The Sanskrit Alphabet (Part 1)

Swami Yogakanti Saraswati

AUM = A + U + M

The wonderful thing about the Sanskrit alphabet is that it works on so many levels. English uses the Roman script, and knowing its ABC helps us to read and write and use a dictionary, but the classical ‘dictionary’ order of Sanskrit is a master key. The different groupings of letters according to their place of formation, for pronunciation, from the throat to the lips is used in the structure of the alphabet and reflects the structure of the chakras. The script itself is called Devanagari, the script of the gods, which indicates its power. The letters are called akshara, which means not-destructible, indestructible. We will look at the links between the Sanskrit letters and the chakras systematically; it just takes a little time, but let us start at the beginning.

A is for Aum and sahasrara

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was Aum. Aum starts deep in the throat with ‘A’ (it’s a guttural vowel sounding like the ‘u’ in ‘cup’). Then it rolls forward through the mouth to ‘U’ (which sounds like the ‘u’ in ‘pull’). Finally there is the nasalised ‘mmm’ sound, which Sanskrit also classes as a vowel and is expressed with closed lips. Pronounce Aum carefully with awareness of where the sound vibrations are coming from and you can experience this right now.

So Aum actually, as well as symbolically, moves us through all the potential areas of our vocal sounds. It is given as the bija mantra, seed sound, of sahasrara – the thousand-petalled lotus which contains all the chakras within itself and joins the material, sensory universe to the transcendental dimension. It is also the bija mantra of ajna chakra where instructions or guidance from that transcendental dimension are received while we inhabit a physical body.

Sanskrit has 16 vowels, and each vowel has its own letter in Devanagari script. It also has 32 consonants, and each of these also has its own letter in Devanagari, as we would expect. The akshara, or letter for each of these consonants, indicates that the A sound described above is included in the sound of the consonant. However, if a consonant is to be followed by a vowel other than A, then we indicate that by adding the shorthand symbol for that vowel, instead of using the whole letter as we do in English.

All this means there are a few more things to learn at the beginning, but everything is much more precise. The Devanagari script also contains many conjunct, sanyukta, letters for special combinations of its original letters – maybe that is why sahasrara has so many petals? Aum is the first of these special conjuncts; there is another very important one we will meet soon, and the rest you pick up later.

Aum creates the universe

Adi Shankaracharya, the tantric yogi who founded the Advaita Vedanta philosophy and the Dashnami tradition of sannyasa, said that Mandukya Upanishad is the most important upanishad. Why? Because its twelve slokas explain Aum, which is Shabda Brahman, the Word of the supreme consciousness, the energy vibration which results in the manifest universe issuing from the unmanifest.

Aumityetadaksharam idam sarvam tasyopavyaakhyaanam.
Bhootam bhavadbhavishyaditi sarvam Aumkaara eva.
Yachchaanyat trikaalaateetam tadapi Aumkaara eva.
Sarvam hyetad Brahma ayam aatmaa Brahma

The word, Aum, is the universe. Everything that exists in the past, present and future is Aum and that which exists beyond the threefold division of time is Aum. Everything that is, is Brahman, and the Self (atman) is Brahman.

Mandukya Upanishad v.1&2

The basic idea here, that the universe is made up of consciousness and energy or vibration, sounds like the basis of modern scientific understanding and is the underlying assumption of many spiritual traditions. Aum encompasses all the range of sounds and symbolises the total range of consciousness for a human being.

‘A’ is for awake

Mandukya Upanishad goes on to explain, with terse symbolism, the syllable Aum as it relates to the different states of consciousness that a human being can experience. ‘A’ relates to jagrat, the waking consciousness. Jagrat has nineteen mouths and seven limbs, so clearly in this state we are busy feeding ourselves and moving about.

Jaagaritasthaano bahishprajnah saptaanga ekonavinshatimukhah sthoolabhugvaishvaanarah prathamah paadah.

The first aspect is jagrat, the waking state, the awareness of external things, the terrain of Vaishvanara, the witnessing man on Earth. It has seven limbs and nineteen mouths and its enjoyment lies in the visible objects of the world.

Mandukya Upanishad v.3

Our nineteen mouths are usually explained as being the five karmendriyas or organs of action: anus, genitals, feet, hands and vocal cords; the five jnanendriyas or sense organs: nose, tongue, eyes, skin and ears; the five mahabhootas or elements: earth, water, fire, air and space; and the manas chatushtaya, the four mental organs: manas (mind that relates to sense and thought/counter thought), buddhi (intellect), chitta (memory) and ahamkara (ego). Through these mouths we experience, ‘enjoy’ or ‘eat’ the manifest physical world of objects.

Our seven limbs in this jagrat, waking, state are the seven chakras that download the abundant cosmic energy into the body and mind so we keep ticking over nicely as we get born, do our duties, learn our lessons and die on planet Earth. It is the intriguing relationship between the chakras and the aksharas of the Sanskrit alphabet that this series of articles will explore.

‘U’ is for you dreamer

Of course, human beings are complex and subtle; we don’t only have one mode of consciousness. We are not entirely confined to the eyes-open-enjoy-the-senses modality. We dream too. We have our subtle side, hidden motivations, aims and aspirations. Mandukya Upanishad relates ‘U’ of Aum to svapna, the mainly subconscious dream state. There is that side to us which enjoys the subtle things of the mind and emotions and, at least each night, that side automatically expresses itself when our jagrat side closes down.

Svapnasthaano’ntah prajnah saptaanga ekonavinshatimukhah praviviktabhuktaijaso dviteeyah paadah.

Svapna, the dreaming state is the second aspect, over which Taijas rules. It possesses seven limbs and nineteen mouths but the objects enjoyed are invisible (subtle).

Mandukya Upanishad v.4

Practices such as yoga nidra help us to extend our awareness into this area of our personality and ‘bring back’ insights gained there so we can consciously apply them. It seems all esoteric traditions, from the Yaqui Indians to the Australian Aborigines have their own techniques to explore dreaming. Adepts are quite sure that dreaming is at least as real as waking. They often point out that our daily lives are largely reflections of the subconscious samskaras, impressions, motivations, memory patterns or goals that we glimpse in our dream world (and forget about when we are awake unless we train ourselves not to).

This seems fairly deep, but Mandukya Upanishad points out that this dream realm also has nineteen mouths and seven limbs, so we’re still moving around a lot expressing ourselves and searching for satisfaction – but we are dealing with psychic, mental and emotional impressions rather than physical objects.

‘M’ is for mass of consciousness

As human beings we go deeper than that too. The ‘mmm’ at the end of Aum is related to sushupti, that deep part of sleep beyond dreams. Prajna is a special type of high energy intuitive wisdom that witnesses sushupti.

Yatra supto na kanchana kaaman kaamayate na kanchana svapnam pashyati tatsushuptam. Sushuptasthaana ekeebhootah prajnaanaghana evaanandamayo hyaanandabhuk chetomuktah praajnastriteeyah paadah.

The third aspect is sushupti, deep dreamless sleep, lying beyond desire. Prajna is the Lord of this territory and abides in deep sleep in which all things have vanished and enjoys bliss. Prajna lies at the doorway between the dreaming and waking states.

Mandukya Upanishad v.5

No thoughts, no sensory experiences – what happens then? We don’t know; sleep is what happens when we’re not there. But if some state of mind is beyond the ego yet full of bliss, that sounds like samadhi. Sage Vyasa’s commentary on Rishi Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras says that samadhi is the natural state of the mind – it’s just that it is covered with vrittis, mental patterns or modifications. Well, it is! As we’ve seen – there are gross ones collected from jagrat during our waking hours and subtle ones percolating away in swapna-dreams when we switch off from the external world for a while. And then there are the unconscious patterns. Since Freud established its existence and power, many have researched the unconscious. We can do it ourselves but to witness it takes purification, concentration and abundant energy – and most of us fall asleep doing it.

‘AUM’ for omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.

So how will we ever get beyond sushupti to turiya, the fourth dimension described by Mandukya Upanishad?

Naantahprajnam na bahishprajnam nobhayatah prajnam na prajnaanaghanam na prajnam naaprajnam. Adrishtam avyavahaaryam agraahyam alakshanam achintyam avyapadeshyam ekaatmapratyayasaaram prapanchopashamam shaantam shivamadvaitam chaturtham manyante sa aatmaa sa vijneyah.

Turiya, Lord of the fourth aspect according to the wise, remains unaware of the external, intermediate and internal worlds, is beyond both the conscious and unconsciousness. It is indescribable, bearing no relation to anything, where sight cannot penetrate, nor thought. Turiya enjoys pure awareness and experiences peace, bliss and non-duality, and is none other that atman. Realise this.

Mandukya Upanishad v.7

If we can swim like a great fish from bank to bank of the river of consciousness – roaming freely with awareness through wakefulness, dream and sleep – will we transcend?

Amaatrashchaturthah anyahaaryah prapanchopashamah shivo’dvaita evam Aumkaara aatma iva samvishatyaatmanaa aatmaanam.

The fourth aspect is Aum itself, the sacred indivisible word. Aum is atman, the transcendent, the beyond understanding, the cessation of all phenomena, the blissful, the non-dual. The knower of this highest Truth is merged in atman and attains the final goal, which is Brahman.

Mandukya Upanishad v.12

AUM is for Aum chanting

Aum chanting activates sahasrara and ajna chakra; there we receive divine guidance while we inhabit this body down on planet Earth. In fact, chanting Aum is the only form of japa advocated by Rishi Patanjali because he is really only interested in transcendence – for him reality is ajna and above – raja yoga samadhi is his theme.

For those of us still needing to fly over the mess or morass or ocean of samsara, ajna’s two petals (the two wings of the jiva-bird) are Ham and Tham. They are written Ham and Ksham by the tantrics, but that is a disguise of common usage. Really, say the hatha yogis, the mantra for ajna’s right wing sounds like Ham and indicates the pranavahi, the flow of vital solar energy known also as pingala nadi. The mantra on the left wing sounds like Tham and indicates the manovahi, the flow of the mind, the reflective lunar energy known also as ida nadi. It is only after balancing these two that we can fly. In order to balance them there is Ha-Tha yoga – which is another story.

Continued in the next issue