For the Love of Sanskrit

2nd December 2021

He’s a classicist in Costa Rica and specialises in Latin and Greek. Yet, his love of Sanskrit motivated him to learn the language at ANU. Meet Roberto Morales, a true ambassador of learning and teaching. Roberto believes he is one of those lucky people who happen to work doing what they love, and teaching is something that involves incessant learning for him.

“Since teachers never stop learning, I am now pursuing a PhD in Humanities, through the University of Málaga, Spain.”

As Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Costa Rica, Roberto began teaching Greek Language and Literature, and ended up combining that with Sanskrit teaching. After an undergraduate degree in Classics in Costa Rica, where Sanskrit has been considered a part of the Classics curriculum since 1968, he obtained graduate degrees in Classical Literature and Ancient Languages, respectively, from the University of Costa Rica and from the University of Murcia, Spain.

Sanskrit: The Beginnings

Roberto first became acquainted with Sanskrit in Costa Rica, thanks to Professor Sol Argüello Scriba, whom he considers his mentor. She encouraged Roberto, first as a student and as an assistant to her courses, and then, following her retirement, as the prospective colleague to fill her shoes. Since his initial steps towards the study of Sanskrit, Roberto has found Sanskrit challenging, mostly because of the vastness and precision of its grammar. The more he learned, the more there was to learn. This led him to look for online learning options, which he found first in Spain and then in Australia. As someone working full-time, while also enjoying an active family life and pursuing a PhD, online studies were the best option, and for Sanskrit online studies, the ANU courses through OUA were a sort of Holy Grail for Roberto. Even though he had studied Sanskrit in the past, he chose to go back to the basics, for “practice is not to be abandoned”, as stated in the very first Sanskrit verse students at ANU learn. Subsequently, he obtained the course’s textbook, which he recalls was “appropriately called The Joy of Sanskrit, since joyful is, indeed, the word I would choose to summarize my experience.”

Roberto’s favourite activities in Sanskrit class are chanting verses, speaking in Sanskrit and parsing compounds. With an oral tradition expanding over several millennia, Sanskrit is a language intended to be heard. Chanting and speaking are not only ways for achieving that, but also valuable techniques for acquiring vocabulary, the basic building block upon which any language stands. Moreover, with a grammar based both on inflection and compounding, Sanskrit is a language in need for parsing. Compounds sometimes reach several lines of length, and they are, for obvious reasons, nowhere to be found in a dictionary. Parsing, then, is a bit like puzzle-solving, according to him.

Why Sanskrit?

“Sanskrit is the key to unlock the entrance to one of the richest cultures in the world.”

This is why Roberto believes others should also learn Sanskrit. He has found learning the language at ANU a fun, engaging experience. He believes India has gifted the world scientific knowledge, historical data, philosophical insight, religious guidance and an abundance of thoroughly beneficial and entertaining works of literature. Moreover, as a classical language and as an Indo-European language, Sanskrit is also a great starting point for progressing into other languages, whether they be ancient or modern, Eastern or Western. “In our globalised world, where multilingualism is becoming the norm rather than the exception, the resources that classical languages can provide us with are not insignificant.”

Roberto’s main motivation for pursuing a specialisation in Sanskrit is a professional one: he want to keep the long-standing tradition of Sanskrit teaching alive in Costa Rica. For his PhD, he is working with Sanskrit texts and has his Sanskrit courses at ANU recognised as part of his coursework. Yet, the personal gain has been just as important for Roberto:

“If teaching Classics has made me happy, teaching Sanskrit makes me even happier.”

One of the most fascinating things about Sanskrit for Roberto is the variety of synonyms existing for any given word. This becomes especially startling when it comes to everyday words. For instance, whereas in English bird and fowl, or in his native Spanish pájaro and ave, suffice as synonyms for naming these animals, in Sanskrit, ‘the winged one’, ‘the heaven-goer’, ‘the sky-goer’, ‘the one going by flight’, ‘the nest-born’, ‘the twice-born’, ‘the egg-born’, ‘the scatterer’, ‘the flyer’, ‘the one using wings as a vehicle’, and a couple dozen more words contribute to make one feel as if for everything one knows there is at least twice as much to be known. When asked if there was a particular word or expression he loved, Roberto cited the verb kaṇṭhasthī karoti, or ‘to memorize’, which literally means ‘to make something remain in one’s throat (i.e., to have it ready to be said when needed)’.

What Next?

Roberto intends to complete all eight ANU Sanskrit courses. Following this, he may dabble in other Indian languages. However, the most likely things Roberto sees himself doing are producing materials for Sanskrit study that are tailor-made for native Spanish speakers, since there are not that many available, as well as translating into Spanish some Sanskrit literary works, which likewise remain unavailable for Spanish speakers.

A research paper Roberto recently prepared was about Costa-Rican businesses whose names are of Sanskrit origin. For a couple of months, Roberto’s school-age son, eager to practice his reading skills, helped Roberto gather data from every place they visited. After reading each sign, his son would ask Roberto, “Is this Sanskrit?” And, as a matter of fact, 30 of those names were! From yoga schools to beauty salons, from boutiques to dance studios, and from spiritual organisations to restaurants, several kinds of businesses in Roberto’s home country seem to have sought inspiration in the Sanskrit language for appealing to the general public. Roberto only hopes this interest continues to grow.

And surely, with someone as passionate as Roberto to drive the mission, we are sure that the journey and future of Sanskrit in Costa Rica will be a truly bright and enriching.

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster