I declare that A
is the essence of all mantras,
and from it arise mantras without number;
and it produces in entirety the Awareness
which stills all conceptual proliferations.
The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra
translated by Stephen Hodge (XVIII.3, p.326-7)
translated by Stephen Hodge (XVIII.3, p.326-7)
I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Professor Richard Salomon recently. He heads up the Early Buddhist Manuscripts Project which is based around Kharoṣṭhī script manuscripts from Gāndhāra and in the Gāndhāri language. These texts which are held in the British Library are very old, dating to the 1st or 2nd century common era. Gāndhāra is a very interesting area, having been the entry point to India for immigrants, traders, and invaders for many centuries. So it was a very rich and diverse culture. Kharoṣṭhī was the first script used to write India languages, and that it was derived from the version of the Aramaic script used by various Persian conquerors. In Kharoṣṭhī there is one sign for an initial vowel - the short a. To indicate other vowels one uses diacritic marks, in the same was that medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks on consonant signs. Kharoṣṭhī was later displaced by Brahmī from which all modern Indian scripts (as well as most South-east Asian scripts, and the various forms of Tibetan writing)
Regular readers will be aware that I've been interested in the Arapacana alphabet for a while. One of the features of the Arapacana is that is has only one initial vowel sign. Professor Salomon has shown that this is almost certainly because it was the alphabet of the Gāndhāri language which was written in Kharoṣṭhī. It seems that this is a related to the absence of initial vowels in the Aramaic script - they are not used in Semitic languages. When designing a script to write Buddhist texts one needs to be able to write initial vowels, for instance: evam mayā śutam (Thus have I heard which begins all Buddhist sūtras). Brahmī scripts use a different sign for each vowel (although long vowels are indicated with diacritics marks in most cases).
Kharoṣṭhī created a single vowel sign on the model of the consonant signs - it is simply 'a' if unadorned, but can become any vowel with diacritic marks.
The quote at the beginning of this post may not be familiar, but the sentiment might be. The letter a has this special place in Buddhist thought and practice. One explanation is that the letter a, when added to the beginning of most Sanskrit nouns, it turns them into their opposite: vidya is knowledge, while avidya, is ignorance. This allows us to use the letter a to stand for the Truth which cannot be fully comprehended by language: it is possible to negate any definite statement about the transcendental (including this one!).
However I don't think this alone accounts for the notion that the letter a is the source of all mantras, if only because the a- prefix for verbs usually indicates the imperfect past tense rather than any sense of negation. Another idea relates to the way that Indic alphabets attach an inherent short letter a to each consonant. So the Sanskrit consonants are written as syllables or phonemes - called akṣara - (e.g. ka kha ga gha ṅa); not simply letters (e.g. k kh g gh ṅ). As in Kharoṣṭhī, medial and final vowels are indicated by diacritic marks. This is quite a good way of looking at it, but there is still a slight flaw which involves the vowels.
The vowels, except for ā, aṃ and aḥ , can't really be considered to derive from the letter a. All vowels are similar in that they are voiced similarly - differences in sound are due to shifts in the tongue and lips changing the resonant frequency of the vocal track, but it doesn't seem to be enough to consider, say, the letter ī to derive from the letter a. Graphically the vowels are mostly not related to the shape of the letter a either. This is all true of the Brahmī derived scripts. It is not quite true for Kharoṣṭhī however because of the single initial vowel.
My suggestion is that the special function of the letter a in Buddhism is a relic of the Gāndhāra area. It is only in Kharoṣṭhī that all signs for letters derive from, or contain, the short a.
One piece of supporting evidence comes from the Sūtra of Perfect Wisdom in 25,000 Lines. This sutra was probably composed in the 2nd or 3rd century, and is preserved in a variety of Sanskrit originals, as well as in Tibetan and Chinese translations. In the sūtra the alphabet is used as a mnemonic for a series of reflections on the nature of phenomena. Each letter is indicated by a keyword starting with that letter; and each word is the basis for a line of verse. Being a Sanskrit text one might expect the Sanskrit alphabet to be used, but it is not. The alphabet is a partially Sanskritised version of the Arapacana alphabet. Even in the fully Sanskritised version of this practice - present for example in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra - the vowels are sometimes left off so we have the Sanskrit consonants, but the letter a as the only vowel. The tradition is preserved and the trail seems to lead back to Gāndhāra, at least on Indian soil.
I say "on Indian soil" because the use of alphabetical verses, that is to say verses in which the first letter of the first word of each line are in alphabetical order (a kind of acrostic) is unknown in pre-Buddhist India. Verses were organised by length, and by numerical schemes, but not alphabetically. Verses were arranged alphabetically in Semitic cultures, so there are Old Testament psalms and Manichean hymns with verses in alphabetical order. Which brings us around in a circle to the Semitic origins of Kharoṣṭhī.
The letter a, then , is the source of all the other letters in the alphabet; and the alphabet is the source of all the mantras - hence the composer(s) of the Mahāvairocana abhisaṃbodhi Tantra could say that "from [a] arise mantras without number".
If you'd like to learn to write the letter a in the Siddhaṃ script then visit my other website: visiblemantra.org
image: Siddhaṃ letter a from AKARA : The Quest for Perfect Form
(although it looks identical to one in John Steven's book Sacred Calligraphy in the East, p43.)