Indian Sacred Texts are written in Sanskrit which uses the devanagari script. General public translations of these books use transliterations which obscure correct or even tolerably-correct pronunciation of the original Sanskrit. They obscure even the way modern Hindi speakers would pronounce these words when talking about their scriptures.
However, there are two main scholarly transliteration systems which preserve the correct pronunciations: the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (iast) and the Harvard Kyoto (kyoto). Kyoto uses capital letter and adds a few odd letters (z and G) to its transliteration system, and so is ugly and hard to read.
I prefer the IAST. And though some may consider the diacritics of IAST as cumbersome, they may be largely ignored and still be close-enough to the original. But even with that, I see two problems with IAST:
(1) IAST uses the letter “c” to represent the “ch” sound and the letter “ch” to represent its aspirated version. To avoid this, the transliteration system I will use (SES) in my glossary and occasionally in my texts will use a “ch” and a “chh” for these sounds (see the chart).
(2) Sanskrit has three “sibilants” — s’s. Two of these are very close to each other and sound like “sh” though IAST only uses s’s with diacritics to differentiate between them. So I added h’s to those two s’s to make them easier to read while keeping the diacritics.
So, SES (my transliteration system: Sabio’s Easy Sanskrit) is easier to read and still preserves subtle sounds if the reader wishes to know them. But I suggest that due to difficulty of pronunciations, the reader ignore all diacritics except the long marks over the vowels which are probably the most important pronunciation issues.
Remember, an “h” in IAST and SES just means to aspirate — to add breath to the sound. And retroflex (symbolized by a dot below a letter) means the tongue is in the back of the throat when pronounced.
- I am in debt to this diagram on AlanLittle.org (a site now neglected, thus I improved its layout and added my material).
- Here is another good chart with other systems.
- Here is a devanagari keyboard if you want to play with typing these letters.
- Hindi is a descendant of Sanskrit. So here is a fun pronunciation App for Hindi which will help you see the subtleties of some of these Sanskrit sounds. Note, it uses the IAST system.
- For more on how to pronounce the Devanagari script, see Omniglot here or Visible Mantra here.