Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

10 June 2011

Beginning and End Marker in Buddhist Texts

Rañjana yig gmo + extension
and double daṇḍa
I have often wondered about the symbols one sees at the beginning and end of texts and mantras. I've been researching them for my forthcoming book. It possible to consider these as simple decoration, but scholars of Buddhist texts and inscriptions have often interpreted them as something more. The Tibetans seem to have the most developed and elaborate forms of these, and they have a clear name for the symbol, so let's start there.

Beginning Markers

Here are the Tibetan variations from the Tibetan Unicode block.

The general term seems to be yimgo (i.e. yig mgo) meaning 'head' or perhaps 'header'. The first symbol is bdra rnying yig mgo mdun ma which seems to mean 'old orthography header', so-called since it is used in early texts, while the more ornate version (no.3) is used currently. [West 2005, 2006] The second is the yimgo combined with the 'following yimgo' (yig mgo sgab ma) and a shad (see below). The 3rd and fourth are the standard yimgo these days (yig mgo mdun ma). The 5th and 6th are the yimgo decorated with a shad (yig mgo phur shad ma; the shad is used as a punctuation mark and equivalent to the Indic daṇḍa); and the old style yimgo with both shad and tsheg (yig mgo tsheg shad ma), the tsheg or syllable marker is usually a simply dot between syllables, but sometimes is more elaborate.

The modern Japanese Siddhaṃ has a yimgo with the same form as the archaic Tibetan yimgo.

The same kind of mark is seen (right) in the Lantsa and Rañjana scripts. The proposed Unicode block for Rañjana calls this the Rañjana yig mgo which suggests there is no indigenous explanation for it in Nepal. In fact I haven't found a definite Indic name for the symbol.

In older manuscripts the symbol is cruder an much more variable, but always a variation on the spiralling curve. As you can see below in the partial chart from Roth (1986) there was considerable variation. Virtually all of the possible orientations are seen in practice, including the one used in Tibetan and it's mirror image.

The symbol numbered 11 is found in the Patna Dharmapada (a famous manuscript with the Dharmapada in Sanskrit); 8 at the beginning of Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośa. Tibetan Scholars have usually interpreted this symbol as oṃ, and modern scholars seem to have followed their lead. Notice no.17 from a Pala era inscription (ca 1174 AD) which shows the two together. They are obviously quite distinct, and the two wouldn't occur together if one was an abbreviated form of the other.

Others have sought to explain this symbol as an abbreviated form of the word siddhiḥ or even siddhir astu (Roth p.240). Margaret Cone for instance transcribes sign 11 as siddhaṃ in her Patna Dharmapada (p.35). Roth cites an example of the symbol and the word found together (right) in an unpublished manuscript of the Pañcakrama (a tantric text attributed to Nāgārjuna). Roth interprets the word as explaining the symbol preceding it, but I don't see why unless we presume that the symbol means siddhiḥ in the first place. In any case this one example shows that at the time the symbol was not graphically similar in any way to how the word was written.

The identification as oṃ may explain why we find so many texts transcribed as beginning with oṃ. When for instance the bhaiṣajyaguru-vaidūrya-prabharāja Sūtra is transcribed as beginning with the maṅgala-gāthā:
oṁ namaḥ sarvajñāya | namo bhagavate bhaiṣajyaguruvaidūryaprabharājāya tathāgatāya ||
The oṃ was in fact most likely a yimgo. Judging by the remarks by Roth and by Sander, many of the times we find oṃ in a Buddhist text which is not simply a mantra or dhāraṇī, we might really be seeing yimgo. The scribe was most likely concerned to begin with an auspicious symbol, but they did not have oṃ in mind.

The scholarly consensus seems to be that the curve represents siddhaṃ c.f. Salomon (1998, p.66-68). Certainly we know that many scribes did begin copying with the word siddhaṃ or siddhiḥ, hence the name of the script, but if they abbreviated it to the symbol the proof has yet to be found. So although in many editions of Buddhist texts we find oṃ, it's prevalence might have been greatly exaggerated. Personally, I doubt oṃ was used by Buddhists before the 7th or 8th century because it doesn't occur in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra.

Another possibility not previously considered is that it represents a snake. Symbols representing cobras appear on ancient Indian coins. To the right is a sketch of a coin from the Kuninda era (ca. 2nd century BCE - 1st CE) borrowed from the Resources for Collectors coin website. Between the horns of the deer is a sign which is described as "two cobras". You can see that they are very similar to the ancient Indian yimgo symbol, although apparently they always appear in between the deer horns. On the other side of the coin are other common symbols including the svastika, and the three jewels sign (see my post on the svastika). I wonder if the yimgo is actually a nāga?

End Markers

End of line or text markers are usually based on the Indic daṇḍa. The word daṇḍa means 'stick or stroke' and in Devanāgarī it is a simple vertical stroke |. In prose it is used rather variably to represent any kind of hiatus - where we might have a comma, a semi-colon, a colon, a dash, or a full-stop, in Deanāgarī one finds a daṇḍa. In Poetry the end of a pada (or line) is marked with a daṇḍa while the end of a gāthā (or stanza) is marked with a double daṇḍa ||. The earliest Indian inscriptions use no punctuation, and it took many centuries for the use of the daṇḍa to be standardised. I note that most examples of Japanese Siddhaṃ do not use any internal punctuation, but only mark the beginning and end of the text.

Rañjana also has a daṇḍa and double daṇḍa (right). One has to be careful not to mistake the daṇḍa for a diacritic mark, or double daṇḍa for a ta. Mantras will sometimes, as in the Tibetan scripts, combine a yimgo with a daṇḍa or double daṇḍa. You can see how this is used in the this woodblock print.

The Tibetan equivalent of the daṇḍa is called a shad (pronounced shé) meaning more or less the same thing. The Tibetans also use a dot at the end of syllables called a tsheg - the ornate forms of which occasionally replace the shad. There are a great number of elaborate shad and tsheg markers in Tibetan. Here are the shads from the Tibetan Unicode block:

These are: 1. shad; 2. nyis or double shad; 3. tsheg shad; 4; nyis tsheg shad; 5 rin chen spungs (mound of jewels) shad; 6. sbrul (snake stroke) shad*; 7. rgya gram (cross) shad*; 8. gter (treasure) tsheg - sometimes used in place of a shad. [* displayed with Tibetan Machine Uni font]. Some of these signs have specific uses in manuscripts, and others are simply decorative. The Tibetan texts I've seen mainly use the shad, double shad and gter tsheg.

The ends of chapters or texts received extra elaborate marks, but I must stop here. I will be including a longer version of this essay my forthcoming book.

Tibetan examples are illustrated using the attractive Jomolhari font, with some help from Tibetan Machine Uni where noted. Both are free and take quite different approaches to dbu can, giving plenty of variation. As far as I know there are no fonts for Tibetan scripts other than dbu can.

For another introduction to this subject see this blog post by Tashi Mannox: The heading character and Script construction.

26 November 2010

Writing in India

For some time I have wanted to write a review of an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, now almost 30 years old.[1] The title is unprepossessing - "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda" - but the conclusions are interesting. The first part of his article recaps an earlier article that discusses the relative ages of the two forms of the Ṛgveda text. These two forms are Saṃhitāpāṭha and Padapāṭha. The Saṃhitāpāṭha (Sp) is the text as it is spoken. Sanskrit writing very early on recorded a great deal more of the spoken language than does our English script. Particularly as we run words together in spoken language we change the sounds subtly. In Vedic these changes - known as sandhi 'junctures' - are meticulously notated in the written text. By contrast the Padapāṭha (Pp) is more like English writing in that it records only the words themselves. The Pp is generally supposed to have been composed as an aide de memoir to help keep the oral tradition accurate. The extant Pp is attributed to Śākalya who's dates are uncertain.

I cannot reproduce Bronkhorst's complex arguments for the relative dating of Sp and Pp, but he concludes that the recension of the Pp that has come down to us is older than the recension of the Sp. Bronkhorst, as is his way, tells us his conclusion at the beginning: "I know of one plausible explanation: the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda was written down from its beginning" (p.184); and then offers his evidence.

The first evidence I have already mentioned: that the way we speak English is like the Sp, and the way we write it is like the Pp. He is suggesting that the relationship between Sp and Pp is just like the relationship between spoken and written English. The second is that the Pp contains some signs such as the daṇḍa (punctuation mark) and avagraha (similar to an apostrophe for noting elisions: like n't for not) which only really make sense in writing - they have no phonetic value of their own, and do not affect pronunciation generally. Like English punctuation they make reading easier. Bronkhorst also mentions a rule in Pāṇini's grammar which relates to the use of iti in more or less the same way as Western scholars use sic. He says:
"Pāṇini puzzles over the question of how the [manuscript] of the Ṛgveda (= Padapāṭha) must be read such that a correct recitation (= Saṃhitāpāṭha) is the result." (p.185)
This suggests that Pāṇini is likely to have been working with a written text.

As Bronkhorst himself says, there is no unanimity on the date for the beginning of writing in India. Bronkhorst himself opts for the case made by Bühler [2] who places the date at about 800 BCE.
"If we accept Bühler's ideas, and estimate that it took the Brahmans about a century to adopt the alphabet and adjust it to their needs, the earliest possible date for [the written text] becomes 700 [BCE]. A later date must however be prepared." (p.186)
Perhaps Bronkhorst reflects the state of knowledge at the time he was writing, though it is hard to imagine 78 years having passed with no contribution. In any case the subject has definitely moved on since Bronkhorst's article. Compare Richard Salomon in Indian Epigraphy [3]:
Bühler's suggestion of an early date of ca. 800 BC, or possibly earlier, for the 'introduction of prototypes of the Brāhma letters' in India is hardly plausible in light of modern knowledge, but more cautious estimates such as that of A. B Kieth [4] that 'the real development of writing belongs in all likelihood to the fifth century' are not unreasonable. (p.13)
Salomon points out that both the literary and epigraphical evidence is "vague or inconclusive" (p.12). It is rather more conventional to date writing in Indian to the 4th century BCE because this is the earliest date that can be confirmed by inscriptions minus a century. [5] (This practice of adding or subtracting a century to allow things to develop is pretty standard for scholars, though I sometimes wonder how justified it is!). However Salomon (p. 12) notes that pottery shards with Brahmī script writing found in Sri Lanka in the 1990's are variously dated to the 6th-4th century BCE, with most recent articles opting for the later end of the spectrum (i.e. towards the 4th century). [6]

Writing did not develop spontaneously in India, but was adapted from outside models. There is ample evidence for contact between India and the rest of the world. Already by the time the Buddha was born (ca 480 BCE) the Achaemanids were exacting tribute from the north-west of India (as far as the Indus River), and possibly were a substantial presence. As proof of contact Bronkhorst cites the Biblical mention of aloe-wood in Numbers (xxiv.6) which may date from between 900-722 BCE. Unfortunately the materials used for writing in India were not always durable, and stone inscriptions were not widely used until the reign of Aśoka (who may well have been imitating the Persian kings in his inscriptions).

The earliest form of writing we know about is the Kharoṣṭhī script which is clearly modelled on the Aramaic script used by Achaemanid Persian administrators. The Brahmī script is less clearly modelled on an outside script, but most scholars still see a relationship to Aramaic. I accept the arguments of Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel that the Indus Valley script is a form of graphic communication, but does not represent language - i.e. it is not writing, but similar to graphic signs in Sumeria about the same time.[7]

The received tradition is that (religious) Indians were not interested in writing because sacred texts were memorised and passed on orally. Though of course this does not explain why merchants and administrators would not use it, especially when they were in direct contact with cultures that did use writing much earlier. Although the evidence for an absolute date for writing in India, after more than a century of study is, in Salomon's words "disappointingly inconclusive"; and although Bronkhorst cannot establish a relative date for the Ṛgveda Padapāṭha, except in relation to the Saṃhitāpāṭha, we see in his article a contradiction of the old chestnut that ancient Indians were not interested in writing. The Ṛgveda was written down early on, probably by the time of Pāṇini, which suggests that writing may well have been in use during the life time of the Buddha, or not so very long afterwards. The writing down of the Buddhist canon in the 1st century BCE, therefore, was not the radical innovation that it is sometimes portrayed as. As the recent discovery tells us, writing may have been in use in Sri Lanka for 3 or 4 centuries by that time.

What Bronkhorst shows is that the relationship to writing may have been more complex, both at any give time and across time, than we generally think.


  1. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 1982. "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda." Indo-Iranian Journal. 24: 181-189.
  2. Bühler, Johan Georg. Indian Paleography, edited by John Faithful Fleet. Bombay: Bombay Education Society's Press, 1904. (Reprinted by Oriental Books Reprint Copr. 1980)
  3. Salomon, Richard. Indian Epigraphy: a guide to the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan languages. Oxford University Press, 1998. [This is an excellent and authoritative guide to the history of writing in India]
  4. Salomon is citing from E.J. Rapson (ed.) 1922. Cambridge History of India, vol. 1 'Ancient India'. Cambridge University Press, p.126.
  5. e.g. A. L. Basham. The Wonder that was India. 3rd revised edition. Rupa & Co. 1967. Writing is down played to the extent of not being mentioned in many histories of India, e.g. Stein, Burton. A History of India. Blackwell,1998; Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India : from Origins to AD 1300. Penguin, 2002.
  6. I've seen the 6th century figure seized upon and used as evidence of Brahmī being invented in Sri Lanka.
  7. A good place to start is Farmer, Steve. A One-Sentence Refutation of the Indus-Script Myth. 2005-2008; also excellent is Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan civilization. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 11-2 (13 Dec. 2004): 19-57.

image: Ṛgveda Saṃhitāpāṭha 1.1-2.

24 July 2009

Indo-European Writing

brhami scipt from British Museum

Aśoka (6th) Pillar fragment
Brāhmī inscription
formerly at Meerut. Mid-3rd century BCE.
(?u)pagamane sememokhyamate
(bhi)sitename iyaṃdhaṃmali(pi) li*

© British Museum (my photo)
When I recently blogged about Indo-European languages one of my friends asked what is quite an obvious question: what about writing? So I'm going to outline the development of writing as it is relevant to Buddhist India. India is very linguistically diverse - there are three distinct language families, including Indo-European, plus a number of languages not related to any known language - known as 'isolates'.

Most modern scripts can trace their origins to Mesopotamia. A surprising number trace their roots to the writing developed in India - in fact almost every country that saw Buddhist missionary activity, excepting China, has seen some influence from the India scripts on their writing systems. That said writing came relatively late to India, and even then was not used for religious texts for many centuries.

The earliest evidence of writing anywhere in the world is from around 3500 BCE in present day Iraq. The Sumerians left caches of clay tablets at sites along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This earliest writing, similar in some ways to the earliest Chinese writing (ca 1400 BCE), involves pictures which represent concepts. However it was with the invention of cuneiform that something like writing as we know began. The earliest examples of cuneiform combine signs for concepts with signs for sounds (as do Egyptian hieroglyphs). A variety of cuneiform continued to be used in the middle-east until the last century before the common era. However in the same region speakers of Semitic languages began to represent their language using only signs for sounds - i.e. to use a true alphabet - around 2000 BCE.

The Achaemenid empire (ca 550 - 350 BCE) founded in Persia adopted a form of Semitic writing, often called Aramaic after the language it encoded, for administrative purposes. It represented a significant improvement on cuneiform - it could be written (and read) more quickly and easily, and on a much greater variety of materials. Now it so happens that the Achaemenids invaded India and controlled, or at least had a powerful influence, up to the western bank of the Indus River - about half of what is now Pakistan. In fact the Buddha lived during this period and there is some evidence of Persian influence in the Pāli Canon - which I have discussed previously in this blog. The Achaemenids were toppled by Alexander of Macedonia, and in India at least the power vacuum was filled by the Mauryan Dynasty of which Asoka is the stand out figure.

Certainly by the time that King Asoka ruled India (mid 3rd century BCE) there was a well developed form of writing: the Brāhmī Lipi or Writing of God which he used on his rock pillars and edicts. Brāhmī is said to show signs of influence from Aramaic. Another script, Kharoṣṭhī, was less widely used in India proper, but was the main script in Gandhāra and parts of central Asia for some centuries. We can say with some confidence that Kharoṣṭhī was based on Aramaic as it retained many features of the Semitic script. It is possible that Kharoṣṭhī influenced the development of Brāhmī , but it is difficult to say because the earliest known examples of Brāhmī are already a fully fledged script and the direction of development subsequently is determined by the nature of Indian languages.

We can say that all forms of written language in India, as well as Tibet, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are descendants of Asoka's Brāhmī. In India there was a very distinct north/south divide which I think was caused by writing materials, but may have been influence by the geographical spread of Indo-European languages (north) and Dravidian languages (south). The North favoured birch bark and wood to write on, while in the South the material of choice was the leaf of the talipot palm. The palm leaf is ribbed which lead to the development of the more rounded shapes of Southern writing (which then influenced Sinhala, Burmese etc). Note that technically Sinhala is a North Indian language, part of the Indo-European family, and not related to Tamil or other Dravidian languages, but it is written in a southern style script and palm leaves were the medium of choice until relatively recently. Similarly Burmese, though written with a Brāhmī derived script is part of the Tibeto-Burman family which has a relationship with the plethora of Chinese languages.

Brāhmī underwent continuous development in the North and diversified into local geographical variants. But because dynasties based in the North-east - particularly the Mauryans and then the Guptas (3rd - 6th centuries) - were dominant they tended to influence the development of writing more. The Brāhmī variant commonly used by the Guptas was by that time a distinct script. The Nalanda University was in the Gupta heartland and the Gupta script was important in the spread Buddhist texts. Later it would give rise to the Siddhamatṛkā or just Siddhaṃ script which was commonly used to write the Tantras. It is still in use today for writing mantras in China and Japan. The Gupta script, or something very like it was used as the basis for Tibetan writing, which also continued to develop independently and diversify. Siddhaṃ evolved into Devanāgarī, which is the most common script for Sanskrit in the present - though it is written using the Tamil script in South India for instance.

There are several ways of represent sounds using signs. The English alphabet attempts to convey individual sounds that combine into syllables or phonemes. This is a very efficient way of representing spoken sounds - with just 26 letters we manage to convey the 25 single consonant sounds, and 23 vowel sounds that are used in 'standard' English (as represented by the Oxford English Dictionary) and an extensive repertoire of combination of them in words and sentences. Another method is to represent speech as a series of syllables. One can either represent all possible syllables by individual signs which is only practicable if there are a small number of syllables - the Japanese Kana alphabets are good examples of this approach. An intermediate option is available where consonants and initial vowels have distinct signs and these are modified to show medial and final vowels. The latter is typical of Indian writing.

There are several distinct features shared by all Indic scripts which I will demonstrate using Devanāgarī. Initial vowels have distinct signs - 14 in Sanskrit - but medial and final vowels, and the absence of a vowel (which happens at the end of words and in conjuncts) are indicated with diacritic marks. Consonants are assumed to be followed by the short 'a' vowel unless otherwise specified. क is ka not k. Examples of vowel diacritics are: kā ke kai ki kī ko kau kṛ = का के कै कि की को कौ कृ. Vowels may also be absent, nasalised or aspirated (the technical terms being virāma, anusvāra, visarga), so g, gaṃ, and gaḥ = ग् गं गः . Indic, like English, allows for a variety of combinations of consonants without intervening vowels. These are either written as a vertical stack as in ṣ + ṭha > ṣṭha = ष् + ठ > ष्ठ; or as a horizontal combination with the initial consonant as a "ligature": t + pa > tpa = त् + प > त्प. As many as four consonants can be combined in this way e.g. strya स्त्र्य. Special variations occur with 'r' viz pra = प् + र > प्र, and rta = र् + त > र्त; ś can also undergo a special change e.g. śva = श् + व > श्व; cf śya = श्य; and some conjuncts have distinct signs jña ज्ञ and kṣa क्ष. Writing Sanskrit this way is considerably more complex than writing English.

Buddhist texts in Indic languages are preserved in a plethora of scripts: Brāhmī in many varieties, the Gupta script again in many varieties, Siddhaṃ with some variation over time (and major variants in China and Japan), Kharoṣṭḥī, Devanāgarī, several Tibetan scripts, Sinhala, Burmese, Thai etc. Each of these scripts records texts in an equally wide variety of Indian languages and dialects; and of course many texts are now known only in translation in Chinese, Tibetan or any of a dozen other languages - making the history of Buddhist texts quite complex. All this is remarkable given centuries of resistance to the use of writing for the purpose of writing sacred texts in the early days of Buddhism.

A scholar of Buddhism must often know several languages and associated scripts in order to read the relevant manuscripts. The standard of handwriting in ancient times was often quite poor, and the attention to copying of texts wavered causing scribal errors, which means that no two manuscripts are ever the same. Deciphering such manuscripts requires imagination and powers of deduction as well language skills. As such we owe a great deal to those people down the ages with the aptitude and motivation to take on the difficult task of learning these, often dead, languages and scripts, in order to study and translate the texts for us. Having dipped into their world I am in awe of them.


* The bottom line of the Brāhmī inscription pictured is a fragment of a longer stock phrase:
saḍuvīsativābhisitena me iyaṃ dhaṃma lipi likhāpita
when I [Asoka] had been consecrated twenty-six years I ordered this inscription of the dhamma to be engraved
- c.f. the 1st pillar in A. L. Basham The Wonder that was India, 1967, 2001, p.395. There is now some doubt as to whether Asoka meant the Buddhadhamma or his own dhamma [see Aśoka, Pāli and some red herrings].