit as a programming language was discussed. Or at least I think so.

Now look at this issue from a wider perspective. As I said above, almost all the links Google search returns are from Indian websites. In fact, none of these website is academic in nature. Most of them cited this story in self-congratulatory fashion. See this blog, for example. In fact, no other scholarly commentary is available on this essay.* It is amazing that an essay (as against to a detailed thesis) which is largely obscure and forgotten by global scientific standards, is so much celebrated here in India. In many discussions, I was told that this was western conspiracy to destroy Sanskrit and that is why no development in this field was ever happened! Club this whole saga with that of Ram-Sethu, where people claimed that even ‘NASA admitted that Ram Sethu was men-made’. Obviously, NASA never made any such claim.

The desperation to revive the Indian culture is at all time high and is being fueled with exaggeration and lies and a NASA stamp will be an icing on the cake. We, as a nation, have failed miserably in science and education in global perspective and we blame everyone but ourselves for this misery. We blame British rule. We blame Mughal rule. We blame Marxists. We blame global conspiracy to destroy everything that is Indian. Our present sucks so much that we tend to find solace in our past. And instead of inventing future, we are re-inventing past. In doing so, we tend to forget modern Indian achievements such as AKS Primality Test. World has moved on to achieve tremendous scientific feats and we are still celebrating the invention of zero. Such is the sorry state of jingoist affairs in India.

*Some sources also cited Forbes issue of July, 1987. I couldn’t find this at the time of writing.