Studying Sanskrit

Several U.S. universities offer courses in the study of Sanskrit, even to students with no prior knowledge of any language other than English.

By Trevor Laurence Jockims

January 2019

Studying Sanskrit

A Sanskrit manuscript. The language has a well-documented history dating back some 3,500 years. (Photograph courtesy Wellcome Collection)

The Sanskrit language has a well-documented history that can be traced back some 3,500 years. Foundational texts from the Hindu, Buddhist and Jainist traditions give evidence to this ancient, liturgical role, as well as offer a glimpse into the language’s emergence as the language of high culture and the elite ruling classes across Southeast, East and Central Asia as early as the first millennium CE.

The literary tradition of the language is not only ancient but is thriving within the modern era as well. Although one of the most well-known texts composed in the language—The Bhagavad Gita—is composed of a series of oral recitations, the contemporary literary Sanskrit tradition holds an important place in global culture. Indeed, since India’s independence in 1947, over 3,000 literary works have been composed in Sanskrit. No wonder, then, that its study by non-native speakers is also thriving.

The Classics department of Brown University, one of the leading universities in the United States, offers a Ph.D. track in Sanskrit Language and Literature, and a Classics and Sanskrit Ph.D. track that allows classicists to include a Sanskrit component to their Classics Ph.D. The university has been “engaged in the study and teaching of Sanskrit for over a century,” and is currently under the leadership of James L. Fitzgerald, Purandara Das Professor of Sanskrit in Classics. The university’s current approach to the language mirrors that of the program in Greek and Roman classics. “Texts are examined and interpreted within their broad cultural and historical context on the basis of a rigorous preparation in the study of the Sanskrit language,” states the university website.

In addition to a full-range of courses allowing students to develop complete facility in the language, courses like Elementary Sanskrit allow for participation by students who “have no prior knowledge of any language other than English,” states the university website. In these courses, “students quickly learn to read the Devanagari script and study the basics of the sound-system of Sanskrit.” Following mastery of this level, it is possible to move onto the study of literature, for instance in the Sanskrit Epic Narrative course, which “consolidates and extends the knowledge of Sanskrit grammar introduced in the first year; acquaints students first-hand with basic themes of ancient Indian culture, and cultivates the reading and interpretive skills necessary to read epic and closely related Sanskrit narrative with comprehension and increased fluency.”

The University of Chicago also has an impressively robust program in Sanskrit language and literature. In fact, it is the South Asian language with the longest record of being continuously taught at the university, beginning with its founding in 1892.

Not only is The University of Chicago a great place for the study of Sanskrit, but it also serves as a hub of activity, holding conferences and hosting visiting scholars from India and elsewhere. It also offers students the opportunity to pursue their interest in the language over the summer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s South Asia Summer Language Institute or the American Institute for Indian Studies’ program in Pune, Maharashtra.

University of Chicago students attest to the rigor and rewards of studying the language. For instance, Ph.D. student Nell Hawley says that the department’s “vivid engagement with and historical commitment to Sanskrit were among the primary reasons I came to The University of Chicago, and Sanskrit language study has proven to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my time here so far. I especially appreciate that our instructors are adroit, enthusiastic and patient. It is also wonderful to be exposed to a wide range of genres and styles…”

Davey Tomlinson, Ph.D. student in Philosophy of Religion, Divinity School, echoes these sentiments, noting, “Whether highfalutin poetic theory or nitty-gritty Paninian grammatical analysis, whether Mahabharata or Madhyamaka, the wide range of Sanskrit literature is presented to us alongside the various scholastic arts that make it up; sometimes with near-giddy enthusiasm.”

With such enthusiastic students undertaking study of the language at the highest levels, it is clear that the impact of this ancient language will stretch well into the future.

Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.


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