Tag Archives: Hinduism

Sanskrit Transliteration: Sabio’s system


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.

Sanskrit DiacriticsCommon books (as in “Jaya”) avoid the capitals in Kyoto and keep the “ch” and the “sh” (as my system also does) but they do not use diacritics thus losing many sounds.

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.




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Jaya: who is Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt-PatnaikThis is part of my series of posts to aid in the reading of Devdutt Pattanaik’s book:  Jaya: An illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata. See my Mahabharata index for more.
I will use this page to keep links to information on Devdutt Pattanaik. But first, some quick information I have learned:

Devdutt was born in 1970 in Oriya India and brought up in Mumbai. He was a physician who did pharma and healthcare industry work for 14 years with an avocation on researching and writing on mythology which has now become his full-time profession. He is a fun illustrator and speaker also.

Sr-Krishna-and-Arjuna-blowing-their-conchshellsMeaning of the author’s name

Since Indian names are, well, foreign to Westerners, I thought I’d have some fun and research the meaning of Devdutt Pattanaik’s name.

Devdutt (also, Devadatta) means “God given” and is the name of the conch (shankha) of Arjuna.  In Hinduism, the conch shell is used as a war trumpet in the past and is a symbol for the god Vishnu. Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu and is here shown as Arjuna’s chariot driver and both of them blowing the war conch. Krishna’s conch is called “Panchjanya“.


“Jaya” illustration by Pattanaik: Krishna’s gopis, sad to lose their love, try to block his departure.

Pattanaik (also Patnaik) is an Indian Kayastha caste surname. Kayasthas are considered to be members of the literate scribe caste, and have traditionally acted as keepers of records and public accounts, writers, and administrators of the state. Interestingly, Pattanaik is a writer!



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Jaya: why read this book

Jaya_book_coverThis is part of my series of posts to aid in the reading of Devdutt Pattanaik’s book:  Jaya: An illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata. See my Mahabharata index for more.

Readers can either buy the book now and read it slowly with each post, wait until the series is over and then buy the book or just read the posts without reading the book.

Why read the Mahabharata:

(1) Understand Hinduism: The Mahabharata is one of the classic Hindu you need to read to understand Hinduism. It is not the dry philosophy of the Upanishads or the hard to read Vedas, and it is more complex that the simple good-vs-bad Ramayana (the other Hindu epic, see my posts here.)  And just reading books about Hinduism won’t help you feel the complexity of the faith as reading the Mahabharata will.

(2) Understand Religion: One of my agendas is to help Christians perhaps see their own religion by comparing and contrasting to Hinduism. Perhaps some Hindus will also enjoy learning about Christianity this way. And then for both the secular and religious readers, I hope to point out some of the deep structures in religion.  And all of this done in a very lay fashion — because I can do no differently! 🙂

Why read Pattanaik’s Version:

The actual Mahabharata text is about 5,000 pages long so most translations are short retellings.  I list many of the translations and retellings available here. Pattanaik’s retelling is easy reading with lots of fun illustrations and thus an easy way to learn the story. Simply put — I like this version.



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The Theist-to-Mystic Sidestep

Let’s start by defining terms. As you know, I don’t believe in fixed definitions, so obviously these are my definitions, made to help us communicate on this post:

A Theist: a person who believes is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, intervening in the world and who responds to prayer.

A Mystic: a person who believes the possibility of union or communion with some god, or absolute or higher level of truth or some such thing. Mystic who believe in a god, don’t necessarily believe in the Theist’s god. (see my post “Monkey God vs. Cat God“)


When I left Christianity, I tried Reformed Judaism for a year — a stripped down Christianity. Then I started reading Christian mystics: Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross and especially Thomas Merton. But I could tell that all these mystics were trying desperately to hang on to their Jesus. So I started reading Buddhism and Taoism — as filtered through the Western forms of these. (see my post on “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“)

Both of these (my Christianity and my mysticism) were largely fed by my weird experiences in life. (see my posts on “My Supernatural/Mystical Experiences“)

But slowly I began to realize that I was trying to add an extra layer of wonder, an extra layer of meaning, an extra layer of hope to both my ordinary and my extra-ordinary experiences. I was valorizing my experience — I was creating a fantasy of deep meaning and hope. Finally, I came to rest with not taking this extra step. And with such a move, my habits of mind became more clear and both the ordinary and not-so-ordinary became more brilliant.

Theism is hard to escape and mysticism offers a much more benign ground to live in. But mysticism comes with its pitfalls of idealism and romanticism all built to support our fears. But heck, all positions come with pitfalls, don’t they.

Mystic Pitfalls:

  • feel that real meaning, real knowledge comes from union with the absolute (be that a god, the universe, Buddha-mind, The One or any such thing).
  • homogenizing, idealizing, romanticizing the world of a myriad of things
  • negating or minimizing the body, normal mind, or normal experiences
  • judging others as not having your amazing connections, perspective and insight
  • valorizing your experiences and your temperament


Please feel free to criticize or try to correct or add to my thoughts above.



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Sita in the Ramayana

Hindu Scripture PopularityA friend of mine was reading a children’s version of the Ramayana and before reaching the end of the story, she asked me to tell her what happens to Sita, because she did not want to read a sad ending that evening.  I told her, “it depends on which version you are reading.”

As illustrated by the graph of my ngram search done in 2012 (see the post here), of the Hindu holy scriptures, the Ramayana fills the most web pages.

I wrote a synopsis of the Ramayana here, but put even shorter:

Sita, the wife of the stories noble, royal hero, is abducted by the demon king, Ravana. Rama with his followers defeat Ravana and Sita returns.

As you can see by my diagram below, the Ramayana myth is very old — recorded around the same times the Jewish iron age hero stories in the Torah (see post here). And though the Torah (part of the Christian Old Testament) was edited and modified over the centuries, the Hindus are much more casual with their scriptures and today we have hundreds of versions of the Ramayana. A.K. Ramanujan wrote his controversial “Three Hundred Ramayanas” in 1987 which Delhi University later banned from their curriculum. For though the many versions were known, hard-line fundamentalist Hindus spoke out against versions which put the holiness Rama and Sita into the least bit of question.


Sita's_ordeal_by_fireWhen Sita is brought back from her long captivity with the demon Ravana her husband suspects that Sita had sex with Ravana during captivity. To prove her fidelity, Sita is the horrifically tried by fire, but in some versions even this is not enough for Rama who then banishes Sita. And the variations go on.

South Asians name their children after Sita. Sita’s is worshipped by many, and an important literary vehicle to all. The variations of stories about Mary in the Christian Bible also reflect a similar tension.

In fact, read my post here about how Ravana is viewed as noble in some versions.

It has been observations like this that has helped me to see religion myth making as a shared process across all traditions — even secular ones. Stories are always told in ways that match the desires of the story teller.



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Sir Thomas North & The Panchatantra

You have probably never heard of Sir Thomas North (1535-1604), and neither had I until recently. Among other things, North was a highly skilled translator. But he was not just known for what he translated, but North’s writing style was highly influential — even of Shakespeare. North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, for instance, was used by William Shakespeare to inform the history he used in writing several of his plays. Some scholars have called North the first master of English prose — early Modern English (illustrated here – click to enlarge the chart).

History of the English Language

North’s three most influential translation (with links to the originals) are as follows:

Note that all three of his major works are books of moral importance. And of special interest for this post is that the second, The Morall Philosophie of Doni, is another name for the Panchatantra — an ancient Indian moral text ( see my other posts here on the Panchatantra). North’s translation was the first English version of this text even if it was the translation of an Italian text — not the original Sanskrit. Indeed, none of North’s translations were from their original languages but translated from the translations of other European languages.

If you want to get a flavor of Early Modern English and the first English rendering of the Panchatantra, please take a look at the above links.  I enjoyed them. Thomas North’s works also made me reflect on how much we owe to translators, who names are soon forgotten.


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The Panchatantra: Morality via Death

Violent PanchaTantra
Westerners often romanticize the myths of other lands while belittling their own scriptures. As I wrote here, the Hindu Mahabharata has far more death than the Jewish Tanakh (the “Old Testament”).  And in this illustration I show a few of the many stories from the Panchatantra, that use death and cruelty to teach morality. Ancient writers had a different world than ours – death was always a threat.

When I first began to explore the Panchatantra, I read these stories to my daughter.  She was quick to point out how horrible all the murder morality was and didn’t want to hear any more. So now I am alone to explore this book academically. 🙂



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Hindu vs. Christian Eschatology



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My Secret Mantra

Let me share a story from decades ago when I learned a secret mantra!

The Meditation Center, Mpls

The Meditation Center, Mpls

As I explained in this post, I trained for two years at a Yoga Center in Minneapolis (now called “The Meditation Center”). After my first year, my progress had qualified me for initiation and without initiation, further training as a potential Raja yoga teacher (my track) was not allowed. Initiation was considered an honor. In the private initiation session, the teacher would whisper your secret Mantra to you, one you’d use in years to come as you strive for higher states of consciousness.

I was, as always in all my religious years, both excited and skeptical. What would this secret mantra be? Would it be all it was cracked up to be? How could it be any more than just some random Sanskrit word?

The magic, we were told, was two fold:  (1) The guru picks the words to specially match our temperament, our spiritual needs and the energy of our chakras. (2) Sanskrit is a sacred language and indeed, the sounds themselves carry a power that we can’t imagine. We were to have faith.

Dr. Arya, my  guru

Dr. Arya, my guru

I dressed well and bought some flowers and fruit as traditional gifts to my guru. I sat in meditation in a room by myself until I was called to meet my teacher.

The guru and I meditated together a short while and then he came to my ear and whispered my three secret, personal magic words — my ticket to the divine.

I worked with those words for several months. Hell, they were just words, no magic. Embarrassingly, I forget what they were: OM HRIM HUM, or something like that. Oh yeah, besides, you are suppose to never tell anyone your secret words.

The huge cognitive investment of time and money on courses, of bowing and presenting flowers to my teacher and of practicing with faith for months were not enough to help me hallucinate the magic. Sure meditation had fantastic affects of quietness and the ability to watch my mind, but no “higher consciousness”, no seeing the world as it really is. Yet I kept my disillusionment private and it would not be for several more months before I left the group.


My related posts:


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Meditation: The Good & The Hype

Having traveled in and out of meditation circles over the years, I’ve seen much hype, placebo effect and outright self-deception. I’ve also experienced some benefits, but not nearly as much as my naive, idealist mind had hoped for — as it likewise hoped for in Christianity, Acupuncture, Marxism, Homeopathy and my many other adventures. (see my other follies here)

In January 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Evidence-based Practice Center in Baltimore, MD (where I did my MPH), have done a large meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of meditation.  They reviewed 17,801 citations and included 41 trials with 2,993 participants.

Article here:  Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-beingA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. January 2014.   See this Jama article for an updated version.

Results were:

Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate SOE for improvement in anxiety (effect size [ES], 0.40; CI, 0.08 to 0.71 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.22; CI, 0.02 to 0.43 at 3–6 months), depression (ES, 0.32; CI, −0.01 to 0.66 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.23; CI, 0.05 to 0.42 at 3–6 months); and pain (ES, 0.33; CI, 0.03 to 0.62); and low SOE for improvement in stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life. We found either low SOE of no effect or insufficient SOE of an effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating, sleep, and weight. In our comparative effectiveness analyses, we did not find any evidence to suggest that these meditation programs were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with. Only 10 trials had a low risk of bias. Limitations included clinical heterogeneity, variability in the types of controls, and heterogeneity of the interventions (e.g., dosing, frequency, duration, technique).



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