White Notebook - A Brief Note On Sanskrit

Considering that I have chosen to leave many Sanskrit terms untranslated, I figured I might say a few words about the language. In order to be as concise as possible, I have included a few resources at the end of this section that explore Sanskrit in much greater depth than the scope of this document allows.

An obvious time to include a Sanskrit term over a translation is when no direct translation exists. There are many terms in Yogic philosophy that cannot be explained without a handful of sentences. To approximate with a term that is “close enough” for the sake of brevity is a huge disservice to anyone truly trying to understand. I would posit that extending a reader’s lexicon is preferred to amending it.

Another reason it may be preferable to use an untranslated terms is that Sanskrit is considered a perfect language. I am not only referring to the traditional idea that Sanskrit was not devised by human minds but is rather a “language of the gods” (dēvavāṇī). Also not that the word saṃskṛta itself comes from the joining of samyak meaning “perfect” or “well” and kṛta meaning “made.” I am referring more specifically to the fact that Sanskrit is the only natural language in existence that has a context-free grammar.1 This means that it is entirely unambiguous and the meaning of every sentence can be derived from a set of rules.

Language ambiguity can be illustrated by comparing the two English sentences “fruit flies like an apple” and “time flies like an arrow.”2 Even though they are lexically identical, they are contextually different. “Flies” is a noun in the first sentence and a verb in the second, and “like” also has a different meaning in each sentence. So a reader must be familiar with both the language and the context to understand the differences. Now the really great thing is that such sentences are impossible to make in Sanskrit. Because of the rules of the language, word order is not even an issue. With a very specific system for verb conjugation and noun relationships, sentences can always be interpreted correctly.

Since, in some cases, transliteration has been preferred over translation, another choice I have made is to include diacritical markings—codified in the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration schema—to clarify the pronunciation of Sanskrit terms. Let’s take this a bite at a time. First of all, what is a diacritical marking? A diacritical mark, or diacritic, is a mark added to a letter to indicate a different pronunciation.

Why do we need them? You can read this sentence only because you are familiar with the Roman alphabet and, since you are aware of the sounds each character or combination represents, you can understand/pronounce these words. Sanskrit, however, was originally written in Devanagri script. A compromise we can make to avoid the necessity of learning a new script entirely is to romanize the language. We can use familiar characters to represent the phonemes of Sanskrit with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

But a new problem arises. Classical Sanskrit possesses forty-six phonemes that need to be represented by only twenty-three Roman characters. Rather than arbitrarily inventing new ones, we can add markings to existing characters to account for the extra phonemes.

For example, you might be familiar with the word Savasana, but may have also seen it spelled Shavasana. Based solely on the romanization, how can we elicit the correct pronunciation? The second version gets us closer because it includes sh, a pair of characters (digraph) we recognize as making a distinct phoneme. But we can do better. The same word with diacritical markings is written Śavāsana. Even though there have been only two little marks added, we possess all the information required to eliminate the need for guessing. The ś sounds like sh in the word shut and the ā is held long compared to the other a characters with no macron.

I have included a reference sheet with all of the diacritics in the Sanskrit Pronunciation Key resource at the end of the section.

This may or may have not seemed self explanatory, but once I put a little effort into understanding the diacritical markings myself, I felt much more confident about my Sanskrit pronunciation and wondered how anyone gets by without them. Actually, I can tell you how: they mispronounce things a lot!

Lastly, I feel a small aside abut spoken Sanskrit is due. Spoken Sanskrit utilizes the entire range of the human vocal palette and its syntax encourages maximum resonance of the voice, whereas many spoken languages only partially employ these capabilities. This is one reason why chanting in Sanskrit is encouraged.

Sanskrit is such an elegant feat of human ingenuity and I hope this small introduction was insightful at least or inspiration to dig a little deeper at best.



  1. Srinivasan, Rajeev (2014). The Sanskrit non-controversy: Why it is indeed a superior language.
  2. Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct. W. Morrow and Co. pp. 209.