Mahakausthilena ca "and Mahakausthila"

(Continued from issue #44)

By Bhiksuni Heng Hsien

      The Venerable Mahakausthila1 was the Elder Sariputra's maternal uncle who, hoping to defeat his nephew in debate, studied externalist doctrines with such vigor that he neglected personal hygiene. Hence he was nicknamed  Dirghanakha, "Long Nails ."2 Dirgha means "long of either time or space.  Nakha is a general word for fingernail, toenail, claw, talon and the like, and is related etymologically to the English word "nail." The implication is that he did not take time away from his studies even to cut his nails.
      Dirghnakha's family name was Kausthila, and as a disciple of the Buddha, which he became when unable to defeat the Buddha in debate, he was known as  Maha, "Great," Kausthila. 

Kausthila is a patronymic, a form that shows relationship. The Chinese translated Mahakausthila as "Big Knee Family,"3 the character for family Indicating "belonging to the X family", "Big Knee" refers to the fact that big knees were a family trait. The literal translation is then "One Belonging to the Big Knee family." The Tibetans however translated his name as Gsus-po-che.4 "Big Belly'," connecting It with the Sanskrit kostha, a word for the abdomen or for any of the viscera of the body.

At this point it is very important to note that the Tibetans and the Chinese often were not translating from the same originals, and that the Tibetan translations were made much later than the principal Chinese translations. Sakyamuni Buddha did not, of course, speak Sanskrit, nor Pali for that matter, but one or more of the Prakrits, spoken dialects, current in Ancient India; and he also instructed his disciples to preserve the teachings in the vernaculars. In India then, as even somewhat still today, it was not customary to write down sacred texts, so the Buddhist Sutras were circulated by monks who could recite them in the local dialects long before they were actually written down. The Indian monks who early went to China for the most part seem to have recited the sutras in Prakrit for the Chinese scribes and translators.

It was only later on in India) when writing became popular, that the sutras were written down in the literary language i.e. Sanskrit, which by that time could be considered a popular mode of speech. This recasting of the sutras represented virtual translation of the various Prakrits into Sanskrit, and was complicated by the fact that the Prakrits have very many homonyms, words, which sound alike. In choosing an equivalent Sanskrit word a decision had to be made among many possible meanings which in Prakrit could all be expressed by what sounded like the same word. By the time Sanskrit recasting took place. Great Vehicle Buddhism was on the decline in India yet the Sanskrit manuscripts, which soon decay and disintegrate in the Indian climate, had to be copied and recopied. That work was done increasingly by non-Buddhist scribes steeped in non-Buddhist Sanskrit tradition. 'We can image the situation then as being first an unstable rendering into literary form of a dialect not customarily written down. The result was then viewed as "poor Sanskrit" and so was frequently "corrected" by scribal hands as manuscripts were recopied. The versions we have are based upon such manuscripts and even modern editors try to excise the last remaining traces of the vernaculars in their printed editions.

Buddhism came to Tibet many centuries later than it did to China. In fact, in the beginning it was largely introduced to Tibetans by the Chinese.  The Tibetans' translations made from Indian originals then were very late, and furthermore the Tibetan canon was frequently revised with past editions destroyed on the basis of more modern Sanskrit versions. For this reason we need to look to the Chinese for the more original interpretations-of the meanings of Indian words and names, and can often disregard the Tibetan which merely translates what late Sanskrit versions seem to mean.

(to be continued)

-Mo Ho Chu Hsi Lo.

2 -Ch'ang Chao Fan Chih, Literally,    "Long-nailed Brahman."

3 -Ta Hsi.



--The translation and explanation of The Lotus Sutra will be resumed in the near future.

--The Earth Store Bodhisattva Sutra and the Amitabha Sutra will continue to be published in translation with explanations.

--Dharma Talks. Translations of the Venerable Master Hua’s instruction during the 1972 winter sessions.


--Biographies of adepts and Dharma protectors.

--The Pictorial Biography of the Venerable Hsu Yun.

--Across the Sea of Suffering in a Boat of Vows.