Review of Sanskrit (Teach Yourself) by Michael Coulson

ReviewCoulsonSanskritMini80Summary: Michael Coulson’s book Sanskrit (Teach Yourself) is, in stark contrast to its title, not a book for the typical self-study Sanskrit student who is just a beginner. But for an intermediate student who has overcome the first one thousand hurdles with the help of other, more gentle and pedagogical books, Coulson’s book may prove to be very useful.

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ReviewCoulsonSanskritFull300Coulson’s Sanskrit (Teach Yourself) is a 5 x 8 inch (13 x 20 cm) production, with over 500 pages. It is printed on rather thick paper, and has some sort of “perfect”, glued paperback binding.

There are 15 main chapters in this book, which in total make up approximately half of the book (pp. 1-275). There are also many different appendixes: the “Further Sanskrit Study” appendix, which describes things such as bibliographies of Sanskrit dictionaries and Sanskrit grammars, including both Classic and Vedic varieties (pp. 276-278); the “Grammatical Paradigms” appendix, with many noun declension and verb conjugation tables (pp. 279-309); the “Classical Metres” appendix, in which a substantial number of metre forms are descibed in typical metre diagrams using short and long symbols (pp. 310-313); and different types of answers to the exercises, including in English, in (non-standard) transliteration, and in Devanagari(pp. 314-355).

There are also two substantial mini-dictionaries called “vocabularies”: one Sanskrit-English (pp. 368-458), and one English-Sanskrit (pp. 459-477). After that comes additional, so-called “Supplementary English-Sanskrit Exercises” (pp. 478-493), with answers (pp. 494-504). Last comes two types of indexes: one “English Index” where keywords such as “accusative” and “adverbs” may be found (pp. 505-509); and one “Sanskrit Index” where both Sanskrit grammar terms (e.g. “dvandva”, “tatpurusha”) as well as “regular” Sanskrit words (e.g. “ca”, “api”, “eva”) can be found (pp. 510-513).

At the very beginning of the book there are, in addition, two important parts immediately after the contents: the “Preface” explains something about the author’s perception of the difference between this book and some of the competitors (pp. ix-xi); the “Introduction” is more of a discussion on the history of the Sanskrit language and literature and grammarians like Panini, mixed up with some “Aryan Invasion” theories (pp. xiii-xxiv).


1. Not a self-study text for the beginner

The most important thing to know about Coulson’s Sanskrit book is that it is not well suited for the beginning student of Sanskrit, and especially for that student who does not have an experienced teacher at hand. Thus, for the immediate beginner, this may, contrary to Smith’s assessment (1978), not be “excellent value for money”, if the student does not simultaneously also acquire (or already has aquired) one or several other books that would be his or her real, primary introductory Sanskrit textbook(s).

There are many reasons why this is not a good introductory text. Many of these have to do with the idea of “presentation”, as John D. Smith already has pointed out in his short review (1976, p. 177). In that review Smith brought up a number of things, such as the strange, non-standard method of transliteration of Sanskrit, and the denotation of Sanskrit compounds, as well as the questionable idea of using Sanskrit dramatic prose in an introductory text. But there are also other inadequcies in regard to “presentation” (or “pedagogy”) that we may highlight.

2. The comparative linguist approach

One problem with this book is that Coulson basically assumes that the reader is a well-read person, knowledgeable in the terminology used in Classical (i.e. Latin and Ancient Greek) grammar and comparative linguistics. Therefore, without the provision of any linguistics glossary, he does not hesitate to speak of “the comitative force of the instrumental” (p. 58), or the “deictic force” of the neuter demonstrative “idam” (p. 170), or the idea that Sanskrit does “not distinguish perfect from preterite” (p. 59).

Starting a paragraph on vowel gradation, Coulson seemingly accepts the traditional perspective of the modern (Western, Classical, Indo-European) linguist: “From the point of view of the comparative philologist . . .” (p. 27). Thus, it is not so strange that, as in other publications produced by (Western-styled) comparative linguists, that most Sanskrit examples in this book are not printed in Devanagari, but only in (bold, ugly) Roman transliteration (cf. for example Whitney’s grammar); that the otherwise typical three-by-three verb paradigm tables (as found in traditional Indian-flavoured Sanskrit text books) are instead (except on p. 30) transformed into a soul-less one-column format in Roman transliteration, only found in the appendix (p. 290 and onwards).

In a similar vein, there is a minimal amount of Sanskrit grammar terminology used. So even though terms such as “guna”, “vriddhi”, and “karmadhaaraya” are used, other terms related for example to the more basic ideas surrounding sentence construction, such as “kartari” and “karmani” are (seemingly) non-present in the text. This is in stark contradistinction to other serious Sanskrit textbooks such as Thomas Egenes’s Introduction to Sanskrit, Part One and Goldman and Goldman’s Devavanipraveshika.

3. The troublesome examples

One problem is that, in general, the examples in the book are not easy to follow. There are several aspects of this. One aspect is, as already mentioned, that Coulson insists on using examples from Sanskrit drama. Another aspect is that the examples are, in general, much too long. So instead of using a three or four word long example, he often uses examples that contain a dozen words, or even more. This makes the central grammatical point that the examples were supposed to illustrate much less clear.

Another problematic aspect is related to Coulson’s insistence on not using a very limited set of words in the examples. A beginning reader, having practically no vocabulary, will in practice not be able to flip around in the book and learn something from different examples in the later chapters; for in an example that has, say, ten words, eight of those words may be unknown to the beginner; and trying to look up not only those eight words, but also their particular form and their grammatical function, is much too time-consuming and troublesome.

As if this were not enough, there is an additional problem in relation to the examples. The problem is that Coulson does not provide an analysis of each sentence, describing the grammatical function of each word (which is understandable, since his examples simply have too many words). And this problem is further accentuated by his decision not to provide a literal translation, where the words would be in the corresponding Sanskrit word order. Even his so-called “literal” translations are not literal in the sense that they represent the Sanskrit words in the right order, or in the corresponding “chunks”. So in an example sentence containing ten words — out of which eight may be unknown — it is far from easy to identify which English word (or words) a certain Sanskrit word would correspond to.

4. Confusing exercises

Having once waded through a very substantial number of these examples myself, I can only say that they are not easy to deal with. Since Coulson does not always give clear instructions to the student what the exercise is in the first place, in terms of sentence construction (passive, active, nominal, etc.) and other details describing what he expects, the student may very well end up with a perfectly correct sentence in Sanskrit that doesn’t at all match the one that Coulson supplies.

One aspect of this is in terms of finite verbs and participles. It is not always clear which he wants: should I translate from English to Sanskrit using an active sentence construction and a finite verb? Or should I recast the whole sentence in a passive form and then use participles instead?

But the problems with the exercises do not stop there. For it almost seems as if he deliberately creates sentences in English in which the words are almost oppositely placed, compared to the answers in Sanskrit. This makes it impossible for the student to predict what kind of answer is expected. So if the student simply translates the words as is supplied in the English, he will mostly not get the same answer that Coulson provides — an answer that thus in many cases will not verify the student’s supplied exercise, since the sandhi may be totally different. Thus the student has, in reality, no complete answer to the his own solution, even though he has provided a very literal translation of the English.

So the overall feeling that one gets from these exercises is that Coulson doesn’t want the student to solve these exercises easily or orderly; they should be confusing and troublesome and non-intuitive. Coulson’s exercises are, in other words, the exact opposite of the exercises (with answers) found in Thomas Egenes’s excellent textbook An Introduction to Sanskrit, Part One (as well as in Part Two), which are clear, focused, and straight-forward, not trying to be “tricky”, or trying to make things any harder or more complicated than they already are.

5. Some good things about the Coulson text

For the beginner, the best feature of the book is, in my opinion, Coulson’s approach to (external) sandhi. Many university Sanskrit professors, eager to describe the many different rules of sandhi, probably are not overly happy with Coulson’s treatment. But his idea of basically skipping all the rules and instead providing two nice tables of all the possible combinations is sound, leaving the student with more time to study other things, instead of wasting time trying to understand, and then to memorize, the rules for the “computational generative linguistics” of external sandhi that other Sanskrit textbooks and grammars are so full of (e.g. Goldman’s Devavanipravesika, etc.). Coulson’s idea is that the student will learn to recognize the patterns after a while, by just continuing using the tables whenever he or she needs it. (But it would have been nice if the vowel sandhi table also had included an avagraha, or its transliterated equivalent, for the vowel sandhi of final “e” and initial “a”, as well as of final “o” and initial “a”.)

Another great thing about this book (for the intermediate, not beginning, Sanskrit student) is that it is focused on usage, not morphology. As Coulson so rightly points out in the Preface (p. ix), other Sanskrit books focus on “the complicated morphology” instead of things like nominal formations and compounds. However, Coulson admits that his usage-centered treatment of Sanskrit leaves less (very little) room for the basic paradigms of verbs and nouns: “thorough drilling in all the forms of declension and conjugation has been a secondary consideration” (p. x). Thus, this is not really an introductory book in Sanskrit, although it may be very helpful to the intermediate student.

6. Conclusion

All these points considered together must, in my view, lead to the assessment that this text is completely unsuitable for a self-study student wishing to learn Sanskrit on his own. This is a far cry from Smith’s statement: “If people fail to teach themselves Sanskrit by using this book, it will be fairer to blame the student or the subject than to blame Coulson” (p. 177).

However, for the student who already has mastered the basics of Sanskrit (by using other books), Coulson’s text may very well be very useful, and take the (hard-working) student to another level of Sanskrit proficiency. By using this text, the student may not only increase his or her vocabulary, but also get important pointers on usage. And although many of the examples are drawn from Sanskrit drama, many general points on compounds, verbs, and participles would be useful also to those readers who are more of the philosophical or religious bent.

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7A. Summary: The Good

how good the good
+3 avoids long discussions on sandhi
+4 recommends using sandhi tables
+4 easy-to-read sandhi tables

7B. Summary: The Bad

how bad the bad
-3 too small Devanagari font
-4 most examples are provided only in transliteration, not in Devanagari
-4 most examples use too long sentences, which obfuscate what is to be illustrated
-4 even the “literal” translations of examples are mostly not word-for-word literal
-4 non-standard transliteration of Devanagari
-4 too confusing symbolic representation of compounds
-4 too many words in each chapter’s vocabulary (typically 50-100, and more in some!)

8. References

John D. Smith (1978), “Review of Sanskrit: An introduction to the classical language. By Michael Coulson.” in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Vol. 110, pp. 177-178.

See also: Book Reviews | Sanskrit Grammar | All Articles


Copyright © 2012-2013 by Govinda Dāsa <>.
All rights reserved worldwide.

First published: 18 Nov 2012
Last revised: 28 Mar 2013


2 thoughts on “Review of Sanskrit (Teach Yourself) by Michael Coulson

  1. I agree that Coulson’s is a difficult book for a beginner, especially one with no background in inflected languages, but I think it’s a good book to use after about 15 lessons of Egenes. The basic problem with Egenes for me—as a teacher in the classroom—is that the exercise sentences are extremely dull and also not even good Sanskrit in some instances. And I find his exposition up to about lesson ten, and even beyond, too painfully slow and repetitive, with constant repetitions of the same paradigms and vocabulary in the “Summary Sheets” at the end of the first ten lessons (which along, with other features, add too many pages to the book, making it more expensive than necessary). And when he moves on in the second volume, the highlight is on the very abstract Sanskrit used in the Bhagavad Gita, which I find very difficult to integrate with the new grammatical material without taking up too much time for that alone. I’ve tried switching to Goldman when we get that far, but Goldman’s expository language is far drier and more cumbersome than Coulson’s, almost impenetrable for students. I like Goldman’s exercise sentences, based on the story of the Ramayana, very much, but as a teaching grammar it doesn’t work for me. So Coulson is still the best second book as far as I’m concerned. I just find it impossible to stay with Egenes all the way. Later I use Lanman’s reader if I have students who get that far. I’ve tried it with Whitney’s reference grammar as Lanman intended, but that’s a bust. My new plan is to provide the students with substitute notes referring them to pages in either Coulson or Mayrhofer’s more usable alternative to Whitney’s dark thicket of a work. I also personally get a lot out of Coulson’s comparative linguistic approach—it’s a book I find interesting to reread. Does this help the students? Not without my input, but it makes me a better teacher.

    • Dear Steve,
      Thank you very much for your detailed comment. It is always interesting to hear about how a “live” teacher experiences different textbooks in a typical classroom setting.

      I agree with most of what you say. And I definitely believe, like you do, that Coulson’s volume is valuable for beginning students. This is why I, already before I received your comment, had put it in the category “Optional materials” (together with Dermot Killingley’s 3-vol. “Beginning Sanskrit” and Roderick Bucknell’s “Sanskrit Manual”), as can be seen on the “Overview of Sanskrit Textbooks” page (

      However, I would not go so far as to say that Egenes’s exercise sentences are “extremely dull and also not even good Sanskrit in some instances”. Actually, I appreciate their “dullness”, since they are “predictable” (unlike those in in Coulson’s book, which are “non-predictable”). This has the effect that the self-study student is, on average, capable of translating the exercise sentences in Egenes’s volumes in such a way that they perfectly correspond to the answers provided in the book. This builds the confidence of the student. And this is why I also like Deshpande’s Samskrita-Subodhini textbook: just as many “clusters of examples” in the Lessons are pedagogical, his example sentences are also very straight-forward, i.e. replete with excellent “dullness”, and thus perfectly “predictable” for the student to translate.

      Thank you once more for your valuable input!
      Hare Krishna, Jaya Radhe!

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