Everyone occasionally experiences a jarring encounter with the unexpected. We enter a cafe to pick up a quick lunch and find ourselves standing in line behind an old high school classmate. We open a magazine in the waiting room at the dentist’s office and look down at a two-page spread about a book written by another former classmate, and this book is about married women having love affairs. Two worlds collide, and we are momentarily shaken.
Earlier this week I ran through the various emails announcing blog postings and was startled by see the word bahuvrihi in the title of a post on writing. The term refers to a class of compounds, possessives, in Sanskrit. I knew what it meant the second I saw it, but what was it doing at the heading of a post on writing English?
I began graduate school in Indian studies in the late 1960s, and back then most people didn’t even know the word Sanskrit, let alone any of its grammatical terms. The field was considered not only esoteric but also bizarre. On my first trip to India, at the very end of 1975, I stood behind an American chemist in the customs line. We shared our stories. She was on vacation, and I was taking up research in Sanskrit. “What good is that?” she said bluntly. Outside of India the reactions didn’t get any better as the years passed.
As more Western students became interested in the exotic world of India, classes in Indian studies began to grow. When the University of Pennsylvania required that all students take courses outside their preferred areas, in order to broaden their understanding of the world, even more students signed up for Indian art, civilization, and Sanskrit. Surprisingly, some students were shocked to discover they’d signed up for a language. For many, studying Sanskrit was their first brush with grammar—in any language.
Over the years I’ve grown used to the unvarnished reactions from friends and strangers when they first learn I have a PhD in Sanskrit. It’s one way to bring a dinner party to absolute silence, and it’s a surefire way to uncover prejudices in otherwise seemingly broadminded souls. One friend loves introducing me as her friend who . . . I don’t know why she loves to do that, but she does.
For those who are intimidated by the mere idea of studying Sanskrit, I can only say I know how you feel. My fellow Sanskrit students and I once admitted to an unnerving terror of the idea of studying Chinese. We couldn’t imagine how anyone succeeded.
It has been years since I did any serious work in Sanskrit, but once in a while I pull out a book and read a few verses or look up something technical that I want to understand, for my own satisfaction. I carry a torch for this language the way some people . . . you get the idea.
I left the field for practical reasons, but the love of the language remains. The study of Sanskrit was one way for me to explore my love of India, and I now have other ways, but my feelings for the language will never die.
The Sanskrit language is as near to perfection as a language can be, and I say this from my perspective as well as from that of others who have studied Latin, Greek, Farsi, Old Persian, Avestan, and then Sanskrit. “Perfect” in this context means the structure and forms have not been lost or fragmented, and the range of expression lives on. (Eat your heart out, you Avestans.)
If discovering the analysis of Sanskrit grammar helps writers in English develop a greater command and understanding of language, I’m all for it. I’ve waited over forty years for a good comeback to the chemist’s remark, and now I have it. But I also hope people will discover that Sanskrit has much more to offer than a detailed analysis of grammar.
And the article that started me on this post, is here: