Sanskrit at Oxford
Posted on: 24/2/2021

The challenge of Sanskrit

As my time at school drew to a close, I was unsure whether to study French and Spanish or Sanskrit, at university. After much deliberation, I eventually concluded that it was learning Sanskrit at the age of eight which stimulated my love of languages.

Although I enjoyed studying French and Spanish, they did not challenge me on the linguistic and philosophical level that Sanskrit did, with its unique capacity to balance a scientific grammatical structure with beautiful poetry.

I love the fact that in Sanskrit, there is no singular, clear-cut way to express a sentence, making it the ultimate language for composing poetry in complex metrical patterns. In this regard, I find translating Sanskrit texts an incredibly intellectually stimulating exercise that has provided me with extensive analytical skills.

A huge variety of texts

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Sanskrit at Oxford, largely owing to the huge variety of texts that I was able to study. These ranged from the poetic theory laid out in the Kāvyadarśa and Patañjali’s treatise on grammar and linguistics (Mahābhāṣya), to the renowned Meghadūta poem and the ancient verses of the Ṛgveda.

The significant proportion of unseen translation passages in the final examinations (and total lack of ‘seen’ passages), encourages the student to read texts of diverse genres throughout the degree, rather than merely learn passages by rote without analysing their significance.

Opportunities to contribute

The Sanskrit BA is a flexible degree that can be tailored to your personal interests, with the tutors welcoming suggestions of texts to read in class. I was also given complete independence with regards to my dissertation, which involved translating and analysing a previously untranslated manuscript of a Nepalese drama, the Pāṇḍava Vijaya Nāṭaka.

This project highlighted to me the vast array of Sanskrit manuscripts that remain untouched, and therefore the endless possibilities to contribute to the Sanskrit corpus.

Linguistic and philosophical comparisons…

I also thoroughly enjoyed learning a subsidiary language in my second and third years. Studying Pāli allowed me to draw a comparison between Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, as well as analyse the linguistic differences between Sanskrit and the holy language of the Pāli Canon.

Lively debate:

The varied backgrounds of students, with degrees in philosophy, classics and linguistics, encourages diversity of thought and lively classroom debate. While my personal fascination for Sanskrit is rooted in language learning and linguistics, many of my peers particularly value the language as a gateway to philosophical discussions, religious teachings or poetic treatises.

In this way, I believe that learning Sanskrit can be an incredibly enriching activity for people of all ages and interests. The challenging practice of language learning teaches the restorative powers of patience and self-discipline which are increasingly vital in our turbulent world.

Millie – St James Alumna

From the Meghadūta (II.46)

मामकाशप्रणिहितभुजं निर्दयाश्लेषहेतोर्लब्धायास्ते कथमपि मया स्वप्नसंदर्शनेषु । 
पश्यन्तीनां न खलु बहुशो न स्थलीदेवतानां मुक्तास्धूलास्तरुकिसलयेष्वश्रुलेशाः पतन्ति ॥

’Teardrops as big as pearls, do, indeed, fall in abundance onto the shoots of trees [from the eyes] of the local deities, as they see me stretching out my arms in space in order to passionately embrace you, which somehow came to me in the visions of my dreams.’


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