The Sanskrit Alphabet (Part 2)

Swami Yogakanti Saraswati

HA + THA = HATHA as in Hatha Yoga

In Part 1, it became clear that simply learning to be aware of sounds, how we make use of them and how they affect us has theoretical and practical implications. Aum both symbolises creation at the level of the manifest universe and at the level of human consciousness, and is the Word. It is also the bija mantra, seed vibration, of sahasrara and ajna chakra. So remembering Aum, or chanting it, or writing it repeatedly are simple but very powerful practices that we can all do. Remembering Aum tunes us back into the big realities of consciousness, life and evolution of awareness. And this is why the sage Patanjali recommends Aum chanting in his Yoga Sutras.

  • Tasya vaachakah pranavah. (1:27)
  • Aum is the word denoting Ishvara (the Indestructible God).
  • Tat japah tat artha bhaavanam. (1:28)
  • That (word Aum) should be recited repeatedly while dwelling mentally on its meaning.
  • Tatah pratyak chetanaa adhigamo’pyantaraayaha abhaavashcha. (1:29)
  • From that practice the consciousness turns inward and the obstacles (to samadhi) are overcome.

A is for Aum and ajna

So Aum is for transcendence and is the beloved of the raja yogis. But another interesting level of how the Sanskrit alphabet works is that it describes the process of creation at the level of life forms (us created beings). It also describes the forces that influence us beings inhabiting material bodies on planet Earth. Hatha yoga is designed as a stair leading to the heights of raja yoga and samadhi, but is grounded in the dualities of existence on earth and our corporeal life. It deals with cleaning the discs, or chakras, that control our endocrine glands, instincts, perceptions etc., and the nadis, or rivers of energy that flow between them like our nervous system and habit patterns.

Ajna means command or instruction, and in ajna chakra we receive instruction from the transcendental dimension, the inner self or guru through intuition. Aum is the bija mantra of ajna chakra relating to its transcendental aspect, the sushumna nadi that flows from sahasrara. Duality is represented by ajna’s two petals or wings or nadis. One relates to the mantra Ha for pingala nadi, the flow of masculine, solar vital prana, which leaves ajna chakra on the right side. The other relates to the mantra Tha for ida nadi, the flow of feminine, lunar, reflective mental energy, which leaves ajna on the left. You may not have consciously experienced the chakras and nadis as forces if you do not practise yoga, acupuncture, martial arts or some such discipline, but you still have to balance these two dimensions of your being, the external physical side and the internal mental side; and that is what ajna chakra represents.

Now relating this to the Sanskrit alphabet and how to use it, there are three curious points, mentioned in Part 1, that need amplification:

  1. In Sanskrit, the full form of any consonant incorporates a free ‘a’ sound. For example, the letter sounds ‘tha’, not just ‘th’. To remove the ‘a’ sound from a consonant you have to use the special sign called a halant. So hatha is the name of the branch of yoga specializing in equalizing the flow of Ha and Tha. Hath is pronounced the same but without the final ‘a’ sound and means ‘force’.
  2. Remember that ajna chakra’s bija mantra Aum has its own special conjunct, sanyukta; it is not written just by stringing A, U and mmm together in a line. Similarly, Ksha is another very important sanyukta. Its components are Ka and Sha.
  3. You will notice that all the bija mantra and petal mantras of the chakras are nasalized. That final nasalized vowel sound actually has two different symbols in the Devanagari script. The sign called bindu, meaning a point or drop, is used most often when nasalizing a short vowel. The sign chandrabindu, moondrop, is mostly used for long vowels. Because the letters for Ha, Tha and Ksha all incorporate the short ‘a’ vowel, we nasalize them just by adding the simple bindu and get Ham, Tham and Ksham. Aum is made up of three vowel sounds which add up to a long one, so the chandrabindu is used there.

The icons or symbols of the chakras carved out by tradition are power packed, terse transmissions of information and experience, not merely decorative embellishments or rigid rules and they relate to actual forces. For hatha yogis the petals of ajna can be written as Ham and Tham, but tantrics wrote the latter as Ksham for experiential reasons we can discuss later.

These two petals of ajna relate to the two major flows that descend from ajna. The flow of vital energy called pranavahi relates especially to pingala nadi. The flow of mental energy called manovahi relates especially to ida nadi. Nada means to flow, nadi means river or current. Of all the 72,000 nadis in the human body, sushumna carries the greatest voltage of energy from sahasrara to ajna and, if ida and pingala have been sufficiently strengthened, purified and balanced, engulfs them in its journey down to mooladhara, awakening kundalini, the evolutionary energy in the individual, electrifying the consciousness and lifestyle on the way.

Ha is for hatha yoga

However absorbed we become in material objects and the sensory world like our office, car, food, status, beliefs etc., that is not the most potent reality that our lives depend on, and the different perceptions and experiences induced by yogic practice help us to keep our priorities in order. It is an incontrovertible fact that for Earth-dwellers (us), the sun and the moon are the two great powers. Of course, if we still have trouble accepting that milk comes from cows rather than cardboard containers, we may tend to overlook the significance of living in the orbit of a yellow dwarf and of being orbited by a sizeable moon at close quarters.

Especially if we come from technological societies cut off from nature, we may not have realized that this is bound to have continuous profound consequences on every aspect of our daily life. We may not even keep track of the moon’s phases or the sun’s progress along its northern and southern paths. So how can we know whether it’s a good time to die? Or, alternatively, how to live skilfully, adapting to the changes we indwellers of the body experience physiologically, mentally, emotionally and psychically due to the cosmic tides?

The rishis, seers or sages, were wise enough to see our inter-relatedness clearly and they designed the system of hatha yoga. Its practices, attitudes and lifestyle balance ha-tha, the two sides to our nature, the two lives we have to live harmoniously. One is our relationship with the external material world of objects, people and reactive thoughts etc. when we are extrovert. The other is our relationship with our attitudes, reflections, samskaras, etc. when we are introvert. We have to balance these before the sushumna nadi flows, and the transcendental experiences of samadhi and Ishvara become stable.

Soham – Hamsa

If we keep a simple natural yogic lifestyle, we get up just before the sun does. We clear our bodies and minds of accumulated waste products, notice which nostril we’re breathing most freely through – and here we have it. Is it the right nostril, and pingala nadi, the river of energy related to the sun, our left brain hemisphere functions, sympathetic nervous system and practical masculinity which is most influencing us today at sunrise? Or is it the left nostril, ida nadi, the river of energy related to the moon, right brain, the parasympathetic nervous system and psychic femininity which is going to dominate today?

Really it is simple to find out, just check which nostril you are breathing through most freely at this moment – it’s your own biofeedback apparatus inherited at birth, we just have to start using it. Each morning, step out of bed with the foot corresponding to the active flow, reminding yourself that ‘as we breathe so shall we act’ – whether consciously or unconsciously.

In hatha yoga we are fully aware as we breathe in and we breathe out. We breathe with the sure knowledge that the yellow dwarf which emits solar radiations that are pulsing out for light years across the galaxy is actually having a personal effect on us too. Some attitudes and actions are most successful when pingala nadi is dominating our personality and energy level and if we maintain awareness, we can synchronize our own internal rhythms with the macrocosm.

Likewise, the changing face of the moon indicates monthly rhythms which not only affect the ocean’s tides and the sprouting of plants, but also our level of lunacy, our reproductive cycles – the way you and I think and feel. Our success in some endeavours depends on our ability to focus, to remain serious, to introvert, so it is auspicious to do them when ida nadi is flowing freely.

Some texts such as the Shiva Swarodaya give copious advice on which activities are suitable when ida or pingala are flowing, apparently advocating success in an acquisitive lifestyle rather than success in samadhi.

  • Dakshine charabhaagena jagadutpaadayetsadaa.
    Madhyamaa bhavati krooraa dushthaa sarvatra karmasu
    Sarvatra shubhakaaryeshu vaamaa bhavati siddhidaa
  • (Pingala) on the right aids worldly activity and the growth of the body. The middle flow (sushumna) is ‘wicked’ because any actions done during its flow with purposeful intention (for one’s self) do not bear fruit. The flow of the left nadi (ida) gives psychic ability (siddhi).
    (Shiva Swarodaya 57b & 58)

Other texts, such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, are mainly interested in achieving, maintaining and deepening samadhi. No doubt he would recommend sushumna’s flow. If asked about success in life, he would simply advise applying a balanced state of mind to whatever situations come in life by observing the yamas and niyamas, so that the experience of sushumna and samadhi can be prolonged.

The rishis who investigated the breath thoroughly found that human beings normally breathe about 20,600 times each twenty-four hours. Some said that the breath constantly repeats the mantra: So on the inhalation and Ham on the exhalation. Others with a different emphasis of attention heard Ham on the exhalation and Sa on the inhalation – what does it mean? That’s another story, and one best answered by listening to the breath rather than to some dictionary definition. But after listening to the breath for some time, we can place Aum at the eyebrow centre and the two petals of the lotus flower sometimes look like the two wings of a silver white bird, the hamsa, the mythological swan which can discriminate between reality and unreality.

Continued in the next issue