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 Learning Sanskrit - Ancient Sanskrit characters

A comparative study of the ancient and new Devanāgarī characters


 Introduction

Hi, Gabriel Pradīpaka again. Devanāgarī is the modern alphabet to write in Sanskrit. By "modern" I mean: since Middle Ages up to date. Remember that Sanskrit is the oldest Indo-European language which is known (read the Linguistic section for more information). Anyway, Sanskrit used other two alphabets in ancient times: Brāhma (also known as "Brāhmī" or "Brāhmīlipi") and Kharoṣṭhī. I will not speak about these two old alphabets, which are not used anymore since long, but if you want to know more about them, go to this site dealing with Indian languages and scripts.

Therefore, Devanāgarī is the current alphabet used to write in Sanskrit since the Middle Ages. As a result, it has also inevitably undergone a process of evolution and modifications. In other words, some characters has been changed. This website uses the Sanskrit 2003 font, which consists of Sanskrit characters drawn in a up to date format. Nonetheless, you might read some books (e.g. dictionaries, grammars, etc.) or visit websites where the ancient characters are used instead, and consequently some confusion will accrue to you. I have been frequently asked via e-mail about how to dissipate this confusion, and in order not to send many individual messages with responses, I decided to write the present document and so respond everybody simultaneously. Oh, I am a clever boy, hehe.

Also, keep in mind that there are two types of Sanskrit: Vedic and Post-vedic (also called Classic). Before the fourth century BC, approximately, Vedic Sanskrit was on its height, but then it was replaced with Classic Sanskrit (the one I teach you in the site). Vedic Sanskrit has some common points with Classic Sanskrit, but there are big differences too. If you want to see an example of Vedic Sanskrit, read my Ṛgveda translation. In turn, if you want to see an example of Classic Sanskrit, read my Spandanirṇaya translation. Vedic Sanskrit is "by far" much more difficult than Classic Sanskrit as far as grammar is concerned. On top of that, it contains plenty of strange written accents you can see on this site. Classic Sanskrit is without any written accent. That is to say, everything is written in Devanāgarī script, both Vedic and Postvedic, but you will not find any of those accents in Classic Sanskrit ever.

Well, let us get down to work!

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 Comparative study

Firstly, the alphabet in Devanāgarī such as is shown in our website. It contains the modern forms only.

Sanskrit Alphabet in modern Devanāgarī script
Letters
Vowels
अं अः
a ā i ī u ū e ai o au aṁ aḥ
Consonants
First Group
Subgroups Hard Soft
Unaspirate Aspirate Unaspirate Aspirate Nasals
Gutturals
ka kha ga gha ṅa
Palatals
ca cha ja jha ña
Cerebrals (Cacuminals)
ṭa ṭha ḍa ḍha ṇa
Dentals
ta tha da dha na
Labials
pa pha ba bha ma
Second Group
Semivowels
ya ra la va
Third Group
Sibilants
śa ṣa sa
Fourth Group
Sonant Aspirate
ha

And now the same alphabet but using ancient Sanskrit characters. The characters which have been changed are in violet.

Sanskrit alphabet in ancient Devanāgarī script
Letters
Vowels
Ancient Ancient Ancient Ancient Ancient Ancient Ancient Anusvāra Ancient Visarga
a ā i ī u ū e ai o au aṁ 1 aḥ 1
Consonants
First Group
Subgroups Hard Soft
Unaspirate Aspirate Unaspirate Aspirate Nasals
Gutturals
ka kha ga gha ṅa
Palatals Ancient Ancient
ca cha ja jha ña
Cerebrals (Cacuminals) Ancient
ṭa ṭha ḍa ḍha ṇa
Dentals
ta tha da dha na
Labials
pa pha ba bha ma
Second Group
Semivowels
ya ra la va
Third Group
Sibilants Ancient
śa ṣa sa
Fourth Group
Sonant Aspirate
ha

1 As a matter of fact, Anusvāra (the dot) and Visarga (the two dots) have not been modified at all. Only the "a" vowel accompanying them in the alphabet has been changed.

The ancient numbers apparently remain the same. Anyway, there are several additional variants as regards letters and numbers, which also should be kept in mind, because you will very likely stumble upon them some day. Some of these variants are old while other are modern. Remember that the Conjuncts are agglutinate consonants.

The following table is intended for all users. Of course, I am not going to write every possible variant but the most commonly seen. I will write down the variants I am aware of at this moment. Nonetheless, be warned that this table might be updated with more variants in the future:

Letters and numbers - Variants
Numbers
Numbers
Numbers (variants included) Uno (variante) n/a n/a n/a Cinco (variante 1) or Cinco (variante 2) n/a n/a Ocho (variante) Nueve (variante 1) or Nueve (variante 2) or Nueve (variante 3) n/a
Transliteration 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0
Consonants
Gutturals          
Gutturals (variants) n/a kha (variant) n/a n/a n/a          
Transliteration ka kha ga gha ṅa          
Palatals          
Palatals (variants) n/a n/a n/a jha (variant 1) or jha (variant 2) n/a          
Transliteration ca cha ja jha ña          
Dentals          
Dentals (variants) n/a n/a n/a dha (variant) n/a          
Transliteration ta tha da dha na          
Labials          
Labials (variants) n/a n/a n/a bha (variant) n/a          
Transliteration pa pha ba bha ma          
Semivowels            
Semivowels (variants) n/a n/a la (variant 1) or la (variant 2) va            
Transliteration ya ra la va            
Conjuncts
Normal क्ष                  
Variants kSha (variant)                  
Transliteration kṣa                  

Some examples now showing modern characters vs. ancient characters.

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 Examples

The following examples do not include the variants, but only the modern and ancient characters defined in the respective tables with the alphabets:

Modern and ancient characters in practice
Words
Using modern characters अभिनवगुप्त आनन्द ऋषि ॠः ओदन और्वर छन्दस् झटिति कृष्ण शिव
Using ancient characters abhinavagupta aananda RRiShi RRIShi odana aurvara Chandas jhaTiti kRRiShNa shiva
Transliteration Abhinavagupta ānanda ṛṣi ṝḥ odana aurvara chandas jhaṭiti Kṛṣṇa Śiva
Translation Ever new and hidden (name of one of the greatest Trika masters) bliss sage, seer a Bhairava or terrible form of Śiva boiled rice coming from the earth or ground meter instantly Lord Kṛṣṇa (lit. black) Lord Śiva (lit. auspicious)
Using modern characters अत्र आचार्य ऋत ॠकार ओघ औदर्य प्रछ् झगझगाय दण्ड शक्ति
Using ancient characters atra aacaarya RRita RRIkaara ogha audarya praCh jhagajhagaaya daNDa shakti
Transliteration atra ācārya ṛta ṝkāra ogha audarya prach jhagajhagāya daṇḍa Śakti
Translation here a spiritual teacher right, proper the letter "ṝ" flood, stream being in the stomach or belly to ask (questions) to sparkle, flash a stick Power
Using modern characters अखिल आरण्य ऋच् ॠस्वर ओजस् औष्ठ इच्छा झष कर्ण कश्मीर
Using ancient characters akhila aaraNya RRic RRIsvara ojas auShTha icChaa jhaSha karNa kashmiira
Transliteration akhila āraṇya ṛc ṝsvara ojas auṣṭha icchā jhaṣa karṇa kaśmīra
Translation whole, completely related to a forest to praise the vowel "ṝ" vigor lip-shaped will a large fish ear Kashmir

And that is it for now!

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 Further Information

Gabriel Pradīpaka

This document was conceived by Gabriel Pradīpaka, one of the two founders of this site, and spiritual guru conversant with Sanskrit language and Trika philosophy.

For further information about Sanskrit, Yoga and Indian Philosophy; or if you simply want to comment, ask a question or correct a mistake, feel free to contact us: This is our e-mail address.