“Proper” pronunciation of this word is not a matter of phonetics, but a matter of bhava. The word is properly pronounced only when it springs from a platform of unmotivated, intense love for the be-named, Krishna. Therefore the proper pronunciation of “Krishna” would be stammering, stuttering, and choked with tears.
In the meanwhile, however, phonetic accuracy is one way (of many) by which I can make the practical endeavor to say “Krishna” with actual devotion. It’s particularly interesting to me that “Krishna” is a difficult word to pronounce correctly, and to say it correctly actually tires out my tongue and requires significant effort. I think that is a wonderful opportunity because the whole purpose of saying the word “Krishna” in the first place is to make an effort to please Krishna through an expression of devotion and love. The fact that I need to make a concerted effort just to actually pronounce the word is a great coincidence (?) allowing me to render service to the name of Krishna simply by the act of attempting to say it!
The meaning of the word, well one meaning of the word “Krishna” is derived from karsha or some similar Sanskrit root-word, which refers to “gravity,” the force of attraction. Krishna is the all-attractive being, and the word itself seems to force my tongue into a position something like a magnet, and in pronouncing it accurately I feel intuitively the root meaning of “Krishna / Attractive / Magnetic.” He is the most attractive, magnetic of all personalities, as is the sound of his name.
The first letter here is क which we represent in the latin alphabet as “ka.” This much is rather simple. The “K” sounds is more or less uniform across all languages, so there is little confusion about how to pronounce the initial consonant in Krishna.
The sound itself “K” depicts refined power.
In Sanskrit each letter is a syllable, a combination of both vowels and consonants. In “Krishna” the first syllable (the first Sanskrit letter) has the consonant “K” (क) but not the default vowel. The default vowel for Sanskrit letters is the short A (“uh”). This is not the first vowel in the word Krishna. Instead the first vowel in Krishna is quite odd to modern languages. It is the letter R pronounced as a vowel instead of a consonant!
In other words, it is not an “R” that shapes another vowel (i.e. a consonant), it is an “R” that is itself a vowel. “Run” is a word where R acts as a consonant. See, it shapes the next vowel, “U”. But “Urn” is a word where R acts as a vowel. The “UR” sound at the beginning of the word urn is very nearly exactly what the Sanskrit vowel “R” is supposed to sound like.
Scholars represent the R-vowel in diacritical marking as “ṛ”. In the original Sanskrit alphabet it looks like ऋ when it stands alone. This only happens when it is at the beginning of a word. All other times, vowels are always tied to consonants in the Sanskrit system of writing. See the curvy but on the bottom right of the letter ऋ? That is the part ( ृ) that shows up when it connects to other consonants. The first syllable in Krishna’s name is कृ – written diacritically as “Kṛ”
How do I pronounce कृ / Kṛ?
I start with the simple K sound, then start to say the word urn but stop before I get to the final “n”, without making make a big huge deal out of the inital “u”. My tongue starts to curl at this point.
The word Krishna really has only two syllables. That means that if I put my hand on my jaw when I say it, I feel my jaw move two and only two times. “Kṛ” is the first syllable and “ṣṇa” is the second syllable.
What’s a syllable? It is a vowel sound decorated with consonants. In the first syllable of Krishna the vowel is “ṛ” decorated by the “K”. In the second syllable, the vowel is “a” decorated by “ṣṇ”.
So now lets talk about this mysterious “s” with a dot under it.
Sanskrit has three types of “s” sounds! The first is a clean s. “Clean” means there is no breathiness to it at all, it is just the pure hissing s. “Soon” has such an s in it. “Someday” too. The Sanskrit letter for this clean s is स. In diacritic script it has no fancy markings, just a plain old “s”. This is not the “s” in the word Krishna.
The other two Sanskrit “s” sounds have breathiness and “hush” to them. In the first type, I produce the hushiness at the top of my mouth, putting my tongue flat against the roof of my mouth and saying “s”. That letter is श or ś and is common in modern words like “should” and “sugar.” (aint English just nuts?) That is also not the sound of the “s” in Krishna.
The third Sanskrit “s” sound has the hush vibration made not at the top of my mouth but at the bottom. I curl up my tongue so that the top of it lightly touches the top of the inside of my mouth, forcing the main bulk of my tongue to the floor of my mouth. With my tongue in that position, if I try to say “s” I get the perfect third Sanskrit “s” written as ष or ṣ. This is the “s” in the word Krishna!
That deep “s” sound immediately joins to an “n” sound, but it is not a plain vanilla “n”. It is an n with a dot under it! “ṇ” or ण.
There are even more varieties of “n” in Sanskrit than there are varieties of “s”! But lets skip the Sanskrit lesson and get right to Krishna’s n, the one with the dot under it. The way I pronounce this one is the same way I pronounce the “s” with the dot under it (or actually any letter with a dot under it): I curl my tongue so that its tip is on the roof of my mouth and the rest of it on the floor, and then I say the letter – in this case “n”.
I just had my tongue curled up to make the “s” so I just keep it in that position, don’t move it anywhere, while going straight to the “n” sound.
The ṣ and ṇ are decorations for the vowel of the second syllable of Krishna’s name: the “a.” Oh my what a plain and simple letter!
Well, really there are two varieties of “a” in Sanskrit – one is “long” (ā or अा standing alone). The second is “short” (a or अ). The long a sounds like “ah” – like when you finally figure something out and exclaim, “ah! I get it!” The short a sounds like “uh” – like the vowel in the English word “dug” or “uh, I don’t get it.”
Krishna has a short a, not a long one.
To say the whole word, I first pronounce the first syllable: I start with the hard K showing that Krishna is powerful and strong. Then I immediately curl up my tongue and will leave it in that position for most of the rest of the word. This curl shows that Krishna is attractive, and generates a magnetic space that pulls us in. With the curled tongue I pronounce the R vowel, “KuR” going lightly on the U sound.
Then I move to the second syllable, my tongue still attracted, still curled, pronouncing the S and the N with my tongue in that position, before I release that position and pronounce the the final short a. “KuRSHNuh.”
Godhead will manifest before my very eyes the moment I pronounce this word correctly for the first time. The correct pronunciation involves hair standing on end, tears pouring down my face, and my voice stammering, stuttering and choking up in my throat. These emotions result naturally and spontaneously from loving Krishna and wanting him to appear before my very eyes so that I may say or do or express something to make him feel the joy of my love for him.
Along the path of cultivating those sincere emotions, I am going to pay attention at least now and then to the phonetics of how to say “Krishna.” That in itself may be an act of devotion that will quicken the pace of my rising spiritual emotions and please the one who is so named, Krishna.
Thank you for reading,
Vraja Kishor das / Vic DiCara