For travelers in the foreign land of spiritual literature...
Since you are visiting this website, you are presumably a spiritual seeker interested in Advaita. It is also very probable that your knowledge of Sanskrit is minimal or non-existent. I receive occasional complaints about the use of ITRANS - the transliterated 'English' form of Sanskrit words - so even that causes problems for many, let alone the original script (called Devanagari) which Sanskrit uses. So why would you want to learn anything at all about the language? Well, if you really are interested in Advaita (or Buddhism, if it comes to that), it is a fact of life that most of the original material from which these teachings derive was written in Sanskrit. Without any knowledge of the language, without even the ability to look up a word in a dictionary, you are forced to rely upon the abilities, and the integrity, of whichever author happened to 'translate' the original text on which he or she is commenting. I am currently writing a book on the Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada kArikA-s, and this has involved me in referencing many different translations of the original text. [Note that this is a good example why you need to know some Sanskrit. The word kArikA means 'a verse, commentary or treatise' but if you ignore the capitals and write this as 'karika', it means 'an elephant'!] And it would amaze you how it is possible to render quite different meanings. Whether this is because of language ability or because the author has a vested interest in propagating a particular point of view is not always possible to say. What I can say, is that is essential to be able to check specific words from time to time to ensure one gleans original intent rather than a modern, possibly biased interpretation. And, before I continue, here is a confession from the introduction to the book:
Before continuing, I may as well confirm the implied and appalling admission above: I know very little Sanskrit! I cannot construct sentences or even decline nouns or conjugate verbs. I can just about read the script. I can sometimes split words into their parts or put them together – but would almost always have to refer to other sources for assistance in this. I could write the script, very clumsily, if I had to, providing I could refer to a list of the characters or to this book. But, let’s face it, why would I want to? You need not just any italic pen, but one with a sloping nib, for goodness’ sake! With free software on the Internet to convert transliterated Roman characters into the Sanskrit script, there is not really any need. What then, you may justifiably ask, gives me the credentials (or temerity) to write a book about Sanskrit? Well, I hope that by the time you finish reading this short introduction, you will know and accept the answer. Basically, I was – and to a degree still am – in the same position that you are.
Accordingly, this book will not teach you how to read, write or speak Sanskrit. Its aim is simple: to teach you just enough to enable you to read Devanagari script, separate it out into words and look them up in a dictionary. There are no declensions or conjugations to learn and no need to learn lots of vocabulary. Most of the effort involved is simply to learn the alphabet. Of course, this is rather more difficult for most adults than was learning the Roman alphabet when you were a child. For a start, there are a few more than 26 letters...
The book is in three sections. First you learn the alphabet in its transliterated form. You are given both the ITRANS format that is commonly used on the Internet and the form with diacritical marks that is used in books. Next you go through the entire process again, learning the script form of the letters. Just to make things a bit more interesting, some of these letters change their form slightly when combined with other letters - these are called 'conjunct' characters. In the third section, there are some practical examples to prove to you that you can now actually translate some simple scriptural texts for yourself. Finally, there are a number of appendices containing such things as resources on the Internet for further learning, on-line dictionaries, Sanskrit documents etc, information about other transliteration schemes and letter forms, how to learn to write the script. Below are samples from each of the sections.
The Transliterated Alphabet
4. The fourth group of consonants (dental)
This group of consonants is sounded with the tongue positioned just behind the teeth, as though to say ‘love’, and called, unsurprisingly, dental. The sounds are essentially the same as those in the cerebral group but sound much more natural to Western ears and are very much more common. If you are ever in any doubt as to whether a sound should be cerebral or dental, guess this one!
a) t, t
The first member of the group is ‘t’. It is sounded with the tongue actually touching the back of the teeth. This is further forward in the mouth than is normally used in English and is better represented by a word such as the French ‘petite’. A simple example, or even two examples, is tat as in the mahAvAkya (‘great saying’ from the Upanishads) tat tvam asi – ‘thou art that’. It means ‘that’ and both t’s are this dental character (in fact, this word begins its life as tad, as you will discover later). The final ‘t’ is the halanta form, meaning that there is no vowel sound following it and the Devanagari character will have a halant sign beneath it, whereas the first one will not.
b) th, th
Then comes the equivalent aspirated letter, with more breath (mahAprANa), ‘th’, pronounced as in ‘butthead’. (Another way in which this letter is pronounced – and those who do so would maintain it to be the correct way! – is as the English ‘th’ in ‘path’, for example. It has to be said that it seems easier, and more consistent, to pronounce the word sthita, for example, as is indicated in the main text.) The adjective sthita means ‘standing’ and is used in the sense of ‘steady’ and ‘firm’ in the word sthitapraj~na in the Bhagavad Gita, where it means ‘a person of steady wisdom’ or someone who knows the Self.
c) d, d
Next is ‘d’. This is essentially the same as in ‘dog’ but with the tongue starting out immediately behind the teeth. Perhaps the French ‘donner’ might be a better representation. The word dama means ‘self-restraint’, understood as control over the senses. It is one of the six qualities specified by Shankara as prerequisites for the spiritual seeker.
d) dh, dh
This is the breathy equivalent of the previous character and is pronounced as the ‘dh’ in ‘adhere’. A similar word to dama, as just described, is dharma. This word is possibly more familiar to many readers. It is commonly used to speak of such things as recommended practice, duty or conduct, and to refer to absolutes of justice etc. More appropriately, in a spiritual context, it means essence or essential quality or nature. Our own dharma refers to what we ought to be doing with our lives in order to move forward on some path towards realization of our Self.
e) n, n
Finally, in this group, is the one sounded through the nose (anunAsika). This is pronounced just as in English, as for example in… er… ‘nose’. The word nAma is a simple word, meaning ‘name’, as in the phrase nAma-rUpa, the ‘name and form’ of the creation that is, in reality, non-dual, not separate from ourselves and not actually created, according to Advaita.
The Devanagari Script4. The dental or dantya consonants
a) t, t
This is written:
b) th, th
The mahAprANa tha is written:
c) d, d
This is written:
d) dh, dh
This is written:
xn – dhana
e) n, n
Finally, in this group, the anunAsika (sounded through the nose and throat) na is written, as you know:
Some Practical Examples
3. Joining words and part-words
When speaking or writing Sanskrit, words are joined wherever possible within a sentence or line of poetry. Pauses in speech or breaks in written words within a sentence normally only occur when a word ends in a vowel, a visarga or an anusvAra and the next word begins with a consonant. Go back to the invocation mantra above and note where the breaks are. A good example is the famous saying (mahAvAkya) from the Chandogya Upanishad ‘tat tvam asi’, meaning ‘that thou art’. The first word ends in a consonant, the second begins with a consonant; so no break. The second ends in a consonant, the third begins with a vowel; so no break: it is therefore written:
Sandhi (actually saMdhi) refers to the way in which letters (i.e. sounds) change when they are joined together in a continuous flow of speech. It is also sometimes called ‘euphony’ because the purpose of the whole exercise is to end up with a harmonious-sounding sentence. Panini also uses the word saMhitA for this, defined as ‘the closest drawing together of sounds’.
If the letters in question are at the end of one word and the beginning of the next, the joining is referred to as ‘external sandhi’. If they refer to the joining of parts of a word, it is called ‘internal sandhi’. Unless you are studying the language seriously, it is the external variety that is most important, since written words can be difficult to decipher without an understanding of how the component words may have changed. There can also be sandhi of vowels or of consonants. The former is called ach saMdhi (ach being the pratyAhAra for all the vowels, as explained above); the latter is called hal saMdhi, since hal identifies all consonants. A third set of rules come into play when a visarga is followed or preceded by various letters.
It is worth remembering that the sole purpose of sandhi is to make the language sound as harmonious as possible. This is not a phenomenon restricted to the Sanskrit language. In English, for example, it is so much easier to say ‘an apple’ than ‘a apple’. Internally, too, English has sandhi. The letter ‘s’ is pronounced ‘sss’. When appended to the word ‘cat’ – cats – it retains its ‘sss’ sound. But when appended to ‘dog’ – dogs – the s is pronounced ‘z’: dogz. When appended to horse – horses – not only is the ‘s’ pronounced ‘z’ but the ‘e’ of horse is sounded as though it is ‘i’: horsiz. In English we make these changes in pronunciation only and not in writing. In Sanskrit, we change both the spelling and the pronunciation. If the English grammarians were formulating spelling rules, they might have one that says: when ‘s’ follows ‘d’, it is replaced by ‘z’, but retains its true nature when following ‘t’.
Where the conjunction of two letters makes the words difficult to pronounce or if the result sounds awkward, there will be a rule for combining the letters to get around the problem. Knowing this can sometimes enable you to make a good guess at what is needed, if you are forming the word, or at what has happened, if you are trying to read it. Not all of the Sanskrit rules of euphonic harmony are being given here – there are quite a lot of them, including exceptions and special cases. But, unless you are seriously studying the language, it is not necessary to learn them anyway. Once the principles have been understood, much of it becomes common sense. Very often, you can hear what the result should be simply by speaking the two separate words quickly in succession.
Sandhi can be analyzed into three categories: vowel, visarga and consonant. In each category, a number of rules can be specified to enable one to determine what will happen when a word or part-word ending in a specific letter joins with another word or part-word beginning with a specific letter. Many of the rules have sub-rules to cover special cases and exceptions. After a particular rule has been applied and the end character of the first word, say, has been changed accordingly, it may then happen that another rule comes into play for this new character and a further change must take place. Thus, several stages may be involved in the progressive modification of endings until a result is reached which sounds ‘harmonious’. For you to learn all of these rules and become familiar with their operation is not the intention of this book. The following paragraphs merely offer a flavor of the topic and a later section will refer you to other resources that you can follow up if you wish to.
The WebPages on Rules of Sandhi, from the Argentinian site (see ‘Resources on the Internet’, Section B) list 7 primary and 7 secondary rules for the joining of vowels, 10 rules involving visarga endings and 24 rules for joining consonants, some of which have anything up to 6 sub-rules. (Incidentally, I cannot recommend these WebPages too highly. Although Panini is not mentioned, all of the rules are presented in a very methodical and detailed manner with many examples. It is very readable and easy to understand.)
Below is the list of contents from the book:
GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE LANGUAGE
LEVEL 1 THE TRANSLITERATED ALPHABET
LEVEL 2 THE DEVANAGARI SCRIPT
LEVEL 3 SOME PRACTICAL EXAMPLES
RESOURCES ON THE INTERNET
DICTIONARY OF COMMON SANSKRIT SPIRITUAL WORDS
APPENDIX 1 TRANSLITERATION SCHEMES