Peter Scharf

Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit:
Wilbour Hall 005
Phone: +1 401 863 2720

Scharf is interested in the intellectual history of Indian linguistic description, conceptions of the self, and the creativity expressed through the adaptation of ancient narratives in new contexts. One long-term research project is to correlate Indian linguistic descriptions with extant Sanskrit texts. Another is to reedit the encyclopedic work of the medieval Vedic commentator Sadgurusisya. In collaboration with colleagues he is building an international digital Sanskrit library.


Interested in the nature of the self, the universe, their relationship, and how language shapes conceptions of them, Scharf majored in philosophy at Wesleyan University. There he pursued interests related to the philosophy of language by studying logic and the foundations of mathematics. Also related to language but from a different perspective, he learned classical Greek motivated by a desire to have unmediated access to the original texts of ancient philosophers. The desire to pursue the same interests in Asian traditions, which have been neglected in American education, led him to study Indian philosophy and Sanskrit at the University of Pennsylvania. After a post-doctoral research associateship at the University of Pennsylvania and teaching for a semester at the University of Virginia, he joined the Classics Department at Brown in 1992.


While fascinated with how ideas and narratives are adapted by authors, commentators, and redactors throughout the whole range of Sanskrit language, Indian philosophy, and Indian literature, Scharf is particularly interested in the intellectual history of Indian linguistic description, in the development of conceptions of the self, and in the creativity expressed through the adaptation of ancient narratives in new contexts. In the linguistic sphere, he is engaged in a long-term research project to evaluate the descriptions of language undertaken by various ancient Indian linguists and to compare these descriptions with extant Sanskrit texts in order to elucidate the history of Indian linguistics and the history of Indian literature. In the philosophical sphere, he is engaged in clarifying the ideas expressed in ancient Indian treatises concerning the nature of the self and its relation to the world in several philosophical schools including Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta, and Buddhism. He is also reediting the encyclopedic work by the medieval Vedic commentator Sadgurusisya and exploring the map of Vedic narrative literature it contains. In collaboration with colleagues he is building an international digital Sanskrit library.

Indian Linguistics

Scharf argues that linguistics is the most important discipline in Indian intellectual history. Not only does linguistic terminology and analysis pervade commentary in every field but in addition linguistic treatises describe the language in which works in every field are written. Hence progress in the intellectual history of Indian linguistics promises to have far-reaching influence on Indian intellectual history generally. His long-term research project is to evaluate the descriptions of language undertaken by various ancient Indian linguists and to compare these descriptions with extant Sanskrit texts. He outlines the project in a paper on Paninian accounts of the Vedic subjunctive, shows how categorization of elements in lists ancillary to the Paninian rules alters the linguistic account of the grammatical system in a paper on class eight presents, demonstrates the correspondence of accentual description given in particular Vedic phonetic treatises with specific traditions of accent marking in manuscripts and with contemporary recitation, and outlines his project to model Indian linguistic description computationally in a paper on modeling Paninian grammar. The first paper (2005), entitled "Paninian accounts of the Vedic subjunctive" (link), evaluates the adequacy of competing accounts of the subjunctive profferred by commentators who interpret Paninian rules differently in order to account for its Vedic usage. The second paper (forthcoming) entitled, "Paninian accounts of the class eight presents," evaluates the adequacy of competing linguistic accounts of verbal forms proffered by commentators on root-lists (dhatupatha) that represent and categorize these fundamental elements of the Paninian grammatical system differently. The third paper, presented at the Fourth Vedic Workshop (2007), evaluates the relationship between the descriptions of accentuation in various Vedic phonetic treatises (pratisakhya) and compares them with the practices of marking accent in editions and manuscripts of the corresponding Vedic texts, and with contemporary Vedic recitation. Exploration of the relationship between lexicalized accent, accent marking, and recitational tone promises to contribute to the history of Vedic dialects and schools. Concurrently, under the purview of the digital Sanskrit library project, he and colleagues have submitted a proposal to extend Indian script code blocks in the Unicode standard to allow adequate representation of Vedic (link). The fourth paper, "Modeling Paninian Grammar" (Symposium program, paper, slides), differentiates modeling Indian linguistic procedure computationally from computational implementation of Sanskrit grammar guided by contemporary theoretical and procedural concerns in linguistics and computer science.

The evaluation of the adequacy of linguistic descriptions described above has emerged from earlier work he did in Indian linguistics. For example, he elucidated Vedic usage by considering Panini's rules and the examples cited by his commentators in his paper on the term dvay†m in the Satapathabrahmana, and he refuted a contemporary theoretical over-generalization using traditional philological analysis in his paper, "Interrogatives and Word-order in Sanskrit."

The evaluation of the adequacy of linguistic descriptions also complements his work in Indian philosophy of language and Indian linguistics generally. His book The Denotation of Generic Terms in Ancient Indian Philosophy: Grammar, Nyaya, and Mimamsa compared Patanjali's views in his Mahabhasya with those of Vatsyayana in the Nyayasutrabhasya and Sabara in the Mimamsabhasya. In papers on class properties (akrti) and on intentionality (vivaksa), he demonstrated that the concepts of a class property and a speaker's intention could not have undergone the process of historical maturation between the second century B.C. and the fifth century C.E. assumed by certain scholars because the concepts of a class property and a speaker's intention are clearly articulated in Patanjali's Mahabhasya (150 B.C.). "Panini, vivaksa, and karaka-rule-ordering" examined evidence that Panini himself assumed the principle of a speaker's intention. His presentation, "Recognizing Speech," uncovered another case where proper elucidation of Patanjali's Mahabhasya showed that the concept was clearly understood at a period earlier than certain scholars had assumed. Semantics in Indian thought continues to be a major thread in his research, for example in his paper, "Kaundabhatta on the Semantic Conditions for karakas," and his piece on Panini's use of prohibitive compounds. He is currently preparing a major work on syntax and its conceptual presuppositions in Yaska's Nirukta and Panini's Astadhyayi. In 2003 he presented a paper on the topic at the 12th World Sanskrit Conference that will appear in the Proceedings.

The Self

Scharf has been interested in concepts of the self in both European and Indian philosophy since he was an undergraduate. He developed these ideas during a seminar he taught on Yoga philosophy at the University of Virginia, presented them at lectures at Pennsylvania State University, and has continued to explore them at Brown in his course on concepts of the self, in Sanskrit reading courses in the Upanisads, Bhagavadgita, and Brahmasutras with Sankara's commentaries, in Patanjali's Yogasutra, and in Buddhist philosophy. This led him to elucidate the nature of consciousness in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad in his paper on samjna. In his piece, "Creation Mythology and Enlightenment," he explores how themes in Indian mythology concerning the origin of the universe complement philosophical themes concerning the full discovery of the self. Most recently he wrote some twenty-seven articles on related topics for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Hinduism. He has distant plans to retranslate Patanjali's Yogasutra and Vyasa's Yogabhasya on the basis of a study of Nagesa's untranslated commentary.

Narrative Adaptation

One of the most enjoyable pursuits in the study of Sanskrit literature is to explore the motivations for the adaptation of narratives in subsequent versions. In advanced Sanskrit reading courses Scharf often traces the interpretation of a Vedic myth in various genres through the history of Indian literature. One such myth is that of Pururavas and Urvasi. In a paper entitled, "The Compassionate Urvasi," (a Sanskrit version of which was presented in Melakote, India) he reexamines the interpretation of Rgveda 10.95 in subsequent Indian literature, including in Sadgurusisya's Vedarthadipika. Because Sadgurusisya's work is full of narratives related to various Rgvedic hymns, Scharf was led to collect manuscripts of Sadgurusisya's work for the purpose of making a critical edition. With the assistance of a grant from the American Philosophical Society he collected more than fifty manuscripts of the text which he has begun to collate. (See the project description.) Similarly, tracing the interpretation of the story of Rama in various genres in advanced Sanskrit classes led to his book on the Ramopakhyana, and to papers on the ethics of the final episodes, and on Sita's divinity (presented at Brown and the American Oriental Society). Exploration of the methods of, and motivations for, the adaptation of ritual practice are equally intriguing. He and his student Kartik Venkatesh analyzed the structure and adaptation of puja in five major Indian festivals and have nearly completed a book on the topic.

In a paper presented at the Montreal Mahabharata Conference and published as a chapter of Rukmani's book on the Mahabharata, Scharf argue for publication of multi-level text. In contrast to a translation devoid of notes that presents the reader with a single, static, flat version of a narrative, multilevel text that includes comments, notes, alternatives, multimedia accompaniments, etc. can communicate the source work more fully and meaningfully. In presentations at Brown he has argued that we are in the midst of a major media-transition. The transition from printed to digital media is comparable to the transitions from oral to written media, and from written to printed media. Productions of human knowledge that don't convert to the new media recede from public awareness and perish in oblivion. In order to insure that the vast body of knowledge contained in Sanskrit texts survives the transition to digital media, and to take advantage of the greater range and flexibility for research and presentation it offers, he founded a digital Sanskrit library ( After receiving several minor grants, he obtained a major grant from the NSF to coordinate linguistic software with digital lexica and digital text archives.

Digital Sanskrit Library

In order to facilitate comprehensive comparisons between various ancient Indian linguistic descriptions and Sanskrit texts, and to facilitate general access to Sanskrit literature, lexica, and grammars, Scharf is engaged in a collaborative project with colleagues at Brown, Buffalo, Cologne, and Frankfurt to develop an integrated international digital Sanskrit library. The three-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation's Division of Intelligent Systems, integrates the linguistic software modeling Paninian derivation, inflection and sandhi rules, developed by him and his colleague Malcolm Hyman at Brown, with bilingual lexical resources digitized in the Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon project, and machine-readable Sanskrit texts in the TITUS archive at Frankfurt. Simultaneously their work is facilitating the development of Devanagari optical character recognition software by their collaborator at the Center for Excellence in Document Analysis and Recognition at Buffalo. Scharf and his colleagues aim to build an integrated digital library that allows seemless access to grammatical information and lexical sources by clicking words in texts, and access to citations in context by clicking citations in lexical sources. The system will facilitate linguistic, philological, and topical research in Sanskrit generally, much as the Perseus project has in Classical philology.

One task of the Sanskrit library project is to develop encoding standards. As mentioned, Scharf has proposed to extend Indian script code blocks in the Unicode standard to accommodate special characters in Vedic. The Unicode standard is a script-based encoding. While using Unicode for display, Scharf devised an independent phonetic encoding scheme to facilitate internal linguistic processing and to allow users to choose modes of display including both Roman and Devanagari. He and Hyman consider the linguistic issues of coding Sanskrit, or any language, in their forthcoming book Linguistic Issues in Encoding Sanskrit. Beta versions of their inflection software and analyzer, and the dictionary interface they developed in collaboration with Jim Funderburk, are located at the following links:


Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, 1990; B.A. Wesleyan University 1981


Postdoctoral Fellowship, Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, 1990-1991, summer 1993, summer 1994

Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, summer 1998


American Oriental Society

Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (life member)


Scharf teaches Sanskrit language and literature, and Indian philosophy. He is developing pedagogical materials for students of beginning and intermediate Sanskrit in both printed and electronic formats. He utilizes his text, Sabdabrahman in his first-year Sanskrit courses. His independent-study reader, Ramopakhyana, is available in a web-based Sanskrit reader program, Kramapatha, as well as in printed form. The reader program displays two other Sanskrit texts, Purnabhadra's Pancatantra and Panini's Astadhyayi, (The Sanskrit Library). A fourth, Visnupurana, Book 4, a rough draft of which was prepared with the collaboration of his former student Ryan Overbey, awaits final editing. In addition, with technical assistance, he developed video clips to demonstrate Devanagari character formation and is developing other Sanskrit exercises with intelligent feedback systems that utilize his transliteration, sandhi, and inflection software.

Funded Research

National Endowment for the Humanities, Sanskrit Lexical Sources: Digital Synthesis and Revision (HG-50022-10), 1 July 2009 - 30 June 2013, $177,872. In collaboration with Thomas Malten at the University of Cologne, granted 111,500€ by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG).

National Endowment for the Humanities, Enhancing Access to Primary Cultural Heritage Materials of India: Integrating images of literary sources with machine-readable texts, lexical resources, linguistic software, and the web (PW50408), 1 July 2009 - 30 December 2011, $301,540.

National Science Foundation, International Digital Sanskrit Library Integration, 1 January 2006 - 30 December 2008, $225,428.00 ($64,152.00 year one, $77,179.00 year two, and $84, 097 year three).

National Science Foundation, International Digital Sanskrit Library Integration Supplement, 1 September 2008 - 30 June 2009, Principal Investigator, $10,906.

National Science Foundation, International Digital Sanskrit Library Integration Supplement: Transcoding, 5 September - 30 December 2009, Principal Investigator, $11,016.

Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Ramopakhyana: The Story of Rama in the Mahabharata: An electronic book for the sequential unfoldment of knowledge, 10 April 1998-31 December 1999, $16,950.

American Philosophical Society, Vedarthadipika Manuscript Collection, 12 December 1998 - 22 January 1999, $5,829.80.

Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Kramapatha: A foreign language reader for the sequential unfoldment of knowledge: Sound and Indices, 1 January - 31 December 2000, $9,777.

Das Educational Foundation, A web-based dual language edition of the text of Purnabhadra's Pancatantra with Arthur W. Ryder's English translation, 1 January - 31 June 2000, $20,000.

Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, A Digitized List of the Principal Parts of Sanskrit Verbs, Sanskrit, 1 June 2002 - 31 December 2002, $2,107.

Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Sanskrit Parser, Phase I: Nominal Forms Production, 1 June 2002 - 30 June 2003, $2,500.

Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Sanskrit Educational Software: Integrating linguistic programs into automated Sanskrit translation exercises, 1 January - 30 June 2005, $3,200.

Scholarly Technology Group, Brown University, Web-based Sanskrit Course, 2003-2005.

Salomon Grant, Dean of the College, Brown University, Pancatantra Audio Support, 2005-2006, $200.

Office of the Vice President of Research, Brown University, Tradition in Transition: Documenting Indian Festivals in America, 2005-2006, $3200.

Consortium for Language Teaching and Learning, Pancatantra Audio, 1 July 2006 - 30 June 2007, $2,700.

Web Links