Sanskrit: the sound of Shabda-Brahman

Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist  wrote his doctoral thesis on the genetive  case in Sanskrit grammar. He was so enthralled by the discovery of this perfect language that he taught Sanskrit as a subject matter for over thirty years  at the University of Geneva. Saussure, often considered the father of modern linguistics, also influenced many contemporaries in their respective fields of studies vis-a vis the concept of Sanskrit as a genetivity language. Disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and psychology where particularly affected by these types of modalities.

From the Latin root casus genitives , the possessive -or sixth case in Sanskrit grammar,  has the sense of ‘pertaining to, ‘ ‘origin,’ ‘belonging to’  or indeed of ‘birth’.  ‘The bird’s wings are flapping’ for instance indicates that the wings, which are part of the bird’s anatomy i.e. belonging to the bird,  are in a flight position.
By nature language is genitive, that is expansive.  When there is a subject generally there is an object :’he gave the rose to the princess.’ Similarly, where there is the Name (nama) there is the Named ( nami).  In Vaishnava theology for instance the Lord’s name is  ‘Krishna’   and Krishnah is the named, or the subject of a sentence.  What is the relationship between the name and the named , or we may say between the sign and the signified?  It is the unity of the sign, the signified and the signifier. The sign (hieroglyph) Krishna signifies the person Krishnah whose name (by definition) must be Krishna.

Sanskrit is a heavily inflected language.  In the Sanskrit language  the sign, the signified and the signifier -as well as the signifying- is made obvious by the various changes in morphemic structure of the individual words. As words serve various purposes in a sentence,  such as subjects of sentences, objects of subjects, modifiers of nouns and verbs, expletives, post or pre-positions, etc., they are marked accordingly. In this way,  whether or not a word is marked by an adjective or is ‘placed’ by a preposition, or is lauded as an object, all modifications of the word , all inflections and all conjugations – that is  morpheme modification- may thus be thought of as being ‘genitive’ in nature. What does this mean? It means that many things, situations, amendments, corrections, deletions, etc,  are generated  by the necessity of the event’s usage.  From the compact cache of verbal root stocks -tens of thousands of nouns and noun related words  are formed. It is indeed a explosion from the One root to the uncountable Offspring. This One-to-the-Many features of the Sanskrit language makes it unique in the history of letters. A simple Sanskrit root such as ’ gam’ to go,   may be used to make hundreds of related words such as gati, movement, gachati, he goes, etc. The English word ‘to go’ and the noun ‘goal’ are both derivatives from this dhatu. Dhatu roots can be infinitely modulated to provide occasion for meaning depending on need. It is as if  a bevy of ovulating females were being impregnated  by just one man. Sanskrit having created such a clan of kinsman can boast of its  family resemblance world-wide. Sanskrit, often referred as the ‘Mother of all Languages,’  may also easily adopt the appellation  of  its progenitor father. In fact Sri Bhagavan Krishna says in the Gita that he is the seed of all creatures that move and not move, that he is the syllable Om, that he is the seed-giving father, that he is the chanting of japa,  and indeed that he (famed among women) is speech personified. In addition, among letters he is the letter A-the akshar which carries within itself the entire gamut of speech- and among samasikayas, the literary ornament of  compounding, he is dvandva, the dual compound which gives , grammatically speaking, equal weight to either sides (such as Rama-Krishna). May we then not salute the great Lord for himself giving us who are the minutest of the minute a million times multiplied down,  but a tiny little inside into the workings of what must be the greatest gift to mankind: the ability to communicate via sound.

If Krishna is the letter A of the Sanskrit alphabet we may do well to take a closer look at its reason d’etre.  The most striking feature of the alphabet is its phonetic  schemata set out perfectly scientifically according to the rules of acoustics in science. What comes out of the mouth-as-speech-machine first, that is the sound ’a’  is the first letter of the alphabet and what is pronounced last, that is after all the points of articulation in the mouth have been  explored , the sound (letter) ‘h’  makes its final escape. Ah!

Lets us consider the ‘simple’  sound so to speak, ‘om.’ The first sound coming from the speech machine, the mouth plus, is ‘a,’ as in’ aaaaa’ when you go to the doctor to show your throat and he asks you make a sound at the spot of observation.The last sound coming out of the speech machine proper is  on the lips ( a labial) as  ‘m’. as in ‘mmmm…….’ (‘I love fresht figs from the tree’) Between a and m, in the middle of the speech- machine, u, pronounced as in ‘push,’ takes place. At the end of ‘om,’  not ‘visible’ in the written word itself , but apparent in the actual utterance, we have the post nasal vibration of the m sound.  All told, slowly spoken we have ‘aum’ the sacred syllable famed throughout not only the orient but now also  the fortunate  occident.  Om, the most famous of sounds, the omkara, lauded by saints, sages, poets even criminal men as the greatest sound ever to utter from the mouth of the universe, reverts -somewhat akin to the Amen, throughout the firmaments.

Bhagavad-Gita states that from the beginning of time ‘om tat sat’  was used to indicate the Absolute. (Bg. 17: 23) ; it also states that those who are learned in the Vedas utter ‘omkara.’(ibid. 8:13) and again it states that ‘I, Krishna, am the syllable Om.’ (ibid. 9: 17). And what is the nature of Om? It is the seed syllable of Origins. It is identified with the goddess of speech, Vak. It is also identified with Shakti, the consort of Shiva. How so?  If Shiva is the masculine feature, energy, personified,  than Shakti, the feminine feature, is the personification of the energetic. We can all attest to the energetic features of speech: it has the power to cut (to the quick) , power to quicken ( to bring to life) a neglected lover and power to rule over the minds of men via political orations.

Sound also has its secret side. The audible sound (vaikari)  is heard by all, but the mystical vibrations of mantras , even though appearing to the ear as ordinairy sounding syllabifications, are not really ’heard.’ The latter sound , technically known as para-vak,  is considered the domain of the advanced rishis It allows the world of sound and the world of sight (shabda and artha ) to appear as one.  That is the marriage of Shiva and his bride.  It is also the desire of the bridesmaids of that Holy Pair to invite others to the Feast of Divine sight and sound, on the invitation of one’s own pure desire.  As your desire is , so is your will. As your will is , so are your actions and as your actions are so is your future (shruti  adage) Great sages encourage one and all to come to the stage of pure hearing, pure repeating that is shravanam , kirtanam of the Name. And if Name is near shall not the Named One be far?

Om Tat Sat. Su- Svagatam!  Heart-felt welcome! May all enter the hall of famed kavis and recite Srimad Bhagavatam.

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One Response to Sanskrit: the sound of Shabda-Brahman

  1. beti says:

    a
    is the syllable that physiologically opens
    anahata chakra
    did you know

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