The rosary of knowledge

Rohit Gupta | Updated on January 17, 2018

Words worth: Folio from an eighth century Carolingian manuscript of Isidore’s Etymologiae Image source: Wikipedia

Rohit Gupta

How the history of encyclopaedias shows the structure of our knowledge

The experience of sound has only one dimension — that of time. Thus the languages conceived in oral civilisations are written linearly; but rhyming or prosody is one way to surpass this limitation, to perform cognitive loops and jumps in time. Words that sound the same are thus tunnels or stitches through the fabric of a spoken language. (The word ‘textile’ and ‘text’ come from the same root texere, which means ‘to weave’. )

Since authors and poets in Sanskrit were fond of wordplay and mathematical stunts, what reference tools might they have employed to generate the plethora of palindromes and verbal gymnastics? Words that mean the same, or synonyms, provide a unique window to a linguistic landscape. One such remarkable thesaurus in the history of Sanskrit is Amarkosha (circa 400-800 AD), authored by Amarsingha, believed to be one of the ‘nine gems’ (and contemporary of Kalidasa) in the court of Chandragupta II.

An English translation by HT Colebrooke appeared as early as 1807, and some contend that it may have influenced the genesis of Roget’s famous thesaurus in 1856. (Category schemes similar to Roget’s are now employed in the Wikipedia, one of the largest collections of knowledge in human history).

On the surface, Amarkosha is a metered poem that furnishes to the referrer a list of synonyms and homonyms for any given word, but when a student has memorised it — according to the scholars Sivaja Nair and Amba Kulkarni — “the linear structure unfolds into a knowledge web with various links.” If a word X has as two of its synonyms Y and Z, so X will appear in the set of synonyms for Y and Z, making the thesaurus a multi-dimensional lattice of relationships. It is as if the body of the Sanskrit language has been passed through a mathematical sieve, and rearranged in a crystalline tessellation or a sculpture made of 9,031 nouns and adjectives (there are no verbs).

The hierarchical classification of chapters — starting from heavens, gods, planets and stars followed by the earthly realms like oceans and geography, forests and plants, and the strata of human society, towns and castes — hint that this thesaurus can also be seen as a cosmography or an encyclopaedia.

A lot can be inferred about the theology of a culture from the synonym set of just one word. A number of Islamic, Jewish, Sikh and Buddhist texts are therefore devoted to enumerating the many names of a supreme being. Sahasranama is an entire genre of stotra literature devoted to chanting the thousand different names of various Hindu gods. The boundaries can get extremely blurred between such an infinite sequence of words, a dictionary, a thesaurus and an encyclopaedia.

The etymological encyclopaedia of Isidore of Seville (c 560-636, and later one of the first books to be printed in 1472) also shows that while circumnavigating the ocean of human knowledge, the personal views of the author are often at work. At one point in the Etymologiae (Andy Merrills informs us), “Isidore turns back from the world and re-enters the library.” He begins to describe the instruments used by a librarian — the parchment, papyrus and codices — and then he focuses his attention on the most intimate object, the nib of his pen. Isidore writes, “The tip of the quill is split in two, while its unity is preserved in the integrity of its body, I believe for the sake of mystery, in order that by the two tips may be signified the Old and New Testament, from which is pressed out the sacrament of the Word poured forth in the blood of the Passion.”

In certain cases, an encyclopaedia can become the vehicle for a completely new science, as in the case of Ikhwan al-Safa (The Brethren Of Purity, circa 900), a secret society that, in their monumental Rasa’il, brought together Greek and Islamic philosophy. This was important since the Islamic golden age was the primary conduit through which Greek science made its way into the European renaissance. The Ikhwanian theory about the origin of sound, quite strangely, is synonymous to certain alchemical schools of Indian philosophy: “The sound comes from the lungs, the home of the air. Likewise in the macrocosm, which is like a large man, the origin of the sound is the air beyond the moon and the breath in the world of the stars.”

We could try to imagine a thesaurus created by a people who believe that the universe is God itself (pantheism) and all matter is alive (hylozoism). Ostensibly, it would contain only one very long list of synonyms, since ultimately everything that exists would be connected by a rosary-like chain of meaning.

(Rohit Gupta explores the history of science as Compasswallah)


Published on August 26, 2016

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