An Unheralded Contribution by Indian Brahmans and Buddhist Monks

Frits Staal, University of California, Berkeley

C o n t e n t s

1. A Vedic Discovery

2. Indic Scripts of Asia

3. South, Southeast and Central Asia

4. East Asia

5. Arabic

6. Siddham

7. Conclusions


Select Bibliography

Lecture given during the Inaugural Session of the International Conference on“Sanskrit in Asia” to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Her Royal Highness Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn at Silpakorn University,Bangkok, June 23, 2005.

Subsequently published in Sanskrit Studies Central Journal. Journal of the Sanskrit Studies Centre, Silpakorn University, 2 (2006) 193-200.

Your Royal Highness, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

1. A Vedic Discovery

It is a great privilege for me to be present here and discuss Sanskrit in Asia on this special occasion. I am sure I speak for all of us who participate in this conference and other visitors, when I say that we are grateful to Your Royal Highness who is not only taking time from more pressing duties, but who is also concerned with many languages other than Sanskrit. I believe they include in alphabetic order Chinese, English, French, German, Khmer, Latin and Pali, not to mention Thai, which comes modestly at the end of this list because I have followed the order of letters of the English ABC. I shall begin my own inquiry with late Vedic, which is close to Classical Sanskrit and comes even later than Sanskrit and Thai because “V” comes after “S” and “T” in all the Near Eastern and European alphabets that I shall oppose to the sound pattern of Sanskrit. For I believe with Plato that if we look at two opposites, side by side, and rub them against each other, “we may cause justice to blaze out as from the two kindling sticks” (Republic IV 435 a 1-2) – the Greek equivalent of agnimanthana in the Vedic fire ritual.

Classical Indian linguists adopted a synchronistic perspective because they did not regard language as subject to change. We now know that language evolves in a manner that is not altogether different from the evolution of the species. Roughly speaking, Old-Khmer evolved into Cambodian, Latin into Italian and French and Sanskrit into Hindi and Marathi. The Vedic language went through three stages which are known as Early, Middle and Late Vedic. Throughout the long period of their evolution, from about 1700 to 500 BCE, Vedic Indians spoke Vedic by definition, composed Vedic verse and prose, and transmitted these compositions to future generations through recitation. It was an exclusively oral tradition.

Toward the end of the Vedic period and at the western extremity of Vedic India, in Kośala or Videha, – not far in time and place from the Buddha’s birth – reciters of the Veda made a major discovery (Figure 1). They found that the consonants of a language are produced by constricting the vocal tract at a particular point along its stationary portion -- the palate or upper lip. If we move from the larynx or throat to the lips, we pronounce ka, ca, ṭa, ta, pa. Each of these syllables may be unvoiced or voiced, provided with more or less breath, which may be made to pass through the nasal cavity as well. Thus we produce, in the case of ka, the sequence ka, kha, ga, gha, ṅa; and similarly for the other four consonantal stops. The two directions are combined in the two-dimensional square or varga that is depicted here. In order to complete the picture, a few other syllables have to be added along with semi-vowels and vowels.

The Vedic system of the sounds of language exhibits and embodies what is nowadays called phonetics, but is close to phonology which studies features of those same sounds as parts of a system. The system exhibits what I refer to as the sound pattern of Vedic, Sanskrit or language. I do not imply that it is the same for all languages, but most of the sounds of human speech may be accommodated in some such scheme. During the Late Vedic period, the Vedic scheme was expounded in the śikṣâ, the Prātiśākhya and other compositions.

Figure 1. The Vedic System of the Sounds of Language

As far as I know, the Vedic discovery of the sound pattern of language was made only once. Modern linguistics uses distinctive features, but they would not exist if the sound pattern of language had not been discovered earlier; by two-and-a-half millennia, as it happens. One intermediary was Pāṇini who composed his grammar one or two centuries after the Vedic discovery. His grammar incorporated it, but his system was different. The reason is not that the Vedic pattern is different from that of Sanskrit. There are differences between the two and Pāṇini referred to some of them by rules that are marked chandasi, “in the Veda.” But Pāṇini composed an entirely new type of grammar for the spoken language of his day, thereby laying the foundation for Classical Sanskrit. It inspired not only many other grammars for Sanskrit, Prakrit and other languages, including Jaina and Buddhist works, but the great tradition of Sanskrit grammarians from Patañjali to Nâgojîbhaṭṭa as well as modern linguistics. It is Nâgojîbhaṭṭa who ended his Paribhâṣenduśekhara with what became a famous saying: “grammarians rejoice over the saving of half a syllable as over the birth of a son” (ardhamâtrâlâghavena putrotsavaṃ manyante vaiyâkaraṇâḥ).

The Vedic system of sounds that preceded Pāṇini is nothing new to you. Every literate Indian knows it, and I would venture to guess that, among literate people, more than 50% understand it in Southeast Asia, less than 50% in East Asia, and perhaps a handful of linguists if you look west of South Asia. You may be surprised by my guess, but please note that I have in the mean time shifted my language and refer now to literate people which is something the Vedic Indians were not.

Looking back we detect a paradox. The discovery of the sound pattern of Sanskrit was not made despite the absence of writing, but because of it. The reason is simple: the discoverers were not hampered by any written alphabet. Writing was invented or introduced later. The resulting syllabaries were naturally arranged in accordance with the earlier and superior, but orally-based system. That system was rational, because it reflected the places of articulation in their natural order; and practical, especially for languages in which syllables consist of a consonant followed by a vowel. Japanese is such a language and Sanskrit to some extent. So are many of the languages of the Near East and of Europe but their alphabets are neither rational, nor practical. They blocked insight into the nature of language and served as obstacles to the development of linguistics.

Literacy takes us to another instructive contrast that is socio-economic. We have, on the one hand, the difficult grammar of Pāṇini, a work of genius that rightly became famous but was studied by a small elite of specialists, in India, other Asian countries, Europe and the Americas. There is, on the other hand, the Vedic system, a discovery that had a much wider appeal which is due to its rationality and practicality both. It was beneficial to priests of the court and the temple, Buddhist monks, astrologers-cum-astronomers and many others whose writing skills were used in turn by royalty and other rulers, land owners, bookkeepers, artisans, etc., thus affecting larger segments of society. It appealed moreover to practical people who liked to work with a writing system that was not just prestigious but natural and effective – at least in principle and initially, before some of the writing systems began to exhibit labyrinthine qualities.

The languages and inscriptions of South East Asia support these socio-economic generalities. The Sanskrit inscriptions from Cambodia contain words that are not found in Sanskrit dictionaries. One of them is lekhin which refers to a scribe or secretary. We also find abhyantaralekhin, “personal secretary” or, as Kamaleswar Bhattacharya translates it, “secrétaire intime.” The Sanskrit root is likh, “scratch” or “write,” and in Indic Sanskrit we come across derivatives such as lekha- “document,” lekhaka- “writer,” lekhana “writing,” etc.; but not lekhin. In Old-Javanese, similar derivatives are at least apparent. Thus we have lekita which means “written evidence” and is used in a court of law. It also refers to “by-laws of the village.” It may come from Sanskrit lekhita “written” or “caused to be written,” but may be connected with Javanese lukita which means “thought expressed in words” or “literary composition” and may in turn be related to another term that is certainly native: lukis “drawn with a pen.” All this evidence suggests that the introduction of Sanskrit had something to do with writing.

Why are such simple facts not mentioned by specialists in writing systems? Because students of scripts generally confine themselves to the shapes of letters and characters. It is well known that Indic shapes were adapted in Central and Southeast Asia. But that is only the least interesting part of the story as is demonstrated by the fact, that the Indian system spread much further than the Indic shapes. The sound pattern of Sanskrit was adopted and adapted in a large part of Asia - including Central Asia, Korea, Japan and, momentarily, in a grammar of Arabic composed in Iran. I refer to adoption and adaptation because, in most cases, the Indic system was not imitated slavishly but adapted creatively to new languages and language structures.

Since our present enquiry is not concerned with shapes but with order, epigraphy - another topic to which our guest of honor has devoted years of study – is of limited assistance. The same holds for palaeography in the narrower sense. A typical example, de Casparis’ Indonesian Palaeography, subtitled A History of Writing in Indonesia, is still the basic manual on the shapes of the characters but does not refer to their order even once. I hope that epigraphists in Thailand, where that rare and valuable discipline still flourishes, will look for order and take it into account when they find it.

2. Indic Scripts of Asia

Figure 2 provides a geographical overview of the Indic Scripts of Asia. It shows at a glance that the Indian system together with the shapes of its syllables is confined to South and Southeast Asia. The Indian system without the shapes was adopted and adapted in Central Asia, Korea and Japan. Occasional uses of the system are found in China and in Southwest Asia or the Near East

Figure 2. Indic Scripts of Asia

3. South, Southeast and Central Asia

I start this brief overview with a mystery: the script of Kharoshthi, probably the earliest Indic script, which was used in northwest India and spread to Central Asia from about the fourth century BCE to the third century CE. The order of syllables starts with a ra pa ca na la da ba èa ṣa . . . That order is unexplained and the script is called Arapacana after the first five syllables. It possesses clearly Indic features: each syllable ends in a short –a and diacritic signs are added when that short –a is replaced by another vowel. The order of vowels, however, is not Indic but Aramaic: a e i o u and not a i u e o. That order is also adopted by diacritics attached to consonants from top to bottom when changing a into e, i, o and u.

The other early Indic script is Brahmi. It is the paradigm of the Vedic system. It influenced, directly or indirectly, via Pallava or other medieval Indian scripts, all the scripts of South and Southeast Asia that include (again in alphabetic order) Balinese, Bengali, Burmese, Devanagari, Grantha, Gujrati, Gupta, Gurmukhi, Kannada, Khmer, Lao, Malayalam, Nepali, Oriya, Pallava, Sinhala, Tamil, Telugu and Thai.

The evidence for these influences is constituted by the scripts themselves. Textual evidence for how the transmission occurred is less common. The same applies to the evidence for Indian numerals. But there is circumstantial evidence, in both cases. It is probable, for example, that one of the Indian brahmans who transmitted the Vedic paradigm to Cambodia, was the South Indian who belonged, according to a seventh century Cambodian inscription, to the Yajurvedic school of Taittirîya. The reason is that among the Prâtiśâkhya compositions that explain the Vedic system, only the Taittirîya Prâtiśâkhya depicts the Vedic square (varga) of Figure 1 in full.

I have excluded Javanese from the above enumeration because the order of its syllables illustrates a different kind of principle from the Vedic and alphabetic both: hana caraka, data sawala, padha jayanya, maga bathanga. This list is Indic in form, and Old Javanese (Kawi) retains the Indic device of writing consonant clusters by putting one consonant symbol below another. But the creators do not seem to have liked or understood the rationale behind the Indic order. What they construed instead is a mnemonic jingle that includes one occurrence of each of twenty of the twenty-two consonantal syllables of the Javanese script. It has a meaning: “There were two emissaries, they began to fight, their valor was equal, they both fell dead.”

The chief Central Asian varieties are Khotanese, Tibetan and ‘Phags-pa. The latter script was created from the Tibetan by the lama of that name for the Mongol Emperor Qubilai or “Kubla Khan” as an international script for his Asian Empire. Other Central Asian scripts, such as Bactrian or Sogdian, do not concern us here because they were not Indic but Aramaic in shape and order both.

The numbers of South, Southeast and Central Asian scripts that adopted the Indic order is large. An attractive estimate occurs in the tenth chapter of the Lalitavistara, called Lipiśâlâsaṃdarśanaparivarta, “the revolution of displays of the mansions of writing.” It lists 64 different scripts that were mastered by the Bodhisattva. The title of the chapter is reminiscent of the Buddha’s own dharmacakrapravartana. It emphasizes instructively that the carriers of the sound pattern of Sanskrit to other Asian regions were not only Indian Brahmans but also, and in increasing numbers, Buddhist monks. It is explained at least in part by the geographical facts with which I started: the discovery of the sound pattern of language by Vedic reciters occurred close in place and time to the areas where early Buddhism flourished. It was a feature of civilization that Buddhists carried across Asia.

4. East Asia

The Chinese system of writing is so different from Vedic orality and all that it entailed, that Indians had nothing to contribute. It caused confusion since Chinese Buddhists believed that each Indic shape was independent and had its own meaning, like many Chinese characters. There were a few exceptions. Hsieh Ling-yün (384-433 CE), poet and calligrapher, assisted by Hui-ju, a Buddhist monk, composed a Sanskrit glossary in Chinese transliteration in the Indian order. After the ninth century, rhyme tables were composed for each tone in that same order.

The Hiragana and Katakana syllabaries of Japan adopted strokes from Chinese characters, but reflect the Indic system which was gradually adapted to the sounds of Japanese. An example from the Heian period is pa pi pu pe po, which became subsequently fa fi fu fe fo, and has now reached the form ha hi fu he ho. It is a classic illustration of the difference between creative adaptation and slavish imitation. But it did not please everyone and a poem was composed in which all but one of the syllables were used once. Their order is not phonetic but semantic. It is called Iroha after the first syllables: iro ha nioedo chirinuru wo waga …and has been attributed to the famous philosopher and calligrapher Kûkai or Kôbôdaishi to whom we will return. In English translation, it says: “Colorful flowers are fragrant but they must fall. Who in this world will live forever? Today cross over the deep mountains of life’s illusions; and there will be no more shallow dreaming, no more drunkenness.” It sounds better than the mnemonic device used for Javanese but belongs to the same category.

The Korean Han-gul is the world’s most perfect script. Even the shapes of its syllables reflect the shapes of the mouth when producing sounds – as does, in English and other European languages, only the shape of the letter “o,” which may be seen as a picture of the rounding of the mouth. The perfection of the Korean order is due to the Indic but is fully adapted to the sound pattern of Korean. Han-gul was developed in 1444 CE by a committee of scholars, including Buddhist monks, appointed by the Emperor of Korea. The committee report starts with the basic insight: “The sounds of our country’s language are different from those of China.”

5. Arabic

The case of Arabic deserves a separate lecture by an expert but I shall try to summarize its most salient features. The order of letters in the standard alphabet is based on their shapes (Figure 3). But al-Khalīl bin Aḥmad, teacher of śibawayhi, author of the most famous grammar of Arabic, introduced in the eighth century a new list in which he had re-arranged the letters, starting in the back of the mouth with the ‘Ain followed by ḥâ, Hâ, Khâ, Ghain, Qâf, Kâf, etc. (same Figure 3). It is referred to as the Kitâb al-‘Ayn. Al-Khalīl was probably born in Basra, but he wrote his grammar in Khorasan, the easternmost part of Iran which is the gateway to India.

Al-Khalīl’s Arabic grammar was not adopted by the Arab world. There has been much controversy about the question whether it was inspired by the Indic paradigm. Scholars have argued that Arabic is very different from Sanskrit (it is), that there is no evidence

Figure 3. The Standard Arabic Alphabet and the Indian “Alphabet” of the Kitâb al-‘Ayn

that al-Khalīl studied the Prâtiśâkhya literature or other Sanskrit treatises (true because he didn’t), that borrowing of an alien system without any of the details on which it rests is almost unknown (?), that there were no contacts between Arab and Indian scholars at the time of al-Khalīl (not true because there were such contacts in mathematics), and so on. The argument, in brief, is based upon the assumption that borrowing must be what I have called slavish imitation.

Having listened to me so far, you may already be inclined to conclude, that al-Khalīl’s grammar was inspired by the Indian paradigm. But we need a reason or, at least, a more accurate account. Morris Halle (personal communication) provides precise evidence of the influence of the Vedic discovery on al-Khalīl’s grammar. Al-Khalīl’s order of consonants is basically a linearization of the two-dimensional array of Figure 1. Unless he knew the Vedic order, he would have no reason to deviate from the traditional order of Arabic consonants as depicted on the top of Figure 3. He furthermore extended the system by adding the rear wall of the pharynx as a point of constriction. Put in more general terms, it means this. In linguistics, as in mathematics, ideas that are part of an oral tradition may be picked up by a brilliant scientist, who does not study a text, let alone slavishly, but understands the subject. Al-Khalīl was such a man. He went as far as performing experiments, for instance, by putting his fingers in his mouth. The ancient Indians may have done it too. But superior qualities of the subject and the student are not enough. The Indic system did not enter the Near East or Europe because of prejudice, narrow-mindedness and plain ignorance.

6. Siddham

It would not be good to end my lecture on a negative note and so I have kept the auspicious syllabary of Siddham for last. It will show that I have omitted from our discussion a large area of patterned sound, that of mantras and dharaṇîs. The Siddham syllabary was construed, in the Indic order, for the expression of these sacred syllables and their export to East Asia. The number that was exported from India, sometimes in exchange for other goods, probably exceeds that of any other commodity, although no attention seems to have been paid to it by economic historians. Seekers, however, sought solace in these treasures that were of easier access than the Sanskrit language itself, which famous Chinese pilgrims had gone to India to learn, but which was never studied seriously in China proper.

To illustrate the export of the Siddham, we return once more to the Japanese Buddhist monk Kûkai or Kôbôdaishi, who was born in the eighth century. Kûkai went to China and studied the Siddham script with Prajña, a monk from Kashmir who was translating Tantric texts. After his return to Japan, Kûkai built a monastery at Koyasan which became the center of the Shingon sect. He taught his pupils mantras and dharaṇîs and how to write them in the Siddham script. Figure 4 depicts a scroll from Koyasan with the Siddham character A.

Figure 4. Siddham “A” from Koyasan

7. Conclusions

I derive five conclusions from our brief discussion. The first is that the sound pattern of Sanskrit was adopted and adapted by many writing systems of Asia. The exporters were Indian brahmans and Buddhist monks. The second is that the pattern that underlies the system was not always understood. The third is that those Asian writing systems are applications of a theory of language, just as airplanes are applications of the laws of aerodynamics. The fourth, closely connected, is that a writing system is only as good as the theory upon which it is based. (Since the accuracy of theories is measured in degrees, absence of any theory points to probability zero.) My fifth and final conclusion is hypothetical in character. If the sound pattern of Sanskrit had also reached the Near East and Europe, there would not be so many clumsy alphabets around and the modern world would have the benefit of rational and practical Indic syllabaries in addition to rational and practical Indic numerals.


I am deeply grateful to Dr. Samniang Leurmsai of the Sanskrit Studies Centre, Silpakorn University, Bangkok, for inviting me to speak in the inaugural session on June 23, 2005, of the International Conference on “Sanskrit in Asia” to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the Birth of Her Royal Highness Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn.

When preparing this paper, I saw that Richard Salomon was about to address the 215th meeting of the American Oriental Society at Philadelphia of March 20, 2005, on “On Alphabetical Order in India, and Elsewhere.” I was unable to attend that meeting but I wrote to Richard and he very kindly sent me a draft of his paper. It became obvious that both of us shared an interest in the order of characters, and not only in their shapes like many other students of scripts. It turned out also that both of us made use of the 1996 manual on The World’s Writing Systems (WWS) by Peter T. Daniels and William Bright (see Select Bibliography below), to which Richard had already contributed the section on Brahmi and Kharosthi. I have learned much from Richard Salomon’s contributions and our subsequent correspondence. Our contributions are in some respects complementary but the reader will note that there are differences between our approaches. My own approach reflects the wider context of Staal 2005.

WWS itself calls for additional comment. It is learned and informative. It has been widely praised, especially from the point of view of Semitic Linguistics (Kaye 2003). However, its adherence to the International Phonetic Alphabet is baffling to the intended wide audience and obscured further by the idiosyncratic terminologies of both editors and the careless use of many other technical and semi-technical terms that are nowhere explained. Even the concept of “syllabary” is regarded as a kind of alphabet; as in the Oxford Dictionary, which declares that a syllabary serves “the purpose of an alphabet”. It is not and does not and these verdicts are simply cultural constructs.

Truly fatal to the subject of WWS is its atomistic approach which, in many of its sections, obliterates the intimate relationships that exist between the scripts they deal with. The contributions by Christopher Court, Leonard van der Kuijp and Richard Salomon’s own are free from this defect, and William Bright recognizes that “the traditional order of symbols in the Indian scripts is based primarily on articulatory phonetics, as originally developed for Sanskrit by the ancient pandits” (page 384). But the 113 pages on South and Southeast Asia in this tome of 922 pages, the only ones that study a writing system that is rational and practical, are seriously misleading, not on the whole but as a whole. That has, furthermore, a curious implication. If we omit some pages from the South and South East Asian section that do not reflect the Indic system, and add a few on Korean and Japanese that do, we are left with some 800 pages that are expressly devoted to the description of irrationalities and impracticalities that are a disgrace to homo sapiens though not the only one.

I can summarize my comments best by quoting from my own paper its fourth conclusion. The editors seem to ignore the fact that their phonetic approach, which mirrors the Indic system, lacks its fundamental insight: “a writing system is only as good as the theory upon which it is based.”

Linguists will have noted that the expression “sound pattern” evokes Morris Halle’s “Sound Pattern of Russian” of 1959 and Chomsky and Halle’s “Sound Pattern of English” of 1968. What was meant there is clearly explained in the Preface to the second book: “we are not, in this work, concerned exclusively or even primarily with the facts of English as such. We are interested in these facts for the light they shed on linguistic theory (on what, in an earlier period, would have been called universal grammar) and for what they suggest about the nature of mental processes in general.” That Chomsky and Halle’s book is inspired by the Indic tradition is clear from its final rule, which is identical with the final rule of Pāṇini's grammar: “a a.”

In later publications, Noam Chomsky did not shy away from the expression “universal grammar.” My present contribution is different from all these important works. It is only a brief discussion, but it is concerned with applications, history and practicalities as well as theory. I have tried to show how the Vedic discovery is based on a theory of language that may be used in discussing the contributions of Sanskrit to Asian societies and to civilization. These are ambitious efforts and some of the few steps I have taken may have been unsteady. I hope that readers will render assistance in discussing, confirming, refuting or amending what I have written.

Staal 2005 is concerned with the theory and development of language, natural as well as artificial. It lists the publications on Arabic and Japanese that I have used for the present paper also. Here I like again to express my indebtedness for guidance and references to Professors Oscar von Hinüber, Richard C. Martin, Kees Versteegh, W.J. Boot and Michio Yano. Special thanks go to Professor Morris Halle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a significant correction and important observation mentioned in the body of the text. My final acknowledgments go to Edward M. Stadum and Peter Vandemoortele for their help with the illustrations and powerpoints that were part of the presentation.


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PS: My thanks are due to Prof. Frits Staal who granted permission to reproduce his paper in Unicode. If you need Indic Unicode for your browser to display all Roman letters with diacritics necessary for Indic transliteration, there are many one of which is James Kass' Code2001 font (James updated it in April 2008). ~ NG


shairali_lovearabic said...

Dear Brother greetings.
can U provide me some solid proof that Khalil bin Ahmad studied sanskrit phonetics or panini or patanjali or any other indian grammarian ? .

I will be very grateful to U
Shair Ali Khan