Converting the measurements from the Buddha's time into modern units

it seems a very good thing to have tries in the canon itself. but, it is not complete from the first moment. if we had an official list (even if not chronological) from the first council to be transmitted along the furst schism sanghas, it may had been a contribution to prevent the later inventions. we don’t know for sure, maybe some archaeological evidence may appear (as Ven. Sujato stated, that modern archaeological evidences are reshaping our view of buddhism), or a text of this type may be unearthed.

Ven. Sujato, Sir, I wanted to ask you a question about “Mulagandhakuti”. I searched the dimensions of it on internet, but without getting a result. Could you please enlighten me, or to ask any of your fellow friends at India to measure it (from inside and outside).

the vinaya gives a 3 dimensional statement of “1.75 by 3 by 3 meters” according to some readings i’ve seen.

Is Shakyamuni Buddha’s hut goes in accord with it also? or is it like the miracle’s doing permission (Shakyamuni Buddha’s made the rule for bhikkhus, not for himself)?

I’m not sure. The term “mūlagandhakuti” doesn’t give any results in a search across canon and commentaries, so it may be a modern neologism.

Gandhakuṭi appears a few times in the sense “the [Buddha’s] fragrant hut” in the Apadana, so it seems to stem from perhaps 300 years after the Buddha or thereabouts. It appears very commonly in later literature.

As to the measurements of the Gandhakuti, they’re probably found in the Vinmaya commentary called Samantapasadika, but it’d take some exploring to find it, unless someone has a reference.

Bear in mind that all Vinaya measurements in modern sources are based on extremely unreliable and tenuous inferences from the Pali and should be taken with several large spoonfuls of salt.

I’m not sure what the measurements of the “gandhakuti” in the Jeta Grove are, but also bear in mind that all of the buildings we see there date from a millennium or more after the Buddha, so it is really just a guess whether it has any relation to the actual gandhakuti.

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Sir, Ven. Sujato.

are you giving opinion that the hut pictured here is not really the hut of Shakyamuni Buddha. it is later made?

it will have no historical importance at all if it is dated after Shakyamuni Buddha’s time. it is a sad thing to know that until now, there is no standard monk hut that stilled over time from 2500 years to benefit from in following the vinaya rules. maybe archaeology in the coming next years will help us.

I will wait for that someone, then.

how can then we give a limit to the huts for monks to reside in if there is no reliable measurements to begin with? (i thought 1.75 by 3 by 3 meters is a good space for a monk to reside and meditate. i never thought that these given numbers are guesses not facts). this matter of measurements uniting is a very important matter, because it is among the rules of pattimokkha.

I think this would be true of the BMC and Vinayamukha, but I have never seen anyone argue that the Chinese commentarial (Nanshan) way of calculating, which places the sugatavidatthi at 40-50cm (In my opinion, about 43cm) is incorrect? This is also backed up by Mahasanghika and other sectarian sources? These measurements entered China as a result of direct contact with Indian Buddhism in a period where they were still in use for fabric measurement &they seem to have been the accepted ancient Indian standard. I am not 100% certain about the building measurements due to the alternative carpenter’s measurement (which complicates things), but I think we can actually be fairly confident in reconstructing the cloth measurements at least…


I believe that is the archeological finding, yes. Someone may know more about this than me, but all of the exposed buildings in the pilgrimage sites date from long after the Buddha, usually perhaps the Gupta period. It’s possible, of course, that the later buildings were made on top of earlier constructions and maintained their proportions; we know that this kind of thing did happen a lot in ancient India. But we can’t really know for certain.

It still has historical significance as a record of that period, but sadly there are no direct archeological remnants known from the Buddha’s time.

In my opinion we can’t. There is no reliable standard for the sugata measurements, all we have are a series of informed guesses. If someone wants to take them as a rule of thumb, well okay, but it shouldn’t be considered as a mandatory rule.

It’s okay, but I wouldn’t begrudge a monk or nun a little more space!

I haven’t followed the Chinese arguments in detail, although I do have a vague memory of disagreements in the Chinese Sangha too. But translating from an unknowable Indian measurement via a method of unknown reliability into a (possibly also unknown?) ancient Chinese measure seems … optimistic? Do you have any references on it?

When I was in Bodhgaya some years, ago, I was involved in discussions about setting up a bhikkhu training center, and thus learned something of the way land area is usually measured by the katha.

I know what a nightmare it is to rely on a non-standardized unit, especially trying to understand it as an outsider, let alone an outsider from 2500 years in the future.

Forgive me if I fear our chances of satisfactorily understanding the sugata measurements lie somewhere in that long wasteland between zip and nill, where we are guided only by the bones of the former travelers. :skull_and_crossbones:


Not much in English, a stack-load of Chinese material only. A nice start point might be Daoxuan’s comparative approach in the Xingshichao. Ding Fubao’s dictionary article 佛學大辭典/一搩手 - 維基文庫,自由的圖書館 is incredible. My point would be that both Indian and Chinese mensuration is neither unknown nor unknowable. Both Indian and Chinese cultures are (a) highly literate and (b) built buildings to standard sizes. It’s because of the latter that we can actually pin things to something concrete (e.g. there is something called a riyana-gadol, or cubit-brick, in Sri Lanka…like the bricks were literally a hattha). There is a slightly tricky point in the Chinese calculations that on the basis of the subcommentary, I would recommend using the Tang measurements from the Zongmiao Almanac (not the typical published ones), but if you can get past that, no worries. Looms in the ancient world were typically built to standard dimensions, so similar measurements are all over Jainism, South Asian culture, etc, if you know what you are looking for. I would put the chances of successful restoration of the cloth sugatavidatthi with a 2-3cm margin of error at about 100%. These units have some variability, but I wouldn’t say “non-standard” if they are also pinned to the body dimensions of an average man (the katha is a poor example, because it’s not pinned to a body measurement). Anyway. I believe in Daoxuan and await further translations in the highly valuable and informative area of Chinese vinaya commentary. :slightly_smiling_face:

*edited to fix the link. It’s ok if you edit before anyone has liked, yes yes? The take-home point is that the cloth sugatavidatthi is actually just a normal hattha. It got transformed into sugatavidatthi very early via some very serious textual loss, but at least one extant patimokkha (Kasyapiya) retains the term hattha. Which would mean that ancient Buddhist cloth measurement would be just normal Indian cloth measurement after all. (Presumably Buddhists used bolts of cloth made on the same, standardised looms as everyone else.)


That sounds great, but none of this has so far influenced any of the estimates practically used of the sugata measurements, which remain as precisely defined as a “parsec” in Star Wars. I’d love to be able to do better, you obviously know a lot about the topic, so it’d be wonderful to have something solid to rely on.

43cm is double the size of a handspan, so I’m not sure how this works. My handspan is about 22cm. The Pali commentary refers to the “average span of a man in the Ganges region” which would be somewhat smaller, perhaps 18cm. Some standard spans are mentioned in Wikipedia.

Do you have any information on this?


A parsec is actually precisely defined… It’s an astromical unit of length:

Back to topic… :wink:




I loved that movie, but It was particularly grating that they confused a unit of length with a unit of time… :rofl: :rofl: :rofl:



Wow, you learn something new every day…

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This one: Hasta (unit) - Wikipedia(Sanskrit%3A%20%E0%A4%B9%E0%A4%B8%E0%A5%8D%E0%A4%A4%20(,18%20inches%2C%20about%2045%20centimetres. The span (vidatthi/vitasti) is not the one you are after.

45cm (18 inch) is probably the value of the hasta at the time of colonisation. It is the measurement from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, i.e. 24 angulis. Using a 17.5 inch hasta will give 43cm. I have other reasons for wanting to go smaller rather than larger, as I understand that this measurement was rounded upwards during colonisation to make it a round 18 inches. Apart from hitting up the Indian historical sites with a tape measure, I don’t know how to decide between 43-45cm.

I would say that this has been the primary measurement of cloth for most of recorded Indian (and Sri Lankan) history, which is probably why it is mainstream (with minor variation) in the Chinese tradition, and also explicit in the Mahasanghika vinaya (one sugatavidatthi is 24 angulis). So um…it’s not that it hasn’t influenced the tradition practically, it kind of actually IS canon itself outside of the Sarvastivada and Theravada. I was also rethinking how the Samantapasadika handles this…I had originally assumed that the Sp had wanted to use the carpenter’s hattha for everything…the Sp comments on the building rule, but it’s actually silent on the cloth measurements. The commentators may have felt it that the clothing measurements were too obvious for comment.

Anyway. I don’t know anything much Bhante, I just know how to read literary Chinese & Sanskrit. f you think about it…try inputting 44cm into 6 x 2.5 to give the bathing cloth maximum dimensions, for example…it should work out very nicely.

Sorry, I’m still not clear: the rule (in Pali) uses sugatavidatthi. Are you saying that the other Vinayas use hattha? I haven’t done comparative work on this point.

Kāśyapīya Bhikkhu Pātimokkha has 佛手, for “Buddha’s hattha”. It is the only extant text with this reading. However, it tallies well with Mahasanghika vibhanga material 佛搩手長二尺四寸, a Sugatavidatthi is 24 angulis. The modern Chinese Dharmaguptaka tradition accepts this as a result of the comparative work by Daoxuan. The term “sugatavidatthi” is mysterious, but there are some legends in the Ashokavadana (also the topic of work by Daoxuan) that suggest that the original measurements were seen as embarrassing in the Ashokan period (because they show the Buddha had normal height?). By giving the Buddha’s vidatthi (as handspan) as equivalent to an ordinary person’s hattha (as length to elbow), the Buddha’s height also doubles, thus averting ancient embarrassment at the Buddha’s normality.

Going through the whole thing is possibly outside the scope of the discussion board. My own Sanskrit teacher had made the point that to understand law, we should look at narrative. It’s hard to go further until Daoxuan’s work is published in full.

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if we take it as granted that his hut is square at base. then, if taking any 3 dimension measurements, the number alone will give us his height.

for example: i read a measurement 1.75 x 3 x 3. then his height will be 1.75 m if this measurement is true and authentic.

I was thinking more like the sugata robe measurements, which would be the more obvious one to me to use to back-calculate height. But the problem is still the uncertainty, as even an uncertainty of just 2 or 3 centimetres really adds up once you start multiplying things. To make things worse, the Sarvastivadins give a sugata robe height of 5 [hattha] compared to 6 [hattha] in the other schools. If you take the smallest measurements of the sets, and set the hattha at 40cm, use the Sarvastivada measurement of 5 hattha, the Buddha’s robe is still going to be just 200cm tall. Which is not actually an unreasonably large robe height (a normal woman would wear 180cm-190cm, I don’t know for men). The whole normal-ness of everything is problematic if you believe in myths about the Buddha’s robe relic, or about the super-human nature of the Buddha in general.

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The problem then becomes that robes may be worn in different styles, so it’s hard to assess the height. FWIW, modern Thai-style robes for a western monk are often 210cm or more.

The under-robe (antarāvāsaka) however is going to be more consistent so maybe that would be a useful line of inquiry.


RE: this and robes in Jain texts

It’s all good, that would still be within the Pali 6 hattha. :grinning:There are a fairly diverse range of texts that suggest robe heights, and one of them is the Jain Acaranga Sutra, which puts a nuns’ robe at 4 hattha tall. Which is why I’m not bothered at all by the Buddhist texts which suggest a 5-6 hattha tall robe for the Buddha, no matter how it’s worn. Although I did think the Sarvastivadins were pulling a fairly heavy-handed textual reform job when they put the sugata robe at 5 x 10.

After I read Daoxuan, I measured every single one of my robes in hattha. You’re right: the lower robes and bathing cloth does seem the most relevant. But even 10cm makes a difference at the lower hem of a lower robe. To cross-reference, a Jain nun wears a 3 hattha max long lower robe (120cm?), so I assume 2.5 is meant to be a little shorter than that…

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Just to summarise (so that people can see I’m not just making stuff up, I do have a point, even if it’s a frustratingly complex one).

—> the sugatavidatthi is really just the sugata hattha
—> the brilliant Sanskritist, Patrick Olivelle, pegs the hattha at 42.6cm in his Arthasastra translation although anything in the ballpark of 40-43cm should be OK. [Why did I forget Olivelle earlier?]
—> this puts the Pali sugata robe height limit of 6 hatthas at 240cm-255.6cm
—>and the monks’ rains bathing cloth height limit of 2.5 hatthas at 100cm-106.5cm

—>these are completely reasonable upper limits and modern robes will fit within them anyway (unless you sewed your own 102cm bathing cloth like I did.)


@brahmali this affects your translation, any thoughts?