Which Sanskrit should we study and teach?

Should we study and teach Classical Sanskrit through examples from Classical literature only? Should we rather focus on Spoken Sanskrit? Are contemporary texts admissible?

I was surprised to read that Jan Houben seems to know the answer. In fact, in the Indology.info mailing list he praises Nalini Balbir’s new teaching method of Sanskrit (Le Sanskrit) in the following way:

It can be predicted that Balbir’s Le Sanskrit and its English version that is under preparation will indeed be a turning point because the natural demand of students will be, every year again, to learn the complete thing even if the preference of older generations of teachers will remain for some time with the outdated, very incomplete and inadequate grammars and teaching manuals […] to which they have become so emotionally attached. The older generations of teachers, hoping in vain that what they learned and taught was indeed “all” ever needed to learn of Sanskrit, might for a few more years succeed to mold new generations of students into the shackles of their old grammars and inadequate methods, but sooner or later the demand of students and interested public will become too strong to be neglected. Just as the fun of learning maths is in doing it, the fun of learning Sanskrit is in using it – also – for expression and communication. (my emphasis)

I have not read Nalini Balbir’s manual yet and, thus, her book is not under discussion here. Personally, I like Ashok Aklujkar‘s method and I would say that it already satisfies most (if not all) the requirements indicated by Houben, since it includes audio-samples of Sanskrit, contemporary texts written by Aklujkar as well as Classical texts, and drills for producing Sanskrit sentences.

Anyway, this is not my point here.

What I would like to discuss is rather the assumption that “the fun of learning Sanskrit is in using it”. When I started teaching Sanskrit, I had already been in an advanced  Sanskrit Conversation class (with Sadananda Das) and therefore I introduced an hour per week of spoken Sanskrit. My experience with that: Some students loved it, others did not. You know why?
BECAUSE WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT. Some come to Sanskrit because they studied historical linguistics, others because they are interested in Yoga. Some are aural types and remember very well what they have heard, others are visual type and rather remember what they have seen, and so on.

There is not a single, ideal type of student. Nor there is a single, ideal type of teaching method. Antiquarian-interested students have also the right to learn Sanskrit, haven’t they? Nalini Balbir’s teaching method might be excellent, but why should everyone just comply to its approach?

Can’t one just praise it without assuming that no other method is worthy of surviving?

(Should you say that it is the genre of praise which demands exaggeration, I beg to disagree. To deal with texts by rational human beings we need to assume that they mean what they say.)

Can’t one have fun in reconstructing the thought of Sanskrit philosophers?

Isn’t Sanskrit a huge forest in which different people can find different fruits?

On my thoughts on spoken Sanskrit, you can read this post and this one. For my thoughts on the didactic of Sanskrit, read this post.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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3 thoughts on “Which Sanskrit should we study and teach?

  1. there’s another unstated assumption: that this kind of pedagogy is effective regardless of what kind of sanskrit you actually want to read (or speak). i think that might be true. your assumption, elisa, seems to be that students who are interested in sanskrit for “antiquarian” reasons (i.e., about 95% of sanskrit students) should be taught with “antiquarian” methods—learning from european-style grammars. i think that it’s best to offer a variety of methods for a variety of learners, as you say. i don’t think the original poster was making any judgments about which kind of sanskrit was worth learning, but pointing out that sanskrit remains a pedagogical backwater, with a reputation for being obscure and difficult, and NB’s new book might help to change that.

    also, we might think of learning sanskrit as like learning hittite or sumerian—very difficult, but you can basically approach it how you want to, because there is not (anymore) a speech-community with its own norms and standards. but that’s not true. if you want to really engage productively with the tradition, including the tradition’s modern representatives, you should be able to understand spoken sanskrit and speak a fair amount as well. and that’s something that the old-style grammars DON’T prepare you for, in part because of the disdain that whitney had for the tradition.

    • Andrew, I did not mean to say that students interested in Sanskrit because of antiquarian reasons should be taught with european-style grammars. In fact, I was rather trying to say that students are different and have different approaches and skills and that it does not make sense to train X with the same method which worked for Y. A student interested in Sanskrit for antiquarian reasons might, e.g., still be an aural type and be more able to remember what she has heard rather than read.

    • Andrew, I am sorry for answering just now, an earlier reply went lost but I did not realise it until today.
      I did not mean to say that students interested in Sanskrit for antiquarian reasons should be taught with the methods of Latin grammars. I rather meant that aural/visual/active… types should be taken the corresponding tools. If you are a visual type, listening to contemporary Sanskrit sentences will not help much, whether seeing written Sanskrit will do and so on. In short: I do not think that the style of Latin grammars is the supreme one (even for students interested in Sanskrit for antiquary reasons), but I am also convinced that there is no “one method fits all”. I enjoyed my spoken Sanskrit classes and they helped me, not just with contemporary Indians, but also while engaging with a classical text —as if I could better sense the dialogue hidden beyond it. But I would not think that this has to be like that. Similarly, one might choose to engage with the living tradition (and I personally benefit a lot from it), or one might prefer a different approach.
      NB’s book is probably more than excellent, I look forward for reading it and I am happy that there is one more tool available. I just DON’T think that it will be the “ultimate” solution and that we can throw away all other textbooks.