A long introduction for teachers and interested students

The vālmīkirāmāyaṇam is one of the foundational works of Sanskrit literature. As poetry, it is the ādikāvya (first poem) and the start of the Sanskrit poetic tradition. As a devotional work, it reveals the life of Rama, the beloved avatāra (incarnation) of the god Vishnu. As a cultural record, it captures much of the ancient Indian world and its ideals. And more simply, it is an enchanting story that has endured for good reason.

Our Ramayana series is a graded adaptation of this poem. The first book in our series can be read by complete beginners on their first day of learning Sanskrit, and each successive book reveals more about the story, the culture of Rama's world, and the Sanskrit language itself. By the end of our series, readers will have read over 100,000 words of simple and compelling Sanskrit and will be well-equipped to explore Sanskrit narrative literature, including selected passages from the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

This series is best suited for anyone who wants to develop Sanskrit fluency while enjoying one of the most captivating stories in world literature. We think this series is especially suited for:

  • Students who prefer learning through communicative methods rather than studying grammar;

  • Self-study learners interested in reading Sanskrit literature, rather than decoding or translating it; and

  • Veteran readers who want to improve their Sanskrit proficiency by reading something simpler.

Compelling and comprehensible input

Second language acquisition research shows us that in order to become fluent readers of a language, we must be exposed to large quantities of interesting and understandable content. That is, we must be exposed to large quantities of compelling and comprehensible input.

For Sanskrit, however, many of the input sources we have are simply too difficult for learners to read. Even simple traditional texts are usually written for expert-level Sanskrit users in a known cultural context, and are thus not comprehensible.

That some students eventually attain some level of reading fluency is ultimately a testament to their passionate and inspiring teachers, or perhaps to their own internal drive. But one wonders how many more students could achieve reading fluency – and how many more students could be retained – if only the right materials were available.

Our Ramayana series aims to remedy this problem by providing an easier source of compelling input for Sanskrit learners. We have designed it according to the best practice recommendations from second language acquisition research.

Best practices for providing input

What are the best-practice recommendations for providing compelling and comprehensible input?

The most vital is to provide language with a clear communicative purpose. Generally, we communicate so that we can entertain or inform; non-communicative language, as encountered in drills or translation exercises, does not fill this purpose. Although the Ramayana is not compelling to all audiences, reading it nevertheless has a clear communicative purpose.

To further aid the acquisition process, we apply three principles informed from the current research.

First, we limit the number of unique headwords used, which is one of the most effective ways to immediately make a text more understandable. Thus the first 10,000 words of our adaptation use around 60 unique headwords, excluding proper names.

Second, we use unrestricted grammar, without adhering to a specific grammatical syllabus. Grammar rules are not acquired in a fixed sequence, and generally they can be acquired simply by seeing them occur repeatedly in compelling and comprehensible input. Our readers thus receive early and constant exposure to sound changes (sandhi), optatives, gerundives, compounds, and more. And because we use a small lexical inventory and communicate in a meaningful and accessible context, learner comprehension remains very high.

To better illustrate the basis of this approach, compare the two passages below. One uses English words with an unknown grammar, and the other uses unknown words with English grammar. Which is easier to understand?

Girl Mary. Happy Mary. Girl happy Mary. Boy Mary-maybe? Boy Mary-not. Girl Mary. Happy Mary-maybe? Happy Mary. Girl happy Mary.

John quais kerblai. John quais frempt. John quais a frempt kerblai. Does John quai an abalax? John quais an abalax. John quais a frempt abalax.

Third, we immediately clarify meaning if the reader is unsure about a given expression. When a reader clicks a word, we display a concise word translation. Earlier books in our series also have phrase and sentence translations, as well as abundant illustrations, so that the context and meaning of a sentence is as clear as possible.

(Contextual grammar explanations are in progress. But when complete, they will also be able to quickly explain the grammar of individual words and endings for interested students.)

Pacing input complexity

As described above, we use a restricted vocabulary but otherwise focus on natural and communicative language. That said, there are some techniques we apply to ensure that readers can more easily understand and process what they read. These techniques are informed by the various input processing strategies that novice language learners prefer:

  • primacy of content words – Learners focus on meaningful context words like "man" and "run" rather than function words like "the" and "also."

  • lexical preference – Learners focus on lexical items rather than inflectional endings. They prefer clear word boundaries so that different lexical items are easy to tell apart.

  • first noun – Learners tend to identify the first noun they see as the subject of the sentence.

Our books can be roughly divided into four levels of difficulty: 0-30 unique headwords, 30-50 unique headwords, 50-100 unique headwords, and 100+ unique headwords.

In the 0-30 unique headword range, we use thoughtful repetition of key words and phrases to clarify meaning. Almost all words are content words. Sentences are kept short and have a simple structure. Sentences are also split onto their own lines, so that it is easier to see sentence boundaries. Sentence subjects are constantly repeated, per the first noun principle. Inflectional endings are generally supported with words like bahavaḥ (many), pūrvam (previously), aham (I), and so on. Sanskrit's sound change rules (sandhi) are all observed, but we have avoided writing expressions where sound changes would hide word boundaries.

In the 30-50 unique headword range, sentences are combined into small paragraphs, and sentence structure becomes slightly more complex. We reduce some of the thoughtful repetition of the earlier books and focus more on the main story.

In the 50-100 unique headword range, content focuses almost solely on the core narrative. More function words are introduced. Sentences become longer and more complex. Subject nouns are omitted more frequently if they are clear from context, and likewise for our lexical supports. Sound changes are applied without restriction, including when they hide word boundaries.

In the 100+ unique headword range, content is completely unrestricted and lexical support is rare. We continue to use devices like commas and quotation marks to clarify the text's overall structure.

Pacing new headwords

After the first book, each successive book introduces around five new headwords.

In the context of communicative language teaching for beginners, this is an aggressive pace. But there are a few mitigating factors that make this pace more acceptable.

First, these new words are reused constantly, both within a given book and across multiple books. Each headword we introduce serves a vital communicative purpose and will reappear dozens or hundreds of times.

Second, our overall project takes a library approach, meaning that there is no need to read only this series, or to read it in strict order. Each book in our series quickly establishes important context, and we encourage readers to use other content (if the pace is too fast) or jump ahead (if the pace is too slow).

That said, the advantage of a continuous series is that it allows the reader to read deeply on a single topic and rely on a familiar context. So for readers who want more structure, reading this series straight through is an excellent option for acquiring Sanskrit proficiency.

Pacing cultural context

Many readers will already know the core story of the Ramayana, but many will not. In order to make this work as accessible as possible, we have written our series with the assumption that the reader has zero knowledge of Indian culture.

Thankfully, the core story of the Ramayana is universal and easy to grasp. At the same time, nearly all the events and side stories of the Ramayana are deeply rooted within Indian culture. This dual nature lets us introduce cultural knowledge where appropriate and focus on the main story where not.

Specific cultural knowledge is introduced as early as our first book, where the reader learns that Dasharatha has an interesting marriage. It is further established through context clues and images. Each book also has a very short English introduction (two or three sentences at most) to further establish cultural context for those who need it.

Suggestions for teachers

The findings of second language acquisition research have convinced us that a communicative Sanskrit program focused on providing compelling and comprehensible input is highly effective at developing Sanskrit proficiency. In addition, communicative methods are accessible and enjoyable, which increases student retention and enthusiasm.

In such a program, our series is an abundant source of accessible reading material that lets students rapidly develop Sanskrit reading proficiency. It can be used as an extensive reading option as part of a larger class library, or it can serve as scaffolding for a first-year course.

For programs that use traditional grammar-based instruction, students who have already studied formal grammar will able to internalize their latent grammatical knowledge and see it realized in understandable and level-appropriate expressions. Since these texts are much easier than traditional literature, this internalization process can proceed much more quickly, meaning the student can more confidently and capably proceed to intensive reading of traditional texts.


All text in this series (including this introduction) is released into the public domain. All images are from public domain sources and are thus available under the same license.