Do I need to learn Sanskrit to understand Indian philosophy?

Students sometimes ask if they need to learn Sanskrit in order to understand Indian philosophy. There are a few ways to answer this question.

1. No, because Indian philosophy is written in more than just Sanskrit. This way of answering emphasizes the fact that while Sanskrit is an important language for philosophy in the region we now call "India", it is not the only language in which philosophical texts were written. Buddhists wrote in Prakrit and Pāli, for instance, and there are works written in Tamil, Kannada, and Telegu, to name just a few other languages. And Indian philosophers wrote in English, and still do today--so if that's a language you know, you can read their work.

2. No, because there are translations available. Another way to answer is to recognize that scholars have made a lot of translations available, in English as well as other languages like French, German, Japanese, and Hindi, for instance. While not all texts have been translated, many of the most foundational texts are, some in a few versions. You can find readers, such as Deepak Sarma's Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader or single texts, like the Nyāya-sūtras of Gautama, translated recently in parts by Matt Dasti and Stephen Phillips and earlier, in its entirety by G. Jha. If you read in translation along with introductory texts like Roy Perrett's Introduction to Indian Philosophy, you can learn quite a lot.

3. Yes, because of the limits to translation. However, at a certain point you may want to read a text that hasn't been translated, or you may wonder whether the translation is getting at all of the nuances in the original text. And you'll find that, beyond introductory books, philosophers working on these texts tend to talk a lot about Sanskrit, so you will need to understand the language to understand their papers. This is just like if you were to study Ancient Greek or Roman philosophy--or even to study logic. People write papers using Greek, Latin, and formal logic. Further, much of Indian philosophy centers on thinking about language, and in particular, the Sanskrit language forms the basis for this reflection. So knowing the language is helpful in understanding the details of many arguments.

The short version is that it depends on what you want to do with Indian philosophy. You can learn quite a lot without knowing any language other than English--or other languages such as French, German, Japanese, etc., in which a lot of work is being done. And you can study Indian philosophy in languages other than Sanskrit. But if you want to go on beyond the introductory level, you will want to learn Sanskrit.