Reading Sanskrit texts “unaided”

A student has asked me this question, which I thought might be interesting to open up to a broader audience:

After how long and how much study does a new scholar  become proficient enough in Sanskrit to read the original unaided (especially if the AOS is primarily philosophy)?

My reply was this:

Your question is a good one, and I think it has no single good answer. If you are thinking about reading without a dictionary, then that depends on how much time you’ve put into reading that author and genre after getting two to three years of solid grammatical study. I think that after five years, it would be possible to read many texts without frequent recourse to a dictionary or grammar. And it depends on the author. Being able to read Gaṅgeśa’s navya-Nyāya style will take longer than being able to read Vātsyāyana’s commentary on the Nyāya-sūtra, which is much simpler grammatically, and less wide-ranging in vocabulary. Reading Mīmāṃsā texts requires a lot of understanding of Vedic ritual and other texts, too (especially the brāhmaṇas). However, this also assumes that one is practicing reading and not just translating.

After initially learning grammar, many students continue to “crack” sentences by analyzing sandhi, compounds, verb conjugations, etc., rather than to read as one reads difficult texts in one’s own primary languages. That is, to read holistically, not always stopping to look up problem words, but entertaining the best reading provisionally against context, and going on to check if that’s right. Grammatical analysis then begins to work in the background and is foregrounded in cases where there is difficulty.

When I was in graduate school I was at a translation session for the Vīmalakīrtinirdeśasūtra at the Mangalam Research Center and I asked the late Michael Hahn a similar question. He smiled and, if my memory serves me correctly, suggested that really good reading facility with Sanskrit required at least ten years of solid study.
But those are my thoughts, as a philosopher trained in Sanskrit (not as a Sanskritist with primarily Indological training). I told the student I would post this question online and see what others think.

About Malcolm Keating

Malcolm Keating is Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College, Singapore.

3 thoughts on “Reading Sanskrit texts “unaided”

  1. My standard answer is: Proficiency takes about 10,000 hours of work, just like with skiing, scuba diving, sewing, playing the violin, etc. Now, if you read and study Sanskrit 5 hours per days, this means that it takes you 5,4 years, otherwise, you’ll need more time. However, as with skiing, etc., your first efforts will lead to immediate and steady progress, whereas after some time you’ll have the feeling to have reached a plateau. Thus, during the first 3–4 years, you’ll notice that you improve almost daily, until you’ll reach the level of being able to read simple texts on your own (for instance, today I read with a third-year student the commentary to the Āpastamba Dharmasūtra and with another third-year student the Gītagovinda). Then, it will take more time to move to the next level.

    A last thought: I would not interpret the student’s question as meaning “without dictionary”, but rather “without a grammar book, a translation, a paraphrase, a teacher”. The former seems to me in many cases unrealistic, unless you read only one genre.

    Malcolm, what is your experience with your students? How long do they take?

  2. Elisa, I like putting it in terms of hours explicitly, since estimates in terms of years presuppose a certain amount of effort put in. And as far as “without an aid,” I am not sure what the student intended–I have had indeed students want to know when they can read without any recourse to dictionaries, since when they read in their native languages, they don’t tend to use them, and that seems like a golden standard for proficiency.

    But you’re right that is probably unrealistic for most of us. Still, I do try to follow advice that Parimal Patil gave me some years ago, which is to read without any aids as much as possible, and then go back and work out details later. (He and Larry McCrea also encouraged me in reading kāvya and other genres.)

    My experience with students is limited to undergraduates and to tutoring while I was at UT-Austin, which is why I posted this here. At Yale-NUS, our students work with instructors by teleconference and over summer sessions. I work with students individually once they’ve acquired grammatical competence (usually two semesters and a summer intensive).

  3. Respected Sir. I have contiuness uttering 1008times in sanskrit language ओम संस्कृत नमो नमः. इससे संस्कृत भाषा की विश्व व्यापी महता कैसे बन पाये गी। कृपया इस बात पर सुझाव देने का कष्ट करेंगे

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