10 January 2020

Diamonds, Thunderbolts, and the Impossibility of Translation

Some time back, on my Facebook Heart Sutra group, I argued along the lines that vajra doesn't mean "diamond" and that Sanskrit compounds in the form X-ccheda always mean "that which cuts X". And diamonds are, in any case, easy to cut. And this all meant that Diamond Sutra  was the wrong translation for Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā. A chap called Leo emailed me to say that since vajira does mean "diamond" in Pāli (at least in the PTS Dictionary), Vajracchedikā should still be translated as "Cutter of Diamonds".

I had to admit that the PTS Dictionary does give 'diamond' as a definition (s.v. vajira2, p.593). However, I'm a little doubtful about arguing from a Pāli dictionary to the name of a Sanskrit text and I don't think we should always just take the dictionary's word for it. So I checked a couple of the examples the PTSD gives for this definition and this led to some interesting reflections. The first passage is:
"Just as there is nothing that a vajira cannot split, whether jewel or stone" (seyyathāpi, bhikkhave, vajirassa natthi kiñci abhejjaṃ maṇi vā pāsāṇo vā; AN 1.124).
Now this one is important because here a vajira is contrasted with vijju (Skt vidyut) which definitely means "lightning". This suggests that vajira does not mean lightning-bolt here, and it raises the question of the the relationship between vajra and vidyut. And this requires a digression to consider Indra and his vajra.


The word vajra derives from the root √vaj "strong, powerful" with the -ra suffix to make a substantive noun: it denotes an embodiment of power and potency. Compare this with the word ugra "powerful, violent, mighty, etc", which is very likely the same word, but with a prior change of vaj > uj (by the process known in Sanskrit as samprasaraṇa).

In Vedic texts, the vajra is most strongly, but not exclusively, associated with the God Indra. According to Mayrhofer, his name probably comes from √in "to use force" and means "strong, powerful". Thus the words indra and vajra are synonyms. Indra is used in the sense of "lord" or "master" and in the word for the senses, indriya, as "capacity" or "faculty". In this sense, Indra is the archetypal kṣatriya or warrior-king. 

In Buddhist texts Indra is usually referred to by another synonym, Śakra "Mighty" or "Able", and as the Devānām Indra "Lord of the Shining Ones". He is directly addressed as Kauśika, which is a reference to myths elaborated in the Brahmaṇa texts and Epics in which the Devas are no longer masters of the universe, but are entangled in worldly affairs in the manner of the Greek Gods. The Vedic-speaking incomers have now dominated Punjab and dealt with their civil war and seem more settled. Brahmin priests are beginning to assert their social dominance over the warrior kings. Śakra is a minor character in early Buddhist texts, but one of the main characters in the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras (where my working theory is that he represents the views of those who practice dhyāna meditation, because he is the Lord of the Devas and the devaloka which is equated with dhyāna). In Buddhist texts Indra seems to have lost his belligerence and his vajra, but not in Buddhist art where he is routinely depicted with both, although these attributes are more often associated with the yakṣa Vajrapāni (the one who wields the mace).
iron mace from India

Vinayak Mahadev Apte (1956) tells us that vajra does not mean "thunderbolt" in the Ṛgveda.  He also points out that there is only one rain god in the Ṛgveda and that is Parjanya; and if anything vidyut "lightning" is associated with him and not with Indra. In fact, Indra is not a storm god at all. The vajra of Indra is a weapon, one that was forged by Tvaṣṭṛ, an artificer god (= Hephaestus?). The vajra is a two-handed, metallic (āyasa) mace with 1000 spikes (sahásrabhṛṣṭi). It is thus described also in Pāḷi when wielded by Vajirapāṇi (vajirapāṇi yakkho āyasaṃ vajiraṃ ādāya MN I.231). In the Ṛgveda, the vajra is described as stable (sthavira) and durable (dharṇasi); it is habitually in the possession of Indra, along with his horse and chariot. Meaning it is unlike highly unstable and impermanent lightning.

Indra was not a storm god, but a warrior god who embodies manly virtues in a warrior society. "While Indra is many things, his exploits are overwhelmingly defined by acts of physical strength, violent contestation, or outright battle: these are his raison d'être" (Whitaker 2016: 58). Indra's weapon represents an embodiment of and symbolises these same qualities. According to Apte, other non-storm gods also wield a vajra weapon at times, especially Vedic Bṛhaspati.

The connection with lightning is puzzling. When Jarrod Whitaker argues that "in a few instances is Indra' s weapon equated poetically with lightning" (2016: 58) I am unconvinced. He cites one example (Rgveda 1.33.10cd):
1.033.10c: yújaṃ vájraṃ vṛṣabháś cakra índro
1.033.10d: nír jyótiṣā támaso gā́ adukṣat
"The bull Indra made his mace his yokemate. He milked the cows out of
the darkness with light." (Jamison & Brereton 2014: 138)
I think Whitaker may be confusing light (jyoti) with lightning (not mentioned). Apte noted that Indra is associated with "waters" in the Ṛgveda, but they have been misinterpreted as rain. In fact, they are the cosmic waters associated with light and day. The enemy of Indra, Vṛtra, who helps to define him, is not a demon of drought, as is often asserted, but of darkness (tamas). The battle between Indra and Vṛtra is the classic battle between light and dark. Milking and cows here are metaphors for the creative power (māyā) of the God. Indra is sometimes referred to as vṛtrahan (P.  vatrabhū) "the smiter or enemy of the Vṛtra". This name also appears in Iranian myth as Vṛθragna (Old Iranian), and Vərəθraγna (Avestan). (NB Skt han derives from an earlier Indo-Iranian √ghan)

Buddha accompanied by
"mace-wielder", Vajrapāṇi
as Greek God. 
There is an interesting parallel here with ancient Greece. Chief God, Zeus also wields a weapon that is popularly supposed to be a "lightning bolt". In fact, his weapon is called κεραυνός (keraunos) "smasher, crusher", not βροντή (brontí,) “thunder” or ἀστραπή (astrapḗ) "lightning". The noun keraunos seems to come from Proto-Indo-European *ker "injure, spoil" and is thus also unrelated to meteorological phenomena. As a name, "smasher" is suggestive of a club or mace.

In Rob Linrothe's Ruthless Compassion, we can see that wrathful deities, particularly Vajrapāṇi ("Holding the Weapon"), are depicted carrying a club or mace. And in Gandhāran art, the yakṣa, Vajrapāṇi is sometimes depicted accompanying the Buddha as Heracles or perhaps Zeus, often armed with a mace.

With all this clarity about what the vajra is and is not, we are left wondering how and when vajra was confused with the thunderbolt or lightning, let alone with a diamond. The mistaken reading of the celestial waters may have contributed, but it seems like a stretch to think that was all that was required to completely change the meaning of a word.

Coming back to the the diamond question, the second Pāli example is from the Dhammapada:
"For the evil done by oneself, born or produced by oneself;
Cleaves the foolish, as a vajira a stone or jewel." 
Attanā hi kataṃ pāpaṃ, attajaṃ attasambhavaṃ;
Abhimantheti dummedhaṃ, vajiraṃ ahmamayaṃ maṇiṃ.
(Dhp 161). 
So there is clearly an idea that vajira (whatever it is) can split (abhejja) or cleave/crush (abhimantheti) stone or other gems. So now we need to consider what we know about diamonds.


Our word "diamond" comes from the Greek ἀδάμας  (adamas), the mythical hardest substance; in antiquity, usually some form of metal. Marvel comic fans will be familiar with the idea of adamantium. Interestingly, the concept of the hardest substance is common to Greece and Greater India, but it is applied to very different substances. The etymology is uncertain: The OED says that it comes from dama "tame" and thus means "indomitable" (Cf Sanskrit dama) but other sources suggest it may be a loan word (from Persian perhaps?). The word was first applied to the gemstone in English in the 14th Century.

Diamond is a crystalline allotrope of elemental carbon. Natural diamonds form octahedral crystals. Such crystals have a high refractive index, a high melting point (ca. 4000 °C), and the highest thermal conductivity of any natural material. Natural diamonds were typically formed between 1 billion and 3.5 billion years ago, deep in the earth's mantle and were brought to the surface by volcanic activity. They are usually found embedded in igneous rocks. Incorporation of other atoms can give diamonds a variety of hues.

Until the 18th Century, India was the primary producer of diamonds in the world, though they were traded far and wide, even in antiquity.

Diamond is the hardest natural substance. A diamond can scratch any other mineral. We use diamonds to scratch glass, for example, before breaking it. By about 700 AD in India, shards of diamond were being used to drill holes in quartz beads (Gorelick & Gwinnett 1988). In modern industry, diamond-tipped drill bits using synthetic diamonds are used for high performance situations and for drilling very hard substances.

However, diamonds also score low on the "toughness" scale which measures the ability to absorb energy and deform. Diamonds are brittle. Hit a diamond with a hammer and it will most likely shatter. Granite, for example, is about 100 times as resistant to breaking as diamond is. Hit a stone made of granite with a diamond and the diamond will shatter. So the idea that diamonds can split stone is obviously false.

uncut diamond
In antiquity, diamonds were simply left in their natural state. They were not even used as jewelry to begin with. Around the 14th Century in India, steel tools began to be used to split diamonds so as to give them facets. This process is called "cutting". It highlights the brilliance of the gem, i.e. the way it refracts and reflects light. In the modern approach to "cutting", the faces of the crystal are polished using an abrasive wheel,  It is, in fact, extremely easy to cut a diamond, though it takes skill to do so with the necessary precision to shape the gem into one of the classic "cuts". 

In ancient India, diamonds were so rare, and thus expensive, that only kings owned them. As far as I can tell, up to the point of being called after Indra's macediamonds were known generically as maṇi or jewels. They were not worn as jewelry and thus most people probably never saw them but only heard about them second hand. The common people were apt to be maṅgalikā (or superstitious) so, perhaps inevitably, diamonds became associated with magical powers in the popular imagination. And the chief magical power is that the diamond can cut any other substance. It can split rocks and stones, but is itself uncuttable, unbreakable, uncrushable, and so on. 


In summary then indra, vajra, and śakra are all synonyms for "power". The original vajra was a two-handed, metal mace with sharpened spikes, wielded by Indra/Śakra against his foe, Vṛta. The word denotes an embodiment or instantiation of physical power. Semantically, vajra does not mean either "lightning" (which is vidyut) or "diamond". Similarly, the weapon of Zeus, also a mace, has no semantic connection with meteorological phenomena.

However, the mace of Indra became associated with lightning at some point and the name vajra was later applied to diamonds as myths of indestructibility grew up around them. The process of how this happened and the timeline are still unclear to me.

But given the usage we can make a pragmatic argument that vajra does indeed mean "diamond" in that the word is applied to diamonds and is understood to mean "diamond" in particular contexts (such as we saw in the Pāli passages above). However, the argument is weakened because the "diamonds" in question have magical properties and it is precisely these magical properties seem to be what motivated ancient Indians to redeploy the name of Indra's weapon.

So yes, we could translate vajraccheda as "cuts diamond" and vajracchedikā as "a cutter of diamond", but we have to footnote this with a reminder that the diamond in question is an imaginary magical diamond, not an ordinary carbon diamond. In other words, we can translate vajra as "diamond" it but it doesn't get us any closer to what is meant by the title since the quality being described doesn't exist in reality. 

The situation is a little worse, however, since the idea that vajraccheda attempts to convey is "cutting the uncuttable" and a diamond is eminently cuttable. Go to a jeweler and all their diamonds are cut. I gather that uncut diamonds are somewhat fashionable at present, but most people have probably only ever seen cut diamonds. Cutting diamonds is completely routine. And diamonds, while still expensive, are commonplace. So the title doesn't have much meaning when translated in a simplistic fashion. The idea of the title Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā is obviously that prajñāpāramitā cuts the uncuttable. What this means is a mystery, however, because the text never explains it. If we stipulate the meaning, the next problem is how to meaningfully convey this in English? 

Funnily enough, actually we do have an English word that means "uncuttable" which is, atomic, from the Greek temnein "to cut". And, of course, it was a big deal when the irreducible atom was split by my countryman, Ernest Rutherford, at Manchester University in 1917. Though I quite like the sound of the Atom Splitting Sutra, in fact splitting atoms is almost as routine as cutting diamonds these days and there is a veritable zoo of subatomic particles. Also "atomic" is inescapably entangled in connotations of radiation and bombs.

My own habit has been to refer to the text as the Vajracchedikā and just leave it at that. It has the advantage of being unique. I note that although we can infer what the title means, it is never explained in the text itself. When Subhūti asks what he should call the discourse, the answer is "The name of this way of talking about the Dharma, Subhūti, is Gnosis Perfected" (prajñāpāramitā nāmāyaṃ subhūte dharmaparyāyaḥ 13b). On the other hand, the colophon of 7th Century Gilgit manuscript ends with vajracchedikā prajñāpāramitā samāptāḥ. "Here endeth the Gnosis Perfected that Cuts the Uncuttable". Note that the text does not refer to itself as a sūtra.  

I'll finish with a few words about the Chinese translation. Since Kumārajīva first translated it into Middle Chinese ca 402 CE, the Vajracchedikā has been known as the 金剛般若波羅蜜經 (Jīngāng bānrěbōluómì jīng). The part that interests us us 金剛 which is a binomial and means "diamond". It's a made-up term that translates vajra. 金 primarily means "metal" and sometimes more specifically "gold". It can also convey the typical properties of metals (of which gold is an exception), i.e. hardness, durability, etc. My Middle Chinese dictionary (Kroll) has a sub-entry for 金剛 "hardness of gold, i.e. diamond". But, of course, gold is known for being a soft metal in its pure state. It is, for example, the last thing you'd make a weapon out of. As we might suspect from the previous, 剛 means "rigid, unyielding, inflexible" and in a nice twist Kroll includes "adamantine" in his definitions; on its own the character is also used for "steel".

If we translate 金剛般若波羅蜜經 fairly literally it is the Diamond Gnosis-Perfected Sutra in Kumārajīva's rendering. And this is probably why the name Diamond Sutra was popularised. We may never know if the absence of a reference to "cutting" is a deliberate omission, or if the reference that we take for granted is a later affectation that was absent from Kumārajīva's source text. In my research for this essay, I didn't find any information on how the Chinese viewed diamonds.

In the end most people are just going to keep calling it the Diamond Sutra no matter what. Still, it is interesting just to reflect on how words function and change over time. The dictionary is not the last word on what any given term means in a text because many terms are defined pragmatically. As fascinating as etymology can be, it doesn't always capture how a word is used at any given time and how that use changes.



Apte, V. M. (1956). 'Vajra in the Ṛgveda'. Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 37(1/4): 292-295. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44082929

Dahlquist, Allan. (1996) Megasthenes and Indian Religion: A Study in Motives and Types. Motilal Banarsidass.

Gorelick, L and Gwinnett, A. J. (1988) 'Diamonds from India to Rome and beyond'. American Journal of Archaeology, 92(4):547-552. https://www.jstor.org/stable/505249

Jamison, S.w. and Brereton, J.P. (2014) The Rig Veda: The Earliest Religious Poetry of India. Oxford University Press.

Kroll, Paul. W. (2015). A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese. Brill.

Linrothe, Rob. (1999). Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art. Serindia Publications.

Mayrhofer, Manfred. (1956) Kurzgefaßtesetzmologisches Wörterbuch des Altindischen. Carl Winter Universitätsverlag.

Whitaker, Jarrod. (2016) 'I Boldly Took the Mace (Vájra) for Might: Ritually Weaponizing a Warrior's Body in Ancient India.' International Journal of Hindu Studies, 20(1): 51-94. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44983842
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