Same mantra, different language

(Posted by Sandeep)

In 2007, one of China’s biggest pop singers, Sa Ding Ding, released a hit song in Sanskrit — yes, that’s right, the dead liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Check it out:

The words are taken from the 100-syllable Vajrasattva Mantra, an important prayer in Buddhism. It’s actually a pretty catchy song. But for Indians with any knowledge of Sanskrit, the words are totally unfamiliar: the Chinese pronunciation of Sanskrit is worlds away from the Indian pronunciation.

Despite how popular the mantra is, I could only find one video of someone using the Indian Sanskrit pronunciation:

Compare that to the Tibetan pronunciation:

Buddhism is truly a remarkable religion in that it dominated in regions as far as Afghanistan in the west and Japan in the east. Not everyone spoke a language similar to Sanskrit, so it was inevitable that adopting peoples would adapt texts in Sanskrit and Pali (another liturgical language of Buddhism) to local pronunciations.

But Indian tradition places the highest value on the oral transmission of sacred knowledge — ancient Indians were notoriously suspicious of written language, despising it as bad for the mind and for the soul. Because sacred scriptures were transmitted through intricate mnemonic procedures, pronunciation was highly preserved. Vedic Sanskrit was shared from generation to generation as a sort of time-capsule, even as the local vernaculars shifted in vocabulary and pronunciation.

Sanskrit still holds an important place in Indian culture, especially for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Most Indian languages today (even the non-Indo-European ones) borrow heavily from Sanskrit, most obviously in tatsama (literally, “that-same”) words, which are taken directly from Sanskrit without sound changes. For these reasons, many Indians today have a working knowledge of Sanskrit vocabulary, the pronunciation of which is relatively stable.

And so we come to the curious case of Buddhism, which grew out of this Indian tradition that placed great emphasis on oral transmission.

Should Indians really be upset that East Asian Buddhists pronounce Sanskrit mantras differently from the “correct” pronunciation? Prescriptivist Indians would shudder. I’m not so sure. Buddhism is as much “theirs” as it is “ours” — it’s been at least 1,500 years, after all. Some Buddhists would probably argue that the understood meaning of the mantras and their value as meditative devices are more valuable than faithful pronunciation. (Some strict Hindus might disagree; others would agree.) But for those who ascribe mystical power to the words themselves rather than the sentiment behind them, non-Indian pronunciation might pose problems.

It’s a fun exercise to see the shift in pronunciation from India to far-off lands: consider the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meditation. In Pali, a historical vernacular (and later liturgical language) of India, it became jhāna. In Chinese, it’s chán. Korean, seon. And in Japanese, it’s the famous zen.

In my native Kannada, we still use dhyāna. Perhaps we’re just old fashioned.

I’m curious to compare the situation of Arabic — which, of course, has been adopted as a liturgical language in non-Arab Muslim countries — to Sanskrit. Islam requires the use of Arabic in reciting the Qur’an, but are non-Arab pronunciations of the text (say, in Indonesia or Bangladesh) different from Standard Arabic?