How do we establish Jānukṣīṇī in SA 320 if it has no parallels?

There is a particularly suspect āgama in the SA collection (SA 320, no translation, see The Fundamental Teachings of Early Buddhism (Mun-Keat Choong), p. 103-4), in which Mun-Keat Choong identifies an Indian name among the Chinese characters here:


Choong does not give a full translation, and starts at the dialogue, skipping the “thus I have heard” and the exposition generally.

Looking at the line, myself, it seems to say something like:

The relevant part here is 生聞婆羅門, which, according to Choong, should read something like “Jānukṣīṇī the brāhmaṇaḥ”, but it seems to also have the correct meaning of “dwelling śrāvakāḥ brāhmaṇāḥ”.

How did Choong find the Indic name?

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Well, it’s quite clever really. The name is 生聞. And the two elements are defined:

  • : “arising”, used for many Indic terms, among which we find jānika, jānmika, etc., i.e. terms derived from the root jāti = "birth.
  • : “to hear”, typically used for words such as śruta, śrotṛ etc.

Now, the Pali form of this name is Jāṇussoṇi, the name of a prominent brahmin who was a frequent interlocuter with the Buddha. It doesn’t seem that this name is actually related to “birth-hearing”. Sticking strictly to the Pali dictionaries, it would appear to mean “bitch’s knee”, or maybe “buttock knee”. But I’ll return to this below.

Nevertheless, it seems that this was close enough for the Chinese translator to render it thus, perhaps taking it to have a sense of “the arising of the ear, i.e. the conversion of a disciple”.

As to how Mun-Keat got Jānukṣīṇī out of this, I do not know. I can’t find any reference to that anywhere. I assume he must have derived it from a Sanskritic source where it was spelled like that, or, given that he was a follower of Yin Shun, perhaps that how Yin Shun or other Chinese scholars spelled it.

As noted above, soṇa/i and similar words have several meanings in Pali, none of which appear particularly apt in this context. But perhaps the form Jānukṣīṇī will help. The final element is kṣīṇī, which means “wasted, deteriorated”. Thus the name seems to mean “one with a bung knee”. And, as I find to my surprise, one of the attested meanings of śroṇa in Sanskrit is “cripple”.

So it seems that, as so common in Indic names, the term was an epithet, referring to his bad knee. This sense has been, lost in the Pali tradition, perhaps unsurprisingly as this sense does not seem to be attested elsewhere.

What is a little curious, though, is that Buddhaghosa explains the name as being a term for the rank he held as chaplain to the King. Perhaps this is simply a retcon, as since Jāṇussoṇi is always described as being very beautiful and prominent, it was hard to square with him being a cripple. There also doesn’t seem to be any mention of such a name in the Brahmanic sources, but I may well have missed something there.

On the other hand, perhaps the two explanations are compatible. There is a long history of cripples in sacred service. It seems that, for whatever symbolic reason, it was sometimes required that a religious figure would, as a substitute sacrifice, have part of their foot or leg injured as an offering. The extent of the injuries might be quite severe, or they may be merely symbolic. Physical maiming is, of course, common in initiation rituals, and is still widespread in East Asian Mahayana today.

This is purely conjectural, as it is long since I read about this, and I can’t recall any example in the Indic sphere of the top of my head. Nevertheless it is at least possible that this was a title for a brahmin priest who had undergone an initiation requiring a real or symbolic crippling.

As a supplement to the above, I can’t resist adding a little passage from The Golden Bough (Chapter 25 on Temporary Kings. This is a description of a ceremony in Thailand in the 19th century, featuring a brahmin priest who must stand on one leg for a considerable period.

In Siam on the sixth day of the moon in the sixth month (the end of April) a temporary king is appointed, who for three days enjoys the royal prerogatives, the real king remaining shut up in his palace. This temporary king sends his numerous satellites in all directions to seize and confiscate whatever they can find in the bazaar and open shops; even the ships and junks which arrive in harbour during the three days are confiscated to him and must be redeemed. He goes to a field in the middle of the city, whither is brought a gilded plough drawn by gaily-decked oxen. After the plough has been anointed and the oxen rubbed with incense, the mock king traces nine furrows with the plough, followed by aged dames of the palace scattering the first seed of the season. As soon as the nine furrows are drawn, the crowd of spectators rushes in and scrambles for the seed which has just been sown, believing that, mixed with the seed-rice, it will ensure a plentiful crop. Then the oxen are unyoked, and rice, maize, sesame, sago, bananas, sugar-cane, melons, etc. are set before them; whatever they eat first will, it is thought, be dear in the year following, though some people interpret the omen in the opposite sense. During this time the temporary king stands leaning against a tree with his right foot resting on his left knee. From standing thus on one foot he is popularly known as King Hop; but his official title is Phaya Phollathep, “Lord of the Heavenly Hosts.” He is a sort of Minister of Agriculture; all disputes about fields, rice, and so on, are referred to him. There is moreover another ceremony in which he personates the king. It takes place in the second month (which falls in the cold season) and lasts three days. He is conducted in procession to an open place opposite the Temple of the Brahmans, where there are a number of poles dressed like May-poles, upon which the Brahmans swing. All the while that they swing and dance, the Lord of the Heavenly Hosts has to stand on one foot upon a seat which is made of bricks plastered over, covered with a white cloth, and hung with tapestry. He is supported by a wooden frame with a gilt canopy, and two Brahmans stand one on each side of him. The dancing Brahmans carry buffalo horns with which they draw water from a large copper caldron and sprinkle it on the people; this is supposed to bring good luck, causing the people to dwell in peace and quiet, health and prosperity. The time during which the Lord of the Heavenly Hosts has to stand on one foot is about three hours. This is thought “to prove the dispositions of the Devattas and spirits.” If he lets his foot down he is liable to forfeit his property and have his family enslaved by the king; as it is believed to be a bad omen, portending destruction to the state, and instability to the throne. But if he stand firm he is believed to have gained a victory over evil spirits, and he has moreover the privilege, ostensibly at least, of seizing any ship which may enter the harbour during these three days, and taking its contents, and also of entering any open shop in the town and carrying away what he chooses.

Much of this ceremony embodies the usual playful, transgressive nature of ritual, the temporary suspension of worldly norms and laws. But surely the brahmin being forced to stand on one leg for many hours is a form of substitute sacrifice, an echo of crueler days when he would have to give up his leg, or full use of his leg, entirely. The ritual is one of fertility, the growth of the crops, and the normal way to ensure this is by a sacrifice to the earth. We can hypothesize that the ritual originally involved a human sacrifice to the earth, amended to a ritual maiming of the part of the body that stands on the earth, and further amended to the mere temporary inconvenience of standing on one leg. But the process of watering down the ritual was ongoing, as documented by Frazer:

Such were the duties and privileges of the Siamese King Hop down to about the middle of the nineteenth century or later. Under the reign of the late enlightened monarch this quaint personage was to some extent both shorn of the glories and relieved of the burden of his office. He still watches, as of old, the Brahmans rushing through the air in a swing suspended between two tall masts, each some ninety feet high; but he is allowed to sit instead of stand, and, although public opinion still expects him to keep his right foot on his left knee during the whole of the ceremony, he would incur no legal penalty were he, to the great chagrin of the people, to put his weary foot to the ground. Other signs, too, tell of the invasion of the East by the ideas and civilisation of the West. The thoroughfares that lead to the scene of the performance are blocked with carriages: lamp-posts and telegraph posts, to which eager spectators cling like monkeys, rise above the dense crowd; and, while a tatterdemalion band of the old style, in gaudy garb of vermilion and yellow, bangs and tootles away on drums and trumpets of an antique pattern, the procession of barefooted soldiers in brilliant uniforms steps briskly along to the lively strains of a modern military band playing “Marching through Georgia.”

To be sure, without closer supporting evidence this is purely speculative. But at least it gives us a window through which we can make sense of Jānussoṇi’s puzzling name.


Incidentally, while I have your attention regarding SA 320, a Sarvāstisūtra of sorts, as it lacks an Indic name, what do you think of Mun-Keat Choong’s treatment of it?

I’m sure you have already read the text in question, but I will include a relevant excerpt of the analysis he does on SA 320:


Looking at SA 320, I certainly understand if there are features of the text that prevent it from being any sort of “proper” parallel, but it looks to me, and forgive me if this is a ridiculous idea, that it is an “eccentric” recension of a discourse much similar to the Sabbasutta (SN 35.23, which apparently already has a parallel in SA 319).

I am wondering if people may see the “sarvam asti” that is theorized as the meaning behind 一切有 (“all is”), and perhaps are not seeing a potential simpler reading the 有 as a simple existential quantifier (which, AFAIK, is what it is), which doesn’t necessarily need to be understood as an enterprise in reifying or hypostasizing. Much like how the Buddhavacana can have the Buddha freely making use of existential quantifiers with regards to himself without being understood to be reifying or hypostatizing “selfhood”, ātman, or whichever terminology is best.

I would have to get a better handle on the Chinese myself (or perhaps someone more informed can weigh in on this), but it seems to me that if we read 有 as a simple existential quantifier, then the opening phrase can be read something more like “sarvam (asti)”, or, as perhaps even something like the first word of the Sabbasutta, “Sāvatthi-”, forgive me, but is this not a Pāli parallel to the Sanskrit word “Sarvāsti?”.

Looking at the Chinese, it is possible to read it as:

If you will forgive me my eccentric practices in posting here vis-a-vis translating material, I think that understood this way, there is a striking parallel to the Sabbasutta, and perhaps this is not at all an example of Sarvāstivāda doctrines being backwritten into what “should” be EBTs, but rather a strange and eccentric parallel that has come to be understood in a specific way.

If we look at the “all” that is actually outlined, it is similar to the Sabbasutta. The only difference is that the Sabbasutta “delineates” the all, while Sarvāstisūtra seems to just want to try to “demonstrate” the all (to demonstrably less clear effect). But it seems to be the “same” “all”.

Of course, I am not an expert in Chinese. I only suggest this as a possible avenue of inquiry, not as a thesis or proof or anything of the like.

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Yes, you may be right, and in the absence of a Sanskrit text it is hard to say. I seem to recall something by Analayo on this point, but I am not sure where or what he said.

I think the larger implication of Mun-keat’s point is that there are a few passages that seem to point in this direction; but even if such tendencies are recognized, they constitute a tiny proportion of the Agama texts as a whole.

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