Making the Argument for Sanskrit

Lars Martin Fosse lmfosse at CHELLO.NO
Wed Jan 3 20:40:50 UTC 2007

Herman Tull wrote:

> 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).  

I have heard a similar argument made in favour of Latin. In fact, the same
argument can be made for such languages as Finnish, Hungarian and Turkish,
just to mention a few. All these languages enforce a rigorous way of
thinking, indeed both Finnish and Hungarian do so better than Sanskrit,
which both Finnish and Hungarian outshine in terms of "perfection". If you
are thinking of cultural content associated with Sanskrit, its main
attraction is its profound "otherness", not its logical structure. Seen from
a Western point of view, Sanskritic culture is the greatest and most
fascinating "alternative" intellectual laboratory we can imagine. Thus, the
study of Sanskrit contributes to our own self-understanding just as well as
to our understanding of India, and indeed to the understanding of mankind.
However, such philosophical values are of little consequence to the
hard-nosed people who run our universities these days. They are out there
like hungry dogs threatening to kill us, and we have to throw them a bone or
two, otherwise we will not be able to pursue the really interesting
questions we love so much. 

Lars Martin Fosse

From: 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


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Indology [mailto:INDOLOGY at] On Behalf Of 
> Herman Tull
> Sent: Wednesday, January 03, 2007 9:08 PM
> Subject: Re: Making the Argument for Sanskrit
> 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
> Non-affiliated
> ----- 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
>   does.
>   Best,
>   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
>   >framework.
>   >
>   >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).
>   >
>   >
>   >From:
>   > 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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