Kāpilānī means “daughter of Kapila”

In my critique of Weingast’s First Free Women I noted that he referred to the nun Bhaddā Kāpilānī as “red hair” and called it inexplicable. I gave it as an example of the racial erasure found in the book.

It turns out, as user @Nessie let me know, that this has a history, and is not as inexplicable as all that. I apologize for saying this, I should have done my homework better. However, while it is explicable, it’s still not correct, as I will show.

There’s a tradition in German translations of referring to Kāpilānī as a “blonde” or “redhead”. It seems to have started in Neumann’s old translation:


He gives the note:

Die blonde (*) Bhaddā

(*) kapilāni, rötlich goldblond.

Neumann was a well-loved early translator, heavily influenced by the German Romantic tradition, whose translations are more appreciated for their appealing style than their accuracy. Of course, he was working at a much earlier time, when knowledge of Pali was less well established. Still, his work has been often criticized by later and more rigorous translators.

This is continued in the more recent translation by Sass, who translates her name as “die glückliche Rote” (“The Lucky Red”).

This establishes that the idea of “red” or “blonde” hair was attributed to Bhaddā Kāpilānī by a series of translators in German. Others may have done the same.

Obviously Indian women have black hair, so the question arises as to where they got this idea from? There is no suggestion in any of the texts or commentaries to support it.

I can’t be sure of the dictionaries or sources the German translators were using. But a survey of the English dictionary is enlightening.

The old PTS dictionary calls her the “lady of the Kapila clan”. This is a normal usage in Pali, and is surely correct. It is attested as early as the Theri Apadana, which says she was the daughter of the brahmin Kapila.

Now, in the PTS dictionary kapila is said to mean “brown, tawny, reddish, of hair & beard”. Apparently it’s related to the word for “monkey” (kapi). This sense is found in a commentary to the late canonical text Vimānavatthu. So we’re getting closer to understanding, but still: why did they even have a word for red hair?

Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pali is more helpful. Yes, kapila is used in reference to the red hair … of a yakkha! Clearly the word was chosen specifically to emphasize the unnatural and terrifying appearance of a yakkha. Sorry, gingers! :man_red_haired: Was it the case that warring clans of Scots highlanders had made their way to India to terrify the locals with their hair and kilts? It seems unlikely! Probably just the imagination of the writers.

So to conclude.

  • kapila is used in one commentary to describe the unnatural red color of a yakkha’s hair.
  • Bhaddā uses the patronymic Kāpilānī (because Bhaddā is a common name).
  • some German translators have mistakenly taken her name as a description of her hair color.

As a white man, I have to constantly remind myself of my privilege and perspective, and try to not let it influence my work. So when I see a series of white men all choosing to attribute an unnatural racial attribute to Bhaddā, and moreover one that draws attention to her appearance, it stands out. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I try to guard against. When someone claims to be “inspired” by the text, it’s important to notice exactly what they are inspired by. We’ve come too far in our understanding of how sexism and racism work to just let it just continue unchallenged.


Bhante, women in India ( and men too) use henna to colour their hair. Depending on the source of henna, you get shades of orange to red to deep burgundy. Disclaimer: I use it!



In K.E. Neumann’s introduction on palikanon.com he makes a notice which might be helpful to further track down his own sources (and thus possibly his use of “Kapilani” instead of “Kāpilānī”):

(…) Only a comparison of parallels and paratheses, which can only now be carried out and which is as complete as possible, can determine the value of questionable pleographies for us. I tried to find it in the text design on which my translation is based. Some of the variants avoided by Oldenberg and Pischel in their excellent text edition from 1883 have been included, some vice versa exchanged, sometimes combined, depending on the readings I think are better and the best references. Of course, Dhammapálo’s commentary was also duly appreciated, the last aid that, a millennium younger than the text, may only be used with the utmost skepticism. (…) K.E.Neumann, foreword for 1st edition 1898

(Didn’t find this words in the current site’s pages to provide a link, have it in an older local copy)

Added: on a further look into KEN and ES’s translations one can see, that KEN as well as ES translate every name at the header of the gatha as if it were no personal name but some “character” or even a simple thematic anchorpoint of the gatha (instead the personal name of the singer/author), and so as well the double name “Bhadda Kapilani”. Perhaps we see here the simple driving mechanic to interpret (also) the term “Kapilani” as a character and not as a name. (But while this might explain this for the so-far-seen german tradition, such a german tradition does of course say nothing about possible reasons in the most current affair).


Sure. But it’s not what Kapilani means.

Just to add, I can’t find any evidence for henna at all in the early texts. Nor is there are reference anywhere to red hair. There’s a substance called alattaka which was a sort of rouge used for coloring feet; Ven Bodhi translates it as “henna” but he appears to be alone in that.

It’s probably not surprising to find the EBTs are light on that details of makeup!

Oddly, in the Sanskrit dictionaries, i can find only one reference to henna, the plant madayanti (which literally means “madder”). But even that seems questionable, as it is normally said to be jasmine.

I’m not finding any evidence for that.

Again, there is no evidence anywhere that Kapilani is anything but what it appears to be, a patronymic.


That’s not true, I don’t think you can make that conclusion.

It’s not unnatural, men and women dye their hair red. Maybe certain clans did so more than others.

They have been doing so for thousands of years there. I’m not so sure there isn’t a red hair connection.

Because of the use of henna. Black hair dye is a western import.


Alta is traditionally a natural dye that is the colouring Bharatanatyam dancers ( classical South Indian dance) useto apply to their feet and hands to emphasize the gestures. Its origin is in the Bengal.

In Tamil, henna is called marutāni


Interesting, thanks!

I’m guessing that the different dyes have different qualities that make them useful in different ways. right? Modern henna seems to be very delicate and refined, it makes very intricate patterns.

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probably the nun was from Pashtun origin, they existed in India at those times

That is not pure henna. The wiki has a good description of the different varieties, mixtures and alterations to henna that create different effects.
I use pure henna from ground Lawsonia leaves. This is NOT the version used on hands and there is a lot of misconceptions about it in the west. Raw henna is very earthy and does not stain very dark.

My grandmother had a tree and I’ve seen her dry and grind the leaves myself. It’s used for medicinal purposes as well, not just to decorate hands.

In India people have a very close relationship with natural products.
Although there is no evidence in the texts, if you visit India, orange or red hair is very common in older folks, or those who prematurely grey like me :rofl:
Ever since colonialism things changed and black hair became en vogue.


She did not have red hair. It is a mistake by translators.

Yes, but red hair originated in Central Asia about 100k years ago according to current research. It was just that the steppes tribes tended to head west into Scandinavia and Germany in pre-historic times, and from there they invaded the British Isles. Red hair among the natives there comes from Viking and Germanic heritage. So, it’s possible that ancient Indians might have at least heard of red-haired people. I tend to agree that the nun being red-haired seems less likely to me, too.


Pashtuns were present in India and Herodotus mentions that people. There is a persian connection in that people, and btw, also the travells to Persia appears inside buddhist sources. At those times the people was in movement, and pashtuns tribes were part of the Indian panorame. Well we know the pashtuns were buddhists until the arrival of Islam.

I don’t think strange reading about a red-hair nun at those times, quite possible

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Sure. But it has nothing to do with Kāpilānī.

Historical context is useful, but I really wish we would stop with this, “but maybe it was red hair” meme.

Kapila is a common name in Pali. Pali Proper Names dictionary lists twelve Kapilas. They even have a city named after them: Kapilavattthu, you may have heard of it?

Kāpilānī is a normal and very common kind of patronymic, which means “daughter of Kapila” or more generally “member of the Kapila family.” It has nothing to do with hair color.


well but you mentions kapila is widely accepted like related with red hair.
What could be the meaning of Kapilavattthu?

I don’t understand this sentence. The name Kapila has nothing to do with hair color.

It means the “place of the Kapila clan”.


you wrote before:

Then, It would be plausible “place of the clan with red hair”?

Like western last names “Blacksmith” or “ Baker”?

I can just speak for traditional South Indian and Sri Lankan last names, they are loaded with meanings about the vocation or caste of the family. Last names do take on the traditional village name as well.


neither I can know, although normally there is always a relation of places, activities etc… with the origin of the names of cities and people

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Your persistence is admirable, but no, it has nothing to do with hair.

In one single passage written 1000 years later, the word kapila occurs as an adjective describing the red hair of a mythical creature, the yakkha. The word kapila there does not mean “red hair”. In that context, it means “reddish” and happens to be used to describe hair. Descriptions of yakkhas always emphasize their unnatural and horrifying features— that’s the point of the description, to paint a horrifying sight. Typically they are said to have “red eyes” for example.

Without a single exception that I am aware of, human beings in the time of the Buddha, except the elderly of course, were said to have black hair.

As to what the original meaning of Kapila as a name might be, as far as I know it is lost in the mists of time, like so many names. Most likely, my guess would be that it was named after an animal totem, the “monkey” (kapi), as the Sinhalese people are named after the lion (sīha).

I’m really sorry guys, I appreciate all the questions, but I give up. I’ve explained what the Pali means, you are most welcome to your interpretation.


just I tried to explore the possibilities, thanks for your patience. I appreciate very much your comments :slightly_smiling_face: