Sanskrit Studies at Brown


The peoples of India have been composing texts in the Sanskrit language for 3,600 years or more. Some of the very oldest texts composed in any Indo-European language that are still available to us are the hymns of the ig Veda in Sanskrit. And Sanskrit has been used for learned compositions of all kinds from about 1500 BCE to this very day.

The development of the Sanskrit language in those three and one half millennia was amazing. Beginning as the language of some small groups of Indo-European nomads migrating into the sub-continent of India, Sanskrit developed into the main language of learning of the entire culturally diverse and prolific sub-continent of South Asia. The diversity and extent of Sanskrit compositions across this long time and this large space is staggering. Perhaps as one early by-product of that teeming diversity, Sanskrit hosted the development of the most sophisticated reflections on the nature, function, and structure of language in the pre-modern world, and some of the analysis of its premier grammarian, Pāini (ca. 350 BCE), laid the foundations for the twentieth century Euro-American science of linguistics. [1] The study of Sanskrit was also of special importance for the development of the modern science of historical linguistics, because of its close inherited affiliations with other Indo-European languages, particularly Greek. The linguistic affinities between Sanskrit and Greek, Old-Irish, Latin, and other Indo-European languages is matched in some measure by inherited cultural themes of world-view and literary artifice. [2] Though very different in many ways from the ancient cultures and literatures of Greece and Rome, Sanskrit epic literature and classical poetry provide many suggestive parallels and offer rich territories for comparative studies with the civilizations of Western antiquity, and the European Middle Ages as well. There are also interesting parallels between some of the eudaimonistic philosophies of ancient India (such as Buddhism and Yoga) and those of the Greco-Roman world (Stoicism and Epicureanism), as well as between systematic skepticism in both cultures.

Sanskrit in Classics

The program of Sanskrit Studies at Brown approaches the vast and rich body of works composed in Sanskrit in exactly the same interdisciplinary way that scholars of classical Greece and Rome approach those languages, texts, and civilizations—aiming to understand various cultural creations (literature, art, ritual, political institutions, etc.) by way of the thoughtful investigation of all relevant textual and contextual knowledge on the basis of philologically and historically rigorous readings of all relevant texts. And, as with all programs in the humanities, only selected segments of the whole field can be studied intensively. Given the current array of Sanskrit personnel at Brown, the available fields of graduate emphasis fall within the late Vedic and classical eras of Sanskrit civilization and embrace the Sanskrit epics (both the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaa) and related religious, philosophical, and religious literature (Upaniads [texts seeking important hidden connections between person and cosmos], Dharmaśāstras [texts expounding the whole system of Right Action for the whole of society and the polity], early Darśana [systematic philosophy] literature, Purāas [texts expounding the primordial nature, social, and political history of the world], and classical prose, poetry, and drama). A great deal of reading and research remains to be done in these areas of Sanskrit learning and dozens of dissertation projects are waiting. As with Classics students studying Greek or Roman civilization, knowledge of the underlying language(s) is the necessary prerequisite for reliable expertise in the study of anything to do with ancient India. Students are required to demonstrate a thorough and exact knowledge of Sanskrit and facility at reading both standard classical texts and those texts directly pertinent to their field of study. Incoming graduate students are expected to have a good knowledge of Sanskrit grammar and some reading experience prior to arriving at Brown. They must further cultivate their knowledge of the language in their first three years, passing the General Sanskrit Reading Exam no later than the end of their third year in residence. They must past a Special Sanskrit Reading Exam in their chosen area of specialization by the end of the seventh semester of residence. Both exams include reading selected texts at sight, without aid of any reference materials. In addition to taking the six 1000 level courses in Sanskrit, students will develop their knowledge of the language in reading courses and tutorial courses with the Sanskrit faculty. Though these courses are also available for undergraduate credit, graduate credit involves more extensive Sanskrit reading and, additionally, the reading of selected secondary materials introducing the genre and major scholarship on it.

In addition to this work on Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts, students will also take a pro-seminar and a series of seminars on selected themes of inquiry offered by the faculty.

[1] Leonard Bloomfield, Language.

[2] Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics.