Sramanerika Heng Hsien

      Sanskrit lesson #3 has the title Svarangavibhakti, “The Division into Sounds”. Lesson #2 described the Devanagari script in which Sanskrit is generally written. In this issue we will introduce the entire Sanskrit alphabet.

      The Avatamsaka Sutra says of the Bodhisattva on the Seventh Ground:

Although he's firmly intent upon the unutterable, the noise-less, voiceless, and naturally still Tathagata voice, nonetheless he strives for realizations which will adorn this purity by dividing up all sound in separate parts.

The Bodhisattva of the Seventh Bodhisattva stage realizes that the Buddha's voice is apart from anything said or any sound. But he, while never losing sight of this, nevertheless at the same time goes ahead and discriminates the pure Buddha sound into separate sounds, and doing so he makes it concrete and actual. This practice, far from being a defilement, further ornaments the purity of the Buddha's sound.

The letters of the Devanagari alphabet even look like ornaments strung along a cord, and the sounds they represent are clearly distinguished. It's not a case of one letter being pronounced one way in this word and another way in that. Even if we're not Seventh Ground Bodhisattvas, we don't want to be sloppy and confused in our sound discriminations. Learning the Sanskrit syllabary helps you become more aware of sounds and where they come from, and the very order of the alphabet helps you describe those sounds.

The last Sanskrit lesson introduced the fourteen Sanskrit vowels. Hear they are again with their approximate pronunciations:


as in 'about'. as in 'father'
the 'ee' of 'teen' said fast. as in 'teen'
the 'oo' of 'moon' said fast as in 'moon'
'ri' said fast with tonque
curled back.
'ri', tonque tip curled
slightly back.
tongue as before, say l. is never found, but
'should exist'.

All these are pronounced with a single, uniform pure sound, unlike English vowels which glide between one sound and another. The  long vowels in Sanskrit, such as a, i, u, take twice as long to say as the short ones, but they sound essentially the same.

as in 'day'; is really a + i
said together fast.
as in 'aisle';
a + i together.
as in 'go'; is a + u said
as in 'out'; made up
a + u.

Quite sensibly, the letters go from simple to complex, and within each group the letters go in order, starting with sounds produced in the back part of the mouth, and working towards the front. This is the order used in Sanskrit dictionaries and in indices to Sanskrit works. If you know the place in the mouth that each sound comes from, you don't need to consult a chart to use a dictionary -- just check your mouth.

      Between the vowels and consonants are found two other letters:

visarga, a kind of puff of air
often at the end of words.
anusvara, 'aftersound', amounts to nasalizing the vowel before it.

      The arrangement of the consonants, or manifesters (vyanjanani) is similiar to that of the vowels. There are five different types, all given below:






This completes the Sanskrit alphabet or syllabary. When it comes to writing actual words, these letters turn up in shortened versions which we'll discuss next time, and that's when we begin to read The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra in the Sanskrit! Until then see if you can figure out these words:


1Anabhilapya-ruta-ghosa-apagatam ca prakrtisantam tathagataghosam adhimucyate/sarva svara-anga-vibhakti- visuddhy-alam-kara- abhinirharam ca abhinirharati. Dasabhumika-sutra 7A.

2As was said before, vyanjanani are also the eighty minor characteristics of the Buddha.

3The single vertical line stands for a.



The consonantal sounds are different from those in English for the manifestors in the next two rows below. For the first row, curl tip of tongue slightly back against the ridge behind the upper front teeth. Touch tongue quickly against the teeth to say the second row.

"And whatever sound a person wants to hear,
 That's just the kind of pleasing sound he hears."

Large Sutra on the
Land of Ultimate Bliss
Trans. by Sramanerika Heng Hsien