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The allure of Sanskrit reemerges at McMaster

With the recent resurgence of interest in Sanskrit at McMaster, I met with Professor Joe LaRose and students Jessica Fish and Preeti Nayak to discuss Sanskrit's appeal and learn more about how Sanskrit is taught at McMaster.
The allure of Sanskrit reemerges at McMaster

Image of Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper from Wikipedia Commons:

It’s not often you hear that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” sparked a passion for Sanskrit so powerful that it encouraged an individual to spend the last 20 years studying Sanskrit and the last three years teaching it, but this is the case for Joe LaRose. I met with LaRose who teaches both Sanskrit 3A06: Introduction to Sanskrit Grammar as well as Sanskrit 4B06: Readings in Sanskrit Texts to learn more about the courses and the recent resurgence of interest in Sanskrit at McMaster. LaRose’s passion for Sanskrit was obvious, so I have no doubt it attracts many students to the courses. 

LaRose has been studying Sanskrit for 20 years now at three different universities including McMaster, Yale, and Heidelberg. When LaRose began teaching Sanskrit at McMaster, it was to a much smaller audience; there were only 20 students in his introductory class, and the intermediate class wasn’t offered. This year, there are 45 students enrolled in 3A06 and 20 students in 4B06. The fourth year class has even welcomed a doctoral student from Wilfred Laurier, who registered in the class under the Ontario Visiting Graduate Student plan. 

I spoke to Jessica Fish, a third year Religious Studies and Health, Aging & Society student about her passion for Sanskrit. Fish began focusing her studies on the social structures that surround Buddhism which prompted her to study Sanskrit as a way of going to the source and decoding the information herself. Fish, who has taken 3A06 and is enrolled in 4B06, mentioned LaRose’s focus on the cultural side of Sanskrit instead of a linguistic focus which, she said, partly explains the course’s wide distribution of students.  

LaRose teaches Sanskrit in a way that can appeal to students in an array of faculties. The introductory Sanskrit course is open to any student, and LaRose describes the student body in the course as diverse, varying from Humanities students to Arts & Science students to Science students. The department is eager to grow the program, so the 4th year course is held during the evening to accommodate more schedules. 

Preeti Nayak is a Religious Studies and Anthropology transfer student to McMaster from Wilfrid Laurier University. While at Laurier, Nayak belonged to an informal Sanskrit study group, so she was pleased when she was able to enroll in a formal course at McMaster. 

An old language like Sanskrit has a certain allure, Nayak said. Nayak describes Sanskrit as being very different from other Social Sciences courses in its content, which aims at developing the students’ understanding of the elaborate grammatical architecture of the Sanskrit language. 

LaRose attributes the reemergence of Sanskrit to the Department of Religious Studies and the Faculty of Social Sciences, as their continued support assists with reestablishing and increasing the role of Sanskrit at McMaster. LaRose also attributes some interest in Sanskrit to the diverse and engaged student population at McMaster. Studying Sanskrit can provide a concrete way of connecting with culture, LaRose said, as much of South Asian culture is expressed through Sanskrit literature. 

    - Article by Natalie Paddon, Faculty of Social Sciences / First Generation Student Media Relations Officer


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