February Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Dominik Wujastyk
Posted: February 1, 2008
JT: How did you get interested in Asian Studies?
DW: When I was a teenager, I developed an interest in Vedanta, yoga, meditation, and reading texts like the Gita, Upanishads and Ramayana in English translation. I started dabbling in the Devanagari script and learning some basic Sanskrit religious and philosophical vocabulary. Then I had the chance to hear a lecture in London by a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) about Sanskrit grammar, the philosophy of the four levels of speech, and other ideas about the Indian philosophy of language. This was a turning point for me. I was very excited indeed by what I heard, and came out of the lecture with a samkalpa (personal determination) to study Sanskrit properly if I possibly could. At the time, I was a science student, recently graduated from London University. But I applied to university to start again as an undergraduate in a new field. By sheer good luck I was offered a grant and a place at college to learn Sanskrit, so I went forward. Many years later, I completed a doctorate in Sanskrit grammar.
JT: Tell me about the courses you are teaching this semester. Do you regularly teach on these subjects or are the classes new for you? If students only remember one thing from the course, what do you hope that one thing would be?
DW: This semester I'm teaching an undergraduate course on the history of Classical Indian Medicine (Ayurveda), and a graduate course that introduces the Sanskrit grammatical tradition. The first course is similar to materials I teach regularly at University College London, where I'm normally based. The second course is freshly devised for this semester at UT. I have taught similar materials before, but for UT I decided to do things rather differently, and to focus especially on accessibility and enjoyment. The Indian discipline of Sanskrit grammar is usually thought of as a very difficult and complicated topic. One can't get around a certain level of trickiness, but I still hope that the class will emerge at the end of term feeling that they understand what these ancient grammarians were up to, and having enjoyed learning about it.And I forgot to say what one thing I'd like students to remember. It would be: Ayurveda is NOT "5000 years old," and Panini isn't a kind of Indian bread. (oh, that's two).
JT: You are visiting UT this semester. What is your home university? How long have you been teaching there and what do you normally teach?
DW: My home university is University College London. It may not sound like it, but this is a controversial statement. UCL was founded in 1826 under the name "London University," as a secular alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, where only ordained ministers could be a college Fellows. The statutes of UCL still forbid any teaching of religion in the college. Although UCL later became part of the federal University of London, it is today in the process of splitting off and becoming an independent university again. So UCL now grants its own degrees, for example, rather than University of London degrees. In a few years, everyone expects that UCL, along with Kings College, Imperial College, and some other very large and independently successful units of London University will fully secede and form independent universities. UCL has 22,000 staff, faculty, and students, and is consistently one of the highest-performing research and teaching institutions in the UK. I've been teaching undegrad classes at UCL since the 1980s, and in 2002 I started teaching into the new MA programme in the History of Medicine that we launched. It's a great degree, and has a strong component on Asian medicine (India, China, Tibet, Middle East) for students who choose those options. I normally teach the History of Precolonial South Asian Medicine unit. I also supervise projects and dissertations as well as helping to run research seminars, conferences, etc. My appointment at UCL is as a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow.
JT: How do you like Austin?
Love it! Certainly at the moment. Who wouldn't? Blue skies, brightly-coloured birds, and squirrels chasing each other round the trees. Live music everywhere, and lake Travis just outside town. And I've discovered Mozart's Cafe. My wife and I have rented a place in Hyde Park, and it turned out to be a lucky choice, since we can walk to the shops and restaurants at 43 and Duval and there's the golf course nearby for open air and green views. It's really pleasant. However, all my friends tell me that there are hot days ahead...!
JT: If you could have dinner with any person living or dead (or undead) who would it be and why?
DW: Oh dear, there are so many! Gautama, Jesus, Marcus Aurelius, Yājñavalkya, Plato, Pascal, Simone Weil, Einstein, Niels Bohr.... Meeting any one of them would be stunning, assuming no language barrier. But for a genuinely enjoyable conversation, perhaps a dinner with Sir Aurel Stein would be fun. He was one of the most interesting and well-informed men of his time, a hundred years ago, a great scholar and explorer of Central Asia. And from what I've read, everyone who met him loved him. He seems to have been one of those rare people who was both personally delightful and intellectually brilliant.
JT: Who is your favorite god or goddess and why?
DW: Oh dear, I don't really have a favourite. I suppose I should say Dhanvantari, patron saint of medicine. I had him as my cell phone screen-saver for a while, which was nice.
JT: If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?
DW: If you mean what would I like to be, then a horse, I think. Lovely noble creatures, all poetry of motion, temperament, and power. But if you mean, what would I be if I were converted as I am now, then maybe a Labrador? Good-natured, a bit too big, ...