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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Sanskrit

The ancient language of India, still considered by the present government to be one of the officially accepted languages of that country, although now spoken by only a few pandits. It is called the “mother” of all the other Indo-European and even Semitic languages (SD II:200). Originally, during Vedic times (c. 3000-1500 BCE), it was a living language and had several irregularities, as do all modern languages. However, it was “regularized” by the great grammarian Panini (5th cent. BCE?), and it has not evolved since that time. The word “Sanskrit” is an English word; in its language, it is known as Samskrta, literally “well-made.” In fact, the arrangement of its alphabet is a linguist’s dream: first come the vowels, starting in the back of the throat and moving forward, then come the consonants arranged in the same way (including aspirants, like kh, gh, jh, etc. and retroflexes (i.e.,t and d) along with their corresponding nasals, then the semivowels (y, r, l, and v, the latter pronounced like w, i.e., a double-u), then the sibilants, and finally the aspirant (h). Its script is called devanagari, a feminine noun meaning “city of the gods.” A list of the full alphabet is as follows:

The Sanskrit Alphabet (see page iii for devanagari script)

Simple vowels: a a i i u u r r l l
dipthongs: Pie more
consonants: Ice cream and more
dipthongs: Pie more
dipthongs: Pie more
dipthongs: Pie more
dipthongs: Pie more
dipthongs: Pie more
dipthongs: Pie more
dipthongs: Pie more

 

e ai o au

k kh g gh n c ch j jh ñ t th d dh n t th d dh n p ph b bh m anusvara: m or m

visarga: h

semivowels: y r l v

sibilants: s s s

aspirant: h

Note: The line above a simple vowel indicates that it is pronounced long (i.e. a = uh, a = aah, i = ih, i = ee, etc.). The vocalic r is slightly trilled and is often written ri or ri. The long vocalic t occurs only in a very few words (mainly mystic syllables), and is included in the alphabet largely to retain symmetry with the long vocalic r. The dipthongs are formed by adding a or a to either i or u, i.e., e = a + i, ai = a + i, o = a + u, au = a + u. Thus, the sacred word om = a + u + m, but it is not pronounced aum. Consonants are pronounced with a short a added to them, i.e., ka, kha, ga, gha, etc. The aspirated consonants are pronounced with an extra puff of breath, e.g., kh is pronounced as in “backhand,” gh as in “pigheaded,” ch as in “ranchhand,” etc. The gutteral nasal n is pronounced as nga; the palatal nasal ñ is pronounced nya as in Spanish. Retroflex consonants (t, th, d, dh, and n) are pronounced with the tongue curled back and touching the palate. The palatal c is pronounced cha, so the aspirated ch is pronounced (and sometimes written) chha. Dental consonants (t, th, d, dh, and n) are pronounced with the tongue at the teeth. Labial consonants (p, ph, b, bh, m) are pronounced as in English. The semivowels correspond to the vowels i, r, l,and u respectively; the  is again pronounced with a slight trill; the v is pronounced as wa, not as a fricative as in English. The  is pronounced as English sha; the s is pronounced as a retroflex.

Anyone who undertakes the study of The Secret Doctrine or other theosophical writings soon realizes that many Sanskrit words are used, a fact which some readers find quite daunting, even discouraging. But the reason for their use is that some important words — such as Brahman, akasa, tapas, buddhi, karma, dharma, and yoga — have no real equivalents in modern Western languages; that is why karma, dharma, and yoga (joga in Spanish), for instance, have been adopted by those languages, even though sometimes modifying or even losing their original meaning. And even those which are not adopted are frequently misunderstood and mistranslated. For instance, buddhi, from the root budh, “awaken,” has been translated “intellect” or “reason,” neither of which convey the real meaning of the word which implies “insight,” usually “spiritual insight.” The same is true of veda, often translated “knowledge” (which in English has come to mean merely an accumulation of facts); veda comes from the root vid which connotes a deeper understanding, akin to German “wissen” and English “wisdom” with which it is cognate. Even jñana, which is cognate with English “know,” suggests something more than mere accumulation of facts. It follows that at least some understanding of key Sanskrit words is important for grasping the depths of theosophy (called in Sanskrit gupta vidya, hidden wisdom).

Furthermore, Sanskrit has a definite mantric quality unequaled by most modern languages. When properly pronounced, Sanskrit mantras have a definite evocative power. Helena P. BLAVATSKY states, “In the Sanskrit, as also in the Hebrew and all other alphabets, every letter has its occult meaning and its rationale; it is a cause and an effect of a preceding cause, and a combination of these very often produced the most magical effect. The vowels, especially, contain the most occult and formidable potencies” (SD I:94). The Vedic hymns, particularly, are not merely praises of various deities (devas), but invocatory songs. T. SUBBA ROW observed that “the Vedas have a distinct dual meaning — one expressed by the literal sense of the words, the other indicated by the meter and the svara (intonation [svar? = sun, light]) which are, as it were, the life of the Vedas. . . . Learned Pandits and Philologists, of course, deny that Svara has anything to do with philosophy or ancient esoteric doctrines. But the mysterious connection between Svara and light is one of its most profound secrets.” (Five Years of Theosophy, TPH, 1885, p. 154; also in T. Subba Row, Esoteric Writings, TPH, 1895, 1931, p. 281; quoted in SD I:270 fn.) This close connection between light and sound (or shining and singing) is implied in words such as arc which means both “shine” or “be brilliant” and “praise” or “sing.” Thus, a hymn that is chanted both shines and is seen. It is in that sense that the priest-poets (i.e., “seers”; probably derived from drs, see) who composed the Vedas are said to have “seen” them (in a spiritual sense of the word). Such rsis (sometimes written rishis) or kavis (poets) are said to “bear light in their mouth” and “sing fire-hot songs.”

The origin of the Sanskrit language esoterically is said to go back to Atlantean times, derived from its continent of Ruta (cf. SD II:222), then perfected by early Aryans as “the mystery-tongue of the Initiates” (SD II:200). Blavatsky also claims that a “direct progenitor of the Vedic Sanskrit” was the sacerdotal language which “became in time the mystery language of the inner temple, studied by the Initiates of Egypt and Chaldea; of the Phoenicians and the Etruscans; of the Pelasgi and Palanquans, in short, of the whole globe.” She continues, “The appellation DEVANAGARI is the synonym of, and identical with, the Hermetic and Hieratic NETER-KHARI (divine speech) of the Egyptians” (CW V:298).

The discovery of Sanskrit by European scholars in the 17th century revolutionized the study of linguistics. The scientific structure of the language also gave rise to the study of phonetics (cf. A. L. Basham, The Wonder that Was India, Macmillan, 1954, p. 390). Early study of the language was begun by Jesuits in Kerala. But the real pioneer in translations was William Jones who came to Calcutta as a Judge of the Supreme Court when India was part of the British Empire. Other important early Western scholars were the Englishmen Charles Wilkins, H. H. Wilson (who compiled a Sanskrit-English dictionary in 1855), Monier Monier-Williams (whose monumental 1899 Sanskrit-English dictionary is still a standard), Max Müller (who translated into English the hymns of the Vedas, the principal Upaniads, etc.), and R. T. H. Griffith (who also translated the Vedas into English), among others; also important were the American William Dwight Whitney (whose 1889 grammar is still in use), the Germans such as M. Winternitz, Böhtlingk and Roth (who compiled a three-volume Sanskrit-German dictionary), and Jacob Wackernagel (who wrote a Sanskrit grammar in 1896), and such French scholars such as Regnaud (who compiled a Sanskrit-French Rhétorique in 1884). Among early theosophists who translated the Bhagavad-Gita into English were William Q. JUDGE and Annie BESANT. Besant also wrote synopses of the two great Hindu epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Sanskrit is the most highly inflected language in the world, which makes the study of it daunting. Also, several of its letters are written in different ways in the devanagari script depending on the other letters with which they are associated. In addition, it has explicit rules for phonetic or euphonic combination (Sk. sandhi) which are implicit in most other languages (e.g., the t changes to a d before a sonant; in English, the closest analogy would be s which is pronounced as a z when preceded by a sonant, as in “birds,” “cars,” etc.). Most of these are of no particular importance to ordinary readers of theosophical literature except, perhaps, to remember that Sanskrit does not pronounce the short a as in English “cat,” but rather as in English “cut.” Note that “Sanskrit” (where the a is pronounced as in “cat”) is an English word! In Sanskrit it is, as noted above, Samskrta.

J.Mr./R.W.B.

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