The Muktabodha Indological Research Institute sponsors Western graduate
students to study in India under the guidance of internationally recognized
senior scholars. The experience is invaluable, for they are given
the opportunity to study the great theological and philosophical texts
of India in a traditional Indian educational setting. This is one
of the most effective ways to learn about Indian religious thought
In such a context, a pandita (an advanced and learned
teacher) works closely on a daily basis with just a few particularly
dedicated and disciplined students. In the following journal entry
by one such student, John Nemec, we get the sense of the vitality,
intensity, and commitment with which a scholar affiliated with the
Muktabodha Indological Research Institute guides his charges, and
the amount of appreciation and respect the younger students feel for
I arrived in India with Jeff Lidke and Marcy Braverman for a six month
research and study program with Dr. B. N. Pandit, the esteemed scholar
of Kashmir Shaivism. I had already completed two years of Sanskrit,
and Jeff and Marcy each had been working on Sanskrit a year or two
longer than I. We were apparently ready for the likes of Utpaladeva's
Isvarapratyabhijnakarika, with Panditji's translation and commentary.
Yet some weeks into our study, a confusing debate arose between Jeff,
Marcy, myself, and Dr. Pandit.
The debate was always brief, somewhat repetitive, and always with
laughter, a little perplexity, and generally good feeling -- but with
a difference of opinion. Sometimes immediately before or immediately
following our morning lesson, sometimes over a mid-morning cup of
chai or after one of our lunchtime question and answer sessions concerning
Indian politics, Panditji would say to us, "But you do not yet know
Sanskrit." It was a simple thing to say, though somewhat humbling.
We objected, each in our own way, and, despite the fact we "didn't
know Sanskrit," the lessons continued. In the course of a few months,
we read across a spectrum of Indian Darshana texts and worked on Utpaladeva's
aforementioned philosophical justification for Kashmiri Shaivite theology.
When Panditji took a ten day sabbatical, we had the further opportunity
to read Sanskrit with Dr. Sen Sharma, a Calcuttan scholar who recently
retired from his Department Chairmanship at Kuruksetra University
and subsequently joined Muktabodha's faculty in India. He taught us
Vedanta (Vedantasara) and the Sadtrinsattattvasandoha, a Shaivaite
enumeration of the thirty-six tattvas.
All of these texts were in Sanskrit, some of them quite difficult
-- surely we knew the language relatively well! Even after additional
weeks of lessons, Panditji was still telling us, "You don't know Sanskrit!"
On a long walk near Lodi Gardens in South Delhi, about a month and
a half into our stay, I realized what he meant. A subsequent diary
entry under the headline, "A Theory on Why I Don't Know Sanskrit,"
reads as follows:
I can translate anything, given the opportunity to look up words.
I think that this (combined with a sophisticated conception of grammar)
constitutes "knowing" Sanskrit. Panditji, who is in the habit of writing
letters to friends in Shloka metre, cannot imagine not speaking as
well as reading the language. He composes in Sanskrit. Those who do
not read and write in the language simply do not know Sanskrit. He
thinks knowing Sanskrit is the same as knowing a living language.
I behave as if "knowing Sanskrit" means having the ability to translate
with a dictionary. I treat it like a dead language; he does not.
Thomas Coulson, the Scottish Sanskritist and author of Teach Yourself
Sanskrit (itself a daunting task), has suggested that Sanskrit is
not at all a "dead" language: pandits and religious figures continue
to compose in the language; Sanskrit mantras are recited in virtually
every type of religious ceremony in India, including weddings, funerals,
and ancestor rites, and rites relating to birthing and raising a child.
Sanskrit has even found its way into pop culture, both in India and
Unlike Latin, that other "dead" language, we know with relative certainty
how the language must have sounded centuries ago, as pronunciation
has been preserved absolutely meticulously. This is because in Indian
religions the sound of Sanskrit, properly pronounced, is powerful,
and useful. Sanskrit, according to Coulson, is not a dead language;
rather, it is an acquired language: one must learn it. And while few
master it, many people use it. Though Sanskrit does not survive as
the mother tongue for any particular group of people (if it ever was
such a language), it is a language that continues to change and grow.
Much new material is composed in the context of the guru-disciple
relationship -- a teacher writing a text, the student a commentary.
Via our little debate with Dr. Pandit, I came to understand the difference
between studying Sanskrit with a pandit and studying Sanskrit with
a western-style teacher. It is not a matter of fluency or talent,
for many in the West have perfected Sanskrit; nor is it a matter of
passion or admiration for the language or the culture and religions
for which it is the key -- many in India and the West are religious
about their language studies, as they often work with materials that
pertain to their personal religious beliefs and traditions.
The difference between the scholar and the pandit is, simply, that
the pandit inherits a tradition from his or her teacher, and continues
that tradition with further works, commentaries, and so forth, while
a western scholar does not. Panditji did eventually retract his little
statement -- we began to be people who did know Sanskrit -- but not
before it became clear to us that he considered us his students. What
we do with his teaching remains to be seen, though we have all carried
with us so much from those six months in Delhi. Regardless, one thing
remains certain: whatever the motives of the Sanskrit student -- exegesis,
translation, or carrying the life of a tradition through another generation
-- one thing remains certain about the language: it is beautiful and
complex, and it must be learned.
John Nemec has a Master of Arts degree in Religious Studies from the
University of California at Santa Barbara and a Master of Philosophy
degree in Classical Indian Religions from Oxford University. He is
currently a Ph.D. candidate in Religion at the University of Pennsylvania.