Mahakausthilena ca

"and Mahakausthila"

(continued from issue #45) by Bhiksuni Heng Hsien

      The Venerable Mahakausthila (remember the ending -ena is that of the
instrumental case called for by the preposition "together with, " not part of the name itself) was a prominent disciple of the Buddha Sakyamuni, and was present when the Buddha spoke the Amitabha Sutra. We have seen his name variously interpreted as "Big Belly" by Tibetan sources (late), which is the same as the interpretation of the Sanskrit (probably also late); and as "Big Knees" by earlier Chinese translators. Pali has Mahakotthita; kottha is the Pali equivalent of Sanskrit kostha "belly, abdomen." To investigate the possibility of the Chinese character for "knee" once having meant "belly" lies beyond the scope of this lesson, as does reconstruction of the Prakrit (spoken language form) underlying our present Sanskrit rendering Mahakausthila. Yet a brief glance at some related words is of interest.

      One common Sanskrit word for "knee" is janu. Another one is   asthivat. It is composed of asthi "bone" and the suffix -vat   (also -vant) "possessing" Asthivat then, (i lengthens to i before v), literally means "bone-possessing thing" or "knee". Sanskrit also has a word kautilya "crookedness" based on another Sanskrit word kutila "bent, crooked, curved". The equivalent word in Sinhalese (the language of Ceylon) refers specifically to the bending of the knees.
      Examining the Sanskrit name Mahakausthila, we see it is a compound of Maha "great, big," and of kausthila which on the surface means "related to the belly (kostha)." If the name originally consisted of Maha plus some popular form of the word asthivat "knee," how could it for example have ended up with a k between the two words? At this point we can only guess, but our guess, whether historically accurate or not, will at least serve to illustrate the kind of interaction that seems to have taken place between the spoken Prakrits and literary Sanskrit.

      In Sanskrit the combination vowel plus vowel is unstable, and rarely found. In most of the apparent exceptions to that rule, some modification of at least one of the two vowels has taken place upon its contact with the other vowel. In Prakrit, however, words may consist of strings of vowels with no intervening consonants. In fact, where an equivalent Sanskrit word has a consonant between two vowels, Prakrit often has only the two vowels. Someone putting Maha plus a Prakrit equivalent of asthivat into Sanskrit, seeing two short a vowels juxtaposed, might assume that an intervocalic consonant had been lost, and interpret the Prakrit as representing some such word as kautiya mentioned above. We no longer know all the words that were anciently in use, and so can only surmise. In any case, one might erroneously restore a k. The word would still be a little odd, and so lend itself to further reinterpretation as the derivative of kostha "belly" instead of the word for "knee."

      Perhaps it was this way, perhaps not. Using our limited tools of historical research it is very hard to pin down. However if one cultivates the Way with great vigor he can gain access to the tapes from Sakyamuni Buddha’s time. Then he can hear the pronunciation of the Venerable Elder Mahakausthila’s name for himself. 

To be continued

1 Vajra Bodhi Sea #44


-ta hsi.

4 The ordinary Sanskrit word for "bone" is asthi to which asthi appears related. See turner, A comparative Dictionary of the Indo-Aryan Languages, #958. Also Mayrhofer, Kurzgefastes Etymologisches Worterbuch des Altindischen, under asthi.

5 Turner, idem, #3557


At a thatched hut on the 

Flower Peak at T’ien T’ai

Mountain sitting with

Dharma Master Jung

Ching during a long rain. 

Hard rain

Our gathered firewood scant,

A frozen lamp

Not glimmering at night;

Inside the cave

Windblown stones and mud,

Engravings of moss

Weather-strip a rickety door.

Untiring brooks in torrent,

Human words

Heard rarer and rarer

Made calm,

Where does the heart scheme?

Sitting in the lotus

Wrapped in robes of zen.

--The Venerable Hsu Yun

Translated by Upasaka Han Kuo P’u