Chapter 4 – Syllables


1 Breaking Text into Syllables
2 Heavy and Light Syllables
3 Light Syllables and Holding
4 Tonal Accents
5 Pronunciation Goals
6 The Alphabet and the Cakras
7 Sanskrit Meters (Chanda)


Lesson 1
Breaking Text into Syllables 

For best results in pronunciation and chanting, we focus on pronouncing syllables (akṣaras) rather than words or phrases. This requires disassembling words, which can be quite long in Sanskrit. A syllable is a single sound produced by the pronunciation of one or more letters (varna), which must include one vowel. There are two steps in cognizing syllables and their meter.

1. Identifying Syllables: The first step in cognizing how to pronounce a word or phrase is to divide it into syllables. 

2. Discerning Duration: After splitting syllables we then determine which are heavy (guru, receiving two mātras) and which are light (laghu, one mātra), as explained in the next lesson. This in turn allows us to pronounce words correctly and experience the rhythmic meter built into mantras and other chants. Meter and its study is called chandas. 

Note that these rules apply to general pronunciation as well, not just to chanting.

The Basic Rules for Splitting Syllables 

  1. A syllable must have one, and only one, vowel.

In Sanskrit, two vowels never occur directly alongside each other. If two vowels come together, as when words join in a line, they are combined (by the rules of sandhi) into a semi-vowel and vowel (e.g. hi + at = hyat) or a composite vowel (ha + it = het). 

In this regard please remember that ai and au are diphthong vowels, and although they are written in Roman script as paired vowels, they are actually singular letters in Sanskrit.

  1. Every syllable must begin with a consonant if possible, but may end in any number of consonants, so long as the next syllable also can follow this rule as well (meaning begin with only one consonant). For instance, tata would be split as ta + ta, not as tat + a, and rāma splits as rā + ma, not rām + a. 
    1. A syllable can begin with a vowel if the syllable is at the beginning of a verse or half verse.

For example iti will be i – ti, or again etat will be e – tat, at the beginning of a verse or half verse. However, if these were not at the beginning of a verse, their initial vowels would always be amalgamated into the prior syllable, tam + etat + iti will be ta – me – ta – ti -ti.

  1. A syllable in the middle of a verse or half verse can begin with a vowel if it follows a consonant that is removed due to a special rule.  

For example, narāḥ + agni, by sandhi rules, will become narā agni and the syllables will split as na – rā – ag – ni. Here the two vowels of narā + agni remain as separate syllables because the consonant intervenes and then is removed due to a special sandhi rule. 

  1. When a sparśa consonant appears (a stop letter or a nasal: e.g., k, kh, c, d, t, n, etc.) after a vowel, the syllable ends with that consonant. 

This rule clarifies where the break occurs when two or more consonants fall together. For example, if we examine the word mantra without considering rule 2, we could assume that the syllable break would be mant – ra (since that way each syllable is beginning with only one consonant), but rule 3 clarifies that syllables can’t continue past certain letters, in this case the consonant n. So, the first syllable has to stop at the n, and the word is correctly split as man – tra.

  1. When an anusvāra () or visarga () appears, the syllable ends with the anusvāra or visarga.

For example saṁtrana, will split as saṁ – tra – na; not as saṁt – ra – na. Likewise for visarga , tejaḥpra is split as te – jaḥ – pra; not as  te – jaḥp – ra.

Examples

The syllables of kṛtsnam break like this: kṛt-snam—not as kṛts-nam—because of the rule that a syllable terminates with the appearance of a consonant, in this case t. It cannot also include the letter s.

Similarly, tvāmahaṁśṛṇomi is correctly divided as 

tvā-ma-haṁ-śṛ-ṇo-mi,  not as

tvā-mah-aṁ-śṛ-ṇo-mi

With practice, these rules will become second nature. 

Here are three more examples: three mantras on the left, correctly split into syllables on the right.

asato mā sadgamaya a-sa-to mā sad-ga-ma-ya

tamaso mā jyotir gamaya ta-ma-so mā jyotir ga-ma-ya 

mṛityormāmṛitam gamaya mṛityormām-ṛi-tam ga-ma-ya

Tip: don’t be misled by aspirates in transliterationKeep in mind when splitting syllables that the aspirate letters (kh gh, cha, jha, ṭha, ḍha, tha, daha), are singular sounds even though in Roman script they are made up of two glyphs. So, for instance, abha would break as a-bha, never as not ab-ha. This is obvious in Devanāgari, because each aspirate (e.g. bha = भ) is a single letter form. A-bha = अ / भ.
Exercise 5.1.1, with audio – (Audio Coming Soon!)

Go through the words below and split them into syllables according to the above rules, then check your answers with the answer key on the next page.

tatsavitur varenyambhargo devasya annamayaatattvanandikārttikeyakarmakathāmudrāsiddhāntasamādhigarbhaavidyādhyānasāyujya
Answers
tat-sa-vi-tur 
va-ren-yam
bhar-go 
de-vas-ya 
an-na-ma-ya
a-tat-tva
nan-di
kārt-ti-ke-yakar-maka-thāmud-rāsid-dhān-ta
sa-mā-dhigar-bhaa-vid-yādhyā-nasā-yuj-ya
Supplementary Video

Enjoy Swami Tadatmananda’s short discussion of meter at 9:00 to 10:21 in his video “Introduction to Vedic Chanting”  

Lesson 2
Heavy and Light Syllables

In early lessons we learned that there are short vowels and long vowels, hrasva and dīrgha

There are also two types of syllables (akṣaras): light (laghu) and heavy (guru). These two terms, like hrasva and dīrgha also refer to duration. Heavy syllables take two mātras to pronounce. Light syllables take one mātra (count) to pronounce. 

These two factors—short/long vowels and light/heavy syllables—together determine the rhythm or meter of pronunciation.

These are the main rules that distinguish heavy (long) syllables. For simplicity, we here use the terms long and short.

  • A syllable is long if it contains a long vowel.
  • A syllable is long if it ends in a consonant, it is long (even if its vowel is short).
  • A syllable is long if it ends with a visarga or anusvāra. 
  • A syllable is long if it is the last syllable of a line (even if its vowel is short) because of the slight pause given between lines of a verse.
  • All other syllables are short.

With a little experimenting you can familiarize yourself with the natural wisdom of these rules. For example, when you say a series of light syllables in a row, you will find you can pronounce them rapidly with no pause (like na na na na na). But to clearly pronouncing heavy syllables of any kind, a certain automatic pause or slow down is required (try nas nas nas… compared to na na na…).

Take the word tattva. It is split as tat-tva. if we distinctly enunciate each syllable, the heaviness of the first syllable is unavoidable. A good proof for this is to modify the spelling of the word slightly, so as to change the syllable weight. 

Thus, compare: tat + va (heavy + light), ta + tva (light + light) and tat + tvā (heavy + heavy).

Exercise 5.2.1, with audio – (Audio Coming Soon!)

You will find that distinctly enunciating each syllable is essential to good chanting. A helpful practice for learning a chant correctly is to write or type it yourself with the syllables split. Make the heavy/long syllables bold (or use a highlighter) to distinguish them from the light/short syllables. Below are three examples. Study these to see how the rules of guru and laghu are applied.

asato mā sadgamaya a-sa-to sad-ga-ma-ya

tamaso mā jyotir gamaya ta-ma-so mā jyotir ga-ma-ya 

mṛityormāmṛitam gamaya mṛityormām-ṛi-tam ga-ma-ya

prasannasyandanojjvalām pra san nas yan da noj jva lām

om bhurbhuvaḥ suvaḥ | om  bhūr  bhu  vaḥ  su  vaḥ

tatsavitur varenyam | tat  sa vi  tur  va  ren  yam |  

bhargo devasya dhīmahi bhar  go  de  vas  ya  dhī  ma  hi   

dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayat || dhi  yo  yo  naḥ  pra  co  da  yat ||

Exercise 5.2.2 

Study the words below. Break each word into syllables and highlight the syllables that are heavy/long, then check your answers with the answer key that follows. 

tatsavitur varenyambhargo devasya annamayaatattvanandikārttikeyakarmakathāmudrāsiddhāntasamādhigarbhaavidyādhyānasāyujya
Answers
tat-sa-vi-tur va-ren-yambhar-go de-vas-ya an-na-ma-yaa-tat-tvanan-dikārt-ti-ke-yakar-maka-thāmud-rāsiddhān-tasa-mā-dhigar-bhaa-vid-yādhyā-nasā-yuj-ya
Supplementary Video

For an overview of meter and syllables, watch Ramesh Natarajan’s video “Chanting Rules-03 Chandas.”

Lesson 3
Light Syllables and Holding 

Distinguishing heavy/long and light/short syllables is often done by assessing which are long, but an alternate and simpler method is to discern which are short. 

A syllable is short if and only if it ends in a short vowel (a, i, u, ṛ or ḷ). In all other cases, a syllable is heavy. 

For example, the three syllables in red in the following line are light, as they each end in a short vowel:

tat sa vi tur va ren yam. 

However, one exception is 

  • A syllable is long if it is the last syllable of a line (even if its vowel is short).

You can tell where a line ends by the punctuation. In Devanagari, line endings are marked by a single vertical line: |. The final line of a verse is marked by a pair of vertical lines: ||. These same punctuation symbols are often used in Roman transliteration as well. Be aware, though, that it is common for Sanskrit chants to be broken into half lines for ease of reading. A syllable ending a half line is not a heavy/long syllable.   

Since there are many ways a heavy syllable can occur, and just one way that a syllable can be light, you may find is easier to pick out the light syllables. You then know that all others are heavy. In practice, you may find yourself using both methods. Over time, you may hardly need to think of the rules to split syllables of words. 

Holding

When a consonant joins with a succeeding consonant (or consonants), they form a conjunct. This means that the first consonant becomes a “half letter” (as it has no vowel). For example, examine the word siddhānta. It has two conjuncts (marked in bold siddhānta): ddh and nt. These are also points of syllable division: sid / dhān / ta. 

As you learned earlier, any syllable ending in a consonant is a long syllable, meaning it is held for two mātras. This extenuation is a natural result of fully sounding the closing “half letter.” Actually, the half syllable does not by itself take up to full mātras, but the sound is lingered on briefly to complete two mātras so as to maintain meter. A common error is to rush through conjuncts and not enunciate the half letters. Thus, for example, we often hear the word siddha pronounced as if it were spelled sidha. Giving ample time to the first half of a conjunct and clearly enunciating its closing half letter is called “holding.” It is an essential feature of correct chanting.  

Advanced: Duration of Guru SyllablesIn this course, we follow the system used for mātra-based meters in which all dirgha syllables are given two mātras, equal in length to any syllable with a long vowel, as described above. That this system is well established is evidenced by the fact that the Totaka meter used by Adi Shankaracharya is set to beats and music following the rule that a laghu syllable is one count and all guru syllables are exactly two. There are also other approaches in which heavy syllables that do not contain a long vowel are given a more nuanced time for pronunciation. 
Supplementary Video

Watch Ramesh Natarajan’s “GRD Iyers-Chanting Rules-06” for more insights on holding.

Lesson 4
Tonal Accents

Tonal notes, or svaras, found in ancient Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas, guide chanters to infuse melody and poetic emphasis into the verses. The realm of svaras is highly complex. Here we introduce the four main svaras, which are found in several of the mantras presented in this course. 

Tonal Marks, Svara
NameToneMarkingExample
svaritaraised tonevertical line above syllableveda̍ / वेद॑
udātta not raisedno notationkarma / कर्म
anudāttalowered toneline below syllableya̱ / य॒
dirga svaritamiddle tone shifting to a raised tonepair of vertical lines above syllableyā̎t / या᳚त्
Advanced: Variation in the Use of SvarasThe different branches, or śākhās, of the Vedas have unique manuals dictating how they preserved perfect pronunciation. These manuals are called prātiśākhyas or pārṣadas, depending on the Vedic school they hail from. Along with a host of other pronunciation guidelines, the manuals contain the procedures that determine when and where the svaras are placed according to the rules of sandhi. 
Supplementary Videos

For a crisp presentation of the svaras, watch Swami Tadatmananda’s video:
“Introduction to Vedic Chanting” (time: 0 to 4:25 min.) 

In “Chanting Rules—08—Vedic Swaras (Krishna Yajur Veda),” Ramesh Natarajan discusses swaras at length and explains how to master them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJIH609nNPw&t=1177s

 

Lesson 5
Pronunciation Goals

  1. correct pronunciation of all akṣaras
  2. correct observance of anusvāra and visarga
  3. careful adherence to meter to keep an even rhythm throughout the chant. This is accomplished by…
    1. correct splitting of syllables
    2. attention to vowel duration (hrasva/dīrgha/pluta) 
    3. attention to guru (heavy/long) and laghu (light/short) syllables, including attention to “holding”
  4. expertise in accents for Vedic chants (dātta, anudātta and svarita, etc.)
Exercise 5.4.1, with audio – (Audio Coming Soon!)

To ensure continual improvement in your chanting, please watch Ramesh Natarajan’s video called “Tips for Practicing.”

Tip: No Syllabic Stress in Sanskrit In speaking English, stress is used to emphasize one syllable over another. For example, in the word photographic, the third syllable is stressed: /pho-to-GRA-phic/. Spoken Sanskrit does not stress one syllable over another. 

Lesson 6
The Alphabet and the Cakras

Taking the forty-eight common letters of the Sanskrit alphabet and adding the long vowel ḹ (rarely used) and the conjunct letter kṣa gives a total of fifty Sanskrit letters. The six cakras from the mūlādhāra to the ājñā have a total of fifty petals. The following is the correlation between them, given below, according to ancient texts. All the letters are written with ṁ (anusvara), denoting them as bijas. The correlation begins in the viśuddha cakra and comes down one cakra at a time to the mūlādhāra. 

Ājñā Cakra, Two Petals

Sanskrit letters: kṣaṁ and haṁ. The letter haṁ is written in white on the ājñā cakra’s left petal and represents Śiva, while the letter kṣam is written in white on the right petal and represents Śakti.

Viśuddha Cakra, Sixteen Petals

Sanskrit letters: aṁ, āṁ, iṁ, īṁ, uṁ, ūṁ, ṛṁ, ṝṁ, ḷṁ, ḹṁ, eṁ, aiṁ, oṁ, auṁ, aṁ, aḥ.

Anāhata Cakra, Twelve Petals

Sanskrit letters: kaṁ, khaṁ, gaṁ, ghaṁ, ṅaṁ, caṁ, chaṁ, jaṁ, jhaṁ, ñaṁ, ṭaṁ, ṭhaṁ.

Maṇipūra Cakra, Ten Petals 

Sanskrit letters: ḍaṁ,  ḍhaṁ, ṇaṁ, taṁ, thaṁ, daṁ, dhaṁ, naṁ, paṁ, phaṁ.

Svādiṣthāna Cakra, Six Petals 

Sanskrit letters: baṁ, bhaṁ, maṁ, yaṁ, raṁ, laṁ.

Mūlādhāra Cakra, Four Petals

Sanskrit letters: vaṁ, śaṁ, ṣaṁ and saṁ.

Exercise 5.6.1, with audio – (Audio Coming Soon!)

While listening to the audio file, read the letters of each cakra as written above. 

Lesson 7
Sanskrit Meters (Chanda)

Chandas names the poetic metering of Sanskrit chants. Most meters are based on a specific number of syllables per verse. Some meters, however, include other features, like specific combinations of light (short) and heavy (long) syllables. 

The vast majority of Sanskrit verses are written with meter. Learning about meter helps us understand the structure, rhythm and even the proper grammar of Sanskrit verses.  

There are many meters in Sanskrit, but seven are considered to be major: Gayatri, Ushnih, Anusthubh, Brihati, Pankti, Tristubh and Jagati. These seven are all syllable based, with no consideration of syllable duration. Many of these seven are found in Vedik chants, with four being most common:

Gayatri: 24 syllables (3 sections of 8 syllables each)

Anusthubh: 32 syllables (4 sections of 8 syllables each)

Tristubh: 44 syllables (4 sections of 11 syllables each)

Jagati: 48 syllables (4 sections of 12 syllables each)

Since most meters are broken into sections (and the most common meters are broken into even numbers of sections), we can use them to correctly break up long, seemingly complex lines of Sanskrit. 

Let’s look at an example, try counting the syllables in the following verse, and then continue to the next page:

    aum an-na-pūr-ṇe sa̱-dā-pūr-ṇe śa̱ṅ-ka-rap-rā-ṇa-val-la-bhe |

    jña̱-na-vai̱-rāg-ya̍ si̱d-dhyar-tha̍m bhi̱k-ṣām de̱-hi ca pā̍r-va-tī ||

This mantra is in the meter Anustubh, which has 32 syllables (the oṁ/aum is generally not counted as a syllable in mantras and verses). Though there is only a true pause in chanting when a line or double line appears (| or ||), the 32 syllables can be split into four quarters of 8 syllables for easy reading:

oṁ 

annapūrṇe  sa̱dāpūrṇe

śa̱ṅkaraprāṇavallabhe |

jña̱navai̱rāgya̍ si̱ddhyartha̍m 

bhi̱kṣām de̱hi ca pā̍rvatī ||

an na pūr ṇe  sa̱ dā pūr ṇe (no pause)

śa̱ṅ ka rap rā ṇa val la bhe |

jña̱ na vai̱ rāg ya̍ si̱d dhyar tha̍m (no pause)

bhi̱k ṣām de̱ hi ca pā̍r va tī ||

For longer meters, chanters often write them with a split at the quarter points of verses for easier reading. 

However, in the original texts, the only breaks are end of line (|)  and end of verse (|); no other visual breaks are provided. 

Exercise 5.7.1 (no audio) – (Audio Coming Soon!)

See if you can discern the number of syllables and the separate sections in the following verses. Do this by writing each verse by hand, or digitally, with breaks between syllables and reader-friendly line breaks between sections. See the following page for the answers:

gaṅge cha yamune chaiva godāvari sarasvati |

narmade siṅdhu kāveri jale-smin sannidhim kuru ||

oṁ ekadantāya vidmahe vakratuṇḍāya dhīmahi |

tanno danti pracodayāt ||

oṁ śuklāmbaradharaṁ vishṇuṁ śaśivarṇaṁ chaturbhujam |
prasannavadanaṁ dhyāyet sarvavighnopaśāntaye ||

oṁ gaṇānāṁ tvā gaṇapatiṁ havāmahe kaviṁ kavīnāmupamaśravastamam |

jyeshṭharājaṁ brahmaṇām brahmaṇaspata ā naḥ śṛiṇvannūtibhiḥsīdasādanam ||

Answers

32 syllables – sections of 8

gaṅge cha yamune chaiva 

godāvari sarasvati |

narmade siṅdhu kāveri 

jale-smin sannidhim kuru ||

24 syllables – sections of 8

om

ekadantāya vidmahe 

vakratuṇḍāya dhīmahi |

tanno danti pracodayāt ||

32 syllables – sections of 8

śuklāmbaradharaṁ vishṇuṁ 

śaśivarṇaṁ chaturbhujam |

prasannavadanaṁ dhyāyet 

sarvavighnopaśāntaye ||

48 syllables – sections of 12

oṁ 

gaṇānāṁ tvā gaṇapatiṁ havāmahe 

kaviṁ kavīnāmupamaśravastamam |

jyeshṭharājaṁ brahmaṇām brahmaṇaspata 

ā naḥ śṛiṇvannūtibhiḥsīdasādanam ||

For more on Chandas, see:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit_prosody

Here is an informative quote from the above article:
“In addition to the syllable-based metres, Hindu scholars in their prosody studies, developed Gana-chandas or Gana-vritta, that is metres based on mātrās (morae, instants). The metric foot in these are designed from laghu (short) morae or their equivalents. Sixteen classes of these instants-based metres are enumerated in Sanskrit prosody, each class has sixteen sub-species. Examples include Arya, Udgiti, Upagiti, Giti and Aryagiti. This style of composition is less common than syllable-based metric texts, but found in important texts of Hindu philosophy, drama, lyrical works and Prakrit poetry. The entire Samkhyakarika text of the Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy is composed in Arya metre, as are many chapters in the mathematical treatises of Aryabhata, and some texts of Kalidasa.”