11 July 2008

Dhāraṇī - origins, meaning, and usage.

The word dhāraṇī is a characteristically Buddhist term at times synonymous with mantra, and at others seeming to have it's own special significance. In this short essay I want to examine the word, and the main ways it is used.

The word dhāraṇī, according to Edgerton's dictionary of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, does not occur outside of texts written in BHS. This point is sometimes summarised as "does not occur outside of Buddhist texts", but Edgerton's point is more specific and that specificity has some possible consequences. We need to be aware here of the shifting and uncertain nature of BHS. BHS is in fact a Prakrit language that was in the process of being Sanskritised. By which we mean a vernacular North Indian dialect was being regularised in it's grammar to conform to the ideals of linguistic form represented by Classical Sanskrit*. As such BHS shows considerable variation in grammar and spelling especially in the area of inflections - the suffixes added to words to indicate the grammatical relationship between them.

Buddhist texts cover a spectrum:

  • Texts written in relatively pure Prakrits (the Gāndhārī texts for instance),
  • Texts written in Pāli, a somewhat artificial "church language" constructed from several Prakrits.
  • Texts in which the Prakrit has begun to be Sanskritised
  • Texts in which the process of Sanskritisation is well advanced
  • Texts in more or less pure Classical Sanskrit (e.g. Aśvaghoṣa's Buddhacarita)
In fact there is a word in Sanskrit - dhāraṇa. It means, according to Monier-Williams:
"holding, bearing, keeping (in remembrance), retention, preserving, protecting, , maintaining, possessing, having".
This is so close to the uses of our word that I am somewhat surprised that the literature supplies no argument for distinguishing the two terms. Remember in BHS spelling is variable. In Tibetan the word is frequently translated, again according to Edgerton, as "gzuṅs, literally, "hold, support". This suggests that the Tibetans understood dhāraṇī to by synonymous with dhāraṇa. My linguistic knowledge is not sufficient to press the point, but it seems so obvious that I wonder why no one more qualified has not dealt with this issue.

Jan Nattier suggests that the earliest use of the term dhāraṇī occurs in relation to the Arapacana Alphabet (Nattier : 292) - now known to be the alphabet of the Gāndhārī Prakrit. This alphabet, uniquely in India, was used as a mnemonic device, a kind of acrostic where each letter stood for a keyword, which then became the subject of a phrase. By the time of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (ca. 2nd century) this technique was being used as a memory aid for a meditation on aspects of śunyata. From this usage we find the word dhāraṇī associated with mnemonic devices - many writers insist the dhāraṇī is always a mnemonic device. However a glance over some of the many dhāraṇī's preserved in, or as, texts will quickly make this identity much less certain. Most dhāraṇī apparently have no mnemonic features, i.e. they do not appear to stand for other things. They do employ many of the prosodic features of poetry in order perhaps to help them be memorable, but they do not seem to, as some authors would have us believe, "summarise the text to which they are attached". More often a dhāraṇī bears no apparent relationship to a text, even when it is strongly associated with a text - as in the very prominent case of the Heart Sūtra where interpretations of what the mantra means are as numerous as are commentaries on the text. That there is no consistent exegetical tradition associated with any of these dhāraṇī only serves to confirm this impression.

Like mantras dhāraṇī come in a variety of forms. In early Buddhist texts markers at the beginning such as 'oṃ' or 'namaḥ samanta buddhāṇāṃ' are missing. dhāraṇī can be strings of words, frequently all with the same grammatical ending (usually the feminine vocative). An example from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra is:
Anye manye mane mamane citte carite same samita viśānte muke muktame same avishame samasame jaye [kṣāye] akṣāye akṣaīne śānte samite dhāraṇī ālokabhāshe pratyavekṣāṇi nidhiru abhyan taranivishṇe abhyantarapāriśuddhi utkule mutkule araṭe paraṭe sukāṅkṣaī asamasame buddhavilokite dharmaparīkṣaite saṃghanirghoshaṇi [nirghoshanī] bhayā-bhayaviśodhani mantre mantrākṣāyate rule rutakauśalye akṣāye akṣāyavanatāye [vakkule] valoda amanyanatāye [svāhā]. (Bunnō : 329) **
Such strings make frequently use of poetic devices such as alliteration, repetition, and often make use of phonetic variations on a theme. These are clearly visible in the first line of the dhāraṇī above. Alternatively they may be strings of syllables which do not make words. Again from the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka:
iti me iti me iti me iti me iti me ni me ni me ni me ni me ni me ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe ruhe stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe stuhe [svāhā]. (Bunnō : 331)
Here the effect is of repeated sounds, which to my ear suggests some kind of sound symbolism. On a Buddhist online forum one member suggested that they represent coded coordinates for some object like a stupa, but as far as I know this is pure speculation. Though the argument is similar to ones made by Subhash Kak about codes in the Ṛgveda.

Another kind of dhāraṇī reads like a poem or prayer to a particular deity. These are more like the Vedic mantra in literary character - here we could translate dhāraṇī as "hymn" just as many Vedic scholars do for mantra. These dhāraṇī are part of an extant Buddhist tradition which is rooted in Pure Land ideas: chanting the dhāraṇī invokes the saving power (or vow) of the Buddha or Bodhisattva, delivering the chanter either from some immediate misfortune, or ultimately from the suffering of saṃsara altogether.

One oddity of the way the word dhāraṇī is used is that it can be both the means to the goal, and the goal itself. One chants a dhāraṇī in order to be protected or gain insights; however some texts talk about the acquisition of dhāraṇī as one of the results of the Bodhisattva's practice. The Lotus Sūtra deities offer dhāraṇī to be memorised and chanted for protection, while the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā has the Bodhisattva attaining dhāraṇī : in this case dhāraṇī almost seems to be synonymous with samādhi, and note that this is sometimes how the word dhāraṇa is used in the Upaniṣads (see for example Deussen : 389f)

It is frequently assumed that dhāraṇī, and the Pāli paritta texts, are simply precursors to mantra. However I'm not convinced that there is a continuity here. Some of the popular dhāraṇī texts did end up being considered to be "kriya tantras" by later Tibetan exegetes, but there is nothing in the content of these dhāraṇī, nor in the context in which they occur, to suggest that they function like mantras in the Tantric sense. This identification has lead some scholars, for instance Robert Thurman, to argue for very early dates for Tantric texts, when other evidence makes it seem very unlikely.

A more thorough exploration by a qualified scholar is eagerly awaited, although I am not presently aware that any scholar of Buddhism is taking an interest. I speculate that a closer analysis of the evidence will reveal a more subtle interplay of religious ideas and impulses at work, and make it clear that dhāraṇī and paritta are not in origin at least, simply mantra by another name. The word dhāraṇī came into play in a time and place of innovation: in the 1st-2nd centuries in Gāndhāra, under foreign rulers (the Kuṣans), during which period also the first images of the Buddha were made, and the Mahāyana began to be mainstream. However it was quickly taken up by the Buddhist world - new ideas appear to have spread quickly at this time, perhaps due to extensive trading networks. The term then appears to have undergone a process of evolution over several centuries until the advent of Buddhist mantra proper, probably in the 7th century, when it was subsumed under that rubric. Traditional explanations of what makes dhāraṇī distinctive lack this historical perspective, while contemporary accounts have jumped too quickly to the conclusion that similarity equals sameness.

  • * Where I do not qualify it the word Sanskrit will mean specifically Classical Sanskrit from now on.
  • ** Square brackets in this and the next quote indicate that the author has reconstructed the Sanskrit original from a Chinese text, and it is speculative. Note there is a Sanskrit text but it is very late and not necessarily more accurate.

  • Bunnō, K. et al. 1986. The threefold Lotus Sutra : Innumerable meanings ; The lotus flower of the wonderful law ; meditation on the bodhisattva Universal Virtue. Tokyo : Kosei Publishing.
  • Deussen, Paul. 1906. The philosophy of the Upanishads. (trans. by Geden, A. S.) New York, Dover Publications, 1966.
  • Nattier, Jan. 2003 A few good men : the Bodhisattva path according to 'The inquiry of Ugra' (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.

image: dhāraṇī in the Siddhaṃ script, calligraphy by Jayarava.
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