On the meaning of Devadaha, “the place of the god’s shining”

Devadaha is a Sakyan town mentioned in a few suttas (MN 101, SN 22.2, SN 35.134). It became famous in later Buddhism as the birthplace of the sisters Māyā and Mahāpajāpatī of the Koliyan clan, the Buddha’s birth mother and foster mother. These details are not mentioned in early texts, however, where the town is said to be Sakyan rather than Koliyan. It is identified with Devdaha in the Rupandehi District of Nepal.

The name is explained in the commentary as “royal lake”, taking deva- as a term for kings, and -daha as equivalent to the Sanskrit draha (or hrada), a rare word for “lake”.

However, it is spelled devadṛśa in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (San Mu Kd 17:6). Dṛśa means “sight, appearance”, thus occupying a completely different semantic space than “lake”. This is problematic, as it raises the question as to how such a confusion could arise. Is there any connecting tissue between these readings?

Dṛśa is a Vedic term that commonly describes Agni’s fiery gleam (Rig Veda 3.17.4, 6.10.4, 7.1.1, etc.). Here is a typical usage, from Jamison/Brereton’s translation of 3.17.4:

Singing to Agni, the one beautifully shining, beautifully appearing,
we revere you who are to be invoked, Jātavedas.
You have the gods made the messenger, the spoked wheel (of flames),
the conveyor of oblations, and the navel of immortality.

Since the Sanskrit word depicts the shining of a flame, it suggests we should derive daha from the Pali root √ ḍah, “to burn”. Note that the initial here exhibits instability with d. In fact the Hybrid Sanskrit form in the Mahāvastu is devaḍaha. This is explained in the Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit dictionary in line with the Pali commentarial derivation, “daha for Skt. Lex. draha = Skt. hrada”, but the entry doesn’t notice the Sanskrit form.

Thus we have direct textual support for the form devaḍaha, for which the Pali sense is “blazing of the gods”.

This recalls Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa–16, which allegorically depicts the spread of Aryan culture eastward as Agni “burning” (dadāha) the lands, i.e. introducing the civilized practice of Vedic fire worship.

  1. Māthava, the Videgha, was at that time on the (river) Sarasvatī[8]. He (Agni) thence went burning along this earth towards the east; and Gotama Rāhūgaṇa and the Videgha Māthava followed after him as he was burning along. He burnt over (dried up) all these rivers. Now that (river), which is called ‘Sadānīrā,’ flows from the northern (Himālaya) mountain: that one he did not burn over. That one the Brāhmans did not cross in former times, thinking, ‘it has not been burnt over by Agni Vaiśvānara.’

  2. Now-a-days, however, there are many Brāhmans to the east of it. At that time it (the land east of the Sadānīrā) was very uncultivated, very marshy, because it had not been tasted by Agni Vaiśvānara.

  3. Now-a-days, however, it is very cultivated, for the Brāhmans have caused (Agni) to taste it through sacrifices. Even in late summer that (river), as it were, rages along[9]: so cold is it, not having been burnt over by Agni Vaiśvānara.

The lands spoke of here would appear to be the Gandaki river (= Sadānīra?) and Videha (= Videgha), which lies to the east of Sakya/Koliya. The Gandaki formed the eastern border of the Koliyan republic.

Thus the Brahmana, composed some centuries before the Buddha, is speaking of the spread of Vedic culture by “burning” the lands eastward, which, judging from the name Devadaha, would include the Sakyan/Koliyan lands.

The concept of “burning” seems to include the changing of the nature of the lands, drying up marshes and the like. The worship of Agni was, it seems, associated with burning the land to clear it for agriculture.

I think the meaning of devadaha is, therefore, “burned by the god”, or “place of the god’s flame”, indicating that the land was Aryanized by Vedic worship. This agrees with the fact that the Sakyan leading clans are called Gotama, which is the brahmanical clan name of the high priest, adopted in the anointment ceremony.

Just to be clear, however, the fact that the royal clans sought Brahmanical authority for their royal aspirations does not mean that the people uniformly followed “Vedic” religion. Religion in India has always been a complex mix of different things.


This is an interesting example of detective work to uncover what could explain a relatively insignificant word. I’ve noticed that you’ve often applied this same process with other Pali words and terms, going beyond conclusions drawn long ago. Did early commentators delve into pre-Buddhist writings such as the Vedas and Upanishads in this way?

By early commentators, do you mean the traditional Pali commentaries? Because in that case, no, they usually didn’t. It doesn’t generally seem to be the case that the commentaries had this kind of detailed knowledge, and in some cases they definitely missed the references. Of course, they still had a general awareness of brahmanical texts.

But if you mean earlier modern scholars, then yes, sometimes, but what I’m finding is that there are many cases where dictionaries, etc., simply follow the commentarial explanation. This work was really inspired by Lauren Bausch, who has looked more deeply into the Sutta Nipata in particular and opened up a whole new way of seeing.

Obviously such inquiries are speculative and I’m sure I will be wrong on many points. The case of Devadaha is really quite open, and while I think I’m on the right track, it may well be something completely different. For example, I haven’t considered dialectical and local usages.

But you never really know what’s there until you look. So for the time being I’m just poking under stones.

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Yes, I did mean traditional Pali commentaries. Is there some reason why they didn’t? They were much closer to that time than we are now.

Indeed, and the (much later) traditional biography says Buddhaghosa himself was a learned brahmin. These cases are a good indication that he was not a brahmin, certainly not a learned one. But still, he did come from India.

I think the real answer is that the Buddhists stopped talking to people outside of Buddhism pretty quickly.

Look at, say, the Brahmajala Sutta, which deals with 62 views of outsiders. The Abhidhamma parallel, just a couple of hundred years later, deals entirely with Buddhist views, mostly interpretations of the suttas.

I think when the community became large and well established, it became inward looking. Obviously there was some contact, but less than you’d think. I think they just lost interest.