Hidden Parallels Inside of Parallels: The Curious Case of DA 19's "Incantations"

This week I’ve been slogging through a translation of DĀ 19 the Great Congregation Sutra (parallel to DN 20 Mahāsamaya-sutta). This sutra is probably the most difficult text in the Dīrgha Āgama to translate because it contains large chunks of fully transliterated passages. These types of passages are the most difficult to translate to English because it’s difficult to reconstruct the Indic words without knowing the exact language that’s being transliterated, and the Middle Chinese pronunciations don’t always map to specific Indic syllables well.

Indeed, if we look at Ichimura’s attempt at translating DĀ 19, we find that he simply converted the Chinese into Mandarin like so:

At that time, the World-honored One, wishing to rid their minds of subtle, deceptive, and unreal nature, invoked the following esoteric passages for incantation (dhāraṇī):

mo jiu lou luo mo jiu lou luo / pi lou luo pi lou luo / zhan tuo na jia mo shi zhi / jia ni yan dou / ni yan dou po na lu / wu hu nu nu / zhu / ti po su mu / mo tou luo / zhi tuo luo si na / jian ta po / na luo zhu du ni sha / shi he / wu lian tuo luo / bi po mi duo luo shu chen tuo luo / na lü ni he / dou fou lou / shu zhi ji po //

This leads the English reader to assume these passages are meaningless series of syllables.

However, upon close inspection, these transliterated incantations turn out to be close parallels to verses in DN 20.

I have to tip my hat to the Japanese scholars for deciphering these transliterated parallels as best as they can be. Because the transliterations are from an unknown Central Asian or Prakrit language, and the Chinese passages had corruptions creep into them, the derivations of Pali or Sanskrit equivalents is sometimes impossible to ascertain.

However, we definitely can say they closely match the Pali parallels, and often better than they do the extant Sanskrit parallels.

Let’s look at an example. The Buddha says the following incantation for the asuras (T1.80a29):

祇陀 跋闍呵諦 三物第 阿修羅 阿失陀 婆延地 婆三婆四 伊弟 阿陀 提婆 摩天地。
伽黎妙 摩呵祕摩 阿修羅 陀那祕羅陀 鞞摩質兜樓 修質諦麗 婆羅呵黎 無夷連那婆。
舍黎 阿細 跋黎弗多羅那 薩鞞 鞞樓耶那那迷 薩那迷諦 婆黎細如 羅耶跋兜樓 伊呵菴婆羅迷。
三摩由 伊陀那 跋陀若 比丘那 三彌涕 拔泥。

The Pali parallel to these verses reads (DN 20.12):

English Pali
Defeated by Vajirahattha, Jitā vajirahatthena,
the demons live in the ocean. samuddaṁ asurāsitā;
They’re brothers of Vāsava, Bhātaro vāsavassete,
powerful and glorious. iddhimanto yasassino.
There’s the terrifying Kālakañjas, Kālakañcā mahābhismā,
the Dānaveghasa demons, asurā dānaveghasā;
Vepacitti and Sucitti, Vepacitti sucitti ca,
Pahārāda with Namuci, pahārādo namucī saha.
and a hundred of Bali’s sons, Satañca baliputtānaṁ,
all named after Veroca. sabbe verocanāmakā;
Bali’s army armed themselves Sannayhitvā balisenaṁ,
and went up to the auspicious Rāhu, saying: rāhubhaddamupāgamuṁ;
‘Now is the time, sir, ‘Samayo dāni bhaddante,
for the meeting of mendicants in the wood.’ bhikkhūnaṁ samitiṁ vanaṁ’.

Now, let’s look at the reconstructions for the first verse of the Chinese passage:

Chinese Mid. Chinese Syllables Original Lang. Pali Parallel word
祇陀 g’jie d’â jidā jitā
跋闍呵諦 b’uât žia - xâ tiei- vajja - hathe- Vajirahatthena
三物第 sâm miuət d’iei saṃmudde samuddaṃ
阿修羅 â siei lâ asura asurā
阿失陀 â śiei d’â āśidā sitā
婆延地 b’uâ iän d’i bhayande bhātaro
婆三婆四 b’uâ sâm b’uâ si Vāsamvasi Vasavass-
伊弟 i d’iei ede ete
阿陀 â d’â ?
提婆 d’iei b’uâ deva
摩天地 muâ t’ien d’i maharddhi? iddhimanto

And, so, we see that even though the words are pronounced differently, we’re looking at nearly identical verses in DĀ 19 and DN 20, except that in DĀ 19 they’ve been hidden away by the loss of the original Indic language and the pronunciation of Middle Chinese. I’ll stop at this brief example for the sake of brevity, but I can report that this pattern of close parallels to the Pali verses starting at DN 20.10 continues from one “incantation” to the next in DĀ 19.


Fascinating! This is real Indiana Jones stuff. :cowboy_hat_face:


Charles, again, great post!

How deep are you going to go with this Mahasamaya thing? Because, about a year ago, I had to do a bunch of work for school as a TA on a comparative of the Pali, the Chinese, and Sanskrit fragments. I wound up falling down a rabbit hole with this, the Atanatiya Sutta, and just a whole bunch of stuff. And, then, finally, the teacher didn’t use a third of what I prepared.

(I think the main problem was that students weren’t so interested in a discourse without a whole lot of philosophical doctrinal arguments. I go to school in China. My classmates are used to serious philosophical debate–everything post-Abhidharma and so on. I find that even Nikaya/Agama discourses are pretty anti-climactic for them.)

Anyway, I found the backstories to all the deities fascinating, though I usually don’t go in for that sort of stuff. Also, the philological side of it is indeed quite Indiana Jones-like. (Although @Akaliko I would prefer Goonies-like: less sinister, more fun!)

It’s a highly understudied discourse. I’d like to see it really fleshed out. So, yeah, how deep are you planning to go with this?


I’m planning to do my best to reconstruct what the verses would have looked like after being Sanskritized. I’m basically pulling the research out of the footnotes of the Japanese translation and building tables to include with the translation. The Japanese scholars are the real heros. They know the various ways consonants changed from one Prakrit to another and reference it in the footnotes to guess how Pali and DA’s words ended up different. That’s too far down the rabbit hole for me. It’s hard for old dogs to learn new ancient languages.


Huh, that doesn’t look at all like a normal dharani. Any idea why Buddhayasas was presenting these passages as dharanis, rather than as verses?

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My guess is that this rhymes with 婆延地 b’uâ iän d’i…so more in the realm of matande than maharddhi?


I haven’t really looked into it yet, but the first explanation that occurs to me is that the sutra wasn’t in a single language. Perhaps it was in a Central Asian language like Tocharian and the incantations were in a Prakrit or Gandhari or something Indic. Then perhaps it was treated like people today treat the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit, chanting it like a spell?

There’s a later Sung dynasty translation (T19) that doesn’t have this strangeness. After the four deva’s speaking their verses, the rest is prose.


You may be correct. The Japanese translators looked at the Tibetan and Sung translations and tried to make it fit them, thinking this may have been a form like maharddhi[ka].

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Wow Charles, you’re a real MVP.



That may be the case. It’s strange that these were considered incantations at all. One possibility is maybe in the process of sanskritization. Many BHS manuscripts have the prose more sanskritized, while the verses are kept in a more archaic prakrit form, preserving rhyme and meter. Maybe the prose and verses diverged so much that these verses were no longer understood, and interpreted as obscure incantations?


A true case of Chinese whispers!