Hiragana and Indic Scripts

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at EARTHLINK.NET
Tue Aug 10 09:33:22 UTC 2010

Dear Peter,

As you've discovered the orgins of the kana scripts is still disputed and

Early on, hiragana was considered a script only to be used by women; men
were expected to use kanji (Chinese characters). The idea that hiragana
primarily developed from a cursive form of Chinese characters is fairly
pervasive. See, for instance,


And legend (along with many uncritical modern works) considers Kūkai
(774–835), who established the Shingon (= tantra) school in Japan, to be
the creator of the katakana script. There is a poem, or set of gathas,
called "Iroha" in Japanese, that offer a summary of the teaching of
impermanence from the Nirvana Sutra; the poem employs the full set of
katakana, and this poem had been attributed to Kūkai who was believed to
have devised it as a clever mneumonic, but more recent scholarship has
undermined that legend. See


Note that the order of the syllabary was not always in the current order,
and that the order of appearance in the Iroha was standard for many
centuries. Rearrangement to align it with Sanskrit order might have occurred
later as Japanese scholars developed an interest in linguistics and grammar
(under German via Dutch influence) and turned to Sanskrit prototypes (via
Chinese Buddhist translations) to set this out.

You are correct that Siddham script, not Devanagri, would have been familiar
to the Japanese. The Sanskrit script studied in China and then subsequently
the rest of E. Asia was primarily Siddham. By the time Devanagri was
developed, the transmission to China had been disrupted. Kūkai spent some
time in China studying with translators (including Manichaeans), and,
because of the tantric interest in mantras and seed syllables, developed an
interest in siddham pronunciation and script (one still finds siddham used
in certain Japanese Buddhist cemeteries, etc.). That is probably why he
comes to be associated with the development of katakana.

One largely unexplored but potentially important source for both hiragana
and katakana is Chinese musical notation, especially as developed during the
Tang and Song dynasties. What started as Gongche notation ("工" gōng and "尺"
chě) using Chinese characters to represent notes, developed into a cursive
form that has many evident overlaps with Japanese kana.

On Gongche, see

For the more relevant musical notation, see

Rulan Chao Pian, _Song Dynasty Musical Sources and Their Interpretation_,
Harvard-Yenching, Harvard University Press, 1967, esp. the illustrations
following p. 42 and passim.

You may also find the following useful for tracking the history of East
Asian awareness of Sanskrit sounds and scripts:

Chaudhuri, Saroj Kumar, _Siddham in China and Japan_, a monograph published
through Victor Mair's Sino-Platonic Papers series. (No. 88, Dec. 1998).

Dan Lusthaus

More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list