Showing posts with label Patañjali. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Patañjali. Show all posts

14 February 2014

Niyama in the Sāṅkhyakārikā and Buddhaghosa's Commentaries.

Rice Plant
via Wikimedia
This essay will briefly outline some ideas from the Sāṅkhyakārikā, the oldest extant Sāṅkhya text, and compare this with ideas expressed by Buddhaghosa in his commentary on the Mahāpadāna Sutta in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī,  and his Atthasālinī a commentary on the Dhammasaṅgaṇi, an Abhidhamma text. My translations of both of these texts can be found in Source Texts for the Five-fold Niyāma. We've seen that the word niyama means 'restriction' in śāstric Sanskrit (see Dharma-niyama in the Vyākaraṇa-Mahābhāṣya) and here I will reinforce this by showing how the Sāṅkhyakārikā uses the word, with a few notes on how this was taken up in the Yogasūtras attributed to Patañjali. In addition I will note certain similarities between the Sāṅkhya notion of causality and the way that Buddhaghosa uses the word niyama to highlight restrictions on the processes of causality.

The Sāṅkhyakārikā  (SK) is a sūtra style text composed ca. 350-450 CE and attributed to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. In Indian literature sūtra style generally means it is aphoristic, terse, and generally requiring a good deal of unpacking. It is partly this general meaning of the word that makes scholars consider the Buddhist use of sūtra to translation Pāli sutta to be a hyper-Sanskritisation for sukta. In any case the SK outlines the darśana or philosophy of the Sāṅkhya school of Indian thought. It is non-Vedic (indeed it is critical of the Vedas) and concerned with soteriology. The basic Sāṅkhya view was adapted by Yoga schools (they added Īśvara or god to this originally nāstika darśana for example).

The characteristic idea of Sāṅkhya is a doctrine known as satkārya which states that the product of causation already exists in the cause. The Sāṅkhya world is analysed into a hierarchy of 24 elements or tattvas which are produced when unmanifest nature is disrupted by puruṣa (literally 'man' but here meaning something like 'soul'). What results is the manifest world (vyaktam). The 24 elements result from the interactions of three qualities: sattva 'purity', rajas 'passion', and tamas 'darkness'. Kārikā 12 of the SK gives us an outline of the three guṇas that uses the word niyama.

Here the three guṇas or qualities are each said to have a particular essence (ātmaka) and a purpose (artha).
prītyapṛitiviṣādātmakāḥ prakāśapravṛttiniyamārthāḥ |
anyo’anyābhibhavāśrayajananamithunavṛttiyaśca gunāḥ ||12||
The guṇas have the essence of pleasure, pain, and apathy; and the purpose of illumination, activity, and restriction;
And their functions with respect to each other are suppressing, supporting, producing, and forming pairs.
In particular the guṇa tamas or darkness has the purpose of niyama or restriction. Kārikā 13 adds that tamas is heavy (guru) and enveloping or enclosing (varaṇaka). The weight and restriction of tamas is implicitly contrasted in kārikā 12 with the pravṛtti 'activity, energy, restlessness' of rajas. In the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, which draw on Sāṅkhya thought, niyama takes on an applied meaning of a vow to be observed. Here I want to focus on how Īśvarakṛṣṇa uses niyama alongside adjectives like "heavy" and "enveloping". Incidentally one of the more popular commentaries on SK, by Gaudapada, comments here that "Tamas is adapted to restrain, i.e. is competent at fixation." (niyamārthaṃ tamaḥ sthitau samartham ity artha). Here sthiti 'fixing, stopping, halting' (from √sthā 'to stand, to remain') is offered as a word with a similar sense (not quite a synonym): that which restricts the movement of X, causes X to stand still or be fixed. And this is the role of tamas which helps us to zero in on how the word niyama is used in śāstric Sanskrit.

This way of thinking may well have influenced Buddhaghosa when he composed the fivefold niyama not just in the sense of the word itself. Buddhaghosa seems to have some of the same concerns over the limitations of causality that we see in SK 9.
asad akaraṇād upādānagrahaṇāt sarvasambhavābhāvāt;
śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt kāraṇabhāvāc ca sat kāryam. ||9||
Because the non-existent cannot be made, because of the grasping of the material basis, and because not all possibilities exist;
Because the making is possible [only] of what is capable [to be made]; and because of existence in a cause, the product exists. 
This is the fundamental statement of the Sāṅkhya idea of causality, satkāryavāda, i.e. that the effects already exist in the cause. No causation ex nihilo is possible, a substrate (upādāna) is necessary, things cannot arise haphazardly, things can only be produced by what is capable of producing them. Whether these reasons necessitate satkāryavāda is moot, but these are the supporting arguments given in SK. 

How does this relate to Buddhaghosa? SK says sarvasambhavābhāvāt "because not all possibilities exist" which means that things cannot arise haphazardly; also śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt "because the making is possible [only] of what [the cause] is capable of" which means that a cause is only capable of producing that which it is capable of producing. The same restrictions apply in Buddhaghosa's schema of conditionality, which insists on a non-random and more-or-less inevitable relationship between cause and effect. For Buddhaghosa this restriction in a non-random process has the flavour of inevitability.

In his use of the word niyama, Buddhaghosa was most at pains to emphasise the inevitability of karmic retribution. The inevitable production of vedanā by karma is mirrored in the natural processes of plants coming to fruition and the arrival of the monsoon rains in season. For Buddhaghosa, the production of cognitions from sense contact was a perfectly analogous process. In his commentarial texts which employ the fivefold niyama, Buddhaghosa spends most time illuminating the process of karma and insisting on the inevitability of it. This is the focus of his use of the concept of niyama, it is what the commentaries insist on. The restriction on karma is that the fruits of actions must inevitably ripen. Later commentators using the fivefold niyama schema focus more on the production of cognitions. 

We can see then that restriction and inevitability are two sides of the same coin. If a process can only unfold in a restricted way, then there is a certain inevitability to it. If one plants a rice seed then the restriction on cause and effect says that one a rice plant can grow from it. In other words it is inevitable that a rice plant comes from a rice seed. Buddhaghosa calls this bījaniyama - the restriction on seeds, or the inevitability of seeds. Of course elsewhere in the Buddhist world they began to treat actions as more literally creating seeds that are held in a receptacle (ālaya) in some part of the mind (vijñāna), but that is another story. 

Buddhaghosa adds that the miracles accompanying the main events of the life of a Buddha are said to be of the same type of inevitability as these natural processes (dhammatā). They are things that inevitably happen when a Buddha is conceived, born, becomes awakened and dies. This he calls dhammaniyama

So when Buddhaghosa reads: imasmin sati idaṃ hoti he does not see this an optional or contingent on any other fact. For Buddhaghosa there is a restriction on the way causation happens: when the condition is present (imasmin sati) then it is inevitable (niyama) that the conditioned must exist (idam hoti). This is particularly so in the case of the restriction on karma (kammaniyama). Having acted the results of the act follow one unerringly. To illustrate this point in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī Buddhaghosa uses the Dhammapada verse 127.
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified there is nowhere on earth,
Where one might escape from an evil action.
Furthermore in the Atthasālinī niyama passage he expands on this using the commentarial back story to this same verse. In this text about one half is given over to the discussion of restrictions on karma, about one quarter to the restrictions on the processes of the mind, and one quarter to the rest. In both cases dhammaniyama solely refers to the miraculous events during the life of a Buddha.

At the very least, Īśvarakṛṣṇa, the author of the Sāṅkhyakārikā, and Buddhaghosa, author of the pañcavidha niyama, shared an interest in the limitations or restrictions which were observed in relation to causation. Neither man accepted that causation is random or completely unpredictable. On the contrary both see the universe as having an order to it that places limitations on how change occurs. Buddhaghosa's notion of utuniyama and bījaniyama would have been obvious to Īśvarakṛṣṇa. We too can see that if we plant rice we must get a rice plant and not an oak tree; and that the monsoon does not come at random, but at roughly the same time each year. The use of such analogies is widespread in Indian literature.

So if the universe has an order, and that order imposes restrictions on the functioning of causation, then is it not acceptable to speak of "orders of conditionality"? I still think this is not the case. Primarily because Buddhaghosa is at pains to describe a single type of restriction than manifests in five different ways. This is why Buddhaghosa, unlike modern exegetes, uses the singular "fivefold niyama" and not the plural "five niyamas". This is in contrast to the Yogasūtras of Patañjali (though the attribution is disputed and the date uncertain) which speak of pañca niyamāḥ 'five niyamas'. (Sūtra 32). In the YS niyama is often translated as 'observance', but it means 'a restriction on behaviour'. The five restrictions are: cleanliness (śauca), contentment (santoṣa), austerity (tapas), study (svādhyāya), and devotion (praṇidhāna).

So, there are not five restrictions on causality, but only one. This one restriction can be observed in five different areas of experience (if we count the supernatural aspects of dhamma-niyama as experiential, which is moot). Because of this there is in fact no implied hierarchy in Buddhaghosa's fivefold schema and the number five is arbitrary. The schema is neither systematic nor comprehensive. Though Buddhaghosa himself placed differing emphasis on each of the five aspects, we can see that this emphasis was purely rhetorical. Buddhaghosa was addressing a particular set of problems when he employed this schema, not speculating about causation more generally. Later Pāli commentaries placed a different emphasis.

Of the five aspects of restricted causation the seed (bīja) and seasonal (utu) restrictions are obvious to anyone (the same restrictions occur to Īśvarakṛṣṇa). The action (karma) and mental (citta) restrictions are obvious enough to a person who is well versed in the metaphysics of karma and rebirth, and in the Buddhist account of cognition. Or perhaps one might argue that they become obvious to anyone willing to examine their experience using Buddhist practices. The dharmic restriction is just something we have to take Buddhaghosa's word for. It is a supernatural belief, and thus not amenable to empirical study. Though it might make an interesting foil to these people who pop up from time to time claiming to be "the second Buddha."* If the "10,000 world system" did not shake when you were born, then you are not a Buddha, because this is what inevitably happens. And maybe that was Buddhaghosa's point too?


* As a little aside, Liverpuddlian musical comedian Mitch Benn is currently touring a show called Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle. An edited version is on BBC iPlayer [UK only] until 21 Feb. He counted up all the "5th Beatle" candidates and got to 36. Then added himself. I wonder how many "second Buddhas" there might have been so far? 

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.
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:
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: [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:

22 November 2013

Patañjali & Pronunciation

sculpture by Natalia Rosenfeld
Buddhist texts are preserved in a wide variety of languages. However in India for more than 1000 years, from just before the common era, most texts were composed and preserved in a variety Sanskrit. Sanskrit was not only the language of the Buddhist texts during this period, but was the literary language of all India, so that Buddhist exegesis was composed in Sanskrit also. Sanskrit was not restricted to Brahmins for most of the common era. Despite grammars dating back to ca. 4th century BCE, which served as prescriptive models, Sanskrit has always existed in a variety of dialects and there was influence in both directions with Prakrits (or vernacular languages that derive from one or other Sanskrit dialect).

Of course in Sri Lanka and countries under the influence of the Sri Lankan Buddhists, the North Indian mixed Prakrit we now call Pāli was important. And we are beginning to understand the importance of the language of Gandhāra (usually called Gāndhārī) and it's influence particularly in Central Asia and China.

Even in India there are some variations in pronunciation. Buddhists outside of India have struggled with Sanskrit pronunciation. Sanskrit contains sounds that are not part of the Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, or English sound palette. The first three nations settled on standard pronunciations a long time ago. In the individualistic English speaking world the problem of pronunciation continues, with a wide variety of mispronunciations being common. So we may here the syllable saṁ (as in saṁgha) being pronounced like the English words sang, sung, sum, and (the name) Sam. Sometimes all four by one person. 

I have written about pronunciation before in 2009. I've given up trying to correct people's pronunciation in writing. English speakers have a strong tendency to pronounce written words as though they were English - with all the vagaries of English pronunciation. And because we tend to learn our Buddhist vocabulary from written sources we seem to be stuck with the morasse of mispronunciation. In the short term I don't think anything I can say will change things. Certainly nothing I write will change things. Although a few of us make forays into Buddhist canonical languages, I don't know anyone who is familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet that phoneticists use to disambiguate spoken sounds.

But pronunciation is important, and not just for aesthetic reasons. An ancient commentary on the grammar of Sanskrit, the Vyākaraṇa-mahābhāṣya or Major Commentary on Grammar of Patañjali (also credited with composing the Yoga Sūtras), criticises bad pronunciation (mithyā prayukta) in this way:
duṣtaḥ śabdaḥ svarato varṇato vā mithyā prayukta na tam artham āha;
sa vāgvajro yajamānaṃ hinasti yathendraśatruḥ svarato 'parādhāt.
A faulty word, badly pronounced due to a misplaced accent or badly articulated sound does not convey the intended meaning. A word-lightning bolt kills the sponsor of the sacrifice, just as a misplaced accent in 'indraśatru'.
I've not attempted a verse translation here and have crammed in some extra information because much is alluded to this little verse that won't be obvious to readers.

Firstly there are two main ways to make mistakes: in accent (svarata) and in articulation (varṇata). Accent refers mainly to the Vedic pitch accent. Although the use of the pitch accent was changed to a stress accent in Classical Sanskrit, the placing of the accent still provided important information about how to conjugate any particular verb or render a compound as we will see, since this is the important aspect of the story. In English great use of the change in stress was made by the Two Ronnies in their hardware shop sketch: it's not clear whether Ronnie Barker is asking Ronnie Corbett for "four candles" or "fork 'andles" (the London accent drops the h of handles which accentuates the ambiguity). The pronunciation is the same and all that distinguishes them is the stress.

The mis-articulation of a word is a more obvious mistake. Articulation refers to the way the parts of the mouth move in order to create the sounds of speech. A single mispronounced letter can completely change the meaning of a word. This is used to great comic effect in Monty Ponty's Life of Brian in the character of Pontius Pilate who has a speech impediment (though of course we ought not to laugh at other's afflictions). When his friend, "Biggus Dickus", steps in to try and calm the situation, things get out of hand. Pilot remonstrates with the crowd, pointing out that his friend Biggus Dickus "commands a quack legion. He wanks as high as anyone in Wome." The crowd is already rolling on the floor laughing and any hope of regaining control or dignity is now lost.

The story alluded to in the verse relates to Indra and his mortal enemy Vṛtra. Indra is the god of storms and rain, a counterpart of Thor in Germanic myth. Vṛtra is synonymous with 'drought', though literally the name means 'restrainer', i.e. the one who holds back the rains. The two characters of this story seem to be personifications of the annual anxiety over the arrival of the monsoon. Leading up to the monsoon rains, which last for three months, there is no rain at all for nine months. If the monsoon fails there is, even now, widespread famine in India as crops fail for lack of water. Also, as in other river valleys, the annual floods ensure the continued fertility of the soil despite heavy cropping. Since the regular arrival of the monsoon is the natural order, when it fails something must have held it back (vṛta). So each year Indra must do battle with Vṛtra (sometimes envisioned as a dragon) in order to release the rains from Vṛtra's restraint. This story has been assimilated to a much older narrative about a warrior slaying a demon which is found in mythology across Eurasia (associated with the so-called Nostratic proto-language). The story is found, for example, in the Old English story of Beowulf and in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

In one of the stories surrounding this mythic pair, Vṛtra prepares a magical rite in which he will kill Indra. Within the rite he pronounces the following mantra: indraśatrur vardhasva! He had intended to say "may Indra's killer (i.e. himself) prosper. However he mispronounces the word indraśatrur and was himself killed. Why?

The word indraśatru is a compound. And as with most compounds it can be read a number of ways. The most obvious reading, where the pitch accent falls on the final syllable of śatru, is that the compound is a tatpuruṣa compound and means 'the killer (śatru) of Indra. However, when he gets the accent wrong Vṛtra makes the compound a bahuvrīhi '[he whose] killer is Indra'.

The magic of the mantra is infallible and so Vṛtra effective ensures his own demise by effectively naming himself 'killed by Indra'. By merely uttering the words in the ritual, which is to say the sacrificial, context, Vṛtra becomes the one who is killed by Indra. The utterance becomes a word-lightning bolt (vāg-vajra) which strikes and kills the sponsor of the sacrifice! The last little cultural detail here is that the Vedic sacrifice is sponsored by a wealthy community member,  who is known as the sacrificer (yajamāna) but by Classical times carried out by a group of priests who are experts in the sacrificial ritual (yājñika). If the priests go wrong it is not they, but the sponsor upon whom the mistake rebounds. Of the four priests taking a central role in the ritual, one, the brāhmaṇa, has the role of silently following the proceedings and repairing any mistakes by chanting special mantras. Presumably it would have been incredibly bad for the priestly business to have one's mistakes killing one's benefactors and sponsors.

Buddhism was initially, and is once again in the modern times, a religion without intercessors. In between the early and most recent periods the Buddhist clergy did (and sometimes still do) act as intercessory priests, performing rituals and prayers on our behalf, but fortunately we have sidelined them to a great extent in modern Buddhism. For modern Buddhists it is our own deeds of body, speech and mind which are important. The onus is on us to practice effectively, which is a very onerous duty. It means we are back to the consequences of our actions rebounding directly onto us. Thus we are like Vṛtra - both the sponsor and performer of deeds and mistakes rebound on us directly.

Coming back to the verse, the problem is that mispronounced words do not convey the intended meaning (na tam artham āha). People who complain about "poor" English grammar, and there are lots of them, make the same point. Part of the difficulty is that spoken language and written language are quite different.

Ideas about when human's acquired spoken language vary but it's generally agreed that we had the vocal apparatus by about 200,000 years before the present, when anatomically modern humans begin to be found in the fossil record. Apart from a very few individuals with severe learning difficulties, more or less every human acquires some form of spoken language. Even the famous Helen Keller acquired language despite being both deaf and blind (and eventually became an author whose books inspired me as a child). Most of us learn our mother tongue effortlessly merely by hearing it spoken and we understand a great deal well before we ourselves can speak. No difficult grammar lessons are required. This has lead some linguists to propose a "language instinct", the idea that our brains are pre-prepared by genetics to absorb whatever language we hear spoken around us. (See Stephen Pinker's book The Language Instinct).

After about age 12 learning a new language becomes a laborious process of rote learning, though each additional language is said to come easier by those who go in for polyglotism. The change is related to changes in the brain around puberty which involve pruning brain connections to optimise for the local conditions. In others words we spend our first 12 years being a generalist and learning whatever we can and then we settle down to specialise in the most common events, actions, etc. Of course the brain remains plastic throughout our lives and learning certainly takes place, but it doesn't have the effortless quality with which we learn our mother tongue.

Writing is a quite distinct process. Left to themselves humans learn to speak, but not to write. Writing emerged only about 3000 years ago. Learning to write is laborious even for children, and most of us never excel at it either in terms of graphic form or content. Indeed those who write well are celebrated in literate cultures precisely because the skill is rare. Writing is not a skill we have evolved directly. It is one that employs a variety of general skills, mostly optimised for other tasks. Many cultures never develop writing. Amongst the thousands of languages in Australia, New Guinea and Melanesia for example, not one was written before contact with Europeans.

To be fair, most English speaking Buddhists come across their first Sanskrit words when they are already adults. And we all tend to fall back on what we know to interpret new stimuli. Presented with new words, most of us rely on habits to try to pronounce them. And even when correction is offered it is ignored. So despite repeated reminders an erstwhile housemate of mine pronounces the tri in tri-ratna as English 'try'. He knows it's wrong because I repeatedly told him so, but he prefers the incorrect-but-familiar to the correct-but-unfamiliar when it comes to language. And most of us are like this. Indeed this is a microcosm of a human problem on a macro scale. Most of us want most things to be settled and stable, with a modicum of novelty to keep it interesting. We think in well worn grooves that are not always helpful.

Very few Buddhists make the effort to learn canonical languages or even make much effort with accurate pronunciation. People I know just shrug and say they don't really care. And making them care is beyond me.

In my book Visible Mantra I've argued that one ought to be concerned with good pronunciation on various grounds (p.15f) , but my book is hardly on the 'Best Sellers' list and I'm not a person whose words have influence. In Malcolm Gladwell's taxonomy of players in change, from The Tipping Point, I am a maven, but not a connector or a persuader. Though of course you, the reader, are reading this and will perhaps be influenced by it. And perhaps you are a connector or persuader?

The general disinterest in our canonical texts and languages is not a new thing. For most of the history of Buddhism most texts were known only to a few cognoscenti. The average Buddhist probably did not know any sutras, or at best might have chanted one or two as a magical charm. Most Buddhists in the past did what Buddhist do now and repeated edifying stories about their teachers and figures of the past (perhaps, but not necessarily, including the Buddha). We like  to tell and hear stories in which principles are personified. Even amongst the monastic institutions the education focusses on commentaries in the vernacular. Texts like the Heart Sūtra might be memorised in Sanskrit, but Sanskrit itself is not studied, so the text is not understood in Sanskrit and the recitation relies on the idea that Sanskrit has magical qualities. Sanskrit has no magical properties - it's just a language like any other. There is ample evidence of Buddhist texts being garbled by scribes who mechanically copied without understanding, or indeed by teachers who were unable to speak the language of the texts. My work on the Vajrasattva Mantra is a good example of the latter problem.

It is sad that the increasing popularity of Buddhism in the West has coincided with a slide towards the new form of libertarianism (sometimes called Neoliberalism, though it is extremely illiberal) and the decrease in funding to the liberal arts (including the study of religion and ancient languages). The decline of Buddhist Studies and Sanskrit and Pāli Studies in the UK has been marked since the 1970s. Pāli and Buddhism have almost entirely disappeared from Cambridge University for example. But given that most Buddhists don't care about Buddhist Studies, and that many Buddhist leaders are openly hostile to academia, it can be no surprise. The down side is that the study of our texts, history and culture is largely in the hands of those with no interest in the practice of Buddhism and even for them funding and opportunities are dwindling.


Should anyone be interested in following up the reference to the Vyākaraṇa-mahābhāṣya an English translation, accompanied by a translation of a standard Indian sub-commentary, can be found here.