Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 8#4 R.K. Joshi 1 jan 1996

The Religious World of Letterforms

Various writing systems either pictographic, alphabetic or syllabic in nature, developed in different parts of the world over different time-frames, have been associated with the spoken or written expressions of linguistic thoughts. The individual signs of such systems seem to have been taken for granted and utilized to carry out literary, linguistic tasks through the uni-directional compositions of these signs into words and linear text. The physical appearance of writing signs was evaluated only in terms of their legibility and readability, so as to help the eye to read and the hand to write.


The Religious World of Letterforms -

Yet many of these sign systems in the able hands of sensitive calligraphers or master writers reflected their inherent formal aesthetics through their well formulated structures, taking ordinary writing to the level of Art. At a still higher level, philosophies of writing have attributed certain sacred qualities to the written signs, even claiming spiritual experience through the ritualistic practice of writing.

By taking the art of calligraphy to the sublime heights of meditation through the symbolic representation of deities in the form of letters (seed-syllables), written signs not only served to help acquire a knowledge base of the physical world around the human being, but also played an important role in their spiritual and metaphysical needs (IMAGE A). Letterforms essentially aided communication with the unknown via the primal energy behind their worldly manifestations.

According to Tibetan philosophy, the written seed character (letter) is as potent as a spoken one. The most favoured and potent of all mantra - om mani padme hum, which in essence represents the breakthrough (om) of seeing the absolute (mani, jewel) in the relative (padme, lotus) (IMAGE B) beyond time, space and individuality (hum). This mantra of liberation is written on rocks, flags, and prayerwheels and is regarded as the epitome of Buddhist teachings. The All Powerful Ten, (IMAGE C) the mantra of Kalacakra, consisting of ten syllables om, ha, k-sa, ma, la, va, ra, ya-m and composed in the unique integrated fashion, is another sacred manifestation of letterforms of the highest order. In fact the written word, calligraphically written or wood-block printed, still commands maximum respect in Tibetan faith today.

Perhaps Siddham (a variant of northern Brahmi from 5th/6th Century ad India) is the only script in which letterforms have been solely used for meditative purposes, through the visual symbolism of ritualistically written seed-syllables, as a part of the practice of (IMAGE D) esoteric Buddhism in China and Japan. 'A', the seed character of Mahavairocana (Dainichi Nyorai) is the most important Siddham (meaning of the perfect) character. One look at the letter a, destroys evil passion; the efficacy of the mantra transforms this body into Buddha. For the purpose of meditation, the character is drawn large in either formal or soft style on a scroll and hung on a wall.

Sitting in front of this letter and meditating, in the process of enlightenment the distinction between worshipper and worshipped is effaced for the meditator. Many bodhisatvas have been grouped (IMAGE E) together and represented through the depiction of seed syllables including ham - a Buddha with a terrifying appearance - called (IMAGE F) Fudo Myoo. Mandalas (of geometric shapes) made out of seed-syllables as well as mantras with seed-syllables arranged in a vertical manner - to form a stupa shape are further extensions of monosyllabic mantras to serve a definite meditative purpose in esoteric Buddhism.

(IMAGE I) First, a seeker of the way must know himself - jiun.

The ritual practice of ichi (a line) and enso (a circle) is part of Zen philosophy. For Zen calligraphers, the single stroke ichi is equivalent to the 'a' of Siddham. Concentration of this stroke is of paramount importance since the first touch of the brush to the paper reveals the state of the mind of the calligrapher. The ichi has to be (IMAGE H) drawn from left to right with full strength at the beginning as well as at the end. Enso, the circle of infinity practised by Zen monks for years, is a symbol of simplicity with profoundity, emptiness with fullness, the visible and the nonvisible.

(IMAGE G) All things return to the one - hakuin.

Geometric in essence, logical in structure, the Roman calligraphy encouraged by monarchs and monasteries, and advocated by able writing masters, is seen as a culmination of well proportioned, simple letterforms; an aesthetic base coupled with utilitarian vision that contributed to the horizontal spread of written culture. At times a single calligraphic style was even declared as a 'national hand' (e.g. half uncial in Ireland). Yet the most exquisite and (IMAGE J) elaborately decorated initial letters, such as those found in the Books of Kells, are a rich tribute to the religious faith manifested within.

Islam, by contrast, saw all letters as holy expressions. In the process, their holy scripture Koran (Quran) became a symbol of holy calligraphy. Not just beautiful, but holy. In the name of God, the (IMAGE K) Compassionate, the Merciful, the invocation Bism Allah al-Rahman al Rahim known as the Basmalah, is used before chapter openings throughout the Quran, and in many styles developed by the great calligraphers such as Yakut and Wabbab. Since no idol worship was permissible in this faith, letterforms and their elaborate compositions (tughras) were used in manuscripts as well as architecture, not just as letters but as images of the highest holy order.

The tantric tradition of the Indian Hindu philosophy adopted the writing system with all its strengths in preference to the oral system of the vedic tradition for preservation of sacred knowledge. Mystic diagrams composed of geometric elements, called mandalas, and mystic formulae made out of letterforms, called mantras (IMAGE L) were two important constituents of the tantric tradition. The third dimension was added in terms of strict procedural norms of performance of worship/prayer - the rituals (tantra - techniques). Mantras in the form of syllables arranged in a mystic way through their permutation and combination schemes, would at a metaphysical level help to visualise the supreme being assuming a mantra body (mantra-sarira), rather than the physical body made up of syllables.

In this process, the gods are called the seeds (bijas) of the world and the letters are elaborated from the seeds (devanam bijanamani varnas tatra prakalpitah, p. 35 Vatulagama). It is necessary, therefore, to have a thorough knowledge of letters before the making of a mantra.

It is also believed that the letters/seed-syllables (bijaksaras) (IMAGE L1), which bear the names of gods or goddesses, form the very bodily frames of those and other gods and goddesses on which the seeker of knowledge (sadhaka) could meditate, either by drawing them ritualistically and/or by uttering them repeatedly (taddevatanam abhidhanaksaram eva taddevatanam agam bhavati, p. 80 Vatulagama).

Therefore the visual/verbal form of the syllable mantraklim, called the bijaksara of Kama and hrim, thebijaksaraof Shakti - the (IMAGE M) goddess, denoting the unity of the male and female principles, as well as srim - the seed mantra of Laxmi (the goddess of plentitude and fortune) - become bodily frames of the powers of the respective deities.

(IMAGE N) In the polysyllabic mantra - such as the gayatri, each syllable is linked not only with the deity but also with colour and a cosmic principle. In a ritual known as anga-nyasa, alphabetic symbols with cosmic sounds related to the parts of the subtle body are energised.

The chakras (lotus-shaped diagrams) as power centres in the human (IMAGE O) body have the following syllables as their central identity. Lam (Earth), vam (Water),ram (Sun energy), yam (Wind) and ham (Sky), represent cosmic elements within the body, which is itself treated as a total universe transformed into a miniature form, giving it a macro-micro identity.

Even in the tantric tradition of India, the verbal aspect and utterance details of a mantra had to be learned from gurus (teachers), along with ritualistic procedures, in order to achieve the efficacy of the mantra (thus reflecting the strong oral tradition). References are found in terms of the written aspect of the mantras on yantra diagrams. The type of material & surface to be used for yantras (gold, silver, copper, etc.), type of writing substance (plant juices, paste colours or natural earthy mixtures), and the specifications of writing tools (made out of certain trees, plants or bones) reiterate the objective of ritualistic yantra-mantra activity.

However, no strict instructions regarding the 'form' of the written seed-syllables (size, style, characteristics, grid, stroke sequence etc.) of these mantras are observed, except that the act of writing had to be carried out in total reverence and faith. Calligraphic manuals for these seed-syllables, regarding their ideal proportions and graceful yet authentic structures, are not evident on the Indian scene as a part of tantric texts. In contrast, the act of writing of these very seed-syllables acquired a high formal position in Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese calligraphy while manifesting Buddhist faith, at times to the point of distortion in the authentic phonetic structure of these mantras.

The following reasons could be considered for the lack of 'formal' calligraphic interest in writing of the seed syllables in the Indian tantric tradition.

1. Retention of the mystic profile of the tantra tradition

2. The absence of monastic calligraphers to direct the act of writing

3. The non-participation of able master craftsmen in this activity due to their caste and creed factor and the high religious context, including ritual operations, involved in the tantric practices.

In essence, it can be said that the tantric tradition in India which adopted the writing system to preserve the sacred knowledge retained the authenticity of the pronunciation of mantras along with ritualistic procedures of writing them onto the yantra diagrams. However such writings lack the visual strength and formal sensitivity of calligraphy -- which could have strengthened (IMAGE P) the spiritual experience of these mantras though the act of writing, as happened in the far eastern countries.

This background has inspired the self-taught calligrapher and author of this article to undertake calligraphic experiments to revive the integration of the phonetic and calligraphic perspective of Devanagari letterforms, to reflect the philosophical concepts which were present in the written form of the early tantric manifestations.

These attempts, called Integraphics, are aimed at a holistic approach to the act of writing of Devanagari letterforms. With this approach the rich tonality of utterances which prevailed in the oral tradition of India and the rich formal structures of sensitive calligraphic art and writing philosophy which prevailed in far-eastern countries are combined to give a multi-sensory experience using cross-cultural strengths.


designed and developed by Prof. R.K. Joshi

1. The phonetic structure of the monosyllabic mantra aum consists of three sounds, a , u, and m, with variable duration of utterance. The permutation and combination of these sounds have been interpreted calligraphically to represent the multi-directional vibrations produced by this root mantra.

2. It is observed that the mere utterance of a mantra by a devoted worshipper imbues life in the clay model of a deity (Lord Ganesha). This unique concept, though symbolic, of putting life into an object and enabling an ordinary person to perform the role of creator, is inherent in the mantra and gave rise to its calligraphic (life giving) rendering in a vertical spine-like, organic composition.

3. The reverberations created by the utterance of the monosyllabic mantra gan, has been represented by radiating varied grey levels from the essence - the core strokes of the letter gan - to establish the positive relationship (made visible) between the characteristics of the chanting of the mantra and its written form.

4. The seed-syllables representing five essential elements of the universe (earth, water, sun, wind, sky), at seed (micro) level are represented minimally with the help of their calligraphic structure. Instead of fire being depicted as 'red glowing flames' at the macro level, the stroke of ra (ram standing for fire principle) itself has turned into a symbolic flame structure, which has been further repeated in an inverted triangle which itself indicates the fiery energy in Indian Tantrism.

5. The philosophical concept of existence - non-dualism - as propagated by Adi Sankaracarya, has been rendered through a calligraphic logo of advaita (Sanskrit word meaning non-dualism), in which a single calligraphic stroke splits into two before merging into one, represents everything beginning from the 'one', which seemingly gets distinguished as two (maya). Duality, ultimately, merges into the 'one' (advaita) non-duality.

In addition to their contribution to the revival of cultural contexts, these and similar exercises in integraphics, can create a form-al awareness and structural understanding of the written word in context to the nuances of the spoken word. Their mutually beneficient relationship would be suited to exploration in modern multimedia and other interactive modes, making the assimilation of information more exciting, memorable and worthy experiences.


The Sound Waves

A calligraphic interpretation of Nada vibrations emerging from aum, through permutations and combinations of the letters a, u andm in Devanagari script.


The Spine

The worshipper instills life (jiva, atma and tejas) in the clay figure of Lord Ganesha, with the help of this mantra of pranapratistha.


The Utterance

The reverberations created by the utterance of the mono-syllablic mantra gan - visually experienced.


The Fire

The seed-syllable ram represented at micro level through the calligraphic rendering of a stroke symbolising the cosmic element 'fire', one of the five essential elements of the universe.


The Existence

The philosophy of existence - non-dualism - has been rendered through a calligraphic logo of advaita (Sanskrit word meaning non-dualism).


The Fire

The five essential elements (Earth-lam, Water-vam, Sun-ram, Wind-yam, Sky-ham) represented in seed-syllables, governing human activities and manifestations.


1. R. Shyamsastri, The origin of the Devanagari Alphabets, Bharati Prakashan, Varanasi, 1973.

2. R.H. van Gulik, Siddham, Mrs. Sharada Rani, New Delhi, 1980

3. Jayakhya Samhita, Baroda, 1931

4. Madhu Khanna, Yantra, Thames & Hudson, London, 1979

5. Yasmin Hamid Safadi, Islamic Calligraphy, Thames & Hudson, London, 1987

6. John Stevens, Sacred Calligraphy of the East, Shambala, Boulder & London, 1981

7. Mookerjee Ajit & Madhu Khanna, The Tantric Way: Art, Science, Ritual, Graphic Society, New York, Boston, 1977.

8. R.K. Joshi, Siddham Letterforms, Seminar proceedings, Indian Symbology, Bombay, 1987.

9. R.K. Joshi, Calligraphy Study of Manuscripts, Seminar proceedings, Caltis, Pune, 1983.

10. R.K. Joshi, Aksharasaaj, Seminar proceedings, Bamboo Craft design workshop, Bombay, 1993.

11. P.P. Apte & S.G. Supekar, Palaco - Calligraphical Significance of The tantric code of alphabets, Seminar proceedings, Caltis, Pune, 1983.

Illustration credits, courtesy

Source ref.

4: l, m, n, o

2: a

5: k

6: b, c, d, e, f, g, h, j, p

Integraphics: Scroll exhibitions Shreelekh (91), Shree (87), Sparsh (93) by Prof. R.K. Joshi

Captions for Images

a. The metaphysical level: The seed-syllable by the Japanese monk Chozen

b. All Powerful Ten - the mantra of Kalacakra

c. Mani stone with mantra

d. The almighty letter a

e. Thirteen bodhisatvas

f. The terrifying one: ham

g. Ichi by Juin

h. Enso by Hakuin

i. Ichi by Hakuin

j. An initiation: Book of Kells

k. Thuluth Basmalah

l. A yantra diagram with inscribed mantras

m. Seed-syllables klim, hrim, srim

n. Gayatri yantra

o. Chakras as power centres positioned in the human body

p. An Itabi stone from Japan