The Sanskrit Alphabet (Part 3)

Swami Yogakanti Saraswati

SO + HAM = SOHAM = That I am
HAM + SA = HAMSA = I am That; swan
A‚ Aa‚ I, Ee, U, Oo, Ri, Ree, Lri, Lree, E, Ai, O‚ Au‚ Am‚ Ah = the 16 vowels of vishuddhi

We are learning the Sanskrit alphabet. It has theoretical and practical implications. So far we have discussed Aum. It is the Word (and the Word was with God and the Word was God), the Shabda Brahman. It is the bija mantra, seed sound, of sahasrara, which represents our transcendental aspect, and ajna chakra, representing our connection with the transcendental, the higher consciousness, our inner guru.

Through sushumna nadi, ajna connects us to transcendental union, but through the two petals representing ida and pingala nadis, we are tied into the manifest universe, which works on dualities. The tantrics call the petals Ham and Ksham. Ksham is a sanyukta, made up of joining two other sounds – it is not a pure sound in itself. Its two components are Ka and Sha. Originally, it was not even the sibilant Sha, but Sa, which is in Ham-sa, the mantra of the breath. But if you are practising khechari mudra, where the tongue curls back in the mouth, you can’t pronounce Sa or Tha and it becomes Ksha.

Ha is for hatha yoga

The most important nadi is sushumna, then the pair, ida and pingala, then the nadis leading to the openings of the body, which are related to the senses, excretion and reproduction. Hatha yoga is concerned with purifying and balancing all these nadis, especially ida and pingala, so sushumna will flow.

Malaakulaasu naadishu maaruto naiva gachchhati
Praanaayaamah katham siddhayeta tattva jnaanam katham bhavet?
Tasmaannaadeeshuddhimaadau praanaayaamam tato’bhyaset.

The vital air does not enter the nadis so long as they are full of impurities. How then can one attain success in pranayama? How can there be knowledge of Truth, tattwa jnana? Therefore one should purify the nadis first, then pranayamas should be practised.
(Gherand Samhita 5:34)

Dvaasaptatisahasraani naadeedvaaraani panjare
Sushumnaa shaambhavee shaktih shoshaastveva nirarthakaah.

There are 72,000 nadis throughout the cage of this body. Sushumna is the shambhavi, the remaining nadis are unimportant.

(Hatha Yoga Pradipika 4:18)

When hatha yoga achieves its goal our awareness transcends duality. A new dimension of experience called sushumna nadi or kundalini or samadhi awakens.

Our awareness, which previously illumined only jagrat, our ‘conscious’ mind and a little bit of svapna, the ‘subconscious’, gets tuned in to sushupti, the unconscious and even beyond to turiya – the superconscious. Our two eyes may close to the ephemeral ‘reality’ of the material sensory dimension, but the third eye of ajna opens to inner truth or Reality. However, as most of us do not dwell constantly above the eyebrows, let’s study the downward flowing energies in a little more detail.

The major pranavahi flow of vital energy leaves ajna from the right, and governs the right side of the body and left brain hemisphere. It consists mainly of pingala nadi, but is augmented by two other important nadis, yashashwini, which starts at the left ear, and pusha, which starts at the right ear and goes to the right big toe. Similarly, the manovahi flow of mental energy does mainly consist of ida nadi but is augmented by gandhari, which starts at the left eye, and hastijihva, which starts at the right eye and runs to the left big toe.

Ajna chakra

Some sources say that the mantra for hastijihva is Ksham – the plot thickens! But anyway, the hatha yogis call the petals of ajna chakra Ham and Tham because then it is clear that these petals signify pingala and ida nadis. Also, it reinforces their belief in the importance of personal effort or force – hath– whereas the tantrics, of a more spontaneous ilk, feel effort is just laborious and everything should be more spontaneous in higher sadhana.

The energy of these vital and reflective, solar and lunar forces in our life and personality is channelled down from ajna throughout our whole form. It actually ties us into the body for our lifespan where we are affected by time and space. It is easy to see that the sun and moon both represent and in a very real sense are time for Earth-dwellers. What is time if not days and nights and months and years? So is the central function of ajna to lead us beyond duality, time/space through the mantra Aum or to lead into space and time through Ha and Tha? Maybe these are the ‘wormholes’ that Stephen Hawkins speculates could exist in the fabric of space/time.

So ajna directs the energy down through ida and pingala and this leads to the duality of daily life for us multi-dimensional creatures. Ajna is known as the third eye because we have to balance insight, the inward looking witness, as well as the expressive, dynamic aspects of life.

Vishuddhi chakra

The next major centre below ajna is vishuddhi chakra, at the pit of the throat. The bija mantra of vishuddhi is Ham and ‘Ha’ is a guttural sound, made in the throat. The essence of vishuddhi chakra is akasha, the space tattwa. And Ham is the seed mantra of space.

Space (the absence of anything) is what we first need for manifestation to occur in. It is right on the edge between manifest and unmanifest, existence and non-existence. Without space for them to be in, we could have no sun, planets, mountains, bicycles, elephants or ants – there would be no room for them to be in or breathe in. But of course, as soon as any of these things do actually exist, that’s the end of that particular bit of space. So space is the subtlest of the five tattwas or elements: space, air, fire, water and earth, that make up manifest creation.

Each of the five lower chakras relates directly to one of the five tattwas and to particular sets of knowledge, needs, instincts, senses, etc. In this aspect, the different chakras are like discs containing distinct software programs.

In the Sanskrit alphabet, too, Ha has a special ambivalence; it is neither vowel nor consonant. It is called the aspirate and as such is very powerful. Sanskrit has 32 consonants and about half of them are aspirated, so Ha permeates the alphabet. The 32 consonants, 16 vowels constitute the 50 Sanskrit letters on the petals of the major chakras. They are called matrikas, or ‘little mothers’. Matrikas are simple modulations of vibrations within the range of human hearing and sound production capacities.

Ha and Tha, representing the sun and the moon and so many other things, are both matrikas. Are they therefore just symbols for these great forces or are they intrinsically connected with the existence of the things they symbolize? Do the matrikas actually create these chakras and nadis and great cosmic forces? How could these little sounds create sun and moon? How could fragile Kunti create Karna and the Pandavas? Mothers are wonderful beings. So Ham is the seed mantra of vishuddhi and leads us into the manifest universe through its essence akasha, in the form of deep space.

Tham is for cool new territory

Now there is another chakra called soma or manas chakra in the upanishads and yogic texts. It is not generally mentioned in the Satyananda tradition because for the most part, we are Earth-dwellers, mooladhara to manipura people. The office and what we might eat and with whom does rather rule our day. But, up beyond ajna is a whole galaxy of chakras that we don’t much use. Soma, the moon chakra, is one of the major ones next up from ajna and its bija mantra is Tham. If we are journeying towards subtlety, we pass through there.

It’s a fascinating point really. From ajna, if we return our awareness towards earth and mooladhara, then the next chakra is vishuddhi with its bija mantra Ham. That leads to the space necessary for the manifestation of this material universe and that is also the mantra for pingala nadi, which conducts the physical, vital energy. On the other hand, if we move our awareness up beyond the eyebrows and ajna, then the next centre, soma, has the bija mantra Tham which is connected with ida nadi and reflective mental energy. The inter-relationship of mantras here indicates that we are looking at a subtle integrated network on many levels.

To keep grounded and speak of things which can be spoken of, however, we will beam down to vishuddhi chakra via its mantra Ham.

A is for adhara

The vishuddhi lotus flower has 16 petals and these have been explained in various ways. They are called adharas or ‘bases’. And one thing it seems the sources agree on is that the Devanagari letters of the 16 Sanskrit vowels are inscribed on them. And vishuddhi is the centre for communication just as the vowels are the interlinking communication bases of all the other letters of the alphabet.

The chart shows the 16 Sanskrit vowels, their full akshara or letter for each consonant in Devanagari, and the sort of English vowel they sound most like. They are in the ‘alphabetical’ order used in a Sanskrit dictionary. The order in which these matrikas are found when you read them from the 12 o’clock position, clockwise around vishuddhi chakra, is listed at the beginning of the article.

In Part 1 we mentioned that every consonant’s letter includes an 'a' sound automatically. If the ‘a’ sound is not required it must be deleted by the halant sign or replaced by the shorthand symbol of the required vowel, not by adding the whole vowel as we do in English. ‘So’ is therefore written using the matra for ‘o’ rather than the whole akshara letter.

If you count down the chart, all the odd numbers from 1 to 13 are short vowels; all the even numbers from 2 to 14 are their corresponding long vowels. Why not chant them? A, aa, i, ee, etc. – like when you were a little kid in school? See if you can remember their order. It’s good to learn another language – it makes our brain’s dendrites develop and keeps us young, unafraid of death and full of the nectar of life! It’s also an appropriate sadhana because the jnanendriya, or organ of knowledge, on vishuddhi’s disc is the vocal cords for producing sounds and the karmendriya, organ of action, is the ear – for listening to the sounds.

Why not write them? Try to write them clearly just as they are printed on the page. Practise a little likhit japa, written repetition, of the matrikas of vishuddhi and develop your powers of communication. It may seem a big effort but none of the other chakras we will discuss have so many petals and once you learn this lot you have all the vowels! So – here is a little space – Ham.

Continued in the next issue