27 August 2010

A Pāli Pun.

In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27.22) we find some interesting material on the Buddhist attitude to class prejudice. [1] We need to be clear that this not an objective historical record, it is a document which is meant to convince us of a particular view, or perhaps persuade against one. However the fact that the Pāli texts recall the kinds of insults that Brahmins aimed at Buddhists suggests that there is some veracity in the texts since they would probably not make up insults for themselves, nor preserve them. Some Brahmins saw the samaṇa as having taken on the status of śudra - the lowest of the four classes, though not the lowest level of Indian society since one could be outcast. Note that 'Brahmin' is an Anglicisation of the Sanskrit brāhmaṇa usually adopted to avoid confusion with the texts of the same name. Here a former Brahmin convert called Vāseṭṭha who has converted to Buddhism recounts the kinds of insults he receives from Brahmins:

brāhmaṇova seṭṭho vaṇṇo, hīno añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇova sukko vaṇṇo, kaṇho añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇāva sujjhanti, no abrāhmaṇā. Brāhmaṇāva brahmuno puttā orasā mukhato jātā brahmajā brahmanimmitā brahmadāyādā. Te tumhe seṭṭhaṃ vaṇṇaṃ hitvā hīnamattha vaṇṇaṃ ajjhupagatā, yadidaṃ muṇḍake samaṇake ibbhe kaṇhe bandhupādāpacce.

Brahmins are the best class, the other class is defective (hīna). Brahmins are the pure [white] class, the other is impure [black]. Brahmins are the offspring of Brahmā's mouth, born from Brahmā, created by Brahmā, the kin of Brahmā. Having deserted the best class you have accepted the class that fails to measure up, with these baldy, petit-ascetic, menials, blacks, offspring of Brahmā’s feet! [DN 27.3, D iii.81]
Note the use of hīna in this context to describe the śudra class, and then hīnamattha which I've rendered 'fails to measure up' and does literally mean 'lacking a full measure'. The word for both 'pure' and 'white' is sukka; while the word for 'impure' and 'black' is kaṇha. The insults muṇḍaka 'bald' and samaṇaka 'ascetic' are in a diminutive form that is hard to capture in English - elsewhere they have been rendered "shaveling little ascetics". The last three terms (which can also be read as "menial, black offspring...") are often used of śudras. Indeed the reference to "Brahmā's feet" is an allusion to Ṛgveda 10.90 The Puruṣa Sūkta. [2] However I think the idea would have been a cliché (or indeed an insult) by the Buddha's day, so it doesn't necessarily suggest familiarity with the Ṛgveda itself. These are insults that only a Brahmin could use. In looking for contemporary parallels I suggest that the language of white racist abuse is on a par with the passage above. However projecting contemporary attitudes and understandings backward onto the texts is an uncertain enterprise at best.

The Buddhist response in the Aggañña Sutta is a lengthy satire on Brahmanical cosmogony and views on the origins of the four classes that employs a series of puns. The funniest one is at DN 27.22 where the Buddha remarks that: ‘They don’t meditate’ (ajhāyaka) is the meaning of ‘brahmin student’ (ajjhāyaka).

However I want now to focus on the first of the puns in this section. It is less obvious, less amusing, but offers some interesting reflections on the history of Budddhism.
Pāpake akusale dhamme bāhentīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘brāhmaṇā, brāhmaṇā’ tveva paṭhamaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ. [D iii.93-4]
They ward off evil unwholesome things, Vāseṭṭha, [hence] they are ‘Brahmins’. This is the first pun produced.
The word akkharaṃ literally means 'constant', but also 'letter, sound'. Hence it is used as the name of the Vedic science of phonology - the sounds of the letters being the constants of language and having a greater significance, even at an early date, than we assign to our letters. It is only a guess but I think that it suggests 'pun' here - a play on words based on similar sounds. This makes more sense in view of the following discussion.

At first glance there is no pun in the passage quoted. However brāhmaṇa is a Sanskrit form. In Pāli consonant clusters like 'br' get resolved in various ways, e.g. the Sanskrit term śramaṇa becomes samaṇa in Pāli. This suggests that the form of our word should be bāhmaṇa, and indeed Richard Gombrich notes that this form is found in some of Asoka's edicts. [3]

In his work An Outline of Meters in the Pāḷi Canon Ānandajoti notes that the conjunct br in brāhmaṇa regularly fails to “make position”, i.e. it fails to cause the preceding syllable to be metrically heavy. However, it does regularly make position medially. This suggests that brā was frequently treated as , at least for the purposes of meter.

If bāhmaṇa (possibly bāhmana) was the form then we do have a pun with bāhenti 'they ward off'. [4] This kind of sound alike etymology is called nirutti (S. nirukti) and relies on verbal roots having phonetic similarity. [6] The verb bāheti is said by PED to be a causative from bahati or a denominative perhaps related to Sanskrit bahis 'outward', which is also the opinion of Edgerton in BHSD. The root of which is obscure. Though John Brough thinks it unlikely [5], the root may be √vah 'carry' - there is a regular confusion of 'b' and 'v' in Indic languages [see note 4]. This idea that Brahmins have avoided or warded off evil is consistent with Brahmins claiming to be sukka - pure/white - but it also reflects the Buddhist notion that a Brahmin is a Brahmin because of their conduct, not because of their birth.

There are a number of texts in Pāli, Sanskrit and Gāndhārī which make use of this same pun - I'll highlight the key terms in italics, and add hyphens to compounds to help clarify the connection. At MN 39.24 (M i.280) we find:
Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu brāhmaṇo hoti? Bāhitāssa honti pāpakā akusalā dhammā...
And how is a bhikkhu a brāhmaṇa? They have warded off evil unskilful mental states…
Again, in the Dhammapada, verse 388:
bāhita-pāpo’ti brāhmaṇo, samacariyā samaṇo’ti vuccati
pabbājaya attano malaṃ, tasmā pabbajito’ti vuccati.

Brahmin means ‘evil put aside’, we call the calmly living ‘samaṇa’.
Putting aside his own impurity, he is called ‘gone forth’.
We have several versions of the Dhammapada. In the Gāndhārī language version of the Dharmapada [7] the parallel verse (DhpG 1.16) runs:

brahetva pavaṇi brammaṇo
samaïrya śramaṇo di vucadi
I refrain from attempting to translate, but these words are not so different from the Pāli (pavaṇi = pāpa). The 'r' in brahetva is probably an anomaly since it is not found in either the Pāli or Sanskrit versions. John Brough (who edited the GDhp) notes that it may have been "artificially introduced to buttress the pseudo-etymology of brāhmaṇa, if this arose originally in a dialect which assimilated br- of the latter word", but overall he is doubtful about deriving P. bāheti from √bah or √vah and links it to √brah or √barh. [8] However if we derive the verb from the same root as brahmaṇa (actually √bṛh) then the verb means 'to strengthen' and the sentence means the opposite of the parallels - i.e. that the Brahmin is one who strengthens evil. So we can probably conclude that the Gandhāran composer understood that this was a pun, and because in their dialect brāhmaṇa is spelt brammaṃa, introduced an 'r' into the verb to preserve the pun. Though it is strange that they should do this and obscure the meaning. Gāndhārī baheti is also listed as equal to P. bāhetvā in Stefan Baums and Andrew Glass (preliminary) Gāndhārī Dictionary, so we know that the 'r' is not required in that dialect.

Another version of the Dhammapada survives in a Sanskrit text which is called Udānavarga (UV 11.15)
brāhmaṇo vāhitaiḥ pāpaiḥ
śramaṇaḥ śamitāśubhaḥ
Note that UV has vāhita like the variant Pāli, and consistent with Sanskrit usage of the verb. In turn this leads us to two parallels from the Pāli Udāna:
Yo brāhmaṇo bāhita pāpadhammo (Ud 1.5)

He is a Brahmin who avoids evil states

Bāhitvā pāpake dhamme, ye caranti sadā satā;
Khīṇasaṃyojanā buddhā, te ve lokasmi brāhmaṇā 'ti (Ud 1.6)

Having avoided evil states, they always behave mindfully;
With fetters destroyed and awake, they are called brahmins in the world.
Max Müller (in his Dhp translation) notes another occurrence of our phrase in the (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit) Lalitavistara:
…trailokya-brāhmaṇaṃ bāhita-pāpakarmāṇaṃ bhikṣuṃ

...the three-worlds' Brahmin with evil deeds cast aside is a bhikṣu [LV 22.5]
Note that LV follows the Pāli in using bāhita. I've made no attempt at an exhaustive search, these are just the examples that come easily to hand. But still we have a number of passages which work together to show that at some point this pun on bāhenti/bāhmana must have been reasonably common, and have made sense - i.e. that the two words bāhetva/bāhita and bāhmaṇa shared the syllable bāh. We would have expected Pāli to preserve the pun since bāhmana is the natural form of that word in Pāli. Since it did not we have something of a mystery.

One possible conclusion is that the spelling was deliberately changed - and that this change affected not only the Pāli, but also the Buddhist Sanskrit usage. In turn this suggests that LV emerged in a milieu that spoke a dialect closely allied to Pāli, though UV did not since it uses the form vāhita. The change from bā > brā involves a Sanskritisation which suggests a Brahmin influence, since at the time Sanskrit was the sole preserve of the Brahmins, and yet it occurs precisely in the context of satires on Brahmanical beliefs. Madhav Deshpande has pointed to passages in the Lalitavistara Sūtra that indicate the "increasing prominence of Brahmanical elements within Buddhist traditions". [9] Perhaps Brahmin converts were able to live with the canonical criticisms of their former faith/culture, and in any case could not erase them because it would be noticed; but they retained enough pride in their heritage to correct the spelling of their former social class across the whole canon?

Another possibility is that though the original dialect used bāhmaṇa, Pāli had brahmaṇa as a loan word directly from Sanskrit by the time the texts were translated into Pāli. The Gandhāran translator must have had (or heard) a text in the original dialect to see the pun, and make the unusual change they did. There is some linguistic evidence to suggest more than one wave of Indo-European speaking people moving into India, and that those who wrote the Vedas and built the Brahmanical culture may not have been directly connected to the earlier (or perhaps later) wave that moved much further east more quickly. This might allow for brāhmaṇa to be a new word to those in the East. But that is a complex argument, and this is now a long post. However one important point to follow up would be to locate the Asoka use of bāhmaṇa geographically, and compare this to the most recent deliberations on the comparison of Pāli and the Asokan dialects.

~~| This is Rave no. 200 |~~

  1. There are some structural features which suggest that the text is not in it's original form, especially the sudden transition between verse 9 and v.10. My guess is that a verse has been lost which should introduce this part of the text. However some have seen it as two separate texts. It is true that the narrative stops at v.8 (v.9 is standalone and may not have originally been in this position) and is resumed at v.27. However v.23 references v.4 linking the two. A verse which introduced the cosmogonic story would have been expected (cf other similar texts such as D.3, D.26 where the change is signalled). It is not hard to skip a verse when copying a text. This sort of thing is impossible to prove however.
  2. The Puruṣa Sūkta mentions the Sāmaveda and Yajurveda written 500-600 years after the probable date of the Ṛgveda ca 1500-1200 BCE, so it must have been added to the Ṛgveda after this time. This is still well before the Buddha's days. For a discussion on sūkta/sūtra/sutta see: Philological Odds & Ends I.
  3. What the Buddha Thought, p.224, n.8. The earliest reference I have found to this theory is Müller, F. Max. The Dhammapada : A collection of verses being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Translated from pāli By F. Max müller . Oxford, the Clarendon Press [1881], p.liv (online text). However Müller himself cites a German ethnographical study published in several volumes from 1866-68 so it may go back a few more years. (Note the Pali Text Society was founded in 1881.)
  4. In the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana edition of the canon the verb is spelt vāhenti rather than bāhenti. This confusion between ba and va is widespread and partly due to phonetics, and partly because the characters have always been similar in Indic writing: cf Devanāgarī: ब व. The two verbs unusually have slightly different senses in Pāli, and the va spelling further obscures the pun.
  5. Brough, J. The Gāndhārī Dharmapada. P. 178, n. 1.
  6. For which see my Yāska and his Nirukta, and Yāska, Plato and Sound Symbolism. For sound symbolism generally see Magnus, Margaret: What's in a Word? Studies in Phonosemantics. Unpublished PhD Dissertation; and her popular website Magical Letter Page. Magnus has shown that words which share an initial phoneme are indeed more likely to have overlapping semantic fields than words which do not. A growing body of evidence is challenging the Saussurian dictum that the "sign is arbitrary" which is the paradigm from which mainstream linguists see Yāska, and dismiss the value of nirukti etymologies as "fanciful".
  7. Gandhāra was in the Northwest of India - what is now the Taliban stronghold in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several caches of texts from that region dating from the first couple of centuries common era in a language which has been called by modern scholars after the region. This and the next passage are from: Ānandajoti Bhikkhu . A Comparative Edition of the Dhammapada with parallels from Sanskritised Prakrit edited together with A Study of the Dhammapada Collection. (2nd revised edition July, 2007 - 2551). Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  8. Brough, as for note 5.
  9. Deshpande, Madhav. Sanskrit & Prakrit, sociolinguistic issues. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1993, p.9.
  10. See for instance Deshpande, Madhav. 'Genesis of Ṛgvedic Retroflexion: a Historical and Sociolinguistic Investigation.' in Deshpande, Madhav M and Hook, Peter Edwin (ed.s) Aryan and Non-aryan in India. The University of Michigan, 1979. esp p.261ff.
image: Brahmin from www.kamat.com
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