Review of Saṃskṛta-Subodinī: A Sanskrit Primer by Madhav M. Deshpande

DeshpandeSamskrtaSubodhiniMini80Summary: Madhav M. Deshpande’s book Saṃskṛta-Subodhinī: A Sanskrit Primer is an excellent Sanskrit text book. Although not suited for the typical self-study student (if not complemented with other books), it is a nicely typeset volume with clear and concise prose that may be used during the first semesters of an introductory (university) Sanskrit program.

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Madhav M. Deshpande’s Saṃskṛta-Subodhinī: A Sanskrit Primer is a university-type textbook on Sanskrit, and apparently a result of his (at the time of publication) over twenty-five years of teaching Sanskrit at the University of Michigan. The main part of the book, spanning approximately 400 pages, consists of Lessons 1-44, each of which contains many exercises (without answers), and a vocabulary of, typically, 25-40 words.

There are two types of appendixes. One type is the “Additional Sanskrit Readings” — a 25-page appendix with different Devanagari texts and vocabularies. Another type of appendix is the “Glossary”, which in fact are two: one Sanskrit-English glossary (34 pp.), and one English-Sanskrit glossary (28 pp.), supposedly containing all the words introduced in the vocabularies throughout the book. The Sanskrit words in both of the glossaries are not typeset in Devanagari, but only in Roman transliteration (IAST).

As for front matter, the book has a one-and-a-half-pager called “Preface to the Fourth Reprint Edition” which gives some background information to the writing of this book and to the difference between editions. This is followed by a ten-and-a-half pages long “Sanskrit Language” essay, in which a very short account of Sanskrit is found, describing its history, the Devanagari writing system, sounds, grammar, syntax, etc., ending with a mini-bibliography containing seven important books on Sanskrit.


1. Physical Format

This book’s colorful cover (my copy has a green-colored cover, but violet ones too are in circulation) is perhaps not the most beautiful in the history of Sanskrit textbooks; but there are good things to be found inside.

It is somewhat heavy, since it is printed on relatively thick paper, and also because it comes in a regular 6 x 9 inch (15 x 23 cm) format (so it is less portable than, say, Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit). Because of this, it is good, especially for the student who needs to travel with it, that it is not in hardback, which would have made it even heaver (and pricier).

2. Devanagari

One good thing about this book is that it (partly) respects the student who does not know Devanagari at the outset. Because of this, Deshpande has taken the rather unusual step of actually printing all the main Devanagari letters in very big typeface sizes (pp. 4-14), so that five or six letters completely fill a page (together with smaller ones with transliteration at the very bottom of the page).

However, his concern for the student’s acquiring of the Devanagari seems to be rather short-lasted. For when he presents the table of consonant-vowel combinations (p. 15), and the consonant clusters (pp. 16-26), the typeface size is back to the “normal” size that is used in the rest of the book. This is especially objectionable since the layout, especially on the consonant clusters pages, is simply a foolish-looking one-column layout, which one easily could have made into a multi-column layout, while using a bigger typeface size for increased readability.

I think the Devanagari, in general, is nicely typeset in the lesson texts. By this I am not referring just to the Devanagari that is used in the examples (which are mostly printed on their own lines), but also the Devanagari that is present “inline” with the Roman characters. So while the core lesson text in, say, Maurer’s The Sanskrit Language is typeset in a very unprofessional way (it has fluctuating line heights!), Deshpande’s textbook is nicely positioning the Devanagari within the English text, so that it becomes both beautiful and very readable.

3. Explanans and Explanandum

There is, however, a “didactic” point to be made about the use of the Devanagari within the lesson texts. The point to be discussed is in regard to Deshpande’s use of Sanskrit grammar terminology in Devanagari (e.g. “द्वन्द्व”, “बहुव्रीहि”, etc.) throughout the lesson texts. Although perhaps not as frequent as Goldman and Goldman’s similar use in Devavanipravesika, it still is frequent enough to make the text less readable.

Although one easily can imagine that such usage of Devanagari here and there might have been the author’s attempt to “condition” or “force” the student to read small chunks of Devanagari to make him acquire the script more easily, it is not a very bright idea. But do not misunderstand me here: the idea of “chunk” reading is a good idea, but it should be applied with the right words. And the right “inline” words to be typeset in Devanagari are not the Sanskrit grammar terms, for those words, just like their corresponding terms in English, as well as the rest of the surrounding English text, are only the tools by which the author tries to explain what is going on in the Sanskrit example sentences. Thus, the only words that need to be typeset in Devanagari are the words of the examples, and those connected to the examples.

But Deshpande does not do it like that. He instead uses the Devanagari both for the example words and for the Sanskrit grammar terms, which is confusing; it almost feels like he is mixing up two completely different categories of words: the explanadum (the examples) and the explanans (the text explaining the examples). A much better way to proceed would have been to typeset the Sanskrit grammar terms in IAST transliteration, as is done in, for example, the well-designed, well-structured Introduction to Sanskrit, Part One, by Thomas Egenes. That way, each ‘category’ of text would have its own typographical device: everything in Devanagari would then be something that had to do with the actual words of the explanandum (the example itself); and everything in the Roman script, including the transliteration, would be part of the explanans (the explanation).

4. Morphology

Unlike some other Sanskrit books (e.g., Goldman and Goldman’s Devavanipravesika), Deshpande has, in my opinion, the right balance between morphology and usage. Although the formation of words (suffixes, infixes, verb conjugation, noun and pronoun declension, sandhi, etc.) does occupy a fair share of the text, Deshpande focuses, it seems, more on syntax and usage. With clear and concise descriptions, together with many short and focused examples, he succeeds, on the most part, in providing a very readable account of Sanskrit.

5. The Examples

Something which is very noticeable is that Deshpande’s examples are very well thought out. There are several aspects of this. One aspect is that, in general, he does not follow Coulson’s lead and use very long sentences for his examples; instead, Deshpande uses relatively few words in his example sentences. This has the effect that the reader more easily can understand the example, since there are less words to “investigate” or “decipher”.

Another virtue of the examples is that they are logically grouped. By that I mean that he usually takes the trouble not only giving an “immediate” example of the grammatical point being discussed in the surrounding text, but he is also trying to contrast it and compare it with earlier grammatical points and examples. So, for example, when he talks about the passive voice in Lesson 16, he illustrates not only the group consisting of “Rama goes home” and “Home is gone to by Rama” next to each other (p. 129); he also lists another three similar example groups in the present tense (pp. 129-130), as well as four other additional example groups, for different tenses/moods (pp. 130).

Yet another thing that is good about the examples is that they are, on balance, relatively literal in their translations. So, again unlike Coulson, Deshpande mostly tries to keep the “feel” of the original Sanskrit sentence/clause when he translates. Although not slavishly following this rule, it is helpful, especially for the beginning student, that he does not, for example, translate a passive sentence construction directly into an English sentence with an active sentence construction, but keeps it passive also in the English.

As I have indicated above (but not explicitly stated), there is another good thing about Deshpande’s examples: they are many. And they are also typeset in a way that they are easy to find (on a new line, usually indentend) and (relatively) easy to read.

6. Problems: Tables, Appendixes, and Index

The single biggest problem with this book is the lack of index. It is virtually unfathomable that any responsible publisher, and a “university press” publisher at that, should publish an introductory textbook on one of the world’s most difficult languages without any index at all. It is outrageous.

And the total lack of appendixes does not exactly make the situation any better. Where is that nicely designed collection of noun declensions, verb conjugations, participle forms, and sandhi rules for easy referral? Nowhere.

Unlike in well-designed textbooks such as Thomas Egenes’s Introduction to Sanskrit, Part Two, which has an abundance of useful and nicely designed reference tables, Deshpande’s text does not have any such tables at all. It’s not that such tables are totally nonexisting, though: many tables, some of them very long, are indeed in the text — a fact that makes the real text (i.e. the explanatory text) harder to read; and the further back in the book you go, the longer these tables get, and the more they interrupt the flow of the text. It would have been editorially advisable to only have shorter (max. one page each) tables in the text, while putting the longer (multi-page) ones in the back.

7. Conclusion

This is a very nice book, especially in terms of its many examples, and concise explanations of the grammar. However, it is not, by itself, suitable for the beginner without a teacher, but can be complemented with other Sanskrit textbooks. The complete lack of index and reference tables is a disaster.

See also: Book Reviews | Sanskrit Grammar | All Articles

8A. Summary: The Good

how good the good
+5 nice Devanagari typeface, and nicely typeset
+5 clear, concise, unpretentious descriptions of the grammar
+5 relatively short chapters
+5 many examples, and well chosen
+5 examples are nicely labeled and explained
+4 has audio files on a supporting website
+4 avoids long, tedious computational linguistics discussions
+2 introduces sandhi in relatively small installments

8B. Summary: The Bad

how bad the bad
-5 has no index at all!
-5 has no appendixes summarizing paradigms, verb/participle roots, pronouns, sandhi, etc.
-5 has no answers to exercises (for those who study on their own)
-3 too long lists of verbs and participles within the chapters, instead of in appendixes
-3 due to the very sparse prose, there is sometimes much information missing

Edition Details:

Title (1): Saṃskṛta-Subodhinī: A Sanskrit Primer
Title (2): Samskrita-Subodhini: A Sanskrit Primer
Part: Whole
Author (1): Madhav M. Deshpande
Publisher: Centers for South Asian Studies, The University of Michigan
Year: 2007
Edition: Fifth Printing (presumably with corrected typos, as in the Fourth Printing edition)
Binding: Paperback
Pages: 504
ISBN-10-a: 0-89148-079-X
ISBN-10-b: 089148079X
ISBN-13-a: 978-0891480792
ISBN-13-b: 9780891480792

See also: Book Reviews | Sanskrit Grammar | All Articles


Copyright © 2012-2013 by Govinda Dāsa <>.

All rights reserved worldwide.

First published: 10 Dec 2012

Last revised: 28 Mar 2013


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