“Tathagata” - Phonology

When I first came across the term “Tathagata” I immediately voiced it internally as “Tatha-gata”. I was surprised later when I heard it pronounced properly as “Ta-TA-ga-THA”.

A recent interest in the science of accent in language led me to the following articles.

I have many questions. Like any good works on rules and theories covering how pitch, tone, and stress are used across different languages for different purposes in meaning?

Also, is there a specific language, such as Polish for example, where the Pali might convey some of the meaning of suttas more “authentically”?

Or is it sufficient to render translations into English with accuracy in terms of one-to-one definition, while leaving such concerns as meter and intonation as an interesting, but ultimately secondary matter to the effectiveness of the translation?

Is it possible that a less accurate definition based translation with a higher degree of tonal, metrical, and stress-oriented rendering of the Pali into English would somehow be of benefit?

And if that certainly is the case, do translators attempt to realize the best of both worlds - definition and meaning together with meter and intonation?

Or is that a condition which is ruled out by virtue of English and Pali bearing completely different structures to how their intonation determines (in part) the meaning of a phrase?

While on the subject, I’ve always pondered at the symbolic meaning of “name and form” as a condition in dependent origination. To what degree are utterances in the Buddha’s time treated with scientific rigour? How well understood was the nature of speech if such a tight bond between “names” and “forms” could be established? What was the state of the understanding of phonology at time of the Buddha?

The word is tathāgata. While there are folk etymologies that are different, this word should be considered a compound of tathā and gata.

Tathā is an adverbial version of the tad pronoun—“it, that”— reflecting mode and meaning “in that way”. Other adverbial pronouns based on tad include tadā “when”, tatha “there”, tato “from there”, and so on.

The gata suffix is based on the past participle which means “gone”, but in compounds of this type it take on the sense of “[being] in” (cf Coulson’s Teach Yourself Sanskrit p. 93). So citrāgatā narī means “the woman (nārī) in the picture” (where the standard folk etymologies would suggest this means “the woman has gone to the picture”. And thus tathā-gata means something like “in that state”. (This observation I attribute to Coulson’s boyhood friend, Richard Gombrich).

The stress in Sanskrit and Pāli is on the first heavy syllable preceding the last. Here thā is a heavy syllable because of the long vowel, while ga and ta are light. So the stress is on thā.


Where /th/ is the aspirated pronunciation of the dental stop /t/.

Vedic pitch accents are not found in Classical Sanskrit or Pāli. The metrical stress in tathāgata is not a pitch accent.

Not that I know of.

I cannot see any benefit.

Your last question is not connected to your main topic and should be a separate thread. There has been some discussion of these terms elsewhere in this forum.

But we can say that the Buddha probably lived in a pre-literate society and probably only had the intuitive grasp of phonology that one gets from learning a language orally. (We don’t actually know when the Buddha lived, but it seems to be bracketed by the second urbanisation at the early end and the rise of the Moriyan Empire at the late end).

While a detailed description of Sanskrit phonology existed, in the form of Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī, there is no sign of early Buddhists having any knowledge of that work.