Sanskrit is a rich and powerful language and the gateway to most of the sacred texts and literature of India. The basics can be learned with just a little effort, but if you would like to venture beyond the shallows and explore the jewels in its depths, like any worthwhile endeavour, that will require a few years of dedicated study. Sanskrit does not give up its treasures easily, but the rewards are potentially immense.
Sanskrit is an Indo-European language whose most ancient analogue is found in Syria. Brought to India by the Indo-Iranian ‘Aryans’, it eventually became the language of scripture, learning and literature, evolving from the older Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit.
I should add that this page is in no way intended to be comprehensive. There are many courses and resources not listed. It arose out of a desire to present in one place a list of the resources that I wish I had had when I began my Sanskrit studies. I hope you find it useful.
Useful introductions for yoga and Indian spirituality
For those interested in yoga or Indian spirituality, who want a gentle introduction, some excellent resources are:
Bachman, N., (2004) The Language of Yoga: Complete A to Y Guide to Āsana Names, Sanskrit Terms, and Chants, Sounds True, Boulder CO, 139 pp.
Grimes, J., (1996) A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English, New and Revised Edition; State University of New York Press, Albany NY, xiii + 390 pp.
Swami Yogakanti, (2007) Sanskrit Glossary of Yogic Terms, Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, xii + 222 pp.
I’ve also made a pdf of the most popular yoga poses in Sanskrit-English and English-Sanskrit, which you can download here.
Formal Sanskrit studies
For those wanting to dive a bit deeper, the Australian National University has an excellent four-year Sanskrit course under the leadership of McComas Taylor. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The course can be taken either on campus in Canberra or by distance learning.
At Oxford University, the MPhil in Classical Indian Religion, the MPhil in Buddhist Studies, and the undergraduate major in Sanskrit all start with a two-term intensive in Sanskrit. If you have never taken any Sanskrit – this course may come as a shock. The professor, James (Jim) Benson, is a wonderful fellow with a deep love for the language, but sadly the book that Oxford uses, Coulson’s Complete Sanskrit, in the clearly ironically-named ‘Teach Yourself’ series, is not a great introductory text.
To be fair, when Coulson wrote the book in 1976, it was probably better than anything else on the market in English, but that has long since changed. Coulson knew his Sanskrit, but his writing is often unnecessarily complicated. Even worse, he took all of his exercise sentences from the Sanskrit dramas, resulting in some absurdly complicated sentences, overladen with obscure vocabulary. If you wonder if I’m being unfair, this is one of the sentences from Lesson 10 to translate from English to Sanskrit:
“Then, seeing a line of ants emerging from a hole in the wall carrying particles of food, (he) grasping the fact that the chamber had men in it, caused that same bed chamber to be fired.”
So …. here are my recommendations if you are taking an MPhil or undergraduate Sanskrit course at Oxford:
* Learn the Devanāgarī alphabet well before you get to Oxford and practice reading in Devanāgarī, even though you don’t know what the words mean. Otherwise, be prepared to cover it all in the first lesson. Yes, really.
* Download McComas Taylor’s Little Red Book of Sanskrit Paradigms, or write to him at ANU for a hard copy. The Little Red Book is your friend and is much clearer than the tables in Coulson.
* Try to familiarise yourself with the Sandhi rules for combining words in Devanāgarī. The Little Red Book has them listed at the end and all the introductory textbooks and grammars listed below also cover them. It will seem very abstract at first but becomes familiar over time with usage. I would recommend working through the first few chapters of Egenes (see below) to learn the alphabet, sandhi and some basic vocab and grammar before you get to Oxford.
* Get through Coulson as best you can once you are there. You’ll work through 14 chapters over two terms, submitting the exercises once or twice a week.
* The past exam papers for the MPhil in Classical Indian Religion are scattered somewhat haphazardly in Oxford’s system. Here are all the ones that I’m aware of as a zip file up to and including 2017 (right click on this link to download the zip file).
Sanskrit Textbooks and Grammars
Get another good Sanskrit textbook and work through that alongside Coulson. I would recommend:
Egenes, T., (2011) Introduction to Sanskrit: Part One, 4th Revised Edition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, xvi + 386 pp. (Full solutions to exercises.)
Egenes, T., (2012) Introduction to Sanskrit: Part Two, 2nd Revised Edition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, x + 437 pp. (Full solutions to exercises)
Egenes is the textbook used for the first year of the ANU course mentioned above (see ANU’s free e-publication, The Joy of Sanskrit).
Ruppel, A.M., (2017) The Cambridge Introduction to Sanskrit, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, xiii + 431 pp. (No solutions to the exercises but this new book is well supported with a YouTube channel with videos for each lesson.)
Other useful introductions are:
Goldman, R.P. and Goldman, S.J.S., (2011) Devavāṇīpraveśikā: An Introduction to the Sanskrit Language, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, xxxv + 539 pp. (No solutions to the exercises)
Maurer, W.H., (2009) The Sanskrit Language: An Introductory Grammar and Reader, Revised Edition; Routledge, London, 830 pp. (No solutions to the exercises but Maurer has some good notes on the translation of Nala)
Also very helpful is Whitney’s grammar – Lanman’s Reader references this extensively, so if you want to understand Lanman’s notes, you will need this:
Whitney, W.D., (1896) Sanskrit Grammar, 3rd Edition; Dover Publications, Mineola NY, 1993 reprint, xxiii + 551 pp.
Whitney’s other book, intended as a supplement to his Grammar, is also very useful:
Whitney, W.D., (1885) The Roots, Verb-Forms and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; 1963 Indian Edition, xiii + 250 pp.
A more concise, and slightly less intimidating grammar than Whitney’s is:
Macdonell, A.A., (1927) A Sanskrit Grammar for Students, 3rd Edition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; 2014 reprint, xviii +264 pp.
Nala and the Hitopadeśa
At both Oxford and ANU, as well as many other Sanskrit programs, you will be going through much of the story of Nala and the Hitopadeśa.
You will need a copy of Lanman’s Sanskrit reader: Lanman, C.R., (1884) A Sanskrit Reader: Text, Vocabulary and Notes, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1996 printing; first published by Harvard University Press, xx + 405 pp. And online here or here.
The Devanāgarī typeface in Lanman can be a little odd at times, so I prepared a sheet with the most commonly confused letters.
Lanman himself also prepared a transliteration of Parts of Nala and Hitopadeśa in English Letters, which you may find useful to check against the Devanāgarī.
I prepared spaced transliterations of Nala to help keep up in class as I found that trying to scribble minute notes between the lines of the Devanāgarī text wasn’t useful.
Here is a transliteration of Nala with space for notes in Word and pdf. (Only proof-read up to the end of Ch III, v 8. There may be typos in later sections. Please let me know if you find any. There were hundreds in the version I originally found online.)
Other useful resources:
The most useful translation of the Nala story I found by far was van Buitenen’s translation of The Mahābhārata. The story of Nala from Lanman’s Reader appears in Book 3, Sections 50-54 (pp. 322-329): van Buitenen, J.A.B. (Ed.) (1975) The Mahābhārata, University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, Vol 2: Book 2, The Book of the Assembly Hall & Book 3, The Book of the Forest.
Peile, J., (1881) Notes on the Nalopakhyanam or Tales of Nala, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, vii + 244 pp. (A very useful document with extensive notes).
Williams, M., (1879) Nalopakhyanam: Story of Nala, Clarendon Press, Oxford, xvi + 330 pp. (Williams’ florid verse makes this translation less useful but you can get the gist).
Maurer’s book ‘The Sanskrit Language‘ has some very useful notes on Nala too.
Müller, F.M., (1864) The First Book of the Hitopadeśa: The Sanskrit Text, with Interlinear Transliteration, Grammatical Analysis, and English Translation, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, London, xi + 95 pp. (A very useful text)
Müller, F.M., (1865) The Second, Third, and Fourth Books of the Hitopadeśa: The Sanskrit Text, with Interlinear Transliteration, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, London, vi + 151 pp. (Still useful, but without the grammatical notes of the first book).
Peterson, P. (Ed.) (1887) Hitopadeśa by Nārāyana, Government Central Book Depot, Bombay.
Johnson, F., (1864) Hitopadeśa: The Sanskrit Text, with a Grammatical Analysis, Alphabetically Arranged, Stephen Austin, London, x + 284 pp.
You will also translate chapters from the Bhagavad Gītā. Some very useful translations are:
Sargeant, W., (2009) The Bhagavad Gītā, 25th Anniversary Edition; State University of New York Press, Albany NY; originally published in 1984, xxx + 739 pp. Or this version. (This book is incredibly useful, including the original Sanskrit, a word-for-word translation, a more flowing English rendering, and a listing of all words and their parsing for each verse.)
Johnson, W.J., (1994) The Bhagavad Gita, 2004 Edition; Oxford World’s Classics; Oxford University Press, Oxford, xxiii + 95 pp.
Feuerstein, G. and Feuerstein, B., (2014) The Bhagavad-Gītā: A New Translation, Shambhala, Boulder CO, xvi + 509 pp.
Flood, G. and Martin, C. (Eds.), (2015) The Bhagavad Gita, Norton Critical Editions; W.W. Norton & Co. , New York & London, xviii + 206 pp.
You may do a couple of chapters from the Buddhacarita. Helpful aides include:
Olivelle, P., (2008) Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa, trans. Olivelle, P.; Clay Sanskrit Library; New York University Press & JCC Foundation, New York, lv + 497 pp.
Johnston, E.H., (1934) Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha, trans. Johnston, E.H.; 1984 Edition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, Pt 1: xii + 165 pp; Pt 2: xcviii + 232 pp; Pt 3: 130 pp.
I prepared a couple of transliterations which you may find useful. (I would have preferred a Devanāgarī version but couldn’t find one). These are heavily corrected versions of a transliteration I found here. There are probably still typos – please let me know if you find any.
The best dictionaries online are:
There are a number of different versions of Monier-Williams on the web. This is the best one. To use the Monier-Williams online dictionary, use the Harvard-Kyoto system of transliteration
ā = A
ī = I
ū = U
ṛ = R
ṣ = S
ḥ = H
ś = z
ṅ = G
ñ = J
ṇ = N
ṭ = T
ṭh = Th
ḍ = D
ḍh = Dh
Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary – a digital version of Franklin Edgerton’s Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Grammar and Dictionary. This is particularly useful if you are studying Buddhist Sanskrit works.
Other useful dictionaries include:
Macdonell, A.A., (1924) A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, 2014 Nataraj Edition; Nataraj Books, Springfield VA, xii + 384 pp. (Simpler than Monier-Williams) Also available in an online scanned version here.
Monier-Williams, M., (1899) A Sanskrit English Dictionary, Corrected Edition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; 2002 printing, xxxvi + 1333 pp. (If you really want the printed version!)
Apte, V.G., (1996) Hippocrene Concise Dictionary: Sanskrit-English, Hippocrene Books, New York, 366 pp. (A pocket dictionary)
And for an English-Sanskrit dictionary:
Apte, V.S., (1920) The Student’s English-Sanskrit Dictionary, 3rd Edition; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, xv + 501 pp.
By far the most helpful dictionary I found as a beginner, and which I still turn to, is:
Denton, J.M., (2013) A Sanskrit Dictionary, 726 pp.
This book seems to be self-published and compiled from many different sources. I can’t vouch for how scholarly it is, but it has been reliable so far and contains many forms that are not in regular dictionaries. It also contains many references to the Monier-Williams dictionary. Best of all, the word order is according to the Roman alphabet, which makes it much more intuitively usable and faster for Europeans.
Denton has also written a couple of other useful books:
Denton, J.M., (2011) A Sanskrit Grammar Text, Revised Edition; 321 pp.
Denton, J.M., (2015) Gems of Advaita Vedanta – Philosophy of Unity, DFT, 305 pp.
I hope these resources help you on your Sanskrit journey. Please let me know if you have any comments or suggestions.
Last updated: 29 September 2017 Copyright © Brett Parris, 2011-2017.