Interview: Antonia Ruppel, Author of An Introductory Sanskrit Reader
26 January 2023
New Books in Language and Linguistics
Antonia M. Ruppel, "An Introductory Sanskrit Reader: Improving Reading Fluency", (Brill 2021)
At the end of 2021, Brill published the new Introductory Sanskrit Reader, a reader to help students start reading original Sanskrit literature. We sat down with the author Antonia Ruppel, to discuss Sanskrit texts, making a career in academia as well as her love for teaching.
Hi Antonia, can you introduce yourself?
I either say ‘My name is Antonia, and I love teaching’, or ‘I am Dr Antonia Ruppel FRAS, I have been teaching Sanskrit (and a few other ancient languages) at top universities in three countries for almost 20 years, and I am the author of a hugely successful Sanskrit textbook’. I use the former whenever I can, and the latter whenever someone is trying to alpha-male me and decides not to take me seriously because I am a rather junior woman. Junior in academic terms, I should say: getting older definitely helps here. (My advice to all young women in academia: have a little healthy dose of appropriate boastfulness ready that you can use when needed, because sometimes it will be *well* placed.)
How did you come to where you are today?
In 2005, I was doing a PhD in Classics at the University of Cambridge, and while I had not yet run out of PhD thesis to write, I was about to run out of PhD funding, and was applying for any and all jobs I had a shot at. (The sentence ‘surely applying can’t hurt’ has only ever been uttered by someone who doesn’t know how excruciatingly lengthy academic applications are.) I was not having any success – well, getting *long*-listed for two Junior Research Fellowships on my first try actually was hailed as a success by some of my dear mentors.
But then a miraculous thing happened. An actual job, not a short-term fellowship, was advertised. I applied, was invited for an interview(!) and offered the job(!!). (A note for people only just starting in academia: the job search process is supremely frustrating and really takes it out of you. But you just need that one successful application and can take it from there. Both learning to think new thoughts (aka doing research) and showing others how to think new thoughts (aka teaching) are *so* worth it. Academic admin: less so. Make sure you do your bit to make your department work, but don’t let them charm you into taking the most thankless tasks. Sometimes it can be good to be (or appear) bad at something.)
And so I found myself moving from Cambridge to Ithaca, New York, to start my job as a lecturer in Latin, Greek and Sanskrit at Cornell University. Pure teaching jobs are often looked down on in academia: the view is quite common that anyone can teach, but only some can do research. And much more importantly, it usually is only your research record that lets you advance through the ranks and gives you a shot at a permanent position. So, the person who was offered the job first declined it, and I am grateful to them up to this very day. When the job had to be re-advertised a few years later so I could get a Green Card (an odd, but surprisingly common practice) a colleague used the opportunity to convince the department to offer it to a protégé of his, who also declined (as did the second person they offered it to). I was then offered my job back ‘if I still wanted it’.
Of course I did. It was a wonderful position that let me show so many interested and dedicated students how to learn new languages and thus access the cultures and worlds which use those languages to express themselves.
I taught at Cornell for nine years, then went to the UK to teach those same three languages – Latin, Greek and Sanskrit – at a secondary school just outside London. I felt if I could learn how to get pubescent boys interested in the grammar of a dead language, I should be able to teach anyone anything that I know about. I have not yet conclusively proven that I have reached the ‘anyone anything’ stage, but I do believe those four years made me a much better (and more relaxed) teacher. When the government cut Sanskrit as an A-Level (higher school-leaving examinations) subject, I looked for another job. Once more I was supremely lucky to be invited to an interview, this time for a post on a three-year research project looking into Sanskrit syntax at Oxford University. (Please analyse this sentence syntactically, and give two examples of ‘Sanskrit syntax at Oxford University’.) The day after the interview, I received an email from the faculty administrator, saying ‘Could you please give me a call?’, followed a minute later by another email saying ‘Don’t worry, it’s good news!’.
And so from January 2019, my PI John Lowe, my colleague Adriana Molina Muñoz and I built up a 5-million-word corpus of Sanskrit texts of which we asked various syntactic questions. I loved the chance to return to ‘proper’, purely theoretical research, and greatly appreciated the opportunity to work in a group. You don’t need to polish your work before you then cautiously ask a colleague whether they might, just possibly, take a look…? Instead, you can discuss from day one, develop ideas, say things out loud and realise they’re silly right away, motivate and support one another when progress is slow, and of course bring different skills to the project. Even now that the project is over, I remain extremely grateful to John for letting me observe his ability to look at the same findings as me and be able to identify all the most interesting questions to ask of or angles to take on them. So: yes, single-author publications are what you need for the job market, but whenever you can, find a colleague you work well with and get going.
I’d been keeping an eye on the political situation in the UK (and going to all the marches in London and bothering all my friends and colleagues and neighbours by not shutting up about Brexit and occasionally tearing my hair out after watching the news etc). When the Tories won the 2019 general election in a landslide, the very moment the exit polls were announced at 10pm on December 12, I decided it was time to leave the UK. Things would get worse for a long time before they’d get better, and I wanted to move out before new borders would make that an administrative nightmare.
Incredible luck struck a third time, and a mere eleven days later the job I now still have was advertised. So here I am, at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, back living in the country that prints my passport after 22 years abroad (two years longer than Odysseus was away for the Trojan war). And my timing was fortuitous, because it turned out the state of Bavaria had just started in 2015(!) to recognize professional experience acquired outside Bavaria – thus I did not count as a beginner and even got a decent salary.
I have thus been teaching mostly in my native tongue (quite the challenge after so many years), in a system that does not charge undergraduate students any fees (quite, quite wonderful!).
Alas, the international trend continues that there are too few academic jobs and thus all those that do exist are used for researchers rather than teachers: when the Sanskrit Lecturer job here in Munich was made permanent, it went to someone whose focus and strength is research. Equally international is the attitude that ‘anyone can teach Sanskrit!’ (in my first job it was ‘anyone can teach Latin!’) and so the need for someone with linguistic expertise and language teaching experience to then teach a language was not felt. Hence I am even happier whenever students, baffled by their official classes, email me to say how much my books are helping them make sense of and enjoy learning Sanskrit.
How did you get interested in Sanskrit?
I was a first-year undergraduate, and in our linguistics classes this language called ‘Sanskrit’ kept getting mentioned as a point of comparison for Latin and Greek. I had no idea what it was, and asked one of my lecturers about it, and whether it might be a useful thing to learn. ‘Sanskrit is *always* useful!’, he replied and lent me his second copy of Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit book. I remind him of this semi-regularly, because his advice was spot-on, and my knowledge of Sanskrit in addition to Latin and Greek was what got me my first job. And my second, and third. The fourth I think I got because by then my Sanskrit textbook had come out.
I loved that this language was in some ways so similar to the ones I already knew, but it just had more of everything – more cases, more verb forms, more than one script, a dual number you *had* to use: for a grammar nerd, it was paradise. When I got to teach it, I had to start familiarising myself with its literatures and the cultures they represent. And again, there was just so much there. The history of Sanskrit is special – a grammar that was composed around 2500 years ago was perceived as such a masterpiece (well, it is) that everyone started following the rules in it, and they haven’t stopped to this day. Which means that if you learn the rules of Classical Sanskrit, you can read texts composed over the course of more than 2,000 years. And for someone like me, who had mostly been exposed to European-based ideas all her life, it was absolutely thrilling to see fundamental questions (love, money, how to get on with your neighbours, the fundamental nature of life and the universe – you know, just everyday stuff) looked at from a different point of view.
I love seeing how the same unanswerable questions preoccupy all of us, and observing how human ingenuity and tenacity allow us to perhaps not answer these questions, but at least understand them a bit better. How could something come from nothing, or how could something always have existed? Aristotle talks about the ‘unmoved mover’ (ὃ οὐ κινούμενον κινεῖ/hò ou kinoúmenon kineî lt. ‘who moves without being moved’). From the Vedas onwards we have the idea of the svayambhū- ‘the self-existent, the one who exists through him-/her-/itself’.
Advaita philosophy tells us that duality (pairs of opposites like hot and cold, good and bad) and even plurality (the existence of more than one thing) are an illusion. Zeno of Elea uses his paradoxes (most famously among them the runner who is not able to catch up with the turtle that is given a head start) to show that while monism (the idea that there is only one thing) is ‘laughable’, pluralism (the idea that there is more than one thing and that things are divisible) is even more laughable.
But there are links on the much more familiar levels as well. The German poet Heinrich Heine writes about the misery that results when we love someone who doesn’t love us but someone else, who in turn is interested in yet another person. In a poem composed either by him or in his style, the Sanskrit poet Bhartṛhari writes about that same constellation, but from a first-person perspective, and concludes ‘screw him, and her, and love, and that other woman, and me!’ (Bhartṛhari was one of the first Sanskrit authors to be translated into European languages, and at least a Latin translation of his poems predates the publication of Heine’s poem. I am currently working together with a Heine specialist to see whether there is evidence that Heine, who had studied Indology and other philological subjects in Berlin, might have known Bhartṛhari’s poem, and perhaps been inspired by it.)
Sanskrit literature is a treasure trove, and I hope I will be able to read and think about and teach students about it for a long time to come.
Browse an online sample of the Reader here.
Where did the idea of the Reader come from?
Simple: I felt it was needed.
I’ve had my own introductory Sanskrit textbook out since 2017 (I talk about it here). This means I can teach my beginner’s students exactly the way I want to, and out of just the one book. I get them to read original Sanskrit texts from as early as possible (after five weeks, to be precise); and to minimise the memorisation required of them, I show and explain to them the historical and synchronic systems that underlie the many verb and noun forms they need to know.
So: the first year is about getting to a solid look at Sanskrit grammar. The second year is about becoming properly familiar and comfortable with it, and the best way to do that, of course, is reading as much original Sanskrit as possible. No matter how dedicated you are to something, if it is fun and doable, you will do more of it.
From my personal experience learning literary languages, I know this intermediate stage involves constant use of reference works: you have nowhere near the vocabulary knowledge to read a full text smoothly. You may know the frequent noun and verb forms, but will need to find the rarer ones. Either this means constantly changing between reference books or pdfs/websites, or, if you are using a reader that does offer grammar and vocab notes, going constantly back and forth (and back and forth) in your book.
So my concept was simple: offer notes on rarer vocab, offer notes on all rarer or more difficult to recognise word forms and syntactic constructions, and put them right underneath the Sanskrit text, on the same page. Given that I cannot predict which more frequent words a reader may not know after all, I then also made a complete vocab list for each text that is freely available at brill.com/sanskrit. Thus, a student can sit down either with just the Reader or with the Reader and the vocab printout, and they have everything they need right in front of them. This layouting was possible in part through the Classical Text Editor – but given that Bruno Liebich did something very similar in his 1905 Sanskrit Reader, I wonder why this didn’t become the standard long ago.
Many students learn Sanskrit outside a formal classroom environment, without a teacher with whom they could check their translations. Many from outside India find reading devanāgarī, the main Indian script used for writing Sanskrit, a challenge. And so I provided a transliteration into Latin letters as well a fairly literal translation for all text passages.
Finally, the intermediate stage also is about acquiring a more extensive vocabulary. With the help of the Word Frequency Tool at the wonderful sanskritdictionary.com, I made a list of the 900-ish most frequent words in all the text genres intermediate students are most likely to read. For good measure, I added these as electronic flash cards onto Brainscape.
Combine this with big, clearly printed devanāgarī font and plenty of space for the many, many notes you take when you are an intermediate student translating your first continuous text, and you have the Reader.
What do you like about teaching?
I think education – showing people how to think for themselves, while teaching them that there is knowledge, that there are facts, and that there are ways of discovering new information – is fundamental to a functioning democracy. If someone has all their physical needs met AND knows how to think on their feet, it gets much more difficult to use clever propaganda to trick them into giving up their own and other people's rights.
When I started my undergrad, I took written texts as something given, unchangeable, as something that just is. My teachers showed me how to interact with texts, question them, play with them, truly understand them as creations by humans, partly conscious, partly not. First I read Ovid and Aristophanes differently, then I started applying the same attitude to things I read in the news, to things people who communicated differently from me were saying, to everything else. The world was my text.
I hated my Latin literature supervisor, John Henderson, for always making me express opinions and form judgments, because I felt I did not have the expertise for either of those yet. But his demands meant I had to learn, read, read around more, write down my thoughts, experiment with strands of thinking until, at some point, I did actually have the knowledge needed for (reasonably solid) opinions and judgments on the things he asked us about. And whenever I didn’t, it was okay: I had just learnt how to truly learn about things. I could find out, and have balanced opinions on even more topics.
I had several teachers like John. What they did for me, I hope to be doing for my students.
Antonia teaching online (with her teaching assistant)
You mention in the acknowledgements that you developed the Reader with lots of input from your students. How did that go during the difficult time of the pandemic?
I almost daren’t say this, but the pandemic did wonders for online teaching. When we were all restricted in what we were able to do in in-person groups, some of us took up solo activities, others moved as much of their life as they could outside, and some joined online communities. For almost three years, I have been teaching for Yogic Studies, which was founded before any of us had ever heard of Covid. It was (and remains) this beautiful community of study and enquiry that connects people around the globe. I often joke that I would really like it if the earth was flat: then it would be easier for us to find a class time that everyone can make. As things are, if a class suits the Americans and Europeans, it’s in the middle of the night for much of Asia and tests Oceanians’ limits of how early they are willing to get up.
Teaching means learning. Teaching a group with backgrounds as diverse as those of the Yogic Studies crowd (only some of which are there for the yoga, and who are much less restrained by financial factors than, say, students at US or UK universities or anywhere else that charges outrageous fees) means learning all sorts of things you were not expecting to learn. I got numerous questions that helped me refine how I introduce specific topics, what I explicitly mention right from the start, what I have a good answer ready for when it is asked about, and so on.
Yes, online teaching has its definite drawbacks – there is nothing quite like being in one room with your students, seeing them face to face, and being able to make them brownies when you know you are going to teach them one of the trickier aspects of Sanskrit. But by now, there are so many excellent programs we can use to create online learning communities that I, at least, had continuous very positive contact with my students throughout the pandemic.
What are some of the texts you enjoy reading the most yourself in Sanskrit?
Oh, where to start… Well: I’ll limit myself to three.
Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. The epic set in a world where all the creatures – human and other animals, and also superhuman beings – interact. That uses the very engaging story of a prince, his wife, his brother, his rival and his many allies to discuss questions of obligation, morality, love and beauty. That has been retold many times, in many places and languages, and yet is much more nuanced than at least modern retellings make it out to be. (Do I dare look at it through an utterly anachronistic lens and say that there are many feminist elements in this text that originated more than 2,000 years ago? Yes, I do, actually.)
The Śatakatraya conventionally ascribed to the poet Bhartṛhari (and if that is correct, it is around 1500 years old). This collection of around 300 short poems is just so very alive. It combines very PROPPAH pieces of conventional wisdom about the right priorities in life with beautifully deadpan ‘yeah right’ thoughts on what life is actually like. No matter their content, all the poems are elegant, like little polished gold nuggets. I would love it if their author was alive today and able to comment on our world.
Pāṇini’s grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī (lit. ‘the one with eight sections’). This isn’t so much reading as puzzling and deciphering. Pāṇini and his predecessors had refined a system of expressing grammatical thought in as few syllables as possible. It is supremely satisfying to figure out how various different rules from disparate places in the grammar come together to, for example, result perfectly in each and every correct Sanskrit word form. The list of Sanskrit sounds that accompanies the grammar is ordered in such a brilliantly intricate way that it is the work of supreme genius. Or of a god, depending on whom you ask.
Antonia Ruppel’s Introductory Sanskrit Reader was published by Brill in 2021. Listen to her talk about it on the New Books Network.