Everyday Ayurveda by Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
Imagine a language that embeds its understanding of chemistry, astronomy, meteorology, botany, physiology, ecology and other sciences into the etymology of words. That language is Sanskrt. With layers and layers of subtle mathematical nuance in tone, cadence, and rhythm, Sanskrt is a language done well, meaning it has perfectly encompassed all knowledge into its techniques for producing sound.
It is also one of the only languages that integrated anatomy of the oral cavity with linguistics. Lessons in Sanskrit often begin with the stretching of the mouth muscles by hyper-pronouncing the ten plus five vowels. The alphabet is then arranged in the order of sound emerging from positioning at the back of the mouth (guttural) moving forward (velar, palatal, dental) to positioning at the lips (labial).
My mother would sit with the bright pink books of grammar—called pratham bhag, ditiya bhag and tritiya bhag—and a wooden spoon. With the spoon, she would mark exactly timed beats, called laya, and occasionally slap our palms if we lost focus or did not repeat after her properly. She would begin with the sounds emerging from the back of the tongue. Called guttural sounds, they are formed by squeezing the vocal cords and curling the tongue into a curve to make the sounds k and g. Aspirated with some force from the vocal cords, these sounds become kh and gh. These four form the first line of the Sanskrit alphabet.
Each subsequent line of the varnamala or Sanskrit alphabet was formed from sounds emerging from spots gradually further forward in the mouth. The second line uses the palatal region to make the sounds ch and jh. The third line is known as the cerebral or retroflex position. The dental position creates the sounds of the fourth line of the Sanskrit alphabet. The fifth line formed from the sounds of the tip of the tongue touching the lips lightly to make the sounds p and b is of labial sounds. Aspirated with some force from the vocal cords, these sounds become ph and bh. Along the right end of the first five lines are the corresponding nasals ong, ñ, n., n, and m. In addition, there are three s sounds, called sibilants, a palatal, a retroflex and lower dental. Then there are four semi-vowels, y, r, l, v and one aspirated empty sound, h.
The fourteen vowels were the toughest for the American tongues my younger sisters had. Regional variations in the way vowels are released also create differences in accents, interpretations and subtle meanings. Originally, my mother showed us the Bengali way for everyday use and then altered each slightly to unfold the Sanskrit pronunciation, which had an inexplicable resonance that no regional language can master. Chanting the Sanskrit varnamala also evoked some kind of change in the quality of the air around us.
It is said that meditative powers are invoked when Sanskrit is pronounced correctly. The power of mantra is enveloped in this adage. There are prayers that can align the Universe and unleash the great potential of sound into motion, just as a wave can create a tsunami. All mantras, slokas, and stotras invoke this power. It is the gift of a parent to teach their children these sounds seamlessly in childhood, so that they carry these tools with them through their lifetimes. Chants can heal on subtle energy levels, when chemical medicines are slow.
But what do we do about regional variants, accents and other diversities in the expression of a language? Sanskrit tried to preserve the oral accuracy of sound by grounding it in the physical world from where the sounds were generated. When pronounced correctly, these letters give full exercise to the tongue and allow the mind to hear nuances of sound that are often not heard by monolingual speakers.
The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. firstname.lastname@example.org | www.drbhaswati.com