27 February 2009

Philological odds and ends I

philologyRegular readers will know that I find words and the way they communicate meaning to us a fascinating subject. So I am always on the look out for interesting etymologies and derivations. In other posts I have mentioned alternate ways of understanding: yathābhūta, brahmacarya, dharaṇī, upādāna, ariyasacca, brahmavihara, and hīnayāna. There are one or two stories about words, that don't quite rate a post on their own, but that I would like to share.


This is how the Buddha most often refers to himself. So you'd think that it would be clear and well understood, in fact the PED notes that in Pāli texts even non-Buddhists were supposed to understand it. However Buddhaghosa gives as many as eight possible derivations, of which two are most common. Firstly it is analysed as tathā + gata. Tathā is an adverb meaning "thus, so, in that way, likewise". Gata is a past-participle formed on the verbal root gam - gam if you don't know is wildly irregular, as a first person singular it is gacchāmi, as in "buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi". So this interpretation tells us that the noun means "thus-gone". This is not very helpful. Sometimes we are told that it means that the Tathāgata has gone to nibbāna, but this assumes that nibbāna is somewhere you can go, and this is not sustainable. PED notes that Mrs Rhys Davids suggested "he who has won through to the truth", but this is quite a leap from thus-gone.

A second, even less likely explanation analyses the word as tathā + āgata. This rests on a sandhi rule which says that ā + ā = ā, so it's not impossible. Āgata is again a past-participle, and means "come" (the ā- prefix indicates motion towards). In this case tathāgata is said to mean "thus-come", presumably a reference to the fact that a Tathāgata has manifested in the world (which has a Mahāyāna ring to it).

Prof. Richard Gombrich offers a way out. He points out (in the 2006 Numata lectures soon to be published as What the Buddha Thought by Equinox Publications) that as the second member of this kind of compound -gata loses its usual meaning and means simply 'being'. He gives an example from Coulson's Teach Yourself Sanskrit citragatā nārī means not "the woman has gone into the picture, but "the woman in the picture". On this model Gombrich suggests that tathāgata means something like "one like that". The fact the Buddha referred to himself as "one like that" is indicative of the impossibility of fully explaining his enlightened experience. Gombrich also notes that the term can apply to any enlightened person, for example at MN 1.140 :
Bhikkhus, when the gods... seek a bhikkhu who is liberated in mind, they cannot find anything... One thus gone (i.e. tathāgata) is untraceable here and now. (Alagaddūpama Sutta = MN 22, Ñāṇamoli, p.233)
On the same model we might say that another common epithet for the Buddha, sugata, probably means "one who is good or well".


I'm not sure who first realised that sūtra is a hyper-sanskritisation. I have seen it in a book by K.R. Norman who is an expert philologist and has published many detailed etymologies, but it seems to have become common knowledge. The story here is that the Buddhist use of the Sanskrit word sūtra is based on the mistaken notion that the Prakrit (especially Pāli) word sutta derives from the Sanskrit word sūtra. This is understandable since Pāli resolves almost all conjunct consonants to double consonants. But if you ever look at a Brahminical sūtra you can easily see that they are an entirely different genre of texts, with more in common with abhidhamma style texts - they are terse, almost like bullet points. There is none of the narrative style of the Buddhist sūtras. It is far more likely that sutta derives from another Sanskrit word, sūkta. Both sūkta and sūtra resolve to sutta in Pāli. Sūkta means well spoken from su + ukta. Su, as above, means "good or well". Ukta is a past participle formed (irregularly) on the verbal root vāc - speech or words. Sūkta is a name for the verses of the Vedas and it seems likely that this is another case of conscious imitation of Brahmins by Buddhists - other examples include Tevijja the Buddha's three kinds of special knowledge vs the three Vedas; and the three fires of greed, hatred and delusion vs the three sacred fires of the Vedic sacrificial enclosure. So the use sūtra by Buddhists derives from the early Prakrit traditions, and is called a hyper-sanskritisation because it seems like an over compensation - picking a familiar word and using that to make it sound pukka.


A śramaṇa (Pali samaṇa) was an ascetic practitioner in ancient India. In Buddhists texts they are very frequently contrasted with brāhmaṇa, the Brahmins, both ascetic and householders. The Buddha practised with śramaṇa teachers before his enlightenment and learnt meditation techniques from them. The root of the word is śrām meaning "to exert oneself, to labour, toil", but also "weariness". Incidentally it is the 'r' in the Sanskrit that forces the 'n' to become retroflex 'ṇ' and this is retained in the Pāli 'samaṇa'. Śrāma then, is toil, and a śramaṇa (short 'a' in this case) is one who toils, i.e. 'a toiler'. It can be used in various contexts so that Vedic texts for instance sometimes talk about exerting oneself in sexual intercourse, but most relevant to Buddhism is the exertion at tapas or the generation of heat, an ancient Vedic metaphor for ascetic practice. We also find it in the word āśrama (Anglicized to "asharam") - meaning a place of striving. What makes the word śramaṇa particularly interesting is that it found its way into English via quite a tortuous route.

Probably in its Prakrit form ṣamaṇa it was introduced into central Asia, where for instance in Tocharian it became ṣamāne. From where it made it's way to Chinese as sha men ( 沙门 or perhaps 沙弥 ) - a general term for Buddhist monks. Siberians then seem to have borrowed the word to describe their "shamans". It survives in the Evenki language, a member of the Tungus group of languages in Siberia as šamān. From here it entered the Russian vocabulary as shamán. In German this became schamane and then finally it was adopted in English in the familiar spelling, shaman, in 1698. The route is somewhat speculative, but plausible and makes for a good tale! This etymology is assembled from many sources, which contain a variety of spellings!


Loka is a word that gets quite a workout in Buddhist Pāli and Sanskrit. It is usually translated simply as 'world' but this can disguise its the background and connotations. The Sanskrit grammarians like to derive words as far as possible from notional verb roots. Loka is derived from the root lok. It means to see behold or perceive. It may be familiar to you in another form. In the name Avalokiteśvara it occurs in the word "avaloka" meaning 'look upon', hence the name in this form means "the Lord (īśvara) who looks upon [suffering beings with compassion]." Because of a fluidity around the syllables 'ra' and 'la' it is also related to the root rok meaning "light, lustre, brightness". The earliest uses, in the Ṛgveda, give the suggestion of a clear space in which one can see - perhaps a forest clearing. So the word has always had the connotation of perception and perceptual range - the world is just what one can see or percieve. It may be that this is an old Indo-European metaphor because we use world in this sense as well: e.g. "a world of his own". One of the Buddha's epithets in the Buddha Vandana is "lokavidhu" - knower of the world, ie one who knows his 'own world', or the 'perceptual world. In English the word comes to us, via Latin, in terms like location, local, and locus.


This is a term that is typically translated as house-holder but Jan Nattier points out that the implications of it are hidden by that translation. The term literally means house (gṛha) lord (pati) and she notes that there is a general consensus on translating it. However the context of use reveals that it indicates considerable financial means - Edgerton actually suggested "capitalist" in his dictionary of Buddhist Sanskrit. The term is also mentioned in lists of castes alongside brahmaṇa and kṣatriya, and the people to whom it is applied are usually merchants or guild leaders - Anathapiṇḍika's brother-in-law for instance is called gahapati. Nattier concludes that it most likely applies to someone of considerable influence and power, perhaps a "leading citizen" but who is not a member of the two higher castes. (Nattier, p.22ff.)

  • Ñāṇamoli. 1995. The Middle Length discourses of the Buddha. Boston : Wisdom Publications.
  • Nattier, Jan. 2003. A few good men : the bodhisattva path according to 'The inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press.

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