Hidden Talent: Greek on Steroids

Fall 2017 | By Robin Weiss (SFGI90) for The College

Santa Fe tutor Patricia Greer (AGI95) has a passion for Sanskrit.

Santa Fe tutor Patricia Greer developed a passion for Sanskrit vocabulary “ages and ages ago,” born of her interest in Indian texts.

In the early 1970s, while studying linguistics and literature at the University of Southern California, she thought she would take a year off in India. In Auroville, or the City of Dawn, an experimental township in Southern India (founded in 1968), Greer felt so at home that she stayed for 20 years.

In this international town dedicated to human unity, Greer felt like a pioneer.

“It was very exciting,” she says, recalling a couple hundred people trying to plant trees in an otherwise ecologically devastated landscape. “We started building this town. By the time I left, I was the administrator of an international high school.”

Greer’s family lived in Annapolis where she loved visiting the St. John’s campus.

“If I had gone there as an undergraduate, it would have changed my life,” she says.

During a one-month visit, she discovered the Graduate Institute and realized, “This is my next adventure, to study the great books of the West.”

She earned a masters in liberal arts in 1995, then headed to the University of Virginia and began her formal study of Sanskrit. Pursuing a PhD in the history of religion, Greer focused on the great Sanskrit epic, the Mahābhārata, which she explains is “ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined.”

Greer was drawn to the Graduate Institute’s Eastern Classics (EC) program on the Santa Fe campus, where students choose classical Chinese or Sanskrit, with the hope of teaching the latter.

“The people here call it ‘Greek on steroids.’ It’s really a kind of mother language, and very beautiful.”

Like Greek, Sanskrit is a classical language, she explains, but more complicated.

“Sanskrit is a highly inflected language,” she says. “There are more cases, many more tenses, a gigantic vocabulary. Every word permutates as the case, as the verbs change; words come out of each other. There are so many paradigms that you have to memorize or at least know how to navigate.”

In the EC program, students who have chosen classical Chinese, which is character driven, are translating short Chinese poems within a few weeks of the first semester. Those immersed in Sanskrit must wait until the second semester to translate anything like literature.

According to Greer, that’s quite ambitious, compared to other programs. “We really do it down and dirty,” she says. “The students find it very rewarding.”

“The languages of India are Indo-European, influenced by Sanskrit, but nobody speaks it; you have to study it,” she says. “Most scholars think that two or three thousand years ago, when the great classical texts were being written, probably most folks, who were farmers and normal people, spoke a simplified version of Sanskrit. It would only have been the Brahmin and the upper caste scholars who were able to deal with the highly developed language that the texts were written in.”

This past summer, Greer participated in a summer classics study of the Upanishads, with Annapolis tutor David Townsend, as well as a study of Zen works, with Santa Fe tutor Krishnan Venkatesh. In Sanskrit, Upanishads means “sitting down near,” referring to the spiritual practice of sitting down with the teacher.

In the past, Greer has studied Arabic with Ken Wolfe, “our resident expert in Arabic,” she says.

“I’m not one of these people who simply inhale languages. It’s something I have to work at,” she insists.

During this year’s sabbatical, she and her husband, whom she met in India, will live in Southern France for six months. Along with Sanskrit she would like to learn “a little classical Japanese, my project.”

She hopes to write a lecture on The Tale of Genji, a mandatory preceptorial in the summer semester for all EC students, which is considered the first novel ever written. The writer, Murasaki Shikibu, was a noblewoman of the high court around the year one thousand.

According to Greer, only a handful of scholars in the world can read the Japanese in which this book is written.

“That’s quite a hurdle,” she says. “I’m trying to screw up my courage to do that.”