Janapada nirutti in popular terms

Recently I investigated the difficult phrase sakāya niruttiya and concluded that, rather than speaking of something as grand as a wholesale translation, it referred to the more humble practice of offering glosses on words.

One reason I was looking at that was because I was coming up to MN 139 Araṇavibhaṅgasutta, which includes a passage on the related term janapadanirutti. Even more so than sakāya niruttiya this has been taken as a reference to “local dialects”. But like the passage on sakāya niruttiya, it seems like a fairly humble place to discuss such a monumental event.

One of the underlying principles I always use is the “principle of least meaning”. In this case it seems especially apt, as the texts themselves do not seem to treat these passages with great importance, yet they have attracted a vast ocean of spilt ink among modern scholars.

What if we were all on the wrong track?

a platter of words

The passage lists seven terms for a “dish”, several of which are obscure or have variant readings. Here I give the readings as I adopt them.

  • pātī
  • patta
  • vittha
  • sarāva
  • harosa
  • poṇa
  • pisīlava

dialectical words?

Brian Levman in his Pali and Buddhism proposes that five words from vittha on are of non-Indo-European origin.

  1. vittha/vitta, “bowl” (OI ?) < etymology unknown;
  2. serāva/sarāva (OI śarāva), etymology not understood per M1 1956–76, vol. 2: 307 (“nicht befriedigend erklärt,” not satisfactorily explained). Possibly from Dravidian Tuḷu teriya “circular pad of wicker or straw placed under a vessel to make it steady” by metonymy and change of t- > s- (no s- in proto-Dravidian). Or from Munda, cp Santali soṛwa or soṛha, “leaf cup”;
  3. dhāropa/harosa (var.) “bowl, dish, pan” < etymology unknown ? < dhṛ, “to hold”? Cone: a dialect word for a bowl, a dish; hapax legomenon, cp Kannada ḍoppe, doppe, “cup or dish of leaves”;
  4. poṇa/hana (var.), “pot,” hapax legomenon < unknown etymology; cp Gta’ (Munda language) boɽna, “small pot”;
  5. pisīla/sīla/pipila (var.) Skt piśīlam, “wooden vessel”; Mayrhofer: “nicht genügend erklärt” (not sufficiently explained), perhaps from root piś, “hew out, carve out, cut into shape” hapax legomenon; more likely non-Aryan, cp Dravidian Tamil patalai, “large-mouthed pot.”

None of these appear to be hugely convincing. For example, take the explanation of poṇa from the Munda language Gta’. This is an extremely small language used by a few thousand people today in the region of Orissa. Are we to suppose that this language, and this language alone, explains a word found 2,500 years ago in Pali? If it were widely distributed among Munda languages then there might be a case, but this seems paper-thin.

can we explain these words?

Let’s see what we can learn about these terms.


This is from the root √pā “to drink”. It is used in Pali especially of precious golden or silver “pots” (eg. AN 9.20:4.3). The Sanskrit form pātrī is attested in the pre-Buddhist Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa as a sacrificial “vessel”.


This is the normal term for a mendicant’s bowl, found widely in Pali and Sanskrit (pātra). It is the masculine form from the same root as the feminine pātrī.


Vittha is poorly attested and explained. Variants include vitta and piṭṭha.

It is found in one other Pali passage, where it is spelled without variants as vitthaka, so I adopt that. The -ka ending is diminutive. The passage is where the Buddha allows a “small jar in the workshop” (āvesanavitthaka) for keeping sewing gear such as needles and thimbles (Kd 15:11.5.15).


Used regularly in the Vinaya for a “scoop” for water, this is a regular word found nearly twenty times in the canon (eg. AN 3.57:3.2, Kd 15:14.3.30, Kv 1.1:356.6).

The Sanskrit śarāva is also quite widely attested, eg. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa; Chāndogya Upaniṣad 8.8.1; Manu 6.56; also in Jain texts.


The more common reading is dhāropa, and it took me quite a while to figure this one out. It doesn’t seem to be attested anywhere else.

There is an equally obscure word puṭosa that means “knapsack”. Here, puṭa is “bag” and osa is a word for “food” that is apparently only found in this compound. It’s from √si, “to depend”, i.e. “provision”; cf. āhāra in a similar sense. Sanskrit dictionaries recognize the cognate form avasa.

The problem is that the word order in the compound—a dative-dependent tappurisa—is reversed from the usual; normally we would expect osapuṭa, a “bag for food”. However we do occasionally find such reversed compounds, such as rājahaṁsa “king of swans”, not “swan of kings”. Assuming this is the case here, puṭosa yields the required sense “bag for food”.

Now, returning to the original term, notice that the variants of the initial syllable are har- and dhār-. These (as well as bhār-) are common words in Pali/Sanskrit with the sense, “bear, carry, take”.

Thus by analogy with puṭosa, harosa yields the sense, “carrier for food”, i.e. “vessel”.


This is a regular Pali word meaning “slope”. The Sanskrit is pravaṇa, ultimately from the root √nam “to bend”. Probably it was a kind of dish with sloped sides.


Attested in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa piśīle vā pātryau vā, where it appears alongside pātra as a dish used for the butter placed on the altar.

what have we learned?

It seems that most of the words have a satisfactory explanation from standard Indo-European vocabulary.

  • √pā → pātrī, patta
  • √har + √si → harosa
  • √nam → poṇa
  • √piś → pisīlava

Only two lack an IE explanation (sarāva, vittha), but they also lack a convincing root in Munda or Dravidian.

More important that the roots is the usage. And as we have seen, all of these words are either attested in Pali and/or Sanskrit, or can be explained in terms of common roots.

The idea, therefore, that they represent local dialects seems unlikely. There’s no geographical evidence tying them to any particular localities, but rather they are all just standard Pali/Sanskrit.

Nor is there any support for the dogmatic idea that this passage shows the linguistic pragmatism of the Buddha as opposed to the Brahmanical tradition, which, while certainly displaying a rigorous attention to preserving the literal wording of the Vedas, freely adopted terms in its later literature.

different words for “people”

From Analayo’s Comparative Study (vol. ii, p. 795) we learn that there is a Sanskrit fragment that parallels this passage (SHT II 163a, p. 15). To the words for “bowl” it adds several terms for a “person”. There is also a Tibetan parallel, but the Sanskrit is of particular interest as it lets us see the exact Indic forms.

(jīv)[o] vā jantur-vā [poṣo] vā pudgalo vā manujo

As you can see this has been partly reconstructed, but let us briefly take each one.

  • jīva: a standard term for “living creature” or “soul”.
  • jantu: found several times in Pali, eg. AN 8.29:13.6.
  • poṣa: a contracted form of purisa found several times in Pali, eg. Dhp 125.
  • pudgala: standard term for “person”.
  • manuja: “born of Manu”, i.e. “human”, eg. Dhp 334.

Here it is even more clear that these are simply standard Pali/Sanskrit words, and are not meant to represent regional dialects.

what about janapada?

One problem with this whole scenario is that linguistic variations in northern Indian languages tend to be more in grammatical forms and pronunciation than in vocabulary. If this were really about dialect, why not say, “In some places they say nibbāna, or nirvāṇa, or nivvāna”, pointing to actual linguistic differences? Why have a list of Pali words?

Normally janapada means a “nation”, and is a unified political region. More loosely, we find a contrast between the “people of city and country” where the form has a long initial vowel, jānapada, “people of the country”.

But we also find janapada in sense such as “the people”, and in such cases the distinction between janapada and jānapada seems to be erratically observed. Sanskrit dictionaries attest janapada as “the people”, “mankind”. We even find jānapadā in the sense “popular expression”, i.e. “saying of the people”.

Given that the words are regular Pali, and that there is no support for geographical distribution, I suggest we read janapada here in the same sense.

Janapadanirutti is not “local dialect”, but “popular terms”, “expressions used among the people”. Often, of course, such terms are loosely associated with geography, as for example the use of “soda” and “pop” for the same drink in different regions of the U.S. But they might also arise for other reasons, such as class, education, vocation, or simple preference.

in conclusion

The passage in MN 139 is not talking about regional languages or dialects, but about usages popular or current among the people. Sometimes we get stuck on one way of saying things, and we think that’s the “correct” way. But different people use different words, and that’s okay.