--Sramanerika Heng Hsien

'God-city writing', devanagari, is this Sanskrit lesson's title. Deva means 'god' or 'divine', and nagari is 'city'. Originally this was just an adjective, a word describing the noun lekha 'writing' 'but gradually people just said Devanagari and everyone knew they were talking about 'the script or alphabet in which Sanskrit was written. We leave it to our readers to discover which city of which gods.

In ancient times Sanskrit was written in many alphabets, and now it can be written with the letters we have inherited from the Romans. But since the Sanskrit system distinguishes more sounds than English does, we need to add dots and long marks to the Roman letters, or write what is one letter in Sanskrit with two of ours.

Devanagari also differs from the Roman alphabet in taking the syllable, rather than the individual letter, as the basic unit. Being used to writing, we are able to divorce letters from sounds. The ancient Indians, however, including the early Buddhists, were not in the habit of reading and writing, but would learn texts by heart as they heard them recited from others.  Consequently they were far more aware of the sounds of gauge, and knew perfectly well you can't pronounce a consonant, for example a k without at the same time saying something like 'ka' or 'ki' or 'ku'. You have to say a vowel or there's no sound. Therefore the Indians called vowels 'sounds' (svarah), and consonants 'manifestors' (vyanjanani), because consonants just allow you to make finer distinctions between the vowel sounds.

      When we say the names of the letters we use to write English, we are not always giving the sound they have in actual words. The letter c is called something like 'see', but when it is used to spell a word it's often pronounced like a k as is the first c in the word consciousness—-and what about the second c? In Devanagari on the other hand, every written letter corresponds to a sound (there are no silent letters), and the sound is always the same as that used in naming the letter. In the Devanagari alphabet the sounds are listed first, and then the manifestors.

Sanskrit Vowel Sounds

is the first letter of the alphabet, pronounced like the 'a' at theend of Buddha.

This 'a' sound is considered the basic one from which the others come, and in fact, when people make a 'neutral' sound with no special meaning and no special muscular effort, they end up saying 'a'.

Any consonant in Sanskrit is understood to be pronounced with a following 'a' unless some other mark is added. For example, our k is always read 'ka'; this is a syllable and not just a letter.

You find a syllable every time
surrounding consonants are just
called an akasarm, an of that  Sankrit 'imperishable', "Ah!"
put together' something
it's called from these aksara

 a vowel appears, and the
 marks or adornments is
 vowel. A syllable in
 you say, "because it's
 that does not decay.
 is another reason


1vyanjana 'consonant' is the same word used for the Buddha's 80 minor characteristics.

2Samskrtam, which is Sanskirt for 'Sanskrit'. See lesson#1, VBS#21. It also means 'perfect' or 'complete'.

Test your wisdom ( and attention to this lesson) on the Sanskrit sentence written in two alphabets here below: