Where Does Namu Come From?

The term “namu” shows up a lot in East Asian Buddhism, for example in devotional chants such as:

  • Namu myōhō renge kyō – Praise to the Lotus Sutra which is a Japanese chant for Nichiren Buddhism.
  • Namu Amita Bul – “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” in Korean.
  • Nam mô A Di Đà Phật – same as above, but Vietnamese.
  • Namu Amida Butsu – same as above, but Japanese.
  • Nā mó guān shì yīn pú sà (南无观世音菩萨||南無觀世音菩薩) – “Praise to Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva” in Chinese, with both Simplified and Traditional characters shown.

You can see how each language has a variation on the word “namu”: “nam mo”, “na mo”, etc.  What the heck is this?

This is actually from Sanskrit language, which I’ve been studying lately.  The original, vanilla term is namas (नमस्) which according to the Sanskrit dictionary means “bow, obeisance, reverential salutation, adoration” etc, etc.  This term is not limited to Buddhism either.  It shows up a lot in Indian culture, and even in Yoga when you say to one another “namaste”.¹

Now, here’s the funny part.  Sanskrit words frequently undergo sound changes called “sandhi”, which I’ve talked about here and here and here among other places.  This means that people don’t always say “namas this” and “namas that”.  Sandhi rules in Sanskrit allow for a sound to get ready for the next sound by changing a little to more accurately fit the position of the tongue in the mouth.

The word namas changes like so, depending on the following sound:

  • namo (नमी) if the following sound is a vowel, or a voiced consonant (j, jh, g, gh, d, dh, b, bh) or by nasal sounds (r, l, h, n, m).
  • namaś (नमश्) if the following sound is a c or ch
  • namaṣ (नमष्) if the following sound is a ṭ or ṭh
  • namas (नमस्) if the following sound is a t or th
  • namaḥ (नमः) if the following sound is a k, kh, p, ph, ś, s, ṣ or it’s the last word in the sentence.

So, for example in Buddhist liturgy to say “praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light”, the words before Sandhi would be namas amitābhāya but due to Sandhi rules become namo’mitābhāya.²  This is probably what got imported into China as Buddhism spread there.

From there, the “namo” was translated using suitable Chinese characters that phonetically sound the same.  In this case: 南無 which even today in Chinese is pronounced nāmó.

But also since Chinese and Chinese Buddhist liturgy were imported into other neighboring countries and given more local pronunciation. The Chinese characters would have been the same, but every country would read/pronounce them slightly different.

Thus “namo” became “namu” in places like Korea and Japan, but still “namo” in Vietnamese.

¹ Technically, namaste is a Hindi word, not Sanskrit, but Hindi is clearly derived from Sanskrit. The easiest way to understand this is that Sanskrit is to northern-Indian languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, etc) what Latin is to Western-European languages (French, German, English, Italian, etc).

² The apostrophe is because the “a” of the second word gets dropped.  This is a special rule in Sanskrit where aḥ/as + a changes to o ‘ .  Why?  It just does.

Sandhi Rules Are Kicking Me In The Pants

I am currently on Lesson 10 of my Sanskrit language textbook, and getting pretty immersed in the Sandhi rules that govern how one word blends into another. The rules are actually very sensible changes that allow the last sound of a word to “get ready” for the first sound of the next word. Not all words undergo sandhi changes, but there are a lot of rules that govern the ones that do. The textbook I use explores these rules over several lessons to give students time to master one rule at a time. Here’s a simple, but painful example.

Anyhow, imagine I want to say “you are beautiful”. The word for “beautiful” is sandaraḥ (सन्दरः) and the singular nominative of “you” is tvam (त्वम्). Thus, grammatically, you can either say “you beautiful are”:

त्वम् सन्दरः असि
tvam sandaraḥ asi

Or, in Sanskrit, you can shorten this to “beautiful you”:

सन्दरः त्वम्
sandaraḥ tvam

The second form is often used because the “to be” verb is often understood. But now I have to apply sandhi rules to make it more natural sounding.

First, the “aḥ” at the end of the first word runs up against the “t” of the second word. According to sandhi rules, the “aḥ” followed by a “t” becomes an “s” in this case:

सन्दरस् त्वम्
sandaras tvam

But as part of Sandhi, words often combine too, unless the first word ends in a vowel (including ṃ and ḥ) and the second is a consonant.1 So, now we have to combine the words into:


Thus if you want to flatter a lady in Sanskrit, this is what you would say, and how you would write it.

1 I am still not 100% clear when words combine and when they don’t, but the use-cases seem to be:

  • Consonant + consonant = combine
  • Vowel + vowel = combine
  • Consonant + vowel = combine
  • Vowel + consonant = not combine

Amitabha Buddha in Early Indian Buddhism

While continuing my read of the book Bones, Stones, And Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers On The Archaeology, Epigraphy, And Texts Of Monastic Buddhism In India, I was struck by a certain passage regarding an inscription where the Buddha Amitabha is mentioned.  The book explains that the inscription was made in the 26th year of King Huveṣka (Huvishka), which is roughly 166 C.E. by a layperson of some wealth. The inscription is said to be the “earliest, indeed the only, reference to the Buddha Amitābha in Indian inscriptions and is, therefore, one of the few hard facts we have concerning this Buddha and his cult in India proper”. (pg. 39)

The inscription reads (translations by author above):

bhagavato buddha amitābhasya pratimā pratiṣṭhapita buddha pūjāye

“[an] image of the Blessed One, the Buddha Amitābha, was set up for the worship of the Buddha”.

Then ends with:

imena kuśalamulena sarva(satana)anuttarajñānaṃ prātp(i)m (bha) (va) (tu)

“through this root of merit may there be the attainment of supreme knowledge by all beings.”

I find this really fascinating for a few reasons:

  • It definitely reaffirms that the existence of Amitabha Buddha in India was very sparse until the 2nd century C.E.
  • The fact that northern India at this time was ruled by the Kushan Empire out of Pakistan (and not a native Indian empire) suggests that this could have been imported from outside of India.  The layperson above is described as belonging to a family of merchants, caravan traders and bankers.  So, it’s likely had travelled to and from other parts of the Kushan Empire.
  • Also, the fact that inscription was made in reference to the reigning king at that time further suggests influence from the Kushan culture.

Further, the Kushan Empire was originally Zoroastrian, though it later became Buddhist under King Kanishka (Huvishka’s predecessor).  This definitely lends credence to the old theory that Amitabha had origins outside of India, or at least borrowed from Zoroastrian culture.  Perhaps local traditions mixed with imported iconography from Persia, but the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism¹ suggests that iconography of Amitabha Buddha in the Gandhara region, the heart of the Kushan Empire, predates anything in India proper.

Interesting stuff.

¹ I am the lucky owner of a copy.

Sandhi Rules and Sanskrit

My studies of Sanskrit language have continued and I am now, as of writing, have reached chapter 9 of my textbook.  However, things are definitely getting more uphill now as we’ve reached the dreaded “sandhi” (संधि) rules of Sanskrit.

Sanskrit, like nearly every language in the world, has sound changes that naturally happen when certain sounds come together.  This is a natural human phenomena to reduce friction in spoken language, but also influences written language as well.  In the case of Sanskrit, this joining of sounds, and changing is called “sandhi”, but the term sandhi has been expanded in linguistics to apply to any sound changes in any language.

Anyhow, sandhi rules in Sanskrit are particularly complicated.  They make a lot of sense when you get the hang of them, but getting used to all the myriad rules takes a lot of time.

Some rules are kind of straightforward, such as vowel endings.

For example, when certain vowels come together, they either merge or just morph into a different vowel.  For example:

अत्र अश्वः atra aśvaḥ (here horse)

The “a” at the end of the first word, followed by the “a” in the second word, would merge to become ā:

अत्राशवः atrāśvaḥ

Notice how the word gets merged in the process. This commonly happens in Sanskrit, hence the words look super long, but in actuality it’s a multiple words combined together.

The vowel sandhi rule above is not too bad, though.  It gets more complicated with consonant endings and such.  For example:

रामः गच्छति rāmaḥ gacchati (Rama goes)

changes to:

रामो गच्छति rāmo gacchati


रामः तिष्ठति rāmaḥ tiṣṭhati (Rama stands)


रामस्तिष्ठति ramastiṣṭhati

Further, sandhi rules aren’t limited to word endings. For example “n” will sometimes become ṇ if preceded by an “r” or ṛ as in:

गजः (gajaḥ, the elephant) ->
गजेन सह (gajena saha, “with the elephant”)

पुत्रः (putraḥ, the son) ->
पत्रेण सह (putreṇa saha, “with the son”)

…but wait! There’s more!

Anyhow, the key to learning Sandhi rules is to see them in practice. Memorizing the rules is nearly impossible because they’re so complicated, but if you see enough examples of sandhi rules in action, then things tend to make intuitive sense.

It takes some patience to get used to it, but over time, you’ll see how sandhi rules smooth out awkward sound combinations in Sanskrit and make it such a lovely language to read and speak.

Sanskrit Misuse in Buddhist Teachings

This is why I do it. This is why I study Sanskrit:

Buddhist books and their authors sometimes like to give themselves an air of legitimacy by sprinkling in ancient Sanskrit phrases but the usage of sanskrit in this paragraph is unfortunately incorrect

Case in point, the original Sanskrit phrase of the nembutsu (namo amida butsu) is actually namo’mitābhāya (नमाेऽमिताभाय) not Namo-Amita-Buddha. Second Namo does not mean “I put my trust in”, etc. The word is variation on namaṣ (नमष्) meaning “praise” or “hail”.2 That’s why people say “namaste” in Yoga classes in such: you’re greeting/praising the divinity in the other person.

Also, for clarity, the phrase for “to trust or take refuge in” is śaraṇaṃ gam (शरणम् गम्).1 There are probably other words too but I am not aware of them.

So the actual translation of namo’mitābhāya is “Praise to the Buddha of Infinite Light” not “I entrust everything to …”. The translation provided has an overtly sectarian bias that ordinary readers would miss. In any case this translation is simply incorrect.

I would encourage anyone who is spiritual or religious to learn the ancient language of your tradition whether that be Koine Greek for Christianity, Hebrew for Judaism, or Arabic whatever. Don’t blindly believe what religious leaders tell you. Be skeptical, and validate for yourself.

1 Hence when taking refuge in the Three Treasures people say buddhaṃ śaraṇaṃ gacchāmi, etc.

2 Sandhi rules, or sound-shifts in Sanskrit, is a topic for another post.

Typing Sanskrit in iOS

In my ongoing studies of Sanskrit, I ran into a problem of how to type Devanagari script on my iPhone or keyboard. I just couldn’t figure it out. Copy and pasting is really inefficient and I want to be able to post details in the blog or maybe make flashcards. 

Then I found this wonderful blog post online:


The gist of the article is that you should install the Hindi keyboard with the standard Devanagari mode. This lets you type Sanskrit too because it’s the same alphabet. 

The keyboard looks like it’s missing a lot of letters but the trick is to hold down the keys and other options will appear, like so:

So for example the word “moon” in Sanskrit is candraḥ. In Devanagari this is written as चन्द्रः. But how did I type that?

On the Hindi keyboard I typed च न ् द ् ः  The keyboard is smart enough to then combine them into the right cluster shown above. 

… and now you know too!

P.S. Holding the म (ma) key will also allow you to type ॐ the Aum/Om symbol. 

Learning the Devanagari Script

Sanskrit practice using Devanagari script

As part of my recent studies of the Sanskrit language, I am learning how to write Sanskrit using the Devanāgarī script. Devanagari is not the way Sanskrit was originally written. In fact, it has no “native” script as such.¹ But Sanskrit is most frequently written in Devanagari script.

The Devanagari script is used across many languages in North India.  According to the Wikipedia article linked above, it is used in over 120 languages in India,² so it is a useful thing to learn.

So how does Devanagari work?

Like English and other western languages, it is written left to right.  Typically, only consonants are written, with vowels modifying them.  For example, “g” if it is written without any vowels is pronounced as “ga” (guh) by default.  But if modified by a vowel, then it obviously changes.  So, “g” by itself is ग but if modified with “i” becomes गि which is pronounced “gi”.  There are a few edge-cases where the modified consonant looks different than the original, such as त्र (tra) which is त (ta) with an “r”.  But these combinations aren’t too common, and even then they are very consistent.

Sometimes vowels are written by themselves too, such as ए (e) इ (i) and so on when necessary.

Also, words in Devanagari are connected at the top by a horizontal line, which spacing between words, just like English.

Anyhow, Devanagari is not immediately useful for my long-term goals, but it is needed for this textbook, and is a fun thing to learn anyway.

Learning the script isn’t easy since it’s more complicated than, say, English alphabet, but the advantages of Devanagari is the broad range of sounds (so it fits many languages), and the way it explicitly presents every sound in the language.  Compare this to English where “o” can be pronounced many ways: old, operation and so on.  In other words, Devanagari requires more work upfront, but is a practical, precise and beautiful writing system.

Anyhow, I hope to post more about it as my studies continue.  🙂

¹ Ancient Sanskrit writings often were written in one of a number of Brahmi scripts, including Siddham which is still used in Japanese esoteric Buddhism.  It was also preserved in Karosthi script along the Silk Road as well.  However, Devanagari has long since replaced these and hence it is the standard now.

² The very fact that India has so many languages is amazing by itself, since it is about the size of Europe.