Review of The Sanskrit Language by Walter Harding Maurer

MaurerSanskritLanguageMini80Summary: Although Walter Harding Maurer’s book The Sanskrit Language is not a typical self-study text (if not complemented with other materials), it is a well-written volume with extensive readings accompanied by important “in-context” Sanskrit usage notes. It might certainly be used in an introductory (university or college) Sanskrit course.

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Walter Harding Maurer’s The Sanskrit Language: An Introductory Grammar and Reader is a thick university-style text-book on Sanskrit. The main part of the book, spanning more than 800 pages, consists of Lessons 1-32, each of which typically contains a reading (only in Devanagari, no roman transliteration), extensive notes accompanying the reading, a very substantial vocabulary (50-150 words per lesson), and some exercises (without answers).

There are many types of appendixes. One type is an “extra readings” appendix, which is called “Appendix I: The Story of Nala and Damayanti”, which contains an introduction to the Nala text (2 pp.), the Nala text itself, only in Devanagari, without any roman transliteration (13 pp.), accompanied by Maurer’s notes (42 pp.). Another type of appendix is the “tables” appendix, which is called “Appendix II: Paradigms of Declensions and Conjugations”, which not only features many declension and conjugation tables, but also has many notes, some of which are of substantial length (56 pp.). After that comes an appendix on sandhi called “Appendix III: Survey of the Principle Rules of Sandhi” (13 pp.), after which follows some sort of “Sanskrit historical linguistics” appendix called “Appendix IV: Sanskrit and its Relationship to the Other Indo-European Languages” (16 pp.).

Other types of appendixes are the two word lists, one of which is called  “English-Sanskrit Glossary” (32 pp.), and the other “Sanskrit-English Lexicon” (104 pp.). Last but not least is a very detailed index, prepared by Gregory P. Fields (32 pp.), not only covering the Sanskrit grammar terms, but also contains page numbers for proper names, such as Krishna, Brahma, Vishnu, and Yama, etc.

As for front matter, the book has a Foreword, which on its four pages describes certain aspects of the labour behind producing the book, and some guidelines for how to use the book.


1. Editions and Format

This is a not-so-light 14 x 21.5 cm paperback volume, slightly smaller in width and height than the 6 x 9 inch textbooks by Goldman and Goldman (Devavanipravesika) and Deshpande (Samskrta-Subodhini), but much thicker than either of them. So it’s not exactly a book that you can easily fit into your pocket (unless you have very large pockets!).

The type of paperback binding is tight. So it will probably hold for a lifetime without the pages falling out. But it is also tight in the sense that the pages will not lie flat, unless you hold them there by force. Whether this is because of the large number of pages, or because of the particular type of paperback binding, I cannot say; I simply know that it is irritating.

Maurer’s textbook was previously available in hardback (and perhaps still is), but in that edition it seems to have been published as two separate volumes. This sounds more manageable. Perhaps the reader should investigate this further and, instead of buying a new paperback, rather buy a used (2-vol.) hardback? Note that there are no indications in the paperback, neither in the Preface nor on the Copyright page, that the 2009 paperback edition would be any different than the 1995 hardback edition (which may, or may not, mean that the two editions are, in terms of content, identical).

2. Devanagari, Transliteration, and Tables

I do not think the tables in Maurer are very user-friendly. One aspect of this is in terms of script used. Transliteration is used in some tables, while it is not used in others. In the Active/Middle “voices” tables on p. 117 (Lesson Nine), there is no transliteration used at all; all the forms (whole conjugated verbs, as well as their isolated endings) are seen in Devanagari only. But in the Active/Middle table on p. 184 (Lesson Fifteen), there is no Devanagari at all, only transliteration. And in the Active/Middle table on p. 319 (Lesson Twenty-Five), there is both Devanagari and transliteration. In other words, there seem to be no rigid system; and even if there is some strange logic to it all, it is hard to image that it would have anything to do with “pedagogy”.

But the apparent randomness by which the particular script is selected for the tables is not the only organizational problem of the tables. There are also two other problems. One problem is the “disarray” problem. Consider the declension table on p. 433 (Lesson Twenty-Nine). This table has three “main” columns (Singular, Dual, Plural), under each of which we find “masc.” and “neut.”, thus (theoretically) adding up to six columns. But Maurer (or the Routledge editor, or both) apparently thinks it is useful to also add a column in between each of the “masc.” and “neut.” pairs, thus giving us a (factual) table of nine columns. The logic behind this design is supposedly that some of the forms for the “masc.” and “neut.” are identical, and that one therefore can skip printing the same form twice, and instead just print it once, in the “middle” column in between “masc.” and “neut.” This decision, in my opinion, makes the tables harder to read. It’s ugly.

Another problem is that the tables are not designed in the same manner. While the previously mentioned declension table on p. 433 was designed with the singular, dual, and plural forms arranged as the three “main” columns of the table, the declension tables on p. 126 have no dual forms; and the singular forms (and now only the masc. and fem. forms are represented) are now not to the left of the plural forms, but on top of them. And it doesn’t stop there. For a third design is found on p. 295, where there is a dual table stuck in between. Also, in this third case, the dual table has been “minimized” to have three rows instead of eight, and the plural table has been minimized to six rows.

Thus, there is no real “rigidity” in the tables published in Maurer. For those who want orderly, predictable tables of declensions and conjugations one might instead suggest the Devanagari-only tables in Thomas Egenes’s Intro to Sanskrit, Part One (and Part Two) as well as in M. R. Kale’s A Higher Sanskrit Grammar. And for transliteration-only declension and conjugation tables, those in Roderick Bucknell’s Sanskrit Manual are (relatively) nicely arranged.

3. The Lesson Text

Maurer’s volume basically requires that you know how to read Devanagari already from the start (which is a very tough requirement for most beginning Western students). Although one may find some transliteration here and there in the early chapters, mostly there is no accompanying Roman transliteration to the Devanagari. So the beginning student will have very little time to pick it up. Already in Lesson One Maurer prints many sentences only in Devanagari in his lesson text, assuming that the students already at that time can read it, or will be able to decipher it somehow (e.g. “निपुणः बालः पुस्तकं पश्यति”; p. 52). And this is also the case for the Vocabularies of each Lesson: only Devanagari, no transliteration.

This problem is made worse by the typography in the lesson body text, throughout the volume. Not only is the size of the Devanagari too small for beginners, but there is also another problem. For it seems that Routledge simply is incompetent in nicely mixing Devanagari and Latin characters (including Roman transliteration): where there is Devanagari on a line, they increase the line height; where there is no Devanagari, they shrink the line height, thus producing a fluctuating line height that can make some readers annoyed (especially if they have paid full price for the book). In other words, this amateurish-looking part of the book (note: not including the readings!) cannot be compared with, say, the beautifully typeset A Practical Grammar of the Sanskrit Language by Monier-Williams — it’s just another world.

Let us now focus on the text itself, and on what it says. Actually, there are many things that are very good in regard to his lesson texts. The most important point, I think, is that he knows his grammar well. And he often speaks about things that few other textbooks mention. He is also relatively straightforward in terms of language; so he is, we may say, unlike Goldman and Goldman, who have a tendency of being more pretentious than Maurer. Another good thing is that he does use footnotes when needed, in order to free the body text from too much text.

This said, I think it also fair to say the following. Although Maurer has a straightforward language, there is also a tendency to being a little too long-winded sometimes. And in combination with the decision to print almost all Devanagari (including the examples) in inline text (as opposed to on a separate, indented line), the student is faced with whole pages of text where there are no graphic “pauses” or other devices that “loosen up” the text. And since the text-block is large in comparison with the actual size of the book (the margin is so small that there is hardly any space for making notes), the “compactness” of the text is felt even more.

4. The Excellent Readings

The readings are, as I see it, the main part of the book. No matter what the lesson texts look or read like, Maurer’s volume is, for me, mainly a book of readings. And the readings are excellent. So I would buy this book (again), even if there were no lesson texts at all. That’s how good I think the readings are.

There are many aspects of why the readings are so good. First of all, the Devanagari is nicely typeset (unlike in the lesson texts). Personally I would have liked a little bolder typeface and a 10% increase in the line height; but even without such a change, it is still much better than the inline Devanagari text in the lessons.

Another reason why the readings are so good is because they are varied. There are (edited) selections not only from the Hitopadesa, but also from Kalidasa, the Bhagavad-gita, and the Ramayana, etc.

The best feature of the readings, however, is that they are accompanied by Maurer’s notes. And these notes are not as short or as few as those in Goldman and Goldman, or those in Killingley. Rather, Maurer writes whole sentences talking about everything from which root it is, which declension it is, how the sandhi is applied, why there is a locative absolute, etc.; and he doesn’t just write one or two notes: in most readings there are at least a dozen notes, in others two dozens; and in the extra readings at the end of the book, there are hundreds of helpful notes (for the readings are longer).

The only downside to these readings is that the readings don’t really correspond to the concept of “a lesson”. Take the reading in Lesson Twenty-Five, for example. Here we have one-and-a-half page of compact Devanagari to read. This is accompanied not only by 29 rather long notes covering the potential difficulties of the text (pp. 327-331), but also by a four-and-a-half page vocabulary with 135 look-up terms to learn. For a person who studies on his or her own, this is no problem, because one may divide the text in smaller chunks as one wishes. But what happens in class at the university college? Are the students supposed to be learning all these new words in the vocabulary (together with their respective translation, noun class, stem form, verb class, verb root, conjugated form, compound analysis, etc.), and the explanations used in the notes (which may include many words, forms, exceptions, and arguments), in addition to all the the grammatic ideas presented in the lesson text itself, along with all the paradigms in the Lesson, until next week? Good luck with that, especially if you are not the famous “Mr. S.” in Aleksandr Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist (Harvard University Press, 1986).

5. The index

The index is very good. Unlike Deshpande’s textbook Samskrta-Subodhini which has no index at all (but some other virtues!), the index prepared by Gregory P. Fields (Southern Illinois University) is excellent. This is probably the best index of any Sanskrit textbook or grammar that I have seen. It is unfortunate, however, that Maurer does not, in general, consistently use the traditional Sanskrit grammatical terms (as Egenes and Goldman & Goldman do); for in that case, the index would have been even more valuable.

6. Conclusion

This is a very good book, and especially its readings. It is excellent value for the money, assuming that the student is very serious about learning Sanskrit. It is not necessarily for the beginning student who has no other Sanskrit textbooks, and who does not already have Devanagari under his or her belt. But it is a must for the student who already is fluent in Devanagari, and wants to improve his reading skills with Maurer’s excellent “in-context” reading notes.

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7A. Summary: The Good

how good the good
+5 the Devanagari font used in the readings is very readable
+5 the Devanagari used in the readings is large enough to be readable by beginners
+5 relatively short chapters
+5 the notes accompanying the readings in each lesson are excellent
+5 the notes accompanying the readings in the appendix are excellent
+5 the index at the end is excellent
+5 excellent Sanskrit-English dictionary, with detailed classifications of all words
+4 good explanations of the grammar (in the lesson text)

7B. Summary: The Bad

how bad the bad
-5 does not avoid long, tedious computational/historical linguistics discussions
-5 the text in the lessons is amateurishly typeset, with different, fluctuating line heights
-5 the Devanagari text in the lessons is too small and hard to read for beginners
-5 bad layout & typography makes the paradigm appendix hard to use as a reference
-4 some long discussions may, by some readers, be categorized as “too talkative”

Edition Details:

Title (1): The Sanskrit Language
Title (2): The Sanskrit Language: An Introductory Grammar and Reader
Part: Whole
Author (1): Walter Harding Maurer
Author (2): Gregory P. Fields
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis)
Year: 2009 (“Transferred to digital printing 2010”)
Edition: Revised edition
Binding: Paperback
Pages: text: 830 pp.; index: 32 pp.; front matter (incl. Contents and a Foreword): 19 pp.
ISBN-10-a: 0-415-49143-6
ISBN-10-b: 0415491436
ISBN-13-a: 978-0-415-49143-3
ISBN-13-b: 9780415491433

See also: Book Reviews | Sanskrit Grammar | All Articles


Copyright © 2013 by Govinda Dāsa <>.

All rights reserved worldwide.

First published: 09 Mar 2013

Last revised: 16 Jan 2014


10 thoughts on “Review of The Sanskrit Language by Walter Harding Maurer

  1. Thanks for the detailed review. If you don’t mind, I would like to leave a link to a website I’ve developed with lesson summaries and (most importantly) answers to exercises from this textbook. I know the lack of answers prevents some Sanskrit students from using this otherwise well-written book, so hopefully this website can help those trying to use the textbook on their own. All the best.

    • Nikhil,

      What a concise and brilliant summary! This really helps not only for a quick purview of Sanskrit language but also to see what’s inside this costly book (Amazon does not provide the “Look Inside” option for this book!).

      Sincere thanks for this wonderful website.


      • Dear yantraka,

        Thank you for your comment. Just to be clear: the person named “Nikhil” has nothing to do with this SanskritStudio blog/site. He’s just a visitor, like you, writing a comment.

        Hare Krishna,
        GD (The Author/Editor of SanskritStudio)

      • GD,

        My congratulations are to creators of both the sites – you for Sanskrit Studio and Nikhil for I wouldn’t have known the latter if I weren’t following the wonderful posts/articles on your blog.

        Hare Krishna,

  2. Pingback: Reviews of Introduction to Sanskrit, Part One | Tom's Blog

  3. Are the readings adapted at first? Are they then presented in their original form in latter chapters? Do you think the author presents real Sanskrit to beginners because the selected readings are already comprehensible to beginners, or because he holds on the belief that learning should commence with authentic texts? Thank you.

    • Dear Paco Cheung,

      As I have said above, the readings are EDITED (i.e. adapted). This is most probably done to benefit the student so that, for example, each reading will be addressing the current points introduced in that chapter, and to avoid, or at least minimize, any advanced grammatical issues not yet introduced.

      In my opinion, there is no need for a first-year Sanskrit student to try to read original Sanskrit texts anyway. They are too complicated to read, especially if they address transcendental or metaphysical issues (e.g. Vedanta-sutra, Upanishads, Bhagavata Purana, etc.). One has to learn to be very patient. The standard Indian scheme is 12 years of Sanskrit study (WITH a teacher!) until one is reasonably proficient, and that basically EXCLUDES the appropriation of the Devanagari script with all its details and variants (schoolchildren in India who speak Hindi already know one version of the Devanagari alphabet).

      Hare Krishna,

  4. Pingback: [EBOOK] DOWNLOAD The Sanskrit Language: An Introductory Grammar and Reader Revised Edition READ NOW | САНСКРИТ

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