Sanskrit Alphabet : Lesson 2
lesson uploaded October 20, 2005 by Freedom Cole
The Sanskrit Alphabet
The word alphabet comes from the word alpha (a) and bet (b), in the same way the tantrics call the group of letters a kñara-mala which means the necklace (mala) from a ( A ) to kña ( ] ). The letters themselve can be called akñaras as well as varëas (colors), and sometimes the alphabet is called the varëa-mala. In the Puranic period the alphabet was called the Ahaà, again representing a ( A ) to ha ( h ), as the conjunct letter was not accepted as part of the alphabet at that time. In the time of the Sanskrit scholar Paëini (500 BC), the alphabet was called the Varëa-Samämnäya. In Vedic times the alphabet was called matåkä, which means mothers. The letters are considered not just the mother of all literature (composed of words, composed of letters), but the mother of the whole universe which is composed of sound. In this way it is said that tantriks don’t worship statues as gods but instead worship letters as gods.
The four primary vowels ( svära)
A Aa (a ä) is called achyuta (a- not, chyuta-changeable). It can be chanted continously without change as it needs no help of the tongue. It is connected to Visnu.
# $ (i é) is called Shakti (energy/goddess) as it will change.
% ^ (u ü) is called Shambu and is connected to Çiva.
\ § (å è) and ¤ ¥ (lå lè) are connected to the Åñi (sages) and Agni (fire). The Å is pronounced as ‘ri’ in north India and ‘ru’ in south India, but it is actually a vowel not found in English that is created by rolling the tongue. The å becomes lå and has many of the same connotations.
4 Dipthongs (vowels created from the primary vowels but differing)
@ (e) is a combination of # and A , which is called the guna vikasa of # (i). If you were to pronounce A (a) and then open the mouth as if saying # (i) then you get the sound of @ (e) as in the word rate.
@e (ai) is a combination of A (a) and @ (e). If you were to pronounce A (a) and then open the mouth saying # (i), then you get the sound of @e (ai).
Aae (o) is made when A (a) is pronounced and the mouth is opened as if saying % (u) then you get the sound of Aae (o) as in boat.
AaE (au) is a combination of A (a) and Aae (o). If you were to pronounce A (a) and then open the mouth saying Aae (o), then you get the sound of AaE (au) as in out.
2 Ayogavähas (Anusvara and Visarga)– the Orniments of Sanskrit
A< (aṁ ) is called Anusvära which means that which is spoken anu-after a vowel-svära. It is nasal resonance that is made without closing the lips. If you close the lips it will resonate on the lips instead of at the sahasrara chakra.
A> (aù) is called Visarga and relates to creation a destruction, it has fire and can make things sprout or burn things to make them end. Anusvära is one point (bindu) and is connected to Çiva. While Visarga has has 2 points and is connected to Shakti.
The vowels (svära) are ruled by the Sun. They are ‘svä’- self and ‘ra’-effulgent/shining. They can stand alone without support. They are Purusha, and represent consciousness.
The consonants cannot stand alone, they need the support of a vowel. The Prakritti (creation) cannot stand (exist) without Purusha (consciousness). Every consonant is lame without a stick, so ‘ a’ ( A ) is already part of the each letter. In this way k ( K ) becomes ka ( k ) when an a ( A ) is added to it. A consonant is not written without a vowel. The svära are self shining in that they are consciousness, they do not need anything added to them to be pronounced, to shine.
There are five vargas (divisions) of letters relating to the five major planets of the Mahapurusha yogas and the five elements; Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn. Each of these divisions contains 5 letters, making 25 group letters. Then there are 8 additional out of group letters connected to the Moon. Added up 25 and 8 equals 33, which relates to the 33 major deities of the Vedic pantheon who are the foundation of Jyotish. The 2 ayogavähas (Anusvara and Visarga) represent the Açviné Kum äras residing as the präna in the nostrils and the other 14 vowels represent the 14 lokas.
k o g " ‘
Hard k (ka) is the grandfather of the ka varga (also called Ku ( k… )- as ‘u’ is the 5th letter it means the 5 letters of ka). This varga are gutteral (kaëkya) and come from deep in the throat. Kha ( o ) is the aspirate of ka. It is said as ‘a’ is superior of the sväras (vowels) that ha ( h ) is superior of the vyaïjana. ‘A’ comes from the throat while ‘ha’ it comes from the navel. Aspirate kha has ‘ha’ merged in the letter, so the mouth is open saying ka and with it ha comes from the navel. Soft ga ( g ) is the same as its grandfather ‘ka’ except softer. Take a moment to say Ka and Ga and to feel the hard and soft sound coming from the same place in the throat. Then gha ( " ) is the aspirate of its father letter. The first to letters are hard, the 3rd generation becomes soft, and the 5th generation becomes even softer. The nasal ìa ( ‘ ) is said to be like 3rd consonant but even softer with anunasika ( g~ ). So it starts in the same place in the throat and resonates in the nose like a nasal sound. The Ka varga is connected to the planet Mars.
c D j H |
Ca ( c ) is the great grandfather from which the other letters descend. The ca varga comes from the hard pallete (tälu) and are called palletal (tälavya). Cha ( D ) is the aspirate (mahapräna) of its father non-aspirate (alpapräna) ca, both are hard. The third letter, ja ( j ), originates from the same place as Ca ( c ) but it is soft. The J on Ja ( j ) can be seen to similar looking to the english letter J, this will help keep c and j separate in your mind. Take a moment to practice saying both seeing how they are coming from the same place in the mouth yet the first is hard and the second is soft. Jha ( H ) is the mahapräna of Ja ( j ). The present letter used in modern sanskrit is from Maharastra script, the traditional way to write jha is H . The 5th letter is similar to the 3rd letter but softer and nasal ( j~ ), it is written as ïa ( | ). Like all other vowels ï ( Á ) cannot stand alone and takes ‘ a’ ( A ) to become ïa ( | ). The nasal ïa comes from the same place in the mouth as the rest of its varga and then resonates in the nose. The cu ( cu ) are ruled by the planet Venus. And one can see the béjas like chaà ( c< ) for the Moon, jaà ( ju< ) for water, and jum ( ju< ) for rejuvination (måtyanjaya béja) come from these letters.
q Q f F [
The öa varga comes from the soft pallete (murdhana) and are called cerebral (murdhanya). The letters of the division are created by strinking the tongue on the roof of the mouth while starting the sound. The rest remains in the same pattern as the previous vargas. Öa ( q ) is the hard grandfather which has öha ( Q ) as the mahapräna. Becoming soft it makes òa ( f ) and òha ( F ). Then the nasal is almost like the normal na in english except its cerebral sound with the tongue at the roof of the mouth creating ëa ( [ ). The loop on the line ( [ ) is said to represent the tongue on the top of the mouth. The Öu ( qu ) are ruled by the planet Mercury.
t w d x n
The ta varga comes from the teeth (danta) and are called dental (dantya). When diacritics are missing, cerabral öa is written as capital T while dental ta is written lower case. Ta ( t ) is the normal ta we see in Tom and tap, while its aspirate is said with more force from the navel. When you say aspirate tha ( w ) you can feel the breath coming out of the mouth with force while non-aspirates do not have the same ability to feel the breath. Da ( d ) and dha ( x ) come from the tongue touching the teeth but are softer. And na ( n ) is the normal English sound westerners are familiar with. Tu ( tu ) is ruled by Jupiter.
p ) b É m
The pa varga comes from the lips (äñöa) and they are called labials (äñöya). Pa ( p ) is the grandfather from which the others arise from according to the rules of the group letters. The nasal ma ( m ) comes right from the lips. The Pu ( pu ) are ruled by Saturn.
4 semi-vowels (out of group consonants)
y r l v
The semi-vowels are called such because they are consonants that are developed from vowels. They are actually two vowels that when said together create a consonant sound.
i ( # ) + a ( A ) = ya ( y )
u ( % ) + a ( A ) = va ( v )
å ( \ ) + a ( A ) = ra ( r )
ḷ ( ¤ ) + a ( A ) = la ( l )
If you chant iiii and then open your mouth and say aaa you will see the creation of ya. In the same way, chant the vowel and then open your mouth with a and hear the consonant be created. With the group letters, these all fall into the non-aspirate and soft 3rd group (ga, ja, òa, da, ba).
The semi vowels (ardha svära) are combinations of vowels with A (a). They are vowels (Purusha/consciousness) that when pronouced with A (a) take on the shape of Prakritti as consonants. As the Moon is just a reflection of the Sun’s light, these semi vowels are ruled by the Moon, they are half Sun, a reflection.
The vowels are purusha relative to the soul, while the consonants are prakritti relative to the body, the Moon is that which links the body and soul, it is the inbetween. The 1st set of the Moon’s letters are connected to Ketu (the semi-vowels) and the 2nd set of the Moon’s letters are connected to Rahu (the syllabants and ha).
3 syllabants (they sound like shhhhh)
z ; s
There are three syllabants in sanskrit versus the two common in English. First is pallatel (tälavya) ça ( z ), that comes from the same place as the cha varga. It sounds much like the English word sure. Next is the cerebral (murdhana) ña ( ; ), that starts deep in the throat and comes out like the öa varga it is associated with. It is the same sha as in show, shower, and shadow. Last is dental (dantya) sa ( s ) that is a hard s coming on the teeth as in saint or sinner. The syllabants are apirate and hard like the 2nd group (kha, cha, öha, tha, pha).
Last (and Superior)
The letter ha ( h ) is the last official letter of the sanskrit alphabet. Ha is aspirate and soft so it falls into the 4th group (gha, jha, òha, dha, bha).
Samyukt (3 Famous Combinations)
] Ç }
these are common combinations often shown that are not officially different letters, they are wriiten along with the modern script but not written as the ancient sanskrit alphabet, as they are combinations of previous letters in themselves.
k ( K ) + ña ( ; ) = kña ( ] )
t ( T ) + ra ( r ) = tra ( Ç )
j ( J ) + ïa ( | ) = jïa ( } )
1 What are the names of the letters?
– Dictionaries of Tantra Çästra or The Tanträbhidhäna, translated by Ram Kumar Rai, Prachya Prakashan, Varanasi, 1984. It contains translations of tantras like the Manträbhidhänam, Prakäräntara Manträbhidhänam, Matåkänighaëöu of Çré Mahédäs, Prakäräntara Matåkänighaëöu, Ekäkñarakoña, Béjanighaëöu, and other tantras.
– Vedic Remedies In Astrology by Sanjay Rath, Sagar Pubications, New Delhi. It contains several akñara chakras used for remedial measures and choosing mantras. There is also a diagram of mystical meanings.
– Akñara Tattva, Sacred Syllables by Paramahamsa Prajnanananda, Prajnana Mission, Cuttack, Orissa, India, 2001. Spiritual Commentary on the alphabet.