Sanskrit is an exquisite language from ancient India whose beauty and design set it apart from ordinary language. The word Sanskrit, in Sanskrit, is spelled Saṁskṛta, and means “refined” or “well made.” Over 3500 years old, Sanskrit arose among people who valued inner peace over outer possessions. Sanskrit was designed to express the ideas and concepts of this ancient yet highly advanced culture. The sciences of yoga, medicine (Ayurveda), astronomy/astrology (Jyotisha), sound (Mantra), mathematics, and many others, developed over thousands of years, and the accumulated knowledge was recorded in Sanskrit, both aurally (via chanting) and in writing.
After studying and practicing yoga asana, meditation, and Ayurveda, I realized how deeply I resonated with every form of knowledge coming from India. They all made so much sense, and wove together seamlessly. Once I became exposed to Sanskrit, my interest was piqued. I knew that in order to fully understand the sciences and world-view of India, I needed to learn Sanskrit, So as impractical as it was, I sought the best teachers I could find and pursued the study of Sanskrit wholeheartedly for many years. This developed into teaching workshops, writing books, recording audio, and continuing to study on my own and with other teachers.
Sound is the highest priority in Sanskrit. In the beginning, the sacred texts called Veda-s were not written down, only chanted. Having a language that is 100% phonetic makes it much easier to preserve these sacred sounds. Because most people automatically blend words together when speaking fast, sound blending rules were created, ensuring the spoken and the written always match. Pronunciation has always been extremely important, since all sound has an energetic effect. The science of Mantra developed from this idea, and Sanskrit sounds are made in specific mouth positions long the human palate, each causing vibration to travel in a different direction.
Here is a pronunciation chart for the Sanskrit alphabet:
Some of the words I used do not exist in English (like “shdum”), but I needed to create them to cause the correct sound to happen in the mouth. Sanskrit is 100% phonetic: each written character is always pronounced the same way. This makes Sanskrit very easy to learn and pronounce. A spelling bee in Sanskrit would be impossible. Rhythm is built into the language, each syllable being either short (one beat) or long (2 or more beats). For example, “guru” is made of “gu” and “ru”, each a short syllable, so it gets 2 beats total. The word “āsana” is made of a long “ā”, short “sa” and short “na”, so it is pronounced more like “aasana” and gets 2+1+1=4 beats total. It is important to have the correct diacritical marks above or below certain letters, otherwise there is no way to know how to pronounce them. Sanskrit was designed for the human vocal apparatus. Each sound in the alphabet is made in a specific place within the mouth or throat. There are 5 mouth positions, including gutteral (back of the throat as in “k” or “g”), palatal (top of the palate as in “ch” or “j”), cerebral (smooth, round area of hard palate behind and above the teeth), dental (touching the back of the teeth, as in “t” or “d” or “n”), and labial (lips, as in “p” or “b” or “m”).
When words meet, as in a sentence or phrase, any incompatibilities of sound will be resolved. The written is always an exact reflection of the spoken. For example, in English we pronounce “I passed the test” more like “I past the test”. In Sanskrit, it would be pronounced exactly as written. Sanskrit is a natural language, meaning its sounds are said to truly represent what they mean. For example, the sound “ga” expresses motion, as in the English “go” or the Sanskrit root “gam.”
Why is pronunciation so important in Sanskrit?
- Sanskrit is highly respected in India as their sacred, divine, mother language. To honor this tradition it is important to spend a little time to learn at least the basics of pronunciation.
- reading Sanskrit words rendered in English letters with no diacritical marks, and pronouncing them as an English word, almost always results in poor pronunciation, and often the expression of a completely different energy. Here are some blatant examples: mala means “impurity” and in Ayurveda translates to “feces, urine or sweat” mālā means “necklace of beads, garland, rosary” OR ananda means “unhappiness” while ānanda means “enhanced happiness, bliss”
- chanting a mantra, especially a single-seed “bija” mantra (click here for examples), releases specific energy into the world. The more the sound (̥śabda), intention, meaning (artha) and visualization (yantra) align, the more powerful the desired effect will be. Even if the mantra is recited mentally, it is still based on the audible sound.
- chanting divine names of gods and goddesses invokes the energies they represent. If these are mispronounced, then the resulting vibration may shift into something that is not intended.
How can you use Sanskrit in your practice?
- japa: chanting mantra correctly aligns it with your intention
- learn key terms from the yoga sutras, instead of their incomplete English approximations
- learn to pronounce the asana names correctly, including their proper rhythm
History and Linguistics
Sanskrit is the mother tongue of Indo-European languages, including Latin, English, Spanish, French, German and Italian. Sanskrit is also the basis of most languages spoken in India, especially in the north. Hindi, the most common Indian language, shares the same written script as Sanskrit, although the sentence structure and grammar are quite different. Pure Hindi, called “shuddh Hindi,” is directly from Sanskrit and thus shares many words with it. Hindustani is the version of Hindi that is half Urdu, which is from Persian. Hindustani is the most common form of Hindi spoken in India today. It is important to distinguish between a written script and a language. A language is a way of communicating, and has a grammar which defines its word and sentence formation. For example, “I eat soup” is a simple sentence in the English language. To write a language on paper, you need a script. In English, we use what is called Roman script, which consists of the written letters a through z. Other Indo-European languages use the Roman script as well, sometimes with little marks added above or below certain letters, called “diacritical” marks. For example, the French ague or the German umlaut. 99.9% of the time, one particular language will be written in one particular script. Many Indic languages share the same alphabetic sound structure. Each uses a different written glyph for the same actual sound. Because the sounds are the same, you can write many different languages using the same script. For example, T. Krishnamacarya, the teacher of BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and TKV Desikachar, wrote Sanskrit verses using his native Telegu script. The Sanskrit language is usually written in a script called Devanagari. Indic scripts have no capitalization. The Sanskrit alphabet in Devanagari is shown below.
When a foreign script is rendered into a more familiar script, it is called transliteration. This allows the reader to pronounce the foreign word properly without needing to learn the foreign script. For example, when a Sanskrit word in Devanagari script is transliterated into Roman script, it is much easier to pronounce.
The Sanskrit alphabet in transliteration is shown below: