On spells, scriptures, and wise counsel

We’re familiar with the Sanskritic term mantra in the sense of a “meditation word”. But in Pali it has a range of meanings that are not always easy to tease out. Sometimes “thought”, “wise thought”, “good advice”; a term for the Vedic scriptures, and also a magic spell.

The problem here is essentially that these concepts were not as differentiated as they are today. If we consider especially the notions of “wise counsel”, “sacred scripture”, and “magic spell”, these seem very far apart. But in those days there was often little or no difference between them.

In SN 3.25 the term is used in both prose and verse on the futility of war in the face of universal death. King Pasenadi tells the Buddha:

Santi kho pana, bhante, imasmiṃ rājakule mantino mahāmattā, ye pahonti āgate paccatthike mantehi bhedayituṃ.
In these royal circles there are ministers versed in manta who are able to break apart enemy forces when they arrive by means of manta.
Tesampi, bhante, mantayuddhānaṃ natthi gati natthi visayo adhivattamāne jarāmaraṇe.
But there’s no place, no scope for such manta-battles when old age and death are advancing.

The phrase mantayuddha is unusual, and appears to occur as text in only one place in the Pali, at Mahāvaṁsa verse 49. (The PTS dict gives two occurences, but this appears to be mistaken). The PTS gives its own interpretation and two others:

  1. PTS dict: a weird fight, a bewitched battle
  2. Geiger: cunningly planned
  3. Turnour: diplomatic strategem

Translators are similarly divided in the case of SN 3.25

  1. Bodhi: subterfuge, battles of subterfuge
  2. Thanissaro: wits, battle of wits
  3. Olendzki: magic spell
  4. CF Rhys Davids: war of woven spell or curse

Unusually, the commentaries offer no more consistency. The commentary for SN 3.25 itself doesn’t gloss mantayuddha, but for “ministers versed in manta” it says:

Mantino mahāmattāti mantasampannā mahosadhavidhurapaṇḍitādisadisā mahāamaccā
"Ministers versed in manta": endowed with manta, like Mahosadha and Vidhurapaṇḍita, and such great ministers.

This refers to two of the most famous counselors of the Jātakas, so here manta means “wise counsel”, with the possibly more pregnant sense “wise in counsel because of their familiarity with ancient scriptures”.

This doesn’t support the sense of “spell”, but it also doesn’t support Ven Bodhi’s “subterfuge”. There’s no sense of underhand means here. Rather, it would be better rendered as “diplomacy”.

However, the verse is commented on in the Visuddhimagga, as part of the discussion of the recollection of death.

Tattha mantayuddhenāti āthabbaṇavedavihitena mantasaṅgāmappayogena
Therein, “by manta-battle” means: by the method of the Āthabbaṇa Veda, engaging in manta-war.

The Āthabbaṇa is the fourth of the Vedas; it’s mentioned in the EBTs, but not as a Veda. It’s a somewhat disreputable text, which contains not a small amount of witchcraft and magic. In Pali use, this is not so much a genuine reference to the text, but a way of saying “black magic and witchcraft”. We certainly can’t imagine renowned sages like Mahosadha and Vidhurapaṇḍita relying on such a text, so the two glosses clearly differ.

That spells can guarantee victory in battle is accepted in the Pali tradition. But, typically, it’s satirized, as in the wonderful Sabbadatha Jataka (Ja 241), the details of which are found in the commentary. There a jackal learns learns the “world-conquering spell” (pathavījayamanta) by overhearing it from the Bodhisattva as he was practicing it (a relic or spoof of the Brahmanical belief that it is dangerous for non-Brahmins to learn the scriptures). The jackal gathered a huge army of all the animals to him and they attack the city of Benares. Little did he know that the Bodhisattva lived there as the king’s chaplain. He first stopped up the ears of the citizens with flour (echoes of Odysseus). Then he taunted the jackal, tricking him into making all the lions roar (echoes of Monty Python!). Blinded by his pride, he missed the obvious flaw in this plan. As soon as the lions roared, the elephants and other beasts were terrified and a great melee and massacre ensued. The citizens came out, gathered up all the carcasses, butchered them, and prepared dry meat. And that’s how the practice of drying meat started!

In addition to the Pali sources, we have Chinese parallels at SA2 70 and SA 1147. Both of these seem to use the term 呪術 for manta, which means magic spell. But this probably doesn’t tell us much except that they relied on a source text that had mantra in it.

So our text could mean either “wise counsel, diplomacy” or “magic spells”. Which is correct? Sorry, I don’t know!

On the one hand, I think we generally tend to underestimate the magical and superstitious content in the texts, and apply a rationalizing explanation to things that are in fact irrational. So I would lean to correcting this tendency by preferring “spell”.

On the other hand, we know quite a bit about Pasenadi, and while he was not known as the wisest of the Buddha’s followers, he doesn’t seem to be the sort to rely on magic spells. All his other discussions of statecraft are perfectly rational.

On the whole, I would tend to give precedent to the latter reason, and accept the sense of “wise counsel”.


Very interesting Bhante.

What about the term huṃhuṅka ?

It seems to refer to a practice of constantly repeating “hung”, like a mantra. You can find it in Ud1.4 but apparently anywhere else.

The related dictionary entry seems to be this:

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I was under the impression that it was merely a way of expressing sub-verbal language, like “um” or “oh”. but I’ll keep my eye out and see if it might have a greater significance. It’s certainly reminiscent of the famous om-kāra.

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Would it be appropriate to translate it with an expression that has the same kind of ambiguity in English that it has in Pali? I was thinking of an expression like “potent words” or “cunning words.” The latter is interesting in that “cunning” has an archaic association with magic, but is also used for skill or guile. “Potent” or “powerful” applied to words covers all the desired senses of having the force to defeat armies, but also to cast spells or instruct kings.

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Interesting suggestion, I’ll think about it. “Cunning” is good! I also like “weird” for the same reason.

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Also that famous Tibetan manta eh?

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