Sanskrit teaching at Cambridge to end

Herman Tull hwtull at MSN.COM
Fri Oct 20 02:32:17 UTC 2006

I, too, live in a town (Princeton, NJ) with a major university (Princeton University) that has allowed its Sanskrit program to dwindle over the years.  Long ago, Samuel Atkins was the resident Sanskritist here, replaced by George Dunkel, and followed briefly by Brent Vine.  All were members of the Classics Department.  Since Vine left, first-year Sanskrit has been offered occasionally, but with little planning or purpose behind the course and without the benefit of a trained Sanskritist (I say this with some first-hand knowledge, since I was twice engaged to teach the course).   

For those who are not familiar with this institution, Princeton University has vast financial resources (an endowment that exceeds $12 billion dollars, generating more than $1 billion per year in interest income--an amount that actually exceeds its annual budget), an outstanding faculty, and top-notch facilities.  New Jersey emphasizes high tech industries and, as a result, has a large population of Americans of South Asian descent; in fact, Indian-Americans are reported to be the fastest growing segment of the population here, currently numbering in the several hundred thousands.

While it is galling to me that any major University would ignore India, given the resources here, and the general situation in New Jersey, it is utterly maddening that this University steadfastly ignores Sanskrit (it also ignores Indian studies in general--there are a few stray courses offered, and there is a recently hired Hindi lecturer).  

But, then, Indologists perhaps have not done a very good job of advertising what they do.  I regularly field questions from other faculty members--well-known and well-regarded scholars (often in the sciences)--who refer to my field as "Southeast Asian Studies"; who ask how I learned to type in "Cyrillic"; who wonder what the possible use is of studying a "dead" language; who are shocked when I tell them about the historical connection between Sanskrit and the Indo-European languages.  When I begin to explain the benefits for undergraduates in studying one or two years of Sanskrit, of the analytic skills it develops, of the broader linguistic vistas it opens for them, I am generally met with blank stares.  To begin to describe the beauty of the Sanskrit language to them, or to describe my enchantment with wrestling with the thoughts of some of the greatest poets, philosophers, and thinkers to have lived on the planet, seems an utterly hopeless task.

Herman Tull
Non-affiliated scholar
Princeton, NJ

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Dominik Wujastyk<mailto:ucgadkw at UCL.AC.UK> 
  To: INDOLOGY at<mailto:INDOLOGY at> 
  Sent: Thursday, October 19, 2006 1:02 PM
  Subject: Re: Sanskrit teaching at Cambridge to end

  Dear Bob (and everyone),

  The current decision to abolish undergraduate Sanskrit teaching was made 
  by officers of Cambridge University's "The Council of the School of Arts 
  and Humanities".  I don't know who abolished the chair at the time of 
  Brough's death.

  I have myself written a letter of shock and protest, and I addressed it to 
  Dr Gordon Johnson, who is currently Director of the Centre for South Asian 
  Studies at Cambridge.  See<> for more 
  info. I believe he can be addressed at

       Wolfson College
       Barton Road
       CB3 9BB

  I wrote Dr Johnson because his name is mentioned in the press reports. 
  (I am told that Dr Johnson is a supporter of Sanskrit teaching at 

  It has been suggested to me by a Cambridge insider that letters of protest 
  will be ineffective at this point, but might be more effective towards the 
  end of the year when attempts will be made to create a new post.

  However, my own view is that Cambridge's decision is now in the public 
  domain, and that if we wish to respond to the current news, we should do 
  so as we feel moved.  We can always write again later.  I do feel strongly 
  that authorities at Cambridge should be made aware that their decision to 
  cancel undergraduate teaching has caused a reaction in the international 
  scholarly community.

  Note that the Centre for South Asian Studies, of which Dr Johnson is 
  Director, is not the same as the Faculty of Oriental Studies, where 
  Sanskrit is ^H^H^H was taught.

  The Faculty of Oriental Studies website is at<>

  but it does not say who is the Chairman of the Faculty Board, nor does it
  give any details of board members, so it is hard to know to whom to write.
  The Oriental Faculty's website on languages,<>

  has already excised Sanskrit from world history.  These people are moving 

  Although I currently live in Cambridge, I am not part of the university, 
  nor involved in teaching or other activities here.  To be honest, the 
  organisation of the university is so labyrinthine that it is very hard for 
  an outsider to understand anything, and it is impossible to find the 
  actual names of responsible people.  This is probably deliberate.  The 
  best information I have been able to put together about the closure of u/g 
  Sanskrit here is as follows:

  The U of Camb. recently moved over to a new "Resource Allocation Model" 
  (or "RAM": see<>) whereby (stage one) central 
  funds (quaintly called the "University Chest") are divided between the six 
  university "Schools" on a completely automatic basis, and then (stage two) 
  the chairmen and committees of the schools use the delegated financial 
  authority to decide who will get what. (The six schools are described at<>; Sanskrit is taught in the Faculty of Oriental 
  Studies, part of the school called Arts and Humanities.)

  It was obvious to insiders from the start of RAM planning several years 
  ago that these changes would cause casualties, particularly among "small 
  subjects", and the main RAM report of 2003 (<>) 
  explicitly mentions,

    The potential threat of a RAM to minority subjects (particularly
    in Arts and Humanities) and hence to the shape of the University.

  This statement is followed by some tangled prose in which a justification
  is attempted for doing nothing about trying to protect or even influence
  the acceptability of the academic shape of the university. The RAM
  Development Group stated that for political and financial reasons,

    The futility of designing the model to achieve acceptability
    become apparent.

  This is an extraordinary admission!  To design a major financial system in 
  such a manner that from the outset it is admittedly not fit for purpose in 
  important respects.

  So nothing was done to mitigate the damage that was inevitable to minority
  subjects (although I note that item 23. in the Report does mention
  "Minority Subject Special Funding").

  In any case, because of these major changes in funding structures, it is
  no longer possible for Cambridge University as a whole to have an academic
  policy, favouring this or that subject area for strategic, academic, or
  other reasons.  All decisions are made on the basis of finance.  As the
  Report states, interestingly,

           2. All income is attributed to Schools and institutions 'as
           earned'. This may not reflect the University's value judgements
           but it does reflect our true sources of income and avoids
           arguments about value judgements.

  This statement seems to me to be a knowing abdication of any committment 
  to guiding or judging the intellectual value of the university's 
  activities.  In other words, the University must be run as a profitable 
  business, and must set aside attempts to judge the value of what it does 
  to make money.

  As far as I can see, the "General Board of the Faculties" is the body
  responsible for the academic and educational policy of the University, and
  I do not understand the relationship between this Board and the new power
  centres of the Schools or the RAM.

  In any case, Sanskrit is apparently the first casualty of the new system. 
  It has been decided by the officers of the Council of the School of Arts 
  and Humanities (a) that the 1.5 posts in SA History be transferred from 
  the Oriental Faculty to the History Faculty (where there is no guarantee 
  that they will be filled in the SA field); (b) that the vacant Hindi 
  lectureship not be refilled; (c) that the Hindi language instructor be 
  moved to the Centre of SA Studies to do coaching for anthropologists etc., 
  (d) that the two Sanskrit "incumbents" (Smith, Kahrs) be kept on in 
  Oriental Studies (but not in either of the two departments that are being 
  created, Far East and Middle East) till they retire. No undergraduate 
  teaching to be done.


  On Mon, 16 Oct 2006, Tenzin Bob Thurman wrote:

  > This is truly shocking. And the chair abolished since the time of
  > Brough! Who makes such decisions? OIs there anything good that letters
  > from outside could accomplish? Anyone in authority who would care about
  > the disgrace of a major university in this world abandoning the study of
  > Sanskrit? RAFT

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list