08 January 2010

Mystical Grammar - oṃ & auṃ

oṃ in the Siddhaṃ script
oṃ in the
Siddhaṃ script
For the ancient Indians grammar was one of the major paradigms for understanding how the universe functioned. One product of this is in the understanding of the seed syllable (bījākṣara) oṃ in the Vedic and then the Hindu traditions.[1] The earliest references to oṃ are in the Yajur Veda. This Veda was composed sometime after 1000 BC but before the Buddha. In some rituals the hotṛ Brahmin shouts oṃ at the end of the invocation to the god being sacrificed to (anuvākya) as an invitation to partake of the sacrifice.

The analysis of oṃ as being made up of three parts (a + u + ṃ) originates in the Sanskrit grammarian tradition but is given ritual or religious significance in the post-Buddhist early Upaniṣads, especially the Māṇḍūkya and Praśna Upaniṣads. Let's look at how this works.

Vowels may be monophthong or diphthong - made up on a single sound (short or long), or made up of two sounds (short or long). Linguists might describe a diphthong as beginning on one vowel sound and ending on another. The vowels of Sanskrit can divided up like this:

monophthongsa i u ṛ ḷ
अ इ उ ऋ ऌ
ā ī ū ṝ
आ ई ऊ ॠ
diphthongse o
ए ओ
ai au
ऐ औ

Note that the anusvāra (ṃ) and visarga (ḥ) are often counted as vowels, but practically they are modifications of existing vowels: nasalisation and aspiration respectively. They can be applied to any of the vowels. The long vowel ḹ (ॡ) is a theoretical possibility but in practice is never used.

The vowel o is a diphthong which is made up of two sounds: a + u. However note that the vowel au is a long diphthong which is analysed as ā + u. The two vowels o and au sound quite different: o sounds like o in hope; au sounds like ou in sound. Similarly e can be thought of as a + i: and ai as ā + i. Technically (and metrically) e and o are long vowels. In Sanskrit the Proto-Indo-European short vowels e and o converged with a (which helps to explain why a is far more common than other vowels). Since there is no short e or short o in Sanskrit there is no need to write the long vowels as ē and ō, though this would be more consistent.

It is necessary to understand these distinctions in order to understand some sandhi phenomena, because in some cases o actually behaves as a+u. The conjugations of the verbal root √bhū 'to be' offer a good example. This is a class 1 verb and forms a stem in -a with guṇā (strengthening) of the root vowel: so bhū (with guṇā) > bho; and when we add the stem vowel -a we get the stem form bhava; and the 3rd person singular is bhavati. What happens here is that the o in bho is treated as a + u, and the addition of -a invokes sandhi rules governing when two vowels meet - in this case u + a > va: ie bha+u+a > bhava. (This kind of thing is what makes learning Sanskrit difficult).

auṃ written in the Siddhaṃ script

in the
Siddhaṃ script
From a purely technical point of view we can see that the analysis of o as a + u does not justify writing oṃ as auṃ using the long diphthong. Note that the syllable auṃ written in Siddhaṃ (left) looks like the modern Hindu ॐ which is frequently transliterated as auṃ, and suggests that some confusion about this crept into Hindu discourse. Buddhist texts did not adopt the practice of writing oṃ as auṃ as far as I have been able to discover.

Another purely technical point is that the notation oṃ indicates a nasalised o vowel. This should rhyme with the French 'bon', not with the English 'bomb'. In fact this distinction seems to have been lost for some time, and oṃ (ओं) is regularly pronounced as om (ओम् ) even in India (i.e. with the bilabial rather than the pure nasal). Note also that au is the vowel sound in the English word 'sound'. So auṃ should not sound like oṃ and vice verse.

These jejune distinctions were important to the Indian grammarians because it was thought that the Vedas were divinely inspired, eternally unchanging and true, texts. They were transmitted orally, and after some centuries the vernacular Sanskrit language was significantly different from Vedic [2] which lead to scholars making a thorough investigation of the language - both canonical and vernacular at around the time of the Buddha. It was important to get the pronunciation right if the meaning was to be preserved. Changing the pronunciation was unthinkable.

By the time the early Upaniṣads were being composed (beginning ca 800 BCE) there was quite a lot of interest in the relationship between words and reality. The existence of eternal, true words gave this a particular flavour. Also note that the word for 'true' and 'real' was the same: sat. It was the authors of the Upaniṣads, especially the Chāndogya (CU), who began to make the connections between syllables and aspects of the cosmos, though this seems to have been a natural development of the idea of correspondences (bandhu) between the macrocosm and the microcosm which was also a preoccupation in the Vedas. Oṃ in CU text is seen as a single syllable and equated with the udgītha, that is with the chanting of the sāman or hymns of the Sāma Veda. In other texts oṃ is associated with brahman. Then later, in the last century BCE, the technical breakdown of o into a+u was given esoteric significance. A key passage from the Māṇḍūkya reads:
so 'yamātmādhyakṣaramoṅkāraḥ | adhimātra pādā mātrā mātrāś ca pādā akāra ukāro makāra iti || ManU 1.8

On the subject of syllables, this syllable 'oṃ' is the ātman; on the subject of metre, the feet are the metre, and the feet are the syllables a, u, and ma. (my translation)
Here oṃ, the ātman, is likened to 'śloka' the poetic metre (mātra [3]) consisting of four lines or 'feet' (pādā) of eight syllables, with each of the lines likened to a constituent phoneme. The Māṇḍūkya then spells out the esoteric correspondences of the constituent phonemes. The fourth foot (pādā) is said to be without a phoneme (amātra) and ineffable (avyavahāraya).

I'm not aware of any canonical Buddhist text which restates the Vedic breakdown of oṃ into a+u+ṃ, though Kūkai does break hūṃ into ha+a+ū+m suggesting that the technique was not unknown to him. [4] For Buddhists the esoteric significance is typically based on the Arapacana acrostic which was originally a mnemonic for remembering aspects of an extended reflection on śūnyatā, for example: akāra (the syllable a) is the first syllable; which reminds us of the key word anutpanna (non-arising); and the full reflection subject is akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt (the syllable 'a' is an opening because of the primal quality of non-arising of all mental phenomena). Various versions of the Arapacana exist, the earliest date from around the 1st or 2nd century CE.

This method of analysing mantras is far more significant in understanding the function of a mantra than the words in the mantra. For instance Kūkai always seems to have broken down words (even sūtra titles) into syllables in order to understand their esoteric significant. In Tibetan Buddhism the fact that the Avalokiteśvara mantra has six syllables which enables it to match up with the six realms of conditioned existence is probably more important than the understanding of the word maṇipadme (which has been central to Western exegesis of the mantra).



  1. This distinction is a bit vague. I call the religion Vedic which is primarily based directly on the three Vedas (Ṛg, Sāma, Yajur) excluding the Atharva (which is a distinct tradition I think) and which is focussed on the sacrifice: it's main gods were Indra, Agni, and Soma - though several dozen deities were propitiated. Hinduism is a complex of various religious ideas and practices where the Vedas have faded into the background and practice is focussed on devotion (bhakti) or with Tantric rites (śakti): prominent Gods are Śiva, Viṣṇu, Brahmā and the mother goddess in many forms especially Lakṣmi and Kāli. This is of course a massive over-simplification. What seems important is to mark that there have been tectonic shifts in India religions over the millennia.
  2. Vedic is the most common name for the language of the Vedas. It has a number of differences from Classical Sanskrit which was codified by Pānini in the 5th or 4th century BCE.
  3. Note the phonetic similarity with the English word - both come from the same Indo-European root meaning 'to measure'.
  4. see Ungi gi in Hakeda Major Works p.246ff

Further Reading


Barry said...

Fascinating information, Jayarava. Aside from Sanskrit phonetics, the phenomena of [au](au) > [o], and [aj](ai) > [e] is not at all an uncommon occurance, such a phenomena is called "monophthongization". Such happened to diphthongs Latin for instance. So, one gets cases such as: AURUM > oro (Spanish), AUDIRE > oir (Spanish), THESAURUS > tesoro (Spanish).

I think it is good to contrast Sanskrit Phonetics with Western. A western linguist would not consider [e] and [o] diphthongs (and they are not considered as such on the IPA vowel chart).

According to William Bright, in many modern Hindi dialects, ai has become the vowel [æ:] (long open mid front vowel, as in American "sat"), and au [ɔ:](long open mid back vowel as in a New Yorker accent "caught"). This can be easily understood in that they are sort of "in between" the parent vowels for each respective diphthong. They represent a neutralizing of the two parent vowels' place of articulation within the mouth resulting in a single vowel that lies between the two in pronunciation.

Jayarava said...

Thanks Barry. I think 'monophthongization' just became my favourite word!

Funnily enough the idea of phonetics in the Western sense came Westerners having studied Sanskrit. But there are several features of Sanskrit linguistics which don't quite stand up to a scientific approach - but at the time (ca 4th century BCE) was astounding.

Yes, I've noticed that my Indian Buddhist friends tend to pronounce maitri as metri.

Thanks for commenting.

Barry said...

You're welcome, Jayarava. Yes, I'd agree that from the little I've read on Sanskrit phonetics and grammar they don't quite parse with Western, but this is why the two are not the same discipline. Still, it's quite fascinating to learn how Sanskrit Linguists perceived the sounds and grammar of the language.

I actually had to look up monopthongization to make sure I had it right!

The most interesting thing I think about many modern Indian languages is the retention of the schwa (short a). It's a very unstable vowel in European languages, and tends to disappear in the languages that do have it.

Jayarava said...

The Sanskrit grammarians did alright considering that they may not have used writing! Sanskrit grammar is both an historical and a linguistic subject. Sanskrit is still taught with Pāṇini in mind, but tends to be presented now in the light of contemporary scholarship - with an interesting mix of Sanskrit and Western terminology.

Interesting because in Sanskrit, and even more so Pāli, short vowels all seem to have converged on schwa. It takes on a more mystical significance in the common era as well - becoming the perfection of wisdom in one letter, and the mother of all mantras! Lot of work for a little vowel :-)

I've got to figure a way to slip 'monopthongization' into a conversation :-)


Barry said...

If you can slip 'monophthongization' into conversation, I will congratulate you, because people look at me weird when I bring linguistic terms into conversation.

I must admit it is fascinating how a lot of the mystical theories in Sanskrit grammar center around that one little vowel. It's a powerhouse of Sanskrit phonetics!

Jayarava said...

Hi Barry

I live with a Pāli and Sanskrit scholar so I might be able to get away with it :-)

Did you see my essay on 'a' : The Essence of All Mantras. A bit of speculation about why 'a' became so important - I think it relates to the kinds of script being used in Gandhāra around the time that the Mahāyāna was kicking off.

Best Wishes

Giuseppe Baroetto said...

Hi Jayarava,

this is about your assertion: "I'm not aware of any canonical Buddhist text which restates the Vedic breakdown of oṃ into a+u+ṃ...". In the Tibetan text entitled "Man ngag lta ba'i phreng ba" by Padmasambhava there is a similar explanation of oṃ adapted to the Tibetan transliteration of the syllable, that is a+o+oṃ. This is reiterated by the Tibetan scholar Rom zom chos kyi bzang po (XI century) in his commentary on the Guhyagarbha Tantra quoting Padmasambhava's text, but connecting that explanation to the original Indian one, where the three parts are a+u+ma: "Oṃ consists of three letters: as it has been explained previously, it is from a, u, ma that oṃ derives" (oṃ ni yi ge gsum 'dus pa ste/ gong du bshad pa bzhin du a u ma rnams las oṃ grub pa 'gyur).

Kind regards,

Jayarava Attwood said...

Hi Giuseppe

Thanks for this very interesting. As far as I know, Buddhists texts always have oṃ ओं whereas Hindu texts very early on adopted the spelling auṃ औं. So it seems to me that a+o+ṃ would not be an adaptation to Tibet, but a reflection of this basic difference.

According to Pāṇīni, o is made up of the sounds ă + u (though it is a monophthong). This is reflected in some sandhi phenomena such as the stem form of the dhātu √bhū, i.e. bhava-. Bhū takes guṇa, i.e. bho, and adds -a. In order to explain the form bhava- we conceive bho as bhău and then with the addition of -a sandhi rules give bhava-. Thus the Upaniṣads were not so far from the mark.

Buddhists were much less interested in Pāṇīnian grammar, they only used classical Sanskrit for a brief period, and both before and after used either Prakrit or Hybrid Sanskrit. In any case, all the Buddhist manuscripts I've ever seen definitely use oṃ rather than auṃ.

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