In October I began my studies in Sanskrit, the language of ancient Indian literature and Hindu scripture. Sanskrit is the ancestor of most languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent today, and is related, very distantly, to English. For me, the choice to study Sanskrit alongside Latin and Greek came out of an interest in shared linguistic and cultural heritage, in particular religion and mythology. However, after two terms I discovered so many fascinating aspects of Indian history and Sanskrit literature that I never knew about before, and now I’m more interested in studying the Sanskrit side of my course for its own sake.
Students are taught Sanskrit from scratch over two terms with language classes three mornings a week and a hefty helping of homework. The course is fast-paced and grammatically rigorous- I want to offer all my encouragement in this article, but applicants do need to be up for a challenge! It’s well worth it though, as the progress you make in such a short time is amazing. Within four weeks we were reading the Hitopadeśa, short stories with a moral that usually feature talking animals, and sometimes improbable sexual scenarios. Soon after that we were reading passages from the immense Sanskrit epic poem the Mahābhārata: the fairy-tale love story of Nala and Damayantī and the Bhagavad Gītā, where the god Krishna reveals cosmic truths about life, death, god and the universe.
We’ve studied certain topics in more depth for tutorials, and I have particularly enjoyed our history essays about King Aśoka. How much of a Buddhist was he really? Did he create a new writing system, or did it exist before him? I had never heard of this period before I came to Oxford, but now I’m very keen to study more, especially as I’m studying a Greek module covering a similar time frame.
I’m currently the only Sanskrit student at Brasenose, but that hasn’t posed me any problems. While our fantastic college library may not have a large store of Sanskrit books, they are more than happy to buy in anything I need. Note that Brasenose does not offer Oriental Studies on its own, but only alongside Classics. It is offered on its own at other colleges. For more information on how the Oxford college system works, see here.
Applicants for Sanskrit or other unusual subjects not taught at school should be aware that, if you are lucky enough to have teachers who want to support you with your Oxford application, they may try and steer you away from a niche subject towards something they have more experience in helping students with. Don’t be afraid to say no! I would advise you to go for what you love, but remember that there are joint honours courses for most humanities subjects if you’re nervous about applying for a brand new subject only, and you may be able to switch form joint to single or vice versa at a later date. If you feel there’s not a lot of information online about your chosen course and would like to learn more, try emailing the faculty and they may be able to give you some advice.
Something I didn’t foresee at all that has become one of my favourite things about the course is my wonderful classmates. It’s common in more niche languages to have students on a variety of courses, both graduate and undergraduate, in your class, meaning that people are often taking the class for very different reasons, and come from very different academic backgrounds. My classmates also come from all across the world: Singapore, America, Italy, China, Puerto Rico, Australia…. Little old me is honoured to be a part of an amazingly diverse group of students who have quite literally come from all over the world to be in my class. It’s been a joy to get to know them over the past two terms!
By Katherine Furness-Reed