Kai Nip

In 1841, the Yale College Corporation appointed Edward E. Salisbury as a professor of Arabic and Sanskrit languages, establishing the first position of its kind in the nation. A pioneer in Sanskrit studies, the University established the Salisbury Chair of Sanskrit and Arabic a decade later, in 1854.

But the Salisbury Chair, the oldest Sanskrit professorship in the Americas, has remained vacant for over five years, since prominent Sanskritist Stanley Insler GRD ’63 retired. And senior lector of Sanskrit David Brick, currently the only faculty member specializing primarily in Sanskrit, will leave the University once the semester ends to assume a tenure-track professorship in Sanskrit at the University of Michigan after nine years at Yale in a nonladder instructional faculty position.

The Council of South Asia Studies is currently searching for a lector or senior lector in Sanskrit, with an advertisement for the position specifying a July 1st start date — the beginning of next academic year. And religious studies professor Phyllis Granoff, who remains at Yale, specializes in the study of Indic religions and is proficient in Sanskrit. Still, with the Salisbury Chair vacant and Brick leaving, the Sanskrit program now has a “provisional feeling,” University of California at Berkeley professor of South and Southeast Asian Studies Bob Goldman said.

Without the Salisbury Chair, the Sanskrit program is struggling to offer the diversity of courses that “students want and need,” according to Granoff. As a result, Sankritists from around the country, as well as Yale faculty members, have expressed concern for the future of Sanskrit at the University.

“This is not sustainable as compared with U.S. programs that have ongoing dedicated faculty positions and even active chairs in Sanskrit, such as Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, Texas, UC Berkeley,” Goldman said. “Indeed it is a sad state of affairs that Yale, America’s pioneer in Sanskrit scholarship, should now be looking like a minor player in the field that it founded.”

Brick said the University’s decision to start a search for his replacement almost immediately gave him hope for the continuation of Sanskrit study at Yale. But, he added that if the University decides not to fill the Salisbury Chair position, it is “a pretty bad sign for the continuance of Sanskrit here.”

According to Chair of the Religious Studies Department Kathryn Lofton, who also serves as Faculty of Arts and Sciences Deputy Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development, the continuing enhancement of South Asian studies at Yale is “a priority of the Religious Studies Department and the [Faculty of Arts and Sciences] in general.” However, the faculty searches for new faculty members in specific areas, rather than for chairs, Lofton said. Still, she added that several units in the faculty have been discussing how to address the two “historic areas of strength” that the Salisbury chair covers — Sanskrit and comparative philology.

“The Department of Religious Studies at Yale is committed to the continuation of the study of Sanskrit as a central part of humanistic inquiry in the history of religion,” Lofton said.

FAS Dean Tamar Gendler told the News that Brick’s impending departure “prompted the immediate search for his replacement, so that the teaching of the language remains unbroken at Yale, as it has been for over a century and a half.” She added that the Salisbury Chair is another important part of this centurieslong commitment.

Sheldon Pollock, professor of South Asian studies at Columbia University and prominent Sanskritist, called the importance of the Sanskrit professorship at Yale “self-evident,” particularly given the rise of India both in terms of international influence and academic interest, as well as the current “transformation of humanities into a more inclusive, globalized, even democratized form.”

“India is a world power, a major force on the global scene, soon to be the world’s most populous nation, and you cannot understand India’s present without understanding its past,” Pollock said. “Sanskrit is the key to understanding that past.”

Pollock said that with its “mistreatment of the classical humanities,” Yale is starting to look “more and more like a community college” rather than “one of the world’s great universities.”

Both Pollock and Goldman cited the fact that the University’s advertisement for a new Sanskrit lector only requires that the future lector have a master’s degree, rather than a doctorate, as evidence of the decline of the program. However, Lofton said the University was not considering anyone with “only a master’s degree.” She said she is confident that Yale “will hire someone who will quickly have their doctorate upon appointment to the position.”

Granoff disagreed with the sentiment expressed by Pollock and Goldman that the Sanskrit program at Yale had declined, citing the fact that Yale graduate students working on classical Indian religions have been “among the strongest in the country, even in the world” and have gone on to postdoctoral and academic positions at elite universities.

Even so, Brick said that filling the Salisbury Chair would allow the religious studies program to admit additional graduate students working on early India, building more of a cohort. The current religious studies graduate students focusing on ancient Indian religion feel “quite isolated,” Brick said.

According to Granoff, filling the Salisbury Chair position would also help correct the “unfortunate imbalance” in both the undergraduate and graduate South Asian Studies programs. Despite a growing interest in South Asia, Yale’s program is weighted toward the social sciences and the study of modern and contemporary South Asia and weaker on “the necessary foundation” of premodern South Asia.

Other than Granoff, who primarily focuses on ancient South Asian religions, Brick is the only faculty member at Yale to teach premodern South Asian history. In addition to teaching between five and 10 undergraduates in introductory and intermediate Sanskrit, Brick also teaches advanced courses for graduate students and general undergraduate courses on Indian history and classical Indian literature.

The first time Brick taught a lecture on ancient Indian history, 25 students enrolled. By his third and final time teaching the class, 65 students signed up. However, he said he doubted the rise in enrollment had to do with increased interest in ancient South Asia; rather, he said, it likely reflects the large number of history majors and the need to fulfill preindustrial, non-Western history credits.

Arjun Prakash ’19, a South Asian studies major and a student in both Brick’s Sanskrit literature class and his ancient Indian history class, said that studying the perspectives of premodern India is vital to understanding contemporary issues. He added that filling the Salisbury Chair would give the Sanskrit program visibility, making more students see it as a viable option for a second language.

“It’s going to be a huge loss not having [Brick], so hopefully the University can make the steps to replace him with somebody just as good in those specific content areas,” Prakash said. “Especially now, it’s very easy to let these kind of things go to the wayward and instead just focus on contemporary things, but I think it’s really important to make this a priority.”

Adelaide Feibel | adelaide.feibel@yale.edu

Clarification, April 18: This story and its headline have been updated to reflect that Yale expects to hire a replacement for departing Sanskrit expert David Brick for the next academic year.