Siddham: The Forgotten Buddhist Script

Taken at Kawasaki Daishi temple (Shingon sect) in 2017. This is the Sutra Hall. Notice the Siddham script on the left plaque (with pronunciation guides) and Chinese characters on the right.

In the past, I have dabbled in learning Sanskrit, which is an ancient Indian language, and the foundation of many other modern languages. Sanskrit is to South Asia, what Latin is to western Europe.

Sanskrit is a tricky language though. Speaking from limited experience, it has many grammatical similarities to Latin and Greek (hence they’re all included in the Indo-European language family), but Sanskrit feels like an older language compared to the other two, which is saying a lot. The nouns have 8 declensions compared to 5 in Latin and 4 in Greek, plus it still uses dual-case which was obscure even in ancient Greek times. By the time Latin rolled around, much of this was “smoothed out” and simplified, and Latin in turn has been smoothed out and simplified across the centuries into what we know now as French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, and so on. But that’s all a story for another day.

The other issue with Sanskrit is the writing system. Actually, systems. Greek and Latin both derive their writing system from the Phoenicians, and these largely did not change. Sanskrit has gone through multiple, separate writing systems, some also descended from the Phoenicians via Aramaic, and each one has its own complex history. Many of them are also gone now, lost to the ages.

Nowadays, Sanskrit is typically written in the beautiful Devanagari script, which is also used in Hindi and many other modern north-Indian languages to various degrees. Devanagari gradually replaced alternative Sanskrit writing systems centuries ago. This also happened roughly around this time that Buddhism died out in India,1 thus you practically never see ancient Buddhist texts composed in Devanagari. Instead, they appear in other, older scripts like Karoshthi based on Aramaic (as in what Jesus spoke natively!), Brahmi script (used by Emperor Asoka), and so on. But one such script still survives, not in India, but in Japan: Siddham script locally called bonji (梵字).

Siddham is preserved in Buddhist texts, but especially in esoteric Buddhist mantras and other practices, particularly in older Japanese Buddhist sects such as Tendai and Shingon. This was the time when esoteric Buddhism was all the rage in Tang Dynasty China, and contacts with India via the Silk Road were still alive and well thus allowing teachers from Central Asia to come and teaching local students. Most other, later Buddhist sects in Japan use it sparingly or not at all because their approach is not really esoteric in nature (Pure Land Buddhism, Zen and Nichiren).

But Siddham shows up in other places too. If you look carefully you can also see it in the Marvel movie Dr Strange:

The Book of Cagliostro

Here’s an example “stamp” from my pilgrimage book (more on that in a future post) which shows a mix of Japanese calligraphy and Siddham characters:

The stamp above is from the temple of Zojoji Temple in Tokyo, Japan, one of two head temples of the Jodo Shu (Pure Land) sect. Note the red stamp in the middle with the Siddham character hriḥ 𑖮𑖿𑖨𑖱𑖾 2 which I believe is symbolic of Amida Buddha (the primary devotion in Pure Land Buddhism).

Another example is a stamp I got at a Soto Zen temple named Toyokawa Inari:

This temple, which has an unusually esoteric flavor for a Soto Zen temple, uses Siddham letters in the stamp (red letters in the middle) in the form of a mandala or something similar.

Here’s a couple Youtube videos on how to write Siddham script. I like these videos because they show a simpler, more straightforward way of writing Siddham compared to the flowery, flowing calligraphy used in esoteric Buddhism. This makes it more suitable for writing on paper with a pen, not using an ink brush.

Siddham is something you’ll likely see in Japan, but it’s fascinating once you realize that this writing system from India for composing Sanskrit is now only preserved in far-flung places like Japan even after it has died out in its homeland. It’s a fascinating, often forgotten piece of religous-linguistic history.

1 For this reason, modern textbooks on Sanskrit are good for teachings the grammar of Sanskrit, but not how to read ancient Buddhist texts: the writing system doesn’t match, and culturally the books tend to focus on translating the vast corpus of Hindu literature, not Buddhist literature despite the common origin.

2 in HTML Unicode: & #x115ae;& #x115bf;& #x115a8;& #x115b1;& #x115be; with no spaces between the & and # … yes 5 characters required because it comprises of “ha”, followed by the virama mark which cuts off the subsequent “ra” to form an “r”, and finally the long “i” followed by the two dots (visarga marks). I didn’t say it was easy, but it’s totally doable if you take the time to learn HTML and Unicode and then just apply Siddham Unicode numbers to it.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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