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Light on the language of yoga--Sanskrit Pronunciation.

By Yogi Baba Prem Yogacharya, Veda Visharada

Sanskrit, the language of yoga, is often a mystery to many students of yoga. Yet, it would be correct to say that most students of yoga commonly use Sanskrit terms.  Often students use terms such as OM or Namaste, or a host of other terms which are from the Sanskrit language.  With the growing popularity of kirtan, many more yoga students are being introduced to Sanskrit without even knowing it at times.  One of the common issues that has plagued students of the language of yoga is what appears as contradictory pronunciation and spelling of various terms.  What appears as a contradictory pronunciations/spelling often leads to confusion, and at times it is difficult to find a clear explanation as to the reason for these variances.  A common example of variance in pronunciation/spelling would be OM, ANG and AUM, in essence these are the same word, but the vibratory essence is slightly different and they are treated as different terms to some extent, especially ANG.  So in this example, the meaning and application of the word is slightly different.  But there are words that are pronounced/spelled differently that convey the exact same meaning.  To examine this, let's explore one word--yajya.

Yajya is a reference to the Vedic fire ceremony.  From a Vedic and even yogic perspective, yajya is rather important.  But the word yajya has several varied and well known forms of pronunciation.  With the first being as it is currently written-yajya, it would be pronounced as yaj-ny-ya.  This pronunciation is favored in parts of India, though in other areas of India a different pronunciation is favored-- yagya (ya-g-ya). Therefore, initially, we must recognize there are numerous regional pronunciations found within Sanskrit.  As a general rule pronunciation/spelling is divided into Northern India and Southern India, but this can be misleading, as there are certainly numerous regional dialects, and regional dialects that have been slightly modified throughout history within India.  An example of this can be found in Bengali, as it favors various pronunciations that are somewhat unique to that region.  These variations of pronunciation are a great source of pride in this geographic region.  Another common pronunciation is yajana (ya-ja-na), same word, but a different pronunciation.  Yajana is probably the most common pronunciation in the west, but is more likely due to a mispronunciation of yajya rather than conscious favoring of the pronunciation yajana, and here is the reason why.  This pronunciation is formed due to a grammatical rule called Svarabhakti which is not commonly known to the west. I would translate this as meaning devoted vowel, it is also commonly translated as loyal vowel; still others translate it as vowel separation.  In reality, all three definitions are appropriate as it merely depends upon how one looks at the word.  In essence, they are saying the same thing.  Regardless of the favored translation of the term svarabhakti, it requires in this case that the ‘j’ sound have its vowel as it is in a conjunction with a nasal letter.  There is more to this rule, but this information meets the need for this word.  So in this case ‘j’ becomes ‘ja’ and the ‘’ is dropped (ya-ja-na).  This teaching comes from the Prātiśākhyas. Another series of teachings commonly known as prosody favors an elongation of vowels.  Of course there are various rules in chanting that require some letters are dropped or elongated in the Vedas.  Creating a different sound from what is literally written and there are variations in chanting that will change the structure and flow of words as well. 

So we have three very different pronunciations and spelling for the same word in our example:

1.       yajya

2.       yagya

3.       yajana

There are several key points to remember: 

That pronunciation/spelling is due to regional variations with another example being Purusha which is also pronounced as Purukha in some parts of India. 

There may be specific grammar rules that change the pronunciation of a word such as the example of svarabhakti that was given (note there are additional rules that can affect a word as well). 

And finally, we should note there are specific rules in chanting and in Sanskrit where letters are changed (sandhi) but in some forms of chanting the letters are changed back to their original form when words are broken apart.  This is somewhat complex for most students and requires a strong skill-set in Sanskrit. 

We have not explored all possibilities but this should answer some fundamental questions regarding Sanskrit regarding variances in words.  It is important to remember there can be numerous pronunciations/spelling to a Sanskrit word, and we must not jump to a conclusion that a pronunciation is incorrect just because it is unfamiliar.  The pronunciation may be quite valid relative to the system it is coming from. 

 To learn more about Vedic concepts, we recommend:

Ushas: The Divine Dawn by Yogi Baba Prem

From Earth to Heaven: Secrets of Yoga, Goddess and Spirituality by Yogi Baba Prem

Yogic Secrets of the Vedas by Yogi Baba Prem

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Yogi Baba Prem

  • Yogi Baba Prem has two books published in India, and has written numerous other books published by Universal Yoga. 

 

  • His articles have appeared in several traditional magazines and a variety of e-magazines.