On shows and the twist: visūka

The Pali word visūka, although chanted often as part of the eight precepts, is curiously obscure. The PTS dictionary traces it “perhaps to sūc, sūcayati” in the sense of “bright”. It notes that the commentarial gloss—defining visūka in the context of “songs, dances, instrumental music” etc.— is “not clear”: visūkaṁ paṭani-bhūtaṁ dassanaṁ.

In DN 1 “seeing visūka” is described:

This includes such things as dancing, singing, music, performances, and storytelling; clapping, gongs, and kettledrums; beauty pageants and tribal bone-washing ceremonies; battles of elephants, horses, buffaloes, bulls, goats, rams, chickens, and quails; staff-fights, boxing, and wrestling; combat, roll calls of the armed forces, battle-formations, and regimental reviews.

The commentary is as follows. I’m not familiar with translating commentarial idioms, so this is my best guess.

Sāsanassa ananulomattā visūkaṃ paṭāṇībhūtaṃ dassananti visūkadassanaṃ.
“Seeing shows” means seeing shows consisting of gyrations which contradict the religion.
Attanā naccananaccāpanādivasena naccā ca gītā ca vāditā ca antamaso mayūranaccādivasenapi pavattānaṃ naccādīnaṃ visūkabhūtā dassanā cāti naccagītavāditavisūkadassanā.
By one’s own will regarding dancing or having someone dance, etc.; when dancing, singing, and music, even a peacock dance, etc., is happening, seeing a show consisting of dance, etc. is also “seeing shows of dance, song, and music”.
Naccādīni hi attanā payojetuṃ vā parehi payojāpetuṃ vā payuttāni passituṃ vā neva bhikkhūnaṃ na bhikkhunīnañca vaṭṭanti.
For “dance, etc.” instigated by oneself, by another, or instigated in order to see, does not occur for monks or nuns.

  • Not sure if “peacock dance” is meant to be an actual peacock or a dance of that name.

The overall assumption is that this concerns “seeing shows” of one’s own volition (rather than just happening by). I think the intent of the last sentence is to say that doing them, as well as going to see them, is forbidden for monastics. But again, I’m not 100% clear on the reading.

What is clear is that the first three items in this list are “dancing, singing, music”, which are the same as the terms in the eight or ten precepts. Here it clearly means “seeing shows of dancing, singing, music” etc. The definition is broader than that, but it is quite possible that the original sense expanded over time.

The commentary to Kp 2 says that the compound in the 8 precepts can be resolved either “dancing, singing, music, and seeing visūka”, or “seeing visūka consisting of dancing, singing, music”. It’s a significant difference: in one, one is not supposed to sing, dance, or play music, whereas the other is much narrower; one should not attend such shows (but says nothing about doing it oneself). While the commentary allows both readings, its description clearly shows that the narrower is meant, for it says that transgression arises when when approaches a show with the intent to see it.

Probably we should translate “seeing shows of dancing, singing, and music”.

The word elsewhere appears as part of two or three closely related terms:

visūkāyikāni visevitāni vipphanditāni

Usually rendered something like: “contortions, writhings, vacillations”.

These appear in the sense of:

  • a horse trying to evade the bit (mn65:33.2)
  • the distortions of the mind (sn12.35:6.1), especially
  • the visūka of views (snp1.3:21.1)
  • Māra describes his own attempts to seduce the Buddha, failed like a crab fails to escape children (sn4.24:8.6; also applied to Saccaka mn35:23.9)

The Digital Pāḷi Dictionary is helpful here. It relates vāsuka to the Sanskrit vāsuki. Now, Vāsuki is a great serpent most famed for being used like a rope to churn the milk at the birth of the cosmos. He is thus pre-eminently a “twister”.

This illuminates the commentarial gloss on visūka in the sense of “seeing visūka”. It is paṭani, which again is an obscure word, but according to DDP is “bolt, screw, fastener”. This reinforces the sense “twist, gyrate, swirl”. This sounds like it’s referring primarily to sexy dancing (cf. “the twist”). In English we also have the idiom that to go to an event with song, music and dance is to go to “a dance”.

Now, returning to our set of three terms:

visūkāyikāni visevitāni vipphanditāni

It seems the vi prefix here is meant in the sense “away, turn away, avoid”. The examples show someone trying to get out of a situation.

twists, ducks, and dodges


I take it to be cognate to the sanskrit adjective visukṛt (which is the opposite of sukṛt). Sukṛt means good/beneficial and visukṛt means useless or bad. I have not found this etymology/explanation in any Pali dictionary or commentary so far though.

This still doesn’t explain why the u became long in the Pāli form of the word, but such things happen in Pali verses for metrical or other reasons, and the spelling may have been uniformized across the canon to make the word consistent with that verse precedent - such as in this verse from the Khaggavisāṇasuttam:

diṭṭhīvisūkāni upātivatto, patto niyāmaṃ paṭiladdhamaggo.
uppannañāṇomhi anaññaneyyo, eko care khaggavisāṇakappo.

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I was checking the Harvard-Kyoto Sanskrit dictionary and two sets of words seemed relevant; one is for escape and the other one is for generic sort of drama.

The first one is a bit of a stretch but one of the words for escape is Vishkambh.

The second set is for various types of drama: Vīthika, Vīthikā, etc.

Both of these may have nothing to do with Pali Visūka but if someone knows etymology and how words evolve, it might be worth checking.

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This would be Pali visukata, or more likely dukkaṭa.

Unlikely, word changes in verse tend to remain isolated in context. Anyway, there is no reason to think the Khaggavisāṇasutta is earlier than the prose, in fact more likely it is drawing on a well-established technical term.

A lengthened ū could happen in other ways, though. One is by analogy with dukkaṭa; if the two terms are paired, the syllable could be lengthened to match. But that would rather yield *visukkata.

The other way would be by secondary derivation.

  • kata = “done”
  • su + kata = “well done”
  • sū + kata + ya = “well-done-ness” (sūkatya) = “beneficence”
  • *visūkacca = “wrong-done-ness” = “malfeasance”

Then drop the end off I guess. Anyway, it doesn’t seem plausible, and the sense doesn’t really apply either in the case of “show” or of “twisted views”. It’s an odd case, and since we don’t yet have the final volume of the updated Pali dictionary, there’s no real discussion of it.

The Digital Pali Dictionary, which I referred to above, is derived from the very extensive Burmese dictionary of Pali, which covers a much greater vocabulary that the English dictionaries, and which I have found to be generally reliable, offering meanings or derivations lacking elsewhere.

Neither apply, just on formal grounds, there’s no normal transformations that would allow the Pali form.

In terms of meaning, the first means “prop, support, pillar, obstacle” etc. and is vikkambha in Pali. The sense “escape” is marginal at best, and anyway I’m not sure how it would apply to visūka.

Vīthika means “street”, it has the same spelling in Pali. It is apparently applied to a form of drama “having an amatory intrigue for its plot and said to be in one act and performed by one or two players”. But this is a technical term in aesthetics only found in much later texts.


As far as I understand, that would not be the case, Pali normally loses final consonants, and doesnt normally add a vowel after a consonant ending sanskrit word-form. So visukṛt would become something like *visuka (where the final ‘a’ in pali is a replacement for the vowel ‘ṛ’ of skt, with the final ‘t’ of sanskrit dropped).

dukkaṭa (duṣkṛta) is not the opposite of sukṛt, but rather the opposite of sukaṭa (sukṛta).
Sukṛta & ḍuṣkṛta are PPP forms (past passive participle), called ‘kta’ pratyayas in sanskrit, while sukṛt, duṣkṛt and visukṛt would be kvip pratyaya forms.

visukṛt (due to the upasarga ‘vi’) would however have a privative sense (as opposed to sukṛt) “i.e. the lack of good/benefit”, so it is not the direct opposite of sukṛt.

But vāsuki is a proper name (of a mythical serpent) and has nothing to do with visūka, so I am quite sure the DPD is wrong.

These are all listed as examples of visūkadassanaṁ (“useless shows” or “shows that are not beneficial”) - so twisting and turning doesnt apply to most of them. Gītam is a singing performance (a concert), akkhānam (sanskrit: ākhyānam) is reciting epic/bardic poetry. Vāditam is playing musical instruments. Mahisayuddham is buffalo-fighting etc.

‘Yathā vā paneke bhonto samaṇabrāhmaṇā saddhādeyyāni bhojanāni bhuñjitvā te evarūpaṁ visūkadassanaṁ anuyuttā viharanti, seyyathidaṁ—naccaṁ gītaṁ vāditaṁ pekkhaṁ akkhānaṁ pāṇissaraṁ vetāḷaṁ kumbhathūṇaṁ sobhanakaṁ caṇḍālaṁ vaṁsaṁ dhovanaṁ hatthiyuddhaṁ assayuddhaṁ mahiṁsayuddhaṁ usabhayuddhaṁ ajayuddhaṁ meṇḍayuddhaṁ kukkuṭayuddhaṁ vaṭṭakayuddhaṁ daṇḍayuddhaṁ muṭṭhiyuddhaṁ nibbuddhaṁ uyyodhikaṁ balaggaṁ senābyūhaṁ anīkadassanaṁ

I have suggested other improvements to DPD - for example, aññadatthudaso (used as an epithet of Brahmā in DN1, corresponds to ājñā-draṣṭu-darśaḥ in sanskrit i.e. one who is capable of seeing anything by command), not the word-split that the DPD shows currently (aññadatthu-daso, where it explains aññadatthu as añña+atthu).

I like the DPD a lot, it is far better than anything I’ve seen, but it has a lot of scope for corrections and improvements.


Can you give me an example of a similar change?

I addressed this in the OP.

Nice finding! Would you have a suggested translation? I can’t think of anything that isn’t clumsy.

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  1. sanskrit vowel ṛ becoming a in pāli is very common, for example kṛta becomes kaṭa, tṛtīya becomes tatīya, etc
  2. sanskrit word-final consonants (such as ‘t’) getting dropped in pāli is also very common, for example kadācit (sanskrit) becomes kadāci in pāli, dropping the ‘t’. Another common example is bhagavān becoming bhagavā (dropping final ‘n’), āyuṣman becoming āyasmā or āvuso. Sanskrit Pariṣad becomes Pāli parisā (the final vowel in pali is sometimes elongated to show that there was an ending consonant). All third person singular ablatives of ‘a’ ending words end as -āt in Sanskrit but as -ā in pāli due to this.

All the rest of the letters in this example are identical to the sanskrit word (with the exception of the long u).

“Useless shows” or “shows that are not beneficial”, but if that doesnt sound good, you can replace it with something more concise or idiomatic.

There are probably hundreds or thousands of similar terms that need to be read in the light of sanskrit/vedic to make proper sense, another one I recently came across is ‘āhito gini’ in Snp1.2 that is evidently cognate with sanskrit āhitāgni (“one who has set up his vedic sacrificial fires”) and evidently performs a pāka-yajña (a sacrifice for which normally rice is cooked “paktodano” and cow’s milk is milked “dugdhakṣīro”) which is what he does here, these two words are masculine adjectives referring to the doer of those actions. The title of the sutta (Dhanika in sanskrit) implies he is a wealthy man. Part of certain sacrifices is to entreat Parjañya (i.e. Indra/Śakra in his capacity as the deva of rain) to produce rain showers at the end of the sacrifice, which is probably why the verses uttered by Dhanika end with an invite to the deva to make it rain. None of the translations (scholarly or otherwise) I’ve seen so far, nor even the pali commentaries - draw attention to these possibilities. Therefore I believe we need people who have a background of Vedic and sanskritic knowledge to do these translations to get to the core of the suttas and their original meaning. āhitāgni in that sutta should be a single word (and it means the sacrificer), in the sutta it has been split up (evidently incorrectly) by the later redactors of the Snp1.2 for it to look similar to the ‘nibbuto gini’ in the next verse which is actually two words.

(Parjanya as the Vedic god of rain, is cognate with Perkunas in the Baltic Indo-European pantheon - see Perkūnas - Wikipedia & Parjanya - Wikipedia & Perkwunos - Wikipedia)


Thanks so much for these examples.

And by the way, I really appreciate your comments and explanations of the Sanskrit! Super-helpful, so please keep them coming.

Sorry, i was meaning for ājñā-draṣṭu-darśaḥ

That’s fantastic, great find. I’ll review my translation and notes in this light.

Have you looked at Lauren Bausch’s work on the Suttanipata? She goes into exactly these kinds of details. Not sure if she notices this though.

I agree, I am trying to do my best but I’m no expert. Any help you can offer is most appreciated.


It can be translated as “one capable of seeing anything at will”

The latest DPD version carries my explanation in the notes to that word:

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Great observation! While “āhito gini” suggests Vedic meaning, grammatically it is not the same as āhitāgni because both āhito and gini are masculine, nominative, singular. They are not a bahuvrīhi compound like āhitāgni and so grammatically slightly different. But the meaning they point to is as suggested.

To be an āhitāgni is important in Vedic tradition because only one by whom the [sacred] fires have been kindled (this is the vigraha for āhitāgni), who offers the Agnihotra twice a day everyday, can perform śrauta yajñas. Such initiates dedicate their lives to Vedic ritual offering.

I really appreciate the attention to Vedic tradition in making sense of early Buddhism by many scholars on this forum.


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Thanks, I agree - the extant Pāli word-forms ahito and gini are both masculine nominative singular, but I read them as the one word āhitāgniḥ as it didnt appear to make complete sense to read them as two nominatives. The sense that I get from the verse is that those are 4 bahuvrīhis (paktaudanaḥ, dugdhakṣīraḥ, channākuṭiḥ & āhitāgniḥ) serving as adjectives qualifying the speaker (aham). Evidently a later redactor may have (in my understanding) split the single word āhitāgniḥ into ahito & gini as the second verse provides a seeming contrast to it in nibbuto gini where there appears to be no bahuvrīhi intended.

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Hey is that you, Lauren? Welcome and enjoy!

Inspired by your work and that of others, I’m doing my best to identify Vedic context in the Suttas, recording my findings in my notes. I’ve worked through DN, and am making a start on MN. Any feedback is of course most welcome. I feel like I’m stumbling around in the dark, trying to find my way. There is just such a mass of material and context.