AMONGST THE DIFFICULT and obscure terms we Buddhists inherited from our Iron Age Indian predecessors, papañca is one of the most intriguing. Papañca is an interesting case study of a concept which, despite being rendered in English relatively easily, remains very difficult to understand. In this first of two essays I will look at how to translate this word, while in the second I will look at what the word means in context.
It's become common to translate the word as 'proliferation'. I followed this practice myself in 2009 when commenting on the Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, aka the Honey Ball Sutta (Proliferation). Bodhi's translation was based on a manuscript translation by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli. However in choosing to renderpapañca as 'proliferation' he says that he was influenced by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda (see Middle Length Discourses p.1204, n.229). Other translators and scholars have chosen a range of terms:
- I.B. Horner: obsession
- F. L. Woodward: difficulty (obstruction)
- Nyanaponika: diffuseness
- Thanissaro: objectification
- K.R. Norman: diversification
- Sue Hamilton: making manifold
The Pāli Text Society Dictionary (PED) derives the word papañca (Skt prapañca) a root √pac or √pañc 'to spread', which forms stems with a nasal giving. This root is included in Pāṇini's Dhātupāṭha, unfortunately it is not included in Whitney's Roots. Monier-Williams Dictionary lists "pac or pañc 1: to spread out, to make clear or evident." (p.575a) and it seems at first glance that our word is generated from this root. The underlying metaphor, if this is correct, is analytical: separating things out in order to make plain what is there. Sometimes when objects are all jumbled up we cannot see what's what, and so we separate them in order to allow the differences to be clear. Hence the double meaning of separate and clarify. Lexicographers have seen papañceti as denominative verb, i.e. a verb derived from the noun papañca. The root is more nominal than most, and indeed there do not appear to be any other words which derive from this root. Which suggests that the traditional etymology may be wrong. In the Sanskrit grammatical tradition, from at least the time of Patañjali the word prapañca is used to indicate specifying the instances which come from a general rule (lakṣana) or the expansion of that rule into examples. It is used in this sense in the Vyākaraṇamahābhāṣya.
If we look at the semantic field ‘to spread’ then there is a Proto-Indo-European root *pet ‘to spread’ which comes into English in words via Latin (via French): expand, pan, pass, past, and spawn; via Germanic fathom, and compass. From this root we see in Greek πετάννῡμι (petannumi) ‘to spread out sails’; in Avestan paθana- (pathana) 'wide, broad'; and in Swedish panna ‘forehead’. It’s clear from other branches of the Indo-European family that the second consonant is quite changeable. However the Sanskrit cognate based on Avestan paθana would be √prath ‘to spread’ (with forms prathate, pṛthu, prathana). This is the only possible alternative I have been able to locate.
Richard Gombrich derives papañca from pañca 'five' and suggests that it should mean "quintuplication" (What the Buddha Thought, p.205). He notes that in some texts (e.g. Mahābhārata) the world evolves from "primal unity" into sets of five, for example the five sense, the five great elements. There are in fact a large number of sets of five in Sanskrit literature, and these become much more prominent in Tantric literatures where they are arranged in layered maṇḍalas with four cardinal points and a centre. The symbolism is often that the four are synthesised in the central fifth, and that the maṇḍala itself represents the whole universe. Tantra in particular looks for homologies between these sets of five. The problem, as Gombrich notes, is that we find no evidence of the Sanskrit prapañca being used in Vedic texts early enough for the Buddha to have known about them. However the evolution into sets of five is a theme in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and other Upaniṣads without using the word prapañca. As mentioned Pāṇini records the root √pac/pañc and he lived about a generation or two after the Buddha. The suggestion is that although the word is coined around the time of the Buddha, the concept is somewhat older. I think Gombrich is on the right track and would like to offer some refinements to his theory.
The PIE root of the numeral five is *penkwe, from which Vedic páñca derives and gives us Sanskrit pañcan and Pāli pañca. The PIE numerals have remained remarkably stable across the Indo-European language family, e.g.
German : fünf (Germanic languages substitute /f/ for /p/ - known as Grimm's Law)
Monier Williams offers a clue to the meaning of papañca/prapañca when he notes that pañcan 'five' means 'to spread out the hand with its five fingers'. That there would be a link between the number five and the five fingers is not surprising. Indeed PIE *penkwe, also means finger, and this link is present in Germanic and Slavic languages. The word fist is also related in West Germanic languages (English, Dutch, German) via *fungkhstiz from PIE *pngkstis, and in Slavic languages.
However note that :
That the relationship between five and finger is not present in Sanskrit is a weakness of this line of reasoning. However other words are preserved in archaic forms. For example the standard Sanskrit word for heart is hṛd. The word śraddhā preserves a form more closely related to PIE *√kred 'heart'. PIE /k/ regularly becomes /ś/ in Sanskrit. Once in Sanskrit śrad then undergoes another change to hṛd which is used in all other circumstances except the semantic field of ‘trust’. That the change came later is shown by the Avestan zərəd- ‘heart’, and zraz-dā- ‘believe’ (= Skt. śraddhā = Latin credō). I’m proposing, somewhat speculatively, that a parallel process occurred with pañca in connection with fingers.
If this is true then rather than simply 'quintuplication' (i.e. multiplying by five) the underlying metaphor is one that draws on the physical facts of the hand: the five fingers emerge from the hand; one can spread the fingers and separate them to make them distinct. In English we sometimes call the fist a "bunch of fives". Opening the fist makes it clear if something is held in the hand or not – the open hand is a universal gesture of greeting. The hand supplies us with the physical experience of unfolding to reveal complexity (five from one), and at the same time clarity (empty hand, spreading the fingers). This explanation is consistent with the theories of metaphor put forward by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, namely that metaphors derive from how we physically interact with the world.
The suffix pa– (Skt. pra–) is related to the Latin prefix pro-, and has two main senses: 'forward motion', and by association 'intensification'. So on face value the words papañca means 'to spread forth, to expand out'. From this we can see that ‘proliferate’ suits the etymology reasonably well. Indeed there is some similarity in the etymology since 'proliferate' comes from Latin prole 'offspring' which itself derives from PIE pro– 'forth' + *al 'growth'; prole is combined with ferre 'to bear' and therefore prolific means 'bearing offspring'. Proliferation produces a range of conjugations: proliferating, proliferated, which allow us to produce good English translations. Norman’s choice of ‘diversification’ is fine. The meaning is quite similar, though for reasons I cannot specify, I feel that ‘proliferation’ captures something of the dynamic quality of the process under consideration. The popularity of Ñāṇananda’s influential essay Concept and Reality in Early Buddhism has helped ‘proliferation’ to become a standard (I have a copy on order and it will be interesting to see if we agree!)
This leaves us to explain the alternatives, and give some reasons for rejecting them. "Diffuseness" means spread out in the sense of dispersed, and this just seems wrong. The translators who choose variations on "obsession" or "hindrance" seem to be following the Pāli commentaries which equate papañca with the kilesas. For example the commentary on the Papañcakhaya Sutta (Udāna 7.7) by Dhammapala says:
"Passion is a proliferation, aversion is a proliferation, confusion is a proliferation, craving is a proliferation, view is a proliferation, and conceit is a proliferation."This ties papañca into the various kinds of hindrances to progress on the Buddhist path, or the unskilful kinds of thoughts that obsess the unawakened, and suggests to many translators (especially before Ñāṇananda) an interpretative translation, i.e. they try to translate the concept rather than the word. Thanissaro does similarly with "objectification". This procedure is not wrong by any means, but my preference is to translate the word, and essay the concept separately. The main advantage of this approach is that our word is used in slightly different ways, and the more conceptual translation--especially Thanissaro’s "objectification"--do not always make for felicitous English, such as his "objectifies non-objectification" in the Koṭṭhita Sutta (4.174).
In the next essay I will look at various suttas in order to see how this word is used in practice in a Buddhist context.