Sanskrit at Undergraduate Level

Sanskrit Manuscript Image

Hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama, Hatha Yoga for the Extension of Life, Sanskrit, India, 19th Century.

Sanskrit is the key to Indian civilization, and it is in this spirit that it is taught at Oxford, though the B.A. course necessarily concentrates on giving students a thorough grounding in the language, and the bulk of the teaching proceeds by the reading and explication of classical texts.

Formally, the course is in two parts. The first, of five months, leads to the Preliminary Examination at the end of the second term, in late March. Teaching for this consists mainly of intensive instruction in the rudiments of the language. The second, the Final Honours course, takes seven terms (26 months).

The Final Honour School is examined in 9 papers, 7 in Sanskrit and two in the subsidiary language (see below). There are only two set text papers. For these Sanskrit language is studied from two contrasting and complementary points of view. The indigenous study of Sanskrit grammar is given a large place in our course, not only because it teaches Sanskrit with authoritative accuracy, but, even more important, because linguistics was the paradigm science in Ancient India. On the other hand, historical and comparative linguistics have drawn western philologists to the study of Sanskrit; the student is therefore introduced to the historical philology of both Vedic (the oldest form of Sanskrit) and to Middle Indo-Aryan (i.e. Pali and Prakrit), the ancient languages derived from Sanskrit. Four more papers in Sanskrit are accounted for by a general unprepared translation paper, a general essay paper on Sanskrit literature and the arts, and an unprepared translation paper and an essay paper in a chosen area of Sanskrit studies, such as literature, religion, philosophy, or even an area more closely defined. The choice of this more specialized area and the materials read in preparation for the examination in it is arranged between teachers and student. The final paper in Sanskrit is in a special subject; for this the student may, if appropriate, offer a short dissertation instead of an examination paper. Several students in recent years have for this dissertation edited unpublished texts from manuscripts or inscriptions.

The choice of a subsidiary language lies between Old Iranian, Bengali, Hindi, Pali, and Prakrit. These again are examined by an unprepared translation paper and an essay paper. The material in Old Iranian is mainly Zoroastrian literature, in Pali exclusively Buddhist literature, and in Prakrit both Jaina literature and secular creative literature (poetry and drama). Study of the subsidiary language begins at the start of the second year, and thereafter accounts for about a third of the work.


The course book for Prelims. is Teach Yourself Sanskrit by M.A. Coulson, which is fairly widely available, and gives good advice on auxiliary material. It is unnecessary to know any Sanskrit before beginning the course (though students may find it valuable to familiarise themselves with devanagari, the script in which Sanskrit is usually printed). A basic knowledge of English grammar is however essential. For more advanced students of Indology, ability to read French is virtually essential, and German hardly less valuable, so that the best preparation for this course may well be to acquire a reading knowledge of those languages.

For further information please see the Course Handbook, available here as a pdf. The Course Handbook is a comprehensive introduction to all aspects of the BA in Sanskrit: