If you encounter Sanskrit in America, you’re likely to find it in yoga studios, Hindu temples, and misspelled tattoos, in that order. If you encounter Sanskrit scholarship in America, you’re likely to find it littered with men, a patriarchal lineage rivaling that of any Sanskrit epic. Though there are a number of prominent women Sanskritists today, they have always been considered the exception to the rule.
My research in the Radcliffe College Archives at the Schlesinger Library, however, shows that this was not always the case. As in so many scholarly disciplines, from computer science to astronomy, women were present at the very origin of Sanskrit study in the United States. Nowhere is this more clear than in the uneasy but fruitful relationship between Harvard professors and Radcliffe students at the turn of the 20th century.
The study of Sanskrit at Harvard was coeval with, and in some ways central to, the rise of the modern American university. What is less known is that it was also present at the origins of Radcliffe—or the Annex, as it was known prior to its incorporation—where Abigail Leach studied the subject with James Greenough in 1879. When Charles Rockwell Lanman was hired as Wales Professor of Sanskrit in 1880, he inherited Greenough’s commitment to teaching Radcliffe students.
This commitment extended through the end of his career in 1926. In the course of nearly 50 years, over a dozen women studied Sanskrit and Pali with Lanman. With the help of the Schlesinger Library staff, I was able to reconstruct many of these women’s lives from the student files, deceased alumnae folders, and handwritten letters preserved in the archives. Some examples demonstrate the range of their life experiences.
Annie Barber Clarke, Class of 1882, worked as a research assistant for five years in Cambridge for Henry Clarke Warren, independent scholar of Buddhism and founder of the Harvard Oriental Series. This involved reading and editing manuscripts in four different South and Southeast Asian scripts. Clarke was involved in suffragist activity in the late 19th century and advocated that Harvard degrees be granted to Radcliffe graduates. Her translations of the Sanskrit poetry she studied survive among her papers.
Catharine Bird Runkle, Class of 1886, appealed for a course in Sanskrit even though she was the only student. According to a letter by her friend Anna Carter, Class of 1888, “[A]fter a while it was given to her and she said that when she wanted something she kept on wanting it until she got it.” Runkle’s co-authored translation from the German of Paul Deussen’s Outline of the Vedānta System of Philosophy remains a classic in the study of Indian philosophy. Moreover, as is apparent from Lanman’s gradebook, she consistently outperformed her co-translator James Haughton Woods, who would go on to teach in philosophy and Asian studies at Harvard.
Sarah Wells Brooks, Class of 1892, like Annie Barber Clarke, studied Sanskrit and worked for H.C. Warren, but also harbored an interest in the natural world, studying zoology and landscaping during her time at Radcliffe. Many years later, the records show her living in difficult conditions on a farm that she owned in Concord. Her simultaneous love for Sanskrit and the outdoors remind one of that other, more famous Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau. But her death in poverty and obscurity contrasts sharply with his presence in the American consciousness.
That none of these women was allowed to advance in a scholarly career in the subject says as much about our time as theirs. For the very fact that this is an unknown history demonstrates that the intellectual inheritance of the field—now in its modern incarnation as South Asian studies—is conditioned by occlusion and absence. When inequalities of race and gender continue to feature in the classroom and the conference room, it is necessary to reckon with the history of scholarship. One hopes that telling a more complete story about its past may guide its future direction.
Radcliffe Courses of Instruction are available online from HOLLIS catalog record links.
Anand Venkatkrishnan is preceptor in Sanskrit in the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University. His book in progress, "Love in the Time of Scholarship," examines the relationship of bhakti, religion as lived affect, with philosophy as intellectual practice. His research at large concerns the social history of intellectual life, both in early modern India and in the modern scholarly study of South Asia.