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At Last, Sanskrit

A Returning Scholar resumes his study of a classical language after a forty-year hiatus

Written by Philip Baker
Ralph Stroll

In the late seventies, just before he started classes at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Ralph Strohl—now a student in the Returning Scholars program—traveled to India to meet his wife's extended family. There, his uncle-in-law took him to a pilgrimage site in Karnataka called Sravana Belagola, famous for an enormous ninth-century statue.

“It’s an astonishing thing to see,” Strohl says. “It's a fifty-eight-and-a-half foot white granite statue carved out of the top of the hill of a nude mendicant meditating in a standing position. The vines of the forest are growing up his legs and his arms, and a big ant hill has grown up next to him. Because cobras know anthills hold water, you see cobras slithering out across his feet as well.”

Although this was Strohl's first encounter with the Jain community and its stories, his interest in religious literature had taken root years earlier while attending a Lutheran seminary. Rather than become an ordained minister, Strohl had extend his study of the literature of religious traditions in the History of Religions program at the Divinity School. There, his focus shifted to India’s religious traditions and learning Sanskrit. “I ultimately wrote my dissertation on sections of the ninth-century Jaina text known as the Ādi purāṇa," he explains.

After completing his PhD, Strohl decided academia wasn't for him. As much as he loved studying Sanskrit, he felt unsuited for the solitary research demanded by the profession. After several years working at University of Chicago Press, he started a career in fundraising and development. His nearly thirty-year career as a prospect researcher saw him play leading roles in capital campaigns at a range of institutions, including the University of Chicago.

“I made a rather good career out of that,” he says. “It gave me a chance to really be involved with my kids’ lives as they grew up—their sporting events, their music concerts—and I really enjoyed that life.”

Reigniting Poetic Passions

When Strohl retired in 2016, he set about finding something to stimulate his mind. Returning to Sanskrit made perfect sense. After all, “if Sanskrit can’t keep the mind sharp, very little can,” he notes.

He first learned about the Returning Scholars program after reaching out to his former PhD advisor, Wendy Doniger, who still teaches at the University. The Returning Scholars program is designed to give lifelong learners the opportunity to actively participate in UChicago graduate and undergraduate classes while building collaborative relationships with faculty and other classmates.

“For the past two years I’ve retaken the intermediate and advanced Sanskrit class through the Returning Scholars program,” he says. “I started out with no expectation of going anywhere in particular with it; I just wanted to learn more about Sanskrit and see how far I could take it.”

Perhaps even more than the pleasure of working his brain and regaining his former proficiency in the ancient language, Strohl has enjoyed the full experience of being a Returning Scholar. From taking part in weekly happy hours with other students to the feeling of being on the University of Chicago campus in full swing, studying Sanskrit in the context of the Returning Scholars program has cast academic learning in a new and liberating light for him.

“I’m there because I want to be there,” he says. “I’m not there because I’m trying to get accepted into a PhD program or to win a grant or anything like that. I’m just there for the pleasure of reading the poetry. And that is a really wonderful feeling.”

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Labors of Love

Strohl's Sanskrit success has inspired him to embark upon larger projects, one of which involves expanding his inquiry from the literary to the ritual aspects of the Ādi purāṇa story his dissertation focused on.

“There’s a ritual performed on the statue every twelve years that involves building up a huge scaffolding and pouring milk down over it, followed by saffron powder, vermilion, sandal paste, and flowers,” he says. “I want to take a look at those rituals and try to figure out what the meaning of them is and how they change according to context.”

His other project, unrelated to his study of Sanskrit texts, draws on his religious studies training and the history training he received as an undergraduate history major—as well as his longstanding enthusiasm for sports. “I want to look at baseball as a kind of civic ritual spectacle and try to understand why its emergence after the Civil War and into the 20th century was important for the country,” he explains

Strohl's research on early baseball will involve reaching out to professors in history and anthropology, which the Returning Scholars program enables him to do easily. Strohl has come to learn that the less formal side of being a returning scholar involves meeting and learning about other faculty on campus. 

"The opportunity to proceed along all of these lines, and to hone my thinking about how I want to do it, has come about by being part of the Returning Scholars program," he explains. "It gives me a chance to keep my mind alert, even as my body gets a little creekier. 

“If Sanskrit is a labor of considerable interest—something that I’ll always enjoy doing—the task of making sense of what baseball means is actually a labor of love.”

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