SuttaCentral

Are the compound words in the pañca-sila pre-buddhist?

The five precepts, especially the fifth, famously make use of long compound words that don’t-quite-oviously-literally mean what the precepts are commonly interpreted to mean.

  1. Panatipata. The most straightforward. As I understand it, you could be purposefully obtuse and interpret it as “destroying a beverage” but it clearly means destroying a being that breathes, aka killing animals. Still I’m curious why it’s a compound and not a simple word like “kill”.

  2. Adinnadana. A little more unclear. This is commonly interpreted as “stealing” but the meanings don’t quite literally match. Many things are not given to me, but taking them isn’t stealing (e.g. rainwater), and other things might be given (e.g. by one thief to another) but are stealing.

  3. Kamesumicchacara. Very unclear. Though admittedly, this is the precept with the longest expanded definition, it can essentially be summarized in English with two specific words - “rape and adultery”. Sexual misconduct seems like it could include (and I’ve actually heard people argue this) being bad at sex in various ways. It also seems like the sort of vague wording a lust-filled mind could weasel itself into believing didn’t include whatever they were about to do, (so-and-so’s wife truly loves me! How can that be wrong when it feels so right?)

  4. Musavada. As I understand it literally means false speech. But of course you can lie by saying something true (if you believe it to not be true and intend to deceive) or say something untrue and not be lying (if you believe it to be true and do not intend to deceive).

  5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana. Liquor-wine-intoxicant-heedlessness. It get’s the point across fairly well, but just seems really awkward when literally translated, with the listing of all the types of alcohol sometimes confusing people as to the point. It seems like just “majja” would have done.

I’m curious if we have any insight into why these word choices were made, based on contemporary or older sources. Were more direct and straightforward words not yet developed (e.g. is there no monosyllabic direct word for “lie” or “steal” in Pali)? Did previous teachers or the general populace use the phrase “suramerayamajja pamadatthana” so commonly it might have sounded strange and unclear if only part of the idiom were used?

There’s many cases where I know the Buddha was a linguistic innovator, so I’m just curious if these compound words fall into that category, or if they are instances where he was taking advantage of the social and linguistic context of the time to get his point across in ways people already understood it, and we moderns just lack that context.