On the spelling of Kevaddha

The famous DN 11 Kevaddha sutta is bedevilled by uncertainty in how to spell the title, which is the name of the protagonist. Alternatives include Kevaddha, Kevaṭṭa, Kevatta, and Kevaḍḍha. Most scholars in the English-speaking world use Kevaddha, though not, so far as I can see, for any particular reason. The MS text which SC uses has Kevaṭṭa.

The Chinese parallel at DA 24, however, is helpful. I’m not sure if this has been noted before, so I thought I’d put it here. The name in Chinese is 堅固. Now, sometimes names in Chinese transliterate the Indic, and sometimes they translate it. Given that the sound of these words (jian gu) isn’t anything like Kevaddha, and that the two words are more or less synonyms, it seems they are a translation.

But what are they translating? Well, each term, and the idiom as a whole, means “solid”. The DDB conveniently lists several Sanskrit terms that this may stand for. Among these are dṛḍha, dhruva, dṛḍhatara, dṛḍhatā, dṛḍhatva, dṛḍha-parākrama, dṛḍha-sāra, etc. While far from definitive, this does suggest that the Chinese was based on a text that used the vocalized and aspirated form dh rather than .

And it might even suggest a preference for the retroflex rather than the dental d. This is, I think, less certain, as the dental is preferred in many of the Prakrits (DA was likely translated from something Prakritish rather than classical Sanskrit.)

In any case, I think the Chinese text does support the spelling Kevaddha.


If it helps to contextualize the Chinese, the historical pronunciation of these characters, at the time, as reconstructed by Baxter-Sagart, is “ken kuH”, with most other prominent reconstructions of repute only disagreeing as to if the final “kuH” was actually a “kuoH”. Wiktionary, believe it or not, is an amazing source for comparative historical Chinese reconstructions.

That is Middle Chinese, coming from the Old Chinese pronunciation “kˤiŋ kˤas” (that superscript had no trouble being copied and pasted), Baxter-Sagart again.

I read an interesting paper by Bingenheimer*** that tries to argue that (some of) the Chinese āgama collections (I think DA? As I recall the author argues for SA as well, but that strikes me as quite more controversial than arguing for SA-2.) were translated from Gāndhārī (not Sanskrit) on account of the odd phonetic character choices they would use to try to represent Indian sounds. This is linked with an argument for Gāndhārī playing a more prominent role in “Early Buddhist linguistics” (if you will humour me) than previously thought.

I will link it here shortly once I find it again.

***this is totally wrong, Bingenheimer disagrees with, not supports, a hypothesis, much like the one I described here, on page 50-51 of his Studies in Āgama Literature: with Special Reference to the Shorter Chinese Saṃyuktāgama.

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Well, the first syllable does sound a bit like Kevaddha. Perhaps the name could be a mix of phonetic and translated? I found a similar phenomenon in the name of the first bhikkhuni in China, “tia sa lou” (Sorry, i can’t remember it exactly, but this is approximately the pronunciation).

This had been, and often still is translated as “devasara” or “tessara”. But the initial character is the term for “iron”, which is ayas in Pali/Sanskrit. So it seems likely she was referred to as “Ayyā Sārā”, where “Sārā” unlike the other choices is a common woman’s name. But the Chinese mistook the initial honorific as a part of the name and translated it, but kept the rest of the name in transliteration.

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[quote=“sujato, post:3, topic:5657”]
Well, the first syllable does sound a bit like Kevaddha.
[/quote]The vowel of the second syllable also loosely corresponds, since the “a” was probably pronounced more like a schwa than an English “a” of any sort, and a schwa and a “u”-sound could be mistaken for each other, it seems to me least.

It seem that, as is often the case, the Chinese may have only taken the first two syllables of Kevaddha as a stand-in for the whole name. The vowels match more then they seem to on first glance (particularly because Chinese at this point lacked a schwa sound of its own). Transforming v into k is the odd part, I’ve tried to find a reason this could be, or a different dialect/pronunciation of the character, but I couldn’t find precedence for anything like “va-” or “vaddha” in historical pronunciations of 固 alone or 堅固. The only thing I can think is: the v may have been something like a voiced bilabial approximant, I don’t think this is too far-fetched, and the Chinese would have lacked anything like that sound in their sound phonetics, so might have heard it as a “n”-like sound, in the same way that the “f” in Japanese romanization actually stands for a bilabial fricative that is in many ways closer to an “h” sound.

The phonetic process that lead to the coinage may well be one of those linguistic mysteries, like why the English started saying “leftenant”.