'nimitta' in context I: Vedic and Sanskrit

In spite of being a key term for meditation practice, nimitta hasn’t received its proper attention yet. Popularized by visuddhimagga-oriented teachers many people know it rather as a special jhāna exprience, but are not aware that in the EBT it has a more general significance. nimitta has changed its meaning over time, and my purpose is to show that in the majority of cases it should be taken as ‘cause’, or ‘trigger’ (and thus as an active mind-aspect) rather than the widespread (and more inactive) meaning of ‘mark’ or ‘sign’.

To make it more readable I split this essay in to two parts, this one dealing with Vedic and Sanskrit roots, and the next with nimitta in the EBT.

Sanskrit Translations of nimitta

Monier Williams has the following meanings

  1. a butt, mark, target (MhB)
  2. sign, omen (Manu Smrti, MhB)
  3. cause, motive, ground, reason (Upanisads, MhB, Manu Smrti)
  4. instrumental or efficient cause (later philosophers)

##nimitta in pre-Buddhist texts
The emergence of the term nimitta is somewhat a mystery. It doesn’t appear in the Vedas or the Brahmanas and is very rare in the Upanisads as well (neither Brhadaranyaka nor Chandogya feature it). The earliest occurrence is arguably the Svetasvatara Upanisad, which is considered (e.g. by Olivelle) as a rather late pre-Buddhist Upanisad.

… delusion regarding the one springs from two causes.
… tri-mārga-bhedaṃ dvi-nimittaika-moham (SvU 1.4)

One sees him as the beginning, as the basis and cause of the joining…
ādiḥ sa saṃyoga-nimitta-hetuḥ paras trikālād akalo 'pi dṛṣṭaḥ (SvU 6.5)

In the (probably already post-Buddha) Apastamba-Dharmasutra we find nimitta in a similar sense, this time translated by Olivelle as ‘reason’:

He should not disclose it when a cow is causing damage or when she is with her calf, unless there is a reason. (saṃsṛṣṭāṃ ca vatsena-animitte. ApD 1.31.10)

The appropriate reasons for begging are the following (bhikṣaṇe nimittam… ApD 2.10.1)

The gratification of the senses, however, is not an appropriate reason for begging (indriya prīty arthasya tu bhikṣaṇam animittam na tad. ApD 2.10.13)

If the king fails to inflict punishment when it is called for, the sin recoils upon him. (prāpta nimitte daṇḍa akarmaṇi rājānam enaḥ spṛśati. ApD 2.38.13)

Thomas Burrow in his article “On the Derivation of the Sanskrit Word Nimitta” names as the earliest source the Svetasvatara Upanisad. A second early source is Painini’s grammar, where a nimitta is something that ‘causes a grammatical operation’. Finally Burrow sees the root of the word in the past participle nimita, which indeed is Vedic, and appears in the dictionary as ‘caused’, ‘fixed’, ‘raised’, ‘erected’:

RV 3.8.7 Those who, hewn, are on the earth, or have been fixed down in it… (ye vṛkṇāso adhi kṣami nimitāso yatasrucaḥ)

RV 3.30.4 It is following your commandment that heaven and earth and the mountains stand like (pillars) implanted. (tava dyāvāpṛthivī parvatāso 'nu vratāya nimiteva tasthuḥ)

RV 5.62.7 Metal cloaked in gold, its pillar flashes in heaven like a horsewhip, anchored in the good or fruitful land. (…bhadre kṣetre nimitā tilvile…)

AV 3.12.5 thou, sheltering, kindly Goddess, wast stablished by the Gods in the beginning. (mānasya patni śaraṇā syonā devī devebhir nimitāsy agre)

AV 9.3.16 Rich in prosperity, rich in milk, founded and built upon the earth (ūrjasvatī payasvatī pṛthivyāṃ nimitā mitā)

AV 9.3.19 [The] House that was founded with the prayer, built and erected by the wise. (brahmaṇā śālāṃ nimitāṃ kavibhir nimitāṃ mitām)

[RV = Rigveda (transl Brereton/Jamison), AV = Atharvaveda (transl. Griffith)]

This traced back etymology to nimita certainly fits well with the later Sanskrit meaning of nimitta as ‘cause’ and ‘reason’, and lets us expect this meaning for the time of the Buddha and the EBT as well.



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Wow, thanks so much, this is a very helpful piece of research. So it seems the sense of “sign”, which is taken to be primary in the Buddhist texts, is entirely absent until much later in the Sanskrit tradition.

I have sometimes rendered it as “basis” in meditation contexts, and this seems even more appropriate, given the Vedic uses. There it seems virtually synonymous with patiṭṭhita..


I think there are a few ways to interpret it from this point, and I hope I can contribute to it with the second part. We can find both meanings, cause and sign, in the EBT. And I’m inclined to think that because of the change of meaning over time we might play with separating older from later layers of EBT.

Based on many thoughts, discussion and my experience I still think “sign” is the best meaning and translation.
It is not the “cause” definitely.
I am comfortable with the translation it as the “theme”

What is the theme of the mind?


I’m not sure about this. If we are to establish that the meaning changed over time, we would have to find clear independent evidence in the passages in which it occurs. For example, if it is found in all those cases of one meaning in the Chinese parallels, but not in the other cases. But I don’t think this is the case. Rather, I think it just had a range of meaning: there’s nothing unusual about that.

You know that nimitta is explicitly and unambiguously used in the sense of “cause” in several passages, right? This is not controversial. The only difficulty is knowing how far this sense extends.

For example, the passage at SN 48.40:

uppannaṃ kho me idaṃ dukkhindriyaṃ, tañca kho sanimittaṃ sanidānaṃ sasaṅkhāraṃ sappaccayaṃ
The faculty of pain has arisen in me. And that has a precursor, a source, a condition, and a reason.


Are you are saying that the words, a precursor, a source, a condition, and a reason are
synonymous in this case?

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Yes, this is self-evident.

I have no problem with accepting “precursor” as a translation for ’ Nimitta’.

Sorry Bhante, my English is not very good.
Why Buddha has to use four similar words to tell the same thing?

This happens in almost every sentence in the Pali; it’s the single most prominent and well-known stylistic feature of the Pali texts. And the purpose of it is simple: to preserve the meaning in case of textual corruption. If one word gets lost or changed, the meaning stays the same.


Aren’t theses different kinds.
For example:
Nidana Sutta.

Dependent Origination.

Modes of Conditioning. (Paccaya)

There’s an excellent early Sanskrit source on the meaning of “nimitta” in the context of perception, Saundaranandakavya by Ashvaghosha:

2.The Restraint of the Senses

tataḥ smṛtim adhiṣṭhāya capalāni svabhāvataḥ /
indriyāṇīndriyārthebhyo nivārayitum arhasi // Saund_13.30 //

By taking your stand on mindfulness you must hold back from the sense-objects
your senses, unsteady by nature.

bhetavyaṃ na tathā śatror nāgner nāher na cāśaneḥ /
indriyebhyo yathā svebhyas tair ajasraṃ hi hanyate // Saund_13.31 //

Fire, snakes, and lightning are less inimical to us than our own senses,
so much more dangerous. For they assail us all the time.

dviṣabdhiḥ śatrubhiḥ kaś cit kadā cit pīḍyate na vā /
indriyair bādhyate sarvaḥ sarvatra ca sadaiva ca // Saund_13.32 //

Even the most vicious enemies can attack only some people at some times, and not at others, but everybody is always and everywhere weighed down by his senses.

na ca prayāti narakaṃ śatruprabhṛthibhir hataḥ /
kṛṣyate tatra nighnas tu capalair indriyair hataḥ // Saund_13.33 //

And people do not go to hell because some enemy has knocked them down and cast them into it; it is because they have been knocked down by their unsteady senses that they are helplessly dragged there.

hanyamānasya tair duḥkhaṃ hārdaṃ bhavati vā na vā /
indriyair bādhyamānasya hārdaṃ śārīram eva ca // Saund_13.34 //

Those attacked by external enemies may, or may not, suffer injury to their souls; but those who are weighed down by the senses suffer in body and soul alike.

saṃkalpaviṣadigdhā hi pañcendriyamayāḥ śarāḥ /
cintāpuṅkhā raiphalā viṣayākāśagocarāḥ // Saund_13.35 //

For the five senses are rather like arrows which have been smeared with the poison of fancies, have cares for their feathers, and happiness for their points, and fly about in the space provided by the range of the sense-objects;

manuṣyahariṇān ghnanti kāmavyādheritā hṛdi /
vihanyante yadi na te tataḥ patanti taiḥ kṣatāḥ // Saund_13.36 //

shot off by Kama, the God of Love, they hit men in their very hearts as a hunter hits a deer,
and if men do not know how to ward off these arrows, they will be their undoing;

niyamājirasaṃsthena dhairyakārmukadhāriṇā /
nipatanto nivāryās te mahatā smṛtivarmaṇā // Saund_13.37 //

when they come near us we should stand firm in self-control, be agile and steadfast,
and ward them off with the great armor of mindfulness.

indriyāṇām upaśamād arīṇāṃ nigrahād iva /
sukhaṃ svapiti vāste vā yatra tatra gatoddhavaḥ // Saund_13.38 //

As a man who has subdued his enemies can everywhere live and sleep at ease and free from care,
so can he who has pacified his senses.

teṣāṃ hi satataṃ loke viṣayāṇ abhikāṅkṣatām /
saṃvin naivāsti kārpaṇyāc chunām āśāvatām iva // Saund_13.39 //

For the senses constantly ask for more by way of worldly objects,
and normally behave like voracious dogs who can never have enough.

viṣayair indriyagrāmo na tṛptim adhigacchati /
ajasraṃ pūryamāṇo 'pi samudraḥ salilair iva // Saund_13.40 //

This disorderly mob of the senses can never reach satiety, not by any amount of sense-objects;
they are rather like the sea, which one can go on indefinitely replenishing with water.

avaśyaṃ gocare sve sve vartitavyam ihendriyaiḥ /
nimittaṃ tatra na grāhyam anuvyañjanam eva ca // Saund_13.41 //

In this world the senses cannot be prevented from being active, each in its own sphere.
But they should not be allowed to grasp either the general features of an object, or its particularities.

ālokya cakṣuṣā rūpaṃ dhātumātre vyavasthitaḥ /
strī veti puruṣo veti na kalpayitum arhasi // Saund_13.42 //

When you have beheld a sight-object with your eyes, you must merely determine the basic element (which it represents, e.g., it is a sight-object), and should not under any circumstances fancy it as, say, a “woman” or a “man.”

sacet strīpuruṣagrāhaḥ kva cid vidyeta kās cana /
śubhataḥ keśadantādīn nānuprasthātum arhasi // Saund_13.43 //

But if now and then you have inadvertently grasped something as a “woman” or a "man,"
you should not follow that up by determining the hairs, teeth, etc., as lovely.

nāpaneyaṃ bhūtato bhūtaṃ śaśvad indiyagocare /
draṣṭavyaṃ bhūtato bhūtaṃ yādṛṣaṃ ca yathā ca yat // Saund_13.44 //

Nothing should be subtracted from the datum, nothing added to it;
it should be seen as it really is, as what it is like in real truth.

evaṃ te paśyatas tattvaṃ śaśvad indriyagocare /
bhaviṣyati padasthānaṃ nābhiyādaurmanasyayoḥ // Saund_13.45 //

If you thus try to look continually for the true reality in that which the senses present to you,
covetousness and aversion will soon be left without a foothold.

abhidhyā priyarūpeṇa hanti kāmātmakaṃ jagat /
arir mitramukheneva priyavākkaluṣāśayaḥ // Saund_13.46 //

Coveting ruins those living beings who are bent on sensuous enjoyment by means of pleasing forms,
like an enemy with a friendly face who speaks loving words, but plans dark deeds.

daurmanasyābhidhānas tu pratigho viṣayāśritaḥ /
mohād yenānuvṛttena paratreha ca hanyate // Saund_13.47 //

But what is called “aversion” is a kind of anger directed towards certain objects,
and anyone who is deluded enough to pursue it is bound to suffer for it either in this or a future life.

anurodhavirodhābhyāṃ śitoṣṇābhyām ivārditaḥ /
śarma nāpnoti na śreyaś calendricam ato jagat // Saund_13.48 //

Afflicted by their likes and dislikes, as by excessive heat or cold, men will never find either happiness or the highest good as long as they put their trust in the unsteady senses.

— Saundaranandakavya, xiii, 30-56; translated by Edward Conze


Note that here the English translation “grāhya” and “grāhaḥ” as “grasping” is an established error, - as well as such translation of Pāli “gaṇhati”.

In the context of perception, this verb means:

“receives into the mind, apprehends, learns”

as explained in Margaret Cone’s dictionary.

So this text talks about apprehending of representation (nimitta) of somebody as “man” or “woman”.


Nice work Gabriel. I also found the article by Bhikkhu Sona on Nimitta in breath meditation helpful. www.leighb.com/case_of_the_missing_simile.htm