Sanskrit is one of the most important languages of thought and culture in the history of humanity. With records dating back to roughly 1500 B.C.E., it is one of the best preserved among the most ancient languages of the Indo-European family, with close affinities to Old Persian, ancient Greek, and Latin. The modern “discovery” of Sanskrit and its relationship to the languages of Europe, Iran, and South Asia, along with Sanskrit’s own traditions of grammar and linguistic analysis—unparalleled for their antiquity and yet contemporary in their sophistication—exploded the boundary between “East” and “West”, becoming an essential factor in the birth of the modern science of Linguistics. Sanskrit is the language of the great epic traditions of the Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, as well as a subtle and refined court poetry (kāvya) that crafted ideals of kingship and courtly love. It represents one of the great classical literatures of the world, both in quality and quantity. The corpus of Sanskrit texts easily dwarfs the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome combined. Sanskrit had an enormous geographical reach in premodern times: it was an item of incomparable cultural prestige across an area stretching from present-day Iran and Afghanistan in the West, to the islands of Southeast Asia in the East. It was a vehicle for the most developed discipline of literary theory (alaṅkāraśāstra) in the premodern world, from at least the seventh century C.E. onward. Finally it was the language of vast philosophical and religious traditions, the mental and physical practices of Yoga, and the major world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
Sanskrit is a challenging and complex language, full of beauty and intricacy. To study it is to transcend barriers of “East” and “West”, ancient and modern. Sanskrit is the beginning of a lifelong quest that enriches the mind, heart, and soul.
Sanskrit has been taught at UH Mānoa for well over a century, and has a special place here because of the University’s commitment to comparative work encompassing the ancient civilizations of Asia. Sanskrit is especially crucial for UH Mānoa’s programs in Religion and Philosophy, both of which pride themselves on attention to multiple Asian traditions.