04 December 2009

Aspects of the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra I

Siddhaṃ writing on palm leaf from 11th century Nepal. A section of the Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpārimtā Sūtra
In my annotated translation of the Hundred Syllable mantra I tried to convey what the Sanskrit text of the mantra was and how it might be translated [1] - I did this in such a way as to open up the meaning and allow anyone to produce their own wording. There is a lot more to say about this mantra. Here I want to look at why the mantra might have been misread to produce a garbled version.

Tantric Buddhism is generally agreed to have begun in the 7th century in India. It continued to develop until Buddhism died out in India, and long afterwards in the surrounding nations of Bhutan, Ladhakh, Nepal and especially in Tibet. Having been conveyed to China and the far east, this stream of transmission (and back transmission) was cut off with the demise of the Silk Rd, and the collapse of the Tang dynasty in the late 9th century. Some scholars see the much earlier dhāraṇī tradition as being "proto-tantric", but this is like saying that flour is proto-cake.

Tantras were on the whole composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, with the exception of the Kālacakra Tantra which was composed in Classical Sanskrit. BHS is an inflected vernacular language which has been modified to be more like Sanskrit. This was a general trend and even Pāli has been Sanskritised to some extent. My view is that mantras are also in BHS rather than Classical Sanskrit - the -e ending on so many words being not, as many scholars assume, a feminine vocative, but a masculine nominative singular. [See words in mantras that end in -e].

Writing during this time was somewhat different to present day. The script in widespread use in Northern India at the time is known by several different names but is now generally called Siddhaṃ (perfected) or Siddhamātṛka (matrix of perfection). A version of this script, adapted for writing with a Chinese calligraphy brush, is preserved in the Chinese Tripiṭaka for writing mantras - even when they are also transliterated into Hanzi. The Tibetan script dbu-can (pronounced Uchen) was designed on an early model of the Siddhaṃ script. In the latter part of the Tantric period the script which is now often no referred to simply as Sanskrit, but which is more correctly called Devanāgarī (City of Gods) began to supplant Siddhaṃ.

A feature of texts of this period is that syllables were not grouped into words, but written individually with little or no punctuation. In order to read a text like this one had to have a very good knowledge of Sanskrit word endings. Here is the Vajrasattva mantra written as it might have been in the 10th century in Devanāgarī:

Some of the mistakes that crept into the Vajrasattva mantra over time, or perhaps even all at one time, seem to me to be the result of misreading rather than mishearing. Note that Tibetan writing is open to the same kinds of difficulties in reading. Take this segment for instance:
व ज्र स त्त्व स म य म नु पा ल य = va jra sa ttva sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya
As I noted in my translation there are several ways to clump the syllables into words. The first four naturally form the name of vajrasattva. But this leaves sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya. If we are versed in Tantra but not so much in Sanskrit we might be attracted to the word samaya. Because this is a mantra we may not be expecting formal grammar, so we might take that as a unit. This leaves us with manupālaya. This is not well formed Sanskrit, but it has familiar parts (exlpained in my translation). I can't say how often as a neophyte Sanskritist I have fallen into a similar trap. The problem is that when a word ends in -m and the next word begins with a- the two are combined into a single syllable ma for the purposes of writing. So sa ma ya ma nu pā la ya is actually samayam anupālaya 'uphold the agreement'. In spoken Sanskrit this error would be less likely to occur.

A more crucial error in reading occurred further along.
स र्व क र्म सु च मे चि त्तं श्रे य कु रु = sa rva ka rma su ca me ci ttaṃ śre ya ku ru
This phrase is at the heart of the use to which the mantra is put - the purification of karma. Let me review what I think may have been the procedure for understanding this based on my own experience of reading an unfamiliar Sanskrit text. Keep in mine that we know this is a mantra and mantras seldom follow grammatical rules so we're not expecting to see grammar. Several familiar words stand out: sarva (all), karma (action), cittaṃ (mind) kuru (make). This leaves some bits and pieces. Some thought shows that śreya is related to the word śrī, and that me is 'me' or 'mine'. We're left trying to explain su ca. Suca (often spelt sucha to avoid the confusion on how to pronounce c in English) isn't a word, but it is similar to words related to √śuc 'to gleam' figuratively 'to clean or purify'. The basic form is śocati, past-particple śukta, infinitve śuktum, 2nd person singular imperative śoca. Close enough for a mantra. So sarva karma suca me by this process means 'purify all my karma'. And cittaṃ śreya kuru means 'make the mind more śrī'.

In fact su goes with sarva-karma to give the locative plural sarvaskarmasu and the ca is the copulative particle 'and'. Sarvakarmasu ca means 'and in all my actions', and the rest me cittaṃ sreya kuru means 'make my mind more śrī'. Śrī has a very broad range of meaning and I chose 'lucid' because that conveys the sense of light which underlies śrī as well as being an auspicious state of mind.

Well formed Classical Sanskrit sentences do not just form at random. The chances of taking any series of syllables, gathering them into clumps, and finding sentences is vanishing small. Garble is far more likely, and more commonly encountered in mantras. This means that the best explanation is that the formal Sanskrit we find in the mantra when we fiddle with word breaks is very likely the original text. Given that the mantra was composed in Classical Sanskrit it suggests that it may well be from the same milieu that created the Kālacakra Tantra.

A corollary of this is that the mantra only gained its association with the purification of karma after it had been garbled and that this was not the original use of the mantra. [2] Not only that, but the way the message is garbled suggests to me that the mantra was passed on without an explanation at some point, and then later on an exegesis was composed based on the mis-read rather than a mis-heard Sanskrit text. Indeed I wonder whether the text was passed on in written form because an oral tradition would have preserved the Sanskrit rhythms of speech that would have made this kind of mistake quite unlikely. I would imagine that this did not happen on Indian soil.

This finding of the original text, and my conjecture about it, creates a significant tension with the received tradition which revolves around purification of karma. In my next post on this subject I will explore some implications of this tension, and look at the theme that emerges into the foreground when the spurious reference to purity is removed: samaya.

  1. In my translation I relied heavily on notes by Dharmacārī Sthīramati aka Dr Andrew Skilton published privately as: Sthiramati (aka Andrew skilton). 'The Vajrasattva Mantra : notes on a corrected Sanskrit text'. Order Journal. vol.3 Nov. 1990.
  2. In this article Sthiramati makes it clear that a great deal of work remains to be done on the history of this mantra. Several fragments appear in other contexts for instance. I don't have the resources to carry out this research but perhaps someone else will one day (it might make a good dissertation).
Related Posts with Thumbnails