Evam maya srutam
“Thus I have heard...”


--By Sramanerika Heng Hsien

      Mastering this Sanskrit lesson will enable you to pick up any Buddhist sutra and begin to read. Why? Every sutra spoken by the Buddha begins with the words ‘Thus I have heard’.

      “Fine,” you think, “but isn’t there a contradiction in those words? The last lesson explained the Sutra’s invocation.   Namah Sarvajnaya, ‘Homage to (the Buddha) the one who knows all’. If the Buddha is all-knowing, how can he say; ‘I’ve heard’?”

      Quite right. The Buddha indeed:

            Is omniscient (sarvajna) and self-taught,
            Follows no one else’s system, plans or path
            Speaks Dharma never having heard it spoken.

Only the Buddha is beyond instruction, because there is not one thing he doesn’t know. Therefore the Buddha would not begin a sutra by saying, “So I’ve heard.

      But it’s not the Buddha who says the words , it’s Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and disciple, who speaks them. After the Buddha entered Nirvana, the disciples met to assemble the Buddha’s teachings, and because Ananda could remember every word the Buddha had said, it was he who recited the sutras for the assembly. At the beginning of each sutra Ananda said, “Thus I have heard”.

      The Sanskrit, which says this somewhat differently from English, reads literally, “Thus by me it was heard.”

Evam means ‘thus’, ‘in this manner’, ‘in this way’, ‘so’, ‘such’. In translating Sanskrit don’t think there’s just one English word to match each single Sanskrit word.

The meaning of the Sanskrit can often be conveyed by several different English words or phrases. Moreover it’s frequently the case that one single Sanskrit word is more loaded with meanings than any one corresponding English word. Giving several English translations suggests the range of meaning of the Sanskrit word.

Maya stands for ‘by me’. In English we need two words to say ‘by someone’ or ‘by me’. In Sanskrit the ‘by’ is represented by the –a in maya.

The ending –a is a function marker; the word in –a functions as the person or thing by which the main action of the phrase is done. The hearing was done ‘by me’, and ‘me’ refers to Ananda.

Srutam translates 'it was heard'. The syllable sru is written . Although the letter r written in full has the form , in combination with another consonant it takes one of two shortened forms:

(1) written above a consonant which follows it, as
in sarvajna, and
(2) attached below a consonant which comes before it, as in srutam.

When r and another consonant come together to form a cluster with no vowel in between, use form (1) if the r comes first; and if the r is second, use form (2). Notice that in figuring out how to pronounce consonant clusters, the order is :

left before right,
above before below.

The letter written first, either because it's on the left or because it's placed above, is the one that's pronounced first.4 srutam, a single word, gives all the information of the English, 'it was heard', much of which is contained in the ending. We'll learn more about the mysteries of Sanskrit word endings as we go along.

      What Ananda heard and now recites is the Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra, the Sutra which tells of Amitabha Buddha's Western Paradise, the Land of Ultimate Bliss. Can you write its name in Sanskrit?


Words to figure out:



1 C.F. L. de la Vallee Poussin's translation into French of the
  Mahaprajnaparamitasatra, by the Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, called Le
  Traite de la Grande Vertu de Sagesse, Louvain (1944), vol.I,
  p.80 ff.

2 "Thus I have heard" will be discussed in Vajra Bodhi Sea in
  Dharma Master Heng Ching's translation of the Earth Sore
  Bodhisattva Sutra and commentary by the Venerable Tripitaka
  Master Hsuan Hua.

3 Don't get attached: not every final -a is this ending, nor is
  every 'instrumental' market with -1. If Sanskrit were easy,
  everyone would know it!

4 In the case of evam, the . which represents m does not mean
  the nasalization comes before va; rather, the whole sound
  va is given a nasal flavor by the m, so m doesn't really come
  either before or after . Originally m was the full letter 
  m, and the word was evam. But when you say
  evam +maya, you really don't fully pronounce the
  first m before the second one, in Sanskrit or in any language.
  Sanskrit therefore has a separate letter for the shortened m  
  you end up saying, and writes it as this dot.