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Devanagari: Sanskrit's Illumined Script

by Katyayani Poole, Ph.D.

Ram NamiPortrait of a Ram Nami Rapt in the Name of God

(Photo courtesy of Ramdas Lamb, Ph.D. For more on the Ram Nami community, see his site RamNam)

"Our own body is a vibrating mass of sonic shapes, in the form of a perfect geometry. The devanagari letters just give us a glimpse into the sublime beauty of its arrangement."

Several Decembers back, I found myself traveling by open jeep through the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, India’s largest and least developed state. On pilgrimage (under the guise of my Ph.D. dissertation research) to the source of the holy Narmada River, I had to traverse through many thick jungles, unpaved roads, and up steep inclines to get there.

And through regions, my driver warned me, populated with man-eating tigers!

I didn’t have the chance to encounter one of these magnificent cats, but I met instead some really colorful characters along the way. In particular, one group of people who call themselves “Ram Namis” (“Those Rapt in the Name of God”) made a deep impression on me.

These people express their devotion to God by tattooing the name of Ram (in Sanskrit) on their bodies, writing it on their clothes, and decorating the walls of their home with it. And they spend hours and hours each day chanting “Ram, Ram” as well. In these ways, they hope to completely saturate themselves with the presence of the Divine -- from skin to soul.

This practice is in imitation of Lord Ram’s best devotee, Hanuman, who when questioned if he really had any faith in God, tore open his chest to reveal the name of Ram permanently etched on his heart.

Likewise these villagers believe that by tattooing their entire bodies with the letters of Ram’s name, they become one with him. This is, in part, due to the power of the Sanskrit letters written in the devanagari script.

Devanagari, meaning “light” or “divine” (deva) and “city” (nagari), refers to the system of writing Sanskrit that is most common. The word translates as “City of the Gods,” or more loosely, “The Container of Divine Light.” Because of its precision, beauty, and depth, the Vedic sages coined this term to describe the special way Sanskrit would be captured in script.

Furthermore, the devanagari letters are the outer symbols that express the intercommunication between gods and humans. Used to adorn temple walls, tablets, and even the body itself (as in the case of the Ram Namis), the Sanskrit letters both attract the gods to earth and inspire humans toward their divine nature.

Writing the Sanskrit letters is a special form of meditation called likhta japa (repetitive writing meditation). The order of the strokes especially trains the mind to recognize specific flows of prana through the body.

It's also held that the shapes of the script have a kind of musical quality to them, like Western musical notation, that conveys the movement of sound itself.

And although much of this knowledge is lost to us in the modern age, the shapes of the letters are believed to replicate all the spiritual and terrestial forms of the universe.

So a mantra, or sacred sound byte, like “Ram” induces meditation not only through our sense of hearing, but our sense of sight as well. The sounds form the shapes and the shapes embody the sounds.

Our own body is a vibrating mass of sonic shapes, in the form of a perfect geometry. The devanagari letters just give us a glimpse into the sublime beauty of its arrangement.

 

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