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The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary | Learn Sanskrit Online

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary

Introduction

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary is the largest, most comprehensive, and most useful Sanskrit-English dictionary in the world. It contains somewhere around 186,000 words. Other dictionary projects are active in India and other countries; but the Monier-Williams dictionary, or the "M-W dictionary" for short, is still the most popular. If you intend to continue in your Sanskrit studies and intend to do so through English, then you will soon find this dictionary indispensable.

Sometimes, it is useful to know a bit about a dictionary's origin. In the case of the M-W dictionary, it is very important.

Who was Monier-Williams?

The scholar known as Monier Williams taught Asian languages during Indian company rule until the failed Indian rebellion. He soon took the Boden Chair of Sanskrit at Oxford. For his work with Sanskrit, he was later made a Knight Commander of the Indian Empire and combined his given name and surname to create a new surname: "Monier-Williams." Thus the scholar's full name is "Monier Monier-Williams."

Monier-Williams was a product of a colonial culture, and he saw the Indian people primarily as people who needed to be converted to Christianity. The Boden Chair at Oxford was created to help its owner to enable his countrymen to proceed in the conversion of the natives of India to the Christian Religion. Monier-Williams secured the position because, unlike his main rival, there was no doubt that he was dedicated to the evangelical cause. If we decide to use this dictionary, we must ask ourselves whether and how the colonial and "Christianizing" nature of the work should affect the way we use it. Such issues are deep and troubling, and it can be difficult to resolve them.

For the time being, my answer has been as follows. Monier-Williams may have wanted to convert the Indian people to Christianity, but he was also a man who loved Greek and Latin, and he loved Sanskrit enough to call it an elder sister to those two languages. Monier-Williams was also a great scholar, and despite his position at Oxford, his work could only have endured if other scholars found it valid. Finally, there is this: if Monier-Williams truly wanted to convert the Indian people through Sanskrit, then he would want to translate the Bible into Sanskrit as accurately and correctly as possible. He could only have done so if he knew and shared the meanings of Sanskrit words as precisely as possible. Overall, the tone of the work is neutral, and even those aspects of Indian culture that would have offended Western sensibilities are treated as they are.

As we can see today, Monier-Williams failed in his mission to convert the whole of India. But despite that, we still have his dictionary, which contains nearly whe whole of Sanskrit's basic vocabulary. We might as well make use of it.