31 January 2014

Dharma-niyama in the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya

The term dhamma-niyama (Sanskrit Dharma-niyama) has taken on increased significance in the Triratna movement over the last few years since Saṃgharakṣita, through Dharmacārī Subhūti, informally published his more recent thoughts on the five niyamas (pañcavidha niyama) as an intellectual framework for understanding Buddhist practice and doctrine (See Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma July 2010).

In our discourse one now frequently hears reference to "the dhamma-niyama" in the place that used to be occupied by phrases drawn from German Idealism, such as "the Transcendental" and "the Absolute". Saṃgharakṣita himself has backed away from use of these phrases and suggests that his use of them was misunderstood. In which case it seems that in reifying the term dhamma-niyama (indicated by the use of the definite article) we have once again misunderstood him.

Just before Saṃgharakṣita published his new ideas on the niyamas, however, a side discussion was started up in the order by my friend and colleague Dharmacārī Dhīvan. Dhīvan circulated a long essay "Sangharakshita, the Five Niyamas and the Problem of Karma" (2009), which argued that Saṃgharakṣita's use of the term niyama was in fact an innovation and not based, as was claimed, on a traditional interpretation. He showed how the idea of the niyamas developed from the 5th century commentarial literature where it first occurred, through the interpretative lenses of Ledi Sayadaw and particularly C. A. F. Rhys Davids. The latter was an influence on Saṃgharakṣita in many ways. Dhīvan argued that though Saṃgharakṣita was largely drawing on Rhys Davids, his doctrinal innovation was both justified and necessary, and indeed successful, in responding to the concerns of his followers. The niyamas teaching is authentically Dharmic, just not traditional. One of the main differences of opinion was the meaning of the word niyama.
"However, according to my understanding of the Pāli language and the Theravādin commentarial tradition, the word niyama does not mean what Sangharakshita or Subhuti take it to mean, and Sangharakshita’s list of five niyamas is a creative re-interpretation of Mrs Rhys-Davids’ creative mis-interpretation of what the commentators say." Dhīvan 2013.
Saṃgharakṣita, following Sayadaw and/or Rhys Davids takes niyama to mean 'order of conditionality'. The set of five niyamas are said to outline five "orders of conditionality" i.e. five hierarchical domains in which conditionality operates. But niyama simply does not and cannot mean 'order', it means 'limit, restriction, inevitability'.

I joined this discussion in 2012 when I began circulating my samizdat translation of all of the Pali texts that mention niyama, particularly the previous untranslated commentarial literature on the pañcavidham niyamam or fivefold niyama. See also my blog: The Fivefold Niyama. In producing these translations it became clear that Dhīvan's comments regarding the relation to the tradition were spot on. I believe he and I are still the only two members of our Order to have read the source texts in Pāli (and only a handful of others would even be capable). My translations made most of the texts available in English for the first time, save one which was translated by Sayadaw. In The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order Sayadaw translates in such a way as to support his modern reinterpretation of the niyamas and often with no reference to the actual Pāli usage. Problems with Sayadaw's translation are dealt with in my translation notes and in Dhīvan's essay and article (see bibliography). Unfortunately Subhūti is uncritical of Sayadaw - referring to this work as "the translation of the Atthasālinī" (p.15). Far from being "the" translation, it is "a" translation and a highly idiosyncratic, not to say tendentious, translation.

While the word niyama (or niyāma, the two spellings are interchangeable in Pāli despite deriving differently) occurs in sutta texts it is not until the 5th century CE that Buddhaghosa takes up the word to produce the five categories of restriction on change. The translation that follows shows how the word dharma-niyama was used in Classical Sanskrit by the grammarian Patañjali commenting on Pāṇini's descriptive grammar, the Aṣṭādhyāyī. The Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya or Major Commentary on Grammar is usually dated to ca. 150 BCE, though this date is somewhat uncertain. In the passage concerned Patañjali is in fact commenting on some glosses on the Aṣṭādhyāyī found in the Vārttika by Kātyāyana. This whole section from the introduction to the Mahābhāṣya concerns the relationship between meaning (artha) and words (śabda).

This translation is really intended for my own use and ought to be treated with some suspicion, and at least read in conjunction with the published translation by Joshi and Roodbergen. My translation relies on the published translation and comments made during our class reading of the text. It must be emphasised that this is my translation and all errors and infelicities are due to my limitations.

  • Numbers in square brackets refer to the page numbers of the Sanskrit edition by Keilhorn (3rd ed. 1962).
  • Numbers in curly brackets refer to section and page numbers in the translation by Joshi & Roodbergen.
  • Passages in bold are Patñjali's citations from the Vārttika by Kātyāyana.

Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya, Paspaśāhnika (p.7-8)
[7] {80} But how is it known that the connection between a meaning and a word is established (siddha)?
From the world (lokataḥ) [i.e. from people in the world].
{81: 198} In the world, having acquired [in the mind] a thing meant (artha) the words (śabdān) are uttered. They make no effort in accomplishing this. However, an effort is required to accomplish a thing that needs to be made. For example: wanting to do a job with [or requiring] a pot, he goes to the house of a potter as says “Make a pot (kuru ghaṭaṃ), I require it for a job” . On the contrary one who will be using words doesn't go to the house of a grammarian and say [8] “Make words, I will utter them.” Right away having acquired the thing meant, he utters the words.
{82} If, then, the world is an authority (pramāṇa) in this [matter] what is the use of grammar (śāstra).
Where the use of a word is connected to the meaning from the world [as authority] grammar provides a restriction for the sake of religious merit (dharmaniyama).
{83: 200} Where the use of a word is connected to the meaning from the world [as authority] grammar provides a restriction for the sake of religious merit. What is dharma-niyama? It is a restriction for Dharma (dharmāya niyamaḥ); or, a restriction for the purpose of Dharma (dharmārthaḥ vā niyamaḥ); or a restriction aiming at Dharma (dharmaprayojanaḥ vā niyamaḥ)
Just as [in the case of] secular and Vedic [precepts].
{84: 202} The southerners have preference for taddhita compounds. So they say ‘laukikeṣu’ and ‘vaidikeṣu’ [in what is related to the world and what is related to the Vedas] instead of ‘loke’ and ‘vede’ [in the world and in the Vedas].
Or rather, the meaning of the taddhita is appropriate, i.e. just as the precepts (kṛtānta) found in secular and Vedic texts. So far as the world is concerned it is said “a domestic rooster is not to be eaten; a domestic pig is not to be eaten.” And that which is to be eaten is taken for the purpose of removing hunger. And one is also able to remove hunger by eating dog meat. In this case a restriction (niyama) is made: this is to be eaten; this is not to be eaten.
In the same way there is desire for women because of sexual arousal. And satisfaction of sexual arousal may be gained equally from available and unavailable [women]. In this case a restriction is made: she is available; she is unavailable.
{85: 207} Indeed in the Vedas also it is said “a Brahmin takes the vow (vrata) of milk (payo), a king the vow of gruel (yavāgū) and the merchant the vow of curds (āmikṣā)” And that “vow” is taken for the purpose of taking food (abhyavahāra). It is possible to take a rice (śāli) or meat (māṃsa) vow etc, as well. In this case a restriction is made.
Similarly it is said “The sacrificial post (yūpa) should be made of bilva or khādira wood. “Sacrificial post” is taken to mean what the [sacrificial] animal is tied to. And by this an animal might be tied to any bit of timber, erected or not erected. In this case a restriction is made.
Similarly the potsherds (kapālāni) are placed by the fire and the mantra is chanted “bhṛgūṇām aṅgirasām gharmasya tapasā tapyadhvam” [be heated by the heat of Bhṛgu and Aṅgirasa]. Even without the mantra, fire whose action is to burn would heat those potsherds. In this case a restriction is made: “done this way it leads to bliss (abhyudaya) [i.e. to heaven].”

{86:208} Thus here also the understanding of meaning may equally be expressed by correct words (śabda) and incorrect words (apaśabda) a restriction for the purposes of religious merit is made. “The meaning is only to be expressed by corrects words not by incorrect words. Done this way it leads to bliss.”


Now in this text it seems most likely, according to the commentaries ancient and modern, that dharma is being used in the sense of puṇya 'religious merit'. The idea that doing things in the way constrained by the injunctions or precepts (kṛtānta) will be a "causer of bliss" (abhyudayakārin) confirms this. Artha may have the sense of 'referent' (thing referred to by a word) or 'meaning' (the definition of a word) and it's not always clear if Patañjali makes this distinction.

The audience for this text lived their lives according to many religious and secular constraints. From the text we can see that some of them make sense on face value and some of them don't. Under most circumstances it is clear, for example, who is an available sexual partner and who isn't, even in our rather wanton society. In ancient India it was probably even more obvious since a person's spouse was the only sanctioned sexual partner (though that said prostitutes also plied their trade).

It might not be so obvious why a domestic pig was not appropriate food. The precepts allows for wild pigs to be eaten. And this is partly the point. A negative precept that says 'don't eat domestic pigs' is specific. We might be tempted to take the generally corollary that everything else is OK to eat. We might for example decide that dog meat was OK. But in India, as in the modern west, there was an unspoken understanding that dog meat was not for human consumption. There is no natural reason that this is so. Dog meat is consumed in some parts of the world and is presumably no more prone to disease or no less nourishing that any other kind of meat. But we just don't eat dog, and may even feel a sense of disgust at the thought. There is an implied restriction in the background to the specific restriction.

As mentioned above, one of the points of controversy in Dhīvan's initial essays on the niyamas was over the meaning of niyama. In this text there is no doubt that it simply means 'restriction'. One might eat anything, but there are various kinds of restrictions on what one may eat. One might have sex with anyone, but in practice one has a limited choice of partners. However the specific term dharma-niyama means a restriction for the sake of religious merit. That is to say that it is an injunction whose authority stems from the Vedas and is ultimately aimed at a good rebirth or at liberation through the correct performance of religious rituals. 

Fundamentally this argument is about restrictions on what is a correct word (plain śabda) and what is an incorrect word (apaśabda). Pragmatically Patañjali has to admit that many non-standard words are in common use. He is arguing that despite the many choices of words, that some are better than others. In particular he is arguing for what we call the Classical Sanskrit forms sanctioned by Pāṇini as correct and dialectical variations as incorrect. Here he points out even though we always have many choices of how to behave, that various kinds of restrictions apply: secular or worldly restrictions (laukikā) and religious restrictions (vaidkikā) found in the Vedic texts. So too words are restricted by secular and religious usage.

This is not so different to our time and place. Most people would use a different mode of speech when having fun with their friends than they might at a job interview. For English speakers in Britain the issue of local dialect words and expressions is a common one - and at present the mood seems to be going against allowing children to use dialect at school for fear that they won't be able to distinguish different contexts as adults and might use the wrong mode of speech. Or in other words that those with dialects that differ from standard (i.e. receive pronunciation, English as it is spoken in the South East) will be socially disadvantaged.

For the Buddhist who is interested in the idea of the niyamas the import is clear. Niyama means "constraint, restriction, limitation or inevitability". It is about restricted choices, vows made, and precepts imposed. In the Pali texts it refers to the restrictions on how change occurs. Thus is cannot mean a kind of "order" or "level" of conditionality, but only a constraint on how conditionality plays out. Things change, but not randomly. Plant a rice grain and it can only grow into a rice plant (and no other kind of plant). Perform an evil action and it must inevitably ripen as a painful vedanā.

In the case of dhamma-niyama it is used by the Buddhist tradition to explain the series of miraculous events that accompany the birth of a Buddha. There is a restriction on the universe related to the life history of a Buddha. As it says in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī (DA 2.431)
"The shaking of the 10,000 world system when the bodhisatta enters his mother’s belly and other such phenomena [associated with the life story of the Buddha as told in the Mahāpadāna Sutta], this is called the inevitability of natures (dhamma-niyāma). Inevitability of natures is understood as consisting in this."
Such miracles as occur are bound to occur; they are what is required for the life story of a Buddha. I might well have translated dhamma-niyama here as "a restriction imposed by religion". In other words this is simply something that Buddhists believe, and, like the audience for Patañjali, they believe it because it is said in a sacred text. 



Dhīvan. Sangharakshita, the Five Niyamas and the Problem of Karma. 2009. (See also Dhīvan's website for some other related bits and pieces)
Dhīvan. 'The Five Niyāmas as Laws of Nature: an Assessment of Modern Western Interpretations of Theravāda Buddhist Doctrine.' Journal of Buddhist Ethics. Volume 19, 2012
Dhīvan. 'The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order.' [Blog Post] 5 June 2013. http://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/06/05/the-five-niyamas-and-natural-order/
Jayarava. Source Texts for the Five-fold Niyāma (pañcavidhaṃ niyāma). 2012
Joshi, S.D. & Roodbergen, J. (Ed. Tr) Patanjali's Vyakarana-Mahabhashya. Paspasha-Ahnika. Poona, 1986. Online: scribd.com
Kielhorn, F. (Ed) The Vyākarṇa-mahābhāṣya of Patañjali. 3rd Ed. rev. by K. V. Abhyankar. Vol 1. 1962.
Ledi Sayadaw. (1978). ‘ The Niyama-Dipani: The Manual of Cosmic Order,’ in The Manuals of Buddhism, trans. Barua, B.M, Rhys Davids, C.A.F., & Nyana. Bangkok: Mahamakut Press (orig. publ. 1965). Online: http://mahajana.net/texts/kopia_lokalna/MANUAL04.html [includes Sayadaw's correspondence with Rhys Davids showing how her interpretation is dependent on his]
Subhūti. Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma: Sangharakshita's approach to Right View. 1st Published in Shabda. July, 2010. Online: sangharakshita.org

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