Making the Argument for Sanskrit

Herman Tull HWTULL at MSN.COM
Wed Jan 3 20:08:09 UTC 2007

I agree wholeheartedly with Patrick. From an institutional standpoint, I've always thought it important to stress that the study of India (and this certainly applies to the study of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts) is hardly a "completed" field.  It is my understanding that thousands of manuscripts remain unedited and untranslated, and many that have been translated are provisional or partial; indeed, the RV, arguably the oldest  living textual tradition falls into this latter category (at least for the English-speaking world). Additionally, administrators need to know that Sanskritists in western institutions are trained far too late; whereas students of classical languages begin their training as high school students--or at the latest as undergraduates--Sanskrit students invariably begin their studies in graduate school.  I've been associated with a number of American academic institutions over the years, and I have never found a lack of undergraduate interest in classical Indian studies (though I have consistently seen a lack of institutional support).

Now, despite Patrick's excellent advice, I cannot resist suggesting what I consider unique about the study of Sanskrit.  Sanskrit's perfected structure introduces humanities students to a rigorous way of thinking that simply does not exist in other parts of the humanities curriculum (at best, it is approximated in studying other languages).  The closest concept is that of the algorithm, the step-by-step procedures used by mathematicians to solve problems.  For first-year Sanskrit students, at least, "learning" Sanskrit is really a matter of learning sets of rules, and gaining the necessary mental sophistication to understand how and when to apply those rules.  In my experience, math, physics, and computer science students always seem to move more quickly than students from other disciplines in first-year Sanskrit--I think because they are already trained to think algorithmically.  So, I would say that studying Sanskrit really does offer something unique for humanities students in the realm of high-level mental training and discipline.

Herman Tull

----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Patrick Olivelle<mailto:jpo at UTS.CC.UTEXAS.EDU> 
  To: INDOLOGY at<mailto:INDOLOGY at> 
  Sent: Wednesday, January 03, 2007 10:49 AM
  Subject: Re: Making the Argument for Sanskrit

  I want to agree with Lars about the importance of integrating 
  Sanskrit and Classical India studies into the broader institutional 
  commitment to the study about South Asia. This is how we have built a 
  strong program at the University of Texas at Austin. The other kinds 
  of arguments for the importance of Sanskrit is what is called here 
  "inside baseball"; it is preaching to the choir -- it will convince 
  all of us, but not the institutional leaders who count. The question 
  then is how to present Sanskrit studies as an essential and central 
  part of the study about South Asia. This is not a difficult thing to 
  do; and many suggestions have already been made. But infighting among 
  South Asianists could be the greatest danger; and there are many 
  examples of this in American institutions. When scholars of 
  contemporary South Asia denigrate classical studies, or vice versa, 
  we have a real problem. This is what eliminated Sanskrit from the 
  University of Toronto many decades ago; and it has debilitated many 
  other fine programs.

  But making Sanskrit a stand-alone area of importance will be a losing 
  argument. It may feel good, but it will not produce results.

  And the blending of undergraduate education in South Asia into our 
  programs is another essential component; many programs have suffered 
  because of an exclusive focus on graduate education. We have to make 
  the teaching about South Asia, not only to students who focus on the 
  regions (majors in the American system) but also to the general 
  student body, a significant part of the institutions undergraduate 
  educational program. It difficult for the administration to ignore a 
  department when it teaches over 2000 students each semester, as our 


  Patrick Olivelle

  At 11:22 AM +0100 1/3/07, Lars Martin Fosse wrote:
  >Some years ago, I and a few other people took the initiative to creating a
  >Nordic Institute in India. In connection with that, we developed a
  >comprehensive argument for the importance of Indic studies in general. In my
  >opinion, the importance of Sanskrit has to be argued within such a
  >In our justification, we stressed
  >1. The economic importance of South Asia
  >2. The geopolitical importance of South Asia
  > Here, among other things, we discussed South Asia in the global
  >context and regional conflict as a global concern.
  >3. The cultural importance of South Asia.
  > The last point discussed South Asia as a cradle of cultures and
  >South Asia as a linguistic laboratory.
  >Sanskrit and Sanskritic culture is the key to understanding Hinduism, but
  >also to a comprehensive understanding of Buddhism and Jainism. Understanding
  >Sanskrit and the cultural patterns and conflicts that are rooted in
  >Sanskritic culture is of the utmost importance for any in-depth
  >understanding of India and Hinduism in general. We cannot afford to ignore
  >it. In a broader political perspective, knowledge of Sanskrit therefore has
  >instrumental value.
  >I am afraid that aesthetic arguments are not likely to win any battles. The
  >narrow-minded politicians and bureaucrats that define university policies
  >today deep down think in terms of instrumentality and mass production of
  >students (that, at least, is the case in Norway). Indologists need to get
  >out of their ivory towers, they need to participate in public debates and
  >show that Sanskritic studies have a practical aspect. Public debates on
  >India and South Asia should not be left to social anthropologists and
  >sociologists alone.
  >Lars Martin Fosse
  >(Incidentally, the Nordic Institute was realized and today is an integral
  >part of the study of South Asia in Scandinavia).
  > Lars Martin Fosse
  >Haugerudvn. 76, Leil. 114,
  >0674 Oslo - Norway
  >Phone: +47 22 32 12 19 Fax:  +47 850 21 250
  >Mobile phone: +47 90 91 91 45
  >E-mail: lmfosse at<mailto:lmfosse at>

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