Tuesday, May 3, 2016

For the Love of Sanskrit

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:


  1. Very interesting.... I've heard the word and knew a little about what Sanskrit meant but you've made it much more clear.
    Good luck and God's blessings.

  2. Thanks, Pam. I didn't talk very much about the language, mostly about how I feel about it, but I'm glad if I helped you understand it better. Thanks for commenting.

  3. I'm very impressed that you learned about and have this knowledge of Sanskrit. A very interesting article.

  4. Thanks, Jacquie. Maybe I should start using it in my fiction. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I would love to hear the language spoken, Susan. Maybe when I'm in Gloucester this summer, I could persuade you over a cup of coffee or lobster roll at Charley's to say a snatch of a poem?

    1. I'll plan on it. Whoever gets asked to recite Sanskrit? I still recall a few verses I can share.

  6. Can I come to that coffee date? As long as I've known you, Susan, I've never asked to hear Sanskrit and I'd love to. As a linguist, of course, I knew about Sanskrit long ago and its place in the map of Indo-European languages, but I didn't know about its perfection. Thanks for this delightful post! (I admit to being one of the people who tacks on "And she has a PhD in Sanskrit" when I introduce or mention you. It's very impressive.)

    1. But Edith, you learned Japanese! Everything about Sanskrit is beautiful (to those of us who study it).

      Yes, come to Gloucester for my once a decade recitation. I rarely get to see my writer friends without a podium or microphone in the way.

  7. Susan, you must put this love you have into your fiction! When I retired from my formal position, I started writing and fell back to my strong interest in Chinese culture and history. It has been a real joy to write fiction set in the Ming Dynasty--a period I find truly fascinating, as well. So, I strongly encourage you to let your love of Sanskrit fill your stories!

  8. Thank you, Pam. I set a mystery series in modern India, which allows me to explore my love of the country and its people and traditions. But I like the idea of somehow getting Sanskrit into the mix. Something to think about. I'll look for your stories as well. Thanks for commenting.

  9. It was Nice to hear someone from a foreign land far from india had taken much effort to learn a language which was in the verge of extinct..
    Even Indian people don't take much efforts to read their own mother language
    So hats off .,
    And as a student ,its been 5 years I started learning Sanskrit.. As you said , the language is so perfect and for everyone's notice this is the only language known which has no unethical words (bad words.. I mean)! Though we may not use this language often to communicate with others ..its language that teaches you human virtues and self control. I even heard from my grandma that the old Sanskrit peots and scholars wrote a book on building airplanes (vimanas..which is depicted in most of the literature) and also about atoms and molecules before 5000 yrs ago. If we had started to flow them in the field of science we could have been far ahead in technology from what we are now!

    I felt very happy to see your blog and also interest.. Not mere interest but your passion to learn Sanskrit ! I hope everybody takes intrest to learn it
    Cuz sanskrit helps you to enjoy reading.

    1. Thank you for this generous comment. Yes, there are many benefits to studying Sanskrit, but knowing the language and being able to read the literature is enough for many of us. Congratulations on your studies. I hope they continue to be rewarding.