A Sanskrit problem

Update: Thanks to all who have contributed to this discussion. This translations is now live on SuttaCentral! We have released a large number of texts, and a few translations. Some of these have never before been released in digital forms. You can see the list of texts here. Original texts are the highlighted links in the left-most column; translations are on the right. Enjoy.

I’ve been dabbling in a little Sanskrit translation, and there are some points where you just go, “What the!?” I thought I’d try crowdsourcing, and see whether any of you can help with an occasional knotty turn of phrase. Here goes.

There is a Sanskrit version of the “Nagara Sutta”, which tells how the Buddha rediscovered the Dhamma, like coming across an ancient city. It is part of the Nidana samyukta, and is one of those dependent origination texts that does not complete the full 12 links, but goes as far as the mutual dependence of viññāṇa and nāmarūpa. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Ven Bodhi’s book on the Mahanidana Sutta is the best!)

Here, the Sanskrit has a peculiar phrase:

tasya mama vijñānātpratyudāvartate mānasaṃ nātaḥ pareṇa vyativartate

The Pali parallel is this:

Tassa mayhaṃ, bhikkhave, etadahosi– paccudāvattati kho idaṃ viññāṇaṃ nāmarūpamhā na paraṃ gacchati.

Which we would translate:

Monks, it occurred to me: this consciousness turns back from name and form, it does not go beyond.

There are a number of peculiar features of the Sanskrit. First, the opening phrase appears truncated, and probably should be read, “tasya mamaitad abhavat“.

vijñānātpratyudāvartate is straightforward, and directly parallels the Pali.

But where the Pali has nāmarūpa, the Sanskrit has mānasa. Mānasa just means “mind”, but it is a rare term, normally reserved for poetry (cf. Metta Sutta: mānasambhāvaye aparimāṇaṁ) It’s appearance here in dependent origination is just weird.

Then there’s the word nātaḥ, for which the only meaning I can find is “dancer”(!) The whole phrase looks to me as if it’s just dropped in there.

Finally we have pareṇa vyativartate, which looks to me like a misreading for: pare na vyativartate.

I have tentatively translated the phrase as:

“Then it occurred to me: ‘Consciousness turns back at the mind (mānasa), it does not go beyond.’

But I have to admit this is more a reconstruction based on what I think it probably means, rather than a direct translation.

Anyone care to offer some help?

18 thoughts on “A Sanskrit problem

  1. Bhante,

    nātaḥ is resolved as “na + aatah” (SED page 134b: aa- /tan) meaning “does not extend, go beyond.”

    “tasya mamaitad abhavat“ should be the right reading as this is repeated throughout the sutra.

    In 2005 (SD 14.4), I attempted a trilinear translation of the, Nagara Sutta (S 12.10), the Mahaa Sakya,muni Gotama Sutta (S 12.65) and the Nagara Sutra, which are all closely connected. However, the Skt text I had was incomplete: good to have the “Sutta Central” version.

    When you have finished, translating the Nagara Sutra (even if draft), I would be grateful if you would send me a copy. The errors we commit are often from our not learning from those ahead of us. Sutta translation for me is a personal effort at a close study of the Buddha’s teaching.

    With metta and mudita.

    If the words here have a darker contrast, it would be much easier on my weakening eyes. I am undergoing treatment for glaucoma. Thanks.

    • nātaḥ is resolved as “na + aatah” (SED page 134b: aa- /tan) meaning “does not extend, go beyond.”

      Thanks, that solves that.

      “tasya mamaitad abhavat“ should be the right reading as this is repeated throughout the sutra.


      So where does that leave us with the rest of it? And are you willing to translate the line as a whole?

      And re the contrast problem: are you referring to this blog as a whole, or just the comments section? Or to SC?

    • Bhante,
      Here is a possible translation:
      “This occurred to me: Consciousness turns back. It goes not beyond the mind. It does not become other.”

    • I just realized the last translated sentence could not be right.
      As you suggested, I think, too, we need to read pareṇa vyativartate perhaps as pare na…
      So let’s try this new translation of the last sentence:
      “It does not pass beyond {the mind).”
      vyativartate in BHS is viitivartati (BHSD 506a).

      What does this mean? The ball is in your court now 🙂

    • Re: Contrast problem. I was referring to this blog. Sometimes I notice the words somewhat light (like what I am typing here). However, the words in the main panels seems clear to my eyes. I need to peer at the words more closely to make sure I miss out anything. Thanks for the concern. jaraa pi dukkhaa/

    • So the problem is when you are entering comments, not when reading them? Unfortunately I can’t tweak this blog much, as it is just a generic style. But if it is a problem I can look for another theme, perhaps.

  2. Dear bhante,
    I asked my teacher for the meaning of nātaḥ.she gave me whole list of similar sounding words and i came acroos a meaning of natah (नत:) – turned towards. Not sure if this is correct but I guess it kinda suits the translation. There is also a spelling and pronounciation difference for dancer (नट) pronounced as nut. But (नत) is pronounced as nath. Hoped this helped. 🙂

  3. Hi Sujato. I had a crack at unravelling this:

    My Sanskrit teacher drills us on parsing. Work out what the grammar is before trying to understand what a sentence is saying.

    The first thing that occurs to me is vijñānāt is an ablative so it cannot be the subject of the sentence. Contra the Pāli, here something turns back *from* vijñāna. c.f. idaṃ viññāṇaṃ.

    tasya mama – I’m sure you know is short hand for ‘considering that [which has come immediately before] in me [occurred this thought]. It may be that something like tasya mamaitad abhavat was intended, but the sentence works without it.

    So I think this means something like

    tasya mama vijñānātpratyudāvartate
    “from that, it occurred to me, [it] turns back from discrimination.”
    or “turns back at discrimination” if we take the ablative to be the terminus of the action.

    This would make sense in the context. The progression turns back at this point.

    Mānasa doesn’t just mean ‘mind’ it’s the same formation as bauddha (with vṛddhi of the root vowel and suffix -a). It means ‘that which pertains to the mind’, i.e. ‘mental’. Mānasaṃ is accusative. I think it’s part of the next sentence.

    If you interpret pareṇa as ‘pare na’ then you have an extra na in nātaḥ (=na ātaḥ). And you have pare – but this might in fact be a nominative singular in BHS rather than a locative in Classical. In all of these texts one has to watch for odd endings. Certainly a locative here would be difficult to explain. “na ātaḥ pare na vyativartate” doesn’t make any better sense than the original. It’s not clear why na would change to ṇa and in Siddhaṃ script (and this text starts with ‘siddaṃ’ so was probably copied post Gupta Era) the two letters could never be confused, so its a very unlikely scribal error. MW lists pareṇa “ind. farther beyond past (with acc.)” And we have an accusative in the form of mānasaṃ.

    Piya Tan suggests nātaḥ resolves as na ātaḥ, and I’m inclined to agree though I struggle to make sense of ātaḥ. PT suggests that it comes from ātan or in fact ā√tan as in ātanoti ‘to extent’. I can’t find a form ātaḥ. Theoretically we might get ātā but this won’t give us ātaḥ as a declined form. Monier-Williams is no help. Apte has āta but it means ‘spread around’. If it is a nom. sg. and presuming that it can’t itself be the subject, with what is it agreeing? Maybe PT could explain his reasoning a little more here. However I think now the sentence is becoming clear.

    I think here mānasa is being used as a synonym for vijñāna. Allowing for some remaining ambiguity around ātaḥ, this part seems to say

    mānasaṃ nātaḥ pareṇa vyativartate
    “it does not go beyond the mental.”

    and thus the whole passage would be:

    tasya mama vijñānāt pratyudāvartate mānasaṃ nātaḥ pareṇa vyativartate
    “from that, it occurred to me, it turns back from discrimination; it does not go beyond the mental.”

    Now if ātaḥ is a nom sg then maybe it means ‘the extent’
    “from that, it occurred to me, it turns back from discrimination; the extent does not go beyond the mental.”

    So I think the sentence makes sense and is not a corruption. It is however a paraphrase and has a lacuna in that it doesn’t refer to nāmarūpa like the Pāli. Maybe the Sanskrit translator felt this was obvious. It kind of is obvious.

    What is very interesting about this is the change in verb from paraṃgacchati to vyativartate. This is the kind of change that occurs in the Heart Sutra where a Sanskrit passage has been translated into Chinese and then back into Sanskrit without reference to the original. It says the same thing, but paraphrased.

    Best Wishes

    PS Sanskrit is very helpful for understanding Pāli – indispensable really. But a lot more difficult!

    • Thanks so much, this is very helpful!

      I will go through this in more detail later, but one thought occurs to me now.

      Since, as you say, mānasa is an abstract from manas, it stands in identical relation as does cetasika to citta (cetasika in Pali, usually caitta in Sanskrit). And cetasika in the Abhidhamma tradition essentially means “mental factors apart from viññāṇa“. It is a synonym of nāma in the Sutta sense. The Abhidhamma usually uses nāma in the developed sense of “all mental factors including viññāṇa” (although the Visuddhimagga does state that the narrower meaning applies in the context of dependent origination). Since the old term nāma was no longer usable in this sense, this is, presumably, why the new technical term cetasika/caitta emerged.

      So perhaps mānasa here is not the poetic term for “mind” or “heart” that we find for metrical reasons in verses. Perhaps it is a nascent Abhidhamma term, replacing nāma (although I can’t explain what happened to poor old rūpa!). I wonder whether we actually find mānasa used in this technical sense in the Abhidhamma literature?

      This would tie in with the fact that the Sarvastivada Agama sutras on dependent origination already redefine nāma as the non-material khandhas exclusive of viññāṇa. This is an Abhidhamma-esque explanation finding its way into the Suttas.

      All this is, of course, merely to give a justification for the translation you have already made.

  4. dear Bhante,

    my friend working on his phD involving sanskrit studies understands the line to read:

    “From knowledge, it rises to the mind. Not then (not subsequently) does it leave thereafter (everafter).

    Taken alone, it could also mean “it does not rise to his mind/her mind/my mind, but I’m betting those genitive particles at the beginning are either a common form of starting a pith statement or they refer to other parts of the text, i.e. preceding and subsequent verses.)”

  5. Dear Bhante,

    ‘naatah’ should be resolved as na+atah and not na+aatah. ‘atah param’ is a common phrase in sanskrit meaning ‘after that/beyond that’. The text seems corrupted and should probably read -maanasam na atah param vyativartate – the mind(nama?) does not got beyond that. Same as suggested by PiyaTan and the Pali.


    • Interesting, thanks.

      Jayarava said that mānasam is accusative, but according to Monier Williams it can be neuter, hence nominative. That would certainly make the syntax more comprehensible, to me anyway.

      So we should have something like:

      Then it occurred to me: ‘Mentality (mānasa) turns back from consciousness, it does not go beyond this.’

      It seems the important doctrinal point is that the urning back is “from viññāṇa” rather than the Pali, where it is “from nāmarūpa”. An interesting difference, but there are a number of other cases in the Pali where such ambiguities occur, so I wouldn’t read too much into it.

  6. Here are a few parallel Chinese phrases. Punctuation and translation is mine, the result of idle doodling rather than sustained study.

    The second example is notably colloquial.
    齊 here I interpret as ‘arrive at the limit of’ 齊限.
    Xuanzang’s translation is quite close to your Sanskrit fragment I think. That would make sense as Xuanzang was translating from Sanskrit too.
    I don’t know what to make of the 轉 ‘turn’ at the end of Xuanzang’s phrase 不 越+度+轉 ‘it does not go beyond+cross over+turn’. I imagine it matches up to his Sanskrit somehow.

    T 99(SA 287) 我作是思惟時,齊識而還,不能過彼。
    When I had this thought [I] arrived at the limit of consciousness and turned back. [I] could not go beyond it.
    《Samyukta Agama》tr. Gunabhadra

    T 713 比丘便思惟,生是意:"是何等?咄!是識!還,不復前在[?去]。"
    The monks then had this thought, this arose in their minds: “What is this? Oh, it’s consciousness! [Let’s] go back, [let’s] not go any further.”
    《貝多樹下思惟十二因緣經》tr. attrib. Zhi Qian

    T 714 我齊此識,意便退還,不越度轉。
    I arrive at the limit of consciousness and the mind turns back, [it] does not go beyond.
    《緣起聖道經》tr. Xuanzang

    • Xuanzang’s translation should probably be in the past tense too, (“I arrived at the limit of consciousness and my mind turned back’) but you get the drift. I haven’t read through the whole suttas that these phrases come from. You would certainly need to do that if you were producing a serious translation!

    • Thanks so much for these, they are very interesting. Clearly it is a quirky phrase, which probably gave as much trouble to translators of the past as it does to us today!

      But with all their obscurities, the various versions still preserve a similar idea: the mutual dependence of consciousness and mentality (nāma-rūpa, or mānasa). And the fundamental teaching comes through in all of them: that there is no underlying “ground” or source from which these things arise, instead they roll on, mutually conditioning.

      In a sense, the existence of so many variations on one simple, but obscure, phrase, attests to the robustness of the ideas that are expressed. The manner of expression can vary considerably, but the message still gets through.

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