Why study Sanskrit?

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Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Oct 15, 2013 10:43 am

Earlier a Tibetan monk said to me, "Why bother studying Sanskrit? Everything is available in Tibetan."

I have my own reasons, both personal and scholarly, for studying Sanskrit, though his question is pertinent.

Why study Sanskrit? Aside from academic uses, do you personally feel there is much merit in knowing Sanskrit? With proper knowledge of Sanskrit mantras can be pronounced correctly and the meanings more readily understood. However, beyond that, it isn't really employed so much in any form of modern Buddhism except for maybe the minority of Newari Buddhists and some aspects of Shingon.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby ratna » Tue Oct 15, 2013 11:24 am

Knowledge of Sanskrit helps clarify the meaning of those Tibetan translations, by reducing the ambiguity and limiting the range of plausible interpretations of terms or expressions translated from Sanskrit. A number of important Buddhist texts are still extant in Sanskrit, including poetry by some of the best Sanskrit poets of all time, whose works haven't been and indeed cannot be fully appreciated in translation.
Even Tibetans would do well to learn Sanskrit. (BTW, in Tibet, many university students in fact do, in order to satisfy the foreign language requirement, because they find the other option, English, much more difficult.)

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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Oct 15, 2013 11:43 am

I spoke to a Karma Kagyu loppon who studied in Varanasi. It seems their Sanskrit study was more memorization of tables and pronunciation rather than reading comprehension.

I've actually not met so many Tibetans, even the ones who have done shedra, who know even Sanskrit vocabulary for common names and Dharma terms (for example, Akṣobhya or abhiṣeka). Part of teaching them English is also teaching them Sanskrit vocabulary for all the Tibetan Dharma terminology they're already quite familiar with.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Wayfarer » Tue Oct 15, 2013 12:11 pm

The reason why is that it is very beautiful and that some of the most exceptional and sublime spiritual literature has been composed in it.

I admire anyone who can study it. I did once pass a university exam in it, so I must have known something about it then, but for the life of me I can't read a single word of it now. But I often like to dream that one day I will understand it, even if I know that really I never will.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby JKhedrup » Tue Oct 15, 2013 12:41 pm

Lama Migmar, a Sakya lama based out of Massachusetts, told me studying Sanskrit was very important, and he can read quite well in Sanskrit- he was a student of the Varanasi Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies. I have also heard that the former Kalon Tripa Samdhong Rinpoche studied it in Varanasi and is quite a capable Sanskrit scholar. I have heard Samdhong Rinpoche say ideally a really good Buddhist scholar would have knowledge of both Classical Tibetan and Chinese, as well as Pali and Sanskrit. But obviously for most people this is not a real possibility.

Our older resident geshe also studied in Varanasi but told me he only made a cursory study of Sanskrit and remembers very little, so it seems it depends on what type of classes one chooses and the emphasis one gives to Sanskrit over the other subjects.

Personally, I think Sanskrit is useful if one is doing really heavy textual translation and wants to refer to Sanskrit materials for confirmation of meanings that one has translated from Tibetan, for example. I think if one wants to do translations of key texts, especially in an academic style, it is good to know more than one source language- and considering the importance of the Nalanda texts in Tibetan Buddhism Sanskrit would seem a logical choice, though Classical Chinese could also be interesting for particular texts and commentaries.

If one is an oral translator, from my experience I don't see how relevant knowledge of Sanskrit would be. Similarly, for practitioners with limited time and/or language ability it would seem to make more sense to invest the time in practice rather than trying to learn the complexities of the Sanskrit language. If as a practitioner one can already read and understand some Tibetan, it would seem to be enough to enrich one's practice IMHO.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Oct 15, 2013 1:11 pm

JKhedrup wrote: But obviously for most people this is not a real possibility.


Some of the best scholars of Buddhism in the world have reading knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Classical Chinese, Japanese and maybe some other languages (perhaps a European language or two). I really admire that kind of dedication, but then if you plan your life in a certain way it is possible. You can have a family life at the same time as well.

That's one feature western academia has going for it: diverse studies, methods and languages, which is in sharp contrast to traditional Asian Buddhist scholarship.

If one is an oral translator, from my experience I don't see how relevant knowledge of Sanskrit would be.


At the very least knowing the terminology in Sanskrit is desirable.

I personally hope English speaking Buddhists will use Sanskrit as much as possible instead of Tibetan, Japanese, Chinese, etc as time goes on.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Tom » Tue Oct 15, 2013 2:05 pm

Indrajala wrote:Earlier a Tibetan monk said to me, "Why bother studying Sanskrit? Everything is available in Tibetan."


Actually, some texts are only available in Chinese, such as Asaṅga's commentary on Nāgārjuna's Mulāmadhyamakakārikā.

The importance of learning Sanskrit is that when reading the texts in the words that the author actually wrote, you can gain an accuracy and depth of understanding not available when reading in translation (Tibetan or English). For example, sometimes the key ideas of passages require an understanding of Sanskrit grammar, a play not just on words but on grammar, which are often lost in translation.

Like Ratna said, knowledge of Sanskrit helps clarify Tibetan ambiguities and I think that if you want to translate something that was originally written in Sanskrit it is imperative to know Sanskrit well. I think even in cases where there is no Sanskrit original it is still important to know Sanskrit so that when you reference the Mahāvyutpatti you have a better understanding of what the Tibetan is attempting to render.

One thing to keep in mind is that in order to take advantage of Sanskrit beyond dictionary Sanskrit, you are going to need to invest four years of study. It is certainly worth it, but if you have limited time Tibetan may give you more bang for your buck. It is much easier to learn (you can get up and going in a year or two) and it also gives you access to a much larger cannon of Buddhist texts.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Jikan » Tue Oct 15, 2013 2:09 pm

jeeprs wrote:The reason why is that it is very beautiful and that some of the most exceptional and sublime spiritual literature has been composed in it.

I admire anyone who can study it. I did once pass a university exam in it, so I must have known something about it then, but for the life of me I can't read a single word of it now. But I often like to dream that one day I will understand it, even if I know that really I never will.


:good:

I'm in the same boat, at least for now. If I get the opportunity to study Sanskrit in a structured way (a class or intensive) I would like to do so. Languages don't come easy to me, so if I were to make any progress, it would need to be in such an environment.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Malcolm » Tue Oct 15, 2013 2:21 pm

Indrajala wrote:Earlier a Tibetan monk said to me, "Why bother studying Sanskrit? Everything is available in Tibetan."

I have my own reasons, both personal and scholarly, for studying Sanskrit, though his question is pertinent.



His question is ridiculous -- much of what was translated into Tibetan cannot be properly understood without some Sanskrit grammar.

If you are never going to read a sutra or saśtra from the bka' 'gyur or btan 'gyur, his point might have merit, otherwise? Not so smart.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby gad rgyangs » Tue Oct 15, 2013 2:23 pm

I remember when I was first introduced to Tibetan Buddhism I assumed monks would all study Sanskrit as part of the standard momastic curriculum. I mean, all they do is study, right? and its INDO-Tibetan Buddhism, right? Silly me.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby JKhedrup » Tue Oct 15, 2013 2:31 pm

With the thousands of volumes of Buddhist texts available in Classical Tibetan and Chinese, for example, the monks have plenty to "do nothing but study with". While Sanskrit is wonderful to study, modern Chinese and Tibetan monks still can build a firm foundational of scriptural knowledge without it.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby yegyal » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:01 pm

Actually, I've never met a Tibetan scholar-practitioner that didn't think studying Sanskrit was worthwhile. In fact, one of the reasons that the Sanskrit titles are given at the beginning of texts is in order for the readers to develop a connection with this language, which has in the past been such an invaluable vehicle for the teaching of Dharma. So to me it sounds like that "Tibetan monk" was just giving is his own opinion, especially, considering that many of the most celebrated Tibetan scholars of the past (Sakya Pandita, Mipham, etc.) made a point of studying Sanskrit. My guess is that he was responding more to your lack of interest in studying Tibetan than to any perceived faults in studying Sanskrit.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Malcolm » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:06 pm

JKhedrup wrote:With the thousands of volumes of Buddhist texts available in Classical Tibetan and Chinese, for example, the monks have plenty to "do nothing but study with". While Sanskrit is wonderful to study, modern Chinese and Tibetan monks still can build a firm foundational of scriptural knowledge without it.



Without question, knowledge of Sanskrit is very important. It is one factor that has given the Sakyapas the edge in scholarship for centuries.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby JKhedrup » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:16 pm

For scholars and translators it is fantastic,as I mentioned above. All I am saying is that there are still volumes and volumes of texts available for study, so even if one is studying all day everyday, what is available in Tibetan would be plenty.

If I ever get to go back to school for my MA, though, it would be difficult to choose between classical Chinese or Sanskrit for the language option (if I wanted good grades I guess Tibetan would be the better pick).

This is because of the historical interest I have in the Tibetan and Chinese canons, and which texts might have been included in one that are not available in the other. Due to my interest in the Sanatana-dharma influence on Buddhism, though, Sanskrit is very attractive- but I think in the academic setting unless one had an interest in Hindu scholarship as a Buddhist it might not be so interesting, because Sanskrit is usually studied through the lens of the Vedic texts.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Tom » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:21 pm

JKhedrup wrote: I think in the academic setting unless one had an interest in Hindu scholarship as a Buddhist it might not be so interesting, because Sanskrit is usually studied through the lens of the Vedic texts.


Not true - vedic texts are specialised area and Sanskrit Buddhist texts are commonly studied in an academic setting.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby JKhedrup » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:24 pm

Are there any Sanskrit study programs that train students using primarily Buddhist texts in Western countries?
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:25 pm

yegyal wrote:Actually, I've never met a Tibetan scholar-practitioner that didn't think studying Sanskrit was worthwhile.


I've seldom met anyone from the Himalayas who thought the study of Sanskrit was important and pursued it even at an elementary level. I've met a few, sure, but they're exceptions.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:26 pm

JKhedrup wrote:Are there any Sanskrit study programs that train students using primarily Buddhist texts in Western countries?


There is RYI in Kathmandu which trains mostly western students.

Most Buddhist Studies programs will include Sanskrit aimed at reading Buddhist texts.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby Indrajala » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:29 pm

Tom wrote:Actually, some texts are only available in Chinese, such as Asaṅga's commentary on Nāgārjuna's Mulāmadhyamakakārikā.


That's true. A lot of Abhidharma and Vinaya literature is also only preserved in Chinese. Still, much of it has or will be translated into English.

Actually having a Chinese translation along with the Sanskrit is useful for interpreting ambiguous parts in the latter, and might even reveal "orthodox" opinions from India conveyed through Chinese translators like Xuanzang who studied at Nalanda.
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Re: Why study Sanskrit?

Postby JKhedrup » Tue Oct 15, 2013 3:30 pm

It really depends on what people are interested in. If one wants to become a scholar of Buddhism in an academic sense I think Sanskrit it very important. But in terms of learning within one of the Tibetan lineages and practicing I don't think it is a "must".
Basically, most people do not have an endless amount of time for such pursuits and every scholar I have spoken to who knows Sanskrit talks about the delicate intricacies of its grammar and the level commitment necessary for proficiency.
I really think it does come down to how one wants to devote one's time. Most Western Tibetan Buddhists don't know the Tibetan language. Does that mean I think they can't be good practitioners, with better understanding or cultivation than myself? Not at all.
In order to ensure my mind never comes under the power of the self-cherishing attitude,
I must obtain control over my own mind.
Therefore, amongst all empowerments, the empowerment that gives me control over my mind is the best,
and I have received the most profound empowerment with this teaching.
-Atisha Dipamkara
brtsal ba'i bkhra drin
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