Some brief and scrappy notes on games and portents

In various passages in the EBTs we find lists of games. Sometimes these are specified as children’s games, but the longest list, found in DN 1, etc., and in the Vinaya at sanghadisesa 13, is for adults as well. Many of these games are otherwise onknown, and modern translators have relied heavily on the commentarial explanations. However, as always, such explanations should not be accepted uncritically. Here are a few remarks on some points of interest.

  • khalika—“board-games”. This is often translated as “dice-games”, but the commentarial explanation actually emphasizes that it is board-games, which may be played with dice. Monopoly uses dice, but you wouldn’t call it “playing at dice”.
  • salākahattha—“drawing straws”. The commentary explains this as getting people to guess what shape you’ve painted. But salāka means “straw, token” as used in voting processes. Surely this just means “drawing straws”?
  • akkha—“dice”. I’m not sure why the commentary says this means “ball-games”, because guḷa is ball, and akkha is dice.
  • akkharikā—“guessing words from syllables”. This famous term is often interpreted as a reference to writing, which is controversial in view of the uncertain status of writing at the time of the Buddha. But akkhara is “syllable”, and does not have any necessary connection with writing. The commentary explains it as guessing letters drawn in the air or on someone’s back. But, assuming that it is, in fact, a guessing game, it is more likely to be about guessing a whole word or phrase from a single syllable. Perhaps it was something like a version of Wheel of Fortune; you keep mentioning more syllables until they get it. Such a game could just as well be played orally or written. In any case, following our usual “principle of least meaning”, it should not be translated in a way that requires it to be read as a reference to writing.

For the record, my full translation of the list:

playing checkers, draughts, checkers in the air, hopscotch, spillikins, board-games, tip-cat, drawing straws, dice, leaf-flutes, toy ploughs, somersaults, pinwheels, toy measures, toy carts, toy bows, guessing words from syllables, guessing another’s thoughts

In addition, we have many kinds of examples of wrong livelihood, many of which mention kinds of superstitions that are elsewhere unmentioned. As with the games, i will list a few cases of interest here.

  • khattavijjā—“geomancy for fields” Here the meaning of khatta is very unclear. Ven Bodhi has “making predictions for officers of state”. Presumably this is based on the commentary, which has abbheyyamāsurakkharājasatthādisatthaṃ, but I can’t figure out what this means: perhaps @dhammanando can help? But in any case, it just seems like too big a series of leaps. First we have to read the obscure khatta as “power”, then to “men in power”, then to “making predictions for them”. Surely we could read this any number of ways; a more obvious one would be “charms to influence people in positions of power”. Anyway it all just seems too tenuous. The obvious correction is to adopt the variant reading khetta. This term follows on from vatthu, and these two terms appear together often. Of course this raises the suspicion of later normalization. The next term is siva, which is possibly “cemetery”, and this would equate the three terms with the most common places for performing land-spells: building sites, fields, and cemeteries. At the very least this yields a clear meaning.
  • saraparittāṇaṃ—“chanting for protection”: most translators here take sara as “arrow”, but cp. sarabhañña = “chanting”.
  • migacakka—Also seems very unclear to me. Translators follow comm. in reading “knowledge of animal cries”, which is far from obvious. This is all wrong, see my comment below! Nevertheless, in Indic literature we find frequent mention of the cakravāka, which according to MW dict is “the name, apparently derived from the nature of its cry, of a species of gander (Anas casarca), the modern Chakwā, as it is called in Hindi, or Brahmany duck in English. It is mentioned in the Rigveda and in the list of victims at the Aśvamedha, or horse sacrifice, in the Yajurveda, while in the Atharvaveda it already appears as the type of conjugal fidelity, its characteristic in the classical literature.” So this has a good magical pedigree; and the name was known in Pali. PTS dict under gala says that palatal reduplications tend to be associated with animals cries, so that would fit, too. So in this case perhaps the traditional interpretation should be retained. However, perhaps all the foregoing is unnecessary: at Md 17 we find Virutaṃ vuccati migavākkaṃ, with vll. migacakka. So maybe the reading at DN 1, etc. should be vakka.
  • kaṇṇikā—“big-ears, i.e. rabbit or hare”. *image*Occurring in a long list of animals, the meaning of this should be pretty obvious. But Ven Bodhi follows the commentary, which hilariously inserts “earrings or house-gables” into a list of animals. Walshe tries to improve this by following an obscure Thai reading that leads to “bamboo-rat”, which is unfortunately undermined by the fact that bamboo-rats have really tiny, cute ears. Aww! All this overlooks the fact that in Ja 535#76 we find, as part of a list of animals, sasakaṇṇikā. So the most obvious reading is the right one. Fun fact: fossils of the oldest known rabbit ancestor were discovered in India, dated 53 million years ago. Could these very bones have been those of the Bodhisattva when he was born as a rabbit? We may never know for sure!
  • (up)pathagamana: “opposition/conjunction”. These terms are most obviously read as that the moon, sun and stars will go their proper course or will go astray. That’s fine, except I am having a hard time believing that even those gullible enough to believe in astrology would take this seriously. What, I am supposed to set myself up as an astrologer, and say, “Hmm, will the sun go the same way tomorrow? Let me see … okay, ha! that’s interesting … Yes! I can definitively say, the sun will travel pretty much the same course tomorrow as it did yesterday. Now, my fee, please.” Pity the poor astrologer who predicted that it would go astray! Patha can have the sense of “range”, which is in fact how it is used of the sun at Dhp 175 (Haṃ­sādicca­pathe yanti, “geese traverse the range of the sun”). Thus we can read, “there will be a going into the range of the sun”, etc. This would then refer to the very important astrological notion of the conjunction or opposition of the various heavenly bodies. Note that the commentary is silent on this point.
  • samkiraṇa/vikiraṇa: Interpreted as “saving and spending”, but I am not happy with this. Note that in Vb 17 vikiraṇa is given as a synonym of māyā; perhaps “misdirection”? It appears in Snp v. 112 as a bad quality, interpreted as “spendthrift”, but “deceitful” would work as well. The Sanskrit dictionaries, however, do not mention this sense; and they are entirely silent on samkiraṇa. They also don’t mention spending/saving. Given the context—following contrasting pairs for giving and taking in marriage, and engagement and divorce—it might mean “arranging dowries and divorce settlements”. Note, though, that vikira in sanskrit has the sense: “a scattered portion of rice (offered to conciliate beings hostile to sacrifice)”. This sounds a lot like the rice that’s scattered at weddings, a custom found in India just as in the west. In India, sometimes the couple is scattered with rice, but also the bride often scatters rice behind her as she leaves the family home, as a blessing and expression of gratitude. This would give a context for the different senses: “throwing rice in or out”.
  • mahatupaṭṭhāna: comm. says 'worshiping Mahabrahma", which is followed by translators. But while this reading is occasionally found in Sanskrit sources, I feel it is overly specific here, and best to keep as “Great One”.
  • santikamma is presumably the śāntika found in [Sanskrit texts)[śāntika&iencoding=iast&lang=sans], meaning propitiation.
  • paṇidhikamma surely means “making a wish” rather than the comm’s “fulfilling a promise to a deity”.
  • vassakammaṃ vossakammaṃ are difficult. Comm says vassoti puriso, vossoti paṇḍako: “vassa is a man (i.e. “rainy one, i.e. fertile, possessing semen”), vossa is a eunuch”. But when vassa is used in this context, it has the opposite sense. Sanskrit dictionaries give varṣadhara and varṣavara in the sense of “eunuch”. Vassavara appears, apparently in this sense, in Ja 547#140. It seems like a stretch from there to the idea that vassa means “fertile man”. And it still leaves unexplained the unique term vossa. Given that several other items in this list refer to straightforward land-magic (bhūri, vatthu, etc.) it is simpler to assume vassakamma means “rain-spells”. Indeed varṣakara is found in this sense in Sanskrit. This leaves us with vossa. This would seem to correspond with Sanskit vyavasya, which means “ascertaining, settling”. I propose it refers to a rite for the settlement of property decisions; something akin to a modern “ribbon-cutting” ceremony.

The fraudulent sramanas back in those days were very creative when it came to keep their material supporters entertained!!! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Soo-Sum-See Paper-rock-scissors perhaps? :hushed:

Instead of using straws, players are essentially “voting with their hands”.

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Could this be ‘I spy with my little eye…’ type game? They would have to guess the word based on the consonant.

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Exactly, yes. Maybe we could even call it that!


Now you know I have kids :runner: :smile_cat:

with metta

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The mysterious migacakka, for which you can see an incorrect explanation above if that is your thing, is a term in Indian astrology meaning “wheel of the wild animals”.

Miga can mean either “deer” or any “wild animal”, but here it seems the sources concur that any wild animal is meant (the commentary to DN 1, for example, says “birds and beasts”).

Some of the references in the link above, notably those relying on the sparse Buddhist sources, interpret this as the “wheel of animals” i.e. the “zodiac”. However, this is not borne out by the Bṛhatsaṃhitā—the authoritative reference for Indian astrology—where it is omens connected with wild animals. Here cakra is not a “wheel” but simply a word for a given topic or field of study. The omens concern interpreting the cries or behavior of wild animals.

It is found in a similar context in the Jain Sūtrakṛtāṅga:

In Bṛhatsaṃhitā 30, various omens are connected with the cries of animals at twilight.

And in chapter 91 their movements are also interpreted.

In addition to the places cited in the above Wisdom Library page, it is also found along in a similar context in Milinda 5.3.7, with two other “wheels”:

sācakkaṁ migacakkaṁ antaracakkaṁ

The three terms are found together in Bṛhatsaṃhitā 2, antaracakra mṛgacakra śvacakra.

In the Milinda, Rhys Davids translates as “the interpretation of the omens to be drawn from dogs, and deer, and rats”. Not sure where Rhys Davids got “rats” from, but antaracakka is also a recognized astrological term:

It’s mentioned in the Arthasastra as a topic of study for orphans brought up by the state as spies (!)

It refers to the interpretation of animal cries from different directions.

Finally, sācakka is also an astrological term, “the circle of the dogs”.

Details are here.

Apparently if a dog urinates on a man it is inauspicious. Good to know!

Thus the legacy translations can be improved. Bodhi has “reciting charms to understand the language of animals”, which is too magical. Rhys Davids has “the animal wheel” which is not very clear, and which he footnotes as “understanding the language of all creatures”. Walshe has “knowledge of animals’ cries” which is better. Thanissaro has “casting horoscopes” which is incorrect.

While the correspondences of sounds in the Bṛhatsaṃhitā is often fanciful, it is worth bearing in mind that the root of this practice is listening to the animals around, and taking heed of when they are scared, or when something is out of place. It’s not about learning to “speak animal language”, but about being sensitive to the living creatures in the wilds.

My new translation:

divining omens from wild animals


The splitter program gives: na + bheyya + māsu + rakkha + rāja + sattha + ādi + satthaṃ

“(not) illuminating the moon to protect the king and other such arts”?

Uh oh! :grimacing:

Well, these often go hand in hand, right? Asking a deity for a wish and making a promise of some future sacrifice should the wish be granted?