Sharpening stones, deadly weapons, and poison

In MN 40, we have a description of a bad mendicant. Their bad qualities and behavior are said to be like a deadly dagger that they keep stashed away inside their outer robe (saṇghāti). The translation by Ven Bodhi evidently missed the point of the simile, though it was caught by the earlier translations by Horner and Chalmers.

The description of the weapon is unique and difficult. With word-by-word rendering

matajaṃ nāma āvudhajātaṃ ubhatodhāraṃ pītanisitaṃ
mataja-named—kind of weapon—double-edged—(yellow)-whetted

The commentary gives a long explanation for mataja which shows it thought it was based on maraṇa. I don’t have a problem with this; maybe we could say, “the kind of weapon called ‘death-dealer’” or something.

Dhārā here means edge, in a sense apparently unattested elsewhere in the EBTs.

Nisita has been rendered by previous translators as “sharpened” or “whetted”, but see below.

Pīta is problematic. It means either “having drunk” or “yellow”, neither of which makes obvious sense. The commentary takes it in the former sense, saying that the blade has been whetted on a stone soaked in water. This sense has been accepted by previous translators.

However, the Sanskrit dictionaries give another sense of pīta: orpiment.

This was widely used in metallurgy, especially for hardening bronzes for weaponry. This was invented in Iran in the 4th millenium BCE, from where it spread to India. The garlic-smelling fumes of toxic arsenic were so characteristic of sword-smithies that they are, so it seems, the cause of the Greek god Hephaestus’ lameness. Alone of all the gods, he suffered a physical defect, which was probably inferred from the common sight of metalworkers suffering lameness through muscle atrophy due to long-term exposure to arsenic and lead.

This brings us back to nisita. As well as “whetted”, the Sanskrit dictionaries give niśita in the sense of “strengthened, prepared” and even “iron, steel”. These meanings probably overlap, used for a hardened and whetted blade. But it also has the sense of “excited, eager”, which by good luck we can capture with “keen”.

Perhaps we could translate the phrase as:

matajaṃ nāma āvudhajātaṃ ubhatodhāraṃ pītanisitaṃ
the kind of weapon called ‘death-dealer’, double-edged, hardened and keen


I’m only looking at that line in isolation (from the whole sutta), but that sure sounds like a nice companion to take into battle against the kilesas.

part of my daily chanting includes:

sati-sambojjhangam bhaveti: viveka nissitam, viraga nissitam, nirodha, nissitam, vossagaparinamim!
dhammavica-sambojjhangam bhaveti: viveka nissitam, viraga nissitam, nirodha, nissitam, vossagaparinamim!
viriya…piti…passaddhi…samadhi… upekkha…

uppannam kaama-vitakkam naadhivaseti! pajahati vinodeti byantikaroti anabhavam gameti!
uppannam byaapada-vitakkam…
uppannam vihimsa-vitakkam…
uppanne paapake akusale na adhivaseti…

the actual sound, rhythm, energy coursing through my veins as i chant this feels like a military march, like i’m an army of one, staring down mara’s army with no fear, armed with my samadhi sharpened death-dealer and mowing down everything in my march towards nibbana.


It also occurs in the sekhiya 59 in the definition of knife:

Satthaṃ nāma ekatodhāraṃ ubhatodhāraṃ paharaṇaṃ.

A knife: a weapon with a one-edged or two-edged blade.

I am not sure if it is ideal to read pītanisita as if it is a compound of two adjectives, both qualifying mataja. Normally such adjectives occur separately. I would think it is more likely that pītanisita is kammadhāraya within a bahubbīhi that functions as a single compound adjective.



So, would you be so bold as to suggest a translation? Perhaps:

the kind of weapon called ‘death-dealer’, double-edged, of hardened steel.

But it’s probably anachronistic to speak of steel so early.

I should mention that in my original translation I was more concerned with conveying the sense of the idiom than the grammar; I think the term conveys the senses of “hardened alloy” and “keen edge”.


As you know, it’s much easier to criticise than actually offer anything constructive. So the answer is no. :smiling_imp:

To be honest, it would take me some time to disentangle this, but if I feel so inclined I may have a go.


For what it’s worth, here are some thought …

Reading “hardened” into pīta is certainly stretching the ordinary meaning of this word, which is just “yellow” and by implication perhaps “orpiment.” Going from “orpiment” to “hardened” is certainly possible, but in the absence of any concrete evidence that the word is used in this way it remains conjectural.

The commentarial use of pīta to mean “soaked” is presumably derived from the meaning “drink,” but this too remains conjectural in the absence of clear evidence. One could, of course, argue that the commentarial usage provides such evidence, but it is weak at best. There is only one further use of pīta in this sense in the Pali texts, found in the Theragāthā Com. (pītanisitabhāvena), but it does not throw any further light on the meaning.

To my mind this leaves us with little to choose between the two possible meanings of pīta, and we therefore need to rely on nisita instead. This word, together with sunisita, is found one other place in the Nikāyas, as well several times in the Jātakas. At DN29 is used to describe a razor that is sādhunisita. In the Jātakas it is used in combination with sattha (knife), asi (sword) khagga (sword), and kuṭhārī (adze), all instruments that need sharp edges. “Sharpened” seems to be the obvious interpretation. This fits with DOP’s entry niseti, “to sharpen,” which mentions nisita, “sharpened,” as the past participle. DOP has no other entry for nisita.

The Sanskrit usage of niśita to mean “excited, eager” does not seem to be attested in Pali. Moreover, this usage seems to be restricted to the Rigveda. By contrast, the meaning that conforms with Nikāya usage, that is, “sharpened,” occurs in the more or less contemporary Upanishads (this is all from SED).

If “sharpened” is correct, then I would say “wetted” is to be preferred over “hardened”. The meaning of the compound would then be something like “wetted-sharpened,” that is, “sharpened with water” or “sharpened on a whetstone.” And this fits the context at MN40 just as well as “hardened and keen.”

All this just because of one silly comment. And only to know there is a good chance you will reject it. Oh, the dukkha!


Just to be clear, the English words “whet” and “wet” have nothing to do with each other.

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Right. But I understand that a whetstone is usually used with water; thus my suggestion.

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No worries, I will consider it further.

Incidentally, another possible sense, which remains in the title for this post, is “poison”. Obviously arsenic is a poison and a poisoned blades would fit the simile quite nicely.

This was suggested by the PTS dict on pīta:

visapīta (of an arrow); which may however be read (on acct. of variant reading visappīta) as visappita “poison-applied” (see appita) Does MN.i.281 pīta-nisita belong here (= visapīta)?

But I couldn’t see how it all fit together, so I tended to the “alloyed = hardened” interpretation.