For experts

This longer introduction is meant for advanced readers, such as teachers, scholars, those who may know some Sanskrit already, or those who simply want to know more about the guide. This page covers the same information as our introduction for beginners, but it does so in a deeper and more sophisticated way.

If you are already satisfied by our introduction for beginners, you can skip this section and move on to the next one.

Our intended audience

Our guide is for anyone who wants to read Sanskrit literature and who wants to learn grammar to make sense of what they read. Grammar is a technical subject, but we do not expect any background knowledge in grammar, linguistics, or related fields.

Too often, resources for teaching Sanskrit (especially those written in English) use an academic and highly technical style. This is fine per se, but as a whole, this technical style carries an implicit message: “Sanskrit is something only an elite person can know and learn. If you are not an elite, Sanskrit is not for you.”

We reject this idea completely. We believe that anyone who wants to learn Sanskrit should be able to do so and that it is our responsibility to encourage and nurture learners rather than throw them into a sea of rules and jargon.

Second language acquisition research

Our starting point, and the basis for our approach to Sanskrit grammar, is the main finding from second language acquisition research: acquiring and studying a language are different mental processes and respond to different techniques.

The realm of acquisition is essentially one of subconscious, implicit, and organic growth in the learner's implicit mental representation of the language, which develops through exposure to interesting and level-appropriate content. Consistent exposure to such content over time is enough to acquire any language to a very high level, perhaps when paired with the limited and ad-hoc study of explicit grammar rules.

The realm of study is essentially one of conscious, explicit, and willful development of an explicit model of the language and its rules, which occurs through the diligent study and application of various rules, often to a list of intentionally memorized words. Consistent study of rules is enough to develop deep mastery but has little relationship to the fast and accurate real-time interpretation of content in our language of interest.

Although the exact relationship between these explicit and implicit modes of engagement is still unclear in the research, what can be said with some confidence is that the neurolinguistic processes involved are different enough to treat implicit (acquisition) and explicit (studying) approaches to language as two different activities.

Focusing on explicit grammar

In light of this division, we see the textbook model as fundamentally flawed because it attempts to support the divergent activities of implicit and explicit study simultaneously. If implicit knowledge is knowing how to throw a ball, explicit knowledge is knowing the kinematic equations that describe the ball's trajectory. Knowing the calculus of kinematics has some incidental relationship to throwing a ball, but in a pragmatic sense, neither provides much insight into the other.

Here is a small example of what we mean. A person rides a bicycle or skateboard or scooter or motorcycle but drives a car or truck and pilots a boat or airplane. The semantics of these three words are similar, but it is difficult to articulate a specific and explicit rule that accounts for the difference. Such is the real-world behavior of human language.

Given this divergence between implicit and explicit representations of language and the approaches necessary to cultivate them, we have focused solely on building up an explicit representation of Sanskrit. This narrower perspective is profoundly liberating and allows us to perform one task simply and effectively.

But perhaps we should address the critical question: why study grammar at all?

Mainly, grammar offers a shortcut to working through ancient Sanskrit literature. We use the phrase “working through” deliberately: the slow, word-by-word analysis of a sentence is completely different from the fast, accurate, and real-time understanding of a sentence that arises through acquisition.

But there are other compelling reasons to pursue the study of grammar. Grammar is interesting for its own sake, especially given Sanskrit's long tradition of linguistics and grammatical study. Grammar can clarify doubts on usage and meaning for those interested in composition or exegesis. And grammar can provide structure for those learners who crave structure and certainty.

What are the specific advantages of focusing solely on explicit representation?

The first is that we can omit many of the devices that are shown in the literature to be ineffective, such as translation drills, conjugation drills, vocabulary lists, and other kinds of what we might call “language practice.” These devices sap time and energy from the student and are not particularly effective for acquisition, which is their intended focus in the first place.

The second is that we can sequence our content in an entirely different way. In the standard textbook, introducing a new topic for discussion is an expensive and costly thing to do, because the assumption is that the student must memorize most or all new material that is presented. But more critically, these topics must be presented with an eye to acquisition. As a result, important but grammatically unusual features are either unreasonably delayed or introduced piecemeal and out of sequence. When we are free of these constraints, we can present Sanskrit's major systems clearly and comprehensively.

If we omit any devices aimed at acquisition, what is our answer to the acquisition problem? What do we recommend that learners do?

Simply, we encourage the use of resources aimed directly at Sanskrit acquisition, such as:

  • Amarahāsa: free online stories written especially for acquiring Sanskrit.

  • Samskrita Bharati (India, US): Conversational Sanskrit. Includes workshops, classes, correspondence courses, and in-person events.

  • Vyoma-Saṃskṛta-Pāṭhaśālā: Online Sanskrit lectures in a classroom format.

That said, there will always be those who find anything other than ancient literature to be a waste of time. Now that our grammar guide has matured, we are building an assisted reading environment for such learners. Assisted reading is not an optimal acquisition environment because the material involved is far too complex for beginning and intermediate learners. But we see such an approach as a pragmatic compromise for those who insist on grammar-based approaches.

Style and intended audience

Our focus is ordinary people who want to read Sanskrit literature and who want to use grammar to make sense of what they read. Perhaps some of these people are comfortable with technical expressions like “partitive genitive” or “past passive participle” and delight in the intricacies of grammar. (We can certainly relate!) But to most people, such terms are confusing, intimidating, and sterile. We want to include as many learners as we can, so we avoid this complex and highly technical jargon and prefer simple, everyday language.

This does not mean, however, that we dumb down our content.

As an example, one of the common Sanskrit suffixes is -ta. -ta is often termed a “past passive participle” suffix. This term is problematic in two ways. First, it doesn't make any sense (unless the reader knows about past tenses, the passive voice, and participles). Second, it is a poor fit for Sanskrit specifically:

  • Many roots use -ta in an active sense (e.g. gata).

  • Many roots use -ta without any clear past sense at all (e.g. śakta).

  • The concept of “participles” is much less powerful than just considering the class of Sanskrit verbal suffixes (also known as kṛt suffixes) as a whole.

Rather than laboriously explain this suffix using terms that poorly fit the way Sanskrit works, we can simply say instead that the suffix -ta generally shows that someone “has acted” or “has been acted on,” with a few examples. The suffix is thus tied immediately to meaningful Sanskrit expressions and to English counterparts that the reader already knows deeply. And the learner doesn't need to memorize an awkward and ill-fitting term.

To put it simply, we make a distinction between knowing Sanskrit and talking about Sanskrit. How we talk about Sanskrit doesn't matter at all. What matters is that we communicate useful knowledge to the learner in a way that they can easily understand and internalize.