Why Teach or Study Sanskrit?

John C. Huntington huntington.2 at OSU.EDU
Thu Jan 4 17:59:12 UTC 2007

Sorry for cross posting

I cannot believe, that I am writing this after all the discussion  
that has taken place on the net.  I am neither a "Sanskritist" nor a  
"Linguist"— Just an cranky, old, art historian who has specialized in  
Buddhist Art for nearly 45 years.

As "humanists" we study those essential activities that define our  
humanity. Regardless of whether it is our inborn nature to kill each  
other, make self-realizing and defining art, interact socially, or  
discuss human goals and ideals,, we are ever so slightly different  
than other members of the animal kingdom in many respects. Language  
has long facilitated speculation about human potential. Undoubtedly  
the rich Burials  of the paleolithic era were brought about through  
the speculation about the nature of death and the potential of an  
after life. By the time recorded (regardless of whether it is written  
or remembered) language enters the world arena the entire panoply of  
religious and philosophical speculations are extant. Chinese, Greek,  
Latin, and Sanskrit carry within their gleaming traditions, the  
fundamental underlying ideas of humanity at the highest level.  
Speculation on what the human mass and what the individual human can  
and or should become are explicated by some of the most profound  
thinkers the world has ever known. Whether we speak of Confucius,  
Plato, or Shakyamuni we speak of persons who altered their world and  
changed the shape of humanity.

Sanskrit, with its surviving thousands of texts contains a totality  
of positivity regarding the human condition and the potential of  
achievement in the human state of existence. One cannot be an  
"educated humanist" without a knowledge of one or more of these key  
languages. By that I do not mean fluency but an understanding of the  
content of the language's literature and to attain that, the would  
community needs the scholars of the language who must have the  
appropriate fluency to read and interpret the content into modern  

No one questions the need for Chinese, Greek, or Latin in academia.  
What kind of preposterous Euro-American centrism suggests that the  
Sanskritic base of knowledge is not worth knowing? I truly shudder at  
the parochialism of such a view. The South Asian Indic community is  
undergoing a vast diaspora at this very moment. When I first moved to  
Columbus Ohio to join the university faculty there was virtually no  
Indic community present. Today the Indic community number  
approximately 5000 and is rapidly growing! The same is true around  
the world. What a slap in the face of our neighbors and colleagues!

Knowing the traditions of our collective "fathers" demands that we  
study the philosophical and religious speculations of our ancestors  
so that we can understand their hopes and aspirations for humanity  
itself. Indeed that historical consciousness and collective awareness  
of the human past is one of the defining features of being human.

And, for a fifth of the world's population, Sanskrit is fundamental  
to that understanding. If plato is required reading , then Nagarjuna  
should be also!


John C. Huntington, Professor
(Buddhist Art and Methodologies)
Department of the History of Art
The Ohio State University
Columbus, OH, U.S.A.

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