Dr Urmila R Patil is an instructor of Sanskrit, Hinduism, and World Religions in the United States. She started studying Sanskrit at the age of 13 and says that the language taught her the value of knowledge and enquiry.
After doing her Masters in Sanskrit grammatical, literary, and philosophical traditions at Mumbai University, India she received her PhD in the Asian Cultures and Languages Program at the University of Texas at Austin. She went to work as a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the South Asia Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Here she taught Sanskrit and Indian Epic Traditions.
She also worked as the Acting Director and Instructor of the Hindi Program at the Lauder Institute, an affiliate of the Wharton School of Business. She recently taught Asian Religions and Hinduism at the University of California at Irvine. Her research interests include royal gastronomy, Sanskrit intellectual history and social identities in the early-modern and colonial periods. She is the founder of the Akshara Sanskrit Language Academy.
She has taught Hindu traditions at UCLA, Sanskrit and Bhagavadgita and the Yoga Sutras at the Yoga Studies program at the Loyola Marymount University.
Below is CSP's interview with Dr Urmila Patil:
Having learnt Sanskrit from an early age in an Indian setting, how do you convey the context of the language to those you teach?
That’s a good question. I normally explain the important cultural meanings that Sanskrit has held over many centuries and for different audiences. Right from the Vedic period to the colonial period, we find diverse sensibilities towards Sanskrit that are recorded in the texts from these times. Even in contemporary Indian society Sanskrit is enmeshed in educational, devotional, and even political contexts. I draw upon this huge canvas to convey what Sanskrit means in the larger context.
On a more practical side, I always tell my students about the various meanings a word may have and how we must always be sensitive to the context in which a particular word is used in order to correctly understand the meaning. Initially the students find this semantic richness a little baffling but then they get used to it. One other thing that helps me is the other Indian languages I know: Marathi, Hindi, Kannada, and a little bit of Tamil. I often allude to the words in these languages that are derived from Sanskrit and have a similar meaning, which indicates a shared cultural space. But most of all, my favourite strategy is to tell mythological stories and anecdotes that explain the cultural context of Sanskrit. The students enjoy them and everybody has a little fun.
Is there a curiosity about Indian scriptures, Yoga and Ayurveda texts where language is a means to knowledge about a certain field?
Absolutely! There is a great deal of curiosity about Yoga and Ayurveda texts and much interest in learning at least the basics of Sanskrit to access these systems of knowledge. Sanskrit words are indispensable if one seeks to delve deeper into Yoga and Ayurveda. Although only a few practitioners of Yoga and Ayurveda based in the US make studying Sanskrit a life-long priority, a large number of practitioners acquaint themselves with the terminology in Sanskrit. They prefer using these terms over their English translations because they value the concepts contained in these terms. Furthermore, English is inadequate to capture the meaning of some of these terms, so it makes sense to use the original words in Sanskrit. Also, those really interested in the textual traditions of Yoga and Ayurveda make an effort to read the translations of key texts, even if they cannot read the original text in Sanskrit.
How do you teach Sanskrit through your workshops for yoga practitioners?
Teaching Sanskrit to Yoga practitioners is something I enjoy immensely because these practitioners learn the language not just as a scholastic pursuit but as a means to integrate the linguistic and philosophical significance of Sanskrit into their practice of yoga.
This works at different levels. At the beginner level, I see a lot of interest in the basic history of Sanskrit, the language philosophy, the alphabet, and the correct pronunciation of the names of asanas. My introductory workshop covers these topics. At a slightly more advanced level, I talk about the philosophy of sacred sounds and mantras and teach chanting. A further level of coaching consists of reading, translating, and discussing classical yoga texts. Recently I had convened a class where we read a small portion of Vyasa’s Sanskrit commentary on the Yoga Sutras. It was a wonderful opportunity to analyze Yoga philosophy at a micro level.
Overall there is immense interest in Sanskrit among the Yoga practitioners based in the US. For many, Sanskrit is the foundational language of Yoga as it cultivates philosophical inquiry and aids meditation. Those interested work really hard to master the language and the pronunciation, and even produce excellent translations. From their feedback, I also know they enjoy learning Sanskrit. I feel fortunate to be a teacher of Sanskrit.
How are universities in US doing with regard to the teaching of Indian languages?
Several universities in the US, the departments of religious studies, and area studies in particular offer courses on Indian languages. Courses on Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, and of course Sanskrit are routinely offered and taught by skilled instructors. In addition, there are summer programs that offer intensive training in Indian languages. Some academic organizations offer fellowships to qualified students to visit India and learn their target language in an immersive setting. So yes, there are a lot of exciting options.
What is the scope and value of learning Sanskrit in an American university setting? Who are attracted to such courses?
To anyone interested in studying religions, philosophies, literature, and history of India Sanskrit is a vital resource. Sanskrit is a key that unlocks the wealth of primary texts so that the student does not have to rely on translations to cultivate their own understanding. There are some dedicated students who are deeply interested in studying India to earn a higher degree and work as academics or purely out of curiosity.
Yoga is another huge area that has seen a steady rise in the number of students wishing to study yoga traditions. All such students are attracted to courses in Sanskrit. I have had students from diverse backgrounds who were fascinated by the highly organized and sophisticated nature of Sanskrit. They make the effort to learn the Devanagari script and the grammar. Fortunately, American universities offer great flexibility in the choice of courses and that works to the advantage of the students. Learning Sanskrit also opens up a different cultural world to the students in the US. It tells them about the sensibilities and practices of a different culture, which only enhances their cultural literacy.
How can the antiquity of Sanskrit and its absolute relevance and interest today be preserved simultaneously?
Yes, Sanskrit is both an ancient language and a language that continues to serve many contemporary interests. I do believe that if more and more people stay curious about both the ancient and modern aspects of Sanskrit, we can open up a substantial space for a meaningful conversation. I see that many people glorify ancient Sanskrit literature as authentic while dismissing or disregarding contemporary literary and performative practices. The antiquity of Sanskrit cannot be threatened by experimentation and modern practices.
Likewise, those familiar with basic Sanskrit, say those who practice Yoga, can deepen their knowledge by studying older texts and by engaging with the communities that use the language in non-academic, practical settings. Sanskrit has such a rich and varied character that to focus on any one aspect to the neglect of the others is non-productive.
Every strand of Sanskrit runs into others. Of course, any initiative to preserve the language would require a substantial investment of time and effort. If those who truly care for the language can make that investment and stay open to different viewpoints without turning too political, I see a very exciting time for Sanskrit.
Are there any new practices and trends worth exploring for the new audiences?
I find contemporary performative practices in Sanskrit quite interesting. New plays are being written and performed for interested audiences. Poems are also composed and recited at events. New interpretations of classical works are routinely offered. I think it is important to appreciate these practices and the ways Sanskrit continued to fire up creativity and imagination. Getting stuck on classical works alone is frankly a bit boring. Especially for those studying Sanskrit in the US it is crucial to know that Sanskrit is not just a frozen classical language but has an active, living, and enjoyable side to it.
Is Sanskrit also a vehicle for Hinduism in the US? Are people accepting of that?
I don’t think there is much debate about the value of Sanskrit in relation to Hinduism. Sanskrit is still the language of many mantras, devotional utterances and philosophical thoughts. Many of the Sanskrit words have persisted in regional religious practices. Yet I want to also emphasize two things. In addition to Sanskrit there are other languages like Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, and many others that have played a pivotal role in the development of Hinduism and continue to do so. There is such amazing literature in these languages illuminating the multiple shades of Hindu religiosity.
I wish to see more cross-regional, cross-linguistic interest in the exploration of Hinduism. The other thing is that Sanskrit has been an important vehicle for Buddhist and Jain systems of thought as well. There are some truly remarkable Buddhist and Jain works composed in Sanskrit that tell us about the interrelationship between Hinduism and these two traditions. So to restrict Sanskrit to a singular religious identity and to restrict Hinduism to a single language would ultimately limit one's own understanding, I believe. In fact, with this very thought I have been learning the basics of Tamil with my son at a local Tamil school. I hope that when my son grows up, he has a deeper appreciation for regional cultures of India such as one centered around the Tamil language.
Most Sanskrit teaching in India starts with Grammar. What method do you follow? Is teaching usage first more impactful?
Well, here in the US teaching the Devanagari script comes before teaching the grammar. So I start with the writing and pronunciation of the alphabet. I do introduce some spoken Sanskrit to let the students break ice with the language and make them comfortable with the sounds of it. I wish I could have more of the spoken element because ultimately that is how a language is learnt. A child never learns to first write and then speak, right? However, the limitations of structure and time in the setting of university courses make it hard to fully incorporate spoken Sanskrit. But I believe those interested in speaking the language can avail of organizations that offer such classes. Having said that, the emphasis in the universities here is on writing, reading, and ultimately understanding the texts written in Sanskrit.
You also teach Hindi in the US. Is there any interest in other Indian languages? Which are they?
Hindi is the most popular language, but other languages like Urdu, Bengali, Kannada, Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Punjabi have a relatively small but steady audience. Both heritage and non-heritage students are interested in these languages. Despite several logistical challenges, many of the language programs have shown remarkable resilience. I hope more students, heritage or otherwise, stay curious and learn these languages.
What is your view on translations by non-Indians? Are some poor, biased, inaccurate translations doing a disservice to the texts?
It is true that Indians possess a natural proclivity to learning languages, largely because they are part of such a thriving multi-linguistic culture. Many Indians I know speak several Indian languages and have a good linguistic instinct as far as understanding the meaning of different words and phrases is concerned. Several Indians have produced superb translations. Having said that, in my humble view, translation is a very intricate process. A successful translation is not predicated upon linguistic capital alone. It involves a very careful study of various texts, an infallible command over grammar, the knowledge of the semantic range of words, a critical sense of the history of ideas, and a good eye to the immediate and larger contexts of a particular text. So without this careful study even an Indian translator can make errors, and by adhering to rigorous scholarly standards a non-Indian may produce an excellent translation.
Likewise, a non-Indian may produce a distorted understanding of a text if they misconstrue a grammatical construction or the multiple meanings of a word. Over the years I have seen some truly exceptional and some mediocre translations by both Indian and non-Indian scholars. Ultimately it all boils down to how sound one's methodology is and the purpose with which one is translating a text. I would not tie competence with ethnicity.
How has Sanskrit transformed your life?
What can I say! I would not be the person I am without Sanskrit being a part of my life. It has taught me the value of knowledge and inquiry. It has taught me to appreciate beauty in all aspects of life. At a deeper level, if there is a philosophical foundation to what I think and do, it comes from the Sanskrit philosophical tradition. Somewhere, somehow having that foundation has instilled a sense of being both a connoisseur and a distant observer to life. The more I think about it the more I realize how the language has helped me connect with the past, with my family, my grandfather who loved Sanskrit, and with the wonderful community of students and teachers both in India and the US. My life has beauty and meaning coming from all these ties. I feel blessed to be a life-long student of this profound language.