Showing posts with label Ancient History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ancient History. Show all posts

01 May 2015

Yāmagaṇḍika: Telling the Time in Ancient India

Revision 2.0 - 3 May 2015

My Pāḷi reading group has been working through the commentary to the Kāraṇiya Metta Sutta which I translated for this blog some years ago (11 Jun 2010). In this text we come across an unusual term that has no counterpart in the suttas. In picturing some bhikkhus zealously meditating in the forest it describes them as yāmagaṇḍikaṃ koṭṭetvā. This is a curious expression and in this essay I'll attempt to elucidate what it means. The compound yāmagaṇḍika occurs only twice, both times in commentarial texts (Paramatthajotikā SnA 1.193; Papañcasūdaniyā, MNA 1.122) and these should be enough to allow us to gain some clarity. We'll see that the commentator does not see his own time in context, but wrongly assumes that his milieu reflects that of the Buddha some centuries earlier. 

The gerund koṭṭetvā must come from the verb koṭṭeti (from a rare root √kuṭ or kuṭṭ) 'to beat, crush, pound'. For example it is the action associated with a mortar (udukkhale koṭṭetvā DN ii.341) and with pounding grain (dhaññaṃ koṭṭenti Thī  117). It has other minor senses in PED, but these don't seem relevant here. The compound yāmagaṇḍika combines yāma and gaṇḍikā. We'll take these one at a time. 

According to PED gaṇḍikā derives from gaṇḍa 'a swelling; a stalk or shaft' + -ikā. The formation gaṇḍikā means 'a stalk or shaft', particularly 'the trunk of a tree' and by association 'a block of wood'. However there is a potential confusion here with ghaṇṭā 'bell' or ghaṭikā 'gong'. As we will see the CST edition of the text is quite unreliable and this means we must allow for errors. In the Digital Pāḷi Reader version of this text, we find yāmaghaṇḍikaṃ koṭṭetvā. The spelling -ghaṇḍikaṃ occurs in the Majjhima Ṭīkā  (the sub-commentary on MNA 1.121) "yāmaghaṇṭikaṃ paharati"  (MNṬ 1.196) though the Aṭṭhakāthā has -ga-. The Khuddaka Nikāya Commentary—which parallels the Suttanipata commentary—also has -gh-.

Pañjaranatha Mahākāla
with gaṇḍikā
DOP sv ghaṇṭī/ghaṇḍī, suggests a confusion with gaṇḍi and ghaṇṭā. If it does mean 'block' then it must refer to a resonant gong-like block that is 'pounded' (√koṭṭ) as a time signal. Buddhadatta's Concise Pali-English Dictionary defines gaṇḍikā as "(f.) a hollowed block of wood which is used to serve the purpose of a bell; a gong." A gaṇḍī or gaṇḍikā is the characteristic implement of a form of Mahākāla known as Pañjaranatha. In the image on the right he holds it across his body (thanks to Maitiu for pointing this out).

Yāma is complicated because it has homonyms that derive from different verbs. From √yam 'hold, hold back' + -a we get yāma 'restraint'; and from √ 'go' + -ma we get yāma 'motion, going, progress'. The latter is used figurative to mean 'a watch of the night'. We frequently read in Pāḷi of the three watches of the night (tiyāmā): paṭhamayāma, majjhimayāma, and pacchimayāma (first, middle, and last watches). The practice of dividing the night in particular in watches was common in the ancient world. The Latin name for these periods was vigilia, whence English 'vigil'. Incidentally yāma can also be a collective noun for people or things related to the God of the afterlife, Yama, in this case his name means 'twin', from √yam 'combine'.

The compound, yāmagaṇḍika, can really only be a tatpuruṣa so it must mean something like 'the block of restraint', or 'the gong of the watches'. The context is that the monks are resolute night and day, devoted to wise attention, and sitting at the foot of trees meditating. It may be that 'beating the block of restraint' is a metaphor that we no longer understand, similar to the Buddha saying to Upaka the Ājīvaka in the Ariyapariyesana Suttaāhañchaṃ amatadundubhiṃ 'I beat the drum of the deathless' (MN i.171). It's not entirely obvious what this means since drums are primarily for entertainment in our society.

However, I believe that here we must read yāma as 'watch of the night' and the phrase means 'beating the block or pounding the gong that marks the watches'. For confirmation we can look at the second of the two occurrences of yāmagaṇḍika at MNA 1.122 (already mentioned above):
Ajagaravihārepi kāḷadevatthero antovasse yāmagaṇḍikaṃ paharati, āciṇṇametaṃ therassa. Na ca yāmayantanāḷikaṃ payojeti, aññe bhikkhū payojenti. Atha nikkhante paṭhame yāme there muggaraṃ gahetvā ṭhitamatteyeva ekaṃ dve vāre paharanteyeva vā yāmayantaṃ patati,
We immediately strike a problem in that ajagara probably means 'python' or some other large snake and doesn't fit the context, and the spelling of the next word (with -tth-) is suspect. Consulting the Dictionary of Pāli Names we find an entry for a Thera named Kāḷadeva:
"...incumbent of Vajagaragiri-vihāra. He is mentioned as having known the exact passage of time without the help of an "hour-glass" (yāmayantanālika). MA.i.100f
This is in fact, a reference to the passage we are about to analyse. It's thus apparent that the CST (Burmese) edition is incorrect here and we must amend it to:
Vajagara[giri]vihārepi kāḷadevathero antovasse yāmagaṇḍikaṃ paharati, āciṇṇametaṃ therassa. Na ca yāmayantanāḷikaṃ payojeti, aññe bhikkhū payojenti. Atha nikkhante paṭhame yāme there muggaraṃ gahetvā ṭhitamatte yeva ekaṃ dve vāre paharante yeva ca* yāmayantaṃ patati. 
The Elder Kāḷadeva of Vajagaragiri Monastery, performs this striking of the block of the watches till the end of the rains. And he does not use a measuring device as other monks did. At the end of the first watch the Elder takes up the hammer (muggara) and strikes twice for every measure of time, just as the watch-mechanism falls. 
* The text has , but I think this must also be wrong, and have amended to ca
My translation of this passage is a little rough, but the main points are clear. For our purposes two things are important. It is entirely clear that yāma must refer to 'a watch of the night' rather than 'restraint'. Secondly we read that Kāḷadeva did not yāmayantanāḷikaṃ payojeti, that he used a hammer (muggara) to strike the block, and then yāmayantaṃ patati. And this helps to fill out what the author of the Metta Sutta commentary was thinking.

One of the problems of living a regular life is keeping time. The early forest monks had no way of telling the time apart from the sun, moon and stars. Pāḷi distinguishes day (diva) from night (ratti) and we read of monks doing things in the morning-time (pubbaṇhasamaya) or evening-time (sāyaṇhasamaya). We know that the phases of the moon—full moon (puṇṇacanda) and new moon (navacanda)—were important for organising the lives of monks. The moon takes on a magical significance for some Buddhists as a result of this. The watches of the night, however, are far more difficult to determine. How did monks, living in a forest, know when the watches began and end. Presumably the first watch started at dusk and the last ended at dawn, but what marked the other boundaries? Presumably one versed in astronomy would be able to keep track of when certain stars were due to rise and set, but the three month retreat is during the rain season when the skies are perpetually cloudy. 

The simple answer is that the first monks almost certainly did not keep accurate track of the time and that the watches were assessed subjectively. And we can point out that no references to time keeping apart from observing the sun and moon are referenced in the suttas. The texts we are dealing with here, however, are from 5th century Sri Lanka and from an environment of highly organised, large scale, urban monasteries.

If we now look at the phrase yāmayantanāḷikaṃ payojeti we can see that the DOPN glosses it is as "the help of an hour-glass". Now an hour-glass is anachronistic here, they did not exist in this time or place. But yanta does mean 'mechanism' and nāḷika 'a tube or measure'. So we know that Kāḷideva did not, as other monks did, employ (pa√yuj) a measure/tube device for the watches (yāma-yanta-nāḷika). This suggests some kind of clock, but is the idea plausible? I had a dig around in some horological books and apparently it is plausible to think that in first millennium India there were water-clocks.

Water-clocks come in two forms: a vessel with a hole that allows water to leak out slowly, and the slight more sophisticated sinking bowl, in which a bowl with a hole in it gradually sinks into a container of water. The books suggest that the sinking-bowl water-clock was common in India by medieval times and so accurate that it probably delayed the introduction of mechanical clocks. Importantly the attendant of water-clock announced the end of the time period by striking a 'gong'.  The Gujarati word  for which was ghaḍiyār. There's an outside possibility that this word is related to gaṇḍikā or ghaṭika.

Persian Water Clock.
We do know that the Achaemenid Persians possessed just such water clocks, from the records of Alexander's conquests in India by Callisthenes of Olynthus. We know that similar water-clocks were employed to mark the passage of time in monasteries in North India by the 7th century. This information comes from the records of Yijing (義淨 aka I-Tsing; ) a Chinese monk who lived 635–713 CE, and spend 25 years travelling, taking the southern sea route to India. Yijing's account (see translation by Takakusu 1896: 142-6) is widely recycled in a variety of other sources, for example Misra (1998) simply quotes Takakusu at length, while Sharfe (2002) paraphrases and the Wikipedia article on water-clocks cites Sharfe. Yijing records the use of sinking bowl water clocks in several monasteries, with each using slightly different measures and signalling conventions. The bowls were made of copper and were very expensive, generally being the gift of a king to a monastery. Such clocks were also used by the ancient Britons

Sri Lankan
water-clock bowl
So it seems at least plausible that urban monks in fifth century Sri Lanka measured the hours of the day using a water-clock and marked the increments by striking some kind of gong (probably wooden given how expensive metal was). And what our commentators have done is imagine that this is also what monks did in the Buddha's time. Thus when they tell the story of the Metta Sutta they project this technology backwards. And we know that they have done in this other ways as well. For example they projected South Indian kinship patterns familiar, to them in Sri Lanka, onto the family tree of the Buddha and his family, even though these patterns were out of place in North India (See Attwood 2012). But it is extremely unlikely that forest monks in the fifth century BC uses anything so elaborate to measure time.

One little loose end is that having struck the gong with the hammer, yeva ca yāmayantaṃ patati. Now, patati comes from √pat 'fall, fly' and it's not usually a transitive verb. Yanta being a neuter noun we can read this as 'and just as the watch-mechanism falls'. If the yāmayanta falls at the end of the time period, then this is consistent with a sinking bowl style water clock.

It is fascinating how a short phrase like this one can open a window into history. And while here we are not talking about the time of the Buddha, but of the period of the Sri Lankan commentators, it is still a glimpse of history. It reinforces the point that the commentaries reflect their own time rather than any earlier time. They are apt to project their own culture and technology backwards onto the past, making them unreliable guides to the past. Thus when we consult the Pāḷi commentaries for insights into the suttas we must be cautious in drawing historical conclusions. The commentators were no doubt sincere, but they had a vested interest in trying to establish that the past was reflected in the present because it was one way of establishing their legitimacy as bearers of the tradition. It shows how very tenuous lineage is as a guide to legitimacy or authenticity. 


Attwood, Jayarava. (2012) 'Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism.' Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3.
Misra B.N. (1998) Nālandā: Vol. 1. Sources and Background. B.R. Publishing Corporation.
Sharfe, Harmut. (2002) Education in Ancient India. Brill 2002. 
Takakusu, J. trans. (1896) I-Tsing, A Record of the Buddhist Religion : As Practised in India and the Malay Archipelago (A.D. 671-695), Clarendon Press 1896. Reprint. New Delhi, AES, 2005.

13 December 2013

Origins of the World's Mythologies

Michael Witzel is one of the most prolific scholars in Indology of any period. His publications have set the standard in the field of the early history of India and the Indic languages. His 2012 book The Origins of the World's Mythologies, published by Oxford University Press, is extremely ambitious in scope and intriguing in its content. In a lesser scholar I'm sure that such a work would be dismissed, but Witzel has the stature and the background to carry it off. I've previously been strongly influenced by Witzel's work. His theory on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe led to my own article on that subject being published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (Vol. 3). 

I'm a long way from assimilating all of the ideas in the book, but want to begin to note what I find interesting about it. I won't be critiquing his methods because frankly I'm not qualified. They are explained in some detail and my layman's eye tells me only that he has at least set out how he proceeded. It seems a plausible enough way to proceed and I see every sign of his dealing well with complexity and exceptions. Witzel repeats several times that the project is heuristic a term he borrows from textual criticism to mean still gathering information, though he thinks his outline of the general features is likely to accommodate any new facts. Inevitably the result is a broad brush-stroke, rather speculative picture. There will be many who find this kind of speculation unwarranted, but I have always been fascinated by such an approach which crosses disciplines and fields. Books like this are pioneering efforts, providing a background against which more detailed investigations can proceed.

Witzel's method is primary comparative mythology, but he approaches this in a novel way. Instead of comparing individual myths or themes, he compares whole mythic systems. In this I believe Witzel has been strongly influenced by the field of comparative linguistics. The comparative method works best across whole languages rather than with isolated words or points of grammar (though these may be important signposts). So while it is neither here nor there that Latin pater becomes fader in Germanic, it is very significant that everywhere that Latin words begin with  /p/ the Germanic cognate will begin with /f/. This systematic shift in consonant sound is an aspect of Grimm's Law (after the elder of the Brothers Grimm, Jacob). As an example I have looked in detail at how the sounds in words for five and finger are related across various Indo-European languages in studying the Sanskrit word prapañca. Similarly here Witzel is looking for, and finds, systematic correspondences in the mythologies of far flung cultures.

What emerges is that mythic systems spanning Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, India, Asia, South East Asia, the Pacific and the Americas share important features. In particular they share a story arc. Individual myths are fitted into this same story arc in these regions. By contrast the myth of Subsaharan Africa, New Guinea and Australia follow an very different story arc. These two areas roughly correspond to the ancient landmasses of Laurasia and Gondwanaland and Witzel has chosen these names to represent them - though he is fully aware of the different chronologies of geology and human evolution.

The striking conclusion from the shared features of Laurasian myth that the mythology "...can be traced back to a single source, probably in Great Southwest Asia, from where it spread across Eurasia, long before the immigration of the Amerindian populations into North America and before the Austroasiatic colonisation of the Indonesian archipelago, Madagascar, and the Pacific." (19)

That is to say that Witzel claims that he can identify elements of an ancient mythology common to a group of people who lived at least ca. 20,000 years ago. This figure emerges because the first migrations from Siberia into America via the Beringa land bridge (which crossed the Bering Strait). Testing this thesis will be a monumental task as it involves a huge amount of evidence from across multiple disciplines (the book is about 660 pages). Along the way Witzel provides many examples of testable hypothesis and gaps in our knowledge. We get no sense that the theory is complete or unequivocal. Witzel is not making unwarranted claims to knowledge, but proposing a conjecture to be further tested.

Chapter One introduces the main ideas and situates his study in the history of such studies. Chapter two explores his comparative method and chapter three explores the Laurasian myth in greater detail, noting all the variations and contrary evidence. Witzel is not afraid to cite contradictions which is always a good sign. However he does try to show how or why such evidence might be understood in his framework. Chapter four explores evidence from other fields such as linguistics, physical anthropology. genetics, and archaeology which serve to bolster the thesis because they are largely in agreement with the results of comparing myths. It should be noted however that much of this evidence is disputed or ambiguous. Interpretations exist which flatly contradict Witzel. Thus here at least we need to be aware of confirmation bias. Chapter five looks at the Gondwana mythology as a study in contrast, giving both the main characteristics of these myths and discussing the similarities and differences. Clearly in some cases the two broad traditions intrude on each other. Chapter six speculates on the first myths that might underlie both Laurasian and Gondwana mythology, which Witzel refers to as Pan-Gaean Mythology. Certain myths, such as the story of a flood that nearly wipes out humanity, are more or less ubiquitous around the world. Chapter seven deals with changes in Laurasian Myth over time.

Witzel's provisional outline of the story arc of Laurasian Myth is as follows:
In the beginning there is nothing, chaos, non-being. Sometimes there are primordial waters. The universe is created from an egg or sometimes from a cosmic man. The earth is retrieved from the waters by a diver or fisherman. (Father) heaven and (mother) earth are in perpetual embrace and their children, the gods, are born in between them. They push their parents apart and often hold them apart with an enormous tree. The light of the sun is revealed for the first time. Several generations of gods are born and there is infighting. The younger generation defeat and kill the elder. One of the gods kills a dragon and this fertilises the earth. Slaying the dragon is often associated with an intoxicating drink. The sun fathers the human race (sometimes only the chieftains of humans). Humans flourish but begin to commit evil deeds. Humans also begin to die. A great flood nearly wipes out humanity which is re-seeded by the survivors. There is a period of heroic humans and particularly the brining of culture in the form of fire, food. The benefactor is a hero or sometimes a shaman. having survived and now equipped with culture, humans spread out. Local histories and local nobility begin to emerge and then dominate. Consistent with their being four ages of the world everything ends in the destruction of the world, humans and gods. In some stories this destruction is the prelude for cyclic renewal.
Cultures as far flung as Indigenous Americans, Polynesians, Japanese, Malaysians, Indians, Greeks and Celts have a system of mythology which draws on these themes (or mythemes as Witzel terms them) and in this order. Which is to say their system of myth is structured around this story or something very like it. Of course there are many variations and exceptions. Having grown up with Greek and Māori mythology and comparing it with the Indian myth I have subsequently studied, I am particularly struck by the parallels between Vedic and Māori myth both of which closely follow the general outline above. These are two populations that simply could not have come into contact for many thousands of years, suggesting that they must have shared these stories for the kinds of time periods Witzel is proposing. 

The origin of the Laurasian universe is mysterious. In the beginning there is darkness or chaos (from Greek khaos meaning "abyss") or non-being. Such images are found in myths from the Pacific, Greece, China, India and the Middle-East. The commonality spans geographical areas and language families (though language superfamilies are now being proposed, which I will discuss in a future essay). Sometimes this phase is characterised as primordial dark waters (water has no form) from which the earth (order) emerges. "The myth of primordial waters is very widely spread, especially in northern Europe, Siberia, and the Americas, the Near East, India, and Southeast Asia/Oceania" (113). One of the ways that the world is brought into being is through speech - a theme in Vedic, Icelandic, Maya, Maori and Biblical texts (111).

In his final chapter he sums up Laurasian myth:
"Viewed from the present vantage point... Laurasian 'ideology' seems to be based on a fairly simple idea, the correlation of the 'life' of humans and the universe. But someone, about 40,000 years ago, had to some up with it. As it is closely related to the concepts of the Paleolithic hunt, the rebirth of animals, and shamanism, it must have been a shaman who did so." (422)
Chapter three provides a detailed look at the sources and variations of what Witzel calls "Our First Novel", including lengthy quotes from published versions of world mythology. Witzel has given special place to old tellings of myth. "The earliest written codifications consist of the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish, the (four major) Egyptian cosmogonies, the oral but--due to extremely faithful oral transmission--virtually "tape recorded" Vedic corpus, the Greek Theogony of Hesiod, the Japanese Kojiki, the Quiché Mayan Popol Vuh, the Hawai'ian Kumulipo, and not to forget, the Torah, the Hebrew Bible." (65) The point here being that, just as with older written texts the connections between cultures are clearer than in more recent texts.

One of the interesting contrasts of Laurasian and Gondwana mythology is cosmogony. The Laurasian stress on the creation of the universe is entirely absent in Gondwana mythologies (105). For these people the world has always existed and always will exist. By contrast creation is a particular fascination for the majority of the world's people (given that the Laurasian area takes in China, India and Indonesia, who between them account for half the population of the world, in addition to Europe and the Americas). Gondwana myth is concerned with the origins of people however.

In addition there are some stories which are found to be ubiquitous. Chief amongst these is the flood. According to a widespread, more or global story (178ff and 348ff) at some point a flood nearly wiped all of humanity except for a few survivors. Witzel treats this myth as a survival of a much older Gondwana story since it is found in Africa, New Guinea, Melanesia and Australia as well. And it has been intelligently incorporated into the Laurasian story line. It is one piece of evidence pointing to what Witzel calls Pan-Gaean Mythology that must have existed when the migration out of Africa began ca 65,000 years ago.

All this is interesting from a Buddhist point of view because the Buddhist universe is beginningless and endless and has no creation story. In Buddhist stories there no primordial chaos and no bringing the world into being and no interest such things. Though many people cite the Agañña Sutta as a creation myth in fact it represents a Śākyan parody of a Vedic myth. There are elements of the Vedic cosmogony of a cyclic creation and destruction overlaid on this substrata, but its clear that it is part of a much larger process of assimilating elements of Vedic culture (for example virtually all the names of the members of the Buddha's family, including Siddhartha, have Vedic overtones. See my essay Siddhartha Gautama: What's in a Name?). According to Witzel this absence is characteristic of the mythologies of Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia and New Guinea. So this raises a question of how we relate Buddhism to Witzel's characterisation of world mythology. At first glance the basic Buddhist worldview would appear to be more like the Gondwana than the Laurasian. This is a subject that would require more study.

Witzel appears to have done something at once similar to, and yet vastly more far reaching than, Joseph Campbell's characterisation of the Hero's Journey. This overview can hardly do justice to the sweep of a 600+ page book that purports to describe 65,000 years of story telling and myth, though I hope that readers with an interest in myth and/or history will take up the challenge of reading it. It's clearly a book written by and for academics, but Witzel is a good writer who repays careful attention. I don't imagine the book would be beyond anyone who regularly reads this blog.

Witzel, E. J. Michael. (2012) Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press. Pbk: 978-0-19-981285-1
See also the article (2008) 'Slaying the Dragon Across Eurasia.' in In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Essays in the Four Fields of Anthropolog: In honor of Harold Crane Fleming. Ed. John D. Bengtson. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
See also Origins of Myth: The Other Evidence. 24 Jan 2014