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The bonji, 梵字, are somewhat common. Are the only used as germ letters in Japanese, as has been explained to me, or are they used to form words and other higher concepts? Is this a living language process?

On a popular level, they are used as germ letters on gravestones and t-shirts from what I understand. Is there more extensive use?

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    Sorry My short google search does not tell anything for it. What is germ letters? I think normal 梵字 can be seen, but can not be read by Japanese. And the concept is translated into Japanese Language e.g 旦那{だんな} : husband, 仏陀{ぶっだ} : Buddha. Oct 6 '20 at 23:45
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    Germ letters (although germ sounds may be more accurate) are sounds where meaning germinates from the sound. The “aum” or “om” devotional sound is probably the most common example. From what I understand the bonji germinated names of deities.
    – Ragaroni
    Oct 7 '20 at 1:11
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    @Kimi, Naruto-san provides an excellent example of germ sound meaning 大日如来, below.
    – Ragaroni
    Oct 7 '20 at 1:38
  • In English, we often say "seed letters" or "seed syllables" instead of "germ letters" or "germ sounds." The Japanese term is 種子{しゅじ} or sometimes 種子{しゅじ}真言{しんごん}.
    – Nanigashi
    Oct 8 '20 at 5:16
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You can read about the history of 梵字 here. Briefly, this script is just one of the old scripts used in India, but Japanese Buddhist monks admired it as a sacred script because many Buddhist scriptures imported to Japan were written with it. In those days, India (天竺) meant the promised end of the world. Since the 8th century, 梵字 have been used in Japan as mysterious "symbols" that represent Buddha, Gods and the "truth of the universe".

Today, only experts can read 梵字, but ordinary Japanese people do know they are mysterious characters (or "symbols") related to Buddhism and ancient Asia. Today, 梵字 are used mainly as mysterious design elements with an Asian and/or religious flavor. A T-shirt is indeed one of the places where we see 梵字 often. Asian wizards in fantasy works often use them when casting a spell. If I understand correctly, it's similar to how Western people use alchemical symbols and runic letters as mysterious design elements.

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    Are they used on gravestones or other funeral displays?
    – Ragaroni
    Oct 7 '20 at 1:13
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    It depends on the Buddhist sect, but according to several sources, the Tendai and Shingon sects carve the 梵字 character for "A" near the top of a gravestone. It represents 大日如来 on its own.
    – naruto
    Oct 7 '20 at 1:23
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    @Ragaroni I'd say no. Unlike Latin which is still a "living" language, no one needs it at work to communicate. It's been dead as a language for more than 1000 years. You probably have to find a Buddhism university, or a archaeological lab that is good at ancient India.
    – naruto
    Oct 7 '20 at 1:42
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    you can definitely study sanskrit. there are a few good programs around the world. amongst sanskritologists there are a few who specialize in the various scripts derived from the brahmi script, of which siddham is one. there are also references on the siddham script in japanese. though i wouldn’t start there; i would start by learning devanagari or the tibetan script first and then you’ll be in a position to easily decipher glyphs in siddham. regarding making sense of what’s written, i doubt you’ll have much luck. most of what’s written with siddham are dharanis, mystical syllables.
    – A.Ellett
    Oct 7 '20 at 3:11
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    broccoli is right. Siddham is not a major topic in Indian archeology. Various Brahmi scripts were used around the time as Siddham so the number of artifacts with any particular script is somewhat small. The script then became very rare in India. Scholars in Japan have been major contributors to this field for hundreds of years. A ellett, I agree, Devanagari is essential for modern Sanskrit studies, although languages like Pali have more Buddhist material. Do you have an example of siddham forming something beyond a “mystical syllable”? That would be a great answer to this question.
    – Ragaroni
    Oct 7 '20 at 11:30

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