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McComas Taylor loves languages. His most favourite is Sanskrit, but it's not the only one to which he has devoted himself.
We asked him about how he came to learn and teach Sanskrit.
It's a long story. It goes back to me in my last year of high school when I came across a book called Three Hundred Poems of the Tang Dynasty. I picked it up and I couldn’t believe it. I thought: Oh! I am going to study Chinese. I want to be able to read this. As I said, it’s a long story.
So my first degree was in Chinese. In the 1970s, 1980s, everything I saw, ate, touched, wore, thought about was Chinese. I was totally absorbed.
And I have maintained a lifelong love of Chinese, particularly Classical Chinese. I studied in China as a young student in the mid 1970s and worked in the field. My interest in Chinese led to an interest in Tibetan studies. At that stage there was only one Tibetan in Canberra, Lama Choedak, and every Tuesday night I would go down to Lama Choedak’s place for Tibetan lessons, and I learned more and more and after about five years Lama Choedak started sending his beginner students to me, so I started teaching Tibetan in the community. He and I even wrote a textbook together.
That interest in Tibetan very naturally led to an interest in Sanskrit. This is because so many of the great classics of Sanskrit literature, of the Buddhist texts, were translated into Tibetan. So in fact many texts have been preserved in Tibetan event though they have been lost in Sanskrit.
But basically nearly everyone who has an interest in Tibetan will have a side interest in Sanskrit but my side interest actually took over my life.
What happened there was that I read the Mahābhārata, the great national epic of India, in translation. It’s 5,200 pages. It was my bedside reading for about three years. So I had my head full of Mahābhārata.
People often say that you can be very specific about life changing events. On the 9th of September 1995, was the night that SBS showed Peter Brooks’ six hour version of his dramatic performance of Mahābhārata and I was absolutely obsessed, having seen this performance. It was a full moon night. It finished at half past one and I went out onto the back step and I took a vow under the full moon that I would spend the next 10 years studying Sanskrit so that I could read Mahābhārata in the original.
The next morning I went out and bought myself a copy of Teach Yourself Sanskrit which turns out to be a very bad place to start. It’s a terrible book. I got as far as chapter five, nobody has ever got past chapter five, and so I hit this brick wall with that book.
At that stage there were a couple of nice fellows on campus who had studied Sanskrit and very kindly took me on as mentors, and meeting with them at lunchtimes over a couple of years they actually got me up to speed.
I actually came back and did first year Sanskrit at the ANU, and ironically I did first year Sanskrit in the Tram Room at the Baldessin Precinct building where I now teach it 20 years later, so it’s fun to be back in the same room.
I basically started teaching myself Sanskrit and did first year here and one day, must have been about 2000, my wife and I were walking along the beach and we were talking about regrets. She asked me if I had any regrets, and yes, I had always regretted that I never did my PhD. So she said, get off your backside and go and do it! So I came back, knocked on a few doors around here and they said they’d give me a try, but not a scholarship. So I came back in around 2000 and I began my PhD working with John Powers who was a very kind, but very firm supervisor (the best kind).
I finished in around 2004 and a job became available here in the Faculty of Asian Studies, as we were then, to teach what is effectively Asian Studies 101. Because I had experience in South Asia and East Asia I could really cover it. Usually you are either a China person or you are an India person, there are very few people who can bridge both.
Not only that, I like people. They knew I wouldn’t muck up. For five years I taught Individual and Society in Asia, the big introductory course.
While I was doing that, on the side I built up the Sanskrit program. There was a tiny vestigial program. The year I started I had five student, two in first year and three in second year. We innovated every way we could. We pioneered teaching by videoconferencing while that was new. Then we pioneered using web-based learning and now Zoom. We have really pioneered online learning.
The Sanskrit program here is now probably the biggest in the Western world. I now have usually 40- 45 students across four years. I would expect to have about 25 in first year every year. So this is really on a completely different scale.
I love the idea of teaching one of the world’s oldest languages with the newest technology. It’s really special.
Now I have students all over the world. My favourite class this year has been Monday at 7:30. Monday at 7:30 I’ve got Martin in Portugal, Kumar in Dubai, Lila in Denmark, Abhishek in Poland, Wang Yi in Beijing, plus a dozen students all around Australia all coming together in the same online classroom.
One thing I love to do is sing songs together. I’ll get Martin to sing the first line, Lila to sing the second line, Kumar to sing the third line and Yi to sing the fourth line. And that way we have surrounded the entire globe with Sanskrit sound. And that cannot do anyone any harm.
I think I was actually placed on this earth to teach Sanskrit. I didn’t realise that for a long time, but I found out about 20 years ago. That is the reason I am here; I love it, it is an enormous blessing and privilege to be able to teach something that you love. In fact if you are not teaching something you love you probably shouldn’t be teaching it.
I get such warmth and affection back from my students. Usually teaching makes you feel tired, but Sanskrit is the opposite. It really energises me, makes me feel good.
I never really knew why I took up Sanskrit other than reading Mahābhārata, until one day one of my lovely mentors, Richard Stanley, an ANU alumnus from a long way back, said to me in his broad Australian accent, “Sanskrit makes ya feel good.” And I suddenly realised, yes, that’s why I do it. Sanskrit makes you feel good.
Listen to the interview on Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-120660031/mccomas-taylor