Mahakatyayanena ca         "and Mahakatyayana"

Continued from issue #43          

By Bhiksuni Heng Hsien

The venerated Elder Mahakatyayana is the next great Arhat listed as present in the Buddha's assembly at the speaking of the Amitabha Sutra.  Maha, as explained before, means "great, many, and victorious," and is an honorific and descriptive title rather than part of the name itself. This great Sravaka belonged to the Katyayana family, one of the highest-ranking Brahman gotras in Ancient India. Gotra is the Sanskrit word for "family, tribe, clan." The -ayana of Katyayana, a patronymic suffix, can mean "belonging to the family of." A routine explanation of the name is, then, "belonging to the family of Kati," or "of Katya," Katya being a further patronymic meaning "related to Kati" who was claimed as the ancient sage who founded the line.

Mahakatyayana was the foremost of Sakyamuni Buddha's disciples in debate. When Mahakatyayana left home to follow the Buddha he was no longer concerned with Brahman sages and Brahman gotras which is a change reflected in the Buddhist derivation of his name. Within the Buddhadharma, one explanation1 of the meaning of his name as "Literary Elegance" seems to connect it with the root kath- (but accounting for the aspiration, the h, is difficult) which means "speak, expound, elaborate." Mahakatyayana could outtalk any Indian philosopher or follower of external paths who challenged the principles of the Buddhadharma.

Another explanation2 of his name looks back to the time before Mahakatyayana was a Bhiksu. His father, a prominent government official, died when the child was quite young. The laws of his mother's caste forbade remarriage, but she might have moved to another area and circumvented them, had it not been for the child. So he was called "Cord" because he tied her down, which appears to involve the Sanskrit word kaca, lexically "cord, fetter, yoke."

It should be remembered that in popular speech the sounds written in Sanskrit wa, atya, and aoca would have been pronounced alike. For example, in Pali, a language related to Sanskrit but closer to the ancient popular dialects, Katyayana, is either Kaacayana or Kaocana.

Another explanation3 of his name as meaning "Good Consideration" seems to connect it with the Sanskrit word kaccid (Pali kacci), an interrogative particle often translatable by "I hope." Yet another explanation, "Good Shoulders," seems to derive from the word for "shoulder," Sanskrit, skandha,  (Pali Khandha).

1      wen shih             3      hau sse

2      shan sheng           4      hau chien

(to be continued)