The Sanskrit Language Program


Language Coordinator: Guy Leavitt

Sanskrit is the traditional language of learning in South Asia and so a great deal of South Asias rich heritage is expressed in it. For more than two millennia some of the greatest literary, religious, and philosophical traditions in world history were composed in Sanskrit. It is the language of the great Indian epics, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaa. It is the language of Pānini and his tradition—the greatest linguists in premodernity and a key inspiration for modern linguistics. It is the language of many of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, going back to the Ṛg-veda in roughly 1500 BCE. It is the language of philosophical traditions such as Yoga, Vedānta, and Buddhist logic, all of which have gone on to play remarkable roles in world history. It is the language in which a world-class literature was composed by Kālidāsa (the Shakespeare of the East), Bāna, and other poetic luminaries. Every art and science, from drama and poetics to mathematics and astronomy, found expression in Sanskrit, and this textual output was remarkable for both its depth and its breadth, with extant Sanskrit manuscripts running into the millions. A knowledge of Sanskrit has thus become essential to anyone interested in a serious engagement with the long and rich intellectual, cultural, religious and linguistic histories of South Asia. The Sanskrit curriculum at Columbia University makes such texts and traditions directly accessible to students from a wide array of disciplines. Students begin reading primary texts in their first year and, over the course of the program, develop the necessary fluency to read widely across genres and to undertake research in the language.

Objectives of the Program
Sanskrit Faculty
Related Faculty


The department offers Sanskrit classes at three levels: Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced. See Objectives of the Program below for details. Each level is a two-semester course (fall/spring). The Elementary course has no prerequisites, and is designed to accommodate undergraduates as well as graduate students. While its focus is reading comprehension, other language skills such as listening comprehension and speaking are emphasized to the extent that they aid facility with the languages grammar. Weekly narratives introduce essential cultural knowledge, which is augmented by close reading of a primary text (usually Epic) at the end of the second semester. Students with prior experience in the language may bypass the Elementary course with a placement test. See the FAQ for more information; for all other questions, contact the Language Coordinator. The first year of study may be profitably supplemented by intensive summer study of a Sanskrit reader, such as the excellent Rmopkhyna of Peter Scharf or the traditional Sanskrit Reader of Charles Lanman.

The Intermediate and Advanced levels introduce students to a variety of textual genres; cultivate an array of powerful analytical techniques native to the Sanskrit grammatical and literary traditions; and allow students to begin to make traditional sense of texts, from the inside-out. In this way students can begin to engage the larger context in which a text was produced and receivedits intertexts and commentariesand to interpret a texts historical and cultural dimensions no less than the text itself.

The Intermediate course consists of two semesters (fall / spring), which differ in content and aim. The fall semester explores Sanskrit Epic and its genre-conventions, but is sometimes prefaced by a survey of simple narrative in prose or verse, such as the Hitopadea. At the same time, students review and consolidate the grammar introduced in Elementary Sanskrit as well as acquire a working command of compound and derivational analysis. The spring semester consists of an introduction to one or two other genres, such as drama or the philosophical treatise. In general, select passages of commentary are also introduced, calling into play the grammar and analytical skills developed in the first semester. Sanskrit prosody is also introduced at some length, giving students the opportunity to master several of the most common meters. This course may be profitably supplemented with an intensive summer Sanskrit program in Pune, India (AIIS Sanskrit Language Program).

The Advanced course presumes and reinforces the kind of grammatical and textual analysis developed in Intermediate. The goal is both to gain an appreciation of select texts in accordance with their traditions self-understanding and to engage the problems they raise for contemporary scholarship. The Advanced course is conceived of as a two-part course spanning two years of instruction: with one year dedicated to systematic thought and another to poetry and poetics. Additional courses, including Introduction to Pini and Introduction to the Literary Prakrits, are also available periodically.

I (Fall) II (Spring)
Advanced Sanskrit (year 1) Philosophical Texts 1 Philosophical Texts 2
Advanced Sanskrit (year 2) Literature Literary Theory

The Sanskrit curriculum therefore comprises four years of instruction (which are required for graduate students concentrating in Sanskrit). As the readings for Advanced Sanskrit regularly change, students may continue to take this course for credit for as many years as desired. Final examinations are required of all students in the first year of Advanced Sanskrit. In the second year, students are required to prepare a research project in lieu of the examination. This may be a research paper, a book or articles review, a bibliographical study, a translation, or whatever will advance the students research capabilities.

Objectives of the Program

Elementary Sanskrit I (fall), MDES UN1401, and II (spring) MDES UN1402

  • learn to read and write the Devangar script
  • develop basic listening comprehension, via in-class story-telling
  • develop basic reading comprehension, via exercise and story translation
  • obtain a working vocabulary of the most essential words and roots
  • formulate and respond to basic class-related questions, with proper pronunciation
  • master the fundamentals of Sanskrit grammar and syntax through focused usage
  • recognize and perform the various types of euphonic combination
  • become proficient in analyzing basic compounds and derivations
  • become proficient in navigating a Sanskrit dictionary organized by root
  • learn the elements of Sanskrit prosody, the loka and its recitation
  • translate extended passages of Epic with the aid of a dictionary

Intermediate Sanskrit I (fall), MDES UN1404, and II (spring), MDES UN1405

  • consolidate and elaborate the grammar introduced in Elementary Sanskrit
  • learn and perform a range of compound and derivational analyses
  • become fluent in the basic genre-conventions of Epic, drama (etc.) and commentary
  • build a working vocabulary for the texts read
  • identify vigrahas and anvayas in commentary and explain their purport
  • learn the elements of prosody and master several of the most common meters

Advanced Sanskrit I (fall), MDES GU4810, and II (spring), MDES GU4812

  • become fluent in the basic genre-conventions of systematic thought, poetry and poetics
  • engage texts in their own terms, in those of their tradition and of contemporary scholarship
  • build a working vocabulary for the texts read
  • become proficient in interpreting commentary, beyond vigrahas and anvayas
  • deepen knowledge of a Sanskrit domain pertinent to a students research interests

Sanskrit Faculty

Sheldon Pollock, William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, MESAAS

         Guy Leavitt, Lecturer in Sanskrit, MESAAS

Related Faculty (working with traditional India)

Allison Busch, Associate Professor, MESAAS
Vidya Dehejia, Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art, Department of Art History and Archaeology
John Stratton Hawley, Professor of Religion, Department of Religion (Barnard)
Sudipta Kaviraj, Professor of South Asian Politics, MESAAS
Rachel McDermott, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures (Barnard)
Robert Thurman, Jey Tsong Kappa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies, Department of Religion

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