19 February 2010

Philogical odds and ends II

philologyMany words have interesting stories associated with them. This is a second set of terms which have caught my eye as having some interest, but which did not rate a whole post on their own.

In this entry: cakravartin, cintāmaṇi, yoniso manasikara, pāramitā, etymology.

Sometimes translated as "Universal Monarch". Cakra is used for anything which goes around: a chariot wheel, or a potters wheel, but also more abstract concepts like the wheel of time, the way the universe cycles through periods. Varta is from √vṛt 'to turn', but the present form vartate can simply mean 'to be'. Related words in English are 'versus', and 'weird' (from wyrd 'that which comes'). The -in suffix is a possessive so vartin means 'one who turns'. A cakravartin, then, is 'one who turns the wheel' The image here is of the wheel of the monarch's war chariot - typically with two eight spoked wheels - rolling over the territory of his enemies (or indeed over his enemies). This is one of many royal terms that were taken over by śramaṇa groups presumably in order to enhance their prestige - just as military or business leaders nowadays have a "mission" statement, when originally it was the Jesuits who coined this term (from the Latin mittere "to send"). Another related example is the term jina (conquerer). Jina was an epithet for the leaders of the Jains. The term Jain is in fact an Anglicisation of jaina from the collective form of jina. Jina was also taken up by Buddhists. The very term dharma also has royal overtones. These associations were pointed out by Patrick Olivelle in several articles. (See Dharma - Early History)

This word is usually translated as 'wish fulfilling gem' but literally means gem (maṇi) of thought (cintā). Maṇi is usually translated as 'gem' but can apply to all kinds of precious objects; it also has anatomical uses (the head of the penis; the clitoris). Cintā is from the verbal root √cint 'to think' (and probably related to √cit 'to perceive'; whence citta 'the mind'). I'm still unsure of what the significance or connections are, though its use is not restricted to Buddhist texts. The word cintāmaṇi is also found in Indian alchemical texts, for instance, where it may represent something like the philosopher's stone. There is a related term found in some tantric sādhanas which is cintācakra which likewise is translated as the 'wish fulfilling wheel, but literally means 'wheel of thought'.

Yoniso Manasikara
This phrase is typically translated as "wise attention" but a glance at it suggests that this is more of an interpretation than a translation. Manas is of course 'mind'. Kara deriving from the verb √kṛ 'to make, to do'. Manasikara is a rare 'syntactical compound' where the the first element is in an inflected form. Manasi is a locative - the location of the verb action. So manasikara means 'doing in the mind', i.e. thinking or imagining. Yoniso comes from yoni - meaning 'womb' or 'vagina', but figuratively 'origin'. The -so suffix is another relatively rare form, the 'distributive' adverbial ending making yoniso mean 'according to the origin'.

Richard Gombrich (What the Buddha Thought) suggests that the original intent here is something like directing the mind towards origins, i.e. paying attention to the conditions for the arising of something, especially consciousness. We could translate it as 'thinking about origins'. Of course it is wise to do this kind of reflecting since it can result in understanding (jñāṇa) the nature (dharma) of experience as becoming (yathābhūta).

Thanks to Dayamati (Prof Richard Hayes) for pointing out the Manasikara is a syntactical compound - see comments.

For another take on this word see: (yoniso) manasi karotha. on the Theravadin blog.

Pāramitā is a key Buddhist term. We probably know well enough what it means. However the derivation is complicated (though similar for Pāli and Sanskrit). The the verbal root is √pṛ which has two basic senses: 1. to bring over, to bring out (and therefore to deliver, rescue etc); and 2. to surpass, excel, the utmost. From this root we get the adjective para (also spelt pāra) meaning 'beyond, remote, other etc'. The superlative form of this is parama 'furthest, remotest etc'. The feminine abstract noun from parama is pāramī 'perfect, complete' - it's not clear in my sources why para- becomes pāra- at this point, though my sources seem certain about the route of derivation, and pārama is not in the dictionary. Then pāramita is the abstract noun derived from pāramī (with the suffix -ta), and the feminine gender form is pāramitā and means 'a state of perfection' or 'completeness' - hence we say that prajñāpāramitā means 'perfection of wisdom' meaning a state in which wisdom is perfect or complete. In Pāli pāramī and pāramitā are synonyms. A folk etymology exists which derives pāramitā from pāraṃ 'beyond' + itā 'gone' giving 'gone beyond' (in the feminine gender also) with -ṃ + i- > mi. Conze uses this etymology in his book Buddhist Wisdom Books (p.78) perhaps because it is the standard Tibetan etymology.

Yes, even the word etymology has an etymology. It comes from Greek etymon 'true sense' and logos 'something said, topic of discourse, reasoning' so means the 'true sense of what is being said'. Of course the meaning of words, what they refer to, can change drastically over time: 'terrific' was not a good thing originally because it's original sense was 'terrifying'. And the idea of there being an absolutely 'true' meaning of a word is inconsistent with how words are actually used (in every language). But often the etymology combined with contextual information can help us to unravel what an unfamiliar word means.

When ancient Indians were presented with unfamiliar words - as is quite likely to happen when studying the Vedas for instance - they did not have dictionaries to consult and so if their knowledge of words and grammar failed them, they resorted to comparing the unfamiliar word with roots that sounded alike - being aware that the phenomenon of 'clustering' makes words with the same initial phoneme likely to be related in meaning. This procedure was formalised in India ca. 4th century BCE by Yaska in his work Nirukta. Plato was also aware of this phenomena (see his Cratylus dialogue) and in contemporary times the study of phonosemantics investigates it. A further interesting little fact is that the Japanese word for mantra - shingon 真言- means true (shin) words (gon).

See also
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