[INDOLOGY] question for European Indologists

Kellner, Birgit kellner at asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de
Sat Jun 29 15:07:46 UTC 2013

For those interested in contemporary Sanskrit didactics and their possible improvement - if you read German, Felix Otter's "Die sieben Leben einer "toten" Sprache: Überlegungen zur Didaktik des universitären Sanskritunterrichts" may be of interest - it's available for download here: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/savifadok/2170/.

With best regards,

Birgit Kellner
Von: INDOLOGY [indology-bounces at list.indology.info] im Auftrag von Herman Tull [hermantull at gmail.com]
Gesendet: Samstag, 29. Juni 2013 15:22
An: richard gombrich; Indology
Betreff: Re: [INDOLOGY] question for European Indologists

I am indebted to the members of this list who provided what turned out to be fascinating answers (much more than I anticipated) regarding their university training in Sanskrit.  Professor Gombrich's account is, of course, the icing on the cake. His answer also provides me with an opportunity to explain why I asked the question in the first place.  For more than a year I have been working on a brief history of Sanskrit pedagogy in the West.  I began by asking "Why Nala"? Considering that Sanskrit had been taught in India for perhaps two millennia  (where it was also learned as a "second" language), it was more than a bit odd to me that we are stuck in the West in a pedagogy that goes back to the early 1800s, and is completely unrelated to traditional methods of learning Sanskrit. Another oddity is the figure of the American scholar W D Whitney, who, though living at a time when there was no tradition of teaching Sanskrit in the USA--in fact, not even any graduate education here yet--managed to produce what has become one of the most influential Sanskrit grammar books for Western students.  Whitney's book was controversial at the time (he is dismissive of the Indian grammatical tradition).  Underlying Whitney's work was what he called his "historical" approach to the language.  Of course, this approach already existed in the German academy, but Whitney's grammar (originally published in Germany), cemented the tradition in the West of studying Sanskrit as a hand-maiden to the study of Indo-European languages.  This model dominated the newly found graduate programs in the US (where Whitney's students took a pre-eminent role, among them William Rainey Harper at Chicago, Maurice Bloomfield at Hopkins, and Lanman at Harvard). Although Richard's description of the old Oxford situation has a rather different history, the resonances are not at all surprising.

Again, from informal questioning, in the USA, Goldman and Goldman is perhaps the leading primer now.  Slightly behind this is Deshpande, Aklujkar, and Maurer.  I studied Sanskrit in the 80's when the Perry-Lanman-Whitney triumvirate dominated (we also used the English translation of Gonda). Macdonell has also been popular.  For those who are unaware of this, Macdonell's grammar is an abbreviation of Max Muller's grammar.  Unlike Whitney (which it precedes), Max Muller's grammar is sensitive to the Indian grammarians. However, on this and on a number of academic matters, Whitney expressed a strong antipathy to Max Muller's work.

with regards,


On Fri, Jun 28, 2013 at 10:03 AM, richard gombrich <richardgombrich at me.com<mailto:richardgombrich at me.com>> wrote:
Thank you, Paul, and thanks too to Dominik for their accurate accounts of Sanskrit teaching at Oxford. Now that I am a Nestor of Indology I could mumble on endlessly; so let me confine myself to a few main points and an anecdote.

When I began to study Sanskrit under Thomas Burrow at Oxford in 1959, we were in a sense still in the 19th century: Sanskrit study was an offshoot of the classics. I don't think that anyone had ever taken the Sanskrit BA who had not first studied Latin and Greek for many years. The syllabus mirrored this. I have never bothered to study the detail, but I believe that the syllabus mostly went back far beyond the long reign of Burrow; indeed, its general method and structure were probably the same as when the course was instituted, in the 1880s! Not surprisingly, the "special subject" in the comparative philology of Sanskrit and Greek (and Avestan too!) was a popular choice.

When I became Boden Professor, in 1976, the big shift in clientele was well under way; increasingly, our students came from other backgrounds than the classics. Indeed, within a few years a classicist became a rarity. Later, Jim Benson steered through a reform by which one could do a "joint BA degree" combining Sanskrit and classics -- a very tough course, but it has found some takers.

My first achievement was to abolish the compulsory paper in Sanskrit composition: for 3 hours one had to translate a passage of English prose (typically Samuel Johnson or Edward Gibbon) into Sanskrit, and that without the use of a dictionary or any other work of reference. And of course I had to spend many hours training students in this bizarre skill, which meant also creating models of how I thought it could best be done. This led on to my managing to institute exams in which students were allowed to use dictionaries! I am sure this existed elsewhere in the world, but I think not at Oxford. I soon found imitators.

To accommodate the great range of students and interests for whom we now had to cater, if the subject was to survive, I had to make the syllabus far more flexible. But first of all, if the students were to survive the first few months, I had to find a way of introducing the subject in a way which did not bore everyone (myself included) rigid. At the same time, I was desperate to "Indianise" the syllabus. Perry, tightly modelled on Latin primers, had to go. My great friend Michael Coulson, who had persuaded me to study Sanskrit in the first place, had taken a post at Edinburgh and was coping with the same frustrations. He was one of the most intelligent people I have ever encountered. Luckily, he was composing his own primer (which he had to sell to the publishers for £500).

His first decision was, as early in his course as possible, to use only real Sanskrit sentences culled from texts. This also meant teaching a homogeneous form of Sanskrit.  He was interested in kaavya, particularly plays. So that is the Sanskrit he decided to teach. It also meant biting the bullet of using a large vocabulary. These two features explain why the book is not popular with teachers who are confident that the Sanskrit they write themselves is just as good as that of the original authors.

Coulson's book has another massive virtue, which so far as I know (I am not up to date) remains unparallelled. The facts of Sanskrit phonology and morphology are many, but mastering them is a largely brainless matter of rote learning, and if the primers do not teach the same facts, they must be wrong! Coulson alone, however, teaches syntax, idiom and style. In particular, his treatment of nominal compounds is masterful and invaluable. I think that there are even established scholars who would benefit from studying it. I should add that to widen students' experience we do read epic Sanskrit (Nala and Giitaa) with them almost from the outset.

Tragically, Coulson died and I had to see his book through the press. Jim Benson helped a lot with the later editions. He is a great vaiyaakara.nika. Paa.nini had long been on the Oxford syllabus; in the spirit of Coulson we increased that to a whole paper. At the end of the course, I would ask students which part of it they had enjoyed most. I would like to put on record that every year I got the same answer: the Paa.nini paper. We teach enough of the subject to allow students to master something complex and rewarding.

Finally, my anecdote. Over 20 years ago, SOAS was conducting a thorough internal review of its own departments, with one external assessor on each committee. I was asked to be the assessor for the Sanskrit department. They worked me extremely hard, making me lead off the questioning at each session. At the session on research I was told to question Dr Renate Söhnen, who had reported that her main project was translating Stenzler into English. (I wonder if she remembers this.) I politely asked her why she had chosen this project, saying, "Sanskrit, of course, does not change; but what about pedagogy?" Instead of replying, she immediately left the room; she preferred no doubt to answer by action rather than words. I am happy to learn from this correspondence that she succeeded, and SOAS has backed her.

Richard Gombrich

On 28 Jun 2013, at 11:27, Paul Gerstmayr wrote:

Richard is probably in a better position to talk about the historical changes and processes, but to flesh out some of the current details (I came up/arrived in Oxford in 2009, and finished the BA in Sanskrit last year):

- The BA in Sanskrit (with a secondary focus on Iranian languages, Pāli, Bengali, Hindi, Prakrit, Tibetan, or another language currently being offered by a member of staff) is three years. There are three terms per year (8 weeks each, starting in October). After two terms (late March), one sits three three-hour exams - "Prelims". Papers include Texts, Grammar, and General (essay). Grammar/Texts are based on Coulson (from day 1), Lanman (Nala story et c., in our year from week 3/4), and 3/4 books from the Gītā (end of first and second term). Topics for General derive from tutorials with your Sanskrit teachers and/or specialists in their respective fields who are currently at Oxford. There are also lectures and introductions, say, on General Indian History, The Study and Nature of Religions, Buddhist Studies et c.

- The second part of the degree (Final Honours School, 7 terms) is based on 9 three-hour papers/examinations at the end of the 9th term/3rd year. 7 in Sanskrit, 2 in your subsidiary language/tradition. The Sanskrit ones are: Unprepared Translation, Essay Questions on the History of Classical Indian Civilisation, Indian Linguistics, Historical Philology of Old Indo-Aryan, Chosen Area Unprepared Translation, Chosen Area Essays, Special Subject (or BA dissertation).

Again, the pool of essay questions is influenced by tutorials, lectures/seminars, and readings during the BA. The idea is to get a good cross-section of different traditions, genres, and themes.

For your subsidiary language/tradition, there are: X Texts and Questions on X Language and Literature.

Only two papers (Linguistics, i.e. mainly Pāṇini; and Old-Indo Aryan) are set texts = more or less based on a fixed syllabus.

Regarding Chosen Area and Special Subject, these can be, as far as I know, fairly flexible and tailored to the student's interests and available expertise (as outlined by Dominik). My fellow Sanskritist chose Buddhist Philosophy and Āyurveda, I opted for Epic Sanskrit, History of Śaivism, and Apabhraṃśa.

In addition, people are encouraged to attend Richard's Pāli Summer School or Sadānanda's Spoken Sanskrit Course.

- The same criteria apply, to a certain extent, to the Sanskritic master's degrees (MSt in Oriental Studies, MPhil in Classical Indian Religion). The 2-year MPhil for example does have a core syllabus of set texts, but one can choose between some of the major traditions, e.g. General Brahmanical, Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Bauddha, and so forth. In the one-year MSt, one can read/work on pretty much everything, assuming there is someone who can guide/supervise you. This year, we had people working on paribhāṣa-sūtras/the Ṛg-veda, History of Śaivism/Aiśa Sanskrit, and Brahmanical/Śaiva topics, but there were also readings in Bauddha, Buddhist Chinese (with Sanskrit/Tibetan comparison), and Bauddha Tantra texts.

Hope that helps.

Best wishes,

On 28 June 2013 08:58, Dominik Wujastyk <wujastyk at gmail.com<mailto:wujastyk at gmail.com>> wrote:
There was a big change in Sanskrit pedagogy in the 70s.  Thomas Burrow had taught Sanskrit from the same syllabus for for 32 years.  By "syllabus," I mean the printed, published Oxford schools syllabus that gave the editions and even page numbers of what the student would do in each term of each of the three years of the BA.    You could look a head and say to yourself, "ah, in October next year, I'll be reading page three of the Mudraraksasa."

When Richard Gombrich became lecturer in Sanskrit, and responsible for the lion's share of u/g teaching, he stopped the use of Perry at Oxford.  He hated that book with a passion.  When I arrived in '74, Richard had already introduced Coulson, though it was only in photocopied typewritten sheets at that time.  (But the same was true of Mr Gray's famous Sanskrit course book at SOAS.  It was never published, so I don't know what this<http://books.google.at/books/about/First_year_Sanskrit_course.html?id=bz7DQwAACAAJ> is.)

When Richard became professor, he began the bureaucratic Oxford process of changing the syllabus.  He said that if he had to teach the same pages of the same books for the rest of his life, as Burrow had done, he would go mad.  His idea was to make the u/g as śāstrika as possible, to make it more similar to a traditional pundit's education, but while still keeping it in the general mould of a European university course.  Also, because no one Sanskritist can master all the śāstras, he wanted the flexibility to be able to have guest teachers, people like David Pingree, who could give a course out of their special knowledge that would still count towards the undergraduate course credit.

Richard got the changes through committee, and the new u/g course was born (after my time).  I'll leave it to others to describe it in detail if they wish, but it contained fixed core components such as readings from Panini, and the Asokan inscriptions, plus other components that were decided year-by-year according to who was in town or what Richard, Bimal, Alexis, Margaret Cone or others wanted to read.

Richard, any comments, corrections?


Dear All,

On a related note, I would be interested to know to what extent traditional Sanskrit grammars have been/are being taught at various universities - this would include the use of Sanskrit terminology to the citation and discussion of sutras. I know Oxford has a regular course on Panini as part of the Sanskrit BA and that Professor Ingalls used to teach a course on Panini at Harvard with some regularity. I'm also familiar with Goldmans' use of Sanskrit terminology. Additional information would be of great interest.

Many Thanks,

Victor D'Avella

PhD Candidate
University of Chicago

INDOLOGY mailing list
INDOLOGY at list.indology.info<mailto:INDOLOGY at list.indology.info>

Paul Gerstmayr
Oriental Studies - Tantric Sanskrit
Balliol College, Oxford
Clarendon - Boden/Sanskrit - Santander Graduate
INDOLOGY mailing list
INDOLOGY at list.indology.info<mailto:INDOLOGY at list.indology.info>

INDOLOGY mailing list
INDOLOGY at list.indology.info<mailto:INDOLOGY at list.indology.info>

Herman Tull
Princeton, NJ

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list