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Have we misunderstood the "eight days of winter"?

In a number of places in the Pali texts, we find reference to a cold period in midwinter, when the snow is falling. It was regarded as an especially difficult time for an ascetic practitioner to remain in the open. Here in Sydney, I cannot help but think of the many homeless people who have to endure such conditions, which are harsh even in our relatively mild winters.

The stock passage refers to the antaraṭṭhaka, which can be read in two ways. There is a good note to this on the relevant passage in Horner’s Vinaya translation.

The commentaries, followed by Vens Bodhi and Brahmali, treat the compound as “the eight (days) interval”, the interval in question being the final four days of the month of Māgha and the first four days of the month of Phagguṇa. This explanation is found consistently in the commentaries to MN 18, Ud 1.9, and Kd 1.

Another thread of interpretation treats the compound as meaning “the period between the eights”, the eights in question being the eighth day following the full moon in the months of Māgha and Phagguna. In this reading, the period is a month rather than just a week. This reading seems to ultimately stem from Monier William’s Sanskrit dictionary, where he notes that there is a festival or sacrifice for the hungry ghosts at this time. This reading is accepted by Horner, and followed by the Critical Pali Dictionary and (word for word) by Cone in the latest authoritative source, the Dictionary of Pali.

The distinction is, therefore, rather cleanly between the traditional commentarial reading and the modern western scholars. While no-one disagrees with the commentaries without good reason, it is undeniable that one of their weak points is the understanding of ancient Vedic customs. We have access to a wider range of Sanskritic texts, and in some cases there are references or contexts that are clear to us that were apparently unknown to the commentators. This doesn’t mean that they are right or wrong on this particular point, it just means that there is a precedent for this kind of issue.

Taking the term in and of itself, it seems to me that “between the eights” is a more natural reading. The word “interval” seems strange for a period of four days at the end of one month and four at the start of the next. But whatever, language is weird, so that shouldn’t be given too much weight.

What is more important, I think, is that “eight day interval” is oddly specific for such a time. Surely it’s more natural to say something more vague like “midwinter”.

It is common for the “dead of winter” to be marked by rituals, especially sacrifices to the dead. It was a way of acknowledging the departure of life, while at the same time remembering that spring is on its way. Given that the “eights” were apparently marked in this way, it seems to me natural to identify a period with them, much as we might say “I went on holiday over Christmas”. It’s a general idiom for midwinter rather than a specific set of days.

If we were to adopt this reading, it becomes harder to translate. “Between the eights” is meaningless for a modern reader. “The month between midwinter festivals” is more specific, but perhaps overly interpretative. Another option would be to just say “midwinter”.


Incidentally, a minor correction: several translators, including myself and Ven Brahmali, have rendered ratti here as referring to cold winter “nights”. However, in MN 12 it says:

So kho ahaṁ, sāriputta, yā tā rattiyo sītā hemantikā antaraṭṭhakā himapātasamayā tathārūpāsu rattīsu rattiṁ abbhokāse viharāmi, divā vanasaṇḍe

Here the rattīsu clearly includes both ratti (nights) and diva (days). Thus, following the common Pali idiom, rattīsu must refer to what we call a “day”, i.e. a period of 24 hours.

And on days such as the cold days of snowfall in the dead of winter, I stayed in the open by night and in the forest by day.

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Excellent! You are surely right about this. I have long felt this expression was odd, but without ever looking into it. The very specific “eight-day period” is indeed suspicious. I think “midwinter” is pretty much spot on. I shall amend my translation accordingly.

As for ratta meaning 24-hour period, you are probably right in the context of MN12. The Buddha specifically says he stayed in the open at night and then in the forest by day (the point, of course, was to maximise his exposure to cold), all of being part of the rattīsu. Yet the same passage you quote makes it clear that ratta is ambivalent (rattīsu rattiṁ, “the nights of the 24-hour periods”), sometimes referring to night, at other times referring to 24-hour periods. In this sense, too, it is just like “day” in English. So, as always, context is everything.

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As just a side note, Monier-Williams refers the ritual at this time to the manes. This is a Latin term, which turns out to refer to a class of the dead who were worshiped (or sacrificed to) at festivals in midwinter. So the parallels are strong enough to wonder whether this is an old Indo-European custom. Still, midwinter is an obvious time to remember the dead, so it could be just coincidence.

I have not managed to find any further details about the ritual that is supposed to be held at this time in India. I wonder whether it is genuinely Vedic or a local custom.

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May I offer a few culture/region specific inputs? I was born and brought up in this region. :smiley:

Winter in this region of India would be considered mild by most Caucasian standards. Typically, the days start growing colder shortly after Diwali (mid Oct/Nov). Temperatures usually average 15 - 20 degrees Centigrade all the way into mid December but with barely a few degrees of variation. (Not like Melbourne - my daughter, who is a student at Melbourne University, tells me the temperature can change dramatically in an hour! :cold_face:)

There is a period of around 7-10 days, usually occurring in late Dec/ early Jan when the temperature all over north India usually plummets dramatically. Days are typically cold (5-7 degrees C), bleak and foggy. The nights are clear and chilly. Schools usually have a 10 day “Winter break” around this time. Time is spent with family, snuggled up in thick blankets, drinking endless cups of chai and feasting on pakoras and chikki. Come mid Jan, the weather usually warms up suddenly… this is usually the time for the harvest festivals of Lohri/ Sakranti. Thanks to climate change though, patterns are changing…

The cold spell in northern India
Scientists at the IMD also agree that smog over Indo-Gangetic plains is impacting weather. Their research indicates that in the past few years, a pattern is emerging of an unexpected change in temperatures. This pattern would continue and could impact weather more severely in the near future.

“Normally a spell of severe cold weather stretches to 5 or 6 days. But this year, since December 13, the temperature continues to dip… It is unique. However, now it seems that there could be a relief after December 31,” says Dr Jenamani.

Scientists are of the view that it is rare to have a spell of such cold weather for more than 16 to 17 days.

:pray: :pray: :pray:

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… As far as being unlucky goes- this period (Kharma month) in end Dec/ Jan is traditionally considered inauspicious. So, no big,fat Indian weddings… :rofl:time to focus on Devotional activities instead :om:.

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Fascinating, this does tend to support the “eight days” reading! It is invaluable to have the perspective from the ground, so thank you.

Well, I shall have to reconsider.

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I think “midwinter” works with either interpretation. And it has the added advantage of being transparent. “The eight-day interval” does sound somewhat mysterious, which is precisely why you were looking at the expression in the first place. For now I shall stick to “midwinter”.

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