I reeeeeeally hate to do this but …

When I started translating the Khaggavisāṇasutta (see recent post) I vowed to not spend time working out exactly what khaggavisāṇa meant. “Just accept whatever Bhikkhu Bodhi concluded. It’s not worth time to get into it all.” Alas, here we are.

So I’m not going to recap all the arguments, but basically the term could mean either “the horn of a rhinoceros” or “that which has a sword for a horn (i.e. a rhinocerous)”. The English word, as it happens, is similar, having the etymology “that with a horn on its nose”.

Ven Bodhi and Norman accept “the horn of a rhino”. And I have too, but never with 100% confidence. It is odd to me that the exactly parallel lines says “wander alone like an elephant”. It just feels … unsatisfactory.

So I did some background research, and I turned up something interesting. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) It seems that the habits of the adult male Indian rhino are similar to that of the elephant. That is, he will sometimes hang with the herd, but is often found alone. Now, the Pali for the elephant version makes it clear it refers to a bull: eko care mātaṅgaraññeva nāgo. (Mātaṅga incidentally is a rare dialectical form for elephant.) So we should translate, “wander alone like an tusker”.

So I wonder is there is something to the maleness of this image. The whole idea is quite blokey: just leave everyone behind and go off. Now, in English we refer to a bull elephant as a “tusker” because of the prominent tusks, even though females have tusks too.

Could it be that khaggavisāṇa means “a tusker rhino”, i.e. a bull rhino? It seems poetically better. It is the rhino that wanders, not the horn; and it chimes better with the masculine imagery of the tusker, and of the Khaggavisāṇasutta as a whole.

I wondered whether female Indian rhinos have tusks. And it turned out that the females do in fact enjoy quite a nice tusk.

Looking good!

But if we can’t really distinguish male from female rhinos by their tusk, it would seem my theory dies there.

Months went by.

And then! I discovered that in the past there was a second species of rhino in India. It was in the 1920s that the last living Indian Java Rhino died. This was a subspecies of the critically-endangered Javan rhino.

And it says it right there:

Only adult bulls have horns; cows lack them altogether.

Does this mean I was right? Well, it’s not so simple. From what I can gather, the historical range of the Javan Rhino was always limited to the east. That means that it is very likely that the rhino known to the Buddha was the standard Indian Rhino.

I am left with questions.


For me, I’m satisfied enough with the translation “horn of a rhino” though. :smiley:

If we are walking alone and the sun is behind us, what we will ever see is only one shadow of our own.

Therefore, it’s a very good image to the case when a rhino is walking alone, what it ever sees is only one horn before its eyes.

Alone alone alone mindfulness alone alone alone

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I’ve always preferred rhinoceros for poetical reasons (specifically the wandering, as you point out) but have also often thought that “the horn of a rhinoceros” could also mean “rhinoceros”, like you might call an elephant “trunky” or a whales blowholers or something like that :stuck_out_tongue:

anyway your “tusker” example is very suggestive to me and I would basically tend to think that it should decisively sway you, after all, shouldn’t we encourage variety in translation where variety of interpretation can be defended on philological grounds? since there is so much group-think in Buddhist translation anyways? (it is surely possible to come up with a better word than aggregate for example, and why has no-one with humean sympathies, like Garfield maybe, gone with bundles? or better still, heaps, i like heaps heaps. “these five clung to heaps” like a heap of bones, who uses aggregates outside of Buddhists and gravel salesmen?)

Anyway, I throw my 2 cents in favor of Rhino rather than Horn.

Ugh this again. I thought we decided it was a unicorn? :unicorn:


Hmm. And if it turned out that it’s not only males who live often alone? That’s what it says on the German Wikipedia page:

Nashörner leben häufig als Einzelgänger, die aber in Savannen auch in kleinen, matriarchalisch organisierten Herden auftreten können. Bullen sind meistens Einzelgänger und leben territorial.

(Rhinos live often solitary, but in savannas can also form small matriarchally organized herds. Bulls are mostly loners and live in their specific territory.)

So according to this, all rhinos live often alone, but males more regularly.


What dose it say about me if I’m happy even if it was just translated as “wander alone like something that wanders alone”? Like, are there actually different ways of wandering alone?


That’s a bit reminiscent of one of the wittier 1980s Heineken beer commercials. William Wordsworth is trying to compose a poem about daffodils, but his muse keeps failing him…

“I walked about a bit on my own…”

“I strolled around without anyone else…”

Only after drinking a glass of Heineken does he get it right.

“I wandered lonely as a cloud …”

The problem here (or at least one of them) is that we don’t know whether the tenor of the khaggavisāṇakappo simile is the verb care or the adverb eko. If we suppose it to be the verb, then the rhinoceros translation makes more sense, but if it’s the adverb then the horn translation does. The grammar, however, would seem to allow either construal.

Women for sure do this, too! It’s less socially acceptable, for example when mothers leave their children, but it is a thing. Similarly, there are plenty of women on the autism spectrum, but under diagnosed because society teaches them more to behave socially (I learned from my autistic friend about the concept of masking). They for the most part would much rather wander alone.

So, I would challenge that the word even needs to be gendered as such behaviors apparently apply to female elephants, rhinos, and humans, too.

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Yes, but if you are looking at those truly known for wandering, the outliers who leave the beaten trail, those would be the precise ones who might reach the Buddha. :wink:

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Well, I think go right ahead and use tusker rhino with all the umpf of masculine stereotypes attached. If there’s a problem of erasure, it’s not going to be in your translation.

I have never read Bull of a Man, but good on ya for bringing up gender concerns. It’s a very funny post, made me laugh.

Oh yes, I never thought of that!

Indeed, and there are cases in the Indic like this. Jones (whose article is cited by Bodhi) gives some examples.

Sanskrit sūcīka, ‘stinging insect’, can be regarded as an abbreviation of sūcīmukha … Sanskrit śiśuka- (Pāli susu or susuka), ‘dolphin’, ‘crocodile’, can be regarded as abbreviations of śiśumāra, ‘child-killer’

That last one is a bit disturbing TBH.

Indeed, I agree. We shouldn’t be in a hurry to enforce a premature unity.

Oh I’ve tried!

Lol I know!

Still, the point remains.

I mean, the power of the simile is really lost on us, to be sure.

Sure, we don’t know. But there are just so very many cases where “wander alone” is used for an elephant, a lion, the sun, an exiled king … not to mention an ascetic.

It’s not a question of gendered possibilities or even realities. It’s about how imagery is used in culture. And this is overwhelmingly masculine imagery.

Oh yeah, good point!

There’s a fantastic little recent paper that is relevant, Wander Alone Like the Rhinoceros!’: The Solitary, Itinerant Renouncer in Ancient Indian Gāthā-Poetry by Kristoffer af Edholm. You can grab it here. It talks about the use of this imagery right through the Jain and Brahmanical literature as well. It’s a terrific read.


There’s an interesting third opinion on this matter proposed by Gautama Vajracarya. He takes the verb to be the tenor of the simile and the horn (not the rhino) to be the instrument. However, he takes the simile to be referring not to the solitariness of the horn/wandering, but rather to its meandering character.

Unicorns in ancient India and Vedic Ritual

Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

Another interesting article.

You know, when I was researching the Gandhabba and started to realize how it was associated with male potency; then when I investigated the imagery of the “horned” animal and realized that it too was a masculine image, I somehow never thought to put the two together. But Vajracarya led me to Arthavaveda 4.4, and well, here we are.

(The Sanskrit is here, but it’s 4.5 in this edition.)



I’m sorry, I don’t understand your point. Would you care to expand?

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oh nvm, just a bad joke about an adulterer’s “wandering horn” :sweat_smile: Which is to say: I find his reading of the simile unconvincing.