How the word ibbha was carried on the elephant’s broad back

There is a Pali word ibbha, which is commonly found as a term of abuse of the samanas by the brahmins:

muṇḍakā samaṇakā ibbhā kiṇhā bandhupādāpaccā
shavelings, fake ascetics, riffraff, black spawn from the feet of our kinsman

Ibbha is a difficult word, given that it has no obvious etymology, it occurs fairly rarely, and the meanings appear quite contradictory.

  • menial, vassal
  • the wealthy
  • royal adjuncts

It is an abstract noun from ibha (“elephant”) + -ya.

Much ink has been spilled on these terms, and I haven’t reviewed all the literature. The most recent contribution seems to be Callait’s Pali ibbha, Vedic ibhya, most of which can be read on Google Books.

They make the good point that in DN 3 Ambaṭṭhasutta—the richest context for the word in Pali—the Buddha’s response implicitly connects the kaṇha (“black”) of the insult with the name of the sage; and by analogy, ibbha is connected with dāsiputta, “son of a slave-woman”.

But how do we get from “slave, servant, menial” to “prosperous, royal attendant” in later literature?

It’s quite noteworthy that many of the names of major animals in Pali have an Indo-European root: go = cow, and assa = horse. But there are several words for “elephant”, which are often dialectical. This is because cows and horses were well-known to the Indo-Europeans, but not elephants. So they adopted local terms or invented descriptive epithets (hatthi, “handy”).

It’s likely then that ibha began as a dialectical term for “elephant” among one of the many tribes or local peoples who inhabited India before the Indo-Europeans got there.

Now, from the passage above you would not be wrong to see a racial, not to mention racist, element. “Black” was an insult. From the brahmanical point of view, as relatively fair-skinned northerners, the locals, especially those of the south, were “black” and lesser. Indeed, in DN 3 the sage Kanha is associated with the local magicks of the south.

If the root meaning of ibha, then, is “elephant”, then the root meaning of ibbha would be “people of the elephant”. In other words, the native inhabitants who tamed and used elephants. When the Indo-Europeans arrived, they were the enemy. Hence, in the Rig Veda, the rājas (i.e. the invading Indo-Europeans) destroy or consume the ibhyas, which is sometimes translated as “enemies” and sometimes as “the rich” (this may be the first occurrence of the phrase “eat the rich”!). Both of these make sense if the root meaning is “people who have elephants”, i.e. “natives”. They were settled inhabitants, who would have had considerable wealth compared to the nomadic invaders, and they were at the time the enemy.

Ambaṭṭha is using the word in this old sense, looking down on the native subjects of the culturally and morally superior Indo-European culture. This supports the contrast between the brahmins and the samaṇas (“ascetics”), i.e. renunciates who follow the indigenous spirituality. It would also explain why the word is especially used for the Sakyans, who were native to the land. When used in this sense, perhaps “primitives” would be the best rendering.

But it didn’t take long for things to change. Chandogya Upanishad 1.10.1 tells the story of Uṣasti, who lived in Kuru, the earliest stronghold of Indo-European culture in India proper (as opposed to Gandhara). Due to a natural disaster, he had to leave, presumably travelling east towards the later center around Kosala. He went to an ibhyagrāme, translated as “proposerous village”, but which I think means “village of native people who had tamed elephants”. That this sense is relevant is confirmed by the next passage, which sees Uṣasti reduced to begging some low-grade beans from an elephant-driver. The driver, even though it is his only food, gives it to Uṣasti. But when he offers water as well, Uṣasti refuses, saying it is ritually impure since the giver is not a brahmin. The elephant-driver asks, reasonably enough, “But what about the beans?” and Uṣasti says, “Well, I really needed them, but water I can get anywhere.” It’s a brahmanical text, but I can’t say Uṣasti comes off well.

But the main point is that the relatively impoverished brahmins needed to rely on the bounty of the local “elephant-people”.

Over time, as the brahmanical culture became localized, elephants and the culture of taming them was no longer stigmatized. In fact, it became a major source of wealth and a crucial part of royal power. “Elephant-people” were no longer associated with the “black”, primitive natives, but with the royal court.

And that, I suggest, is how we get from “enemy” to “menial”, to “wealthy”, to “royal attendants”!